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

The Greek electorate is in denial. It rejects austerity, but insists on keeping the euro. All the main parties duly parroted what voters wanted to hear, making for a fantasy election, a make-believe election, a fingers-in-my-ears-I-can’t-hear-you election. The only list which was honest about the necessary cuts – a coalition of three liberal parties – failed to gain a single seat.

- Daniel Hannan

Discussion Point XXXVII

Who do you hope wins the election in Greece today?

As a starting point for discussion, I thought the headline of this Guardian article “A Syriza victory will mark the beginning of the end of Greece’s tragedy” might well turn out to be true if Syriza do win, albeit not in the way the left wing authors expect.

Estonia bites back, and then some

This is delicious about Professor Paul Krugman.

The president of Estonia chewed out Paul Krugman on Wednesday, using Twitter to call the Nobel Prize-winning economist “smug, overbearing & patronizing,” in response to a short post on Estonia’s economic recovery. Krugman’s 67-word entry, entitled “Estonian Rhapsody,” questioned the merits of using Estonia as a “poster child for austerity defenders.” He included a chart that, in his words, showed “significant but still incomplete recovery” after a deep economic slump.

This paragraph packs its own, statistically-deadly punch in the direction of the New York Times columnist:

Estonia, which in 2011 became the latest country to join the eurozone, has been heralded by some as an austerity success story. That year, it clocked a faster economic growth pace than any other country in the European Union, at 7.6 percent. Estonia is also the only EU member with a budget surplus, and had the lowest public debt in 2011 — 6 percent of GDP. Fitch affirmed its A+ credit rating last week.

Update: Dan Mitchell weighs in with some damning data of his own against Krugman.

Midnight approaches…

I read this

Leaders of the three biggest [Greek] parties met at the presidential mansion for a final attempt to bridge their differences, but the talks quickly hit an impasse as they traded accusations on a deeply unpopular bailout package tied to harsh spending cuts

…and…

Polls since the election show the balance of power tipping even further towards opponents of the bailout, who were divided among several small parties but now appear to be rallying behind Tsipras, a 37-year-old ex-Communist student leader

…and was then reminded of this by H.L Menchen which I have often quoted…

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard

Greece is often credited as being the place where formal democracy was first practised in antiquity and so it seems fitting that it is Greece where the current social democratic order of regulatory statism enters its terminal state of Maenad frenzy, perhaps proving beyond all doubt that social democracy is unreformable via democratic means.

But do not kid yourself that the tragicomic indigent collective derangement on ever more florid display is something peculiar to the Hellenic world.

My faith in humanity is back somewhere in the middle, although I do have my Kindle back

On December 1 last year a bag and a coat were stolen from my rental car in the city of Portimão in Portugal. The bag contained a few items of value, one of which was my Kindle. As I recounted at the time, a few days later (on December 10) a post was made to my Facebook account from my Kindle from a Portuguese fellow named Pedro, who told me that his father had found it in the middle of a road while walking his dog. At the time I made the post I had forwarded Pedro my address, and he had stated that he would post my Kindle to me. My assumption was that the criminals had thrown the Kindle out their car window due to the fact that a Kindle is tied to a particular Amazon account and this cannot be changed from the Kindle, and was thus useless to the criminal.

Upon my making that post, a couple of Samizdata commenters suggested that I was being overly trusting and mentioned the possibility of scams involving criminals who lure victims in various ways with the prospect of returned items and then rob them further. I was sceptical of this, as I had not given Pedro any information other than my address, which a criminal could have found out from documents that were in the car anyway and which isn’t exactly a secret anyway. (I am listed in the phone book, assuming phone books still exist). When one is on one’s guard it is usually easy to tell the difference between someone who is trying to scam you and someone who is genuine, which is why most scams work by targeting people at those moments when they are off their guard. Pedro did not feel like a scammer, so I was confident I would get my Kindle back. He felt more like some teenager or young man who upon being given the Kindle started playing with it and while figuring out how it worked found out how to make a Facebook update and did so.

However, I waited for the Kindle to be returned. Nothing arrived. I was mildly disappointed by this, but compared to the unpleasantness of having my possessions stolen in the first place it wasn’t a big deal. As it happened, I remembered that when I first contacted him Pedro had asked if I were still in Portugal. (I wasn’t). Perhaps his attempting to contact me had been an attempt by criminals to get me to meet with them so that they could steal from me some more. Or something.

As of the 2nd of February this year, no Kindle. My assumption was that I wasn’t getting it back, but I thought I would just give it one more try. I sent another e-mail to Pedro, just asking him whether he had sent it. I got the following reply.

HI Michael
The lady from the post office and made a “mistake” and didn´t sent it for me!! Because she donne something rong.
And i had tried to send it by registraded mail and it was taking to long??? so i have been to the post office and checked!!
I did know it since monday and i was supose to deliver it to some inglish frinds of mine that i have brougth to faro airport today and they were landing in London and i have forgothen it at home!
Monday morning i will try to send it to you!!
Sorry about that!

Now, I wasn’t going to take this as a literal statement of fact any more than I would a statement that the Kindle had been eaten by his father’s aforementioned dog along with his homework (a better guess was simply that he had not got around to sending it), but as there was still a reasonable chance that I might actually be getting it back, I thanked him once more. Another e-mail was forthcoming.

You can call if you whant!!
00351 967 xxx xxxx
Pedro

This was slightly peculiar, and I wasn’t actually going to call him (what would I say?) but things had reached the stage of being more amusing than anything else. It didn’t feel like I was in contact with criminal mastermind Professor Pedro Moriarty, but I really had no idea what was going on. On Tuesday February 7, more e-mail

Hi Michael
I have a friend that whent to London today and he will post it for you today so you will get it tomorow or the day after.

Regards
Pedro

Nothing arrived on the 8th, 9th, 10th, or the 11th, so at that point I mentally shrugged and gave up on it.

However, early on the morning of Monday February 13th, I heard the encouraging thump of a package coming through my legendary mailslot. It was a padded post bag, sent recorded delivery from Brighton on the 11th. It did indeed contain my Kindle. The saga was over. I posted a status update of delight to my Facebook account.

Except, it wasn’t. → Continue reading: My faith in humanity is back somewhere in the middle, although I do have my Kindle back

Keynesians on austerity – predictably wrong

I have lost count of the number of opinion pieces written by finance commentators and journalists who complain that the austerity programmes of Europe are doomed to fail, because they cause perpetual economic contraction, resulting in shrinking government revenues, curtailing the ability to pay down debt – which was why the austerity programmes were embarked upon in the first place. And this will go hand-in-hand with a widespread, precipitous and neverending decline in living standards, which raises the spectre of social and/or political collapse. The alternative solution they generally propose comes from our good friend Baron Keynes. Naturally.

This is utterly wrong-headed. Naturally. I do not take much issue with the consequences of European austerity that have been identified, however austerity is not the cause of these. Austerity works just fine if governments do not implement it alongside tax increases. Which is what pretty much every austerity programme (either real or imagined) in Europe is either proposing or enacting. It’s the tax increases that will cause the vicious cycle mentioned above – not the austerity, stupid. Austerity alone redirects capital from government programmes to more productive areas of the economy, resulting in growth. But austerity plus tax hikes decreases the size of one part of the economy (the public sector, and this on its own is of course a good thing), whilst putting a yoke on the private sector by preventing individuals and companies from stepping into the breach, with punitive taxes discouraging investment or making it unaffordable. Of course this is a recipe for limitless economic contraction and social misery.

Citizens of a nation that requires a genuine period of austerity must be aware that there will be pain as structural adjustments take place whilst private sector investment slowly and surely crowds out a throttled and atrophying civil service. But pain is and was always going to be inevitable when the almighty spending binge so many governments have embarked upon over the last couple of decades unavoidably draws to a close, either through substantial policy shifts or sovereign default. The former is much less painful than the latter, but more politically difficult, so it seems. And, in dealing with the current debt crisis, Keynesians have never seen a can they haven’t wanted to kick down the road.

Samizdata quote of the day

They said it would never be agreed. Then they said it would never be launched. Then they said it would fail. When it was a success, the euro-haters still insisted that the single currency was a recipe for economic chaos and political instability. The phobes are proving to be wrong again. At a time when so much of Europe’s political leadership is in flux, the single currency is the steadying point in an uncertain and worrying world.

Imagine that the recent turbulence on the continent had occurred when Europe still traded in pre-euro currencies. What would have happened to the French franc when neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen forced the Prime Minister to quit? The franc would have plunged. What would have happened to the Dutch guilder when an anti-immigration party with a dead leader impelled itself into government? The guilder would have plunged too. Before a German election too close to call, even the stolid old mark would be gyrating. And instability in currency markets would be fuelling even more political chaos: a vicious, downward cycle.

That this has not happened is thanks to the euro. The single currency has taken all this political upheaval in its calm stride.

- From an anonymous editorial in the Observer headed “A tolerant euro”.

From 2002, in case you were wondering.

Looking across the English Channel

There has been a lot of commentary in parts of the English-speaking media and blogosphere about the US presidential elections, and of course this part of it has had its commentary about the candidacy of the likes of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, for example. The coverage shows how US politics looms quite large over the UK, or at least certain parts of it.

Compare and contrast with the level of commentary one might expect to get about the mid-year polls for the presidency of that neighbour, France. In part, the difference is that the French elections do not hold out any prospect of a pro-free market, limited government candidate making much running, although I may be wrong about that. The language barrier is an obvious issue but it cannot be the only explanation for this difference in coverage. And I also note that in another country, Germany, even the so-called quality papers give pretty scant coverage of the machinations of the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and the other parties. Considering that the future of the euro might hang on who gets to control the German parliament in Berlin, you might think a bit more interest might be a good idea.

We are told that the European Union was all about bringing the big happy European family closer together, and yet as far as parts of the English-speaking media is concerned, some of the more consequential nations in the world get less coverage than a primary race in a US farm state (Iowa). That, I think, is very telling. And it does suggest that the idea of the Anglosphere, as Brian Micklethwait suggested the other day, has legs.

Intelligence gathering and filthy lucre

“Open-source intelligence has always been crucial, but for most of the cold war it was neglected by western intelligence agencies,” says Calder Walton, a research associate at Cambridge University and author of the book Empire of Secrets, to be published in 2013. “That was the archetypal intelligence war: intelligence necessarily involved information that couldn’t be gained from any other source — human agents or telephone tapping.” That doesn’t mean covert intelligence was more effective, though: Daniel Moynihan, a former US senator, compared CIA reports gathered from secret sources with Soviet documents recovered after the fall of the Berlin Wall and found they significantly overestimated Soviet capabilities. But he discovered that western think tanks using publicly available material, such as the RAND Corporation, were much more accurate. US diplomat George Kennan estimated in 1997 that “95 per cent of what we need to know about foreign countries could very well be obtained by the careful and competent study of perfectly legitimate sources of information open and available to us”.

Excerpt from an article in Wired, the tech and futurism magazine, about a Swedish investment firm, Recorded Future, that is taking the use of social networks and other systems to new heights in its attempt to get a jump on the market. In the process, it sheds new light on how the intelligence-gathering process works.

Here’s another couple of paragraphs:

The 20 employees of Recorded Future aren’t foreign-policy experts. They aren’t traders either, but if you’d started using Recorded Future’s predictions to buy US stocks on January 1, 2009, you would have made an annual return of 56.69 per cent. (The S&P 500 had an annualised return of 17.22 per cent over the same period.) Between May 13 and August 5 this year, as markets behaved with vertiginous abandon, their strategy returned 10.4 per cent; in contrast, the S&P 500 lost 9.9 per cent of its value. They’re data experts: computer scientists, statisticians and experts in linguistics. And in the data, they think, lies the future.

All Recorded Future’s predictions, whatever the field, are based on publicly available information — news articles, government sites, financial reports, tweets — fed into the company’s own algorithms. The result, it claims, is a “new tool that allows you to visualise the future” — one that is changing how government intelligence agencies gather information and how giant hedge funds place bets. On its website, Recorded Future states: “We don’t grant interviews and we don’t issue press releases.” But behind closed doors, the company is developing the technology that has been described be one tech blog as an “information weapon”.

The businesses was founded by a chap called Christopher Ahlberg, a former member of Sweden’s special forces and a serious entrepreneur. In its own way, this article is just another example of how Sweden is not quite the socialist nation that it is sometimes said to be, either by its starry-eyed admirers or detractors. There is a lot of entrepreneurial zest up there in the frozen north, it seems.

Samizdata quote of the day

“It was Havel who helped, as much as anyone, to put across the idea that Communism was built on an illusion and that, once people began to doubt the illusion, it would collapse.”

- Ed West

It says much about this great Czech that he had the signal honour of being sneered at by Noam Chomsky.

I still haven’t got round to visiting the Czech Republic yet, although I have relations across the border in Germany. I must get around to dealing with this oversight soon.

Samizdata quote of the day

Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace

- Vaclav Havel, tireless fighter against communism and sundry other human absurdities, has died. Ave atque vale.

Reasons to have faith in humanity

A week and a half ago, I visited the Algarve and Atlantic Alentejo in Portugal. I left my rental car parked in Portimão for a few hours. I thought that the car was locked, but I cannot be one hundred percent certain of that. In any event, a few hours later, I returned to the car, unlocked it from a distance and got in the car. Shortly after this, I realised that a rucksack I had left in the car had been stolen. In it was my passport, a couple of lenses for my digital SLR, a pair of prescription spectacles, a (printed) copy of the latest Vernor Vinge novel, all my spare underwear, various printed travel information, and my Kindle. Things I did not lose included my wallet, my mobile phone, my camera, my favourite lens, and my iPad (all on my person), and my laptop, various cables and chargers, and all my other remaining clothes (in the boot of the car or in my hotel room).

This was highly annoying, and to have things stolen is always a personal violation, but one learns to be philosophical about things like this. If you travel as much as I do, things go wrong occasionally (as they do at home). Much worse would have been a car accident or (worst possible case) anything causing personal injury to me or anybody else. So, I made a visit to the police and the consulate, got replacement documents, and did my best to resume enjoying my trip. Nothing was lost that could not be replaced by spending some money. Annoying, but compared to the total amount of money I spend on rent, or food, or even on travel, a small inconvenience. (Getting to the stage where I can put such things behind me like this has taken some effort, and has not been quite as successful as I am pretending now.)

Places I have visited where I have had things stolen: Cannes; Prague; the Algarve. Places where people have attempted (unsuccessfully) to steal things from me: Buenos Aires; Prague (again); Belgrade.

Places I have visited without the slightest trouble: Moldova; Albania; Ukraine; Kosovo; Transnistria; Bulgaria; Romania; Laos; Vietnam; Kenya; Indonesia; China; Turkey; Mozambique; Most of these multiple times. In a couple of these places I have been overcharged by taxi drivers, but no direct theft has ever looked like happening.

What one learns from this is that tourism related crime goes where tourists go. Places that sound grim and dangerous are often quite safe (at least with respect to petty theft) when you get there. Places that are close and familiar can often be quite dangerous. Tourist resorts are much more of a problem than big cities. I was robbed on the Algarve, but I have never had the slightest problem in Lisbon or Porto. I was robbed in Cannes, but I have never had the slightest problem in Marseilles, even in neighbourhoods that physically look poor and dangerous. Take care in Malaga, but you are probably fine in Seville or Madrid.

One discovery is that rich and poor have nothing to do with it. I have been to places full of rich people in which one can barely walk out on the street without getting into trouble. I have been to extremely poor countries in the third world where one can walk down the road in the middle of the night with $2000 worth of expensive camera gear in plain sight without the slightest danger.

Of course, even when you are robbed, even in tourist resorts, good things sometimes happened. In Buenos Aires, I fell for one of the oldest tricks in the book: paint or some other liquid was thrown at me from behind. I had no idea what it came from, and someone then approached me to offer me aid. This is of course an opportunity for someone connected with whoever threw the paint to get close to you, offer you aid, and then steal your possessions when your guard is down. However much you know this and however experienced you are, it is still possible to fall for these tricks when you are tired and in unfamiliar surroundings.

In this instance, I fell for it completely. I was in one of the fancier parts of Recoleta, the most expensive district of Buenos Aires. Such a thing would never happen in Belgravia, which is perhaps why I was off my guard. However, I fell for it. I would shortly have had my bag stolen (which contained almost everything of value to me that I had with me in South America) except for the fact that a local couple saw what was going on from across the street, told the potential thieves to get lost, told me to be more careful, and went on their way. They were gone practically before I knew what was happening. I wish I had later been able to buy them a drink or otherwise thank them properly, but I had no such chance.

Last week, after I had my bag stolen in the Algarve, I got replacement documents from the consulate and came home.

Three days later, a comment apparently from me appeared on my Facebook account, consisting of “contact me please hi have your kindle pedroxxxxxxxx@hotmail.com”.

My Kindle is always connected to the internet. And the Kindle is synchronised with my Facebook account. Pedro presumably worked through the menus, figured this out, and then used this synchronisation to update my Facebook status. I sent an e-mail to Pedro at the given internet address. He sent me an e-mail the next day stating that his father had been walking his dog, and had found the Kindle in the middle of a road 16km from Portimão. He had given it to his son, presumably on the basis that the son had better tech skills and/or English language skills than he had. I sent Pedro my address, and he promised to post the Kindle to me as soon as possible.

I am struck by a couple of things here. Firstly, the kindness of strangers. There are a few people who will take advantage of you and steal from you, but a great deal more who will go out of their way to help you, even when they have no interest in doing so. I don’t actually believe in good karma, but one almost sometimes can. I am also struck by the fact that we are approaching the point where modern technology is almost a menace for the thief. A Kindle is locked to a particular Amazon account and is essentially useless to anyone without access to that account. It is easy to change the account from that account and so sell the Kindle legitimately, but not from the Kindle itself. (This becomes problematic if the manufacturer of the device wishes to use such a power to prevent the legitimate buyer from transferring that right to another subsequent user, but hopefully the market can deal with this.) More and more items that we own are connected to the internet, and more and more can be tracked remotely. Thieves apparently know this, which is presumably why the Kindle was thrown out a car window. (My camera lenses are lost, alas.)

There are privacy implications in this, but there are also good, keeping track of your property implications too. Individuals are often more helpful than large organisations. If you lose your phone, the mobile phone company will disable it to prevent the thief from being able to use it, but they care not at all whether the legitimate owner gets it back. Nor, generally, do the police. (A mobile phone that belongs to me was temporarily lost a year or so back. The mobile phone company immediately blacklisted it, the phone, even though I only asked them to cancel the SIM. The phone was subsequently returned to me, but I have still been unable to get them to unblock the phone despite multiple attempts. Thus I have a nice paperweight.)

However, if a kind individual finds it, they often do have the ability to return it to you. And very often they will. Three cheers for Pedro and his father.