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]

The Statism of Brexit

This New Statesman article argues that while the proponents of Brexit were libertarian, what we are going to end up with is more statism. I happen to think that we would never have reduced the size of the state inside the EU, so leaving it was a necessary first step. But it was never going to be all that was needed. Theresa May does seem to favour some particularly odious policies. On the other hand, there has been talk of reducing corporation tax and VAT. Trade could still end up being free-er on net. We might eventually get rid of May, or new political factions might rise to dominance that offer more hope. Am I right to be at all optimistic?




The poor are getting richer

Tim Worstall wrote, “The economic policies of the last 30, 40, years have led to the greatest reduction in absolute poverty in the history of our species.” This sounds about right, but on its own the assertion will not convince the types of people I might want to persuade towards my way of looking at the world, the people who accept the litany that inequality is increasing and that must mean that the rich are making the poor poorer. A lot of these people are not Marxist true believers, they just imbibe the world-view of the BBC by default. To them, a claim such as “poor people are richer than ever before” sounds like a strong claim that needs strong evidence.

I often point people to Human Progress. Its headline evidence is often a bit specific, though. Today’s headlines are about malaria, seafood consumption, China’s environment, primary school attendance and teenage pregnancy in Africa. These are all good wealth indicators but I could be accused of cherry-picking.

Then I found a graph showing absolute numbers of people living in extreme poverty since 1820. Extreme poverty means living on less than $1.90 per day, adjusted for price differences and inflation. The graph is made by combining a 2002 (peer-reviewed!) study and numbers from the World Bank. It does leave the question of how many people are living on other, similarly low incomes. Another chart has a green line showing “poverty” being $25 per day of income. The trend is in the right direction. There are many more charts along these lines put together by Max Roser.

Mr. Worstall also recommends Branko Milanovic’s blog, and an article by him presenting data about who is getting richer and who is not.

The real surprise is that those in the bottom third of the global income distribution have also made significant gains, with real incomes rising between more than 40% and almost 70% [between 1988 and 2008]. (The only exception is the poorest 5% of the population, whose real incomes have remained about the same.)

Those 5% must live in some truly awful places.

I have ideas for future study. I want to correlate increased economic freedom with poor people getting richer in a way convincing to people with the default BBC world-view. And I heard somewhere that fewer people than ever are less than one failed harvest away from starvation. That is a compelling image; it would be useful to be able to back it up.

Dual Universe

Dual Universe is a computer game being worked on by some developers in France who are currently looking for extra funding on Kickstarter. It is a multiplayer game set in space that is attempting to have a player-driven economy, much like Eve Online, with resources in the game being bought and sold between players on markets. It goes further than Eve, though, with players able to design new items from scratch and even script them with Lua, which should allow for invention of new in-game technology, which should allow for player-driven economic growth within the game.

Another feature which caught my attention is their approach to the dilemma of enabling player versus player combat while allowing for players to enjoy playing the game without being attacked at random. There is the concept of a safe zone in which an anti-violence bubble is generated by expending energy. What is more, the player who owns the machine that generates the safe zone can give out mining rights within it, and exclude other players who do not pay him a tax.

I think they should rename this game Libertarian Utopia Simulator.

Farming Ivory

Between watching other things last night my television briefly showed me Ross Kemp in Africa talking to a park ranger about elephant poachers armed with AK-47s. In voiceover he said that in the last 10 years 1000 park rangers have been killed. I looked it up. The Game Rangers Association of Africa are quoting the same figure. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature are saying the same thing, adding that the numbers are as reported by co-operating countries to the International Ranger Federation.

My first thought was to wonder how the nature conservationists think it is worth that much human life to protect some animals.

But as David Moore succinctly puts it in response to a Tim Worstall post about “waste [disposal] crime”, this is really another case of “government regulations creating massive incentives to bypass government regulations”.

Now there are objections. A one-off legal ivory sale intended to reduce the price of ivory apparently increased demand for poached ivory because researchers Prof Solomon Hsiang at the University of California Berkeley and Nitin Sekar at Princeton University, “think the legal sale reduced the stigma of ivory, boosting demand, and provided cover for the smuggling of illegal ivory, boosting supply”. This strikes me as a problem with one-off sales specifically, which are distinct from the long-term balance of supply and demand seen in a free market.

A couple of years ago Simon Jenkins argued in favour of ivory farming, and Will Travers responded with some impertinent arguments and some teenage emotional outpourings echoed by the commentariat that seem to amount to little more than “why can’t we all just get along?” Case in point:

I think Simon Jenkin’s proposal is wrong & morally offensive. Surely we need to banish forever the premise that animals on this planet are for here for the purpose of human beings’ exploitation & use – that their body parts are commodities to be farmed & harvested!

It does sound awfully easy when typed by a middle-class Guardian reader coddled in his air-conditioned public-sector office or a newly-vegetarian thirteen-year-old girl.

Here is how this middle-class libertarian blogger would solve it from his air-conditioned office: Abolish Cites, legalise the trade, and privatise the reservations so that the owners have an incentive to keep producing ivory, therefore preserving the species. There will still be poachers, but at least the profits could fund some proper security.

Addendums: Ivory is in the news very recently and I commented there; we do seem to talk about ivory a lot here; this is a small problem compared to, say, mosquito borne illness (which I am planning to write about soon).


There are alternatives to Twitter, but it is difficult for them to gather enough users. Perhaps Gab.ai will succeed where others are failing. Its founder seems to be adept at attracting attention. This is important.

Update: Wired are calling Gab an echo chamber. This could be a bug or a feature, I suppose. Multiple such sites with various policies and good aggregation tools would not be a bad endgame.

Has Bean open day

I have been buying coffee beans from Has Bean for several years. Their unique selling point is they ship the beans on the same day they are roasted, so they are really fresh. They also cater to coffee geeks by letting us choose beans by country of origin, plant variety and processing method. And they do not roast the beans too much so it is possible to taste the difference all these things make.

A coffee roaster, complete with custom Has Bean modifications.

A coffee roaster, complete with custom Has Bean modifications.

On Sunday they had an open day at their facilities near Stafford. They simply opened the doors and did coffee cupping (i.e. tasting), brewing demonstrations, talks and tours. They threw in some real ale and nibbles for good measure. I went along.

The story goes that the boss, Steve Leighton, got fed up with his job as a prison guard and decided to turn his coffee roasting hobby into a business. After trying to sell coffee on Stafford market, he became exasperated when a customer came back to complain that the ground coffee would not dissolve in the water. It was after this that a friend suggested he tried selling coffee on the Internet.

The chief roaster, Roland Glew, after explaining exactly how the roasting is done by smell and sound of cracking, and how roasting for ten seconds too long can ruin the product, told us how speciality coffee buyers interact with farmers. Steve Leighton visits farms, gets invited into the farmers’ family homes and treated like family. Whereas once upon a time their coffee would be thrown into a bag labelled “coffee” and they would get a fixed price, Leighton can work with them to explain what people want, get them to change their methods, try new varieties of plant or different processing methods, divide up the farms differently, and generally get them to make better coffee because he is able to pay a premium for it. He is able to make assurances about how much coffee he will buy so they can safely make the needed investments, and continue to buy coffee if a farmer has a bad year because it is in his interests to keep the farm in business. Has Bean are even experimenting with what would otherwise be waste: cascara and coffee flowers.

Roland demonstrating the sample roaster.

Roland demonstrating the sample roaster.

This is what innovation leading to economic growth looks like. It is largely made possible by the dis-intermediation of the Internet. Geeks are all but buying coffee directly from farmers. The Internet also has a way of bringing people with weird hobbies, like getting all serious about coffee, together. An individual becomes part of a global buying market who otherwise might have been the only weirdo in town.

It is a completely different way of making poor people richer than Fair Trade, which a Department for International Development report found does not even work. Steve Leighton is not very impressed with Fair Trade, either.

Steve doing his party trick of telling a story about any coffee variety you point to.

Steve doing his party trick of telling a story about any coffee variety you point to.

I asked Steve how much import tariffs affect his business. He said not a lot. Thinking about it, this makes sense. Possibly one reason coffee prices are in general so low is that other things farmers could grow are hit by trade barriers. Only coffee is left. He was much more worried about the exchange rate movements since the Brexit vote.

Steve seems particularly fond of Bolivia. On the visit I heard a lot about how life is hard for Bolivian coffee farmers because the president Evo Morales is more interested in supporting coca farmers. He also told a great story about the Yungas Road, which he travels on. It was the most dangerous road in the world because vehicles would fall off of it. Then a bypass was built, but travelling on the bypass was expensive because bribes would need to be paid at checkpoints. So now Steve uses a company who run bicycle tours for tourists to get down the road.

More pictures from me, here. See and hear more from Steve in his fascinating “In My Mug” videos, like this latest one from Bolivia. You can hear more about his most recent trip to Bolivia in this Tamper Tantrum podcast.

Cosplay and security

On an errand today I had cause to walk through town carrying an enormous Nerf gun. I joked with a colleague about whether I would get arrested. He said it would be fine as long as I did not paint it black.

Then I spotted this in a report about Gamescom, a large computer games convention:

Because of multiple shocking events around Europe, security is tighter at Gamescom than usual. Visitors are being requested to leave bags and rucksacks at home. Bag checks are held at all entrances, so there are delays getting into the Koelnmesse.

In addition, cosplayers are being told not to bring imitation weapons, no matter how soft or outrageous they might look. They will not be allowed into the building.

It might not mean much, but it means something.

In the Nerf gun section of the toy shop I overheard one parent telling a child he was not allowed guns, and a separate conversation in which a woman was telling her friend, “some parents don’t let their kids play with Nerf guns. I don’t know why. It’s not as if you get terrorists walking around with them.”

It might not mean much, but it means something.

Macroeconomics Today

The Bank of England just cut interest rates to 0.25%, announced it will buy 60bn government bonds and 10bn corporate bonds, and reduced its growth predictions (for what they are worth) from 2.3% to 0.8%. There is talk of reducing the rate of VAT. There is talk of reducing corporation tax, which incidentally worries Northern Ireland pundits because a plan to do the same thing there might lose some of its advantage.

I am not sure whether to be happy or sad. I will stick to happy for now, because I am an unrelenting optimist. Could Brexit panic the establishment into turning Britain into Chris Patten’s Hong Kong to save the economy?

Edit: I should have said John Copperthwaite, not Chris Patten.

Boring Jobs vs. Automation

The BBC have been soliciting stories about boring jobs. An example:

I put pepperoni on 14,000 pizzas per day at a factory in Nottingham. If the conveyor belt broke down, we made smiley faces on the pizzas with the pepperoni. So if you ever see a smiley pizza, that’s why.

It is mostly a list of things that can be automated away, because boring implies repetitive. In software development we try to never do the same thing more than a few times. Software is easy to automate compared to physical things like putting toppings on pizza, but any boring job looks to me like an opportunity for an inventor.

Food production seems to be the source of a lot of these jobs. Perhaps robotics lecturer Steve Davis can offer some insight:

More recently, the availability of highly effective pick-and-place robots allowed automation to move upstream and undertake operations with actual food products on production lines. However, these systems are currently only generally installed on the high-volume, long-life, single-product lines. Smaller companies, which constitute over 90 percent of European food manufacturers, have been much slower to incorporate automation. The reasons for this include limited low-cost labor and expertise, market volatility, a belief that automation is unsuitable for the assembly of soft, variable, fragile, slippery/sticky natural products and the predominance of short-term orders, which discouraged capital investments in automation.

The cost of the machinery might be reduced by making more general purpose machines that can be sold off the shelf in larger quantities. And the skill level required to configure the machines can probably be reduced, to a point, with clever user interface design.

Pick and place robots are fun to watch, too.

4,367 Miles to Wall Drug

Free Ice Water. It brought us Husteads a long way and it taught me my greatest lesson, and that’s that there’s absolutely no place on God’s earth that’s Godforsaken. No matter where you live, you can succeed, because wherever you are, you can reach out to other people with something that they need!

So said Ted Hustead, founder of the Wall Drug store. He bought the store in 1931 in the “godforsaken” town of Wall, North Dakota. He and his wife decided to give it five years to make something of. There were not enough customers. In the final year his wife noticed the increasingly heavy traffic on the nearby highway and hit upon the idea of putting up signs enticing travellers with ice water. They started putting signs further and further along the highway. Now there are signs everywhere.

I imagine this story is well known to Americans. I first heard of Wall Drug from chapter 30 of the serialised web novel Unsong, a review of which I promise when it is finished.

After the sky cracked, the Wall Drug coordinate system started to impose itself more and more upon the ordinary coordinate system of longitude and latitude. Worse, the two didn’t exactly correspond. You could be driving from New York to New Jersey, and find a billboard promising Wall Drug in only thirty miles. Drive another ten, and sure enough, WALL DRUG, TWENTY MILES. Drive ten more, and you’d be promised a South Dakotan shopping center, only ten miles away. Drive another ten, and…who knows? No one has returned from Wall Drug in a generation. It’s become not only an omphalos, but a black hole in the center of the United States, a one-way attraction and attractor fed by an interstate highway system which never gives up its prey.

It is by Scott Alexander of the fascinating blog Slate Star Codex.


What have I done wrong, really, except make money; succeed? All these rules and regulations: arbitrary. Chalked up by politicians for their own ends. And these fines you’re always going after: where do they go? The poor? No. The treasury; the government. It’s taxation by other means. […] I make the system run. I have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes and philanthropy. I employ hundreds of people directly. Thousands indirectly. What do you do? Nothing besides suck from the municipality; feed off of it. And in exchange what? Keep order? You’re a traffic cop hiding in Federal robes.

So says hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod to U.S attorney Chuck Rhodes in the finale of the TV series Billions. It is worth a look. The government officials end up looking more like the bad guys than the business people.

Rhodes’ response: “You’re sure to become president of the libertarian club of Danbury Federal prison, ’cause no matter what you say, that’s where you’re ending up.”