Wednesday, September 22, 2004

I have, for decades, been a supporter of Christian Aid, both through regular donations and as a door-to-door collector. I have, however, been appalled by half page advertisements placed by the charity in today's newspapers. They exhibit a dreadful level of economic ignorance.

The advertisments argue against free trade and in favour of 'fair trade'. They cite the particular case of onion farmers in developing countries whose output is priced out by cheap imports from Europe. Let's disentangle that example.

Suppose trade is free. European farmers could price out farmers in developing countries only if they could produce onions more cheaply. If this is the case, then people in developing countries should consume the European onions, and be grateful that their own farmers can then be freed to produce something else - something that they are better (in relative terms) than the Europeans at producing. That way everyone gains - in the developing countries they get cheap onions and their farmers can switch to producing something that earns them more income. This is the principle known to economists as comparative advantage, and it supports the argument in favour of free trade. To be sure, the transition of switching from producing one thing to producing another can be painful, but it is a transition that has to be made sooner or later - as countries as diverse as the UK and the USSR discovered during the 1980s, you can't buck the market forever.

There is another possiblility. Maybe trade isn't actually free at the moment. Maybe European farmers are dumping cheap onions onto foreign markets. This might happen if they seek to sell their onions in Europe at prices above the level that would clear the market. To achieve this, they would have to restrict supply to Europe by selling cheaply abroad. This certainly would not be fair trade, and if this is happening, Christian Aid would be right to oppose it. But by the same token, this is not free trade either.

I regret to say that Christian Aid has got it very wrong. They should be arguing for, not against, free trade. Free trade is fair trade.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The Conservative party has today published its proposals for the funding of higher education in the UK. The proposals involve the scrapping of all tuition fees, and an increase in the interest rate paid by students on student loans. Students will gain from the former and lose from the latter, but on average will be better off.

By scrapping tuition fees, universities and colleges will be denied an important source of income. To alleviate this, the Conservative proposals include an intention to hand over to the higher education institutions themselves the claims on student debt. The universities and colleges could then sell this debt to financial institutions, releasing funds that can be spent now to alleviate the funding crisis in higher education.

These proposals raise a couple of interesting issues. First, if universities and colleges are given the authority to claim back student debt, it is not at all clear that they would be able to do so through the income tax system. The innovation of income-contingent loans was one of the most attractive features of the reforms ushered in in the wake of the 1997 Dearing Report. If loan repayments are not contingent on income, a return to mortgage type loans would be very hard on graduates who fail to get high paying jobs, and on those who interrupt their careers for family reasons. Presumably it would be possible for the universities collectively to subcontract the loan repayment process to the government tax collectors, but it is not clear that this is what the Conservatives have in mind.

Secondly, while it is clear that the Conservatives wish to allow the universities and colleges to receive loan repayments from students, it is not clear where the money to make the loans will come from in the first place. If the government makes the loans (as now), it will need to find the money to do so. If the higher education institutions make the loans (and one wonders whether this might be the hidden agenda), then it is not clear that the new proposals will do anything at all to solve the higher education funding crisis. There seems to be some alchemy at work here, a black hole at the heart of the proposals.

The higher education sector faces a funding gap of between £6 billion and £10 billion per year. If we want an effective higher education sector, that gap has to be plugged. Alchemy will not plug it, and it seems that the introduction of differential tuition fees remains the only really persuasive and honest proposal in town.