Why Central Banks Are Reaching a Dead End

Central banks have the duty to keep inflation below but near a certain level (2% in the case of the U.S. and the Eurozone). They use monetary policy for doing so. In case inflation gets too low, they decrease the interest rate, thereby spurring lending, hence inflation. In case inflation gets too high, they do the reverse. This policy is believed to be effective, and to have contributed to normalization of the inflation-rate in the past.

All well and good so far. But as anyone knows by know: there is something odd going on. We hit the 0% interest rate level in the U.S., and have even reached -0.4% in the Eurozone. This is a logical consequence of decreasing the interest rate more in times of accommodative policy than decreasing it in times of tightening: a downward trend, hitting 0%, and rates below 0%, at some point in time.

The down-trend in the interest rate

The year 2025

In principle, central banks could continue this downward trend in the interest rate indefinitely. In practice, most likely not. Lets take a look into the future, and see what would happen if we would continue this downward trend.

Suppose it is the year 2025, and, for whatever reason, we have (the risk of) deflation in the Eurozone. The ECB – having increased the interest rate from the level of -0.4% in 2017 – decreases the interest rate gradually from (let’s say) 1.5% to -1.5% (a decrease of 3%, which is less than the decrease after the crisis in 2007, hence not unrealistic). So now we have an interest of -1.5%.

Given such a low interest rate, either of two things are likely to happen, that we might want to avoid at all costs: the net income of retail banks gets literally nullified, or retail banks have to charge customers for keeping their money.

As shown in quantitative research, a decrease of 1 percentage point in the 3-month yield (which will occur in case of a decrease in the deposit rate to -1.5%) leads to a decrease in the net interest margin of banks (in advanced economies) of 60 basis points. What does this mean in case of our rate decrease to -1.5%?

Take ING (the largest Dutch retail bank) as an example. ING has a net interest margin of around 1.5% over 2016, resulting in a net interest income of around 13.2 billion euros, and a net income of 4.651 billion euros.

Inflation in the U.S.

A rate decrease to -1.5% will cause ING’s net interest margin to decrease to less than 0.9%, implying its net interest income will be 40% lower than in 2016, decreasing by +- 5.2 billion euros. Hence ING’s entire profit will obliterated. Assuming that the lion-share of cost-cutting has been done already in response to the crisis of 2007, this leaves little room to cut costs. And anyway: if the down-trend in the interest rate will continue, at some point the net interest income will become so low than no cost-cutting measures can make up for that.

Hence, decreasing the interest rate beyond some point will seriously put to risk the existence of retail banking in the Eurozone. Assuming that Draghi doesn’t want that to happen, the interest rate can never get lower then a certain level (-1.4% in our example – the real number might of course be different, but this doesn’t affect the principle at stake here).

Retail banks could of course adjust their business model, and charge people for holding their money. Suppose that, in case the interest rate gets below a certain point, banks will do so. How much can they charge people before people will withdraw their money and start putting it into safes? Let’s say that banks, due to lower net interest incomes resulting from the lower interest rate, charge customers 0.5% for holding their savings. If you own 200.000 euros, this comes down to 1000 euros a year. I can imagine this might already be sufficient for many people to start putting their money into a safe instead of their bank, hence causing significant draw-downs, and endangering the banking system. Again: the real interest rate at which this event might occur might differ from this example, but the principle still holds.

Assuming Draghi doesn’t want this to happen either, we can never lower the interest rate below a certain level.

What then?

But, assuming that we can never lower the interest rate below a certain level (which might be not too far in the future as showed by the reasoning above), what then can we do to deal with low inflation in the future? Lowering interest rates is no option any more.

One possibility would be fiscal policy. We could push the responsibility for maintaining a reasonable level of inflation from central banks to governments. But this might very well imply that governments have to borrow significant amounts of money to kick-start inflation. Judging by the amount of money pushed into the market by the ECB to increase inflation, this lending will lead to exorbitant increases in public debt, hence interest payments.

Central banks could of course buy other assets, such as equity, instead of bonds, when the interest rate has reached its lowest level. The problems from doing so are obvious: it might cause a significant disconnect between share prices and real business activity, resulting in bubbles. Furthermore, it might not be very effective in increasing inflation, because we don’t know how much of the money put into stocks will eventually reach the real economy.

Another option would be helicopter money. But what if the helicopter stops dropping money? Then we are left with higher prices, but not more money to pay for them, laying the foundation for another period of deflation.

Accepting deflation

We could also just accept deflation. We have been trying to fight it for over 30 years, like our lives depend on it. But do they? How problematic would it be for prices to decrease for an extended period of time? Would people really stop buying stuff, because it will become cheaper in the future? That seems unrealistic. People still need to buy food, clothing, and still need a roof above their head. So deflation might not be such a big issue after all – unless it becomes extreme, of course.

It is choosing the least worst option among a bunch of bad options. Hence we should not rule out any response to low inflation because its effects are undesired: it might still be the best option.

One thing seems crystal clear: we have to think about future responses to low inflation, because the path we have currently taken seems to be near reaching its end point.

Why Economic Growth is More Important than Gender Equality

figure 1

Figure 1: Taking care of moral issues enhances the economy

I think most of would agree that issues such as gender equality, education and malnutrition are important matters. Not only morally, in the sense that anyone of us should have the right to be treated equally, to receive education or to have proper feeding, but also because of their economic consequences. Studies have shown that gender inequality, lack of education and malnutrition affect the economy of a country negatively (see Figure 1). But fewer studies, at least none I could find, look at the relation the other way: what are the effects of economic development on gender inequality, education and malnutrition? Or more broadly: what are the effects of economic development on moral issues, instead of the other way around?

Let’s take gender equality, for example. I think it is reasonable to assume that when a country develops economically, the role of women in society will improve – in the sense that they are treated more equally to men. For suppose people have more disposable income, as a result of economic development. Then this money might allow families a sense of freedom that partially breaks down the traditional role division between the working man and housewife. The money might for example allow women to pursue their interests, whether this be education, painting or something else, thereby enabling them to develop in a manner similar to men.

Furthermore, economic development might reduce the number of children per family, thereby putting less pressure on either the man or woman to stay at home to care for the children. This enables both parties to participate more equally in, for example, the workplace.

Economic development might also increase the level of education in a society. In case there is a system of private schooling in place, this is obvious. For if people have more income to spend, they can spend more on the education of their children, thereby increasing the level of education received in society. Also, more income means more taxes. In case a country has public schooling, more taxes allows for a more elaborate educational system, thereby enhancing education. Also, when families have more income, their children might not have to do labour to increase the family’s income. This provides them with the time required for education.

Malnutrition; another problem. It is obvious how malnutrition might be bad for a country’s economy. But it is just as obvious how economic development might reduce malnutrition. After all: if people have more income to spend, they can spend more money on food, thereby decreasing the level of malnutrition. Furthermore, if an economy develops, the supply of food might increase, since there might be more economic demand for food. The food might also be cheaper due to increased mass production, hence increasing the availability of food for the common people.

I am sure there are many other moral issues I didn’t deal with in this article (think about poverty, or child labour), but that affect both the economic development of a country and are affected by it. But what each of these matters appear to have in common is that they can be improved by improving the economic development of a society. Hence, in case you want to improve the well-being of a society, as many charities might want to do, you might be better of developing a society economically than to try and solve each moral issue one by one (see Figure 2). Because why choose the hard way when there might be a much simpler solution?

figure 2

Figure 2: Economic development might (partially) solve moral issues

What do you think?

Why It Is Possible to Make Above Average Returns – Even in Efficient Markets

There is a well-known hypothesis in financial economics, called the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH), that spawns a lot of debate. The EMH states that financial markets are ‘informationally efficient’. In other words: a financial asset’s market price always incorporates and reflects all available relevant information. Hence no investor can consistently use such information to find stocks that earn him above average returns. After all: such information is already reflected in the asset’s price; so if there is a lot of ‘positive’ information about the company, the stock’s market price will have increased, and if there’s a lot of ‘negative’ information, the price will have decreased.

I want to make an argument why, even if the EMH holds, it might still be possible to consistently earn above average returns on investments. The argument is basically very simple. Let’s first recall the EMH. We know that an efficient market is a market in which the price of a financial asset (let’s say a stock) always incorporates and reflects all available information. Hence, you cannot benefit from the set of available information in such a way that you can consistently earn above average returns on investing in the asset – or any asset for that matter. But does it follow from this that you cannot consistently achieve above average returns? I don’t think so.

Because what if you are consistently better than other investors in anticipating future information? Then, even though the stock’s market price reflects all available information, you can utilize this anticipated future information to decide whether to buy or sell a stock. And if you can anticipate future information (which is information not yet incorporated and reflected in the stock’s price) better than the average investor, then you can earn above average returns, time after time.

This all sounds pretty abstract. So let’s look an example. Suppose there is a stock of a company that produces wind turbines – call it ‘stock A’. Furthermore, let’s suppose that at this point in time investors are on average not confident about wind energy’s potential. They might think that the cost of producing wind energy is too high, its profits depend solely on the current regulation, or that it will still take a long time before our fossil fuels are depleted, making the switch to wind energy not urgent yet. Given these considerations the stock trades at a price of – let’s say – 10. Let’s assume that this price indeed incorporates and reflects all available information – such as information contained in annual reports, expert analyses etc. Hence it seems reasonable to say that you cannot consistently earn above average returns on this stock by utilizing only this pool of existing information.

But what if you believe that, given the ever increasing energy consumption and ever decreasing level of fossil fuels, society has in the middle-long term no choice but to turn to alternative forms of energy – forms such as wind energy? If you think this is true, then you can anticipate that any future information about the wind-turbine producer will be positive – at least more positive than today’s information is. You can anticipate that the future information will show an increase in the firm’s revenues, or – for example, in case the firm is close to bankruptcy but you know that its managers don’t profit from a bankruptcy – a decrease in costs. Given that the market is efficient, you know that at the time this information will become public, the market price of the stock will increase to reflect this information, to a price of let’s say 20. If you can anticipate such future information consistently, then you can anticipate the future stock price consistently, allowing you to consistently earn above average returns – despite the perfectly efficient market.

An equivalent way to look at this matter is to say that you take into account more information than the average investor in calculating the stock’s fair value. Let’s say that you are doing a net present value calculation, and you have estimated the firm’s future cash flows. In case of stock A, investors used estimated cash flows that lead them to a fair value of 10. However, given your anticipation of future information, you estimate these cash flows to be higher – leading you to a higher valuation of the stock. Again: if you can consistently anticipate future information better than the average investor, you can consistently earn above average returns – even in an efficient market.

Why Economics Should Return to its Roots

Economics explains how people interact within markets to accomplish certain goals. People; not robots. And people are creatures with desires, animalistic urges that guide them into making conscious, but often unconscious, decisions. That sets them apart from robots, which act solely upon formal rules (If A, then B, etc.). But this difference between humans and robots shouldn’t have to be a problem, right? Not if economics takes into account the fact that humans are biological creatures, who (might) have got a free will; an observation which makes their actions undetermined and therefore unable to be captured in terms of laws.

It seems fair to say that we all want to increase our utility – in the broadest sense of the word. But do we always know why we want to increase our utility? Don’t we never ‘just want’ to go out, ‘just want’ to buy a new television, ‘just want’ to go on holiday? Yes we do: it seems that, sometimes, we just happen to want things: we don’t know why, we don’t have explicit motives for our desires. And if we – the people having the desires – don’t even know why we do things, how on earth could economists know, let alone capture these actions in laws? That’s only possible if you make assumptions: very limiting assumptions.

Rational choice theory is a framework used within economics to better understand social and economic behavior by means of formal modeling. But if this sense of understanding – that is possible only through formalizing humans’ behavior – is only possible by treating humans like robots, what then, on a conceptual level, is the difference between economics and artificial intelligence? Besides that the latter really works with robots and the former seems to assume to work with robots? Robots whose actions are fully predictable and explainable by a set of parameters: speed, vision, greediness etc. Or its formal economic counterpart: humans whose actions are manipulable by changing interest rates, government expenditures, taxes and other parameters that are part of the large economic machine we are all a part of. Assuming a mindless creature, following formal rules, makes it possible to capture his intentions in a formal corset. Everything should be dealt with in a formal manner: even uncertainty should be put in mathematical terms. Anything to make sure that we don’t miss out on any of the creature’s shenanigans. Even the ones that are grounded in the deep domains of irrationality.

But maybe it’s time to wake up and ask ourselves the question: have we come to forget what that we’re dealing with humans here? That the economy is not a steam engine, robot or any other mindless entity whose actions are fully explainable – let alone predictable. Have we forgotten that economics is a ‘social’ science, a science dealing with products of the human mind, related more to psychology than to mathematics?

It’s understandable that economics wants to position itself as being a ‘genuine’ science, a science that is able to objectively describe the way the world works. A science that wants to show that it is capable of capturing its findings in laws. But why should economics be dependent upon these kind of formalities in order for it to be a science? Isn’t it time for economics to stop being insecure? To realize that it’s beautiful the way it is. Why does it behave like an 18-year old girl, whining and crying about the girls who she thinks are prettier than her? Stop it economics! You’re pretty: be happy with what you are.

But this leads us to the real question: what is economics? Economics is – much like politics – a system created by the interaction between us human beings. A system that – although less explicitly than politics – is founded on the notion of morality: our ideas about what’s right and wrong. It’s no surprise that figures such as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek have been so influential in economics. They understood what economics was really about: economics is in the basis a philosophy of what it means to be a human being, and the fundamental rights that each one of us should have. This ethics is the starting point of their economic systems. And that’s a tradition current economists should try to continue: interweaving morality and money. Keeping an eye on the moral fundamentals underlying markets and coming up with original ideas about how to improve these markets on a moral level. So there’s plenty of work left to do for the genuine economist.

But what do you think?

Commercials: Not All Publicity is Good Publicity

Commercials: you’re likely to absorb hundreds of them per day, via media such as the TV, radio and internet. As I have written about in a previous article, the average person spends 1/24 of his life watching commercials on television. That’s a quite a lot, isn’t it? But I don’t want to focus on this act of wasting our lives by consuming useless material. I want to take a look at the effect of commercials, and of marketing in general, on the perception of a company’s brand. Most companies seem to believe that any publicity is good publicity. They seem to think that – no matter how bad a commercial might be – it’s always better to have a commercial than to have no commercial at all. But the question is: is this true?

When you’re watching television, and you see a commercial of a brand you’ve never heard of before, what will be the effect of this commercial on your perception of the brand? Marketers seem to think that they’ve increased your ‘awareness‘ of their brand, in the sense that – consciously or not – you now know about the brand‘s existence. And this might very well be true. But then the question would be: is all awareness good awareness? Or can awareness – as created by commercials – lead to a (more) negative (instead of positive) perception of the brand by the customer?

I believe it can. I believe that whenever people see terribly non-funny commercials (as there are plenty of) on television, they associate the brand promoted in the commercial with negative values such neediness, pity and lameness. I believe that the next time these people are in front of, for example, a supermarket they’ve just seen in an utterly non-funny (but intended to be funny) commercial, they will think to themselves: ‘Come on, I’m not going to support such a quasi-funny company’, and they’ll decide to skip the store. Even though these people might have entered the store if they hadn’t watched the commercial, or if the company wouldn’t have produced the commercial in the first place. But now they’ve got all kinds of negative associations with the brand, they decide to skip the store and go to another store – which might have less awareness but still more positive awareness than the supermarket of the commercial. And this goes not only for the supermarket-market, but for any other kind of market as well.

Customers usually don’t care about whether a brand is well-known – note that this doesn’t hold for clothing brands and other products that depend for their value to a large extent on marketing. We just want to buy a particular good or a particular service. And the only thing guiding us to a particular store is our perception of this brand/store. And if this perception is negative – which it very likely might be as a result of a bad commercial – you’d consciously avoid this store, and move to a next one. Even though the particular brand might have put a lot of money into its marketing efforts, they’re worse off than they would have been if they hadn’t launched the commercial.

Of course, marketing – including commercials on television and radio – can have a positive effect on a company’s brand and consequently on the sales of the company’s goods/services. But only if the company markets the relevant aspects of its brand, and not just launches a commercial for the sake of showing how ‘funny’ it is as a supermarket. Most people won’t appreciate that: the intelligent people might feel like they’re being treated like babies, and will therefore consciously avoid the brand, and the less intelligent people might not respond at all to this irrelevant kind of commercials.

If want to get people to your store (or make use of your service), you have to stay close to the product your selling, because that’s where customers are coming for or not coming for. Emphasize your low prices, your current actions/sales or your great service, and skip the bullshit. Then, and only then, can marketing attract – instead of scare away – customers.

But what do you think?

Milton Friedman’s Voucher Plan

More than 30 years ago – in 1979 – Milton Friedman and his wise Rose Friedman published the book Free to Choose, in which they made a (compelling) claim in favor of handing over authority to the free market, and taking it away from the government. The arguments they come up are profoundly grounded in empirical evidence, pointing at the inefficient and unequal spending of tax payers’ money on the ‘big issues’ of society (healthcare, Social Security, public assistance etc.). I want to focus at the expenditures on public education, about which the Friedmans say a lot, and in particular on the immoral and degrading effect this can have on citizens.

We humans are intelligent creatures. Some are – without a doubt – better equipped (mentally) for dealing with the whims of the free market than others, but still almost all of us are reasonably capable of fulfilling our needs in life. We can go the supermarket by ourselves, decide for ourselves what we want to eat for breakfast and dinner, and much more. The government doesn’t have to do this for us. We can decide for ourselves how we want to spend our leisure time: whether we want to go the movies or not. We don’t need the government to decide this for us. Not only because the government cannot know what each one of us wants – therefore inevitably being inefficient in the spending of its – or our – resources – but also because we know that we are intelligent beings, very much capable of making our own decisions in life.

And this intelligence of ours doesn’t have to confine itself to mundane decisions like how to spend our free time. We are equally competent in deciding for ourselves how we want to spend our money on more pressing issues in life: what hospital we want to attend, whether to assist our loved ones financially whenever the need might arise, and what school our children should attend. These issues are of such importance to our well-being – and our children’s – that, instead of putting the government in charge of these decisions, we should be the ones choosing what we consider to be best for our, and our children’s, future.

In 1979, the Friedmans noticed an upward trend in the government taking control of many of these decisions – decisions that, by the way, have a relatively big impact upon our financial resources. The most striking example of this might be the public financing of (elementary, secondary and higher) education. In 1979, the average US citizen paid 2.000 dollars per child that attended public education, even though not everyone’s child – assuming that you even have children – made use of public educational resources. The Friedmans found this state of affairs harming to the right of each individual to decide where to spend his money at, including the option to put one’s child at a privately financed educational institution.

Therefore they came up with a ‘voucher plan’: a plan in which every US citizen would – per child they have – get a voucher exchangeable for a certain amount of money – let’s say 2.000 dollars. They could cash in this voucher only if their child would attend an appropriate educational institution. This voucher plan would come in the place of the tax each US citizen is obliged to pay, irrespective of them having children and irrespective of their children attending a public educational institution. This plan would make sure that only the ones making use of pubic educational services would be charged, thereby excluding the non-using part of society.

The Friedmans made – primarily – financial arguments in favor of their voucher plan, saying that – on the whole – public educational costs would remain the same, and that parents would use their increase in autonomy to find the school that best suited the needs of their children. The relatively free market that would be created on the basis of the voucher plan, would improve the quality of both public and private education. I believe, however, that one argument in favor of the voucher plan, and the free market in general, has not received the attention it deserved – at least not in the Friedmans’ Free to Choose. And that argument has to do with human intelligence.

As pointed at above, humans are – for the biggest part – perfectly capable of deciding for themselves where to spend their money at. We wouldn’t want anyone else to do our groceries or schedule our leisure time for us – at least not for (our) money. But that is exactly what the government does when it comes down to public education. The government proclaims that – as the Friedmans explain – it is the only actor possessing the professional knowledge required for deciding what is best for our children – thereby implying that they are indispensable in order for our children to receive a qualitatively good education.

What this claim comes down to is the government saying – or not saying – that we (‘the crowd’) don’t understand what is important and what is not in regard to our children’s education, and that – because of that – they should step in and release us of this impossible duty of ours. We don’t understand what to do, but luckily they do. They are the father looking out for us, protecting us from doing harm to our children and to the rest of society.

I find this an insult to the basic level of intelligence the majority of the people has. We very well believe to know what is important in our children’s education – probably much better than the government, since, in contrast to the government, we know our children. Thus besides all the financial benefits of the voucher plan, by returning autonomy to the Average Joe, a voucher plan is required for respecting people’s intelligence. After all, we are no fools, are we?

What do you think?

Why You Should Always Respect the Dustman

I have been a dustman for a while. And even though my stay in the ‘dustman-community”’ was short, I was long enough to become overwhelmed by the disrespect these people receive from their fellow species members. People are yelling things at them. People are telling them how shitty their job is. People treat them like the true pieces of garbage. I was wondering what the dustmen themselves were thinking about their profession. Were they also disgusted about what they were doing? I decided to ask them.

And this is what they told me: they absolutely loved what they were doing. They were proud of being the dustman of district x or district y. They took care of the streets that fell under their supervision. These were after all their streets, and their streets should not be dirty. One of the dustmen told me very proudly about his dustmen-crew. He said that, within the dustmen-community, his crew could be compared to FC Barcelona; that’s how well they anticipated each other’s actions. Dustman A knew exactly that, when Dustman B grabbed on to a new dustbin, he should be in the process of taking away his bin.

So it seems that people differ, to say the least, in what they like and what they don’t like to do for a living. And that’s a good thing, right? Of course it is. Because the fact that each one of us wants to do something different for a living makes that all the jobs that are required to keep our society functioning are filled. If everyone wanted to become a big time actor, no-one would be cleaning the streets of Hollywood. At least, not for a while. Because the demand for dustmen, and therefore the wages, would increase sooner or later thanks to the ‘beautiful’ mechanisms of the free market.

Also, the fact that people appreciate different ways to make their money provides you and me with the opportunity to make a unique contribution to this world of ours. And – I believe – it is only if you do what you like to do that you are likely to put the most effort in doing it. And, subsequently, it is only when you put serious effort into doing something that you are likely to make a difference. And it the ambition to ‘make a difference’, whether it is by cleaning the streets or by writing an article, that gives that feeling of happiness and fulfilment we are all so desperately longing for.

The moral of this story should be clear: never disrespect anyone or feel pity for anyone because of what they do for a living. Remember that (hopefully) most of us are doing something that we like to do. Be thankful for whatever their contribution to society might be, since it is because of their contribution that you and I can do the job that we like to do. Whatever that might be.

But what do you think?

The Difference between What You Get and What You Earn

In economic theory, it is claimed that if a market would function perfectly, people would get for their products and services whatever it is they contribute in terms of value. And the same goes the other way: people would pay whatever they find a product or service worthy of. But when you take a look at the real world markets, and all the actors in these real world markets, this principle doesn’t seem to hold. Not at all.

I want to show this by giving one example. That of the banker, and the hacker.

A banker invents all kinds of ingenious derivative constructs, futures and other financial products in order to make money. The more complex the better. For if a product is complex, the layman doesn’t understand it. And if the layman doesn’t understand it, it is easy to lure him into what might seem to be an attractive deal, but which in fact is nothing but a ticking time bomb.

It is generally acknowledged that bankers, and especially the bankers referred to above, are at least partially responsible for the credit crisis we have experienced. It is safe to say that a lot of wealth has been lost during the crisis; people lost their homes, their jobs, and governments had to step in to save the day. In other words: these bankers have, at least over the last couple of years, made a negative contribution to the overall utility of society.

Why then do they get paid so much? Why then do they get a high positive utility for acting in a manner that ultimately decreases society’s utility? Although I am not interested in explaining this phenomenon in this post, one explanation could be that it seems like the bankers contribute a lot of happiness, because they (can) create a lot of money, and – in our capitalist society – money equals happiness. Hence the bankers create a lot of happiness.

Luckily, there are also people who do the exact opposite: they don’t get paid anything while making lots of people happy. They are the modern day equivalent of Robin Hood. An example would be the people contributing content to Wikipedia. But also the people behind Popcorn Time; a digital platform at which you can stream pretty much any movie, and all for free. These people make very many people happy – an exception would be the film distributors of course – but don’t get paid anything. Even though, in contract to the banker, their net contribution to society’s utility is positive.

Although we don’t pay the Wikipedia guys and Popcorn Time geeks in terms of money, we can pay them in terms of a currency that is even more valuable: gratefulness and respect. Something the bankers cannot count on. Because after all: there is a difference between what you get, and what you earn.

But what do you think?

Why Students from Top Universities might be Worse than ‘Not-top’ Students

One of the top universities

The University of Cambridge: one of the top universities

It is a fact that some universities are more popular among employers than others. See this link for a ranking of the top 10 universities in the world — according to employers in 2013/2014. There are hardly any surprises in this top 10. As always, the University of Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard are included.

The question I ask in this post is: based on what criteria does an employer prefer one university to an other? And how reasonable is it for a company to base its preference on these criteria?

Admission standards
It seems fair to say that universities like Oxford and Cambridge have higher admission standards than pretty much any other university in the world. Therefore, being admitted to such a university is by itself an indication that you are ‘better’ (in terms of pre-university academic results etc.) than non-admitted applicants.

Hence one could say that it makes sense for employers, knowing about these strict admission procedures, to be more inclined to pick someone from such a university than from any other university. After all, the ‘top’ universities already have done part of the selecting for them.

Harvard students not necessarily better
But the above reasoning is not valid. Since even though it might be true that the Oxfords and Cambridges of this world pick the students that were the best before they entered university, it doesn’t follow that these students are still the best after they have been through university.

It might very well be so that someone who didn’t do his utmost best in his undergraduate studies (and therefore was not admitted to a top university) decides to change his effort when attending a Master. After all, he knows that there are people from Oxford and Cambridge around, so he has to step up his game in order to get a decent job.

The opposite might be true for a person studying at a top university. He might feel like, now he has been accepted into this prestigious institution, the chance of him finding a good job have increased significantly; so much that ‘just passing’ his Master might be sufficient for him to still obtain a job that suits his criteria.

In other words: getting a degree from a top university doesn’t necessarily make you more educated than someone who has got his degree from a ‘not-top’ university.

Social factors
When we look a little further, we see that social factors play a role too in the hiring process of a company. After all, a company – let’s call it ‘Company A’– wants the best employees. Therefore it might look at the ‘best’ firms in its industry in order to see where they get their employees from. Seeing that they get their employees from the top universities, the company believes that it should do so too; after all: these companies are the best in the industry, hence they should have the best employees, right? And given that these employees come from the top universities, these universities must provide the best employees.  Hence Company A hires someone from a top university.

Now assume another company enters the industry. This company will be even more inclined to hire someone of a top university because of the increase in the university’s reputation due to Company A employing its students. This points to the fact that companies do not look solely at the capabilities of its potential employees; the reputation of the university the candidates have studied at is of importance as well.

Top universities still good
The above is not to say that employing students is all based on the unjustified supposition that top universities provide the best employees. After all, it seems reasonable to suppose that those entering top universities are motivated, disciplined and will enhance their capabilities while attending the top university. Hence it is likely that they will still be ‘best’ after having gone through their top-university education.

Given that being a good student implies being a good employee, the latter implies that these students will be good employees. But it should be kept in mind that social factors such as the reputation of a university are self-perpetuating, hence no watertight indicator of the quality of students.

Why the High Taxation on Cigarettes is Unjustified

According to a survey held by the British Action on Smoking and Health (the ASH, for short), 20 percent of the British adults smoke. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. I believe that the act of smoking isn’t intrinsically good or bad; it is something that each person should decide for himself. However, what I do believe is valuable in its own right is human autonomy. By autonomy I mean ‘the right each person has to decide for himself how to live his life without unjustified intervention from external parties‘. And it is this latter point I want to draw attention to.

According to the ASH, in 2012, 77 percent of the price of a pack of cigarettes consisted of tax. Multiply that by the number of cigarette packs sold, and you get an amount of £10,5 billion raised through tobacco taxation. This is six times as much as the spending by the the National Health Service (the NHS) on tobacco related diseases; these were ‘merely’ £1,7 billion. So the question that comes to mind is: what justifies the £8,8 billion that remains after subtracting the NHS costs from the money raised through tobacco taxation?

The ASH claims that the inequality between the two numbers is no issue, for ‘tobacco tax is not, and never has been, a down payment on the cost of dealing with ill health caused by smoking’. But what then is the purpose of this tax? The ASH claims that the high level of tobacco tax in Britain serves two purposes: (1) to reduce smoking through the price incentive, and (2) to raise taxes from a source that has little impact on the economy. The latter point has been scrutinized extensively by economists, and I don’t think I can add anything to that discussion. So let’s focus on the first point: the aim of reducing smoking through the price incentive.

By making this claim, the ASH implicitly assumes that it is within the government set of rights to reduce smoking among its citizens. But is it? One can justify tobacco taxation on the grounds of the (health care) costs incurred by the non-smoking part of society. But, as we have seen, this amount by no means adds up to the taxes levied on tobacco. I believe this question (‘But is it?’) directs us towards the fundamental question of where the boundaries lie between justified government intervention and morally objectionable behaviour. One could say that, as I believe, it is one thing (and justified) to prevent non-smokers from being financially hurt by the actions of smokers, but that it is a completely different thing (and not justified) to promote non-smoking values among citizens, merely for the sake of – what appear to be – paternalistic motives.

As with any government intervention, the benefits of the intervention should be weighed against its costs. Presumed that there might be an intrinsic value in having a non-smoking society – a point the ASH doesn’t provide any argument for – the costs of violating what might be an intrinsically valuable human right (autonomy, that is) should be included in the calculation as well. And until this has been done, the question of whether the £10,5 billion in tobacco taxation is justified remains open for debate.

But what do you think?

The Inevitable Unfairness of the Free Market

I just finished reading Milton Friedman’s book Free to Choose: a plea for the free market. Friedman has some compelling claims against government intervention in economic transactions. Price is – as he claims – the most informative entity there is in communicating individuals’ demand and supply of goods and services, and, in a capitalistic society at least, provides people with the incentive to utilize this information, thereby satisfying the needs of those that demand the goods/services. Furthermore, by acting upon the information, individuals provide themselves with the resources required to live a decent life. But although the free market – as Friedman describes it – seems a beautifully simple and elegant construct, there are some ‘side-effects’ of the system that might run against our intuitions about the notion of fairness.

It seems clear that the free market is the most efficient medium there is for maximizing the value of each of the individuals involved. And that (the ‘maximizing of value of each person involved’) is, according to libertarians, what makes the free market a fair system. After all, if you want to sell a computer, and another person is prepared to pay you the price you charge, then it’s only fair to let this deal take place, isn’t it? There is mutual consent between the parties involved, so what – if anything – could give a third party the right to intervene in this seemingly flawless transaction?

While there indeed might be nothing wrong with the free-market mechanism from the perspective of exchanging value, it might be doubted whether it is fair to make this mechanism the only mechanism for exchanging value. For while it’s no problem – and might even be beneficial – for those parties in a free market that possess the means to participate in the ‘game’ of exchanging value, it might be harder for those that – by nature or environment – have been unfortunate in acquiring the means required for satisfying their needs.

Because what if you’re not as intelligent as the average person, therefore getting a relatively low-income job, such as being a plumber, because of which you are unable to satisfy your needs to the same degree as – let’s say – a banker or lawyer? Of course, a libertarian might say, the plumber can still participate in the free market, just like the banker or lawyer can. But, even though the three parties might have the same needs (for luxury or otherwise), the plumber cannot satisfy as many of his as the banker and the lawyer can of theirs: only because nature happened to endow him – in contrast to the banker and lawyer – with capabilities that apparently are less appreciated (since less demanded) in society. So the question is: is it fair to let nature – and thus chance – play such a drastic role in the ability of any person to satisfy his needs?

A libertarian can answer this question in either of two ways. Either he admits that the extent in which we’re able to satisfy our needs is indeed – in principle – determined by nature’s authority over our capabilities, or he must come up with an ingenious invention for how to solve this negative side-effect of the free market without thereby endangering the libertarian heart of his plan. The first option, although this appears to be mostly ignored by libertarians, seems to imply a notion of ‘fairness’ that I – and I assume many others – find highly questionable. On the other hand, it at least is a notion, and – given that this truly is the libertarian’s view of a fair world – should be accepted for what it is.

The latter option – on the other hand – provides more room for discussion. Because how – if ever – could it be possible to solve nature’s capability-casino by means of a libertarian solution? There are of course many plans one could come up with, all of them mitigating the negative effects, but all of them being either (1) in conflict with the libertarian aspiration of a free market or (2) don’t get down to the root of the problem (that is, the unequal distribution of capabilities over mankind). It seems fair to say that (2) is a kind of unfairness that is inextinguishable – not by socialism nor by libertarianism. We after all cannot redesign our beings in order to endow everyone with the same capabilities. And even if we could do so, it’s high questionable whether this choice would be beneficial to society as a whole. So it seems we’re stuck with (1), pointing us to the possibly unfair consequences of the free market.

The above reflection shows that there seems to be an intuitively unfair side-effect of the free market; a side-effect that is unsolvable by means of the free market-paradigm itself. It either requires us to adopt the libertarian notion of ‘fairness’, or requires some sort of (government) intervention in order to compensate for nature’s ‘unfair’ distribution of capabilities.

What do you think?

The Changed Nature of Money: From Gold to Digital

What is money? In the Middle Ages and before, money was a physical entity. Something you either had in your pockets, or not. Whether it was cows or gold, it was something you could touch, something of which you knew it couldn’t just be created “from thin air”. Although gold coins could be made by the government, the government still needed gold to make the coins. And since getting gold wasn’t easy, you could trust that the amount of money in a society – whose value was based on the amount of gold being in circulation – wouldn’t fluctuate that much. You had certainty, just like you could be certain that the tree in your backyard couldn’t grow new apples every day. It was a gradual, natural process. And this was a calming thought, ensuring you that the value of your money would be rather stable of time.

But now – a couple of centuries later – we’ve got the internet, and everything has changed. Money no longer is gold, but is replaced by a string of digital numbers on your computer. We no longer pay the butcher by handing him over a few tangible units of gold, but we put our plastic card into a digital machine and our digital string of numbers gets digitally reduced. The comfort that this brought us is enormous. We don’t even have to carry gold around anymore.

But although the “digital era” brought us many comforts, it also brought uncertainty – and vulnerability – into our lives. Because who ensures us that the amount of digital money that is in circulation will be a stable amount of money over time? Who ensures us that, whenever the government feels it’s losing in popularity, it cannot just put an extra zero-digit behind the digital number on its bank account? Who ensures us that – like cows and gold – the value of money is based on stable, natural entities that cannot be created from thin air, and not merely upon our perception of the value of money, which is an entity susceptible to the whims of those with monetary power? In other words: who guarantees the value of our money? Who besides ourselves, besides our perception of money? And if the value of money is merely dependent upon our perception of it, then how easily can this perception – and thus the value of our money – be adjusted by means of external intervention? How much certainty do we have regarding the value of our future money?

Because what is the value of money if we can just hand over an 8-digit number to Greece, knowing that it will never come back, and not even worrying about it never combing back because we know we can create more money whenever we want to. Who can ensure us that the money we’re working for is really worth the value we expect it to be worth over time? What is the value of money if new money can just be printed over and over again? Or even worse, when it requires nothing but the adding of an extra digit in the server space of the government. Is that still money? Or is it a 21th century substitute for money, created as a logical consequence of our fetish with digital technology and its “benefits”?

Let’s stay realistic. One thing we can reasonably say is that money – instead of possessions like gold and cows – has become more of a means for exchanging rights and less of a means for exchanging property. Rights of obligation, rights of someone to do something for another person in change for an increase in that someone’s right to legitimately claim something from others. I know it sounds abstract, but that is because it is abstract. The non-abstract gold- and cow time is over. Mutual obligations are all that remains. A problem? Maybe. A change? Definitely.

But what do you think?