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]

There should be room in our hearts for pity…

for the striking London black cab drivers whose hard won skills have been rendered obsolete by Uber and Addison Lee, just as we should remember with pity the thousands of drivers of hansom cabs whose hard-won skills with horses were rendered obsolete by the coming of the internal combustion engine. I am not being flippant or sarcastic. To lose one’s accustomed livelihood to new technology is a tough spot to be in, and there will be many reading this, some of them highly paid at present, who should look at Trevor Merralls’ situation and tremble.

But that pity should not extend to offering to keep Mr Merralls forever in the style to which he has become accustomed simply because he was born working class, or to stifling the opportunity for self-employment that Uber offers to its drivers (also working class), or to depriving Londoners who could not afford black cabs of the ability to take a cab at a reasonable price at any time day or night, and which will, as one of the Guardian commenters put it, “actually go to exotic destinations like Lewisham”.

Oilfield Expat

I have been meaning to link to the excellent blog Oilfield Expat ever since I found it mentioned in a comment here a few weeks ago. There is so much goodness. You can start with its author’s comment on low oil prices below.

I particularly enjoyed this piece of prose, which I find a useful retort to doom-mongers. It is important because people need to realise that we have it good in order to understand why we have it good, lest they throw it all away, the risks of which the article it is taken from is partly about.

I have long subscribed to the view that, in the developed Western nations, we solved the major issues facing mankind several decades ago: infant mortality, hunger, disease, poverty (the genuine kind, not the SJW “relative poverty”), and deadly violence. Nobody of my generation died of malnutrition, treatable disease, or sectarian violence outside of a (statistically) few extreme cases. By historical standards, those who were born in the West after about 1960-70 were the wealthiest, safest, and most fortunate people ever to have lived. Several factors contributed to this situation. The guns falling silent after WWII followed by a Cold War which thankfully never got hot was probably the most important. The Western nations becoming wealthy was probably the second most important.

[…]

three successive generations of Westerners who have found themselves fully fed, clothed, housed, healthy, educated, and blessed with luxuries unseen by anyone else in history (one word to those who doubt this: dentistry). Spoiled rotten, in other words.

[…]

Having never seen wholesale malnutrition, destitution, and death, the populations of Western nations believe their standard of living is inevitable, as irrevocable as being born. Fewer and fewer grasp the mechanism by which their standard of living is a result of a section of the population spending their time, efforts, and capital to produce something of value, something that people want to buy with their own money.

[…]

They lead lives of such wealth and luxury that pontificating over a potential rise in global average temperatures is considered a more worthy and valuable activity than generating the electricity that powers their entire way of life, and without which most would almost certainly die within weeks.

The blog is robust and straightforward. On concerns about population: “it isn’t condoms that the poor need to start having smaller families, it is 1) increased wealth and 2) reliable, cheap electricity”.

On “those jumped-up tossers in places like Aberdeen”: “A cruise past the offices of the oil and gas companies, the engineering companies, and service providers would show the car parks full of Audis, BMWs, Mercedes, Porsches, Jags, and Bentleys, enabled by soaring wages and full employment of those who work in the oil industry. And now they need a bailout? Fuck them.”

On architects: “Fordham is your run-of-the-mill statist, authoritarian rent-seeker who has amassed a veritable fortune of taxpayers’ cash by preaching to governments from the environmental pulpit (naturally, his grubby mitts can be found all over the London Olympic 2012 facilities). The world would have been better off if he’d stayed in his spare bedroom the past 50 years.”

On the Hubbert curve: “In other words, the curve is subject to change at any point due to unlimited external factors and therefore utterly useless save for an object over which academics can while away the hours pontificating.”

There is technical insight into how to invest in oil in the face of low prices. There is discussion of how well-run Netflix seems to be. There is good, old fashioned Fisking.

I am not even having to drill deep for this quality. It is lying about on the surface in plain sight.

Samizdata quote of the day

The continuing plunge in the price of oil from $115 a barrel in mid-2014 to $30 today is really, really good news. I know just about every economic commentator says otherwise, predicting bankruptcies, stock market crashes, deflation, political turmoil and a return to gas guzzling. But that is because they are mostly paid to see the world from the point of view of producers, not consumers.

Matt Ridley.

Cheap 3D printing is getting better

I receive emails from Google about, among other things, 3D printing. These 3D printing emails link to pieces that mostly confirm my current prejudice about 3D printing, which is that it is an addition to the technological armoury of current manufacturers rather than any sort of domesticated challenge to the conventional idea of manufacturing being done by manufacturers. Far from making manufacturing less skilled, 3D printing is, as of now, making manufacturing more skilled. Which is good news for all rich countries whose economic edge is provided by being able to deploy an educated rather than merely industrious workforce.

Here is the kind of story that these emails link to:

my colleagues and I have found a way to print composite material by making a relatively simple addition to a cheap, off-the-shelf 3D printer. The breakthrough was based on the simple idea of printing using a liquid polymer mixed with millions of tiny fibres. This makes a readily printable material that can, for example, be pushed through a tiny nozzle into the desired location. The final object can then be printed layer by layer, as with many other 3D printing processes.

The big challenge was working out how to reassemble the tiny fibres into the carefully arranged patterns needed to generate the superior strength we expect from composites. The innovation we developed was to use ultrasonic waves to form the fibres into patterns within the polymer while it’s still in its liquid state.

The ultrasound effectively creates a patterned force field in the liquid plastic and the fibres move to and align with low pressure regions in the field called nodes. The fibres are then fixed in place using a tightly focused laser beam that cures (sets) the polymer. …

The patterned fibres can be thought of as a reinforcement network, just like the steel reinforcing bars that are routinely placed in concrete structures …

In earlier pieces I have done here about 3D printing, commenters have compared the current state of domestic 3D printing with the state that domestic 2D printing had reached in the days of the dot matrix printer. Remember those? Maybe not. They disappeared from common view quite a while ago now.

The above description of miniature reinforcing rods makes me think that something like a 3D printing analogue to the 2D domestic laser printer may be about to emerge. Laser printers supplied, once their price had fallen to something domestically tolerable, unprecedented clarity and flexibility to domestic computer users. The process described above, and all the other 3D printing advances that those google emails tell me about, will, if all develops well, supply unprecedented internal strength, and hence just all-round quality, to cheaply printed 3D objects.

None of which means that specialised 3D printing by specialisers in all the various different sorts of 3D printing that are now coming on stream will cease to be a way to make a living, any more than specialised 2D printing experts have all now been run out of business by amateurs in their homes. (Quite the opposite – that link being just one for-instance of a hundred that I might have picked – I just happen to have particularly noticed taxis covered in adverts.) It is merely that, in the not too distant future, domesticated 3D printing may actually become seriously useful to people other than hobbyists and 3D printing self-educators.

However, even as supply gets ever cleverer, when it comes to domestic 3D printing there remains the problem of demand. As I asked in this earlier posting here (commenter Shirley Knott agreed): What 3D printed objects will be demanded domestically in sufficient quantities, again and again with only superficial variations (in the way that black-on-white messages on paper are now demanded) to make domestic 3D printing make any sense? No answer was supplied in those comments three years ago, and I have heard no answer since. So the above ultrasound-arranged reinforcing rods trick will almost certainly turn into just another manufacturing technique for old-school manufacturers to apply to their old-school specialist manufacturing businesses. Which means that this posting becomes just another Samizdata Ain’t Capitalism Great? postings. Which is fine. On the other hand, few can see killer apps coming, until suddenly they come. So maybe a future beckons, which sees us all eating out, but making other, inedible stuff in our kitchens.

The reinforced concrete reference also makes me even more eager than I long have been to see how 3D printing impacts on the world of architecture, architecture being another enthusiasm of mine. Postings like this one at Dezeen make it clear that this is a question that lots of others are wondering about also.

I can’t get a bus!

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

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

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

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

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

 

Then consider your role in creating poverty

I read this

Pope tells Davos elite: Consider your role in creating poverty

…and my immediate response was “Fine, and then consider your role in creating poverty”. This economically illiterate collectivist favours precisely the sort of top-down state run economics that strangle innovation and distort markets to favour whoever can best manipulate the means of collective coercion.

Samizdata quote of the day

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

Tim Worstall.

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

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

The top 62 richest people

Oxfam are at it again: The 62 richest people own more than the bottom half of all people. The last time this was measured it was 80, and before that 388. All this means the world is getting worse. Something Must Be Done. And so on.

Some thoughts in response, and I am glad to see that many Guardian commenters have had similar thoughts:

This is a really bad way to measure things. To be in the top 1% you just have to own a normal house in London. What do the top 62 have that the others do not? A bigger house in London and a functionally equivalent but shinier car. They are certainly not eating all the food and making everyone else hungry.

There is not a fixed quantity of wealth. The rich people being rich takes nothing away from the poor people. They control resources, in the sense that they get to have a bigger influence over what gets made, but for the most part they got rich by making useful things, so they are probably the right people to be making such decisions. Their idiot children who inherit the money will soon fritter it away on fancy cars and restaurant food, so it will get redistributed to factory workers and waiters in the end anyway.

By any real measure, such as infant mortality, nutrition, life-expectancy, number of people subsistence farming, access to clean water: things are getting better. There is a web site showing all this but I can not find it.

And what would Oxfam do about it, anyway? Force the rich people to give it to governments, probably. See my previous comment about who has proven themselves able to make useful things.

Supply, demand, regulators, middlemen

If there is one thing the BBC and Samizdata have in common, it is our coverage of all the important issues.

Simon Watson, 41, has been an unlicensed sperm donor for 16 years, donating once a week. “Usually one [baby] a week pops out. I reckon I’ve got about 800 so far, so within four years I’d like to crack 1,000.”

This is a whole new world of discovery for me.

The number of women using donated sperm to get pregnant is rising, but many find the cost of treatment at private clinics prohibitive. This has led some women to use unlicensed donors. […] Very few women are eligible for artificial insemination on the NHS as the criteria are very strict. Private licensed clinics cost between £500 and £1,000 for each cycle of treatment. Mr Watson charges £50 for his services […] “If you go to a fertility clinic people have to go through lots of hurdles – counselling sessions, huge amounts of tests and then charge absolute fortunes for the service – but realistically if you’ve got a private donor you can just go and see them, meet them somewhere, get what you want and just go,” he explains.

Regulatory hurdles push up prices for the end user, so the demand for cheap and cheerful is met elsewhere. But what about the supply side? Another BBC article, bemoaning the lack of donors, completes the picture.

Just nine men are registered as donors a year after the opening of Britain’s national sperm bank in Birmingham. […] Donors are paid £35 per clinic visit, but Ms Witjens said financial reward was not a good way to boost recruitment. “We might get more donors if we paid £50 or £100 per donation, but money corrupts. “If you feel you can make £200 a week for four months, you might hide things about your health.”

I would have thought women might want to be a bit pickier than have sperm from the kind of loser who gets out of bed for thirty-five quid.

So we have private services supplying a high cost, high quality product, but crowded and regulated out of providing better value or budget services. A state provider that manages to have nothing but shortages of supply and (I would guess) poor quality products. And a grey market filling in the gaps. This is not a new world at all: there is nothing new here. To make things better I would abolish the state providers and deregulate, creating an environment for reputable intermediaries to supply maximum value for money across the whole range of price points. If anything does change it will probably involve more rules and the criminalisation of the grey market, increasing costs and risks.

How Hollywood portrays the 2008 financial crash, ctd

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

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

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

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

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

Samizdata quote of the day

“Fear not,” said the angel at Christmas, “for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Indeed. There has never been a better time to be a human being.

– Dan Hannan writes in Conservative Home that 2015 was the best year in human history, and 2016 will be better yet.

Libertarians are now the optimists about the human future, and collectivists are the pessimists. Libertarians know how to make the world better for humans and are doing this, by resisting and (wherever possible) rolling back collectivism. Collectivists never did know how to make the world better for humans, but now not even they believe that they know how to do this. All they can now do is fabricate catastrophe and demand that keeping human progress going be made into a crime.

A rant that delivers the goods

Stefan Stern wrote the standard Guardian article about the awfulness of Uber, only this time it wasn’t Uber it was a bunch new to me called “Deliveroo”: “Deliveroo and its ilk are serving up low wages, insecurity and social division”. He wrote,

But we have clearly not even begun to think deeply enough about the implications for workers in all this.

A commenter called “narnaglan” replied,

There is nothing in this for you to think about. Deliveroo has nothing to do with you, since you are not a shareholder. The people who work for it choose to do so and are not forced. It is entirely legitimate, and ethical.

Your only response to Deliveroo, if you have a feeling that they are not doing it “right” is to start your own business, where the delivery people are under contracts and conditions that you feel are acceptable. If you are correct in your assumptions, Deliveroo will be driven out of business, and your new, ethical delivery service will immediately dominate.

But you will not do this.

Why? Because you are comfortable sitting on the sidelines telling other people how to live and run their affairs. You are not willing to take risk yourself, and have no original ideas of your own. All you are able to do is react to what other people invent, and criticize it through your distorting and inverting Guardianista Socialist lens.

Deliveroo and all other businesses that allow people to start work are useful and beneficial. The more companies in the market like it, the more jobs there are, and the better off people are. Someone with an idea will disrupt Deliveroo, which is the latest in a line of home delivery services that have existed for at least 18 years, one of the first being the Room Service delivery service that did not even have a website.

You people simply do not understand the market, innovation and how things really work. All you know how to do is destroy, call for people to be made unemployed and business to be made inoperable because you think you have the right to tell other people how to live, how to organize and what private contracts they make between themselvs are ethical.

You are wrong. About everything.