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]

The continued mockery of saving

I enjoyed listening to this Mark Steyn radio interview the other day. He gets seriously worked up and he’s very effective in that medium, as well as in print. The show that I link to here has its advertisement segments. One ad, for some sort of investment trading product, talks about all kinds of clever trading ideas, but it had this jarring note, if I remember: “You don’t get rich by saving money”.

That’s the current financial disaster in a nutshell. Saving money, accumulating wealth and investing it in productive assets such as businesses, is for saps. And with negative real interest rates (thanks to Messrs Bernanke, Greenspan and chums), saving money in the traditional way is a mug’s game.

When the culture of steady wealth accumulation and savings is mocked like this, it adds up over time.

Kibbutzes – saving the world but not in the way they were supposed to?

Recently a friend told me something about kibbutzes (kibbutzim?) in Israel, which got me into speculation mode. My friend had, he told me, met quite a few people in the course of his various globetrottings who, attracted by the aura of idealism and general world-savingness that kibbutzes radiate, had spent time in a kibbutz. Such pilgrims, said my friend, had quite soon left, all of them disgusted by the experience. Far from being havens of a higher form of humanity, kibbutzes are incubators of nastiness and personal backbiting and unpleasantness of all kinds. Kibbutz life, said these people, had cured them of socialism for ever. Which makes me speculate that kibbutzes are, for this reason, a spectacularly good thing, for the people thus inoculated, and for the world, in more ways than I can count in a short blog posting.

The only kind of people said my friend, who live well in kibbutzes are, well, the kind of people who live well in kibbutzes. People who thrive under totalitarian socialism, basically. Good at politics, good at screwing people without appearing too obviously to screw them, in accordance with the rules of rigid egalitarianism. There are lots of rules, to suppress individualism, getting ahead, getting richer, and so on, and the individuals who understand these rules use them ruthlessly to get ahead, and even, if you are flexible about how you measure wealth, to get wealthy.

These “alpha personalities”, as my friend described them, stick around, ruling the kibbutz with a rod of egalitarian iron. Many of the people lower down the Greek alphabet, without whom these alphas would presumably be rather helpless, are the transients, some of whom my friend had talked with. Young idealists, for whom life on a kibbutz is some kind of rite of Jewish passage. They arrive, serve their time until they can stand it no longer, and leave, taking with them an education in the realities of egalitarian collectivism that is given to few others in what is basically, still, a moderately free world. They experience such a regime good and hard, in a form that they can contrast with a life outside that kibbutz that is still massively freer, and then leave, taking that knowledge with them.

So, in addition to being one of the great new hubs of technological innovation in the world, the state of Israel, by permitting with its laws (including, presumably, a law which says that kibbutzes may not imprison those who no longer consent to being there), and encouraging with its ideological traditions, master classes in the realities of collectivism, is doing the world another huge favour. Kibbutzes are, you might say, re-education camps for precisely the sort of people who most require such re-education, and at a time in their lives soon enough to make a huge difference, to them and to the world.

I am a huge admirer of that human semi-collectivity called Jews, and pretty much an uncritical supporter of the state of Israel in its ongoing struggle to stay in existence and to flourish. But, and please do not misunderstand this next bit, I sort of agree with some of the more admiring bits in the ravings of the world’s many anti-semites, present and past. Jews are rather special. A century ago or so, Jews did have an influence on the world that was far greater than their mere numbers would seem to have allowed. (I am a classical music fan, and the sheer scale of the Jewish presence in that world has been and remains extraordinary.) It did not follow from the super-achievements of Jews that therefore the Jews were evil and should all be murdered, and it does not follow now. But, they were a group of people very much to be reckoned with, and they surely still are, again way beyond their mere numbers in the world.

I therefore now surmise that an ongoing education programme, which turns energetic, adventurous and idealistic young Jews from devotees of collectivism in devotees of something more like the opposite, has got to be one of the very best things now going on in the world.

But, this is pretty much all speculation on my part. The question mark at the end of my heading is no mere afterthought. I admire Israel from afar, but have never been there, nor have I travelled very much in the world. (Maybe if I spent more time in Isreal, I would admire it less.) So I end with all the usual questions which thinking-aloud, but-what-do-I-know?, guess postings of this kind generally do and always should end with. Does any of the above make sense to any of our commentariat? In particular, how do the above speculations strike any readers of this who have pertinent knowledge of the matters I speculate about, of the sort which I do not have, beyond that small item of chat from a friend?

I can well imagine that kibbutzes might indeed do a bit of the good I describe, but be doing a lot more harm in other ways. Also, my friend, being of a strongly anti-collectivist inclination himself, could have been suffering from severe selection error. Maybe the world is full of Jews who have lived in a kibbutz and would like nothing less than to kibbutzise the entire world. But, I like to think not.

Honest money in deep space

“But even if there had been no march, the Okies would have been made obsolete by the depression. The histories of depressions show that a period of economic chaos is invariably followed by a period of extremely rigid economic controls – during which all the variables, the only partially controllable factors like commodity speculation, unlimited credit, free marketing, and competitive wages will get shut out.”

Cities In Flight, by James Blish, pages 421-422. From the multi-edition book published by Gollancz. Copyright 1970.

The book has many interesting themes for science fiction fans and interestingly, commodity-based money is a key plot device. The date of the copyright is interesting – it is just a year before Richard Nixon finally severed any link between the dollar and gold, to his everlasting shame.

Here is a nice appreciation of Blish over at “Templeton Gate 3.0″.

Latest rendering of the Senate Launch System uncovered!

With great effort our Samizdatista spies in the US Senate have uncovered the deepest secrets of the Senator/Rocket Scientists plans for a $30B Super Heavy Jobs Lifter!

SLS Unveiled
Senate Rocket Scientists plans unveiled!
Montage and Gimping: copyright Dale Amon, All Rights Reserved

Someone who dislikes the John Le Carre Cold War novels

A regular commenter and occasional writer for Samizdata, Paul Marks, has recently, over at the Counting Cats blog, taken aim at the output of John Le Carre and in particular, the George Smiley character that got one of its most famous outings in the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy novel (now a film starring Gary Oldman). I remember watching the old TV series starring the late, very great Alec Guinness. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the series a lot and how it showed George Smiley, with a few associates, track down the identity of the mole inside UK intelligence. (If you don’t want to know who the mole is, Paul Marks’ item gives him away immediately, which is a naughty thing to do without a warning).

Of course, the role of spies, the nature of spying and the Cold War confrontations in which they were involved produced an interesting genre of work that continues to appeal even now that some of the issues have changed. I always felt that Le Carre tried a bit too hard to show how he wasn’t a vulgar entertainer such as Ian Fleming, say, or for that matter, John Buchan. And I imagine he positively disdains such thriller writers as Vince Flynn, Tom Clancy or Brad Thor. (These are more overtly about action rather than spying, anyway).

For me, my favourite spy stories of all time are as follows:

From Russia with Love (Ian Fleming)
Journey into Fear (Eric Ambler)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John Le Carre);
The Ipcress File (Len Deighton)
Under Western Eyes (Joseph Conrad).

The “Hook, Line and Sinker” trilogy by Len Deighton is also wonderful, by the way. And anything by Eric Ambler is good.

A lose-lose strategy

Jack Straw, sometime Justice Secretary, is on a campaign against referral fees in accident insurance claims. Claims management companies (CMCs) busily ferret out details of accidents that people have suffered, and sell on the details to solicitors who will encourage the victims to sue, on a no-win-no-fee basis. Mr Straw and many like him claim this pushes up legal costs that will eventually have to be paid by insured people generally. Furthermore, it encourages that wicked thing, the ‘compensation culture’, the habit of demanding that someone be to blame for every misfortune we suffer and should pay up accordingly. Mr Straw says referral fees are:

a lucrative and self-serving merry-go-round in which the personal information of anyone involved in any collision with another vehicle, no matter how trivial its effects, is traded like a commodity, typically for £600 to £800 a shot, with the aim of pursuing a claim – any claim – provided that it brings rich rewards to all those involved in this industry.

He reckons that whiplash injuries claimed by car occupants after being shunted from behind are largely fictitious – it seems they’re difficult to diagnose, so such claims are hard to refute.

In fact, one Dr Simon Margolis, CEO of something called the Premex Group, while trying to counter Straw, ends up by making him seem more credible:

There is no blood test or imaging modality currently in existence that can prove or disprove an injury was sustained or whether symptoms are being experienced. That is why a combination of the taking of a history and the laying on of hands during clinical examination by a medical expert remains the appropriate approach. Much can be learned from the general demeanour of the claimant and the way the history is delivered.

“The laying on of hands”! I love that. Much can be learned from the general demeanour of industry apologists.

Straw’s beef seems to be another instance of the ancient complaint against middlemen in general: people can’t see what service they provide and think they just push up prices. I compare the referral-fee example with the old complaint against advertising: when I buy a can of beans I have to pay the costs of the advertising that persuaded me to buy it. Outrageous!

The same answer applies to both cases, I suppose: in claims management, the middlemen actually reduce costs and push up the effectiveness of the whole system by matching up buyers and sellers, and encouraging buyers (accident victims) to buy (sue). If CMCs are squashed, lawyers will have to do the job themselves, or use other means to attract custom.

Jack Straw’s proposals are bound to make the whole process of getting justice less efficient – if that’s imaginable. But his private member’s bill has been read in the Commons without opposition, regrettably.

To bring legal costs down we need the process of linking up providers and consumers to be untrammelled. We also need police, judges and lawyers who do their jobs efficiently. Fat chance of that in the oldest of nationalized industries.

Maybe whiplash injury claims are largely a scam. I’d rather leave it to the people with a direct financial interest in showing this – namely, the insurers – to sort that out, rather than to the medical expertise of Jack Straw.

A lot of people are sceptical about whether no-win-no-fee improves the quality of justice. It may not be the whole answer, but it’s certainly part of the answer. If I ever found myself inside an ambulance I would want to see an ambulance-chasing lawyer hard on its heels. And I’d want some clever type in a sharp suit to introduce us.

Samizdata quote of the day

The Tea Party, perhaps more than any other contemporary movement, brings out the ‘Yeah, but what they’re really saying…’ tendency. The ‘tea’ stands for ‘Taxed Enough Already’ but, if you relied on the BBC and the Guardian for your information, you might not know it. Many Lefties pretend – or perhaps have genuinely convinced themselves – that the Tea Party is clandestinely protesting against immigration or abortion or the fact of having a mixed race president; anything, in fact, other than what it actually says it’s against, viz big government. The existence of a popular and spontaneous anti-tax movement has unsettled the Establishment. They’d much rather deal with a stupid and authoritarian Right than with a libertarian one. Hence the almost desperate insistence that the Tea Partiers have some secret agenda.

- Daniel Hannan, writing about the extraordinary abuse heaped on the Tea Party crowd. Well, they want to cut taxes and push back the State. I guess they must be psychotic or something.

Obeying the commandments

I am presently in Pogradec, on the southern (Albanian) coast of the very beautiful Lake Ohrid in the southern Balkans. (The weather is awful, alas). Albania is an Islamic country of course, which might explain the modesty of the advertising billboards.

Also, I am presently using a WiFi hotspot in a bar in a betting shop. And the koran I had for dinner last night was delicious.

Samizdata quote of the day

Corporatism in finance has brought ruin onto the world. Letting banks fail is messy, disruptive and ugly (though not as much as people think). But bailing them out creates moral hazard – it gives a blank cheque to reckless banks. Unless bad banks are allowed to fail, good ones cannot take their place. Preventing failure is good for established banks, but bad for everybody else.

Cheap credit created by central banks inflated the housing bubble that burst in 2008. The combination of artificially cheap credit and banks expecting a bailout led to the crisis. Money should emerge from markets, not be imposed by governments. Without radical changes to money and banking policy, we will sleepwalk into the next crisis, and it may be even bigger.

Somebody needs to speak up for the freedoms of the many against the protections of the few. Corporatism – not capitalism – was at the root of the last crisis and it will be at the root of the next one. Britain needs to reject protections for businesses. It needs a free market revolution.

- Sam Bowman

Jihadi uncovers misprint in holy book the hard way

Jihadi meets his virgins
And the Lord saith unto Achmed from on high, “Seventy virgin Windows. Windows you idiot, not Women!”
Photo: copyright Dale Amon, All Rights Reserved

Monkey business

Bongo on the Moon
Bongo expresses joy at his NASA aided escape from Earth and the evil Petans.
Photo: copyright Dale Amon, All Rights Reserved

Backstory: The dinner speech by NASA Administrator General Bolden at our NSS conference in Chicago in May 2010 was briefly (about 10 seconds) interrupted by some little twit from PETA who was carried bodily to the ballroom door. We did not press charges. Her complaint? NASA was going to put some monkeys through the same things that people will be going through on a trip to Mars.

So, I am striking a blow to open the stars for all Primate-kind! Arise Primates of Earth! You have nothing to lose but 1G and your Petan chains!

No, Tony Stark does not live here

You could live decades in Manhattan and still be surprised by what its vibrant capitalism throws up at you. Last weekend I got an invite to go along to a party that was raising money for some charity cause, although I was not one of the ones there to be a high roller. Let us just say I got in via the journalists back door since one of the celebrity guests was a Fox News personality who was also a friend of my usual Manhattan drinking buddy. It should come as no surprise to long time readers that when in New York I chill with journalists, spacers and the odd Irish musician.

I knew it was going to be interesting before I met up with Taylor Dinerman at the usual media waterhole, but on the some thirty block walk we were lost in discussions about typical fighter pilot behavior with the fair sex, space policy and which foot Paul Krugman is currently inserting. I was expecting something exceptional but when I finally walked over to the railing of the rooftop party I was not quite prepared for a night time view of New York like this. It is really different when you can see the city laid out in front of you in every direction and yet you are close enough to be struck by the full three dimensions. I can hardly imagine what waking up to this every day must be like, but I am glad to know there are people out there who do.

Chrysler Building and New York Cityscape
A Northerly view of the Chrysler building and surrounds.
Photo: copyright Dale Amon, All Rights Reserved

The party had the standard accoutrements. If you simply looked at the bar man serving drinks from a table by the core wall, or at the disk jockey in the corner, it would look like the standard parties we have all attended. The DJ laid down a modern sound track to insure all would eat, drink, be merry and network till they dropped. I was of course doing just that. I handed out Immortal Data Corporation business cards to all and sundry while keeping up my energy from the passing trays of hors d’oeuvres. I do not think I had a repeat taste all evening.

Penthouse Disk Jockey
The disk jockey kept the place rocking, or whatever you call it with dance music.
Photo: copyright Dale Amon, All Rights Reserved

Being the spacer that I am, my actual first photograph of the night was the stunning image of a fall moon rising over the East River from a southeasterly direction. A mere photograph cannot come close to what the eye took in. Believe me, this poor small subset of photons does not come close to doing it justice.

Moon and East River
The view of the moon was even more amazing in person.
Photo: copyright Dale Amon, All Rights Reserved

Later on, after several drinks and much mixing I decided to temporarily break from the crowd, and that was when I discovered the flat was even more spectacular than I had thought. This is where Tony Stark would live if he owned a flat in Manhattan. No doubt about it.

Penthouse
This is not one of Tony Stark’s residences. But it should be.
Photo: copyright Dale Amon, All Rights Reserved

Taylor and I mostly talked with media folk, although there were lots of financial types there as well, with some of which we also spoke. I knew Taylor was fluent in French and Hebrew. Tonight I found him talking at length in German to a businessman and doing the occasional phrase in Mandarin. We were also joined by James Taranto of the Wall Street journal after he returned from a quiet far corner where he did a radio show call in to express his opinion of the latest Krugman piece at the New York Times.

One of the more fun people I spoke to was a woman who started her career as an NPR reporter assigned to Belfast. She was there in the seventies, well before my time, but we still had much common knowledge to share as she was a lover of Irish Traditional music and I think it fair to say that a few of my close friends in Ireland can play or sing a note or two of that genre.

Taylor Dinerman
I was there with journalist and occasional Samidatista contributor Taylor Dinerman.
Photo: copyright Dale Amon, All Rights Reserved

It was a very international crowd, although it is sometimes hard to tell in New York. Someone who you think looks foreign may come out with a strong New York accent when they say hello… or they may speak with a strong accent from some odd corner of the world. You simply cannot tell.

Late in the evening Taylor and I were sipping our drinks and talking Chinese politics with a VP of Tang Dynasty TV, Mike Chen. He is very much the all American himself but is able to travel and mix in China and the three of us were off in a Samizdata like discussion of China’s economy, ethnic strife problems, what happens when the North Korean penny drops, why China is building forces, what sort of aircraft India is buying and why…

I think it rather suitable that drinks in hand, we were looking down upon the United Nations Building from our high capitalist perch.

UN and crowd
I have always looked down on the UN as an institution. But from here I really did look down on it.
Photo: copyright Dale Amon, All Rights Reserved

Oh, and we had a chance to talk with Rita Cosby, an old friend of Taylor’s from Fox News, before he and I and James went off for our rather late dinner at McFadden’s Bar.

Despite the Corona’s, the wine, the rum and cokes, and the Johnny Walker I had already downed, or perhaps because of them, I decided after my dinner pint of Guinness that I could not let that poor pint feel lonely. So when they headed home, I headed further down Second Avenue to an old hangout of mine. The rest of the night (and pints) is another story and I was off duty as your Samizdata On The Scene reporter.

Slante!