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]

A bet on Ebola

Bryan Caplan, over at the EconLog blog, has issued a sort of challenge to folk in the US getting worried about Ebola:

Mainstream scientists assure us that Ebola poses very little threat to Americans; unless you’re a health worker who cares for the infected, Ebola is almost impossible to catch in a rich, modern society.  Yet many populists and borderline conspiracy theorists are convinced that the experts are seriously understating the danger.  In their contrarian opinion, we desperately need to close the border now. Fortunately, this is an easy argument to put to a bet. My tentative offer: $100 says that less than 300 people will die of Ebola within the fifty United States by January 1, 2018.  I’m willing to switch to “Unless the U.S. changes its Ebola-related policies, $100 says that less than 300 people will die of Ebola within the fifty United States by January 1, 2018,” but then we’d have to carefully define what policy changes count.

Leaving aside what you think about the specifics of the Ebola case, this idea of economists and other commentators making hard financial bets on specific claims has the merit of injecting a certain edge to proceedings. There is nothing quite so much like a bet to make people prove they are convinced of something. And as the late Julian L Simon proved when he bet against a neo-Malthusian about commodity price trends, there is nothing more satisfying than being proven right.  (Paul Ehrlich, who lost the bet to Simon, was invited to have another go and declined the offer, despite responding to Simon with singular ill grace.)

Samizdata quote of the day

Dear Sir – Am I alone in thinking that the quality of KitKats has deteriorated in recent months? My wife and I are finding an increasing number of instances of a wafer inadequately covered in chocolate. I put it down to quantitative easing.

– John Triffin, Reighton, North Yorkshire. Quoted on page 65 of this hilarious collection of unpublished letters sent to the Daily Telegraph, called “I could go on”. Edited by Iain Hollingshead

Terry Pratchett on the range

Perusing the blog of Eric Raymond the other day, and following on from the previous posting here about Brad Pitt,  I wanted to put up this account of Raymond instructing a certain Terry Pratchett in how to shoot a firearm:

This is actually a very revealing thing to do with anyone. You learn a great deal about how the person handles stress and adrenalin. You learn a lot about their ability to concentrate. If the student has fears about violence, or self-doubt, or masculinity/femininity issues, that stuff is going to tend to come out in the student’s reactions in ways that are not difficult to read.

Terry was rock-steady. He was a good shot from the first three minutes. He listened, he followed directions intelligently, he always played safe, and he developed impressive competence at anything he was shown very quickly. To this day he’s one of the three or four best shooting students I’ve ever had.

Eric concludes:

But it was teaching Terry pistol that brought home to me how natively tough-minded he really is. After that, the realism and courage with which he faced his Alzheimer’s diagnosis came as no surprise to me whatsoever.

Several years ago, I attended a four-day defensive handgun course in Nevada, and have fired pistols subsequently in the US when I had the chance. I am not stating anything here that wont’ be obvious to Samzidata regulars in noting how much concentration is required to shoot well, to position oneself, and also how careful, methodical and disciplined good shooters have to be. Forget all the crap you see on the movies (although there are film actors, such as Kiefer Sutherland and Daniel Craig, who clearly have been taught properly).

Let’s cheer up about technology

Optimistic science fiction does not create a belief in technological progress. It reflects it. Stephenson and Thiel are making a big mistake when they propose a vision of the good future that dismisses the everyday pleasures of ordinary people – that, in short, leaves out consumers. This perspective is particularly odd coming from a fiction writer and a businessman whose professional work demonstrates a keen sense of what people will buy. People are justifiably wary of grandiose plans that impose major costs on those who won’t directly reap their benefits. They’re even more wary if they believe that the changes of the past have brought only hardship and destruction. If Stephenson wants to make people more optimistic about the future and more likely to undertake difficult technological challenges, he shouldn’t waste his time writing short stories about two-kilometer-high towers.

Virginia Postrel.

“The answer to jihadism is intellectual – a conversation”

A friend of mine who is a writer asked me to put up this short dialogue concerning what is probably one of the most, if not the most, important issues of our time in terms of the flourishing and survival of a free civilisation. Given the nature of the topic the writer has asked not to be named. I don’t normally do this, but the quality of the writing is so good, and the issue so important, that I decided to put this up. I hope readers find it interesting. The article is entitled: The answer to Jihadism is intellectual: a conversation.

The knock on the door was so soft as to be barely audible.

Carl Dinuto – a fortyish, greying, lean-faced professor of philosophy – looked up, wondering if he had heard right.

“Come in!” he called out anyway.

The door opened slowly and a slim young woman entered hesitantly.

“Dr Dinuto?”

“Yes.”

“Sorry to interrupt, Doctor, but can you give me a couple of minutes?”

“Perhaps. What about?”

“Um, er, well, I was auditing your lecture on contemporary ethics this morning and was really puzzled by your comments on Islam. You see, I know some Moslem people, one of my best friends at school was Muslim, and she and her family are not at all like the way you said.”

Dinuto glanced at his watch, then pointed to a chair.

“Okay. Since you’re here, you can have a few minutes.”

“Er, thank you.”

Dinuto waited while the girl sat down, watching her as she did so. She was very pretty, with shoulder-length blond hair in a ponytail and bright, greeny-brown eyes, eager and shining with a sort of innocent intelligence.

“First,” said Dinuto; “what’s your name?”

“Holly. It’s Isabel Holland actually. But everybody’s called me Holly since grade school.”

“Why not Izzie or Bella?”

“It’s one of those family things. My Grandma was British, you see, a War bride, and Dad grew up using some of her British expressions. Well, one Fall, I was wearing a dark green tracksuit and was very red-faced from running around outside in the cold. Dad said I looked like a sprig of holly. Then my older brother, who kinda fancies himself as a wit, said, ‘Not the sprog of Holland?’ We all laughed, but Holly stuck.”

“Sprog?”

“Yeah, it’s British slang for a child, from progeny, I guess.”

Dinuto laughed briefly.

“Nice story,” he said. “And what are you studying, sprog of Holland?”

Holly laughed in her turn.

“History.”

“When did you start?”

“This Fall.”

“Your faculty advisor?”

“Doctor Fowles.”

“I know him well. So, what’s your problem, Miss Holland?”

“You said Islam is a fascist political movement bent on world domination. Well, I felt that was untrue, and insulting.”

“I did not say that. I was quoting someone else who had. And I did not say ‘fascist’. I used the word ‘fascistic’ which has a different meaning. The first thing you have to learn at university, young lady, is that if you quote someone, whether in written or verbal form, you must do so accurately.”

“Say, I’m sorry…” Holly began but Dinuto raised a hand for silence.

“To be more precise, Miss Holland, what in fact happened was that a student asked me a question about the views of the Dutch politician Gert Wilders, who has recently been found not guilty of inciting religious hatred in the Netherlands. The student quoted what Wilders had said then asked what I thought of it. I said I knew little about Islam but Wilders’ description seemed accurate enough to me. What is insulting about that?”

“Well, sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but isn’t endorsing Wilders’views same as saying ’em yourself? And you did quote him, you know, kinda approvingly. You see, my friends would say that Islam is a religion, devoted to spreading and obeying the revealed word of God. Isn’t it kinda slanderous to make out like it’s a political movement?”

→ Continue reading: “The answer to jihadism is intellectual – a conversation”

Samizdata quote of the day

“Google obviously has a monopoly in search. There are all sorts of questions about whether it is abusing that monopoly or not. But I distrust the power of the EU regulators to make things better. I think the technology industry is dynamic enough that the Google monopoly will not last for ever. In practice, anything [the EU does] to micromanage the Google product will produce a cure that’s worse than the disease.”

Peter Thiel (quote is taken from the Financial Times, which is behind a registration wall).

The dubious pleasures of US college campus life

Wildly overblown claims about an epidemic of sexual assaults on American campuses are obscuring the true danger to young women, too often distracted by cellphones or iPods in public places: the ancient sex crime of abduction and murder. Despite hysterical propaganda about our “rape culture,” the majority of campus incidents being carelessly described as sexual assault are not felonious rape (involving force or drugs) but oafish hookup melodramas, arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides. Colleges should stick to academics and stop their infantilizing supervision of students’ dating lives, an authoritarian intrusion that borders on violation of civil liberties. Real crimes should be reported to the police, not to haphazard and ill-trained campus grievance committees.

Camille Paglia (h/t Glenn Reynolds).

Universities these days are not just toxic because of what Reynolds has referred to as the higher education bubble (a problem to some extent mirrored here in the UK, though smaller in relative terms). This sort of issue that Paglia writes about is creating a breeding ground for paranoia and fear among the sexes. And who benefits from this?

A fairly neat crushing of the “Mansion tax” idea

Mark Littlewood, Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs, has some fairly blunt comments to make in a release on Labour Party leader Ed Milliband’s proposal to levy an annual tax (“Mansion tax”) on residential properties valued at £2 million or more. I would hope that it isn’t all that hard to persuade regular readers of this blog that such a tax equates to a tax on the right to continue owning a property after it has been bought or inherited simply because said property has passed some arbitrary valuation threshold. As I have come to learn, some people enamoured of the collectivist notions of Henry George, a writer in the 19th Century, believe that because physical land is fixed (you cannot make more of it) that when the value of said rises for reasons outside the direct control of the owner or owners, that because the state protects such holdings against theft, the state is entitled, nonetheless, to demand a sort of “rent” to be paid by the owners of the land to everyone else because of their enjoying some “unearned” rise in the price, so that the owner is not in a fundamental sense an owner at all, but a tenant of the collective. Advocates of the Mansion Tax” usually do not make the case in such abstract terms, perhaps because the sheer, socialistic nature of it would make it unappealing in some eyes. (There is no fundamental difference between taxing high-value properties on such grounds and taxing people with great inborn talents because they did not directly create them.) In cruder terms, this tax plays on a general hostility towards “the rich” that remains an ugly feature of UK society. Some may try and finesse the issue by pointing out that rising prices have been driven by central bank quantitative easing (printing money) and land planning, to which my response is to stop doing those things, rather than hit the owners. (There is, by the way, an urgent need to relax UK planning laws and yet, as I suspect is the case, most politicians, including the hapless leader of the Labour Party, are unlikely to enact thorough reforms, apart from superficial measures to hurt “the rich”).

There are, as Mark says in his comments below, specific problems that make the Mansion Tax bad, but I wanted to make the forgoing to remind people that there is nothing remotely liberal, in the proper, classical use of the word, in such a tax, even though there are people who sometimes try and pass themselves off as libertarians who have, in my experience, sought to champion such levies. (The writer Jan Narveson has a good debunking of Georgisism.)

Anyway, here is Mark Littlewood:

“Introducing a mansion tax would be poorly targeted, arbitrary and deeply unfair. The UK already faces some of the highest property taxes in the western world when stamp duty, inheritance and council tax are taken into consideration. Such a levy would act as a double tax, whereby people pay income tax and then are taxed again on a house bought with that income.

“Aside from this, it would disproportionately penalise those who bought houses many decades ago in areas where property prices have rapidly shot up. A person’s assets does not always equate to their income. It would also be an arbitrary tax. People could own several homes costing just under £2mn and not face the levy.

“This is an extremely unwelcome addition to the Labour Party’s already disastrous attempts to tax the wealthy. Evidence has proven that their favoured 50p top rate of income tax raises trivial amounts of money. Those earning over £150,000 pay nearly 30% of all income tax. Politicians should be cultivating this tax base, not eroding it.”

Remember, there is a fairly high chance that Milliband could be in power at some point.

Another post about Scotland

Janet Daley, the expat US lady who has spent the past few decades writing about Britain, is none too keen on the idea of what is on offer from the Scottish National Party:

What Scotland would become is a kind of East Germany, sitting smack up against its prosperous English neighbour. There would be another flood of migrants heading South to escape the dead-end last redoubt of Old Labour, draining the Scottish economy of youthful talent and ambition. How long before they build a wall along the border?

Judging by the reaction of the City to the possibility of Scottish independence (falls in sterling, etc), people are getting worried. It should be noted, though, that for some time any Scot with a lot of ambition has tended to go abroad, given that the place is not a big country and smaller nations will often see their best and brightest, for a while anyway, head overseas for fame and fortune. My wife, who is from Malta, is an example (she hasn’t yet found a lot of fame and I am most annoyed she is not a billionaire yet).

Until this matter is resolved, and even for some  time if it is, no major business will be comfortable about investing north of the border. Consider what happens if you have heavy borrowing in sterling, or have issued sterling-denominated shares and there is a risk of a big change, such as eventual euro membership. And look at the sort of people in the SNP with their leftist politics. Not a happy prospect. There is a free market tradition in Scotland, but it is nowadays very hard to find it.

Thoughts about possible Scottish independence

I might as well add my two penny-worth on this issue (or whatever currency the Scots might end up using, Ed). Scottish independence is now a very real prospect, not just a distant one. There is a flurry of commentary in the media at the moment about how any divorce could be painful and bitter: rows about how to divide up responsibility for the National Debt; relocation of defence forces from Scotland; North Sea oil rights; EU and Nato membership (Scotland could arguably be kicked out of both and might not be able to reapply soon), etc. Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, has a bit of a weepie on the subject.

The classical liberal in me says that so long as Scottish people who want to be fully self-governining do so for broadly pro-freedom reasons, that is not at my expense and I wish the new, separate nation luck. I will, however, take a far less benign view if there is any nonsense from Edinburgh about how the evil South must pay it off, by shouldering all accumulated debts, or demanding continued financial disbursements from the rest of the UK, or controls over matters not in its purview any more. I feel no very great emotional attachment to Scotland these days (I am about one-fifth Scottish through my mother’s family), although I certainly do respect and admire the great contributions to human civilisation from Scotland, as demonstrated in this excellent book published a few years ago by Arthur Herman.

It is perhaps naive to think that an independent Scotland would take its cue from the pro-market traditions most gloriously established by the likes of Adam Smith and other figures in the Scottish Enlightenment. (The Adam Smith Institute has had smart things to say about an independent Scotland, by the way.)  There is no reason in principle why that cannot happen, of course, but looking at the sort of political figures who are prominent in Scotland these days, the picture is not encouraging. Perhaps the Scots, free of the ability to blame London for their ills and forced to rely on their own resources, might experience independence as a bracing learning experience and an understanding of the need to be pre-enterprise will take hold. As long as SNP leader Alex Salmond is around, the prospects don’t look good. He comes across as a bit of a thug and a bit too pleased with himself.

A final thought: if the Scots do break free (will that mean lots of visa queues at the border? Ed) it could galvanise separatist movements in other parts of the world, such as in EU member states such as Italy (Lombardy) and Spain (Catalonia). And even in the US, Scottish-influenced parts of the country will take a closer look. When countries break up, it raises possibilities. The Scottish independence vote is not just a private matter for these islands.

 

Samizdata quote of the day

“There are no facts, only interpretations”, Friedrich Nietzsche once said. One needn’t be a nihilist or a relativist to be bemused at the latest radical rewriting of history from our official number-crunchers. Everything we thought we knew about the British economy’s performance over the past 15 years or so now turns out to be wrong. Endless articles, books and academic papers have become worthless at the stroke of the statisticians’ pen.”

Allister Heath.

Hey, I thought the science was settled!

On the continued disasters in the Middle East

“It is striking, however, that you have more than 170,000 people dead in Syria. You have the vacuum that has been created by the relentless assault by Assad on his own population, an assault that has bred these extremist groups, the most well-known of which, ISIS—or ISIL—is now literally expanding its territory inside Syria and inside Iraq. You have Russia massing battalions — Russia, that actually annexed and is occupying part of a UN member state—and I fear that it will do even more to prevent the incremental success of the Ukrainian government to take back its own territory, other than Crimea. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Ukraine on both sides, not counting the [Malaysia Airlines] plane, and yet we do see this enormous international reaction against Israel, and Israel’s right to defend itself, and the way Israel has to defend itself. This reaction is uncalled for and unfair. You can’t ever discount anti-Semitism, especially with what’s going on in Europe today. There are more demonstrations against Israel by an exponential amount than there are against Russia seizing part of Ukraine and shooting down a civilian airliner. So there’s something else at work here than what you see on TV… And what you see on TV is so effectively stage-managed by Hamas, and always has been. What you see is largely what Hamas invites and permits Western journalists to report on from Gaza. It’s the old PR problem that Israel has. Yes, there are substantive, deep levels of antagonism or anti-Semitism towards Israel, because it’s a powerful state, a really effective military. And Hamas paints itself as the defender of the rights of the Palestinians to have their own state. So the PR battle is one that is historically tilted against Israel. …”

These comments are from a very senior US politician with close connections to a recent occupant of the White House. There are pretty close to my own thinking on all this. Which, assuming the quotes are accurate, is quite perplexing. I do, however, wonder how sincere the author of these words is about all this. Can you guess who I am talking about?