There are already plenty of reasons to take a dim view of Piketty’s leveling ideas on wealth. Here’s another (H/T, Econlog):
I think it would be a big mistake to oppose the objective of global progressive taxation of income and wealth with the objective of class struggle and political fight, for at least two reasons. First, making this tax reform possible would require a huge mobilization. This has always been the case in the past. All the big revolutions engendered a big tax reform. Take the French Revolution, the American Revolution, or World War One: although it was not a fiscal revolution initially, through the Bolshevik Revolution, it had a huge impact on the acceptance of a progressive tax regime and more generally social welfare institutions after World War One – and even more so after World War Two. These were fiercely opposed by the elite and by the right just before these shocks, so this shows that we need a big fight and sometimes violent shocks to make progressive tax accepted. It would be a big mistake to think of progressive taxation as a technocratic process that comes quietly from a minister and experts. This is not at all the history of taxation.
The man was interviewed and had his comments published in a blog rather aptly called Potemkin (not sure how ironic that is).
Perry Metzger, who writes occasionally for Samizdata, nicely skewered Piketty’s reasoning a few months ago.
Of all the legion of bad outcomes that result from political ambition, the most striking of our times is surely the euro, an unashamedly political project bolted on to sovereign European nations of long and proud competing traditions in the hope of making them more like the United States, at least in terms of economic prowess.
– Jeremy Warner.
Absolute crackerjack from Timothy Sandefur:
But the conscience of the free west, too, is much in need of reaffirmation. Many of us have come to take for granted the freedom of expression that our forefathers fought so bravely to secure. It is important for us to engage in free speech now, to remind ourselves of what these rights mean.
These rights are not just for us. They are human rights: all people, everywhere, are entitled to freedom, toleration, and peace. And our free societies respect the freedom to write, and speak, and publish as the right of all—from west and east, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist. You are welcome to join us: to write and publish your own criticisms of our society, or even your own offensive cartoons ridiculing things we hold dear. But whether you join us or not, we will not be silenced.
We will not be silenced, or made to fear, and we will not be persuaded to accept the idea that silence in the face of injustice is just, or that appeasement of those who threaten us is safe, or that pretending we are not afraid, by saying we are just being culturally sensitive, is honorable. The right to offend, to chastise, to ridicule and condemn: to these, we will hold fast, knowing as our ancestors knew a century and a half ago, that all freedom, and all that makes life a joy instead of a burden, depends upon it just as slavery depends upon silence and terror.
On that, we will not equivocate. We will not excuse. We will not retreat a single inch. And we will speak.
Some people in the US and beyond might have imagined that the young, appealing chap who was a senator and who ran for office in 2008 was the sort of person capable of giving the kind of speech that Sandefur has written here. We now know very different. What brief remarks he now makes on that subject are, as far as I can see, far too late and too little.
When I was 12, a guy who was a ham radio operator moved in. My uncle had gotten me started on radio, but then he went off to the war–he worked in Britain on the radar project. Anyway, this guy had a background in electronics and he was willing to teach me what he knew. That was just as the war was ending, so there was all this war-surplus electronics on the market, dirt cheap. With the little bits of money that a kid could earn, I could buy piles of electronics, and try to figure out what they were and why they were that way and how I could modify them. That was how I got my start–you could afford to do experiments, because the stuff was so cheap. You could build up equipment and try things, just to see what happened.
– Carver Mead, quantum physicist, as he later became. He helped drive some of the inventions of the modern age, such as hearing aids. His brief reflections on how and why he became interested in science make me wonder whether today’s schools are doing a very good job in the West of firing such enthusiasm. Or maybe I am being grumpy: why don’t commenters share their stories of how they got interested in a particular field?
Earlier this week, Brian Micklethwait of this parish gave an excellent talk about sport and how it sometimes has taken the place of military activity as far as -mostly- men are concerned. Brian will want to perhaps go into this issue in a lot more detail on his own but one question that came up is how such an issue relates to women. Well, a recent trend has been the rising involvement of women in front-line combat operations. They are not yet doing so in the UK infantry, although that could change soon, but in the Royal Air Force of the UK, that is now the case:
A woman who has become the first to command an RAF fast jet squadron is expected to lead bombing missions over Iraq this summer.
Wing Commander Nikki Thomas, who took charge of the newly reformed No 12 Squadron at RAF Marham in Norfolk yesterday (Fri), flew a daring low mission to help foil a deadly rocket attack on a UK base in Afghanistan.
The 36-year-old is a weapons system operator with extensive experience of combat operations, clocking up more than 35 missions in Afghanistan within three months alone.
This is a woman with a lot of guts. Consider the fact that she knows that, in the event of her aircraft being hit, she might have to eject over land run by Islamists who are not going to be amused at being bombed by Western, feisty women. But then women in the Kurdish regions have already been showing that when it comes to dealing with these thugs, there are no real differences between the sexes when it comes to courage and skill.
There is also a broader point. With professional, volunteer forces, there is a premium on young, fit, smart people who have the ability to do a challenging role. Flying a fighter plane is not the sort of thing anyone can do. Given the ruthless process of selecting for flight training, it is pretty clear that a person who can reach the rank of this RAF officer and do what she is doing must be top-class. The pool of talent is finite. So if a woman is good enough to do this, well fine by me.
And this has nothing to do with PC nonsense, by the way. There is no room for Political Correctness in flying a supersonic jet.
In the aftermath of the horror yesterday in Paris, I noticed that Mr Obama gave a speech, as many other national leaders did, expressing solidarity with France at this time and supporting free speech. I am sure I am not the only person to note how hollow Mr Obama’s comments sound in the light of how his administration conducted itself around the time of the attack in Benghazi when a film about Islam had been released. This isn’t narrow political point-scoring – Republicans and others are just as capable of getting themselves wrong on this issue. The point, rather, is that Western leaders need to be as ruthlessly consistent as possible. When the Obama administration was tested on this sort of issue, it wobbled. Islamist fanatics notice – it creates incentives among those who calculate that if they create enough hysteria, are sufficiently “offended” by something, that people will cave in. The most powerful country on the planet caved.
Another point worth making, particularly as people across the political spectrum seem to be genuinely shocked and appalled by this attack, is that far too many attacks on free speech these days are justified in the name of banning “hate speech”, and so on. Certain forms of expression may indeed be hateful and unpleasant but the best defence against that is indifference, contempt, or ridicule. And another point, particularly for the more anarchist-minded out there, especially those of a leftist bent, is this: if you want to vent, do so on private property, in a consensual way. The producers of the French magazine did that: no-one was forced to buy their product or forced to read it. It is not as if they sprayed their cartoons in public streets outside a mosque.
Browsing one of those coffee-table sort of magazines you get in the flashier reception rooms in City offices, I flicked through the magazine called Monocle, which has lots of travel articles and advertisements for things I cannot afford, such as IWC watches, Maserati sports cars and holidays to “eco-resorts” in the Indian Ocean, etc. Laced with all this are earnest, remorselessly trendy essays on politics and culture. The undertone is progressive-lefty globalist, with a bit of concession, to be fair, to entrepreneurial vigour and technology. (Some of its items are excellent.) There is a sort of default setting on issues such as Man-made global warming, but the level of preaching is soft. It is a magazine, I imagine, that is pitched at affluent people who want the good things of life but want to feel they are still being “cool”.
I sometimes think that those on the libertarian/classical liberal/conservative end of the spectrum are missing a bit of a trick here by not producing things such as this. Ideas often spread not simply through big books full of Important Ideas (crucial though they are) or from having lots of university professors who espouse such notions (these are crucial of course) but also through aspects of popular and more rarified culture. I mean things such as art galleries, travel magazines and novels. It appears to me – though I have no scientific way of measuring this – that travel mags and books, for example (think National Geographic, Rough Guide books) seem to be edited by people who just trot out the bromides of the progressive, Tranzi mindset without really thinking about their premises. Here is a classic example from the Monocle issue 49 that came out in the end of 2011, on page 43. It is an article about so-called “soft power” and what countries must do to project it. Needless to say, its assumptions are that governments (ie, the taxpayer) should do it:
“The term for soft power may have been coined in America, but Washington has always seemed more focused on demonstrating heavy-handed military power or confrontational commercial tactics than investing in soft power symbols such as an official tourist board.”
America needs a tourist board, otherwise who knows? People might not be aware that the world’s largest economy exists. What an oversight.
Or this nugget:
“Despite the absence of a national tourism board – or a modern, well-run national airline – the US still attracts millions of visitors every year.”
Let’s think about this for a bit. The Monocle author says it is a bit odd that so many people go on vacation to the US despite that country not having a bunch of bureaucrats and marketing folk (paid for by taxes) saying what a terrific place the US is. (Surely states and cities do promote themselves, though. California puts up adverts in the UK.)
People just seem to be able to figure out that visiting the US can be done and is a nice idea without a national cheerleader organisation. Further, it appears to be a surprise to the author of that piece that this can happen when the US does not appear to have a major, national airline that has some sort of official status. Wow.
The author does recognise that given the sheer size of the country in geographic terms, and the size of its economy, that may be it can get by without such things. But does it not cross the mind of the author that the reason why some nations (it mentions a whole cluster of them) have a positive image for travellers has nothing to do with state-financed marketing moves or state-backed broadcasters such as the BBC, but because of the bottom-up, free market nature of activity in some of these places that creates things people want to have and which therefore are good for a country’s image? Ironically, Monocle is stuffed with glossy adverts for all manner of brands that speak of the triumph of capitalism, and an admiration for the people who make it work.
I think that if governments really do want to influence opinions in the wider world about what, say, the UK or US is about, the best way to do this is to get out of the way and let the actions and words of people, uninfluenced by government, do the job. Cultural outreach works best when governments have nothing to do with it, since otherwise it reeks of propaganda. Whether you like or dislie these effusions of the market, I’d say that the manufacturers of Rolex watches, BMW cars or pop music do more for the respective images of their countries than anything likely to come out of a government-backed broadcaster or tourism board.
The Taliban child murderers in Pakistan are beyond the bounds of reason or common humanity just as much as the individual lunatic who flies their flag for a brief moment of glory in a coffee shop. Properly speaking, what Sony did, and what the political leaders who advise talking to the Taliban are suggesting, is not appeasement as we knew it in the 20th century. Terrorism is not international politics – and it is not war in any conventional sense. It is criminal insanity. There can be no pragmatic settlement, no negotiation and no dealing with these enemies. Their power will only be destroyed by mortifying defeat and that means defying their threats and their demands at every point. If that puts us at risk, so be it. No life worth living is without risk.
– Janet Daley
Interestingly, Obama’s rebuke for Sony has led to some pushback. It is worthwhile speculating if such events will sour relations between Obama and many of those in the Hollywood establishment who have been among his most fervent supporters.
Douglas Murray argues that in today’s supposedly anti-politics culture, a distrust of the current crop of folk in power does not translate into genuine liberalism and accountability – such as would happen if Whitehall and Brussells were cut down to size – but something potentially very nasty indeed. And he takes a look at the likes of Owen Jones and Russell Brand as symptoms of a wider problem:
Writing about those rioters who in the summer of 2011 smashed, burned and looted shops across Britain, Brand writes that their actions were no worse than the consumerism which he describes as having been “imposed” upon them. And this, I cannot help thinking, is an especially revealing phrase — entirely at one with a popular world view. That view sees “us” as poor victims of forces and temptations which are not only pushed upon us, but to which, when they are pushed upon us long enough, we will inevitably and necessarily succumb. If you are in a “consumerist” society long enough how could you be expected to just not buy crap you can’t afford when you don’t need it? No — the answer must be that of course you will succumb. And from there any bad behaviour — even looting and burning — will be excused because it will be someone else’s fault.
This is the world view of an addict. And the answer to all our society’s problems of the addict Brand is one answer which some addicts seek for their addiction — which is that everyone is to be blamed for their failings except themselves. Grand conspiracy theories and establishment plots offer great promise and comfort to such people. They suggest that when we fail or when we fall we do so never because of any conceivable failing or inability of our own, but because some bastard — any bastard — made us do it, has been planning to do it and perhaps always intended to do so. Of course the one thing missing in all this — the one thing that doesn’t appear in either of these books or in any of their conspiratorial and confused demagogic world view — is the only thing which has saved anyone in the past and the only thing which will save anybody in the future: not perfect societies, perfectly engineered economies and perfectly equal, flattened-out collective-based societies, but human agency alone.
This analysis is spot-on, and it explains why, even though concepts such as “the ruling class” or “establishment” can have some sort of value in explaining how groups of people act and think, they can become very dangerous without understanding that people respond to incentives, and that we make a mistake in seeing events as being driven by close-knit cabals or groups wielding enormous, but somehow secret, power. In other words, what I have learned from subjects such as “public choice economics” or the insights of writers such as Milton Friedman or a Henry Hazlitt is that seeing dark forces at work to explain things like bank crises or environmental problems is more about what people find emotionally satisfying than what actually happens 99 per cent of the time.
Although I should not have to spell it out, in the past, a lot of the sort of thinking that is being described here took the form of anti-semitism. And it is probably no great accident that this is also on the rise at the moment.
One of the lead stories on the UK national news today is a report that a hacking attack on Sony has led to a satirical film at the expense of the brutal regime about North Korea being pulled from Western cinemas:
Sony is canceling The Interview‘s planned theatrical release in response to all major US theater chains deciding not to show the film after attacks were threatened. “In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release,” Sony says in a statement, reprinted by Variety. “We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.”
“We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression.”
The hackers who stole data from Sony threatened attacks on screenings of The Interview yesterday afternoon. In the time since, around half of all movie screens in the US declined to show the film.
Sony’s statement continues: “Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”
It is hard not to see the decision by some cinemas to pull screening of the film as anything other than a dangerous capitulation to threats of violence, although one appreciates that the owners of the cinemas think they have a legitimate issue in protecting staff and audiences. But still, this sort of move is bound to encourage other criminals to target any film, of whatever stripe, that they dislike and wish to close down. A few years ago we had the Danish cartoon episode. So what next, one wonders? I wonder what would happen if someone in the West produced a film taking the piss out of the bare-chested leader of Russia?
Meanwhile, in a weird case of life imitating art, the hackers have also allegedly grabbed an early script of the newest James Bond movie. You almost wonder whether this is clever pre-publicity, but it appears this is not.
A few months ago, Nigel Farage, the grinning leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, in one of his many contributions to the gaiety of nations, said – about the time of the annexation by Russia of Crimea – that he “admired” Vladimir Putin. Farage said that he did not admire the goals of VP, oh no, but he did have a sort of admiration for the ruthless determination of the man. (One wonders whether Farage rather liked the idea of having the power to bump off opponents and over-inquisitive journalists. Politicians who grin as maniacally as he does make me nervous.) Those who must abide by the messiness and compromises of Western liberal democracy can sometimes, no doubt, dream of the sort of ruthless power wielded by a Putin, Stalin or a Mao. (We tend to forget, by the way, that even a supposedly tough politician such as a Reagan or Thatcher were more hemmed in by circumstances and debate than some of their more fervent admirers and detractors care to admit.)
Alas, it appears that the image of Putin as this ruthless, chess-playing genius wrongfooting silly old Cameron, Merkel, and the chap with the funny moonface from France is not quite standing up to scrutiny. Here’s a report by Bloomberg:
“The foundations on which Vladimir Putin built his 15 years in charge of Russia are giving way. The meltdown of the ruble, which has plunged 18 percent against the dollar in the last two days alone, is endangering the mantra of stability around which Putin has based his rule. While his approval rating is near an all-time high on the back of his stance over Ukraine, the currency crisis risks eroding it and undermining his authority, Moscow-based analysts said.
In a surprise move today, the Russian central bank raised interest rates by the most in 16 years, taking its benchmark to 17 percent. That failed to halt the rout in the ruble, which has plummeted to about 70 rubles a dollar from 34 as oil prices dived by almost half to below $60 a barrel. Russia relies on the energy industry for as much as a quarter of economic output, Moody’s Investors Service said in a Dec. 9 report.
Now might also be a good time to remind ourselves of the “curse of natural resources”.
It would be worth wondering what are the odds that Putin can last a lot longer in power. That said, a sobering thought is that when regimes are in deep trouble, they can do desperate, crazy things, as Argentina did in 1982 by invading the Falklands. If I were a planner for NATO right now, I’d be having a nervous Christmas and New Year ahead of me.
“Context matters—everyone agrees about that. And it’s the context that distinguishes the ordinary kinds of communication, protected by the First Amendment, from those kinds of statements, like threats or defamatory comments, that are crimes. The law recognizes that a threat is a kind of injury, over and above the language in which it is communicated. If I were to move my hand swiftly toward your face, and you flinch, that’s an assault because you’ve been made to reasonably fear for your safety. When exactly the same act is carried out through language, the protection that communication normally receives should not cover up the criminality of the underlying assault. Holding Elonis responsible for his actions threatens no serious threat to the First Amendment.”
– Timothy Sandefur, making an argument about how threatening messages issued via social media, etc, should be regarded from the point of view of free speech. I need to reflect a bit more about what I think about the cases he’s cited, but the whole article is worth reading.