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

“So why is it, then, that when it seems obvious that to understand finance you need to understand human behaviour, Finance World continues to insist that finance is `all about numbers’ and can be fully understood using mathematics? Partly, perhaps, because so many of them are mathematicians to start with and they find it difficult to see things other than within a numerical framework. Partly, perhaps also, because many have Type-A personalities and they find it difficult to deal with uncertainty. Yet surely also because so many are reluctant to admit that they may have been wasting their time all these years basing their work on the Markowitz worldview, just as so many unrepentant socialists found it difficult to admit they had been used as Stalin’s `useful idiots’ when the Soviet Union’ collapsed.”

Guy Fraser-Sampson, The Pillars of Finance: The Misalignment Theory and Investment Practice, page 187. The book is about how, under the influence of mathematics specialists such as Markowitz, a lot of investment decisions got dangerously out of whack with reality, as we saw in 2008. Despite some pushback, a lot of the investment industry on which our pensions and savings depend are in thrall to risk and market ideas that are seriously mistaken. Throw in the joys of central bank fiat money and the rest, you have a problem. I should add that Fraser-Sampson, who is a professional investment figure as well as academic, is a big fan of the Austrian school (von Mises, etc). Even better, Douglas Adams, the 30 Year’s War and The Goon Show make an appearance. What more can one ask for in a book about finance?

Does class have to come into everything, including rock?

I suppose some people who loathe rock festivals and want to pretend how much they enjoy playing the “working class hero” line might sympathise with Bruce Dickinson, who is the front-man for group Iron Maiden, in refusing to play at Glastonbury for it being “middle class”. (He was privately educated, which is ironic.) I normally really like Dickinson (if not his music, at all) due to his being a qualified pilot and having fairly pro-free market, no bullshit, views. And he cannot stand Coldplay and all that dreary stuff, so he must be a good egg overall. But something about all this makes me think, “Fcrissakes, can we just take class out of it and enjoy the music on its merits? Does it always have to have some frickin’ socio-economic agenda?”

Here is the item:

Bruce Dickinson, who attended the private Sharrow Vale boarding school in Sheffield, said the band had no interest in playing there. He said: “In the days when Glasto was an alternative festival it was quite interesting. “Now it’s the most bourgeois thing on the planet. Anywhere Gwyneth Paltrow [the actress] goes and you can live in an air-conditioned yurt is not for me.”

Dickinson, who is also a qualified commercial pilot, said he was glad he was instead playing at hard rock festival, Sonisphere, at Knebworth Park in Hertfordshire in July. “We’ll leave the middle classes to do Glastonbury and the rest of the great unwashed will decamp to Knebworth and drink lot of beer and have fun,” he said in an interview. Fellow heavy metal band Metallica are headliner’s at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, which starts next week and is attended by more 100,000 people. Tickets for the event, which sells out in minutes, are £210.

I can see his point about having a raving good time with cheap beer etc. Heck, I went to Le Mans last weekend to watch the 24-hour endurance motor race, which is the petrol-head equivalent of a rock festival with very, very fast cars blasting around a track in central France. There are lots of overweight middle-aged, lower-middle class guys (few women) who attend it, as well as the odd toff, group of rowdy youngsters and so on. I suspect even a few leftie-liberals go, in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. Think of Essex man and his European/North American versions all having a great time away from the other half and the kids. My wife stays at home with her friends and would not go there for love or money. And of course it is gloriously loud, vulgar, a hymn to non-PCness. But I don’t worry about the class backgrounds of those who go and would be a pretty sad individual if that sort of issue coloured my enjoyment. This weekend, I am in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot to watch the horses, and it doesn’t get more “upper class” in a cliched way than that.

Can we please, just for once, take the class obsession out of every such event? Please. Pass the champagne.

The monstrous ECJ ruling about “the right to be forgotten”

This is now several weeks’ old and I fear that coverage of this issue could fade in the usual 24/7 news cycle, but it deserves to be kept in public view, hopefully continuing to raise a stink. I am talking about a recent European Court of Justice ruling regarding whether a person/institution can demand that an online outfit such as Google can be made to remove material about said person/institution that is damaging, sensitive or highly personal. People are talking about the “right to be forgotten”. Note that the information doesn’t need to be libellous. Even if it is embarrassing but clearly true, a website can be required to remove it. This means that certain organisations and people – and you can think of the sort I mean – have an open opportunity to remove items about themselves that they dislike. It is a monstrous interference with freedom of speech and demonstrates just how badly Europe misses any sort of First Amendment protection of free speech (although as I pointed out the other day, even the US these days has defaulted).

There doesn’t appear to be a lot of anger about this from the media as a whole – there hasn’t been the kind of reaction that attended the Leveson Report, for example. It is easy for some faux civil libertarians to say, perhaps, that the ruling affects nasty, big – usually American – firms such as Google, but that supposition is foolish. Anyone with a website carrying information that someone might object to might face this problem. As for journalists trying to track down information about people and using online channels, this is a very damaging step. It stinks.

There are lots of reasons for objecting to how Europe is currently run and I want out of the EU, although unlike some of those who want to quit, want to do so for pro-freedom reasons, not due to nationalism or terror about immigrants. I have no illusions, of course, about national courts and parliaments in that they can be just as moronic in trying to oppress freedom of speech as a supranational one. We tend to forget that point. But national stupidity can be easier to circumvent than transnational stupidity. Anyone who takes civil liberties and freedom of speech issues seriously ought, in my judgement, to want to see the entire European superstate edifice crumble into dust. It won’t end assaults on freedom, but it will make such assaults less difficult to escape.

The Benghazi affair and Obama’s contempt for the First Amendment

This item, out a few days ago, from one of my favourite bloggers, Tim Sandefur, ought to be part of a firestorm of debate out there over the contempt that the current occupant of the White House has shown for the First Amendment. The sad fact is, however, that a large chunk of allegedly “progressive” or “liberal” opinion (such a shame that fine word has been debauched) is unsteady on defending free speech (and quite a lot of “conservatives” are not much better).

Read the whole thing, as the saying goes. And wonder if you will why not more of a stink has been created about this. Almost a quarter of a century ago, when Salman Rushdie went into hiding in the UK after publication of his Satanic Verses book (I haven’t read it), we had an early taste from how some people were willing to make excuses for the murderous intent of fundamentalist Muslims. But to their credit, lefties such as Christopher Hitchens were willing to take a stand. In fact this was the sort of issue that I think turned Hitch away from some of his reflexive Leftism and into being a more free-ranging contrarian.

Samizdata quote of the day

Has this sublime tradition, the tradition of Edward Coke and John Hampden, of James Harrington and Algernon Sidney, of John Milton and John Locke, of Pitt the Elder and Edmund Burke, of Earl Grey and Viscount Palmerston, of Richard Cobden and John Bright – and, yes, of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson truly found its quietus in the person of Nick Clegg? The thought is almost unbearable.

Dan Hannan

How to make a good argument (leaving the EU) sound bad

I thought Nigel Farage trounced Nick Clegg in the second of the two televised debates about Europe a few weeks ago. When he sticks to that subject, he’s an excellent proponent of the argument. But when he brings Romanians into it, when he smears an entire nation to make the case against immigration, he’s clearly doing the cause more harm than good. You can sense more moderate voters recoiling every time he strays into this territory. It’s as if the Ukip leader is confirming the caricature of Euroscepticism that the BBC, the FT, the Independent and the Guardian have been trying to paint for the past 30 years – the Eurosceptic as swivel-eyed loon, as Little Englander, as closet racist. People like me have always claimed that’s a straw man. But Nigel Farage is that straw man.

Toby Young

There are other examples I can think of where a good argument – such as leaving a bureaucratic superstate – can be spoiled if those who argue for it seem to be, well, just not very pleasant people. Yes I know, one should not be distracted by that sort of shallow thing, etc, etc. The last few weeks I have heard a lot of stuff from UKIP fans about how, no matter how bloody ghastly many UKIP people are, and how crummy some of its views are, that it is still a force for good, pushing debate, etc. The trouble is that I think it does matter, a lot, if people form associations in their minds about a group and if that group helps to reinforce that association. In my view, Farage’s focus on what he claims are the negative effects of immigration, and his invocation of the idea that foreigners are taking “our” jobs etc (the lump of labour fallacy) has done damage. He should have been far more optimistic and positive about why leaving the EU is a good thing, rather than confirm the biases of those who all too easily dismiss the anti-EU case as being narrow and stupid. A shame.

When numbers are so big that people lose any grip on reality

Japan is currently in the process of monetising its vast debt (in plain English, printing money). To get some scale of the issue, check out this following news report from the Japan Times.

Japan’s national debt hit a record-high ¥1.025 quadrillion at the end of March, up ¥33 trillion from a year earlier, the Finance Ministry said on Friday. The central government debt, which increased ¥7 trillion from the end of December last year, kept rising mainly due to ballooning social security costs in line with the aging population. The balance of government bonds, financing bills and other borrowings crossed the ¥1 quadrillion mark for the first time ever at the end of June 2013.

Here is a definition of what is a Quadrillion. Even at the dollar-yen exchange rate of one dollar buying 101 yen, this is a scary, but also barely comprehensible, sum of money. That leads me to the view that the public no longer can really get to grips with how massive debt, both in funded and unfunded, forms is, and indeed with the very notion that a lot of this debt is not even “on the balance sheet”.

Samizdata quote of the day

“Indeed, it would be helpful if the climate scientists would tell us what weather pattern would not be consistent with the current climate orthodoxy. If they cannot do so, then we would do well to recall the important insight of Karl Popper — that any theory that is incapable of falsification cannot be considered scientific.”

Nigel Lawson

Pendulums swing. That is what they do

For years, those of us who have supported mass migration, and believed in the social and economic benefits its brings, deluded ourselves. We conned ourselves into thinking we represented the majority viewpoint, and reacted with visceral anger towards anyone who dared challenge our cosy world view. And it was a disaster. We did shut down debate, which in turn created a political vacuum. One that was filled initially by the BNP, and is currently being filled by Ukip. But now the pendulum has swung back. With a vengeance. Where once everything was decried as racist, suddenly nothing is racist. Where every legitimate question about immigration was ritualistically dismissed as base prejudice, now every overt and coded racial, homophobic or misogynistic slur is deconstructed, and rationalised and legitimised.

Dan Hodges.

He deserves credit for recognising that at one stage, a lot of supposedly right-thinking people wanted to regard anyone who challenged unfettered immigration as bigots, when they emphatically weren’t. And he’s also right that when genuinely vile sentiments are expressed, there is a sort of knee-jerk reaction from those who think of themselves as anti-Politically Correct to make excuses for such remarks.  (We forget that there is a sort of right-wing version of PC group-think).

As a libertarian, I think it is always good to point out the following: Bigotry that is not backed up by state coercion (as in the apartheid regime in South Africa, Jim Crow in the US etc) is a cost to the bigot; the racist employer who refuses to hire those from certain groups imposes a cost on that business, and in a vigorous free market economy, bigotry gets weeded out over time as a result. Capitalism, and a widely dispersed system of private property, is arguably the greatest force against such attitudes that has ever existed. But I also don’t – unlike some libertarians perhaps – think it is enough to just follow the non-initiation of force principle and leave it at that. I do think that a healthy society, of the sort I want to be a part of, needs to have a critical mass of its population to be rational, tolerant and civilised. If, on the other hand, you have a society in which, say, the majority are none of those things, then even if such a society observes some of the forms of a liberal order, in practice it will be a pretty shitty place in which to live. In other words, culture, or call it what you will, does matter. A lot.

(Health warning: my quoting Hodges, who is a man of the Left, does not imply I agree with all of his views in the article I linked to.)

 

 

A deadly review of the Piketty book everyone is supposedly talking about

“Saving is mostly just delayed consumption, as generations of economists have taught, and the only way for capital to grow exactly at the interest rate is for nobody to consume it. Every bit of consumption pushes down the growth rate of capital.”

Garrett Jones, who has written a gently devastating review of a much-heralded book, Capital in the 21st Century, by someone called Thomas Piketty. The reason it is worth drawing attention to it is that this is the sort of book that you just know is going to get bandied about in the usual quarters as a source of supposed wisdom, when in fact its central contention is based on sand. In some ways, the claim that the rich get so proportionately rich that they gobble up the rest of us, so to speak, is hardly a new assertion. Piketty has repackaged it and added in new supposed facts to make the case.

Over to Jones:

There’s an extra reason to think that capital isn’t going to permanently grow at a faster rate than the overall economy: Piketty says it won’t. He places great weight on the mainstream economic idea that in the long run the natural tendency of market economies is for capital and the economy to both grow at the same rate, whatever that rate turns out to be. That “twin growth rate” might be high if population and technology are advancing quickly, or it might be low if both are in the doldrums, but there’s no inherent tendency for capital to outpace the economy forever, even when Piketty’s “central contradiction” of high interest rates holds.

The reason is simple. If the first machine is more productive than the second (i.e., diminishing returns), and if machines wear out and fall apart at a fairly predictable rate—a depreciation rate, in accounting-speak—then it’s a safe bet that in the long run capital and the economy will grow at about the same rate. Double the machines mean double the machines wearing out, so at some point you have so many machines (and houses and outdated software and office buildings) wearing out each year that a nation spends an enormous economic effort just replacing them. And of course if interest rates are high, business owners look for alternatives to capital (such as workers); private demand for capital thus shrinks. So growing replacement costs and the quest for cheaper alternatives both make it hard to imagine capital growing as far as the eye can see.  I’ll spare you the math, but it’s getting harder all the time to see a central contradiction.

And then there is this paragraph, containing a nice little nugget:

But while Piketty’s contradiction is less an iron law and more a chalkboard speculation, there’s still plenty of room for class warfare in our future. A final way to see if capitalists are going to exercise unprecedented influence in the economy is to see whether their share of the economy is at unprecedented levels. Here, Piketty’s arduous historical research pays off. For the two countries for which he has data going back more than a century—Britain and France—the answer is clear: Capitalists are claiming a substantially smaller share of the economic pie today than they did in the mid-19th century. Back then capital income was a bit more than 40 percent of total national income. Now it’s a bit under 30 percent. So if capitalists—savers, landowners, entrepreneurs, and all the rest—are going to become a bigger deal in the future, they’ve got a long way to go before they’re at 19th-century levels. (Emphasis added to original.)

The author is fair in pointing out that there are useful insights in the book, although given that its central contention appears to be a crock, that is not a lot of praise.

Eminent UK academic doesn’t understand trade

A few days ago I had a bit of a rant about a UK-based academic, Danny Dorling, who among other things seems to be scathing about those academics who have the effrontery to challenge egalitarianism, at least of the sort enforced by the coercive power of the state. Dorling is that rather perplexing example of a certain intellectual: penetratingly sharp and illuminating on some issues (he is marvellous about population control characters and some of his statistics are very interesting) but flat-out bloody awful in his political economy. (He describes David Ricardo’s crucial Law of Comparative Advantage insight as “infamous”.)

As example of the latter, he writes about the implications of a decelerating population growth rate for retirement systems, such as tax-funded pensions and retirement ages:

“Retirement ages may have to rise, although if far more of us did useful work rather than working simply for the profit of a few others, retirement age need not be raised much, but we are going to have to learn to share better.” (Page 327).

When someone works to obtain something of value by providing something/service to another, it is called trade. Both sides are better off than they would otherwise be from doing this – they profit – since otherwise there would be no point in doing so. So, Professor Dorling writes a paragraph about “useful work” as if it is opposition to the notion of profit, not perhaps stopping to wonder whether the word “useful” is question-begging. Useful to whom? If I can write a news article, mend a fence, take packages to firms as a courier or work in a metal-bashing factory, all of these things might be useful to someone so much that they are willing to pay me enough to be worth my time and trouble, and profit me to that extent, and so on. It might be more useful for me, perhaps, to spend my time writing books about population, about how we should “share better”, and so on, but since these things might be thought of as totally bloody useless to others, I might have an issue in being able to make a living out of this unless I am lucky enough to not to have to earn a living with the free consent of my fellows. Luckily for Professor Dorling, who is paid a salary as an academic by the taxpayer, and who might also make a few quid selling his books and doing lecture circuits and so on, he can make a living, although we taxpayers might suggest that some of that money spent on supporting the lifestyles of this man might be more “usefully” employed on something else.

And that is the craziness of it. When a significant portion of the UK electorate is supported by the coercively funded payments of others who toil in the evil capitalist system, the former will contain people who, even if they happen to look and sound clever with their academic honorifics, be utterly ignorant of the most basic facts of economic life.

Discussion point: one of the Professor’s contentions is that highly unequal societies are far more environmentally destructive than egalitarian ones, although I find his reasoning a bit odd. (Correlation is also not causation). Surely, if you have a society where wealth is relatively evenly spread, but where people consume lots of stuff, that could be more destructive than a less equal one where people nevertheless had to be careful about the environmental costs of their actions. What Prof Dorling seems to be saying is that it is high levels of consumption that is the issue; some of his attacks on the mega-rich seem to be as much aesthetic as driven by environmental concerns. He also claims that unequal societies have higher birth rates than egalitarian ones – he may be right about that – but again, his contention begs the question as to why this is a bad thing so long as production is able to keep pace and if the standard of living of even the poorest person improves at a healthy clip. I cannot help but wonder whether Prof. Dorling is an egalitarian first and who wants to use the Green argument to bolster it. In other words, he is very much the face of the modern Left and different in many respects from old-style Marxists. What he has in common with such people is the unspoken – or even spoken – belief in the need for the supposed chaos and venality of the market to be replaced by the rule of people such as themselves.

A frank admission from the UK’s “academic” echo chamber

I decided to pick up a copy of a book by Leftist academic Danny Dorling, called Population 10 Billion: The Coming Demographic Crisis And How To Survive It, while I was at the Hay book festival towards the end of last May. I wangled a corporate invite to the event and must say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Professor Dorling (Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, a former government advisor, Honorary President of the Society of Cartographers, etc, etc.) is eminent, although I hadn’t previously heard of him. And what intrigued me enough to buy his 438-page book is that the message, at least at first glance, seemed to be a refreshingly non-doomongerish one.

But… and there is a big “but”. Professor Dorling is perhaps sufficiently aware that being an anti-gloomster has its costs if you want to get on in academic circles, and certainly if you want to get lots of jobs advising policymakers about this or that disaster that has to be avoided by lots of state activity. And the ultimate nightmare for such a person is to be dubbed a “denier” and be put in the same bracket as the sort of lowlifes who deny mass murders of Jews in Europe and so on. And he certainly doesn’t want to be mistaken for any kind of apologist for capitalism and liberal free market economics. Oh good god, no! So rather than calling himself an “optimist” (terribly out of fashion) or a pessimist, he is a “possibilist”.

Now, Samizdata readers, you might think the preceding paragraph is a bit unkind. How dare I suggest that Prof Dorling says what he does due to worrying about his academic career and bank balance? Well, I might have been gentler on him had I not seen plenty of evidence from him about his desire to play the man, not the ball, so to speak.

To give some flavour of where he comes from, consider this:

“People who doubt that social inequality is a great problem can become exasperated when they cannot convince others of their views. When they find that their opinions are generally regarded as abhorrent and they cannot publish them in refereed journals, some turn to writing for right-wing think tanks and discover that they could in just a few weeks `knock out reports that would be presented at high-level meetings… and earnestly discussed in the press and in radio interviews. [They say] It was exhilarating to find an audience.’ Although it might be exhilarating for the former academic involved, it can be highly confusing for those who have to listen to half-formed ideas knocked out in a couple of weeks by someone who does not understand when their peers repeatedly tell them that there is a problem with what they are proposing.” (Page 130).

Prof. Dorling quotes Peter Saunders, who is has moved rightwards from the Left; he has committed the thought crime of casting doubt on aspects of British egalitarian post-war policy, and has ruffled feathers by a critique of a recent book in this area, called The Spirit Level. (You see Saunders’ website here to get a handle on just how much of a serious academic he is. His career has been every bit as distinguished as Dorling’s, if not more so.) There is something particularly nasty about Dorling’s words: the lazy, supercilious tone; the jeering claim that Saunders’ views and those like his are just blown together in a few days, and the assumption that anyone who challenges egalitarian ideas is “abhorrent” and therefore unfit to have their views published in peer-reviewed journals. It perhaps does not cross this man’s mind that because so much of modern academia has become an echo-chamber of the Left, that any academic with an ounce of independence of mind must go and write for some alternative institution in the hope of entering debate (as Peter Saunders did and explains in an account here of what happened to him.)

His book is full of ex-cathedra statements about equality. Much of his argument is that unequal societies are more wasteful than egalitarian, more tightly planned ones. He is very much a “watermelon” – green and red. Above all, Professor Dorling likes to get personal: For example, on page 5 he launches into the “Rational Optimist”, Matt Ridley, sneering that due to Ridley’s posh background and former chairmanship of the near-bankrupted Northern Rock, “it is not hard to mock his views”, but then goes on hastily to state “that they need to be taken seriously because they are part of the current mantra of many at the top of the tree.” Oh how jolly noble of him. If it were really the case that Ridley’s “rational optimism” is the dominant mentality of our government and its advisors, rather than the mishmash we have in the UK coalition government, I’d be much happier.

The ironies abound. Professor Dorling likes to play the high-level academic, but he also wants to take on views he disagrees with often by recourse to argument from motive. He wants to make out that he is an ultra-serious academic, but the book (which is a good read in some ways, if you can stand the bias) is full of such ad hominem digs at those he disagrees with; his discussion of nuclear energy, for example, includes suggestions that those who favour it are just motivated by money.

In other words, Professor Dorling is a bit of an arse. I want my money back.