Bank of England independence from Nigel Lawson

This is a bit late but it has been in the back of my mind this week that Lord Lawson used to be keen on isolating central banks from political pressure. I remembered right. He made the case to a sceptical Margaret Thatcher, arguing it would give UK monetary policy an anchor that was necessary if the country was not to commit to an external anchor such as ERM membership. Here is Nigel Lawson in 1992, in his autobiography The View from Number 11:


Nigel Lawson in 2016, about Mark Carney – a change of tune about the propriety of political pressure on an independent central bank, then:untitled


Corruption with Chinese characteristics

As it happened, I read Minxin Pei’s China’s Crony Capitalism in the couple of days after I’d written this article about the importance of property rights in the Financial Times. In this interesting short book, Pei links the emergence of the rampant corruption in today’s China to “partial and incremental reforms of property rights associated with nominally state owned assets in the post-Tiananmen era.” These changes decentralized control over the assets to regional and local officials, without clarifying the ownership rights. The incentive was there, from the early 1990s, to exploit the lack of clarity. At about the same time, a political decentralization created the opportunity. The appointment system went from one where senior officials appointed people one and two ranks down, to one where each layer appointed the next layer down. A market for patronage emerged, which encouraged corruption because officials needed deals with private business to make the money to pay for their jobs. Finally, a fiscal reform enabled local governments to keep the proceeds from land sales while re-centralizing tax revenues to Beijing.

The book concludes: “It is inconceivable that the CCP can reform the political and economic institutions of crony capitalism because these are the very foundations of the regimes monopoly of power.” Even if the corrupt authoritarian regime were to fall, the book argues, liberal democracy would not be the outcome. Something more like Russia’s kleptocracy would emerge. Or will, rather. “The fragility of the institutions of the party state … raies fears that even modest reform efforts could unleash a revolution. The prospect of genuine market-oriented reform is equally unpromising because such a change would eliminate the rents for the ruling autocratic elites.” Any kind of change seems to spell collapse.

In another coincidence, as I finished this book, the FT’s Jamil Anderlini (author of a brilliant e-book about the rise and fall of Bo Xilai) published a big feature on neo-Maoism in China, which he portrays as am anti-elite, anti-inequality, populist movement in the same spirit as Trumpism, Brexiteering and right-wing and left-wing populism around the continent. Sobering stuff.



Coase in theory and Coase in practice

While out and about yesterday, I read a little book from the IEA that I’d only dipped into before, , edited by Cento Veljanovski. It’s a useful introduction to Coase (although he wrote so clearly that there’s no excuse for not tackling his classic papers, The Nature of the Firm and The Problem of Social Cost.)

[amazon_image id=”0255367104″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Forever Contemporary: The Economics of Ronald Coase (Readings in Political Economy)[/amazon_image]

The book has chapters providing a biography and a general overview, and then several looking at the applications of Coaseian thinking in different areas such as water, environmental protection, public goods provision, financial markets and even the sharing economy. It starts with the Coase theorem: that when property rights are clearly assigned and there are no transactions costs (such as those involved in acquiring information, negotiating, monitoring compliance etc), then there are no externalities leading to a divergence between private and social costs: the parties involved will negotiate their way to the efficient outcome. ‘Externalities’ are symmetric, he argued: if you claim a right to clean air, you are costing me the opportunity to pollute. Who compensates whom will depend how the property rights are assigned. If you indeed have your clean air right, I will have to bargain with you to pay you for the pollution; if I have the right to produce emissions, you will have to pay me to desist.

Coase made it clear he took the existence of transaction costs very seriously, and argued that every situation had to be carefully assessed to determine the most welfare-enhancing course of action. He certainly challenged the market failure framework established by Pigou, still used to consider the rationale for public policy interventions. Coase has often been taken to say more generally that it’s always best to leave it to the market, because people can bargain their way to solutions – and that is certainly the interpretation this volume puts on him, as you would perhaps expect from the IEA.

I think one has instead to take Coase at face value, and in each situation look at the incentives people face and the transaction costs involved in private bargaining and in the public sector alike – this determined empiricism is why I like Coase so much. As the essay here by Stephen Davies notes: “The boundaries of what is possible in this regard have shifted over time.” The useful bibliography of Coase’s work shows how seriously he took his own conclusion that you have to look in detail at each industry, its history and specificities before pontificating; as is well known, he described anything else as ‘blackboard economics’. Indeed, the people who arguably took him most seriously were the later Nobel winners, Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson, who each in their won way focused on the detail of the institutions that exist to co-ordinate individual actions.

In a nice case study, Davies looks at how turnpike roads – toll roads- were the common means to expand Britain’s main road network in the late 18th and early 19th century. They were an example of club goods – non-rival in consumption, but excludable. Later of course in the UK roads came to be considered a pure public good to be provided by the state. Now we have one toll motorway, and some talk of more. Other countries, including statist France, have many toll roads. There is no right answer.

The book ends with a chapter on the sharing economy, a very interesting essay on the implications of a large decline in certain transactions costs.

There won’t be much here that is new to people who are already familiar with Coase, but – with the caution about its free market slant – it is a clear and accessible guide for students. And available free online as a pdf.


On Seeing Like A State

A tweet by @sclopit (Stefano Bertolo), exclaiming that

in other news, I recently spent a couple of days with a large group of budding policy makers who had never heard of
06/09/2015 07:16

sent me to my bookshelf to have a look through by James Scott again. The subtitle describes at one level the book’s subject: “How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.” It looks in some detail at a range of idealistic state schemes, from the ujamaa villages in Nyerere’s Tanzania and the city planning of Le Corbusier quasi-implemented in Brasilia – as opposed to the organic unplanned living cities celebrated by – to Soviet collectivization.

[amazon_image id=”0300078153″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (The Institution for Social and Policy Studies)[/amazon_image]

The book then draws together its themes from analysing each specific kind of failure, each an example of the failure of ‘high modernism’ in its over-abstraction from detailed contextual understanding. By high modernism, he means: “A strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self confidence in scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature) and above all the rational design of social order commensurate with scientific understanding of natural laws.” Step forward the least attractive, most hubristic version of 20th century economics.

“We have repeatedly observed the natual and social failures of thin, formulaic simplifications imposed through the agency of state power,” Scott writes. To blame: “utilitarian commercial and fiscal logic.” Large-scale social processes are too complicated to plan for. Scott celebrates practical, local knowledge, improvisation.

He does not, however, advocate abandoning the idealism that drove such projects, or leaving everything to “the market”. His advice is summed up in four rules of thumb:

Take small steps

Favour reversibility

Plan on surprises

Rely on human inventiveness

Above all, policymaker, do not think that you are all-knowing while your subjects are know-nothings. Don’t plan for abstract citizens, all uniform. Remember that context is everything.

Since was published in 1998 there have been a number of other reminders of the messy complexity of reality. One good recent one was Colander and Kupers in . And of  course the theme is an old on, dating at least to Hayek’s 1945 AER paper The Use of Knowledge in Society, its theme brilliantly dramatized in Francis Spufford’s .

But if you’ve never had chance to read , I, like Stefano, think it is an essential book.

PS Speaking of economics in this context, I am itching to write my review of Dani Rodrik’s , on 21st century economics, and see people have started to comment on it. But the letter with the proof says not before 13 October so I’ll hold out at least a little longer.


Government by gang

America has more prisoners, some 2,240,000, than any other nation on earth – only China gets anywhere close; of the total, there are about three African Americans or Hispanics for every white. All round, the American criminal justice system is an ugly scar on the nation. President Obama said as much when he visited a prison last week, the first sitting US President to make such a visit.

David Skarbek’s , is a fascinating account of what happens inside the country’s huge and violent prisons. It uses the analytical tools of institutional economics – notably Douglass North’s and Elinor Ostrom’s explanations of how groups collectively organise themselves – to probe the internal gang-run pecking order in prisons, their drugs-based economies, and their links to external gang activity.

[amazon_image id=”0199328501″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System[/amazon_image]

The bottom line of Skarbek’s analysis is that “gangs thrive because of a demand for governance.” He traces the change from a prison social order based on conformity to social norms (the ‘convict code’), before the 1970s, to one run wholly by the gangs, with clear hierarchies and detailed rule books. Loyalty to the gang – all race-based – has to be total, on pain of death, and life-long. The gang structures connect those in prison to the outside drugs economy as well. The trigger for this shift in social order was the big increase in the prison population from the mid-1970s: “Norms will be effective at providing governance when the inmate population is relatively small, but as it grows norms will break down.” In addition to the size factor, the growth in the prison population meant a big increase in the proportion of new, inexperienced prisoners who did not know the norms, and many of them younger men who did not care, and were often more violent. Inmate violence rose dramatically in the early 1970s.

Prison officials were unable – in the large new facilities being built or in the old and increasingly over-crowded ones – even to observe what was happening, never mind control it. The gangs filled the governance vacuum. “Gangs are quasi-governments.” (Skarbek also quotes Will Baumol’s reversal of the point – governments are quasi-gangs.) What’s more, the gangs play the community assurance role in the contraband trade that has been documented among other trading communities – by for example. “All members of a gang are responsible for each member’s actions.” Somebody who cheats on a deal will be punished by his fellows.

Interestingly, there are no gangs in female prisons, and women’s prisons are not racially (self-)segregated either. Skarbek allows the absence of testosterone to play a role, but argues that the main explanation is that women’s prisons are much smaller and with far fewer women incarcerated. The social order that emerges there is sorting into small ‘families’.

The book ends with some wider reflections on the importance of understanding informal economic and social institutions. I couldn’t agree more. A third of the world’s population live in countries with collapsing states. Governments are often ineffective when they exist. The world’s shadow economy is huge. Even in well-governed, stable states, there are swathes of economic life that do not touch government. “To understand aggregate economic and social outcomes, we must understand the extent to which people rely on extra-legal governance.” Inside America’s prisons, there is a formal governance vacuum but economic exchange thrives and the violence is strictly controlled by the gang leaders.

From institutional economics, the conditions for informal governance to be effective are known: enough social or cultural homogeneity; small enough for reputation to leverage good behaviour; simple, easy-to-monitor economic exchanges, with stakes that are not too high; high self control, patience; and repeated exchanges. Yet as Skarbek shows even in the unpromising conditions of the prison world, effective governance can emerge.

How could America reform its prisons and reduce the power of the criminal gangs? Skarbek suggests making prisons smaller and safer, and incarcerating far fewer people. The unwinnable “war on drugs” and tough mandatory sentencing fuelled the increase in prisoner numbers, which created the power of the gangs.

This is a terrific book. Along with Diego Gambetta’s (& his earlier ), it is a model example of how to use economic analysis to highlight the illegal world, without falling into the trap of economic imperialism. would be a great case study for a course on institutional economics. It is also a must-read for anyone concerned about America’s absolutely shameful record on criminalising and imprisoning young, non-white men.