Friday, 25 July 2014

What's With This George Monbiot Then?

Every now and then, albeit not often, someone tells me I should check out George Monbiot’s writing. Apparently, according to the green/economic left contingent he is the 'go to' guy for their cause, because he is one of the few who writes intelligently and researches carefully. Apart from having one brief look a few months ago, when he (or someone associated with him) appeared to distort facts about historical global temperatures dating back tens of thousands of years, I’ve thus far resisted. By accident, though, I stumbled upon one of George Monbiot’s recent Guardian missives bemoaning the fact that many of us are not worshippers of Gaia, the Greek eco-preserving Mother Goddess. So, I decided to give him a second look. I was pleased to see he was light-hearted enough to start his column with a joke:

"All the major parties and most of the media believe that we would be better off with less regulation, less discussion and more speed"

Hahahaha – very good. Oh wait, hang on, it appears he’s not making a joke at all – he’s being deadly serious. So ‘all’ the major parties (by which he must mean the Tories, Labour and Liberals – a triumvirate that stretches right back to the 17th century in various guises) believe we would be better of with ‘less’ regulation. The only way such a statement could stray into even the same territory as the truth is if we pretend that in this case 'less' means 'more'. Other than changing the meaning of words, the contention is preposterous - our major parties are continually thinking up new ways to regulate, and suppress our ability to engage in mutually beneficial transactions without being impeded by some new government protocol.

But this is what happens with relative comparatives - they skew your overall interpretation if you sit at one extreme - even moderates can seem like they are extreme. To a 3 foot 3 midget, even someone who is 5 foot 6 is seen as tall. To a basketball player, even someone who is 5 foot 10 is seen as short. This is what's happening with George Monbiot's interpretation of the main parties. If height illustrates freedom in the market economy, and being 6 foot 7 is equivalent to believing in the prosperity of the free market of supply and demand (with the necessary light regulation) then George Monbiot is seeing the free market like a heavy regulation-friendly 3 foot 3 midget who is claiming a 5 foot 6 man to be tall.

However, this comment below is the biggest whopper in his article – and as it’s the postcard version of his main point, I think it will suffice:

Planning laws inhibit prosperity. That's what we're told by almost everyone. Those long and tortuous negotiations over what should be built where are a brake on progress. All the major parties and most of the media believe that we would be better off with less regulation, less discussion and more speed. Try telling that to the people of Spain and Ireland. Town planning in those countries amounts to shaking a giant dustbin over the land. Houses are littered randomly across landscapes of tremendous beauty, and are so disaggregated that they're almost impossible to provide with public services. The result, of course, is a great advance in human welfare. Oh, wait a moment. No, it's economic collapse followed by mass unemployment. Spain and Ireland removed the brakes on progress and the car rolled over a precipice. Their barely regulated planning systems permitted the creation of property bubbles that trashed the economy along with the land.

Smelling a rat with regard to such poor reasoning is a classic example of what it means to 'think like an economist' (to paraphrase Tyler Cowen) - one is just able to spot departures from the patterned normalcy that embed the reason and rationale behind economic thinking. Or to put it more crudely, once you're used to the difference between good arguments and bad ones, spotting bad ones like this crass distortion of the facts comes pretty naturally. Knowing one simple thing - that planning/green regulations hike up housing prices and increase the chances of a bubble is enough to tell you that Monbiot is talking nonsense.

In fact, his comment is so bad that I had to do a double-take and re-read to be sure that Monbiot was actually arguing that the policies in Ireland and Spain of freeing up the supply of land and lifting regulations brought about “economic collapse followed by mass unemployment”.

Here's the truth. You know how much it annoys you when some chump tells you that ‘Correlation does not imply causation’, when you’ve made not the slightest suggestion in your blog or article that it does? Well in Monbiot’s case here, someone actually does need to point out to him that he’s got his causation and correlation mixed up.

Just because Spain and Ireland have relaxed planning regulations and financial busts does not, of course, mean that there is an A causes B causality here. The causality is, for the most part, a four letter currency problem, starting with ‘E’, ending with ‘O’ and having a ‘U’ and an ‘R’ sandwiched between them. The global financial crisis, international trade issues, burst housing and asset bubbles, and lots of sloppy eurozone horseplay where interest rates favoured larger economies (like Germany) were the primary causes of the crisis in the european nations’ economies (including Spain and Ireland). To suggest, as Monbiot does, that the cause was fewer planning/green regulations is beyond silly – not just because it is counterfactual, but because it is illogical too (as I said a moment ago, lifting regulations is better for housing supply, prices, jobs and investment, not worse). 

If fewer planning/green regulations were the primary cause, then we should have expected to see Greece, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia and Cyprus escape the crisis, as their regulatory laws are for the most part not as ‘barely regulated’ as those of Spain or Ireland.

Needless to say, if this kind of sloppy thinking is indicative of George Monbiot’s wider work (and I’m not asserting that it is), I shall not be inclined towards too many more of his articles any time soon. But yet in sharp contradistinction, that would go against another good maxim - that it is not good to not read someone just because you think you'll disagree with them.

* Photo courtesy of The Guardian