EUref: What are the facts?

Both official(ish) sides of the EU referendum campaign are under fire for supposedly misleading voters by presenting opinions as facts. Vote Leave produced an official-looking “facts” leaflet that hid their campaign name into small font on the back page, while the government has spent £9m producing a leaflet setting out its position.

The common thing whenever “facts” are referred to is that one side considers them facts, and the other propaganda. Propaganda is defined as “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view” – it’s information used to influence others, and naturally both sides assert the other side is misleading people into voting against their cause.

Is there then any real hope for clarity in this debate? I think there is, if we try and boil down to particular dimensions of the question. We won’t necessarily get numbers, but we’ll get directions of effects, certainly if we’re thinking in the economic sphere.

For example (and in a private correspondence with Leave.EU they have conceded this point), at the moment firms can employ people (relatively) freely from all over the EU, rather than just from within the UK. Try to employ someone from outside the EU and that likely involves a costly interview process to determine suitability of match, and then another costly process of getting a visa, a process to be repeated every time the visa expires.

It stands to reason then that given firms can employ people from a much larger pool of potential workers, they will be able to find a better match as an employee than if restricted to just UK workers (and of course, if they could employ anyone from anywhere in the world, then they’d likely find a better match still, but that option isn’t on the cards at the moment, if ever). Hence British firms, and indeed firms elsewhere in the EU that have hired workers from another EU country, have done so on the basis that that non-native is the best possible person for the job – and equally, that person has figured that company is the best company for them to be working for.

If we then apply non-EU rules to EU workers, this has to have some impact. It means it becomes more costly to appoint the best person for the job if that person is from another EU country, reducing the likelihood that that person is appointed. That then reduces output from that firm as the firm must be less efficient as a result. Even if they still hire that EU worker, the HR costs of appointing that person, renewing their visa and associated bureaucratic costs and uncertainty, that is still time and effort that could have gone to productive purposes within the firm.

Since there are over 2m such EU workers in the UK, and a similar number of UK workers elsewhere in the EU, that is a lot of people immediately affected by such changes. That likely is a much greater number when families are taken into account. They may well stay, and indeed many of the EU workers here in the UK that I know well are taking steps to ensure they can stay (applying for British citizenship, at significant costs to themselves and indirectly to their workplaces). The point though is that these are actions that otherwise would not have been taken.

In addition, what is the effect on hiring decisions in the coming years, in the event of Brexit? Will EU workers better suited to UK jobs than any British worker be suitably discouraged from applying? Will EU workers in the UK be discouraged from changing jobs to a better suited role by the increased bureaucracy involved in any such step?

All in all, these are not numbers, which we commonly associate with “facts”, but they are directions. The impacts described here cannot be positive on productivity in the UK, nor on stress levels, nor on levels of red tape and bureaucracy. Hence the only real question is whether they are a price worth paying for some greater benefit from leaving?

Run run run… leisure?

Yesterday morning I took part in the Reading Half Marathon. Safely ensconced back home, you may be blissfully unaware of this event, which wormed its way through the university campus. We entered via the Pepper Lane entrance, took a right through the various science buildings, then back up between Park House and Chemistry past Maths and taking a left just behind the Library up the hill, then a right and out via The Queen’s Drive. If you run, you should certainly consider the Reading Half Marathon before you leave the university.

 

Picture found online of runners running very close to the economics department during the half marathon

But what is a Half Marathon? It’s a LOT of people (estimates at around 16,000) running a relatively LONG way (13.1 miles, or 21.2 kilometers). It’s thus a huge logistical exercise, with many road closures all around the town, a huge number of volunteers to set up the facilities at the start and finish (lots of portaloos, and also dotted around the course). It’s also a great opportunity for sponsorship, with Garmin’s name dotted all over various parts of the course, and Lucozade handing out hundreds of thousands of bottles at numerous drinks stops around the course. Buses diverted from their usual Sunday morning activities to shuttle thousands of runners from the railway station and other focal points to the race start/finish, and so on. Photographers dotted around the route trying to get the best photos in order to convince runners to buy pictures of themselves, organisers handing out free T-shirts to “Finishers” replete with sponsoring company names, and the organisers trying to sell additional “technical” shirts sufficiently attractively that people part with their cash for them (I didn’t).

It’s thus a huge event, and occurs once a year during the Easter vacation. Other colleagues have run the race in the past, as have students. Did you? Is it macroeconomic? It’s hard to argue given the vast number of different markets referred to in the last paragraph that it’s microeconomic – there are huge co-ordination issues between these various different markets that come together each year for the event. But even though it’s macroeconomic, can we really learn anything that might help us to think about the things we learnt on Intro Macro last term?

Uber and Reading

Apparently the taxi company Uber has been denied a licence to operate in Reading. Uber is a mobile-phone based taxi company: potential users are matched to a taxi via an app on their phone. As a result, it operates differently to conventional taxi firms. Conventional taxi drivers have been opposed to Uber’s presence in London, supposedly on the grounds of consumer safety, and there are controversies about how much tax the company pays (although it should be said, not to anything like the same level as much larger, more developed multinational companies), and the contractual arrangement it has with drivers.

Alternatively, Uber provides a model that enables greater supply of taxi drivers, and even a surge price algorithm in peak times that encourages an increase in supply of taxis. It breaks into an industry that is heavily regulated and seemingly well protected (resulting in, in places, very high fares).

What’s probably most interesting is that some the objections Reading Borough Council put up reflect a lack of understanding about mobile phones and apps. The council suggests that evidence of 20,000 people in the Reading area having the Uber app on their phones does not constitute sufficient evidence of demand for the service, with one councillor saying Uber might be “trawled by phone app junkies who if they don’t have their phone in their hand they think they have had an amputation”.

In addition, given that Uber operates via the mobile phone app, it doesn’t need a traditional taxi rank like existing taxi companies, something else the Borough Council appear to have failed to grasp.

This highlights a problem with regulation when market innovations arrive – regulators are often the least well equipped to make judgements, and will often stifle innovation. Undoubtedly some concerns are legitimate about Uber, and the weaknesses in its business model will be refined in time. But it presents the kind of innovation to the taxi industry, for example, that Skype presented to telecommunications providers. The usual reaction of existing providers is to try and restrict the competition, and arguably that is what has happened here.