“Success” against the virus ≠ zero deaths

Covid beach

One of the most fascinating aspects of the reaction to Covid-19 in the West, has been the near-perfect alignment between the political Left vs Right, and the sides of caution vs courage. Almost without exception – after a few early weeks of confusion – those who favour big government and intervention, also favour lockdown, wearing masks, almost permanent health screening and continued economic dislocation. Those that favour small government, lean towards Swedish-style herd immunity, and want an end to the lockdown and for people to just get back to work. Anecdotally, there are very few people crossing over at all, which I find remarkable.

In East Asia, by contrast, the response has been uniformly lock-step: everyone tolerates intrusive government and everyone supports the (virtue-signalling*) wearing of masks. Expats in Hong Kong, for instance, have felt heavily the weight of – effectively – racial prejudice for their differing attitudes on what constitutes “best practice”. All pretense of those traits of modernity – self-reliance, independence and adventure – which were driving urban Asia forward have vanished as these societies demonstrate their true colours of sheepish governmental dependency and open embrace of social closure.

The economic debate has raged for some time. Just to take headlines from recent days, one side (rather too gleefully for my liking) posits “Four reasons state plans to open up may backfire — and soon”, while the other retorts that “The lockdown left is no friend of the working class”. But for me the most pernicious rhetoric is that of men like Andrew Cuomo, whose popularity is premised on the logically fallacious claim that:

“ … if you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy, then it’s no contest. No American is going to say, ‘accelerate the economy at the cost of human life.’ Because no American is going to say how much a life is worth.”

In this assertion we see the defeatist and absurd idea that lives should be protected at all costs. The fawning view that “Asian countries focused on containment in a bid to minimise mortality” has been accepted as the rightful moral goal of virus policymaking. The economics debate is fruitless, since it pits logic against emotion; but the moral point is important.

The analogy between Covid-19 and the common ‘flu is compelling and purposefully misunderstood: it is not a biological parallel per se, but rather one of social morality. It is an impossible and unnecessary task of government to eliminate death from natural causes. There is such a thing as “natural attrition” from disease and old age; and the ‘flu, which kills tens of thousands each year in the UK and US, remains the last bastion of socially accepted, blameless death on a large scale. The ‘flu is not like dying from traffic accidents, which might arguably be prevented; it is natural process of life and if this virus does not come to get you, the next one will. To try to prevent this is to commit yourself to a problem with no solution other than feeding an unquenchable appetite for resources – and in turn would ultimately spell the end for universal public healthcare which would be burdened intolerably by the expense. I will say this again: an acceptable level of deaths from Covid-19 in the UK should number in the tens of thousands before severe economic dislocation is necessary; several times more again in the US. “Success” was never, and should not be measured against, negligible mortality – for this virus or future ones.

Both Trump and Boris have thus made significant errors in their response; but the error was not so much their technocratic plans on testing and quarantines. Rather, the biggest blunder they made was to allow the narrative to move on to the grounds of protecting all life. From inception, both governments suddenly found themselves on the hook for an unachievable and undesirable objective: limiting deaths to zero or almost zero. This put them on a hiding to nothing and set a terrible precedent for both – though Trump and the US is likely to escape a touch more lightly. But Trump has also made a rod for his own back with his China rhetoric – since however true it is that the virus came from China, externalizing the cause, rather than making people accept it as a normal part of existence, strengthens their belief that “success” means stopping it like one would a foreign invader.

By the same token, for the first time in my recent life, I now no longer feel China is necessarily the long-term “winner” it might be. The government is very nearly promising its people protection against the unprotectable, setting expectations that may not long from now see them demand healthcare instead of military expenditure. All very well, but it will build no independent Great Power status like that.

I for one do not believe we should – or will – inhabit a world where major viruses lead again and again to the necessity for lockdowns. By the same token, neither do I believe that we should inhabit a world “safe” from such lockdowns only through constant testing, screening and health surveillance. Instead, we simply have to become a society of humans capable of digesting the idea that death is a fact of life; deaths from viruses and other natural causes, all the more so. To be constantly worried about death of this nature (as opposed, for instance, to war) is to be petty, parochial and apathetic, unable to see the bigger picture. I liken it to a company whose employees and management are constantly focused on cost-control and the bottom line; all the while forgetting the visionary focus on growing the top-line. Such a company is one living in the past, occupying the twilight of its existence, not looking to the future. It constitutes a lack of ambition.

Speaking personally, for all the distress and heartache that any disease or event incurs, I would rather not live in a society which exerts its time and resources, however good the intention, in trying to protect its people from life rather than encouraging them to jump into it. I would always favour courage over caution. Perhaps in this, I have finally discovered my true, core, Toryism.

 

* Curiously, a piece written by Jason Ng, an anti-government activist and lawyer, which vocally disapproved of expats during the virus and pretty much specifically called for expats to wear masks in order to “show solidarity” with locals – the very definition of virtue signalling – has been taken down from the Hong Kong FP website where it had been posted.

What Covid-19 mortality might look like if we all counted like the Germans

Germany Covid

One of the less covered aspects of the Covid-19 crisis has been the wildly differing ways in which countries – and within the US even states – count the dead. This in turn has made comparability between countries almost meaningless, with very little to be learned between the numbers of deaths in Italy for instance, and those in Sweden. And by the time you bring China into the discussion, comparability ceases even to be mentioned. The singular failing of the WHO is not failure to combat the virus (which it has little power to do), but failure to at least coordinate consistent numbers. On this basis alone, the WHO has been a fiasco.

The problem is that how one counts deaths, even though it sounds like it should be scientific process, is actually an art. There will always be huge amounts of subjectivity in interpreting whether a virus like Covid-19 constitutes the “primary cause” of death, or whether it is merely a “contributary factor”. The discipline with which a group of medical practitioners understand and stay within guidelines on this reflects all sorts of local conventions and culture. Generally, one might assume that the more technocratic a society is, the more strict they would be.

Step forward Germany. Throughout recent months, German numbers have been hailed as an example of what good governance should look like, with early testing being seen as key. Yet if you look at the details, a puzzle is presented: although German total deaths are much lower than that of France, for instance, its total numbers of infections are almost the same.

Total Covid deaths

Note: mortality rate defined as reported Covid deaths as % of total infections “Non-German Europe” are countries coloured in red; Source: Worldometer.info

All the good governance in Germany would, one assumes, mostly have led to lower deaths through lower infections, yet this has not occurred. Rather, the gap between total deaths is partly filled by the differences in counting methodology. In fact broadly speaking “Greater Germany”, encompassing Austria, Switzerland and Denmark, together average a mortality-to-infection rate at around one-third that of Non-German Western Europe (and this is already distorted by the fact that in Switzerland, non-German cantons are reporting much higher mortality than their German brethren).

So what is going on? Whilst I have no doubt that the Germans are doing better, they are not doing that much better. But at present, if there is a difference in counting methodology, I also have no doubt that I would lean towards the German over the non-German way. What then would the UK and other countries’ mortality rates look like under the German system?

First, I have assumed a simple re-basing of these mortality rates to the Greater German average, creating a like-for-like “Germanic deaths” number for each country. This lowers them substantially. “But”, I hear you cry, “is the German healthcare system not better?” Well, perhaps it is – though in fact there does not appear to be much consensus on this from various authorities. But let us say for the sake of argument that there is a qualitative difference, we might use a simple proxy such as the number of hospital beds per capita to readjust this number and make it more apples-for-apples.

Greater Germany Covid

Source (for beds): Nationmaster.com

Greater Germany does have a better-than-average provision of hospital facilities, particularly in Austria and in Germany itself. Taken together, the Germanic average of hospital beds per capita is higher than most other Western European countries, although France is also quite high. If we then adjust the “Germanic deaths” number upward again, by the number of beds, we have an indicator of what German-style Covid-19 death counts might look like.

European Covid like for like

Note: “adjusted” figures adjusted for hospital beds per capita compared to Greater Germany

Despite making this adjustment upwards, non-German Covid-19 deaths, whilst higher than Germany’s (and almost certainly correctly so), are still substantially below the current reported numbers. In other words, if the UK used German-style death counting, its numbers of Covid-19 deaths might be about half the current number and possibly well below. The same applies to all other countries in the region. I would posit that this is the basis of real comparability, not the published statistics.

Of course, this is all back-of-the-envelope stuff and many will complain that this does not take into account all the nuances of each country’s policies and virus reactions. But there can be no doubt that:

  1. Each country is counting in a different way;
  2. If the UK were counting along German lines, reported deaths would be much lower; and
  3. Conversely, if Germany were counting along UK lines, their numbers would be higher.

However taking into account what has been happening in each country, if I were to guess at who’s numbers are a better and more accurate representation of the real situation, I know where my money would be. But then, I am Austrian.

 

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(For reference I did the same analysis incorporating the Asian OECD statistics, which seem remarkably similar to Germanic numbers. China in particular, whatever else is may have covered up, has a stringent policy of how it reports Covid deaths and the region as a whole would likely be similar. However the outcomes from this analysis did not move the needle enough to start having to justify commonality between Asia and Europe)

Asia OECD Covid

How Labour continue to be over-represented

As an addendum to my previous post, I have been poring over the numbers again and it struck me as notable that the Tories, despite never having dropped below 30% of vote share in modern times, have often won fewer than 200 seats whereas Labour, despite having dropped below 30% on at least two occasions (1983 and 2010), have never breached this psychological nadir. This year, again, they were forecast initially by the exit poll to weigh in at around 191 seats, but somehow managed to scrape in at 202 in the end.

In any first-past-the-post system, the winners will always benefit disproportionately and this is as true of the US electoral college as it is of Canadian ridings or British constituencies. For instance, people complain about Trump’s electoral college over-representation in the last presidential election in 2016 but forget that Obama benefited from a vote-to-college exaggeration twice before him, as did Bush and Clinton etc. This is simply an inherent function of this kind of system, and might be considered a sort of “winner’s dividend”. However what also appears to be true is that in Britain, the Tories have traditionally always had to “work harder” for their majorities than Labour, the result of a structural and psephological imbalance between the two parties’ support.

To highlight this, I have looked at how many votes per seat each party has had to win for their large majorities, comparing the Tory landslides under Thatcher and Boris, vs the Labour landslides under Blair. Even adjusting for total vote (in 2019 terms), the Tory majorities were much harder to come by:

Number of votes required per seat won by landslide winners (thousands, 2019 basis)

Majority winners

Note: in order to create a like-for-like comparison, I have adjusted the raw votes per seat upwards to the 2019 total vote numbers since the electorate has grown larger in absolute terms over time

To turn this around, if we look at how poorly the losers of those elections fared, one can see how under-represented or not they are in defeat. Again, the numbers show Tory defeats being much worse than Labour ones, which manifests itself in how the Conservative Party was at below 200 seats for the whole period between 1997 – 2010, something even Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn have not managed.

Number of votes required per seat won by landslide losers (thousands, 2019 basis)

Majority losers

Lastly, I look at the “tipping point”, in other words how the parties fare when close to each other – for instance in the two hung parliaments that we have had this decade. Extraordinarily, in both cases the Tories, despite being the winners of each election, still had to accumulate more votes per seat than the defeated Labour Party, turning the entire concept of a “winner’s dividend” on its head. By way of comparison, John Major’s slender absolute majority in 1992 only just saw the Tories needing fewer seats than Labour.

Number of votes per seat required in close elections (thousands, 2019 basis)

Close elections

At the very least this shows that the tipping point is well above the natural 50/50 threshold between the two parties. With the Tories having won a swathe of seats across the northern Labour heartlands, and with the impending promise of boundary changes, this could evolve somewhat; until it does though, Labour can relax in the knowledge that as a starting point, the electoral system still somewhat favours them.

The long arc of Tory progress (and why the SNP can be ignored)

Cameron Boris

On election night, I – unlike some around me (they know who they are) – was not losing my head. I had reasonable confidence of a substantial Tory majority, and had even put my money where my mouth was – being a buyer of a Tory majority at 44 in the spread betting markets. I had one central thesis: that the British electorate does not produce hung parliaments when there is a clear choice before them. Rather, hung parliaments only occur when the parties cannot distinguish themselves from one another (1974, 2010), or when they are unknown quantities (2017, pre-war). By this logic, Boris was in a good position to win outright.

This was despite the best attempts by the media to misread the polls. Like sub-par generals, journalists are always doomed to fight the last war, and the pollster who did “best” last time always exercises a disproportionate influence on their discourse the next time around. This year it was the YouGov MRP’s turn for lazy writers to place too much faith in, never remembering that no one pollster has ever been the “most accurate” twice in a row. In the event, the polls-of-polls were all broadly correct.

Of course there are other points of note about the Tory performance. On the one hand, there can surely be no denying Theresa May her contribution to breaking the Red Wall, and perhaps it really needed two heaves to get there; on the other hand, the media narrative on Boris being unpopular was I think well wide of the mark. Amongst key voter demographics, Boris was a positive, not a negative, and not just in contrast to Corbyn. Anyone who witnessed the acceptance speech by Ian Levy, the winning candidate in Blyth Valley, or to the reactions in Workington or Darlington, cannot doubt how central Boris was and how well he played on the doorstep as a loveable scamp who transcended class in his determination for Brexit.

Yet hidden amongst all the shock and turmoil lies a more profound truth: the Tories have been quietly improving their standing amongst the electorate for the last twenty years. Indeed the party have improved on their share of the vote at every election since 1997. They have also improved on their absolute numbers of votes since 2001 (the one surprise here being the considerable popularity of John Major even in 1997).

Conservative Party vote share and vote totals since 1997

Tory progress

This has not always translated into increased numbers of seats, due to the vagaries of the electoral system. 2017 saw Theresa May lose seats even as she surged to the highest vote share since Thatcher’s first election in 1979. William Hague, too, managed only a single net gain in 2001 despite a whole percentage point increase in votes. But set against this is the extraordinary fact that the party have now managed twice, in three elections, to work its way out of a hung parliament and back into a majority – a particularly difficult feat.

The cherry on the cake, of course, is that for those of us who lived through the dark days of the 1990s, we live to see a Tory government now likely to rule for at least fourteen years, and maybe nineteen. And whereas every other administration has won their biggest victories at or near the beginning (1945, 1966, 1983, 1997) only to see a long slow decline, somehow we have endeavoured to our greatest moment so far at the fourth time of asking, after a decade of being in power and all the scrutiny that comes with it. This is unprecedented and we are I think, allowed just a moment of self-satisfaction.

Majorities won by successive single party governments since 1945

Majorities

The one dark cloud being touted is Scotland. It will prove impossible for Boris not to yield to the SNP for a second referendum, they say. Yet for my own part, I reject this media interpretation. We should be clear that the SNP, whilst doing well in absolute terms, underperformed their own expectations and their previous results, and ended the night a slightly disappointed party. At 45%, their vote share was notably lower than the milestone 50% that they achieved in 2015, at the height of their post-referendum popularity. In seats, too, they failed to obtain the psychologically important 50 seats which they had set for themselves, and which would have cost Ruth Davidson a chilly outing in Loch Ness.

SNP and Conservative Party vote shares since 2015 vs support for Scottish independence

SNP

Source: Scottish independence polling from YouGov / The Times

Reading overlying themes onto partisan performances has its limitations. Reading Brexit results onto Tory or Labour support is impractical, for instance. But this is less so for one-issue parties such as the SNP or the Brexit Party. Their secular decline in their vote share since 2015 reflects the commensurate decline in popularity of the Scottish independence proposition over the same period. Much as the SNP have made headlines with the help of simplistic reporting, they are actually worse off than they have been in the recent past.

And here, given the success of my previous theory, is my second one: the popularity of independence in Scotland correlates directly with the efficacy of government in Westminster – not the nature of that government or its political colours, just plain ability to govern. Hence why the build up to 2014, with a coalition in place, led to one peak; the minority of 2017-2019 another (as were the mid-to-late 1990s). But I predict that as Boris gets his feet under the table and gets on with life, Brexit included, Scottish sentiment will begin to recede. Boris need not pay such calls for independence any heed, and all credit to him, he seems to be headed this way.

Support for Scottish independence (1978 – 2012)

Westminster effifacy

The progress that the Conservative Party has made since the mid-1990s is a tribute to various leaders, each in their way: William Hague for his “night shift”; Michael Howard, the man who arguably saved the Conservative Party with his performance in 2005; David Cameron and his decontamination; May and the recognition of the new tectonic plates of class and economics; and finally Boris, who with his ambiguity over Brexit somehow captured the skeptical but generous spirit of the age. Even Iain Duncan Smith was a useful placeholder. The fact is that this 80 seat majority is a tribute not just to Boris’ political skills, but rather to a long, slow, and painful rebuild which for all its highs and lows, has seen indomitable progress towards power. Just what the Conservative Party has always been about.

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A slightly self-congratulatory update (2 Jan 2020)

First, it seems this theme of long term progress has been picked up by various commentators, such as Martin Kettle at the Guardian, who notes that:

“The Tories have now formed four governments in a row. Remarkably, they have increased their share of the vote for the last six elections. They have 200 more MPs today than in 1997. Those who sit for seats in the north and Midlands have got most of the attention, and rightly so. But the tightening Tory grip in parts of the south that were once marginal also matters. The Tory advance across Wales is dramatic. And they remain a player in Scotland, something Labour can barely claim. They are UK-wide again. And they now have a new generation of MPs who can shape their party.

Secondly, there was an interesting graphic from the Financial Times talking about the Tories and the working class:

However whilst the FT was trying to make the point about Tory inroads, much of this graphic simply demonstrates the underlying improvement in performance, which would naturally eat into traditional Labour voters since Conservative success basically equates to Labour decline. Either way, the choice of 1997 as the starting point is notable and the story a component of what I outlined above in the original post.

Physics, philosophy and why people don’t want “Centrism”

Physics & Philosophy

For a while, it seemed that “centrism” was back on the agenda. In the US, Howard Schultz, the “burnt coffee magnate”, was considering a run for Presidency and was only one of a long queue that included Beto O’Rourke and Michael Bloomberg (who has decided not to run). In Britain, renegade Labour and Tory MPs founded The Independent Group, designed to coral a fragmented anti-Brexit sentiment in into a movement, replete with the usual platitudes about a “new type of politics”. Every centrist potential presidential candidate is feted by the media as an answer to Trump and AOC; the TIG has actually had success in forcing policy changes from the Labour Party. It seems that, three years after the events that led to 2016, and two decades after the Third Way of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, sensible politics was hoisting itself back into the public consciousness and relevance.

But here’s the problem: people don’t actually want “centrism”. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have taken onboard the very real desire for non-partisanship and somehow mangled this interpretation into support for centrism which is about as far from reality as they could be. It is unclear whether this misunderstanding is at least rooted in good faith about what ordinary people want, or whether it is part of a more sinister move to hijack the non-partisan agenda into something more appealing to those who only ever considered Trump and Brexit as aberrations. Indeed, from some parts of the spectrum supporters of these centrist trends are even preparing themselves for failure, by raising the red herring of “polarisation”. According to this, it is the public’s problem – they are too polarised these days to accept the logic of centrism. Shame on them.

There are two principal reasons why centrism is destined for failure, and none are the problem of the electorate. They are rooted in the two things which centrism stands for. First is compromise. There is some truth to the idea that the electorate is too polarised for compromise today; but this has always been the case. In politics, compromise has rarely been highly regarded since it inevitably results in the worst of all worlds, and usually are a by-word for kicking the can down the road. The Missouri Compromise or “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” come to mind for US history. The Barnett Formula, the EVEL answer to the West Lothian Question, and even the British opt-outs at Maastricht in 1992, are cases in point for Britain. The fact is that compromise is rarely satisfactory and tells of an inherently unstable equilibrium which as yet still needs to be resolved. Voters are quite tired of this given the questions thrown up by two decades of globalisation, automation and the 2008 financial crisis, and compromise is not going to answer them.

The second reason is that “centrism” above all (be it consciously or surreptitiously) is about defending the status quo – the exact opposite of popular opinion today. Whether Schultz or the TIG, advocates of the new politics are effectively trying to preserve a now discredited consensus around major issues of the day including free trade of the sort we have come to know, liberal immigration, a focus on GDP, the pursuit of “growth” and exports, keeping interest rates and inflation low and above all the protection of large corporates rather than SMEs. But that is from a pre-2016 world. Today the electorate, having been woke by the events of that year want something quite different – in a weird way, what they want is not centrism but extremism at both ends. Yes, they want to break the deadlock of existing parties, but they don’t want to return the consensus of old. Yes, they do not want the old “Left” vs “Right”, but neither do they want the compromise and consensus of the old “Centre”.

I have previously referred to what I call the Physics and Philosophy paradigm, and it is perhaps worth explaining more here. The problem with studying physics and philosophy is that each seems so different at the beginning and none of it makes sense until the loop completes at the end. Nothing makes sense until everything makes sense – whether in academia, business or anything else.

PhyPhi

Politics, too, is like this. At the beginning, one only sees things labelled for us as “Left” and “Right”, and the expanse of the political firmament is limited by lines of sight from traditional perspectives. Hence, at the beginning of 2016, this is what the American political world imagined it was seeing:

PhyPhi - pre 2016 politics

What we do not see at first glance is how these two ostensibly opposed directions may link up again at the other end of the circle. Yet if we tilt the planet up to peak behind, it is revealed what the political firmament had become by the end of the that year:

PhyPhi - post 2016 politics

Trump and Sanders were not, at the end, all too far away from each other in many of the crucial questions being posed on a number of areas such as trade, international companies and overseas cash-piles, and even infrastructure and healthcare. Both had moved right around the planetary orbit until they almost met again at the other side – the dark side of the planet invisible to the conventional commentariat sitting comfortably on the light side. And in that dark side are all the commonalities which are so hard to digest, principally amongst them the sense that the starting point for policy had to be the domestic and national, not the trade or people beyond the borders. In a sense, Trump and Sanders were in the “centre”, but a “centre” a world away from the “centre” prescribed by Bloomberg. The old centrists are wrong: their centrism was not being rejected due to cultural, regional and partisan polarization – it was not because the two sides were too different, but rather because they were too similar.

And this, ultimately, is where we are today. The TIG’s polling numbers have dramatically collapsed in the face of Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, declining from the mid-teens to low single digits since the party’s inception earlier this year. Bloomberg never ran. Howard Schultz has been non-committal about a presidential campaign and Democrats have been begging him not to run; the likes of known centrist Amy Klobuchar are failing to gain traction whilst complete outsiders like Andrew Yang are doing so. Yang, if anyone, is the 2020 heir to the 2016 dark-side-of-planet movement.

“Centrism” is an idea of a bygone age, one where the recent past was a story of success, where defending the status quo seemed like common sense and where just a small amount of compromise would be enough to navigate through foreseeable difficulties. But politics has changed in the last few years. Whether you are for or against Brexit, or whether you are for or against Trump or Sanders or Andrew Yang, the stasis engendered by the old “centre” is as irrelevant as defeating Communism or the Nazis. Although much of the mainstream media remain seduced by the familiarity of what was, voters on both sides have moved on; and most of them have now marched so far around the unseen side of the planet that only candidates who themselves see the future, will be positioned to reap its rewards. Centrism is dead; long live the Dark Side!

 

 

Out really means out – why Britain should reject the “WTO option” even under Hard Brexit

brexit-trade-barriers-810x521

The sheer amount of ignorance in British public discourse about how trade works is one of the most disappointing lessons from the whole sorry Brexit drama. As a Remainer I have no qualms in picking out the likes of Dan Hannan as an example of this, whose comprehension of the subject (and of economics in general) seems to have been plucked from half-remembered A-level text books, or, at a stretch, incidental discussion from reading History at Oxford. Amongst his favourite refrains is that which tells us that “at least we will still have WTO to fall back on”. Yet of all the options, this is probably the very worst. In the event of Hard Brexit, Britain should actually reject the WTO too.

This is not the place to get into the minutiae of what the WTO actually is or how it works. There are plenty of people who have written in easier detail that I can about this. Instead there are two common misconceptions about the WTO which need to be digested before we even get onto whether it is good for Britain or not. The first is that the WTO is not actually about regulating tariffs; its core notion is that of making sure that everyone abides by the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) principle, meaning that however you structure your trade (higher tariffs, lower tariffs, no tariffs) you must at least treat everyone the same. Clearly, this is a starting point on lowering tariffs but it does not actually reduce tariffs in and of themselves. Secondly, the WTO is not a single set of regulations, but rather applies to each country differently depending on their schedules of entry. In other words, upon joining the WTO, each country basically agrees to its own unique set of tariffs and commitments.

The blog referred to above gives the helpful example of shoes – a sector in which the UK happens to be an exporter:

8% is charged by the EU on shoes imported from all other WTO members (except under a free trade agreement, such as EU-Japan, or preferences on shoes from developing countries). The import duty rate in other countries will be different. The US’s import duties on shoes vary from duty-free to around 10% or higher. Japan charges 20%–30% duty on many shoe imports.

In other words, the WTO does not set monolithic rules, even at a lowest common denominator, as many casual observers seem to believe. The reason I highlight this is to emphasise that the WTO is not some magic bullet for providing a minimum level of trade freedom. It is merely a mechanism for getting countries to discuss ways to lower tariffs. How much each country has to commit to upon entry to the WTO is, much like any other trade deal or indeed any other non-deal trading relationship (which is how most trade is done), dependent on their economic strengths. A larger economy, offering both greater consumption power and usually some irreplicable exports, will always get a better “deal” out of the WTO as a whole (or any other trade negotiation such as an FTA) than a smaller economy. With or without the WTO, with or without an FTA. That is just the way life works.

Moreover, the WTO largely does not cover services, which matters for Britain. After all according to the ONS, British services exports constituted 44% of total exports in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, representing a trade surplus of +£107bn (+€124bn) compared to the trade deficit of -£139bn (-€161bn) in goods. Contrast this with Germany, France and Italy for instance who have a trade surplus in goods and deficit in services. Yet if you delve into the WTO’s website to look at something like architectural services, something Britain has had some success at, you will find the following wording:

Currently, architectural and engineering services, like all services are included in the new services negotiations, which began January 2000. Principles of trade in architectural and engineering services are contained, like for all services, in the GATS.

In other words, nothing has been agreed. The same wording applies to everything else including finance, law, advertising and so on. GATS itself, the precursor to the services agreement, is essentially toothless. As a result, you might have noticed that prior to the Brexit referendum in 2016 nobody anywhere had been talking about the WTO for almost a decade. Instead, partly in order to cover services, most countries have gone on to think about regionally integrated trade deals like ASEAN, the TPP, APEC, the East African Union, Mercosur and, er, the EU.

The problem for Britain is that the WTO is an unfinished project. People seem to forget that the intention for global “free trade” was supposed to be a multi-step process, starting with the trade in goods before moving onto the trade in services, tackling non-tariff barriers and eventually encompassing freedom of labour and capital. The trade in goods came first, naturally, because in the era in which the GATT discussions commenced, most economies including the OECD were still ones that made stuff. There was no real asymmetry in economic structure at that time and if anything, GATT and WTO were forecast to open up emerging markets to developed nation goods such as industrial equipment whilst the latter continued to develop their basic industries such as agriculture and natural resources.

However over the course of time this changed. The OECD became notably more services-based, including in their export mix. On the other hand the emerging markets, led by China, came to dominate the manufacturing industry not just at the low end but increasingly at the higher ends too – Korean autos for instance, Chinese industrial equipment and so on. It was therefore imperative that the next phase of global “free trade”, that of services, was completed – but it never was. The Doha Round, in the back of everyone’s memories, collapsed ignominiously. China’s accession to the WTO in 2001 on these ossified terms has probably contributed significantly to its rise and America’s comparative decline. It certainly led to Trump. If you are a modern economy, the WTO is probably bad for you.

We have not even touched on the specifics of how and whether Britain could easily join the WTO and on what conditions. The likelihood is that Britain could join pretty quickly – if it did so exactly on the current EU schedules (ie the 8% tariff for shoes above). But as noted, each set of schedules was designed to suit a specific economy and the existent schedules suit the EU as a whole. With a focus on protecting agricultural exports for instance, they are probably not ideal for Britain. If it wanted to join on a different, bespoke set of schedules, this would require agreement from all WTO members which would almost certainly throw up objections both legitimate (British government subsidy for financial services for instance) and illegitimate (Russia or Argentina purposefully creating trouble). Furthermore this would require time, unlike the replication of the EU schedules – the shortest period of time for a WTO accession has been several years.

This brings us to the central conclusion that if Britain goes through with Hard Brexit, it would be better to reject the WTO altogether and act unilaterally. The WTO as it exists today suits some countries like Germany and China and Japan, but specifically ill-suits the UK given the commitments Britain would have to make on accepting manufactured goods but getting no such commitments on services in return. Neither is Britain a big enough an economy to enter into renegotiations to remake the rules in its own favour, as the Quadrilateral could. Moreover, rushing into the WTO would actually undermine Britain’s ability to strike independent trade deals as most of what it has to offer – a market for consumer goods – would be given up already. Leverage in bilateral negotiations by trading goods access for services access, would be eliminated including with the EU.

Indeed in recognition of Britain’s place as a middle-sized economy, it makes more sense to try and protect certain industries, even at the cost of near-term price increases.  Whilst signing up to the WTO does not restrict Britain’s ability to lower tariffs, it would prevent the country from strategically increasing tariffs where necessary, for instance incubating industries struggling to find their feet after seventy years in the wilderness. The fact is that a vibrant SME sector really only exists in economies that have reached a critical mass in exports such as the US, Germany and Japan. For all other economies, creating national champions is a better guarantee of long-term economic survival (more of this in future posts).

Brexit is a political, not an economic, debate. That political choice should be made on its own merits, but decisions about trading relationships need to be clear-headed afterwards. Relying on the WTO sounds like a short-cut for preserving some stability for British trade, but it is a false friend. The reason why nobody else pays attention to the WTO anymore is the same reason why Britain must abandon it too – if indeed it actually ends up with Hard Brexit come 29 March.

Why commentators like Martin Wolf are still firmly thinking inside the box on China

aging-population

China’s rise is not about following the conventional economic norms, and the reality is that an ageing population is probably better than a young one

China has always been a black box. For the whole of my professional life, companies (investment banks being amongst the worst) happily hire someone – anyone at all – who claims to know the Chinese market if they can make even a sliver of money. Consequently, these people are given free rein to build their own silos. For boards in London or New York, China remains “a faraway nation of whom we know nothing”. It is from this mysterious, exotic ignorance that reliably insightful commentators, from publications which should know better, produce some tired answers to tired questions. Sad to say, amongst them was a recent piece from Martin Wolf at the Financial Times titled The Future May Not Belong to China.

Now, the future may very well not belong to China. Much of what Wolf outlines from his Capital Economics report (rather too much from one source for my liking) is unarguably true: the over-investment, the under-consumption, the increasing corporate debt and reliance on exports. But they only change from fact to “problem” when seen through the same old prism of economic development. China though has been disrupting the whole framework through which one sees these issues, confounding a whole mini-industry of untiring China bears. Who can forget the inflation crisis of 2010 – 2011? The Chibor crisis in the summer of 2013? The stock market crisis in 2015? The capital outflow crisis over 2016 – 2017? In each of these and many others besides, China was to be “found out”; it never was, not because the facts were inaccurate but because the basis for observation by outsiders was so incomplete (although to be fair some of the facts were also inaccurate). The fact that the naysayers and doom-mongers have been consistently wrong may be a cheap point to make, but it is worth making nonetheless. The only laws of economics, it seems, are the ones amateur journalists derive from their undergraduate readings of Adam Smith, Ricardo and Keynes.

china bears

A non-exhaustive list of China bear headlines since 1990

However I would submit two additional unrelated and possibly more controversial theses. The first is that the way China encounters these perceived crises is actually a mark of its success in terms of being on a pathway to global power, rather than a failure. There is a reason why China encounters “difficulties” where Japan, during its own precipitous rise in the 1970s, did not: China is actively trying to change the world it is living in. These crises are the tremors generated by moving tectonic plates, as Chinese objectives grate against the rules and outcomes it is being measured against. Currency and capital flows, interest rates, debt and the banking system – these are all examples of Chinese policy that do not make macro-economic sense until you factor in that it wants to change the system and if it plays its cards right, it probably can. We are faced with the first occasion since the United States back in the 1840s, where the world may have to accommodate a new power, and accordingly the rules will change. For China, this friction is good.

japan china gdp

Source: The Economist (2010)

To run through just one example of this, let us look at capital outflows. The reason capital outflows seem like a “crisis” is that the Chinese government wants to control the currency rather than let it be determined by the market. To pay for this, it must use foreign exchange reserves to keep the exchange rate stable. This becomes a huge cost when the environment is weak – except that the reason China does this is to try and make the RMB a regionally accepted trade and reserve currency. This could be done through just trade alone, but in China’s case it will also be done through the crypto-imperialism of the Belt & Road and other initiatives. If it succeeds, it will both eat into America’s ability to project power through the dollar, as well as ultimately encourage greater consumption of Chinese-made goods which in turn once again brings capital flows back into balance. It is a risky and expensive, all-or-nothing gamble; but unlike merely acquiescing into the current world system, if it succeeds it will have changed the regional financial and trade landscape. A price, some would say, worth paying.

The second thesis focuses on the cliché that China may be facing the middle income trap – that it may “get old before it gets rich”. This is typically paired with the curiously British trait of enthusiasm for India as an alternative story. Yet I would argue that with the coming of automation, China is actually on the right side of history on this and that far from fearing age, the adage should be turned on its head: for many comparable countries it is youth, not age, which will be a great peril; and these countries may be too young to ever get rich.

We have for some decades been fed the neoliberal trope that a younger population is good for the economy, and that pursuit of youth, through birthrates or immigration, is a Good Thing. Yet we are fast approaching the point where this notion is being exposed, because automation is actually a process which will eat into youth employment rather than any other. China’s workforce is actually declining and has been for some years, just in time for robots to start taking over.

The process of classic industralisation is just one of various models for a country to develop. But in this particular model, families can contribute labour rather than capital in order to obtain greater earnings, and thereby over time accumulate household assets. For many countries though, this industrialisation may never now be possible. The Economist noted as much when opining that the pathway of development exhibited by the China + ASEAN axis is probably irreplicable by anyone else including markets in Africa and South America. Goods may be manufactured in some of these economies, but it will be robots that do most of it and young median households will never cross either the asset-owning or educational thresholds required to survive automation before it hits.

Now, it may be that these countries find other models to become rich, but I doubt it. Agriculture or resource extraction will be possible for only a precious few. The mercantile model is not stable or sustainable. Services, as we have seen, actually produce a lower return on labour than industrialization does since jobs are often of a lower quality. In any case one of the stark lessons of 2016 was the fact that in 29 out of 50 states in the US, trucking was the single most common form of employment – and this, more so than manufacturing, is where automation will first hit.

us job types

Source: NPR (2015)

The fact is that to weather automation, median family assets need to reach a critical mass enough to be “invested” into the economy such that they can be gainers from robot productivity rather than victims. The most obvious if questionable form of asset-ownership would be home-ownership, but in an ideal world it would take other forms. China’s urban population has just about caught this train (financial income growth has far outstripped wage growth in recent years), but younger populations in India or Vietnam may not make it. Young people inevitable have fewer assets having had less time to earn; if their family does not reach this critical automation-neutralising financial position, they face eternal unemployment. OECD economies mitigate this conundrum somewhat through welfare transfers, but welfare is another privilege of long term asset accumulation by Society – a privilege emerging markets do not have. It is a race against time and any country that fails to achieve this will be left without a chair when the music stops.

In this context, I have little time for those who argue, as Wolf does, that India is “the most interesting other economy” (Americans I have noticed, tend to use Vietnam as their preferred example). As one of my friends commented, “the human race will probably be extinct before India has an airport like Pudong”. Taken individually, each of these points (China’s extra-economic rise and youth being a greater concern than age) have huge implications about the rules and framework for emerging market development theory. Taken together however, they may represent a perfect storm which leading to an inflection point in global economic development. In this case, being wedded to the old ideas, commentators like Wolf are probably missing it.

Why Britain could demand asymmetric labour access to the EU – and why it might be best for both sides

Freedom of movement

The disputes over Brexit negotiations have mostly been premised on the idea of reciprocity – or rather, retaliation. If we do not give them rights, they will not give them to us. This has been particularly true when discussion freedom of movement, possibly the single most important driver of Brexit voting in 2016. On the face of it, there seems to be logic in the EU demanding that EU nationals be allowed to freedom of movement into the UK if the UK wants the same thing in return. However this may belie the reality, which is that asymmetric access is perfectly viable and indeed valid.

To give one example of where this makes sense, let us examine Chinese policy with regards Hong Kong. Here, Hong Kong residents have an almost unhindered access to the Mainland and its economy, not only in terms of movement and residency, but also asset ownership including real estate and businesses. Chinese Mainlanders on the other hand face extremely stringent rules on coming to Hong Kong and particularly for settling here. Work visas are required almost exactly as they are of any foreigners. Yet this is essentially just one country with ultimately one government. And yet it suits both sides.

Why? Well there are two main reasons for allow one-way borders. The first is when one area needs skills the other has. This was historically true of Hong Kong and the services it provided to mainland China in terms of capital and skills, although today this is no longer so relevant. In the case of Britain and the EU, there are arguably skills which those across the channel, all things being equal, would prefer to have. Banking and finance might be part of this, but it seems unlikely. Much more relevant is that Britain is far more innovative than the rest of Europe and particularly so compared to the larger countries. In the European Commission’s innovation rankings for instance, Britain comes fifth but well ahead of Germany, as well as France, Italy and Spain. This is something the EU would surely rather not lose: startups and business ideas which could change the world but which need a large market to be tested and improved. For this reason, one-sided migration would be net positive.

European countries ranked by innovation

European innovation

Source: European Innovation Scoreboard 2018 (European Commission)

The second reason is the defensive one and relies on a resource Britain has an abundance of: parochialism. One of the reasons China has no particular fear of opening the border to Hong Kong is that there is very little chance that people will want to cross the border and stay there. Oddly enough, Britain is in the same boat, since Britons have historically been far less likely to move to another European country than many others, especially those of a working age. If we look at northern European migrants to other northern European destinations (in other words, intra-EU migration which strips out the retirement population) Britain figures as one of the least mobile populations behind even France. Only Germany is marginally behind and this is due to its outstanding export economy.

Total intra-Northern European emigrants as a percentage of total population

Intra-European migration

Source: People on the Move (Bruegel Jan 2018)

This reflects only “rich” Europe; if eastern and southern Europe were included the numbers would be even more stark. This peculiarly British parochialism can be seen in everything from the lack of language learning in British schools through to the reluctance of British footballers to move to European leagues which are better for their career. In other words, the British are much more disinclined to move and settle in the EU than the other way around, so that offering asymmetric access will only help business without causing any employment displacement.

This is a classic and enjoyable case of hidden asymmetry, the defining theme of this blog. The simple fact is that just because access is unequal does not mean that it is imbalanced or not beneficial to both sides. Reciprocity may seem “fair” on the face of it but may not actually be relevant – when there are cultural asymmetries as in this case, there is a good case to argue that reciprocity is not needed. Unless indeed retaliation is the core objective.

The hidden costs of parenting – why PPP could become PPPP

stress-cost-of-kids

Purchasing power parity or “PPP” has for many years been as good a proxy as any for allowing comparability between figures such as different countries’ GDP. China’s economy, for example, has a nominal GDP of just US$12 trillion, compared to America’s US$19.4 trillion. Yet when re-based on PPP, China’s GDP is actually US$23.2, making it the largest in the world. I for one accept that this is a useful indicator of economic strength, in the sense that China as a country is able to mobilise more economic resources than its nominal GDP would strictly suggest, since labour and capital there are cheaper. Likewise, a preferred measure of living standards is that of GDP per capita at PPP, or sometimes (better) average wages at PPP. In this way, some comparability may be afforded which accounts for street food in China appearing so much cheaper than in the West for instance.

Yet a friend of mine recently noted that in a sense, PPP-based comparisons of wages and living standards were very much geared towards the individual. A great leveler, he reckoned (as a relatively new parent complaining about the costs of the endeavor) was the arrival of children into his life. Because whilst in theory a basket of goods for PPP calculation includes items needed for raising children, in reality behavioral differences distort its reality. PPP, he felt, did not reflect the full costs of parenting and its effects seemed most intuitive to a single person. When considering where to live, PPP in his life could and perhaps should be re-adjusted to Parental PPP or “PPPP”.

There are three main buckets to consider in making any such adjustments:

1. Direct additional costs of education
2. Consumption choices
3. Real estate costs

The theory here is as follows: wherever you live in the world, the likelihood is that you will as a parent attempt to make up for the deficiencies of the world around you as best you can, in the interest of your children. This comes out of your own resources, and actually in many countries where life is “cheap”, when it comes to raising children those expenses shoot right up again. For instance, as a single person one may choose to drink tap water; as a parent one begins to invest in water cleansing machinery or bottled water (especially in Asia). Education is an important element too, since although many countries provide free universal education, parents recognize their limitations and will correspondingly pay for tuition and other aid. A surprisingly large selection of countries such China actually see parents effectively paying for education despite it being notionally free – and this is before getting to the issue of boarding schools paid for by expats. Lastly, real estate requirements are different and in some parts of the world rents / price counter-intuitively increase with the size of a property, commanding a premium due to restricted space.

So a comprehensive, scientific adjustment to PPP would require a sophisticated model which includes all these factors. To test it though, I instead looked at a simplistic account using only one factor that I could readily find, HSBC’s analysis of how much parents pay for their children’s education in several countries:

Cost of parenting
Source: HSBC – The Value of Education report 2017

Using this data as a rough proxy for all-in childcare costs (imperfect, but it is all I have to hand) I then readjusted the standard PPP index as provided by the OECD. The assumption I have made is that one-third of a parent’s income is used on children, a figure broadly in-line with statistics also published by the OECD. Thus I left two-thirds of income adjusted on the official OECD PPP basis, whilst the remaining one-third I have adjusted using a new index created by comparing total childcare spend. The results look like this:

Value of 30000

Basic and clumsy though this analysis is, it shows some interesting trends. First, as my friend suspected, the “real” living costs for a parent in places like China and India may be in fact higher than initially assumed, due to a surprisingly high need for private spend. But even more notable is how much value is added by the welfare societies of France and the UK, where the median family does not spend anything like as much for education particularly at the tertiary level. Median wages go a lot further in Europe and Canada than in the US under this system – and indeed US$30,000 almost matches the value of US$30,000 in China. The same kind of logic no doubt applies to issues such as universal healthcare. Assuming my calculations are even remotely accurate, life is fundamentally as cheap in Europe as it is in China, whilst life in the US remains the most expensive.

This methodology is very preliminary, full of assumptions and no doubt lacking. I would be happy to hear opinions on how best to improve it. However the basic theory is strong, namely that PPP may have a simple underlying flaw due to not accounting for changes in life cycle; in some cases PPP probably needs to become PPPP to be meaningful for public policy and for investment purposes alike. Essentially, single life remains localised whilst parenthood is becoming globalised. Since parenting costs are only going to increase as we go forward, the issue becomes particularly prominent. PPPP could be the future.

**************

For those keen to see the underlying data, below is the table of calculations:

PPPP table

How all politics really works – in one simple chart

Introducing the General Theory of Government 

The events of 2016 were curious because of their dichotomy: on the one hand, they were such a shock to the political classes, on the other hand they were also entirely predictable. Yet the commentariat both then and since appeared to miss (or simply forget) the most basic and obvious premise of how all politics works: namely that the ruler has to offer the ruled a mixture of both material and psychological well-being. The desire for identity is as legitimate a concern as any amount of wealth, and any government that fails to provide one or the other over a long period of time will suffer the occasional revolt. Understanding this explains Brexit, Trump and any other examples one might care to mention.

I do not claim this to be revolutionary, but given its lack of profile and given the impending elections in the US which will doubtless cause another round of soul-searching, I think it is useful to visualize this concept in a simple, easy to comprehend model. With no further ado therefore, all politics can be represented in this single chart:

General Theory - basic model

The Wealth-Identity Trade-off Model

It should be easy to see where I am going with this. Into the x-axis goes all those things which politicians want to focus on: taxes, welfare spending, the cost of living. Into the y-axis are all those things politicians seem not to think exist anymore such as ethnicity, religion and language. And, in a democracy at least, any government which consistently offers too little of one or other of these parameters, will find themselves cast out. We have for perhaps too long been living in a world where the governing classes have not only mistaken how to deliver W (Sanders, &c), but completely ignored i (Trump, Farage &c). Political parties across the spectrum have spent the last few decades obsessing over the x-axis whilst assuming that the y-axis will tend to itself. Rectifying this will be, as I have alluded to before, the dominant theme of the next two decades at least in the West.

I would hope this is all intuitive enough not to need vast amounts of explanation, but in a series of posts I intend to outline the basic premise of the General Theory and specifically its core idea, the Wealth-Identity Trade-off Model (WITM™). I will go on to examine how and when a society ceases to function properly; what a society really comprises within the model (“Median Man”, or “MM“); and lastly look at some applied examples in the world today and perhaps yesterday.

What I am proposing is not in itself, I think novel; however like all good things I believe this theory synthesizes simple, intuitive ideas which have at best not been expressed before in such a manner, or perhaps may not have been coherently identified. To anyone who disagrees with this, or who have contrary opinions, I look forward to hearing them. Additionally, since these are blog posts which may one day find their way into a book, I will not footnote everything in detail. However I trust that enough is articulated to allow the reader to comprehend what I intend.