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]

Britain’s got talent, perhaps — but no taste

I am not a very musical person, but the following juxtaposition in the tv schedules last night struck me as remarkable:

9:30 ITV1 Britain’s Got Talent (results show). Amateur variety acts are ranked by the viewers. Predicted audience 14 million. An industry in itself.

9:00 BBC4 Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Documentary on the Funk Brothers, the Motown Records house band, who played on everything even the amusical like me have heard of, and incorporating live sets with the surviving old guys backing top modern soul artists. Predicted audience, way under half a million.

Hereford T-bone has none of the attractions of udderburger. And sometime in the next year they will let those 14 million vote for a government, too.

A bizarre comparison

Bryan Appleyard, who writes a whimsical blog, likens the wondrous Barcelona FC forward Lionel Messi to the doomsterish intellectual, John Gray. I mean, what the f**k?

Considering how thoroughly Mr Gray has had the tar kicked out of him by this blog and a few others for his less-than-convincing opinions, I fail to see the connection. A certain trickiness, perhaps, a slipperyness? But in a footballer, trickiness in defeating a defender and goalkeeper is a skill to be admired. In Mr Gray, an ability to say six contradictory things before breakfast betokens a certain deficiency, a lack of rigour. But as Brian Micklethwait has pointed out, Gray is actually consistent – consistently pessimistic. He’s an Eyeore come rain or shine.

Not a liberal government in any sense

Whatever else he can be called, I do not think that Mr Obama can be called a liberal. I was having a good chat with fellow blogger Paul Marks last night and he made this point. And as if by coincidence, via Instapundit, comes this story:

“The US Department of Homeland Security is set to kickstart a controversial new pilot to scan the fingerprints of travellers departing the United States. From June, US Customs and Border Patrol will take a fingerprint scan of travellers exiting the United States from Detroit, while the US Transport Security Administration will take fingerprint scans of international travellers exiting the United States from Atlanta. The controversial plan to scan outgoing passengers — including US citizens — was allegedly hatched under the Bush Administration. An official has said it will be used in part to crack down on the US population of illegal immigrants.”

Brilliant idea (sarcasm alert). How will fingerprinting people make illegal immigration more difficult? Surely, if supposedly unwanted folk are leaving a country, they are doing that country a favour, so why make it more irksome for them to move away by fingerprinting them or by insisting on other evidence, details or whatnot? I guess greater minds than mine have an answer.

As Thaddus Tremayne noted on this blog not so long ago, our own marvellously-run administration is pondering the idea of getting all travellers from the UK to divulge their travel and accomodation plans, reasons for trips, etc. (So I guess eloping couples will have a lot of explaining to do). As he also noted, the day may not be far off when exit visas, of the sort that used to be applied in the Communist East, make a comeback. So if you want to get the hell out of the UK before it crashes into bankruptcy, rising inflation and tax, then it is probably smart to do so in the next few years, regardless of the outcome of the next General Election. Paranoid? Well, who would have thought that the very notion of detailed information requests from travellers would have been mooted a few years ago. The ratchet effect keeps going.

And by the way, for those who sneered at Dale Amon’s enthusiasm for spacefaring the other day, it is stories like this that explain why “exit” strategies such as spacefaring and sea-steading are gaining some interest from libertarians. It may sound utopian, but the general idea of “getting out” has never been more popular. And that is why I keep banging on about the attempted assaults on so-called tax havens. They are an attack on the very notion that places of refuge from governments should exist, for rich or poor alike.

Samizdata quote of the day

“In many ways, Cameron faces a task far harder than that which confronted Margaret Thatcher. She was elected three years after the IMF bailout, and so the public finances were being restored to health. She was chosen as leader specifically to bring radical change, and had four years to assemble a team and prepare for the ordeal. Mr Cameron originally assembled a team for the political equivalent of a game of croquet; the same people now find themselves dropped on a rugby pitch.”

Fraser Nelson.

On flexible labour markets

I suppose they deserve half a clap for trying, if not for the rigour of argumentation. Crooked Timber, a leftish blog I read occasionally, tries to deny that flexible, relatively lightly regulated labour markets have fared better, or are superior to, the more heavily regulated, European ones, such as in France and Germany. Oh really? Let me quote a couple of lines:

“According to the latest Eurostat data, the unemployment rate in the US was equal to that in the EU-15 in March, and is now likely to be higher. Writing in the NY Times, Floyd Norris refers to the conventional wisdom that flexibility inherent in the American system — it is easier to both hire and fire workers than in many European countries implies that unemployment should be lower (at any given point in the business cycle) in the US than in Europe.”

It is “conventional wisdom” in the sense that it makes sense. Other things being equal – which they never are, of course – if you increase the cost, and hassle, of both hiring someone, and make it more expensive and difficult to fire someone if they fail to come up to scratch for any reason, then fewer people in general get hired. And it strikes me that that holds pretty robustly. Yes, unemployment may currently be as bad, percentage-wise, across the US as a whole as across the whole of the euro zone, although let it be noted that different parts of the US have differing rates of unemployment, as does the euro zone. But as the next paragraph demonstrates, it really will not do to try and claim that heaping labour markets with more costs and rules has few adverse effects:

Advocates of the US system make much of the deterrent to hiring associated with employment protection laws, but they ignore the other side of the coin. When the economy is contract, employment protection laws do in fact protect employment (if they did not, they would have no adverse effect on hiring either). On this basis there is nothing surprising in what we are seeing. EU unemployment rates should be higher in expansions and lower in contractions, which is exactly what is required for lower variance.

But – and it is a big but – if monetary policy is not run by idiots, thereby avoiding boom-bust cycles of great severity, then overall, the low-regulation labour market fares better, in the medium to long-run, than the alternative. If wage rates are allowed to fall in a recession, rather than be held up via artificial means, then yes, you will get, as America did in the early 1920s for example, a sharp, but short contraction, followed by a rapid recovery. But if you load lots of rules and regulations on, you get a 1930s-style decade of high, double-digit unemployment. And in measuring the impact of labour market laws, the duration of a period of high unemployment is as bad as, if not worse, than a period of high, but short-lived, unemployment.

And let’s not forget that in France, for instance, the country had high unemployment rates for much of the 1990s and early ‘Noughties, when much of the Western economy was booming on the back of cheap commodities, the rise of the BRICs, the dotcom boom, the Cold War “dividend”, and impact of partial free market advances in the US, the UK and some other countries. And yet hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Frenchmen and women, let it not be forgotten, languished on the dole or make-work projects. In 2005, for example, French unemployment was above 10 per cent.

Here is quite a balanced account of the benefits of a supposedly flexible labour market, including the pros and cons. This extensive study comes down pretty firmly on the side of the view that flexible labour markets are good overall.

In a way, what this comes down to is the trade-off between security for those who have a job already versus the freedoms of those who want to get another one or any job at all. To pretend that things such as regulations and costs of firing people will not influence behaviour is to deny that incentives matter, or that they affect welfare.

Figuring out North Korea and those missile launches

This article in the Independent articulates an argument that I summarise thus: North Korea is developing nukes, it is firing rockets and other stuff into the sky near or above its neighbours, but the country is a basket case; it is led by a nutcase and all this stuff is in fact it is a sign of weakness, not strength. In other words, nothing much to worry about, please move along, ManU are playing Barcelona in the Champions League, etc.

I actually accept that there is probably a great deal of truth in this “nothing to get overly worried about” line. There’d better be. There is not much, short of war, with all the terrible costs it would bring, that neighbouring countries such as South Korea, China or Japan can do to pressure North Korea that they have not done already. (Japan, by the way, has been busily expanding its naval forces). When in the past I have briefly mentioned North Korea, some commentators on Samizdata will point out that the West (ie, the US), should not, or has no need or business, to defend South Korea or indeed to act as if North Korea is a “problem” to be fixed. Let the locals sort it out, etc. Well up to a point, but there will be wider effects to think about if nuclear weapons are ever used, or threatened to be used, against what is, after all, a broadly free and friendly country like South Korea.

I think part of the problem is that as long as the US has kept significant armed forces in the region, it can create a sort of moral hazard problem, in that the countries thus protected fall out of the habit of learning to defend themselves, or understand its costs. I am not an expert on South Korean public opinion, but I cannot help but wonder what the impact of a long-running US presence will have on creating a possible false sense of security. One of the things that is clearly coming out of the current economic crisis, and the wrecked state of US public finances, is that there will now be enormous pressure on any US administration, even one led by more hawkish people than Mr Obama, to cut, or just limit, defence spending. South Korea has not escaped the impact of the credit crunch, and if it was not willing to shell out more money on defence five years ago, it is hard to see it doing that now, unless it is completely terrified of an attack. I am sure that the top brass in North Korea understand all this only too well.

Let us hope it is a sign of a weak, not strong regime. But remember also that weak, or desperate countries can do desperate things, such as the Argentine Junta’s decision to invade the Falkland Islands in 1982. As we know, Argentina lost that conflict, and it helped destroy the regime. But Argentina did not have, or threaten to use, nukes.

Samizdata quote of the day

“There is an almost universal assumption that the next government, of whatever stripe, will be imposing new taxes to avoid a junk-bond future. This easy option should not be allowed to run its course without challenge, because it ignores the risk of turning Britain into a junk economy of high taxes and low growth. It is no coincidence that the pressure to bring tax havens to heel has become intense over the past six months. So panicked were the finance ministers of the G20 nations about the risk of capital flight from the grabbing State that a campaign of bullying was launched against a small group of nations that refuse to accept that the State has the power to achieve absolute dominion over private wealth.”

Carl Mortished. He is writing about California, and the lessons of that indebted US state for the euro zone and Britain.

Discussion Point XXIX

How has the current Western political class come into being?

What economic, social, historical, cultural, technological or other factors have contributed to its growth and ascendancy?

Keeping them out of touch

As I was saying before, the real poison of the MPs allowances system is not that they get ‘free money’. It is that it insulates them personally from the bulllying of officialdom that they would have the power, had they the motivation, to curtail. The Guardian reports:

A Labour source said: “The fees office green book which sets out the rules and advice on behalf of the parliamentary authorities states specifically that professional advice, for example from accountants or solicitors, is an allowable expense.

“In order that MPs comply fully with all the relevant requirements relating to tax, and to ensure they are properly meeting all their tax liabilities, many rightly seek professional assistance and advice where this relates specifically to their role as members of parliament.”


Under tax rules, most workers are not allowed to claim the cost of paying an accountant to help them to fill in a tax return as a legitimate business expense.

HMRC is deliberately discouraging ordinary people from getting professional help with a complicated and secretive tax system by disallowing personal accountancy as an expense.* That is calculated to keep a naive segment of the taxpaying public on the margin in subjection and overpaying. In my experience an accountant is not expensive. The psychological pain he protects you from is at least as important as the financial benefit of getting it right.

The sums they claim for it are trivial, but that MPs are encouraged to get that analgesia (100% free to them), whereas the ordinary voter is discouraged from it (paying out of their own pocket, with at best 40% counting against the tax they pay, if they fall into the category where accountancy is allowed as an expense, which they won’t find out unless they employ an accountant in the first place), is another corrupting influence.

* My idea of ‘tax justice’, unlike that of the various organisations that campaign for people to pay as much tax as possible and for more arbitrary power for the authorities, is one in which the system is transparent, there aren’t different sets of rules for different people, and the rules themselves are fair and set out in law.


BTW, on the subject of tax, readers might enjoy this letter in The Times.

NASA top jobs finally filled

Well, it is finally official. Astronaut Charles Bolden is the new NASA Administrator. If that were the only news then I would not be writing about it. What does interest me is that a woman who has worked towards this nearly her entire life has snatched the Deputy Director slot and I wish to publicly congratulate Lori Garver, a very old and dear friend on her success.

Ad Astra Lori!

PS: Now I have to find out what jobs George Whitesides and Alan Ladwig are getting. I have worked with George for the last 5 years and know Alan from back to the early eighties. I should be seeing them at the ISDC in Orlando in a couple days.

A left wing martyrdom reconsidered

Deutsche Welle reports:

New information indicates that the killer in the controversial shooting of student protester Benno Ohnesorg in Berlin in 1967 was a West German policeman who was also working for the East German Stasi secret police.

Sifting through reams of old files from the communist state security apparatus in East Germany, two historians, Helmut Mueller-Enbergs and Cornelia Jabs, say they accidently uncovered information that the policeman, Karl-Heinz Kurras, was a so-called unofficial employee of the East German Ministry for State Security (MfS) and a member of the country’s Socialist Unity Party (SED).

According to Der Spiegel,

It was one of the most important events leading up to the wave of radical left-wing violence which washed over West Germany in the 1970s.

Deutsche Welle asks the obvious question:

What would have happened to the German student protest movement of the late 1960s had people known that Ohnesorg’s killer had been a spy for communist East Germany?

My question is, what happens to the group memory of the German Left now that people do know that one of its iconic moments was not all it seemed to be – was in fact the opposite of what it seemed to be?

Perhaps not much. Since the Stasi files were opened there have been plenty of revelations. But that works both ways: the steady drip, drip has worn away the stone of the German Left’s own perception of its history. This resonates with me despite the fact that I did not know who the unfortunate Benno Ohnesorg was. I may have been precocious as a young leftwinger in the 1970s but not even my precocity extended to knowing the names of demonstrators killed by West German police brutality (as it seemed) when I was three years old. But though I might not have known about him, I knew – or thought I knew – there were many like him, all over the world. I knew that those better informed than I, the sort of admirable people whose book-lined shelves showed as background to their talking heads on BBC2, they knew about all such victims. Only it turns out that in this case they did not know the whole story.

I wonder if this revelation will have a similar effect on Germans of a certain age and intellectual profile as the revelation that members of CND such as Vic Allen really were Soviet spies had on me?

(ADDED LATER) Forgive me for coming back to a post after pressing “publish”, but I realise the line above gives the wrong impression, and there is more I want to say. The effect of the revelation that what the right wing press had hinted about CND – that it had been infiltrated – was the truth did not astound me. I had already changed my allegiance. If anything, it made me laugh. Well waddya know: the very thing that I clearly remembered thinking was a smear so ridiculous that not even the Torygraph smearers could really believe it, turns out to be a fact. But that laugh was my last laugh against my old self. From then on I thought of my former self as having been not just misguided but fooled.

Samizdata quote of the day

“I think in the U.S. and in most of the world the public understanding of economics is abysmal. But it’s one thing not to understand something. I don’t understand brain surgery. It’s another to want to form policies on things on which you are ignorant. I hear the wonderful phrase “I want to make a difference” when it comes to policy. I would be horrified if I wanted to make a difference in brain surgery. The only difference is more people would die on the operating table. The only encouraging thing about public reaction to the crisis is that going by polls citizens seem to have more misgivings about some of these policies than politicians or the media. Still, though there have been studies that indicate the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression by years, what is also clear is it was enormously popular. FDR was elected four straight times, and more than once without ever having brought unemployment down to single digits. An economic disaster does not necessarily mean a political disaster. If we could raise the average level of understanding of economics to what Alfred Marshall had in 1890, the vast majority of politicians would be voted out of office.”

Thomas Sowell, interviewed in Reason magazine.