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

“It is my settled opinion, after some years as a political correspondent, that no one is attracted to a political career in the first place unless he is socially or emotionally crippled.”

Auberon Waugh
, journalist, novelist and son of the writer Evelyn Waugh. I once had the pleasure of chatting to Auberon for a long time at a party and reflected on what a thoroughly nice man he was. He is much missed, although not by Polly Toynbee, I suspect.

Events to mark Milton Friedman’s life and work

Today is Milton Friedman Day. Interesting selection of links to events marking the great man’s life over at Virginia Postrel’s blog.

Here is the main event link.

One of the smoothest female singers around

On a Sunday afternoon, when recovering from a close friend’s birthday the previous evening – in the Dover Street wine bar – god help my liver and I – there is no better way to resume some semblance of humanity than to listen to this woman. I first chanced upon one of Diana Krall’s CDs about a decade ago and she has held a firm place in my music-playing selection ever since. Her version of “Face the Music and Dance” was my choice of first musical piece at my wedding last year, taken from this CD.

Norah Jones is great, Peggy Lee was wonderful and Ella Fitzgerald could charm the birds off the trees, but Krall is as good as any of them – not to mention rather easy on the eye – and hopefully will be around for a long time yet. No wonder Clint Eastwood went nuts when he saw her playing in a local Carmel bar before she became a megastar.

My hangover is fading already.


We used to have a word for it

‘It’ being the idea that it is a legitimate function of government to dress its servants in uniforms with shiny buttons and have them bully and interrogate people to make sure they are behaving themselves.

The word, Prussianism, was still used between the wars, but was much more common in the Indian summer of the British Empire, a century ago. It encapsulated the contempt of the liberal British (either little Liberals or little Conservatives) for the Bismarckian state and its imperative to dominate and regulate the lives of the people through petty officialdom. And that state was epitomised by shiny uniforms, the image of Prussianism.

Before the launch was buried under a torrent of further Home Office cock-up stories, the new, excitingly repressive, UK Borders Bill was launched with that image. There is nothing in the Bill about uniforms. Those are matters of prerogative. Likewise renaming the immigration service.

So the fact that John Reid chose to show off his latest ‘get tough’ policy* by unveiling the new uniforms for a renamed immigration service, is an epiphany of cultural change. Yesterday’s chaos (of which more in another post) may have covered it up, but I did not detect a whisper of the same public derision of Prussianism that the early 20th century Brits reserved for government by shiny uniforms.

[* Of course, Dr Reid, making Kylie carry an ID-card will stop people-smuggling dead. Now go with the nice man and have a quiet lie down…]

The worst part of the State of the Union Address

Other people who know far more about military and security affairs than I do will judge what President Bush had to say about Iraq. I was more interested in what the President had to say about domestic policy.

There were some of the contradictions I have come to expect. For example, the words about local control of schools and the words in support of the No Child Left Behind Act (as if the Federal government can keep spending more money on schools without control of those schools ending up more-and-more in Federal hands). How such things as the no-child-left-behind Act are supposed to be consistent with the pledge to ‘balance the budget’ was also unexplained.

There was also the odd use of language. For example, although libertarians tend to favour ‘free migration’ it is irritating for the President to say ‘no amnesty’ for illegal immigrants when an amnesty is exactly what he is planning (although he may use some other form of words for it). Still, I suppose, this type of language use is not that odd among politicians.

On health care it was good to hear the return of President Reagan’s suggestion that income used by an individual to pay for health cover should not be subject to either income tax or social security (pay roll) tax. Linking tax relief to a particular job (via only employer provided health cover being covered) is silly. It was also interesting to see that the tax relief would be limited to a certain level of spending – so that in this (and other ways) people would have an incentive to shop around for health cover that controlled costs (the one good bit of the Medicare Part D. extension of some years ago).

There was nothing on how the existence of Medicare and Medicaid (which started out at five billion Dollars in 1965 and now cost hundreds of billions of Dollars) have had a knock on effect of increasing costs of private health cover – but I did not expect this (Medicare and Medicaid are sacred these days). → Continue reading: The worst part of the State of the Union Address

Blast from the past

Just got an e-mail from someone I met in Beijing in late 2005. I enjoyed his company especially because we shared a similarly self-deprecating, absurdist sense of humour. A good bloke – the sort that makes you understand why Aussies and Brits get along so well in spite of the silly state of sporting rivalry that exists between us. Craig was a thirty-something English teacher who had been on the Asia circuit for some time. Stories of his doomed-in-hindsight relationship forays amused me. When we were hanging out in 2005, his current romantic interest spoke no English and they (barely) communicated via the ridiculously inadequate translator installed on their respective mobile phones – think sub-2000 Alta Vista Babelfish – painfully erroneous. They had been out to dinner a couple of times. Boggles the mind, yes. Anyway, today I received an e-mail from him:

hey james….hows sunny australia these days? i got this email from kanjing, the girl with the very cute smile at the jade youth hostel. haha, this poor guys trying to chat her up and she goes and forwards the reply to every westerner she knows. ahhh, chinese girls.

He is right – she did have an awfully cute smile and was really quite lovely – in an untouchable sort of way. And he is also right about her forwarding said correspondence to a bunch of vague acquaintances – that is exactly the sort of thing a Chinese girl would do! Gotta love ’em. It is all one big English lesson.

What our amorous charge wrote to his fair damsel – and her response – is somewhat beside the point, but I could not help but note that the English proficiency he demonstrated was not enormously superior to that of our (slightly coherent) Chinese heroine. If I was feeling sympathetic, I would mark it down to the less rigorous standards demanded of e-mail communication. But still… awww… I had such a great time in China! I want to be there now. I laughed a lot. The glorious clash of customs taking place can be quite hilarious.

Why car advert restrictions make for weird television fare

The other night I glanced at the television to see an advertisement for a smooth-looking new car by Hyundai. All very clever with a sort of liquid metal effect – due to the wonders of computer generated technology – but absolutely nothing at all about the car. There was no description of how fast the car could go, what sort of gearbox it had, how many seats, how much it costs, what its fuel consumption is. Nothing. It was about as informative as watching a North Korean press release.

The reason, I think, why modern car advertisements are like this is because of a campaign by the UK authorities, with bodies like the Advertising Standards Authority, to remove all reference to the idea that a car is desirable because it goes fast. One must not offend against the Gods of Health and Safety by implying, stating or otherwise celebrating that this or that set of wheels goes like a rocket. No sir. One must not lead the gullible British public into the sin of speeding and other naughtinesses. What we therefore have are adverts that are self-indulgent eye candy, of no more import than a nice piece of modernist artwork. Here is an example of what I mean.

It is, I suppose, a reflection of the society in which we live that advertisements, like old Tom and Jerry cartoons, get bowdlerised or otherwise influenced by the desire to remove all risk from life. But life is not free from risk, and risk is actually one of the ways that you know that you are alive rather than dead.

On a brighter note, Richard Hammond, “The Hamster” as he is known to his Top Gear TV colleagues, is back to the screens this Sunday after recovering from a stunt that went badly wrong. What I continue to love about that show is that you know, you just know, that the serried ranks of the do-gooder classes cannot abide this programme.

Go Hamster!

Another Branson Pickle

Sir Richard Branson is an excellent example of the pitfalls of branding, and how reputational risk is not as disastrous as some consultants would make out in search of their paycheque. Public relations is important, and Branson is a past master at exploiting the attraction of novelty. One of his most risky and perhaps adroit moves is the extension of the Virgin to new potentailly radical technologies that will have a visible impact. Trains are not included within this structure, though it is interesting how the poor performance of Virgin trains has not yet impacted on the wider reputation of the name.

Now Branson wishes to capitalise on the potential of stem cells and is providing a vital service, by storing the umbilical stem cells of newborn babies. This is a nascent and growing industry:

Public cord storage is becoming more common, particularly in the U.S., but there is also a growing private industry taking advantage of the promise of these cures. However, the industry is extremely controversial because the chances of developing a disease that stem cells can cure, such as leukemia, is small while the new cures may never materialize. Some anti-abortion groups believe that any use of stem cells will lead to human cloning.

Private storage of stem cells is unlawful in France and Italy and is opposed by the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, which is a European Commission body.

This has not stopped more than 11,000 families in the UK using stem-cell storage facilities. The services typically cost about £1,500 for collection of the blood and about £100 a year for cold storage. A number of celebrity parents are reported to have used these services including Thierry Henry, the Arsenal footballer, and Darcey Bussell, the dancer.

Trust the European Commission to recommend banning something which has the potential to do some good and possibly liberate individuals from a date with disease.

Samizdata quote of the day

The interests of do-gooding organisations are always at odds with their goals. Succeed and you put yourself out of business. With racism in rapid retreat and mixed-race children on the rise, there is one great contribution the Commission for Racial Equality could make to its official cause. Stop existing.

– Jamies Whyte, who is what he sounds like and who has a black wife and a brown daughter, ending his comment piece today in Times on line today (also linked to by Mick Hartley)

Happy Australia Day

To mark the occasion, Samizdata reader Sam Ward – better known as ‘Yobbo’ – has posted an alternative Australia Day address from Sam Kekovich on his blog. Might as well plonk it here, too.

Right. It is a heinously hot day in Perth. I am off to spend the entire afternoon in the sun, drinking beer and frying steaks.

Somehow, I think George Orwell was not a fan of games

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard for all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

From Orwell’s collected essays, which should be on everyone’s bookshelf.

Another fine mess that Gordon got us into

Earlier in the week I wrote about how UK finance minister Gordon Brown’s economic record is likely to be a poor one. If you ask many people about what they dislike most about the gloomy Scot, they will tell you of how he changed the tax rules in a way that sucked billions of pounds out of company final-salary pension funds. Hundreds of these schemes have shut their doors to new recruits and in some cases, like UK pest control business Rentokil, have cut the benefits of even existing pension scheme members. We are living for longer, and the shift in human longevity continues to push up pension liabilities. These liabilities are accounted for as a debt item on corporate balance sheets – something that has hit many businesses as a shock.

In the case of once-nationalised utilities like British Telecom or the airline, British Airways, the big black holes in their pension schemes are almost as large as the market value of these firms. Companies are pouring billions of pounds into these pension schemes to stay on the right side of Britain’s official pension regulator. No wonder that British Airways is suffering with its struggles against budget airline rivals such as EasyJet or Ryanair, and the impact of higher fuel costs and security-related costs.

One cannot pin all the blame on Brown for what has happened. Having a beer with fellow Samizdata contributor Philip Chaston last night, we agreed that in some ways that final-salary pensions were probably due to fade out or decline anyway, since they were part of an era when a person worked for one firm for their whole life, retired in their sixties and then had the good actuarial grace to drop dead. In an age when people change jobs regularly and live into their 80s and beyond, this particular form of retirement saving is not viable for many companies. In fact, over time, I expect many companies to cease running any significant pension schemes altogether. There is no doubt, however, that Brown has had a crushing impact on pensions, and his continued tax-and-spend policies are unlikely to foster a significant saving habit among the public. Quite the reverse.

I am writing this with a few minutes to go before a documentary on ITV looking at the scale of the UK pension meltdown. It is unlikely to be jolly viewing.