President of the Adam Smith Institute Madsen Pirie is recruiting them even younger than Brian suggests in his previous post — in a way. He has written children’s books. I recently read Children of the Night.
My older son is only three, but I am keen to fill the house with books that he might like to discover when he feels like it. Whenever I read novels I worry about how the author’s worldview infects the fictitious world he has created. With Madsen Pirie I can relax, confident that his fictional universe will have sensible laws of economics and will not subconsciously implant socialism into my children’s heads.
Not only that, it is a very good adventure story. In genre it is a kind of steampunk — it has an outward appearance of fantasy but is really science fiction, which is the best kind of fantasy because it leads to an internally consistent and believable world. This leads to consistent and believable politics, which are never spelled out in exposition but form the backdrop to the action. And it is nearly all action, as makes sense for a children’s book, but there are many lessons.
On the origins of political power:
Shocking though the violence was, he was used to it. That was the way the world seemed to work. Those on high bullied and terrorised those below them.
On class and ambition:
“I do know this,” Quicksilver thought back, “that a wagoner’s son is destined to become a wagoner, and a nobleman’s son is destined to become a nobleman. But those with special talents can break free of this destiny and achieve things their parents could not dream of. Extraordinary things.”
In fact the protagonists are a poor orphan, a nobleman’s daughter who would rather be a pilot than a nobleman’s daughter, and an engineer dwarf, who all end up friends because of their differences.
On the intersection of economics and politics:
“It’s partly the cost,” Calvin replied. “There aren’t many places where people need to go up a mountain, and it would cost too much to lay miles of track and cable across open country.” He shrugged before adding, “And of course the Church limits the number of dwarf machines allowed into the Realm. They don’t want anything to upset the social order. That’s fine by us. We make the machines, not the decisions.”
“This stuff isn’t for sale anyway. It’s the share we have to pay to their high mightiness.” There was a real bitterness to his voice as he said it. “Who’s that?” inquired Mark, puzzled. “A far-off fat bishop who never set foot out of his abbey, and a far-off lazy lord who never did a day’s work in his life.” “You mean tithes,” said Mark, “a tenth for the church.” “A tenth?” Anderson laughed bitterly. “Round here it’s a sixth. And another sixth in taxes for using the land and sea which some noble calls his own.” Gene uttered a low whistle. “That’s a third gone before you start! Do they take a third of everything?” “Everything.” The word was spat out in bitterness.
On changing the meta-context:
We spread stories and provoke people to see the injustice of their rule, and to resent it.
There is also a problem with a fuel source that is mined by slaves. Many an author might have his characters fight against the slavery, and Madsen does, but he also has them realise the importance of the fuel, the suffering that its increase in cost would cause, and the possibility of a technological solution. This is a world in which technology offers hope and improvement despite its problems, rather than simply causing problems.
And there are murder mysteries, exotic flying machines, chase scenes, narrow escapes and double-crossings aplenty. It is all good, wholesome fun.
The latest addition to my family takes up more room in the car than expected, and the old car is dying more quickly than expected, so I want to buy a new car sooner than expected. To do this I took out a small loan, and shopping around for loans I found Zopa. The feature of their loans that attracted me was the ability to repay early without penalty.
But there is more to it than that. They are a peer to peer lender. Savers can save money with Zopa, and the money is divided into £10 chunks and spread between a large number of borrowers. I can visit a web page that shows a list of the people who have lent me money. For instance, I owe £20 to John Owen in Brighton. I get a cheaper loan, and they get higher returns on their savings than could be had from a conventional savings account.
Of course, though the credit reference checks are quite stringent, there are risks. The web site Money Saving Expert points out:
With normal UK savings, the Government-backed Financial Services Compensation Scheme promises it’d pay the first £85,000 per person, per financial institution if the institution goes kaput. Peer-to-peer lenders don’t have this.
Well, good! Peer to peer lending is about as Samizdata as it gets. Individuals are voluntarily lending their money to each other for mutual benefit, bearing the costs of their own risks. There is not even any fractional reserve banking to worry those who worry about such things. The interest rates are properly Austrian, being set by a market and not by the government. And the company called Zopa is making a profit doing the very valuable middleman job of dividing the labour by taking care of the paperwork and matching borrowers to lenders.
Zopa is a founder member of the Peer-to-Peer Financial Association, “a UK trade body set up primarily to ensure this innovative and fast growing sector maintains high minimum standards of protection for consumers and business customers”. A worthy idea: a voluntary membership organisation that enforces high standards among members thereby helping consumers decide who to trust.
On 24th October the Peer-to-Peer Financial Association issued a press release.
Christine Farnish, Chair of the Peer-to-Peer Financial Association (P2PFA) said:
“We welcome today’s consultation by the FCA on the new regulatory regime for peer to peer lending and crowd funding.”
“Peer-to-peer lenders have been pressing for regulation for some time and believe it is important that all firms entering this important new market behave responsibly, treat their customers fairly and manage their risks.”
So now they want to take all this beautiful voluntary activity and introduce state backed violence. And they think this is a good idea. I give up.
Two days after my post about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s posts about voting, another Less Wrong user, Chris Hallquist, posted some counterarguments. He discusses median voter theorem and Duverger’s law. I found it difficult to follow at times, but a commenter helped:
There’s the classic economic textbook example of two hot-dog vendors on a beach that need to choose their location – assuming an even distribution of customers, and that customers always choose the closest vendor; the equilibrium location is them standing right next to each other in the middle; while the “optimal” (from customer view, minimizing distance) locations would be at 25% and 75% marks.
This matches the median voter principle – the optimal behavior of candidates is to be as close as possible to the median but on the “right side” to capture “their half” of the voters; even if most voters in a specific party would prefer their candidate to cater for, say, the median Republican/Democrat instead, it’s against the candidates interests to do so.
This explains why politicians all look the same without putting them in a class and calling it class warfare. I am not sure whether to be worried that there is at least one voter as far from David Cameron as I am but in the opposite direction, or relieved that David Cameron is Prime Minister and not that person.
In any case, one solution is to move the median, which I suppose is what Samizdata is all about.
Eliezer Yudkowsky wants us all to think more rationally, and is involved with various attempts to train people to do so, including the fascinating web site Less Wrong. A pet hypothesis of mine is that rational thinking leads inevitably to a desire for a smaller state. Evidence so far includes the Micklethwaitian observation that if you look around the world you find that people are better off when they are more free: an honest rationalist cannot fail to notice this. Additional evidence is Eliezer Yudkowsky, a man who spends his life trying to be as rational as possible and who apparently wants a smaller state.
Suppose that you happen to be socially liberal, fiscally conservative. Who would you vote for?
Or simplify it further: Suppose that you’re a voter who prefers a smaller, less expensive government – should you vote Republican or Democratic?
That is from his essay The Two-Party Swindle. It starts by noticing how, for probably evolutionary reasons, people like to divide themselves into us and them, which leads to sports team fandom. It goes on to point out that the fans of either team have far more in common with each other than with the players.
Why are professional football players better paid than truck drivers? Because the truck driver divides the world into Favorite-Team and Rival-Team. That’s what motivates him to buy the tickets and wear the T-Shirts. The whole money-making system would fall apart if people started seeing the world in terms of Professional Football Players versus Spectators.
And I’m not even objecting to professional football. Group identification is pretty much the service provided by football players, and since that service can be provided to many people simultaneously, salaries are naturally competitive. Fans pay for tickets voluntarily, and everyone knows the score.
It would be a very different matter if your beloved professional football players held over you the power of taxation and war, prison and death.
Indeed, I LOLed too. Politicians want you to support your favourite team in order that you see the other team, rather than the politicians, as the enemy. In the next essay, The American System and Misleading Labels, Yudkowsky strips away the abstraction of the American political system to identify where the power is, and show that it is very much not with the voters.
When I blur my eyes and look at the American system of democracy, I see that the three branches of government are the executive, the legislative, the judicial, the bureaucracy, the party structure, and the media. In the next tier down are second-ranked powers, such as “the rich” so often demonized by the foolish – the upper-upper class can exert influence, but they have little in the way of direct political control. Similarly with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, think tanks, traditional special interest groups, “big corporations”, lobbyists, the voters, foreign powers with a carrot or stick to offer the US, and so on.
Since voters have such a small share of the influence pie, Yudkowsky argues that the main benefit of living in a democracy is that in theory, if you got them angry enough, the voters could vote for a third party. It is fear of this hypothetical situation that keeps the politicians “too scared to act like historical kings and slaughter you on a whim”. I do think, though, that those in real power have worked around this somewhat by making changes in unpleasant directions small enough that the voters do not notice, or at least do not get angry enough.
All this is brought together in Stop Voting For Nicompoops, which argues (quoting Douglas Adams on voting for lizards along the way) that you should forget about the rhetoric of wasted votes and just vote for who you like.
Remember that this is not the ancestral environment, and that you won’t die if you aren’t on the winning side. Remember that the threat that voters as a class hold against politicians as a class is more important to democracy than your fights with other voters. Forget all the “game theory” that doesn’t take future incentives into account; real game theory is further-sighted, and besides, if you’re going to look at it that way, you might as well stay home. When you try to be clever, you usually end up playing the Politicians’ game.
Clear your mind of distractions…
And stop voting for nincompoops.
Read the whole thing. And then read everything about politics. And then read everything about everything.
Update: There is a follow-up to this post.
The child benefit reforms have taken effect. Tomorrow, hundreds of thousands of people must register for tax self-assessment for the first time.
To summarise, if any member of a household earns more than a certain amount, then some amount (possibly all) of the child benefit received by the mother in the household must be paid back by the high earner in the household. The more you think about this, the more absurdities you will notice.
Some will point out that child benefit should not exist. They are right. My wife receives child benefit and I view it as a small reduction in the vast amount of tax I pay. So these changes mean I will be paying more tax.
But the real problem is that I will also have to fill in forms. I do not like filling in forms. My approach to the state is to bumble along following the path of least resistance, because there are too many other interesting things to do. Until now they have had the good courtesy to quietly steal my money without interrupting the quiet enjoyment of my evenings. I think most middle class families do the same: they get on with it and they do not think about it.
Anyone like me following this path is about to get rudely awakened because they will have been receiving child benefit since April without realising that they need to pay it all back, and to pay it all back they need to register for self-assessment.
Importantly, then: if I am to avoid jail, for the first time in my life I have to actively interact with HMRC. Ignoring them is no longer an option. The same is true for a large section of the population who would rather spend time playing with their children.
Now might be a good time to publicise the idea of a flat tax.
No one worries too much today about causing pain and suffering to our computer software (although we do comment extensively on the ability of software to cause us suffering), but when future software has the intellectual, emotional, and moral intelligence of biological humans, this will become a genuine concern.
- Ray Kurzweil, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. At some point a computer ceases to become property and becomes an individual.
The Golden Age ; The Phoenix Exultant ; The Golden Transcendence by John C. Wright.
Politics, which is the recourse to the use of force to organize interpersonal relationships, was unknown to the majority of the citizens of the Golden Oecumene.
I am always looking for science fiction that is not lessened by the author’s flawed worldview. In the Golden Age trilogy I found that and then some.
There are three volumes but this is one long novel. I found it to be money and time well spent.
This is a far future tale set in what is almost a post-scarcity economy: humans have immortality thanks to mind recording; vast energy and computational resources; can tailor their sensory experiences however they wish; and can choose between living in their own invented universes, the real world, or anything in between. But the laws of economics still apply: the author realises that there is still scarcity of human effort and attention. Phaethon, the protagonist, is attempting to achieve “deeds of renown, without peer”, and it is a struggle. Says the author in an interview he gave:
There would still be rich and poor, even if the poorest of the poor were absurdly well off by our standards. No advancements can eliminate differences in the abilities of men, or the differences in how men value the abilities of their fellow man (which is what causes inequality of prices and hence of incomes).
There is artificial intelligence, the most advanced of which are self-aware computers called Sophotechs who have intelligence vastly superior to humans, and it is possible to argue that the existence of these would make humans redundant. However, from the novel:
“It is true that the Sophotechs can perform any of these operations more swiftly and more efficiently than can we. But it is also true that they cannot do everything at once, at every place at once, as cheaply as everyone wishes. There is always someone somewhere who wants some further things done, some further work accomplished. There is always someone willing to pay much less for work moderately less well done.”
The setting is the Golden Oecumene, a solar-system spanning civilisation. In the interview the author describes the depicted society as a libertarian utopia with no public property. This state of affairs has persisted for so long that characters find violence unthinkable. If there were to be violence it would be dealt with swiftly by robotic constables. There is a parliament which does very little, and a rarely used court system. Most contractual disputes are worked out by Sophotech arbitrators. Finally, there is the College of Hortators. → Continue reading: The Golden Age
My starting position is that anyone should be able to do anything he wants on land he owns, as long as it does not initiate violence against someone else.
From Brian’s post about a bridge, to a site called Dezeen, to an interview with the architect of a building in London called the Cheesegrater. One side of the building is slanted, which must reduce the total floor space, but why?
The main constraint on Leadenhall was the view to St Paul’s [Cathedral]. London is unique in being partly controlled by views; you have to leave certain views open to St Paul’s and we were on one of those views. So we made use of this and we cut it back at an angle and that gave us that prominent section and profile, [which can be seen] from all over London.
So London imposes planning rules that control views. This makes me wonder: can I own a view? In some sense if I am using the view I have homesteaded it. If my neighbour spoils my view by building something in front of it, he has made me less wealthy. Would I be right to sue him? Can we abolish planning without spoiling anyone’s views?
I recently blogged about how open source software is one of the answers to government using technology against us. Mark Shuttleworth, space tourist, venture capitalist and founder of Canonical and Ubuntu, was answering questions yesterday about a new smartphone he is working on.
We’re entering a really interesting phase where in a sense our very own tools spy on us.
We will certainly have an easier time providing transparency on the origin of the code in the platform than, say, your average android device, where it’s all a big hacky mush. The core OS which will be updated regularly on the Ubuntu phones is all traceable directly back to standard Ubuntu source and binary packages.
There will be a core piece on each phone which handles the hardware, consisting of kernel and drivers and firmware and interfaces to things like the radio. That’s where unhealthy things could creep in from manufacturers and carriers. We can offer… constructive guidance there.
I am not sure the comparison to Android is entirely fair, though some phones are more open than others. What can be done about remaining blobs of closed source code on phones? The resistance to opening this code comes from device and chip manufacturers as well as mobile network operators.
There may be blobs in the first generation device. The way to a blob-free future is to show demand from folks who care about that, not to be ideological about it.
Incidentally, the same discussion also contained this nice piece of evidence of open source software creating wealth:
Thanks for empowering millions of people from developing countries like India (I’m from India) to have an alternative to Pirated Windows XP. We can’t afford OS like Windows and the simplistic nature of ubuntu (native graphic and audio support with indic language support) really helps many people in the villages to learn computers.
Appropriately enough, in a discussion about (Nobel laureate) Paul Krugman, someone mentioned a speech by (Nobel laureate) Hayek that he gave after winning the prize:
I do not yet feel equally reassured concerning my second cause of apprehension. It is that the Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess. This does not matter in the natural sciences. Here the influence exercised by an individual is chiefly an influence on his fellow experts; and they will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence. But the influence of the economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.
There is no reason why a man who has made a distinctive contribution to economic science should be omni-competent on all problems of society – as the press tends to treat him till in the end he may himself be persuaded to believe. One is even made to feel it a public duty to pronounce on problems to which one may not have devoted special attention.
I am not sure that it is desirable to strengthen the influence of a few individual economists by such a ceremonial and eye-catching recognition of achievements, perhaps of the distant past. I am therefore almost inclined to suggest that you require from your laureates an oath of humility, a sort of hippocratic oath, never to exceed in public pronouncements the limits of their competence.
Or you ought at least, on conferring the prize, remind the recipient of the sage counsel of one of the great men in our subject, Alfred Marshall, who wrote:
“Students of social science, must fear popular approval: Evil is with them when all men speak well of them”.
This works for all kinds of lauded experts, not just in economics but in climate science, nutrition, psychology and education, for example.
An agency of the US Federal Government, the Economic Development Administration, has as its stated aim:
To lead the federal economic development agenda by promoting innovation and competitiveness, preparing American regions for growth and success in the worldwide economy.
They also want to make, “Investments that promote job creation and economic prosperity through projects that enhance environmental quality and develop and implement green products, processes, places, and buildings as part of the green economy.”
After discovering malware on some computers, they started destroying all their IT equipment:
EDA’s CIO concluded that the risk, or potential risk, of extremely persistent malware and nation-state activity (which did not exist) was great enough to necessitate the physical destruction of all of EDA’s IT components. EDA’s management agreed with this risk assessment and EDA initially destroyed more than $170,000 worth of its IT components, including desktops, printers, TVs, cameras, computer mice, and keyboards. By August 1, 2012, EDA had exhausted funds for this effort and therefore halted the destruction of its remaining IT components, valued at over $3 million. EDA intended to resume this activity once funds were available. However, the destruction of IT components was clearly unnecessary because only common malware was present on EDA’s IT systems.
The cost of the entire episode, including hiring contractors and obtaining temporary replacement equipment was $2,747,000.
This figure will be added onto the USA’s GDP, of course. But we all know that this is not really an exception to the rule that government agencies do the exact opposite of their stated intentions.
See also coverage of this story at Forbes and The Register.
By the way, does it even make sense to attempt to promote both job creation and economic prosperity in the same breath?
When we learned how to make carbon our slave instead of other people, we started to learn how to become a civilised people. Thorium has a million times the energy density of a carbon-hydrogen bond. What does that mean for human civilisation? Because we’re not going to run out of this stuff. We will never run out.
So says Kirk Sorensen in a 5-minute YouTube video summarising the benefits. See also his company Flibe Energy and the Energy From Thorium Foundation. Between this and fracking there really is no need to worry about energy. That whole debate is simply between those who are for and those who are against civilisation.