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]

Samizdata quote of the day

“Over the past two or three years people have finally started waking up to the fact that conspicuous consumption is now about useless degrees, not SUVs.”

Adam Smith Institute. The comment comes from a new monograph by the ASI, entitled The New Aristocrats: A cultural and economic analysis of the new virtue signalling. 

Well, I am really old school, then. I drive a Jag.

What are the risks that Hillary Clinton goes to jail before she could reach the White House?

This story has been around for such a long time that the cynics in the media and political world are inclined, perhaps, to roll their eyes at yet another article going on about how Hillary Clinton (who beat Bernie Sanders by a whisker in Iowa last night) allegedly put classified material through a private email account, including material considered so sensitive that the lives of CIA and other US operatives are potentially at risk. A full account can be seen at the Observer blog (not to be confused with the British newspaper.) From a reading of this tale, it seems to me that Clinton has misbehaved on a scale equivalent to say, a Bradley Manning or, maybe in some ways, an Edward Snowden (contrary to some people, I don’t regard Snowden as a libertarian hero, at least not consistently). And one effect may be that supposed allies of the US, such as the UK, may be asking very urgent questions indeed, right now, about all this. What UK intelligence material has been compromised? Have Brit agents’ lives been put at risk? And so on. And given that there is no love lost between the Obama and Clinton camps, it may be that Obama, with his Chicago-educated ruthlessness and malice, may absolutely love to torpedo the candidacy of this woman and try and get a hardline socialist into the White House (although that might be wishful thinking.)

There has been so much focus on Donald Trump’s extraordinary rise to political prominence that some of the media attention that could have been focused on the Clinton email affair has been diverted. Even allowing for media bias to the Clintons, there are enough liberal/left journalists, as well as more obviously conservative and libertarian ones, who loathe the Clinton dynasty, who are appalled by its corruption, to make a serious assault. I expect the next few weeks and months to be fascinating.

So a question for commentators on this blog is: how serious a risk does Clinton face of going down for this and are there precedents of a front-runner for a candidacy being brought down by criminal charges/investigation?

 

Samizdata quote of the day

America is truly the land of opportunity, even multimillionaire actors can be victims deserving special treatment.

A commenter called Joshinca, commenting on this post about the Oscars, by Roger Simon.

I know this might seem a bit contrarian-for-the-hell-of-it, and I might miss out, but these days a good rule of thumb for me is that if a film has won an Oscar, then there is a more than trivial possibility that it sucks in some way. They resemble Nobel Peace prizes, almost.

I can’t get a bus!

Normally I would not bother to unpick the economic nonsense of Corbynista Owen Jones, but he has the sort of article up on the Guardian that passes for conventional thinking among a sizeable chunk of the population, so I am going to quickly have a pop at it:

Travel outside London….Britain’s deregulated bus system reveals itself as the source of widespread, justified disgruntlement – an overpriced, inefficient, poor-quality mess. According to a report to be published this week, since deregulation in 1986 – unleashed with the promise that “more people would travel” – bus trips in big cities outside London have collapsed from 2bn to 1bn a year. In London, on the other hand, where everything from how much we pay to which routes exist is decided by the mayor and Transport for London, bus use since the 1980s has gone in the opposite direction: from around 1bn to more than 2bn trips a year. Britain’s bus privatisation disaster is a story of profit before need, and a discomfiting tale for those who believe the private sector automatically trumps the public realm.

Jones doesn’t use the term, but he presumably thinks that the fact of there being far fewer bus services in the UK than a certain period in the past is a case of what economists call “market failure” – where there is a lot of supposed demand for X, but and under-supply of it, which needs to be fixed by, you guessed, the State (supported by the taxpayer, the very same people who are supposedly unable to pay for the under-supplied service). There are several issues here. First of all, services run by a municipality (ie, a monopoly with no competition) typically don’t lend themselves to good consumer service. Second, in a large metropolis such as London, where an organisation such as Transport for London runs things, there is still quite a lot of competition (cycling, walking, cars, etc) the abuse that any monopoly power has is constrained, although the situation is far from ideal. Funnily enough, the other day TFL, which had been lobbied by taxi drivers to go after Uber, seems to have decided against it, which is good news.

In the countryside, it may well be true that there are a dearth of buses. It may not be profitable to run them on certain routes, but is that an argument against private provision and for state control? In very sparsely populated parts of the country, it is a serious mis-allocation of scarce resources to provide such things when there are more urgent requirements instead for the resources in question. Second, if a person goes to live in the country, part of the pro/con of living in the back of beyond is that you don’t have lots of rapid-transit transport nearby. You may have to rely on having a car, driven by either you, or by a neighbour, partner, etc. That is part of the trade-off that comes from choosing to live in the sticks, rather than in the city. Why should those who have chosen the option to live in the country, or to stay there, be subsidised in transport terms by those who do not? In some cases, the persons paying for the subsidy will be far less well off than those taking advantage of it. That is the sort of regressive transfer of wealth that I assumed a lefty such as Jones would be against. This sort of issue also explains why, other things being equal, the cost of buying a home in central London is far higher than, say, the middle of Norfolk or Yorkshire.

Jones states that because, in his view, people “need” X that it is the responsibility, in the event of some alleged market failure, for the State to step in. But leaving aside whether the need is real or a figment of Jones’ socialist imagination, consider a basic example of a human need: food. Food is, despite some interventions and distortions created by the State, such as import tariffs and subsidies for farmers, largely handled in the private sector here. Ask yourself whether we would be better off in having food supplied by something such as Transport for London, or Sainsbury’s, Tesco’s or Asda. It does not even come close, does it?

 

In the interests of balance…..

The other day I linked to an item about Donald Trump’s economic illiteracy. Today, there is an item in the Daily Telegraph by Emma Barnett (whoever she is). She piles on Trump for the endorsement he has received from Sarah Palin. Her article is about how deranged most American voters, and by extension, much of the political class, are and is. But the article itself is an example of a different kind of stupidity, mixed up with a generous loading of condescension and superciliousness. And I just loved this about the approach Brits are supposed to take to what is going on Stateside:

If the US political stage were solely split between the reasonable wings of the Democrat Party, a socialist Bernie Sanders and hawkish Hillary Clinton, we’d probably be better able to relate.

So let me get this straight: the UK would be fine with an election between an economically illiterate fool (Sanders) and a probable criminal (Clinton). OK, we currently have an official opposition led by a terrorist-supporting sub-Marxist (Corbyn) and a government led by a patrician Tory of mixed accomplishments (Cameron), although “call me Dave” is probably not as venal, or as congenital a liar, as H. Clinton (we are talking in relative terms, in case people object that DC isn’t particularly honest). So yes, there is much about American politics that a lot of Brits, marinated in mixed economy juice and decades of socialism, cannot relate to, but please, don’t let’s assume that we’d all be quite content with a race between Sanders and Clinton for ultimate power any more than most Americans would.

Oh and by the way, if H Clinton is “hawkish”, I am not sure how that assessment fits with the running sore that is the siege on the Benghazi Embassy, and her behaviour over said.

 

Samizdata quote of the day

I will admit to rather enjoying the sight of Donald Trump storming through the Republican race. It’s simply refreshing to see someone over turning the established and perhaps too measured way that politics has been approached recently. However, my enjoyment is as nothing to the perils of the economic policy which he’s just announced, which is that he’ll get Apple to start making “their damn computers” in America instead of in other countries. This is really not a sensible policy at all even though it accords with his other misunderstandings about trade. Because the net effect of such a policy would be to make America a poorer country. Something we’ve known since David Ricardo published in 1817. And, since making the country, or the people of the country, poorer is not at all the point nor purpose of having an economy, or even a public policy about the economy, this is something we really shouldn’t try to do.

Tim Worstall.

Of course, I suspect that Trump knows full well that protectionism is a lousy idea and harms those who advocate it. I am guessing that he doesn’t care.

National Review’s Kevin Williamson has a book on Trump that makes for sobering reading. If anyone thinks Trump is any kind of supporter for limited government conservatism, I have a beach resort in Leeds I’d like to sell you.

No need to cry over the disaster of the UK Labour Party today

Tim Montgomerie, over at the CapX site, writes about his fears of how the UK will fare longer term while the main opposition party, Labour, slides further and further into lunacy. That it is becoming more brutishly statist/mad isn’t in doubt. We have Jeremy Corbyn’s support for secondary picketing in union disputes with employers, calls by him for powers to ban firms from paying dividends if they are not deemed to pay staff enough, ending a nuclear deterrent – while keeping submarines (for what, deep-sea fishing?); potentially moving to give Argentina some sort of stake in the Falklands, talk of reaching out diplomatically to ISIS, “people’s quantitative easing”, and so on. It is a mixture so mad, so evidently mad to anyone with a basic understanding of state-craft and economics, that I remain convinced that Corbyn is not really interested in winning power soon, but is interested in discrediting the very tradition of parliamentary democracy by enabling the Tories to retain power for a long time and hence building up resentment about it. Maybe I am, however, assuming too much in the way of feral cunning on the part of Corbyn and his unlovely allies. Maybe these men and women are sincere, and just unbelievably thick.

Montgomerie’s point about the dangers of their being a miserable excuse for an opposition is true in a sense (competition is healthy) but it is worth noting that when, as in recent years, parties competed over who could provide the best sort of managerialist/half-capitalist/half statist arrangement, the quality of governance was not notably great, in my view. And consider this shocker of a paragraph from Montgomerie, who is, remember, a supposed Conservative:

I can think of many things that the Blair-Brown governments did that benefited Britain and which a Tory-led government would unlikely to have initiated (but has now embraced – and sometimes extended). The minimum wage. Free access to museums and galleries. The targeting of institutional racism in public bodies like the Metropolitan Police. The smoking ban in public places. The (near) abolition of hereditary peers. The establishment of the Department of International Development. Active measures to increase the diversity of parliament. A lower age of consent for gay men.

The minimum wage. This is an economically illiterate measure that to the extent it makes a difference, does so by raising unemployment, particularly among the young, unskilled and among minorities. True, the current Tory government has embraced the idea, but that was more out of low political calculation over trying to “shoot the Labour fox” than out of understanding of labour markets. Bad idea.

Free access to museums and galleries. I am a taxpayer  and pay for museums and galleries. Anyone who buys anything like a pint of beer or fills up a car with petrol pays taxes. Clue to Mr Montgomerie: these things aren’t free. Someone get this man an economic textbook.

The targeting of institutional racism in bodies like the Metropolitan police. “Institutional racism”: a sloppy term. Just because the share of police officers on the beat doesn’t match 100 per cent with the makeup of the population in area X does not, ipso facto, prove that there is racism around or that it was a decisive factor at work, absent other forces. And the same applies to arrest data – that X per cent of arrests in London are among young males from ethnic group X does not, of itself, prove there is a problem unless you could prove intent. To discriminate is to choose – which involves a conscious agent. A lot of nonsense gets committed by ignoring this basic point.

The smoking ban in public places. This was a draconian step that, while it is good for non-smokers such as me, is not so great if you value tolerance. Appallingly, it applies to spaces owned by private sector bodies, such as offices and pubs, where the decision should be down to the owners of said as much as possible. With publicly-funded bodies, the taxpayer rightly should have an important say in the matter. A genuine Conservative ought to be able to make that distinction, rather than support a blanket ban.

The (near) abolition of hereditary peers – well, if this system was to be replaced by one that meant the House of Lords remained a vigorous check on the Commons and prevented foolish, ill-drafted legislation getting through, that would be worthwhile. The jury is out.

The establishment of the Department of International Development – a body that takes taxpayer’s money to fund government-to-government aid. There is now quite a body of research proving that much state-backed of foreign aid is worthless, if not actively harmful, and far less effective than encouraging free trade and open access to markets so as to build self-reliance and foster growth. Also, there is the small matter of taxpayers having the right to decide what to do with their own money if possible, as the default position. (Which is what Conservatives are supposed to assume, right?)

Active measures to increase the diversity of parliament. Translation: more women and ethnic minorities. The composition of a political party should be down to the party and its members, rather than decided in any other way. By “active measures”, does Mr Montgomerie support coercive interference with how MP candidates are selected? I should hope not. Parties are voluntary bodies and paid for voluntarily, and should remain so and retain autonomy to select MPs how they like, whether it be for rational or daft reasons.

A lower age of consent for gay men. Sure, encouraging the notion of respecting relations between consenting adults is a good idea. Shame it is honoured so rarely by what passes for respectable opinion these days.

The current plight of the Labour Party is a source for some concern but unlike Montgomerie, I don’t feel particular sorrow over its demise. Labour has presided over a number of disasters in our history. To give some examples, its nationalisation of much of British industry post-1945, based on notions of state control and central planning, did immense harm, and the punishingly high income tax rates after the war, which the Tories did not really reverse until 1979, meant the UK had little in the way of a start-up, entrepreneurial culture for decades. There may have been some incremental good done along the way (some of the criminal law reforms in the 1960s were good) but by and large the achievements of Labour have been negative. If Corbyn finishes this lot off, I am not going to cry into my cornflakes. Sooner or later, the market for a moderate liberal/left, if it is big enough, will be filled.

Samizdata quote of the day

It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done. I was in tears. They’d backed up the stage to the wall itself so that the wall was acting as our backdrop. We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realize in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. When we did “Heroes” it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer. However well we do it these days, it’s almost like walking through it compared to that night, because it meant so much more.

David Bowie, describing a concert he gave in Berlin, 1987.

Interesting take from Reason magazine.

RIP. He will be greatly missed and his influence on music has been undeniable.

Comparisons of UK, US in terms of liberty – a useful analysis

Preston Byrne, who will be known to some Samizdata contributors, has this fascinating and lengthy comparison about the state of freedom in the US and UK. He comes to the conclusion that according to a range of metrics, the UK isn’t a free nation any longer.

 

The United States – while free – is never very far away from turning into something similar. The difference in attitude between my two homes (and two passports) is about a heckuva lot more than gun control: it is a misunderstanding about what rights are and how they should work. Modern Europeans don’t seem to notice or even particularly care about state overreach.

“Gun violence is a problem for the government,” says the man on the Clapham omnibus, “so guns should be banned, just as we banned them in England.” He goes on to point out that England wants to ban, or has banned, encryption, extreme viewpoints, democratically-elected foreign political parties, Donald Trump, knives, or whatever other Public Enemy Number One du jour happens to be in vogue, irrespective of whether the evidence supports or requires the proposed legislative action.

Rights, in the mind of the Englishman and in his laws (thanks to sub-section (2) of most Articles of the European Convention), are and shall always be conditional.

On the flip side, Europe can, and does, use policy to achieve social welfare gains far out of proportion to their cost. It is unquestionably better to be a small-time drug dealer (or a member of his family or circle of extended friends) when said dealer finds himself before an English court than if he found himself before one in New York County.

How Hollywood portrays the 2008 financial crash, ctd

As The Big Short unfolds its racing narrative and the protagonists come to curse the authors of the disaster, and as the movie ends with the epilogue text running up the dark screen, we hear investment bankers, stockbrokers, and rating agencies condemned as pure frauds—criminals who should not have escaped jail. We never once—I know that this defies belief, given what has been published about the crisis—we never once hear government mentioned. Not the Federal Reserve, not the government-created, government-backed Federal National Mortgage Association or the Federal National Mortgage Association [Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac], not the legislation pressuring banks to make subprime loans. Not one word. A Martian somehow hearing and understanding this movie would not know that government existed—except for a few mentions of how government regulatory agencies were asleep at the switch. Capitalism, the private sector, through greed, stupidity, and sheer denial, brought on this epic collapse of the U.S. economy and endangered the world financial system, which had to be saved by governments.

It is impossible to see this as an innocent error. Perhaps in 2010, when Michael Lewis published his book—possibly, and I am stretching, here—a writer might have focused on the direct, immediate locus of the tragedy and missed its essential cause. But by 2015, when this film was completed and released, dozens of books and articles had laid out explicitly, irrefutably the role of government as enabler of the crisis. I might mention the account by a leading banker, John A. Allison, who went through the entire experience, managed his bank to save its depositors from the disaster, and then told the story in The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure [McGraw-Hill Education, 2012]. There are many other accounts, such as “Who Really Created the Global Financial Crisis”? The Big Short is told as though they do not exist.

Walter Donway, writing in the Savvy Street website (which I heartily recommend).

It is worth noting that portrayals of how financiers operate are not always bad or glaringly lacking in context. As mentioned on this blog before by Brian Micklethwait, one of the best movies made about the crisis has been Margin Call, starring the likes of Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons. That film does not seek to claim that bankers are all evil bastards masterminding, well, evil, like a lot of jumped up Bond villains who are evil because that is what they are. Rather, it shows a lot of flawed, not always admirable but very human, well, humans dealing with a fuck up as well as they can. Even Wall Street, the Oliver Stone movie of the 1980s, is pretty good to the extent that the “Greed is good speech” contains some pretty serious truths (alas, undermined by what Gordon Gekko says later about how business is about a zero-sum game, which it isn’t). It seems the fundamental failing of The Big Short (written by Michael Lewis), both in the book, and the film made about it, is what it leaves out, as Walter Donway correctly notes. There is no fundamental explanation of why the crisis happened. Ask someone why the crisis happened and they blather on about “bankers” or “greed” gives us as much information about developments as when a person tries to explain the origins of the First World War by saying “warmongering”, “Kaiser Bill” or “bayonets”.

I might see the Big Short, but given my own Scrooge-like approach, will buy the DVD when it comes out cheap, or via that capitalist marvel Amazon Prime, to which I now have access. (Woot!)

Well that didn’t last long

“On November 21, Iran conducted its second test of a nuclear-capable ballistic missile in direct contravention of two U.N. Security Council prohibitions, including one that incorporates the current nuclear agreement — which bans such tests for eight years.”

From National Review. 

Another report via Reuters

Can anyone be in serious doubt that the deal between the US/EU and Iran to lift sanctions against the latter over Iran’s supposed co-operation over being good on nuclear tests is a crock? Another blinding result for Mr Obama’s foreign policy. We have another year of this man in the White House.

Samizdata quote of the day

In my book, Everything Has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living, I argue that the values of the ancient Stoics can help us achieve personal happiness. I believe that these same values can help our children grow into strong, responsible, and resilient citizens. And what are Stoic values? It’s not just a matter of keeping a stiff upper lip, nor does Stoicism hold that you should tamp down all your feelings. Rather, Stoics believed that the good life is one characterized by virtuous beliefs and actions—in brief, a life based on duty, discipline, and moderation. The Stoics also believed in the importance of taking life on its own terms–what they would have described as “living in harmony with nature.” Stoics did not whine when they were passed over for an award, nor did they throw a hissy fit when they didn’t get their way. As the Stoic philosopher, Seneca (106-43 BCE) put it, “All ferocity is born of weakness.” Perhaps most important, Stoics understood the tremendous value of gratitude — not only for the gifts we have received, but also for the grief we have been spared. Maybe if more children were inculcated with these teachings, we would find our celebrities showing more gratitude and less “attitude.”

Ronald Pies.

In another article, the author of this item argues that narcissism may explain the recent spate of mass shootings in the US; he seems to acknowledge, which is to his credit, that overall violent crime in the US has actually fallen in recent years, however.