We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Plagiarist, thy doom awaits.

“Johann Hari, you are a plagiarist!” I shoot those words at him and let them hang in the air between us.

He shifts uneasily, but when he replies his voice is surprisingly unapologetic.”When dealing with an inarticulate interviewee, or one whose English was poor,” he confides, “I have sometimes substituted a passage they have written or said more clearly elsewhere on the same subject for what they said to me, so the reader understands their point as clearly as possible.”

“Yeah, right,” I say, my outrage rising, “but when you talk about what they said more clearly elsewhere what you really mean is what they said more clearly when interviewed by someone else, huh?”

He furrows his big, broad brow, pats my knee, and tells me about the night he knew he was going to die unless he got his copy in on time. “It depends, ” he says, looking away, “on whether you prefer the intellectual accuracy of describing their ideas in their most considered words, or the reportorial accuracy of describing their ideas in the words they used on that particular afternoon.”

“Intellectual accuracy,” I cry, grabbing his patting-hand in a jiu-jitsu lock and hurling him over my shoulder, “cannot exist independently of reportorial accuracy.”

Floored equally by my logic and a martial arts technique taught to me by a secret order of fighting monks living in the high passes of Chingford, he apologises to a lampshade for having once supported the Iraq war and hobbles away.

This interview was true in spirit.

It was also almost entirely an excuse to say something that I had been meaning to say for ages, but was too short to be a post on its own: never mind all this twitter and email and communication-y stuff, the underreported way the internet changes everything is the way that everything anyone writes is still there years later. I cannot even safely assume that you have forgotten that I said this before, on Tuesday March 1st 2005.

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UPDATE: Today’s Guardian carries an interview (which I am fairly sure really happened) in which Stuart Jeffries talks to Viktor Mayer-Schönberger: Why we must remember to delete – and forget – in the digital age. Much there to disagree with, in particular the way Mayer-Schönberger chucks around the word “should” in “He argues that digital storage devices (cameras, mobiles, computers) should automatically delete information that has reached its expiration date”. Does “should” mean “it would be nice if manufactures put this in” or “let’s have a law to force them to”? When a professor of internet governance and regulation fails to make this distinction it strikes me as sinister. Nevertheless the interview is fascinating, particularly when Mayer-Schönberger talks about how “the Panopticon now extends across time and cyberspace”.

The imperial ambitions of the Internal Revenue Service

It bemuses me that a certain type of commentator will often – sometimes rightly – be angered at the over-reach of Western powers’ foreign policy but be quieter about other, less obvious, intrusions if they happen when a more leftist government happens to be in power. And a lot of this sort of double-standard occurs with the United States.

Such critics appear to have been silent on the following issue: under the current Democrat presidency of Mr Obama, the US last year passed a stunningly badly crafted piece of legislation, known as FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act). The law was passed at a time of what can best be described as hysteria about the amount of money that Americans were allegedly stashing abroad in places such as Switzerland, the Bahamas, the Caymans, and so forth. The major governments of the world, such as the US, Germany and UK, fondly imagine that there is, so to speak, a huge pot of gold that got lost down the back of the sofa.

What FATCA does is require any financial institution that is believed to deal with expat US citizens and Green Card holders to provide a great deal of information to the Internal Revenue Service. In other words, all manner of financial institutions, ranging from big banks to small investment boutiques, must prove to the Internal Revenue Service’s satisfaction that they have not got US citizens/GC holders on their books if they want to be unmolested by the IRS’s powers. If they have such clients or invest into the US stock market, etc, they must provide huge amounts of additional reporting data to the US. “Foreign Financial Institutions” must report investors who are taxable in the US to the US tax authorities. If they fail to do so, they pay a 30 per cent withholding tax. And proving that someone is, or might be, a US citizen might be hard, particularly if that person has been living outside the US for decades, and there is not much paperwork going back, say, 30 years.

This is a quite stunning extension of the IRS’s power around the world, affecting European, Asian, African, Latin American and other regions’ banks, who may have been blissfully unaware that some of their clients had, at any point, a US “taint”. And I am frankly astonished that not more has been said by non-US governments about this; however, given that governments such as those of Germany have resorted to the dubious practice of paying for data stolen from Swiss banks, I have no great hopes that respect for sovereignty or the rule of law applies.

The net effect of this law will be to make it even less likely that banks and other firms will want to touch Americans living outside the US due to the heavy compliance cost. The law will be a blow against globalisation and business growth, as this article at Forbes makes clear. It will be even less profitable for firms to deal with Americans if they live abroad. Those US nationals working in the City of London, for example, will find it is harder to open a bank account, manage a mutual fund or get insurance. A former US colleague of mine is in a nasty predicament. When I called the US Embassy here about the matter, I received nothing but blank ignorance.

FATCA is yet another blow against the free movement of people around the world, and will be particularly tough on the middle class, hard-working professionals who don’t have access to the flashiest lawyers and advisors. The super-rich and well-connected will, of course, be okay. I doubt that someone like the US Ambassador or military types serving abroad have even heard of it. (The US military tends not to be affected by such legislation anyway, although you can never be sure. If any serving personnel do get hit, it would be good to know the details).

It is sometimes said, by a certain type of sneering European or self-hating international travelling American, at how bad it is that all those ghastly, ignorant hicks don’t hold passports. Well, part of the reason is that getting a passport is a bureaucratic nightmare in the US. Another is that the US is a big and beautiful place with so much to see that why would any sane American want to leave for any extended period of time? But another reason is that the IRS, which is out of control, is making the process of being an expat a waking nightmare.

As for whether politicians of any kind, including the Tea Party crowd, give a flying f**k about this issue, is unclear. There may be few votes in it, but I would have more respect for supposedly libertarian-leaning GOP members such as Ron Paul, his son, or one or two others, if they could be persuaded to lobby for wholesale repeal of this atrocious piece of legislation.

Timeless words of a master

“Now who is the Forgotten Man? He is the simple, honest laborer, willing to earn his living by productive work. We pass him by because he is independent, self-supporting, and asks no favors. He does not appeal to the emotions or excite the sentiments. He only wants to make a contract and fulfil it, with respect to both sides and favor on neither side. He must get his living out of the capital of the country. The larger the capital is, the better living he can get. Every particle of capital which is wasted on the vicious, the idle, and the shiftless is so much taken from the capital available to reward the independent and productive laborer. But we stand with our backs to the independent and productive laborer all the time. We do not remember him because he makes no clamor; but appeal to you whether he is not the man who ought to be remembered first of all, and whether, on any sound social theory, we ought not to protect him against the burdens of the good-for-nothing.”

- The Forgotten Man, page 209 from On Liberty, Society and Politics. The Essential Writings of William Graham Sumner, Edited by Robert C. Bannister.

His idea that a large swathe of people who asked for no favours – nor received many – has its echoes, however imperfect, in such expressions as Richard Nixon’s “Great Silent Majority” or, in the UK perspective, “Middle England”, or perhaps, “the coping classes”. Sumner is a useful reminder that the great classical liberal thinkers of the 19th Century and before acutely understood the issues of class and the difference between the self-reliant and others, but without the tedious animosity and simple-mindedness of the Marxians or the patronising dreams of High Tories a la Disraeli or, god help us, David Cameron or the late Harold Macmillan.

I strongly recommend this book, although these reprints of old classics by Liberty Fund are not exactly cheap.

A Paladin lacking in Wisdom

Stretch yourselves. Answer these questions, if you think you’re hard enough:

* There were no _________ remarks at the parents’ evening. Is the correct word: dissaproving disaproveing dissapproving disapproving?
* A lesson begins at 11:40. The teacher prepares a 10-minute introduction followed by a 15-minute video clip and then a 25-minute activity. At what time does the activity end? Give your answer using the 24-hour clock.
* The children enjoyed the _________ nature of the task. Is the correct word: mathmatical, mathematical, mathemmatical or mathematicall?
* Teachers organised activities for three classes of 24 pupils and four classes of 28 pupils. What was the total number of pupils involved?
* For a science experiment a teacher needed 95 cubic centimetres of vinegar for each pupil. There were 20 pupils in the class. Vinegar comes in 1,000 cubic centimetre bottles. How many bottles of vinegar were needed?

Michael Gove to set out tougher teacher training rules, reports the Telegraph.

Mr Gove is to publish new requirements for the “basic skills tests” to be completed before embarking on teacher training. Candidates will also be allowed a maximum of two re-sits for each exam.

The questions quoted above were from the current versions of these literacy and numeracy basic skills tests. One in five trainee teachers fails either the literacy or numeracy part of this fiendish Educational Tripos on the first sitting.

Oh dear. Is the correct word perthetic, pafetic, or pathetic?

Answer: all three, with knobs on. You might think from this that I am going to urge the Secretary of State for Education to an even more drastic reform than allowing only two re-sits. One re-sit! One re-sit and then euthanasia!

I make no such urgings. It none of it matters. The trouble is, to put in terms that an old D&D-er like the Minister would understand, is that it is a very bad idea to magic missile the orcs while the lich remains undefeated. The least of the problems with state education is that orcs who made a bad INT roll are let into the profession. Orcs can do quite nicely as teachers. A teacher needs to roll for three characteristics:

- knowledge of the subject he or she is to teach,
- the knack of teaching,
- ability to maintain classroom discipline.

Of course it is good to have rolled high in all three, and, to be fair to Mr Gove’s latest initiative, he is probably right that a 1 in any of them probably should disqualify the applicant. But a good score in two qualities can usually compensate for one bad roll.

But by Garl Glittergold’s holy nugget, I did not mean to get distracted by recommending this tweak or that tweak of Mr Gove’s new “tougher” criteria! It’s all pointless, I tell you. (Particularly as by Mr Gove’s express wish, a person who really had passed the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge would be refused a bursary to train as a maths teacher, if he or she had only a third class degree. Yes, really, even if they could work out how many bottles of vinegar were needed.)

The point was this. You don’t fight the orcs, Gove the Mighty But Deluded. You fight the liches. Give the man his due, allowing for the fact that “Secretary of State for Education” is a useless character class that ought to be deleted from any future editions, he is doing better than any we have had for years. If he survives the liches, he may even take the fight to the Blob itself.

Just leave the orcs alone. Head teachers can fight their own orcs, or hire ‘em, you don’t have to worry which. It is unbecoming for anyone above fifth level to bash an orc.

Pointing the finger at strikes in China and in Britain

The Prime Minister of China has just been on the television news (more on the story here) telling “Britain” (by which he seems to mean the British government) not to indulge in “finger pointing” about China’s human rights record. He loves Shakespeare, he said. Do any of China’s critics know anything about Chinese literature?

It’s an interesting idea, that you need to acquire a love of Chinese literature before you can reasonably complain about circumstances like this (just lately linked to by Instapundit):

… Workers complained they were forced to stand during 12-hour shifts with only two toilet breaks, forbidden to drink water while on the job.

They also charged that the factory, operated by Simone Ltd., was feeding them blackened rice and other substandard food, for which deductions were made from their wages. “The Korean management treats us less than human beings,” said one worker. “The male managers walk into female toilets any time they please; we can’t contain our anger any more.” …

But it is not enough of an explanation of such events to say that the people of Guangdong don’t like being horribly treated. My question is: how come they now feel able to be so angry? I mean, it’s not like they have never been maltreated before.

Answer:

Long-term social trends and the problems of authoritarian rule explain much of the restiveness, but there is another principal reason.   Employees these days have much more bargaining power.   Back at the Simone factory in Panyu, management said it would fire those who did not return to work.   That threat used to be effective, but not now.

Why not?   For several years, Guangdong has been short of help.   Some residents have become relatively well-off and no longer need mind-dulling employment in factories, something evident in Shenzhen, the booming city bordering even-more-prosperous Hong Kong.

It sounds as if finger pointing by the likes of David Cameron won’t be necessary to make China’s bosses, political and economic, start to become a tiny bit nicer, year on year. Supply and demand, of and for labour, is now working that trick.

The Forbes piece, with its headline about “Conflict handbags”, implies that soon there may be calls for boycotts of handbags made in China. But is it not the willingness of richer people to buy such stuff that is bidding up the price of labour in China, and making such things as the denial of toilet breaks so unsustainable?

Meanwhile, where is the voracious demand for the services of Britain’s public sector workers, who are also threatening strike inaction? The government is going to stop! State teachers will stop teaching! Here is a case where a strike is being triggered by a fall in demand for the relevant labour. The paymaster is feeling the pinch, and wants to cut their pensions. I wonder what the Prime Minister of China thinks about that? Seriously, I would like to know this. Even better, I would like to see him doing some finger pointing. That would be a real laugh.

I don’t know how many illusions Britain’s state pen-pushers and button-pushers have about how loved they are by the rest of us. When we encounter them we tend not to discuss any feelings of rage towards them that we may be engulfed by, which is all part of why we often get so enraged with them. On the other hand, they talk about the “front line” services that they supply, like they know they are in a war, rather than serving anyone besides their bosses. Their calculation has to be that the government needs them, in order for the government to go on being the government. But, the threat by them to stop the government … spending money, won’t necessarily come over as much of a threat to the nation as a whole.

But those state teachers might also want to be a bit careful. If they go on strike too enthusiastically, they might find that people might work out how to get along okay without them, and maybe with humiliating speed.

Samizdata quote of the day

And even if the Greek populace remained blissfully oblivious when all that debt was being piled up, they certainly are aware of it now. But judging from the riots in the streets their only thought still is that they want the party to continue, at someone else’s expense. They deserve what they get.

- Commenter ‘Laird’

Samizdata quote of the day

It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favour of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office

- H. L. Mencken

Samizdata quote of the day

The thing is, when you were ten years old, wouldn’t you have loved to have gone down a mine or up a chimney?

- Patrick Crozier has dropped by (to help me buy gold on the internet), and we were talking about how education is probably the most vulnerable of all the big ongoing government spending sprees, in the face of the forthcoming financial meltdown.

Geert Wilders was not really the one on trial…

… no, it was the highest institutions of the Netherlands who were on trial with their credibility and very legitimacy at stake.

Although I am delighted he was acquitted of all charges, frankly it is a disgrace that he was ever put on trial in the first place for simply stating his views about Islam and multiculturalism.

And the fact the BBC calls him ‘far right’ tells you nothing useful about Geert Wilders’ views but speaks volumes about the BBC.

On Adam Curtis

Brian Micklethwait of this blog has linked to a series of nice take-downs of the work of the “documentary” maker, Adam Curtis. I link to one rather nice video at that man’s expense. One of Curtis’ recent efforts was about Alan Greenspan and the dangers of giant computers or something. He’s a sort of posh conspiracy theorist for people who would otherwise scoff at the sort of guy who rants that Man never really landed on the Moon, Jews bombed the WTC, etc.

It is arguable that the whole phenomenon of the “documentary” as an impartial piece of good journalism has been more or less hammered in recent years. After all, we have had the various efforts of Michael Moore, which, like Curtis’s efforts, are not really designed to inform or ask difficult questions, but a form of propaganda, and a form that plays well to the smug complacency of fashionable opinion. But let’s be fair, even a programme which said things with which I agreed, such as this Channel 4 Martin Durkin one about explosive government debt, used techniques to pull on our heartstrings, although I thought in that programme, it did make an argument – an extremely good one. With the Curtis stuff, it is more like taking a sort of drug.

Maybe the whole idea of a non-biased documentary needs to be junked. Perhaps the honest truth is that these programmes don’t really lend themselves to a sort of “on the one hand and on the other” sort of fairness; in truth, a guiding narrative, with a punchline at the end, is what makes these things work. But then this is clearly advocacy journalism and a form that does not square with it being paid for by a state-privileged broadcast network such as the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Then again, the whole idea of a broadcaster financed via a tax needs to be ditched, so that Curtis will have to make such rubbish without my having to pay for it. I wonder if Curtis wants to do one of his documentaries on the idea of governments using state broadcasters to shape opinion? No, I did not think so.

The Greek financial crisis, ctd

Another zinger of a piece by Detlev Schlichter. If you are not reading his stuff regularly, you need to deal with that oversight. He’s indispensable:

One frequently gets the impression from reading the mainstream media that Greece has a monetary policy problem and not a fiscal problem. This is incorrect. Yet many commentators seem to argue along the following lines: This crisis is due to the straitjacket of the single currency with its one-size-fits-all monetary policy, or at least aggravated by the constraints of this system. Greece would have more “policy options” in dealing with its troubles if it had control of its own national currency.

Then there is, connected to this, an underlying – and not very flattering – notion that the Greeks are somewhat unfit to live and work in a ‘hard money system’, which presumably the euro is. The Greeks, this seems to be the allegation, like borrowing and spending too much. I am paraphrasing here but this is certainly the underlying tone of the narrative. The Germans and Dutch and French can live without the constant aid of conveniently cheap national money – but the Greeks can’t.

And he signs off with this:

I have no doubt that the most important economic event of the coming decade will be the demise of the global paper money system. We live in the twilight of the fiat money era. A return to apolitical, international, commodity-based media of exchange is inevitable. Why not start with Greece? The transition would be painful but there are no painless options available anyway.

I am convinced this would be a sensible strategy but I also think it is unlikely. The state and the banks benefitted from the paper money franchise, and they are now addicted to cheap credit and unwillingly to check into rehab. The establishment will continue to fight a return to sound money.

With some honourable exceptions, I find it hard to think of many even supposedly “private” banks in the world as proper, capitalist institutions in any sense. Their reliance on the crack cocaine of cheap credit has become too entrenched.

Selfish activism for liberty

I am not entirely happy about an article, which is fine as far as it goes in defending libertarians from the idea that we are all callous brutes who would rather walk by the other side of the road, so to speak. I agree that that is wrong. Of course, there are one or two so-called libertarians who might not give a damn about anyone else but themselves, and they are happily avoided. In my experience, however, the vast majority of libertarians are not just right-thinking, they are fine individuals: generous, creative and benevolent to their fellows. But this is a rationally selfish thing. Think about it: if you believe freedom is a good thing because of the wealth and opportunities that it leads to, you will realise pretty fast that it is inconsistent to want freedom for yourself but not for anyone else. Not just inconsistent, but dumb.

However, for all that the article does make that sort of point, citing fine groups such as the Institute for Justice, the article is somewhat spoiled by this rather silly paragraph:

“There are a lot of libertarians working on issues that could be construed as self-interested – lowering taxes is the obvious example. There are even some hard core Ayn Rand sycophants who embrace little more than themselves. Find that repugnant? Have at ‘em! But you’re just misinformed if you think that libertarians as a whole care for nothing more than their self-interest. Countless libertarians are working to advance the freedom and fair-treatment of people other than themselves. Often they do so more consistently than some of the liberals who sneer at them.”

He’s making a fairly basic mistake here. The pursuit of rational, long term self interest – the words “rational” and “long-term” are crucial – is totally congruent with spending time and money to support the genuine freedoms of others. After all, as any Rand “sycophant” would argue, if we do not defend freedoms with a bit of effort, and go into bat to defend causes that are important, even if they are unpopular, or appear weird, then they will find themselves in a very lonely place if their own freedoms are attacked. A genuinely selfish person, who holds his own life and flourishing as his ultimate value and cultivates the virtues to achieve it fully (reason, independence, honesty, pride, productiveness, justice and integrity), will want to see freedom expand. The cost of spending a bit of time lobbying, arguing and campaigning is, for such a person, outweighed by the long term benefits. The individual benefits if the total sum of liberty is increased, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. For the Rand “sycophant”, the real stupidity would be to ignore the wider world and its problems. By the same token, libertarians understand the Law of Unintended Consequences: a lot of supposedly “altruistic” government interventions, for example (I use the word altruist in the usual, not Randian sense) make many real or imaginary problems far worse (examples: the War on Drugs, Prohibition, state education, etc).

One example of “selfish activism” might illustrate the point. For a long time I have been going along to events hosted by FOREST, the UK-based pressure group that defends the rights of people to smoke in privately owned places such as pubs. I don’t smoke, in fact I dislike the stink of tobacco and ask people not to spark up in my apartment. But I defend the libertarian line on smoking because I realise that if such freedoms get eroded without protest, then things I want to do could be banned next. For similar reasons, I’ll defend the right of people to publish hateful remarks (so long as they don’t demand I have to republish them), or practice non-conventional lifestyles I might abhor (so long it is consensual), and so on. For me, the long-term payoff – more freedom – is the point. I don’t see campaigning for justice or freedom as intrinsically good. It is much more important than that – it benefits me.

Another way of putting it is that life is not a zero-sum game. I obviously cannot spend all my time trying to defend freedoms or other issues; I have my own business and personal life and various interests to pursue. (My golf swing needs a lot of attention). But if I can, by my advocacy of hopefully good ideas and opposition to bad ones, make the world a marginally better place for myself and others, then I cannot think of a more truly selfish objective than that. In other words, I am not a classical liberal because it is an unchosen duty. I enjoy it and see the benefits.

And let’s not forget, another reason why libertarians defend the causes they do is that, despite the odd glitch, we get to meet some excellent people and make good friends. Some of my greatest mates are those I have encountered through such networks.