Monday, 15 May 2017

A Popular Idea, But A Bad One

We all know really why Jeremy Corbyn is a Brexiter in a Remainer's clothing - it's because he wants our nation to undergo a prodigious re-nationalisation program, and he sees the Brussels Eurocrats as being an impediment to this (one of the few good things about the EU is they prohibit European nations from nationalising, subsidising and bailing out their own interests, as it is, rightly, seen as being inimical to competition from outside industries).

Apparently some of Corbyn's nationalisation plans (like the nationalisation of the railways) are proving hugely popular. Now, while I've written before about the imprudence of nationalised industry in the specific sense (see here and here), and while I have numerous blogs on the benefits of the private sector over the public sector (if you were ever inclined, all of them can be seen by clicking on this Private Sector vs. Public sector tab), I probably haven't written a blog post that swiftly points out why generally speaking nationalised firms are worse for us than non-nationalised ones.

A good place to start here is to remind you of Milton Friedman's famous dictum regarding the four ways to spend money:

“There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get. And that’s government. And that’s close to 40% of our national income.”

Now, given that politicians have certain popularity-gathering incentives to spend taxpayers' money well, you'd think they might have constant mindfulness of appearing to the public to be prudent spenders. In a small sense this is true, yes - but what you have to remember is that due to asymmetry of information, short memories and copious amounts of spin, the relationship between a government's achievements/mistakes and the public's perception of them is pretty opaque and obfuscated - which is precisely what politicians and civil servants love.

If you’re spending someone else's’ money on someone else, as the government does with its various 'investment' schemes (which are rarely investments actually, they mostly mean 'costs') then the motives are likely to be less prudent than if you’re spending someone else's’ money on yourself. But both pale in comparison to if you spend your own money on yourself, which is what private businesses do, and because of which they have a better nose for efficiency, targets and outcomes.

The private sector is astronomically more competitive, because it has to forecast future demand and attract funds competitively. That's why public sector projects are far more notorious for cost overruns, being overstaffed, and for costly time delays.

That is why, apart from government spending that helps the needy and most vulnerable in society, low levels of state spending make society better off. Private investors are generally more prudent because it is their own money at risk, whereas the public sector corresponds to the fourth quarter of Friedman’s quadrant: they spend other people’s money on others far more recklessly.

And while we're at it, the national beef with big business is a strange one too. Quite often goods and services are produced more efficiently when they are produced large-scale. A firm might be able to make 50,000 burger meals in less than twice the time it takes a smaller firm to make 25,000. Trading small-scale often reduces the extent to which comparative advantage takes effect. Bob's metal firm can spend 3 days making 10,000 hooks, and Jim's carpentry firm can spend 3 days making 2,000 varnished boards, whereas one firm making both may take 8 days to produce that quantity.

A firm is said to be a more effective trader if it can produce a good or service at the same quality but at a lower cost than its competitors. And the benefits to society occur when as many firms as possible specialise in their field of comparative advantage and use it to trade. Therefore, it's usually the case that the country's biggest firms are the ones providing the most value for consumers, as well as being the biggest job creators.

To end, here's a thought experiment. Imagine if you pulled 30 people off the street in a random fashion, took them to an airfield, showed them all the parts of a Boeing 747 and asked them to work out how to build the plane from scratch. These non-experts would be clueless regarding how to assemble those proprietary parts - and the take home lesson would be: don't leave big and important jobs in the hands of amateurs, which is exactly how we should feel about our politicians and our economy.