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.

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Samizdata quote of the day

You are now signed up to this petition. Thank you.

For news about the Prime Minister’s work and agenda, and other features including films, interviews, a virtual tour and history of No.10, visit the main Downing Street homepage.

If you’d like to tell your friends about this petition, its permanent web address is: http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/please-go/

– This is what you get as soon as you click on the second of the above links, fill in your details, and then confirm it all by clicking on the link in the email they immediately send you. I was impressed by the ease and speed of it all.

I also beg the Prime Minister to resign

As I have already confessed, I have incurred the sympathetic derision of commenters here with my various and variously expressed hopes-stroke-predictions that Gordon Brown will, within a matter of days, or weeks, or just soon, no longer be our Prime Minister. But just when I had resigned myself to Mr Brown’s non-resignation, that is to say to him not being ejected from Downing Street with whatever would be the necessary degree of force by a delegation of Labour Party heavies appalled by the damage that Mr Brown is doing to the Labour Party (even as they remain stubbornly indifferent to the damage he might also be doing to the mere country), and thus resigned also to the consequent hell of Mr Brown remaining our Prime Minister for another fourteen months, this happens. This being a petition to the Prime Minister, begging him to resign.

Even if it fails in its ultimate purpose, this petition may surely do some good. It may, for instance, show the Labour Party rank-and-file something of the odd mixture of fear and contempt now felt towards Mr Brown and his hangers-on (hanging on being all that they now seem able to think about) by almost all British non-tax-guzzlers, and many others besides. This in its turn may cause Labour supporters to join in by adding their own names to the electronic heep, if only to earn a few shreds of national gratitude for their now apparently supine and utterly corrupted Party.

Better yet, this petition, if it takes off as I think it might, may put a rocket up David Cameron’s rear end, to tell him to stop merely waiting for the country to fall into his lap like a rotten apple (while carefully refraining from telling us what he would then do with it other than allow the rot to continue), and get him instead to start saying that the rot should stop, and saying how. (Basically: which government activities should be closed down, now.) In due course, and I realise that it goes against the grain around here to be saying such a thing, Mr Cameron might even become the kind of Prime Minister who might actually stop some of that rot.

Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale have already linked to and given their support to this petition. Both have insisted that they don’t usually ‘do’ government petitions, but both of them sense that this one could be something else again. No doubt other bloggers have already added their voices to what I trust is now a chorus, saying similar things, and if they have, I think that all of them – Guido, Dale and all – are right. This could get very big, very fast.

Killer bunnies, Japanese style

Click on the link. You know you want to. (H/T: David Thompson).

Yes, it is Friday. I just cannot face writing about the UK economy/corrupt British government/Chicago Community Organiser for a few days. The sun is shining so enjoy the weekend, have a barbecue, drink chilled wine, etc.

Samizdata quote of the day

Of course, it’s been half a century since Cuba has had a real new leader. This is one of the down sides to life extension.

Rand Simberg

This quintessence of dust

I think this is great, from regular commenter here NickM of Counting Cats:

The tale science tells about how we got here (and got to the point where we could ask such questions) is not just truer than the bronze-age claptrap of The Bible (or Qu’ran or stories about Marduk or whatever …) but more compelling. We are DNA on the right-handed scroll and it has taken four billion years to make us. We are that amazing. Isn’t that more compelling than some old shit about talking snakes and a job done in six days? Is it not a truly grand narrative? The truth is so much more beautiful than the lie. It is also the truth and that also goes a long way on it’s own.

Ah, c’mon folks … I have heard enough from creationists about how if we’re merely risen slime we’re still slime and that in some unspecified way we are therefore still tainted by the slime. But what slime! This piece of slime can be moved to tears by the music of Palestrina, this piece of slime can be amused by the plays of William Shakespeare, this piece of slime can parse HTML and FORTRAN. This piece of slime can factorize quadratics, do integration by parts and hold an opinion on the Copenhagen Interpretation. This is one hell of a piece of slime and so, dear reader, are you.

I am proud to be slime with post-graduate qualifications. I am stardust (so are you) created in the forge of supernovae (is that not cool?). I am atoms in motion (so are you). I am victory (so are you). I am almost everything you are and you are almost everything I am. We share half of our DNA with cabbages after all.

I entirely agree with all this, but I do not stick it up here to insist that all of you do. I know that all of you do not, which is fine by me. Especially if, from what you do believe instead, you draw political conclusions with which I strongly do agree. I stick it up here because it puts a particular point (call it the “glory of slime” argument) in answer to a common objection to Darwinian atheism (the “sliminess of slime” argument) with exuberant eloquence. Even many of those who think it tosh will at least agree that it is very well written.

The Cat Counter acknowledges the sliminess of slime, but then trumps it with the grandeur. But I bet, when he wrote his bit, that he had, rattling about somewhere in his head, this, which acknowledges the grandeur but then trumps it with slime, or in this case with dust:

What piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how
express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

While Hamlet emphasises also what fine and beautiful athletes we are, NickM concentrates only our mental glories. An interesting omission, maybe? There are all kinds of memes floating about now to the effect that although many of us dirt-bags are clever, we are not that beautiful, a blot on the world even, compared to many other more exotic looking animals, who now seem to us much more express and admirable in form and moving. Maybe this is something to do with how we have evolved to admire how we look only when young, yet are clever enough now to have contrived for millions upon millions of us to be shuffling on unattractively into old age instead of reverting to actual dirt at forty and being replaced by younger and prettier dirt-bags.

The day after

One of the few financial journalists who rumbled Gordon Brown years ago, Allister Heath, gives his verdict on yesterday’s UK budget. Devastating detail all the way through.

Allister is also pretty scathing about UK Liberal-Democrat economics spokesman, Vincent Cable, who tends to be deferred to as the “politician who talks sense on the economy”.

Clive Davis’s good question

There is no doubt that – apart from some smart writers like Liam Halligan – not many people in the financial journalist profession saw the current crisis coming or predicted its full extent. Clive Davis, over at his blog, makes that point by linking to an article that goes into what is rather mysteriously called the “shadow banking” sector: ie, any institution that gets involved in trading in or holding credit, such as hedge fund. I wrote about misconceptions surrounding this issue the other day.

So why were financial journalists or many economists unaware of the gathering storms? Well, assuming that they were oblivious, my explanations are as follows. I’d be interested in the comments. Here goes:

First, over-specialisation in the economics profession. One of the great benefits to me in discovering those Austrian economists such as Ludwig von Mises and writers like Henry Hazlitt all those years ago as a callow youth was that it reintroduced me to the days when “political economy”, as it was known in the 19th Century, was not hung up on mathematical models or big, wooly macro-economic systems, but addressed the incentives, laws, and actions of man. I had the benefit of getting a good grounding in microeconomics, in understanding an economy as a dynamic process that changes through time, not a set of artificial “games” with nonsense such as models of “perfect competition”.

Second, I think that for many journalists who did learn economics, the sort of ideas that have given me and other classical liberals/libertarians some insight into the gathering storms are simply not on their intellectual radar, or if they are, they are led to believe that people with surnames such as Hayek, or von Mises, or Friedman, are somehow eccentric, even malevolent creatures. Most of them have either read their JK Galbraiths, or their Krugmans, and get their views from the still-powerful tradition of Keynesian economics. The idea that fiat, state-monopoly money and Big Government – the two are related issues – lie at the core of the issue just does not apply to a group of folk who generally tilt left in their politics (although this is far less the case than in other parts of journalism, in my experience).

Also, as a result of overspecialisation, a journalist who writes about, say, the government bond market may not always join the dots when it comes to information coming out in a different area of the economy. There is also the fact that as sectoral journalists covering their beats such as energy, retail, telecoms, etc, get involved in the day-to-day job of covering these things, that the broader trends get obscured because of the sheer volume of stuff that journalists deal with. Given how financial journalism has developed as a profession in the last two decades – I have some insight into this via my day job – I am not too sure how to deal with this. Part of the trouble may even be what I might call the “showbiz” trend in financial journalism: reporters at channels such as CNBC often talk about the market in a sort of sports-coverage way: who’s up, who’s down, etc.

There are reporters – the FT’s Gillian Tett springs to mind – who have been very good at trying to keep on top of how the credit markets have evolved and some of the risks associated with that. And there are commentators and investors such as Jim Rogers, for instance, who have been pretty astute at seeing the disaster and warning about it. But a lot of people, as Clive Davis says, have not been aware of the magnitude of what has hit us. Maybe, however, Mr Davis has to remember the flip-side of this coin: we may now be blind to the chances of a pretty rapid recovery, at least in some parts of the world.

On the wrong side of the Laffer Curve

The title of this article written some months ago by noted US economist, Arthur Laffer, has never been more apt after I finished reading through the UK government’s latest outrage, its annual budget statement.

A new, top rate of income tax of 50 per cent comes in from next year, applying to annual incomes of £150,000 and above. The government, which probably knows it is doomed anyway, has made the base calculation that the Tories won’t dare to repeal it. I actually am not too sure about that: while £150,000 a year is a lot of money, for many self-employed folk with lumpy income streams, such a new tax band will hit them very hard in marginal terms, encourage further emigration from the UK, deter anyone with any entrepreneurial brio from entering the UK, and probably reduce, not raise, revenues. It is also a boon to the tax-planning and accountancy profession, since anyone who can restructure their affairs to convert income into a capital gain – CGT is just 18 per cent in the UK – will do so.

Update: I share Guido’s reaction. No wonder, by the way, that the G20 nations – hypocritically – chose to attack “tax havens” and create a global tax cartel. If you are someone like Gordon Brown or The Community Organiser, the last thing you need is for your high earners to escape abroad. But I’d be willing to bet that there will be quite a rush now of people out of this country. Expect to read lots of stories about how “Mr X, who runs a small business in the Midlands, said he was heading off to Australia/Canada/wherever to get away from high-tax, high-crime Britain”. Expect there to be a relentless, drip-drip of such stories in the months ahead. (Mr Jennings snorts about my mention of Australia: yes but at least there are other benefits to moving there).

Update: Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute and some top wealth management folk give the budget a thorough hammering over at CNBC. The guy from Denton Wilde Sapte is particularly good.

We are in the best possible hands

Samizdata commenter Marc Sheffner (thanks Marc!), spotted this story in a thread comment about this.

Makes you so glad that all our precious details are going to be looked after by those clever political folk and their friends, does it not?

Talking of IT, the debut UK edition of Wired has a look at some of the folk that run Britain’s IT and other vital infrastructure systems.

The Google mapping of crime

This, by Clay Shirky, is a truly fascinating blog posting. And the bit of it that I am about to quote (which is as far as I have so far got in it) is (to use a word I usually resist) awesome, at any rate in its long-term potential impact:

Just to pick one example, one I’m in love with, but it’s tiny. A couple of weeks one of my students at ITP forwarded me a project started by a professor in Brazil, in Fortaleza, named Vasco Furtado. It’s a Wiki Map for crime in Brazil. If there’s an assault, if there’s a burglary, if there’s a mugging, a robbery, a rape, a murder, you can go and put a push-pin on a Google Map, and you can characterize the assault, and you start to see a map of where these crimes are occurring.

That does not sound ‘tiny’ to me. It sounds huge. Finally, here might be a system worth reporting crimes to.

What this says is that those maps you see in TV cop shows will stop being a cop monopoly and become something everyone can consult, and contribute to. A golden age of private sector law enforcement beckons. In the words of the title of the blog (now alas not alive any more) where this particular posting appears: “Here comes everybody”. And against everybody, the criminals will be put back on the defensive where they belong, in other words where they were before TV took almost all law-abiding citizens off the streets (by showing them such things as TV cop shows), leaving behind only actually existing (as opposed to TV fantasy) government policemen, idiotically droning their mantra: leave it to us. Which has worked really well, hasn’t it?

Apologies to all those to whom this is stale news, what with this blog posting being based on a speech that was delivered exactly one year ago tomorrow. But if only a small fraction of the Samizdata readership has not seen this posting before, then from where I sit this is a very good mission accomplished. My thanks to Lynn Sislo, for mentioning it here.

Passengers on the gravy train

This afternoon, outside Waterloo Station, I photographed a couple of Members of Parliament. One was attending to his constituency paperwork, while the other was rolling a joint.


I wish. Whenever they introduce a new scheme the idea of which is to make things cheaper, they invariably end up making things more expensive. The only sure way to cut government spending is to shut things down. The idea that things can be made cheaper by being streamlined but perpetuated is folly.

The Evening Standard is jumping to all sorts of conclusions with its headline. Its actual story includes things like this:

Both Labour and Tory MPs could rebel over the plans, as many would stand to lose substantial sums currently used to pay their mortgages.

Plans. Nothing has changed yet.

However, some critics claimed that there would be big winners as well as big losers under the new scheme. Those who have paid off their mortgage on a London flat or man and wife couples could gain by claiming the maximum daily rate.

What’s the betting that there will be big winners, and little winners?

The present system means MPs have to produce receipts, which they hate. The new system that Gordon Brown is proposing sounds like it will simply do away with the receipts and, by the time the dust has settled in a few weeks or months time, double their salaries. They will get a salary on account of being an MP. And they will get another salary for turning up.

The idea that this will put a stop to muckraking by the likes of Guido Fawkes, by cleaning away all the muck, is very fanciful.

Regulations and their effects

I am not terribly convinced by this:

“…after decades and decades of instability in the 1800s and early 1900s, followed by the massive bank failures of the early 1930s, regulations were imposed to stabilize the banking system. The result was sixty years of calm in the financial sector. That’s hardly a failure of regulation. It wasn’t until the shadow banking system began growing outside of the regulatory umbrella that problems began to re-emerge. A central theme of the posts this week has been that bringing about another decades long period of relative stability will require the regulatory umbrella to be extended to cover all firms within both the traditional and non-traditional (or shadow) banking system, hedge funds included.”

That does rather ignore the fact that, in the early 1970s – in the period of “calm” that this writer talks about, we had stagflation, the collapse of the Bretton Woods banking system, etc. Hardly very calm. And if the system was calm, as claimed, how come it collapsed? (Hint: it was not the fault of evil private bankers or tax havens).

In the absence of a return to sound money and an end to fiat monetary systems, there may be something to be said for rules to at least limit some of the damage that monetary mistakes can cause. This is a second-best solution, I would say. I have heard it argued, even by some pretty ardent free market types, that there is a case for splitting the roles of risk-taking investment banks from those of more utility-like retail banks, as under the old US Glass-Stegall rules in the US. But had Glass-Stegall been in force today – it was abolished in the late 1990s – it would not have been possible for investment firms such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs to remodel their businesses as full-service banks, as happened in the autumn of last year when those firms were partly bailed out by the taxpayer. The ironies abound.

On this issue of the “shadow banking” system, the author and others need to understand how the business of securitising debt and selling it off to investors started, as well as why hedge funds and other non-bank institutions developed. This market, and the fiendishly complex derivative products that drove it, was given much of its early impetus by a banking regulation system, known as the Basel system, that told banks they had to set aside a certain portion of capital to one side to protect against risk.

It was, if you like, a partial acceptance that fractional reserve banking, if it is allowed without any “safeguards”, is dangerous. But what happened? Banks took out tradable insurance policies, such as credit default swaps, and used this insurance to get a better credit rating, and hence, reduce the amount of capital they set aside. The “shadow” banking system, then, and the derivatives market that gets so much heat, was partly driven by regulations, as well as by the application of sophisticated – if flawed – mathematical and scientific techniques to the business of finance.

The article does at least, in a backhanded sort of way, recognise that not everyone is signed up to the narrative that “unregulated capitalism” has failed. I am glad that has been noted. After all, it is a myth that supporters of capitalism, such as yours truly, oppose regulations per se: what I oppose is state-imposed, one-size-fits-all regulations. For example, if a privately run stock market wants to create its own listing rules to build and develop a reputation for high standards, it will be in its self interest to do so, since a track record for honesty, transparency and efficiency reduces the costs of capital because investors are more willing to hold equities traded in honest places rather than dodgy ones, and so on.

If the state has a role, it is that of going after thieves and fraudsters. And as we have seen in the case of US Ponzi scheme conman Bernard Madoff, the powerful US Securities & Exchange Commission did not act, despite certain suspicions about him, for years. By focusing on the basics, rather than trying to regulate everything under the sun, the state might even do some good.