Sunday, 21 January 2018

McDonnell's Fantasy Analogy

On The Andrew Marr Show this morning, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell came out with a ludicrous analogy to try to explain the benefits of bringing services into public ownership. Think of it like buying a house, he said - you make the initial investment, get returns on renting it as an asset, and then further down the line it becomes a money-maker.

Fantasist John McDonnell has always been an intellectual lightweight, and today's analogy was no exception. Even if we're kind to him, and ignore all the obvious problems with the reasoning behind his analogy (which you can distil in previous blogs here, here, here and here), there's another obvious way that returning a service to public ownership is not like buying a house as an income-generating asset, which I'll explain.

McDonnell's analogy forgets the most important problem with bringing a service into state ownership: it creates all the downsides of monopoly power, and denies all the benefits and innovations of competition. Competition doesn't just keep suppliers in check in terms of price and quality, and consumers well served in terms of lower prices and increased efficiency, it is also the driver of new ideas and improvements on existent ideas.

A service run under a state monopoly has much less of an acute eye on commercial demand, and therefore pays suboptimal regard to price and quality too. In terms of investment, the opportunity costs of buying a house are the other forgone investments and their concomitant returns. Given that house buying is about the best asset-returning venture in the marketplace, the opportunity costs in terms of a return are all-but non-existent.

On the other hand, the opportunity costs associated with state monopolies in terms of forgone opportunities are about as overwhelming as it gets. And this in a week when there is indication that Labour's re-nationalisation project is going to cost an up front sum of around £176 billion (or £6500 for every household).

This is the dangerous fantasy economics of Corbyn and McDonnell: £176 billion for more expensive, less efficient, lower quality, innovation-stifling re-nationalised services. There is almost no analogue to buying a house here - not that we should expect anyone in the Shadow Cabinet to understand this.