John Kroencke: Proposed Cambridge Extension is Well Targeted

Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, gave a speech on 24 July where he outlined a variety of policies that the government is pursuing to address the fact that too few homes are being built in the places that most need them. This problem impacts housing costs most directly, of course, but is also clearly related to more general problems in the UK and much of the developed world. Supply restrictions are most binding in the most economically successful places. Unsurprisingly then, London receives the most attention in UK policy spheres, but right behind it are Oxford and Cambridge. The aspect of Gove’s speech that has received the most attention is his “Cambridge Quarter.” 

It is clear that the highest productivity areas of the country offer the most economically important areas for reforms. It is also somewhat clear that these benefits are not zero-sum (new houses being built in the most productive areas contribute more) and can also benefit other regions namely through the tax system. But what I want to do in this blog post is suggest that by the very nature of how concentrated it is the “Cambridge Quarter” may also offer a successful strategy for delivering reforms going forward for both this government and the potential Labour government. 

Dense Urban Extensions Are Nothing New 

In his speech, the minister suggests that the urban extension will consist of 250,000 houses and be informed by architectural and urban history. The UK has a great history of urban expansion and densification. In the nineteenth century, the population of the industrial powerhouses in the Midlands and North grew dramatically. While London was no small town in 1800, when it numbered 1 million, after a century of decades where the population grew around 20 percent, it numbered 6.5 million by 1900.

In my own research on the great estates of London, I have looked at how the burgeoning middle class was accommodated in terraced houses and later in mansion blocks and midrise buildings with purpose-built flats. As in other planned developments for the middle class in parts of Bath and New Town Edinburgh, the population density achieved by the builders is somewhat deceiving. Mid-rise terraces and later mansion blocks closely grouped together and punctuated by green spaces like squares and crescents do not feel like Kowloon Walled City. Rather, they are the green and welcoming urban environments that many tourists from across the world flock to explore and even live in.

Beyond the UK, Gove mentions the planned Paris and Barcelona in his speech, but even the more unimaginative urban extensions from cities across the world, from Chicago to Amsterdam to Melbourne, achieve dense and agreeable results (especially when renovated by residents with modern incomes and technology).

Cambridge Should Have Grown More, But Political Reforms Have Proven Difficult

Cambridge is an example of a place that would have expanded dramatically had the rules surrounding development been different in the last few decades. Research clusters in the sciences and related industries, in particular, have grown dramatically but are constrained by the inability to build both lab space and homes for researchers imposed by the political situation through the planning system. This limits the growth of the industry and drives the housing costs for all near these clusters ever higher as those with the best jobs compete for the scarce homes.

For a number of reasons, in the last hundred years, the type of development and densification that Gove proposes has been much less likely to occur. Supply restrictions mean that fewer houses are built in general, but those that are built are often by large builders on the edge of a town (with the exception of urban regeneration projects). Two of the most important factors were the growth of cars and the rise of the planning system. As a result of these factors and the (often warranted) backlash to the grand projects of the 1960s and 1970s, we have ended up in a situation full of often well-intentioned but ultimately harmful barriers to growth. Despite intense desire to reform the system, including by planners themselves, there have been many political failures.

Reforms Must Address Concerns

Many reforms fail to seriously address the concerns of those most affected and furthermore there is reason to think that the mechanisms by which development is stopped are imprecise and that developments that deliver net value are stopped. That is, even if you considered the added congestion or other concerns of existing residents, they would be more than offset by the value created. At the most basic level, think about the marginal addition of an additional story to a block of flats or the replacement of a small house by a midrise building. The increase in value in both scenarios in places like Cambridge or London far exceeds the cost of construction.

It is politically understandable and even defensible for the system to introduce protections from development that impose more costs on existing residents than they generate in value, but the status quo goes beyond that. And because of the difficulty of bargaining, it is difficult for developers to use potential profits to overcome resistance to an individual project or to reform the rules of the game.

To the latter point: the danger in these efforts announced by Gove—like past efforts to improve the situation—is that they can create political backlash. A good example of this is the effort from the conservative prime minister before last, which failed spectacularly in the by-elections in Chesham and Amersham in the leafy commuter belt.

Some positive signs of the political success of the effort can be seen in Theresa Villiers’s praise. Villiers, who represents Barnet, situated at the end of the Northern Line in outer London– famously spoke out about the stillborn algorithm. The political process and specifics of the Cambridge Plan will ultimately determine whether it succeeds. If so, the government may have managed to stumble upon a workable model: concentrating development in the areas that are most ripe for it and using the value generated by the development to pay for improvements that offset the reasonable concerns of the existing residents.


John Kroencke is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. For more information about John please click here.






John Kroencke: “How the World Became Rich: The Historical Origins of Economic Growth” by Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin

In their recent book How the World Became Rich (published 2022), the economic historians Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin provide an accessible introduction to the best – often competing – explanations for sustained economic growth. The obvious difficulty of this approach is that it can seem scattershot, but Koyama and Rubin weave disparate threads into a cohesive lay of the land.

This is an important task. Academic economics has become increasingly inaccessible to those outside the field. The advanced methods used by practitioners on highly specific questions yield valuable insights in academic journals and books, but rarely inform popular narratives that in many cases offer more heat than light.

The book is divided into two main sections and eleven chapters. After an introductory chapter (including among other things the hockey stick graph of per capita income), the first section is divided into five chapters on the high-level explanations: geography, institutions, culture, demography, and colonisation/exploitation. The second section deftly weaves these categories of explanation and historical facts to explore four topics in chronological order: why did sustained economic growth that resulted in the world becoming rich occur first in Northwestern Europe, how was Britain’s Industrial Revolution different from what came before, the Second Industrial Revolution and the rise of the United States and Soviet Union, and Asian economic growth in the last seventy years.

The first section is as good an introduction to the existing explanations as one can hope for. In presenting these explanations, Koyama and Rubin exhibit the kind of judgement one fears they might not when they write that “the goal of this book is not to privilege our preferred theories at the expense of others” (page 10). They present the strengths of, for instance, geographical explanations for some types of variation in comparative economic development but also the obvious, fundamental problem of the timing of the rise in real incomes for geographical explanations.

On the controversial and increasingly influential debate on the role of colonisation and exploitation in the Industrial Revolution, the authors are quite firm: the most influential and most incendiary claims overpromise. Colonisation, especially in places like the Belgian Congo, terrorised and extracted wealth from natives and their land but provide little explanatory power for the great increase in the rate of innovation and real per capita income.

In the chapters on culture and institutions, the authors introduce explanations that were discounted by earlier (perhaps more familiar) materialist explanations. “To understand the causes of growth,” they summarise Douglass North as thinking “one has to study the incentives that led individuals in some societies to build factories and invest, to go to school, and to acquire new skills” (page 38). They then summarise the work of the last decades on the roles of various institutional features like the rule of law, property rights, and political institutions in economic growth.

On cultural explanations they show the weakness of broad arguments like, for instance, the supposed fundamental incompatibility of Islamic culture and economic growth while also showing the real, path-dependent effects of institutional features (like bans on printing presses, and the ability to use slave soldiers rather than cede power to feudal lords and parliaments) themselves influenced by cultural and religious features of Islamic society (the subject of Rubin’s previous book).

This is representative of a particular strength of the book: it is supported by contemporary research on economic history both before the Industrial Revolution and outside of northwestern Europe that is little known outside the field.

The book is most interesting in the second section, particularly in chapters 7 and 8. Rather than simply dismissing geography, colonisation, or demography in some quest for a monocausal explanation, the authors weave it into their nuanced chronological narrative about first how and why sustained growth began in Britain and then how it spread until much of the world had escaped poverty.

By the 18th century, the authors argue, there were a collection of preconditions for sustained economic growth in northwestern Europe most particularly in the Netherlands and Britain. For instance, many of the common institutional explanations for “Why Britain?” also apply to the Netherlands. These explanations are not wrong in the sense that they were necessary, but they were obviously not sufficient for the increase in commercially important innovations and then the resulting rise in real income per person. Among other things they show that, compared to the Netherlands, Britain was better able to fund wars (and therefore not smother economic growth with high rates of taxation) and better able to reform institutions to sustain an unprecedented rate of economically viable commercial innovation (as distinct from scientific discoveries, many of which were made elsewhere).

Drawing on recent research they show two of the main explanations for how Britain stood apart and turned these preconditions into innovation and industrialisation. Past periods of rising incomes were snuffed out by Malthusian dynamics (discussed in Chapter 5) and they stress the crucial difference in the 18th and 19th century Britain that allowed escape: “Above all else, the major revolutionary change during the Industrial Revolution was an increase in the rate of innovation” (page 150). One theory of this increase is a more materialist theory about it being the rational response to relatively high labour costs and relatively low energy costs. The second is more dependent on specific ideas and cultural attitudes about innovation, science, and human progress. While these ideas may have been widespread throughout Europe, only Britain had both the skilled craftsmen that industrial innovation required and the institutional preconditions.

Britain’s Industrial Revolution started the climb out of widespread poverty with positive knock-on effects for the rest of the world, but its cause is not the only important question covered in the second section. In the span of just 40 pages Koyama and Rubin race (perhaps too quickly) through the resulting benefits of innovation and industrialisation in Britain and then the (uneven) global diffusion of economic growth.

The authors rightly stress the important distinction between innovations, which determine economic growth at the frontier, and the diffusion of these productivity-enhancing innovations, which determines the ability of less developed countries to catch up with the wealthiest ones. Catch up growth is not simply a question of adopting new technologies, but rather (among other things) having the right set of institutions to enable their adoption. Chapter 10 delves some of the examples of successful convergence emphasising the culturally and politically contingent nature of reforms that enable it (and the past barriers to convergence).

Koyama and Rubin have managed to condense these and other issues into just 240 pages. This is mostly for the better. However, the limited length and scope of the work necessarily rules out a rich, compelling historical narrative. The prose does not stir and some conceptual references could be better explained, but these criticisms are insignificant compared to the successes of what the book does do. Its own claims and its assessments of existing work will be interesting to a wide range of readers.

Others may be disappointed by the lack of easy answers for the remainder of the world that still struggles with extreme poverty:

“We know what has worked in various historical contexts. But merely transplanting what worked elsewhere to poverty-stricken societies isn’t the solution. Context matters. Culture and the historical past matter. So do demography and geography” (page 224).

Koyama and Rubin don’t offer an easy answer; they offer to introduce readers to the best ideas surrounding some of the most important questions in human history.


“How the World Became Rich: The Historical Origins of Economic Growth” by Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin was published in 2022 by Polity Press (ISBN 13: 9781509540235). 259pp.

John Kroencke is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. For more information about John please click here.





John Kroencke: Economic growth and fiscal prudence demand more than tax cuts

In my last blog post from the early days of the leadership contest I stressed the need for the next prime minster to care about economic growth. We now do, but will this be sufficient?


The Importance of Growth

The growth rate of the UK after the financial crisis has hurt families and the public coffers relative to an alternative where the growth rate was higher. If the economy had kept growing at the level before the crisis, the average household would make thousands of pounds more per year and be more able to weather crises. The UK would be wealthier and more capable of borrowing and servicing debt.


The Reforms and the Fiscal Situation

The government is changing many policies including some which economists across the political spectrum have argued for. For instance, stamp duty and corporate taxes raise revenue in ways that reduce the performance of the economy. The first being a transaction tax that prevents the efficient allocation of housing, and the latter discourages investment especially without the introduction of full capital expensing. The critiques of these were well outlined by Tom Clougherty of the Centre for Policy Studies ahead of the announcement. The best bullish supply-sider reaction to the policies came from Ryan Bourne.

These reforms are growth-enhancing but are taking place at a time where the fiscal demands of the UK are rising primarily due to a) unfunded increases in spending from policies passed by the government in response to the energy crisis b) the rise in increase rates and c) reduced direct revenue from taxes. At least some of the reductions in revenue will be made up in the future by taxes from the resultant economic growth, but as many have argued, this course of action is a gamble. The widespread depiction of the language suggests that the fiscal gamble is the result of the more controversial policies (bankers’ bonuses, additional rate, etc) while much of the gamble is the result of pre-existing policies.

The biggest fiscal impacts (see Table 4.2) of the new government have been the widely supported residential and commercial energy policies and the reversal of new tax increases (raising the corporate tax rate to 25% while phasing out capital expensing brought in by Chancellor Sunak and introducing a National Insurance levy). The National Insurance hike similarly been criticised by many for raising taxes on all workers (both directly and through their employers) during the cost-of-living crisis.


Broader Indications?

Insofar as these policies are representative of the direction of travel in Westminster, onlookers should be less frightened this week than they were before the announcements. There is scope for growth-enhancing reforms with little direct fiscal cost (something I will discuss in a follow up blog post). The fact that the chancellor and prime minister put forward these policies is a sign that unlike their predecessors they are both primarily interested in economic growth and willing to use political capital to pursue it. The growth plan issued by the Chancellor to detail the changes adopts a 2.5% growth target and claims that “economic growth is the government’s central mission.”

The other reforms on issues like onshore wind and investment zones that are receiving far less attention from commentators than they should further this point.

No matter the outcome of the reforms, this government will not always be in power. The tendency of the Labour alternatives to adopt growth as their goal has also only been strengthened in the weeks since my last blog post which highlighted comments from the Labour leader. While the pressures facing the UK are growing more acute, the intellectual direction of travel is toward caring about growth. The terms of the political debate have shifted in a positive direction. Economic growth is a moral issue which affects us all.


Ultimately the success or failure of the actions on Friday will be determined by the other reforms that this government is able to accomplish. The market reactions will likely make this more difficult. We should all hope that they succeed.



John Kroencke is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. For more information about John please click here.






John Kroencke: The Next Prime Minister Needs to Care About Growth

The confluence of events in the last few years have done no wonders for the economic performance of any country, but the longer-term performance of the British economy in the wake of the financial crisis is even more worrying. With the prospect of a sustained fall in real disposable income due to general inflation and, in particular, the severe rise in energy prices, the importance of renewed economic growth is only clearer. Indeed, we need to be clear that economic growth is a moral imperative.  A growing economy is essential to the welfare and well-being of the whole nation, enabling all to flourish. Naturally, there will be political debate over the means and extent of the distribution or redistribution of the proceeds of growth, but the case for economic growth in principle needs to be made again and with clarity.

As Sam Ashworth Hayes argues by some measures the average employee earnings in the UK have never recovered since the financial crisis and won’t until at least 2027. One can debate the statistics but the fact that it is even debatable speaks volumes about recent economic performance. Other figures like the historic levels of taxation and the predicted steady rise in government spending in part due to demographic burdens only add to worries about the future. 

It is easier to wish than to will, of course, but a clearly articulated vision for growth rather than managed decline or intentional degrowth is at the heart of a moral vision for the economy. With the defenestration of Boris, whose magical thinking applied to both national and personal finances, there are some signs of serious interest in economic growth by all the leadership candidates.  Perhaps the most interesting was the now eliminated Kemi Badenoch who in her announcement said some interesting things about governing and economic performance in this context, one of which I reproduce below:

“Lower taxes yes, but to boost growth and productivity, and accompanied by tight spending discipline”.

The part I have italicized is important because it suggests an escape from both the more ideological support of all tax cuts and bean-counting pessimism; deregulation and tax cuts in support of growth and within a fiscal discipline is a responsible position.   Stian Westlake, also in the Spectator, situates the more pessimistic attitude in the unique institution of the Treasury which combines budgetary, financial, and economic policymaking, unlike similar institutions in other countries where these roles are split among government agencies. As Westlake writes:

“The accountant mindset goes hand-in-hand with a historic pessimism about the government’s ability to improve the UK’s economic growth. The Treasury’s prior is that tax cuts, deregulation, public investment and other policy changes can do little to increase the UK’s rate of economic growth. Better the bird-in-the-hand of the tax increase or the spending cut today than the two-in-the-bush of higher national income.”

As a result of a similar assessment, Badenoch suggested splitting up the Treasury and creating a new office to focus on improving economic growth to in order to weaken the role of the Chancellor whose incentive for the accountant mindset “creates,” as Westlake writes, “a sort of learned helplessness in the rest of Whitehall that ends up costing the taxpayer more.”

One hopes that candidates for the highest office in the land will reflect seriously on the opportunities for growth rather than simply continuing on with high spending, high tax and middling economic outcomes. Rishi Sunak, in his Mais Lecture suggests interest in reviving economic growth through some policy levers, but as Philip Salter wrote at the time there needs to be more work into the details (a point that applies to all candidates). The former Chancellor recently wrote that, “my ambition is that the UK should become by far the richest country in Europe within the next 15 years” before highlighting three areas of policy divergence with the EU that Brexit allows and that may enable growth.

It is a shame that it took the current situation to revive talk of economic growth, but thankfully arguments for economic growth are becoming more prominent among all plausible major candidates in the next general election (including Keir Starmer who recently said not only that “Labour will fight the next election on economic growth” but that “the first line of the first page of our offer will be about wealth creation”). Strange times, indeed. Of course, there are a great deal of hard-to-solve problems related to economic growth, but it is at least inspiring that there is more consensus about the major issue.

In a follow up blog post, I will address the crucial role of housing markets in contributing to the problem of poor economic performance (and their role in improving future economic performance).


John Kroencke is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. For more information about John please click here.

John Kroencke: Competing Institutional Solutions to Housing Supply Restrictions

In the last few years, increasing numbers of people across the political spectrum and across the developed world have begun to recognize the effects of restrictive housing rules on high housing prices in many global cities. In these cities, the physical cost of producing an additional unit of housing is lower than the value at which one could sell it for, but people do not produce more because of regulations. And importantly, the implications of restricted housing development don’t end with elevated prices, as those prices create economic and social ripples

Cities are many things, but they are primarily labor markets. As successful cities become more expensive, prospective employees and founders are prevented from moving there. Because there are agglomeration and other network effects, firms want to locate near one another and related businesses. Compared to the counterfactual where moving to successful cities was easier, we are both poorer and growing slower. 

Too often analysis of this problem stops there and assumes by some magical thinking that pointing at the issue is the same thing as solving it. Once the basic problem is outlined, questions of political economy become central. Why is housing restricted? What can be done about it? How do places without housing shortages operate? Thankfully, a number of activists are engaged in the difficult task of reform. 

The purpose of this essay is to assess the two major approaches to reforming housing policy: one which seeks to use political power at a higher level to disempower locally imposed restrictions, and the second which seeks to use higher-level power to bypass mid-level veto players and let small groups upzone themselves. 

Logic of blanket decisions from above 

YIMBY is an acronym standing for “Yes, In My Back Yard” and designates a pro-housing movement supportive of increasing the housing supply in cities. It’s often contrasted with and sets itself in opposition to NIMBY-ism (“Not In My Back Yard”) where residents oppose proposed development in their local area. The YIMBY position supports increasing the housing supply as a response to escalating and unaffordable housing costs. 

Many of the recent YIMBY successes in the United States have relied on state preemption to upzone large swathes of the state. Urbanist Nolan Gray made the case for this approach in a 2017 article where he argued that local policymakers are biased in favor of narrow interests that ultimately harm the aggregate. On the other hand, “State policymakers are often removed from the parochial interests of NIMBY neighborhoods groups… They are also judged on the performance of the state as a whole. This means that they can take a broader view.” Unlike more legally complex issues of federal preemption, state level preemption is conceptually clear: “given that local governments are ‘creatures of the state,’ state policymakers can, in a sense, regulate the regulators, determining how local governments can and cannot operate.” 

This approach has had legislative success in California, Minnesota, and other states that have sought to force municipal governments to allow more houses. One of the most successful elements of these reforms has been related to accessory dwelling units (also known as granny flats or casitas). Additional reforms have targeted increased density near existing public transit, minimum lot size requirements, and floor area ratios (FAR). 

On the other hand, this approach relies on the ability of NIMBYs not to collectively organize and limit the imposed liberalization, whether through their state legislator or by amending the state constitution. In recent months the latter has received more attention after the continued success of YIMBY bills. 

In the rest of the world, much planning is done at the national level. In Japan, for example, this seems to have a positive effect, but there are a number of other differences in political economy that may limit the lessons that can be derived. Additionally, planning in the United Kingdom is mainly national, and the situation is if anything worse there than in the United States. This is in part due to the discretionary nature of the UK system, which state action has been unable to remove.

Logic of allowing opt-ins or opt-outs

In the UK, another approach has had more political traction but is also receiving attention in the United States. Rather than shifting the level of decision making up, advocates of hyperlocal zoning argue that the city or block level is more appropriate. The argument is rooted in both the political economy literature (Ostrom, Coase, Ellickson), law in other sectors, and pragmatic political concerns. The latter was strengthened with the recent failure of the UK government’s attempt to engineer planning reforms from the national level and the departure of former Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick. His replacement Michael Gove has signaled support for allowing hyperlocal upzoning. 

The details of any policy would likely be based on the Strong Suburbs report from last February in which it was proposed that residents of streets (not homeowners) would be allowed to vote on whether to expand the buildable space on their street. Should a supermajority of 60% of residents vote to approve the change, homeowners could expand their homes in line with an architectural design code submitted prior to the vote. Beyond the protections determined by residents, the proposal itself places limits on densification and alteration. For instance, it only would apply to buildings erected after 1918, and the max number of floors residents could allow would be determined by existing density. 

Homeowners would be incentivized to liberalize their neighborhoods through the direct financial benefits that would accrue to them because the market value of added space is higher than the physical cost of the extension. Furthermore, the rules set by them and limited by the proposal itself limit the spillover effects of neighboring development.

Other empirical support for this type of approach can be found in existing examples from the United StatesKorea, and Israel. In each of these cases, locals’ concerns were taken seriously (or at least more seriously than in the competing approach), and there was an ability for hyper-local districts to vote on rule changes and/or opt out. The idea is that allowing the most resistant subset the option of not opting in–as well as the option of opting out–will make it easier to form a winning coalition for reform without exciting the blocking activity of veto players. Still, John Myers argues that in the examples of Korea and Israel, insufficient attention was paid to local concerns, which gave rise to political resistance and the limitation of the reforms. 

This article was originally published in Metaculus Journal.


John Kroencke is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. For more information about John please click here.

John Kroencke: Long a political target, big business polls better than you might think

Despite criticising the actions of big business being a favourite pastime of many a business minister, John Kroencke writes that wider opinion of big business is actually more favourable than we might expect. 

Like many I rely on Amazon. In fact, there is rarely a week where a package doesn’t arrive on my doorstep. While I feel compelled to keep this quiet among certain Guardian-reading crowds in London, recent polling conducted for the Centre for Enterprise, Markets, and Ethics has found that clear majorities of the British public trust big British businesses and even multinational firms.

A whopping 69 per cent percent of the British public tends to trust big UK businesses. A slightly smaller 61 per cent of the public tends to trust multinational businesses. Despite well founded fears that younger generations are turning away from the market, for those between 18 and 34 years old this measure rises to 73 per cent (72 per cent for large domestic businesses). Perhaps surprisingly only 52 per cent of those 55+ trust multinationals. For cosmopolitan London this measure rises to 71 per cent over the 62 per cent for England as a whole. While there is a sizable difference between the 61 per cent trust in for multinational business and 88 per cent trust in family businesses that does not diminish the results.

This polling conducted for the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics by Savanta ComRes polled six audiences between 10th May 2021 and 5th August 2021 to secure their findings: the general public, regular churchgoers, business leaders, Muslim and Jewish people, and Church leaders. They also conducted in-depth interviews between 10th May 2021 and 5th August 2021 with ten Anglican and Catholic bishops. The total sample size was just short of 3,500 people.

Why might the public support multinationals and big business more than many journalists, church leaders (only 30 per cent of whom tend to trust multinationals) and politicians? One reason is that while they may love to support their local businesses, the convenience, reliability, and price offered by larger businesses is simply difficult to deny. We may pick and choose what we are willing to pay more for whether it is a local café or butcher, but we do so in the context of relying on big business for the heavy lifting. Even Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, in 1999’s You’ve Got Mail buys her coffee from Starbucks while watching her small bookstore lose out in competition with a larger chain retailer.

Interestingly although once mainly the product of people on the left-wing like small bookstore owners on the Upper West Side, multinational and big business bashing has increasingly been advanced by right-wing politicians as well. In the United States, there is an active effort to regulate Big Tech and Amazon, in particular, is the target of scorn. In the UK, the concerns of multinationals were dismissed with the Prime Minister’s infamous “f*** business” comment in 2018. And more recently it was floated that Amazon and other online retailers may be the target of future policy in a misguided effort to ‘save the high street.’

It is perhaps worth distinguishing between big businesses of the regulated sort and those that maintain their edge despite competitive pressure. While anti-tech claims are becoming louder, tech concentration seems to benefit consumers and there is obvious dynamism in the field. Previous market leaders like Myspace and Nokia faded away at great speed when the product they offered was outclassed by new entrants. The quality of these new products was not a direct result of their funding as we can see in the failure of some high-profile products released by big firms. For instance, when Amazon released its smartphone, it went nowhere for the same reason. Coronavirus drove many new users to Zoom and not just to previous leaders like Skype and Microsoft Teams.

While politicians may inveigh Amazon for its supposed harms, a poll from this summer found that Amazon was more popular than the Supreme Court, NATO, the Center for Disease Control and other major American institutions excepting the armed services. More than just being unpopular, however, efforts to go after Big Tech risk reducing competition by limiting the ability of mergers and acquisitions that allow firms to compete with one another. The bipartisan bill introduced by Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota) and Tom Cotton (Arkansas) doing just that in the United States conveniently allows the large retailers Target (Minnesota) and Walmart (Arkansas) to engage in the practice while limiting their competitor Amazon and other Big Tech firms.

While they may be more popular than expected, multinationals shouldn’t feel too secure in popular opinion saving them from efforts to regulate them. The efforts to regulate them are increasing and trust of the public is tepid. While a majority trust multinationals just 8 per cent say that they trust multinationals a great deal and 11 per cent for large UK businesses compared to 23 per cent for family firms.

This article was originally published on Comment Central.


John Kroencke is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. For more information about John please click here.

John Kroencke: Environmentalism, Degrowth, and the Moral Case for Economic Growth

Those following the news in the U.S. and U.K. have strained to find much of intellectual interest in contemporary policy debates. Sure, there are ever-widening cultural battles and an array of topics on which one can admire the slogan-jousting of a few hired hands, but there is a seemingly small market for reasoned discussion about the nuts and bolts of policy. Even worse, there is little desire to think beyond direct, intended consequences. In this context, Ezra Klein’s recent article in the New York Times about supply-side thinking was a breath of fresh air. In the article, Klein argues that the American Left should concern itself more with economic growth and supply side issues rather than just redistribution or subsidies for those with low incomes. He sees in both federal and state policies a nascent transformation that he dubs “supply-side progressivism.”

It is worth quoting his argument:

progressives are often uninterested in the creation of the goods and services they want everyone to have. This creates a problem and misses an opportunity. The problem is that if you subsidize the cost of something that there isn’t enough of, you’ll raise prices or force rationing. You can see the poisoned fruit of those mistakes in higher education and housing. But it also misses the opportunity to pull the technologies of the future progressives want into the present they inhabit. That requires a movement that takes innovation as seriously as it takes affordability.

While Klein presents an optimistic case for a pragmatic left, there are many worrying trends. For one, some on the political left are drifting towards dangerously radical environmental thinking seen in groups like Extinction Rebellion. These individuals damage their purported cause by diverting attention from appropriate responses to the challenges of environmental degradation. While the dangers of environmental damage including climate change are obviously real (and the precise nature of some of the tail risks are difficult to calculate), the carbon-intensive economy is not something that can just be abandoned without consequences. Trade-offs exist and must be navigated. Innovation is needed to find the supply-side alternatives to damaging fuel sources.

While extreme ideas like degrowth may provide an attractive cause for many on the environmental left it is a clear example of a scenario where the medicine is far worse than the disease. Advocates often fail to deal with obvious problems in their moral thinking. As Kelsey Piper writes in a piece evaluating degrowth and prominent proponent Jason Hinkel, “The things degrowthers care about — leisure time, health care, life expectancy — are strongly correlated with societal wealth. The generosity of a welfare state and the availability of transfers to a state’s poorest people are also strongly correlated with societal wealth. Innovation, discovery, invention, and medical technology improvements are also strongly correlated with societal wealth.” The standard pro-market moral case against redistribution or other interventions that may threaten future growth, is that they are more morally complicated that advocates think because they risk future gains for the intended beneficiaries. This argument is even more important in the case of degrowth where the purported moral case is focused directly and explicitly not just reducing the rate of future economic gains, but on reducing the size of the economy and the myriad benefits it brings.

Almost as troubling as the core proposals of degrowthers are their critiques of other widely held benefits of a dynamic, forward-looking, enterprise economy. For instance, while the role of innovation in contributing to better outcomes including reducing climate change and mitigating its effects may seem obvious, many committed degrowthers decry “solutionism” or the idea that technology offers a way out of the problems. This concept allows them to discount any proposal short of their extreme ideas, sometimes with clear negative effects on their purported cause. For instance, a former member of Extinction Rebellion Zion Lights emphasizes the anti-nuclear mindset among other things that led her to leave the group, recognizing that to deal with climate change might entail embracing nuclear. Even Angela Merkel, a physics Ph.D., was persuaded to end nuclear power in Germany in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown. The consequence of this decision was that one of the most environmentally-minded countries emitted more greenhouse gasses.

While I’ve mostly written about the political left it is worth stressing that many of the same critiques apply to the contemporary right. The government under Boris Johnson has shown little interest in thinking about serious reforms to the underperforming National Health Service or other types of regulatory changes that led many on the right to support Brexit. Instead, governments and politicians both here and in the US are interested in a politics of increased spending, borrowing, and taxes. Many across the political spectrum are unhappy with the performance of the status quo and desire a return to supply-side thinking. I hope they all succeed.


John Kroencke is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics. For more information about John please click here.

John Kroencke: Mutually Beneficial Solutions to the Housing Crisis

Housing reform efforts in both Britain and the United States have tended to get caught in the quagmire of fractious politics. For years, figures on the left have called for below market rate or social housing. Those in the free-market camp have called for easier private market development rights. Renters have emphasized the outsized returns that homeowners have benefited from over the last decades. Homeowners have emphasized their rights (perceived and real) to control the nature of local new development. The sound and fury of competing claims has meant that the status quo has continued to rule the day and every year the total shortage is exasperated as fewer housing units are built than they would be under less restrictive rules. Despite these familiar arguments there are in fact many reforms which both allow new housing and benefit existing homeowners.

Accessory Dwelling Unit Reforms in the United States

In the United States— where land use planning is done at the municipal and state level- multiple accessory dwelling unit reforms have passed in recent years. Under these rules homeowners can build an additional unit in their back garden, convert a garage, or subdivide an existing home into two or more units. While the laws impose limits on things like the size of the units and their distance from neighboring plots of land, they have been a huge improvement on the status quo.

Data from recent years in California shows that thousands of homeowners have taken advantage of this change with about half of them retaining the living space for their private use and the other half renting the newly created spaces out on the market. Additionally, many of those who choose not to rent out the space on the market use it for elder relatives, siblings, children, or friends.

The housing shortage means that as more and more people desire to live in places with little ability to build, the prices are bid up above the construction cost. Because of this, newly permitted space can be incredibly profitable for homeowners both as a stream of new revenue for those who choose to rent out the space but also in the resale value of the home.

Potential Reforms in the United Kingdom

While there haven’t been reforms of exactly this type in the UK, there is great potential for mutually beneficial reform. Unlike much of California, London and other cities in the UK were developed far before top-down planning systems emerged. As such, one useful starting point for thinking about these types of reforms is to look around at the type of development that was allowed in past decades before researching which factors stop current contemporary markets from responding in similar ways.

In a recent briefing paper for Create Streets, Dr. Samuel Hughes does just this for mansard roof storeys. Mansard roof storeys are distinct from a standard loft conversion because they feature a roof line with two slopes. The steep lower slope of the roof allows most of the added interior space to be unrestricted in height while the shallow upper slope limits the added height to the exterior. The general effect of this ingenious architectural feature is to provide the most increased interior volume within the smallest envelope.

While in the Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian eras it was entirely natural for residents to add additional space as land prices rose, this practice has been stopped by subsequent regulations. With these changes some streets were ossified in transition: some terrace homes had already built mansard roof storeys while others hadn’t, leaving what Hughes calls a sawtooth effect. Hughes proposes that residents on streets already exhibiting this sawtooth effect should have the right to add mansards of their own. Perhaps more importantly he proposes a rule that would allow the residents of parapeted houses built between 1700 and 1918 decide by simple majority at the street level if they wish allow mansards on their street. As part of the proposal, Hughes provides a basic design guide that would limit the pitch, height, and other aesthetic aspects of any mansards allowed by the two mechanisms.

While this proposal would make new mansards much easier, the system does occasionally allow them. For instance, as Hugh Graham describes in the Times the residents of Fitzroy Road in leafy Primrose Hill London were allowed to eliminate the existing sawtooth effect on their street in the last decade. The additions were only approved in joint- every one of the remaining eleven freeholds had to agree to build additions matching the preexisting mansard on the twelfth terrace house.

As a result of this permission, thousands of square feet were created in an expensive part of London with no downside. For places like Primrose Hill where the floor space is valued so highly, the construction costs of the additions yielded a return of around one thousand per cent.

This recent briefing paper follows up on a February 2021 Policy Exchange proposal from Hughes and Ben Southwood which allow even more street level based bottom-up planning for post-1918 structures.

While the oppositional politics of housing reform dominates the pages of newspapers, there is great hope for mutually beneficial housing reform in both the US and the UK. 


John joined the Centre in 2021 after finishing his Ph.D. in Economics at George Mason University. He spent the 2020-21 academic year as a Final Year Fellow at the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University.

His role involves research on family business as part of the Centre’s Ethics and Theology project and contributions to the wider work of the Centre. As part of this, he will complete research on the role of the great estates in the private provision of land planning and other work on the role of markets in housing and environmental issues. John’s past research has focused mainly on the history of economics and housing.

A native of California, John looks forward to travelling around the U.K. and Europe.