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]

It’s showtime at the White House

Here is a revealing article in the Washington Post – hardly a newspaper of the conservative or libertarian side – that mocks the fawning treatment of Mr Obama by much of the press. Things change but there are continuities: I can remember how Tony Blair, or, for a while, Bill Clinton got such an easy ride in the press. The media was studiously easy on JFK in the early 1960s and covered up Kennedy’s numerous extra-marital affairs. Sure, Bush jnr got an easy ride from some of the Right – remember when Andrew Sullivan practically wrote love letters to Dubya before the gay marriage thing sent Sully off the edge? – but there was not the kind of broad-based cult of worship that there now is around the community organiser from Chicago.

Apart from Fox, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, a few niche publications like the American Spectator and the blogs, Mr Obama has had a remarkably easy ride and it does not seem to be ending soon. In part this is because much of the liberal media, even if some of its more intelligent denizens know that this is a bit silly, are playing as a “team” for Their Man, and don’t want to be seeing doing anything that might help the other side.

There has always been, and always will be, slanted coverage of public affairs, and it will continue. Even if the BBC in the UK were scrapped tomorrow and its reporters sent off to planet Titan, the fact is that there will be a substantial block of leftish/liberal media types and pundits. But the sheer, jaw-dropping bias of the White House press corps is something to behold. But maybe, just maybe, there are signs of cracks in the facade. I cannot help but think that Obama has, by trying to be all cool and sophisticated over the Iranian turmoil, started to piss off even parts of his side. He does not walk on water, and it is about time that this fact was noted. The stance now adopted by the media is not one suitable for self-respecting adults.

Waverider rides again

I ran across this item in a Jane’s publication:

Boeing prepares X-51A for hypersonic test flight. The US Air Force ( USAF) plans to fly the Boeing Phantom Works X-51A Waverider hypersonic engine research vehicle at up to Mach 6 later this year. Joseph Vogel, Boeing X-51A programme manager, Advanced Network and Space Systems, and Charles Brink, X-51A programme manager, USAF Research Laboratory, spoke to reporters at Boeing’s Huntington Beach facility in southern California on 14 May.

For those who do not know of the Waverider idea, it is a technique for ‘surfing’ on the re-entry plasma. It could be an easier way forwards for getting back from orbit if it can be proven out.. The first I heard about it was roughly in 1985 when I met a Scotsman named Duncan Lunan at a the International Space Development Conference in Washington, DC. He showed up in his clan kilt at the celebration party of the Pittsburgh L5 team which I had led to victory in the competition to run the 1987 conference. Duncan paid his way over and back through the sale of a commemorative brew called “Halley’s Whiskey”, done by a Scottish whiskey maker for the 1986 return of Halley’s Comet. Duncan is without a doubt one of the more memorable characters I have met.

Duncan and his merry band of Glaswegians (ASTRA) ran a long campaign of low budget testing on the Waverider concept and managed to pool resources and get access to a wind tunnel as well as more eclectic test methods. I heard many of the results in the early 1990’s when he gave a talk at Queens University in Belfast for the local astronomy society lecture series. His talk was punctuated by the 6th floor windows rattling from a 1000 pound or so bomb going off at the police forensics lab a few kilometers distant. It was quite an introduction for someone who had never been to Belfast before… we in the audience were then of course discussing probable distances, type of explosive, size, and so forth. As you did when you lived in Belfast in those years.

I again ran into the ASTRA crowd at the WorldCon in Glasgow in 1996 I believe it was. I was there as a sponsor as I had provided the event with a free internet connection via my company in Belfast, Genesis Project Ltd. I believe we talked about Waverider then, but as I went bar hopping in Glasgow with one of the other team members and walked out of his high rise to greet the morning sun, I cannot say I remember much other than that Scotsmen drink like Irishmen.

In any case, I am glad to see this concept is finally getting some serious attention. It has, after all, only been around for three decades that I am aware of, and I would not be surprised if someone told me the idea was old even then. Although it could carry out the same sort of mission, it is not the same as the German Skip-Bomber concept which simply did the skipping stone thing off the upper atmosphere.

If anyone knows more about the X-51, feel free to drop by and comment.

You can learn more about waverider here

There is no such thing as a good tax

This might have made the grade as a Samizdata quote of the day, but we already have a superb one today. However, I wanted to post this by the regular commentator, IanB, as it was too good to leave at the bottom of a very long thread about the flawed idea that land, qua land, is special, and must be singled out for tax because of its supposed uniqueness, as distinct from say, income or consumption:

“Liberty is based on a different presumption which has the virtue of making sense, which is that people should own property and do with it as they wish, because it is their property. And, honestly, if I save up and buy some land and plant a big garden on it for my retirement, I don’t care whether you think it would be better used for a glue factory because that would return you some externality that you can double charge for via your tax.”

“This is why liberty and georgism are incompatible; you keep making claims on behalf of the community. Screw this “community” of yours. It has no rights or claims on me beyond the right to freely interact with me. The LVT is a crude social engineering plan. It attempts to maximise productivity of land. Liberty is not about maximising any statistical value- it is simply the principle that the person may do with themself and what is theirs what they wish. So long as they produce enough by whatever means to survive, there are no other demands upon their economic activity.”

Exactly. Suffice to say, I doubt the LVT enthusiasts will give up (they are persistent, a bit like cockroaches that can apparently survive a nuclear blast). Question: why does this issue come up a lot on this site? Are we masochists? Well, libertarians obviously are against taxation, period, but there are grounds for debate on the least-worst form of tax; for what it is worth, some form of consumption tax is probably best in my view, not least because they tend to be fairly easy to collect, although there are still issues here. But in debating the pros and cons, let’s not lose sight of the fact that it is tax, per se, that we want to grind down as far as possible (that leaves open debate between anarcho-capitalists and minarchists on how to fund “core” functions of law and defence). There is no such thing as a perfect tax, and use of tax to re-arrange some alleged fault in the economic order of things by punishing some presumed “unearned” surplus is not just morally wrong, it is almost always doomed to failure. So however tedious some readers might find the LVT debate, I make no apologies for giving it the occasional good kicking on this site, along with other taxes.

The debate has certainly encouraged me to read a bit more about Henry George, the thinker associated most often wiith the land tax idea. He was an interesting thinker in many ways. He was a good guy in many respects: a passionate defender of free trade, for example. And he hated other taxes besides LVT. He’d be far too free market for most of our current politicians. Here’s a nice entry on him, which has some good but I think very fair criticisms.

Update: as part of our slugfest with these Georgists – they embrace a range of ideological stances, BTW – I thought to add some further points, having read a bit about their views. I don’t know why Georgists should, for some reason, not give more weight to foolish central bank policy in causing asset price bubbles, or assume that property bubbles are bad, but other bubbles – like say, the dotcom one of the 1990s, are less so. One Georgist likes to raise the example of Hong Kong, which has a LVT. But that example won’t fly as there have been big gyrations in the price of accomodation, which hardly suggests LVT did much to alleviate the situation, or by much. In fact I would say that proves pretty conclusively that LVT, on its own, cannot fix this sort of problem if monetary policy is deranged by Keynesian demand-management or other economic quackery.

There is another, even more fundamental problem with the Georgist position about land. The problem is that it does not distinguish between the fact that while land is, by definition, fixed, available land is not. This is why the likes of John Bates Clark, an economist of the late 19th Century, demolished the land value tax movement’s arguments as did Murray Rothbard half a century later. Both men pointed out that the LVT argument ignores the fact that the price of land is driven by its marginal productivity, and in that sense is no different from labour or physical or human capital. To single out land for special tax treatment will lead to a misallocation of resources, encouraging more building density than is rational, etc. The total amount of land is fixed – obviously – but the total amount of sellable land is determined by the amount of marginal buyers and sellers, a very different thing. If demand is heavy enough, new land comes onstream. Just ask the Dutch.

Update: one commentator on the other long thread – it is so far down that I’d rather address it here – claims that Rothbard’s critique has been “thoroughly demolished”. Has it hell. Perhaps someone could explain to me why his point is mistaken. Consider this paragraph by the fellow:

“The selling-price of an asset on the market will be the capitalized value of its expected future rents: the capitalization to take place at the going rate of interest. The rate of interest is the price of “time,” and hence future earnings are discounted back to the present at this rate. A piece of land sells now at the discounted sum of its future rents. Similarly, any asset will sell at the capitalized value of its future earnings; and where these earnings accrue from hiring out, the rent selling-price relation will be the same. If Rembrandts are habitually rented out to museums, they will earn, say, per monthly rents; tuxedos will earn nightly rents, and so on. Admittedly, land differs from improvable capital because land is not replaceable, and therefore land earns ultimate rents.”

And then this:

“The Georgist has a curious conception of the market; he considers that the market is independent of the actions of an important part of its constituent individuals: the suppliers. On the contrary, there is no entity “market” which will take care of finding correct rents. If the shell of ownership is left and its contents confiscated by the State, there will be no incentive for owners (whether of land or Rembrandts) to allocate the assets to the highest bidders and most productive uses. There is no inconsistency when I point out that everyone will rush to grab the best locations if land were free; it would be the same if Rembrandts were suddenly declared free by the government (or if there were a 100 percent tax on their value).”

Here is also a very detailed, and to my mind, devastating take on Georgism in its various forms, by the writer Paul Birch. It is pretty technical, but worth studying. He concludes that the “libertarian” Georgists are the least-bad, but also notes, as many Samizdata commenters have done, that Georgists tend to flick around between a sort of hatred of landlordism per se on the one hand, and a more pragmatic concern with efficiency, on the other. One commenter has referred to landowners as “parasites”. That should tell us something about where these guys are coming from.

In boxing terms, the referee would have to stop the fight at this point to save Mr George’s hide. And I am done here.

Samizdata quote of the day

All the existing [medical care] schemes, including the present American mixed corporatist/socialist model, represent a transfer from the young and healthy to the old and chronically sick (and to the medical cartel, of course). The way it’s used in practice, the phrase “having health insurance” means having the right to place oneself on the receiving end of these transfers. No honest discussion of the situation is possible until the entirely false and misleading concept of “health insurance” is dropped.

– Commenter Ivan

Samizdata quote of the day

“We live in a broadly capitalistic society…if Briitish Airways gets into trouble and cannot be sustained as a profitable business, then the government should not step in and bail it out.”

Richard Branson, talking about the economic woes of British Airways. I have no idea whether sincerely believes in untramelled laissez faire (one has doubts) or is just dissing the competition, but it was refreshing to hear such comments on the BBC Breakfast TV show this morning. Take note, Messrs Obama, Brown, and the rest of them.

I am a yacht-fondler

Brown does not really understand libertarianism, but this is an accolade:

One of the words Brown uses most often in private to describe the Tory leader is “libertarian”: a word that conveys his belief that Cameron’s “compassionate conservatism” is mere window-dressing, but also hints at a decadent strain of Tory libertinage, drug-taking and yacht-fondling.

I expect I shall be arrested for loitering around marinas as yacht-fondling will be outlawed in the next Parliament.

A stupidity of voters

Millions and millions of Americans support Obama’s desire to even more massively intervene in the market for medical care than the US state already does. And of course Obama’s moves are just the opening salvo in a desire to eventually end up with fully socialist healthcare, along the lines of Britain’s ghastly National Health Service, which has intermittently tried to kill me over the years.

I have tried pointing Americans at the British example to show them what an appalling idea it is to have the state directing any industry, let alone medical care. But alas it is very hard to overcome that special kind of insular American optimism that does not think what happens in another advanced first world nation can teach them anything, because in the USA things will be different.

Well yes, it will be different… in that the control obsessed Obama’s of this world will find new, innovative and oh so wholesome American ways to end up with a third rate health care system much like Britain has today.

This might be a good time for Americans to invest their money in Swiss medical clinics as I suspect in the coming years expatriated medical care will be a serious growth industry… plus it has the added benefit of getting your money out of the USA and US dollar.

Demonstrating for an illiberal democracy

Peter Beaumont has an interesting article on Iran that notes how our understanding of the local complexities must trump simplistic perceptions shaped by our own foreign policy assumptions. A valuable lesson, though Beaumont commits the same sin when he artificially divides foreign policy debates into two camps, so that he can pose as the voice of sense.

Of value in his article is the lack of knowledge that we have in the Iranian regime. That Iran is an Islamist conservative state with wider freedoms, though severely circumscribed, than is commonly supposed, must be accepted. This has allowed space for a democratic pillar to develop as a channel for aspirant social mobility and as a safety valve for the competing interests within the elites. When the inherent clash between the revolutionary drive of the rulers and the risk of a democratic vote endangering their goals emerged, a crisis of legitimacy was assured. For Khameini and Ahmedinejad, the crisis preceded and precipitated their decision to rig the election, leading to the current conflict.

Many of the demonstrators want reform and counter-revolution; the maintenance of the Islamic republic without pursuing the destabilising geopolitical foreign policy of the hardliners. Some want a liberal democracy and a westernised state. The current clash over the future of the Islamic Republic of Iran posits a revolutionary hardline or the transition to a post-revolutionary polity.

What an unpleasant choice for libertarians in Iran: an unstable, brittle Islamic dictatership or a republic progressing towards an illiberal democracy. It isn’t a choice. Support is required for the courage of the demonstrators as the value of freedom exercised has the potential for effecting more radical change.

Samizdata quote of the day

Every friend of freedom must be as revolted as I am by the prospect of turning the United States into an armed camp, by the vision of jails filled with casual drug users and of an army of enforcers empowered to invade the liberty of citizens on slight evidence.

– Milton Friedman

I just want to be friends

Check out this hilarious analysis of what you can infer from how people sleep after a one night stand.

Was it as good for you as it was for me?

The One Gives It To ‘Em Straight On Iran

Warning: for the irony-challenged, this is a spoof.

Or maybe not.

Sending in the bulldozers

Talking of issues to do with property ownership, this Daily Telegraph article about how some of the old industrial cities in the US are shrinking caught my eye. The US authorities are encouraging, with the use of a bit of public funds, the idea of knocking down whole swathes of supposedly defunct towns and cities and returning them to their “pristine” natural state. It is, in one way, a part of what the economist Joseph Schumpeter once called the “creative destruction” that is vital to capitalism.

Except that I don’t see a lot of capitalism going on here, more a sort of hybrid of private enterprise and state involvement. If, as the article claims, hundreds of square miles of urban area in the US/wherever are no longer economically viable, and could be used for something more economically valuable, whether it be farmland, recreational parks, golf courses, boating lakes, race tracks, or so on, then why not leave it to property and land developers? I find it worrying that the US government, either in its federal or local forms, can decree that an area of land is no longer “economically viable,” and decide to send the bulldozers in. And I also cannot help smelling a strong whiff of anti-suburbanism in this article, at least according to some of the folk quoted in it.

I tend to find that it is a revealing about a person’s overall viewpoint as to whether they slag off suburbs or not. If you despise them, chances are that you are a member of the Enemy Class, even though such people hypocritically live in such places.

Maybe it is the garden gnomes, or something.