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]

A Pikettian Graph

Part of the problem with the Pikettian “Investment Event Horizon”, which I articulated in an earlier post, is the idea that we can blindly presume that a statistical trend will continue forever without carefully considering whether the extrapolation is at all plausible.

In that spirit, a friend of mine analyzed the growth of smartphone screens, which began a few years ago at around a diagonal measurement of 3 inches, then moved to 4 inches, and have recently been going past 5 inches. He has demonstrated, by extrapolation, that by the year 2034 smart phones will be 80 inches across!

Not convinced? See his graphs for yourself! Anyone can see that the trend is inexorable. Nothing could possibly interrupt it!

Now, as it happens, Piketty’s data appear to have been incorrect, but note, yet again, that even if the data had been correct, that does not make the underlying claim any less risible.

Speaking of Krugman misspeaking…

In the United States, we’re in the midst of a giant scandal about just how bad the Veterans Administration hospital system is.

For those unfamiliar with it, the US maintains a mini-NHS just for former soldiers, and it appears that it has both been undergoing a systematic meltdown and systematically falsifying records that would have allowed outsiders to learn of the situation.

As it happens, Paul Krugman, everyone’s favorite economist, effusively praised the VA hospital network as a model for future American health care in 2006, claiming it demonstrated that state operation of the health system was to be wished for rather than feared. Quoting his New York Times Column:

I know about a health care system that has been highly successful in containing costs, yet provides excellent care. And the story of this system’s success provides a helpful corrective to anti-government ideology. For the government doesn’t just pay the bills in this system–it runs the hospitals and clinics.

No, I’m not talking about some faraway country. The system in question is our very own Veterans Health Administration, whose success story is one of the best-kept secrets in the American policy debate.

The discovery of a column or speech by Professor Krugman that seems embarrassing in the light of later discoveries has become quite routine. (see, for example, his effusive praise for the quality of Thomas Piketty’s data and the inability of opponents to refute it at a point where “Capital in the 21st Century” had been in public hands for mere days. There are numerous other examples to be had.)

What is not routine, sadly, is for Professor Krugman to ever acknowledge such a mistake. I am unaware of an instance of his admitting to an error.

Samizdata quote of the day

Has this sublime tradition, the tradition of Edward Coke and John Hampden, of James Harrington and Algernon Sidney, of John Milton and John Locke, of Pitt the Elder and Edmund Burke, of Earl Grey and Viscount Palmerston, of Richard Cobden and John Bright – and, yes, of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson truly found its quietus in the person of Nick Clegg? The thought is almost unbearable.

Dan Hannan

Faulty towers in North Korea and China

Tyrannical regimes don’t collapse because the peasantry are suffering. They collapse when the hitherto supportive inner circle of peasant-minders starts to suffer.

Thus it is that the most politically portentous line in this (thankyou Mick Hartley) about two new buildings in North Korea, one collapsing, the other already collapsed …:

Another apartment building in Pyongyang is reportedly in danger of collapse as fear spreads after a 23-story apartment building collapsed in the North Korean capital early this month, killing hundreds of people.

Both high-risers were built as upmarket homes for the elite.

A government source here on Tuesday cited rumors that an apartment building in Mansudae in downtown Pyongyang has subsided around 10 cm and dozens of cracks have appeared in the walls. “Fearing a collapse, residents are racing to sell their apartments and move out,” the source added.

… is the bit in the middle, about how these collapsing apartments are “homes for the elite”. By the sound of it, no North Korean home that is more than a tiny few stories up in the sky any longer feels safe.

Not so elite now, are they? If peasant houses collapse, screw ’em. But who is going to screw these people? They are screwers.

Not so long ago there was a somewhat similar report concerning badly built towers in China.

One of these weeks, months, years, decades, a really really big skyscraper is going to come crashing down to the ground. Not because someone flew a plane into it. No, of its own accord. Through its own “internal contradictions”, you might say.

When that happens – and I really do think it’s only a matter of when – what’s the betting that the media coverage will imitate art.

Metzger on Piketty illustrates Schlichter on a priorism

If you are ever puzzled by the phrases “a priori” or “a priorism”, in connection in particular with the writings of Ludwig von Mises, and would appreciate becoming less puzzled, then let me now recommend to you a recent essay by Detlev Schlichter entitled The a priori method in economics – In defence of Ludwig von Mises.

Perry Metzger’s recent demolition job, here at Samizdata, of Thomas Piketty, made me think of Schlichter’s essay. What Perry Metzger was giving us was surely a perfect example of the a priori way of thinking about economic events and economic evidence.

Economic events, even if alluded to with pertinent statistics, can only be said to make sense once you have made sense of the human judgements that gave rise to these events. Future events cannot be predicted merely by looking at numbers and at graphs and then guessing at where these numbers seem to be heading. The economic future is made of human judgements, and to get a handle on what that future will most probably be like, you have to interpret that future in terms of rational human judgements and reactions.

Piketty points towards what Metzger names and shames as an “Investment Event Horizon”, a world in which investment is done far too much, with all other economic activities being curtailed in the service of this one obsession. Piketty says there must be political action to impose rationality on such otherwise irrational events. Metzger says that it is Piketty who is being irrational. Piketty’s interpretation of his supposedly supportive statistics is a perfect example of the kind of thing that Detlev Schlichter is criticising.

In general, says Schichter:

… We can neither verify nor falsify the a priori laws of economics … Even more important (and potentially disappointing to those who derive their expectations as to what science is all about from the natural sciences) we cannot derive the laws of economics from mere observation, and that includes even the most extensive collection of data and the most elaborate and sophisticated analysis of it. The economists who claim to do this are either confused or simply play to the gallery (Piketty?) and are frequently not really proper economists, although some of them may even win Nobel Prizes. This may sound harsh but I believe it is true. The reasons for why we must fail to achieve these two things (test/verify/falsify economic laws and discover economic laws through statistics) are fundamental and I will give them below. Of course, if economics were a natural science, if it were an empirical science, these two things would not only be possible, they would be essential to its modus operandi as a science. Crucially, economics is not an empirical science in the sense that the natural sciences are.

This is in fact the reason why no amount of data mining and statistical analysis will ever settle disputes in the field of economics. Keynesian economists will forever quote historical data from around the Great Depression as evidence of their crisis theories and policy recommendations, just as those who subscribe to monetary explanations of the business cycle (as we “Austrians” do) will forever cite the same or similar data in support of their theories. It is a common complaint that anything can be proven with statistics, and in the field of economic debate this seems to be true to a large degree. (I subscribe to the “Austrian” explanation of economic crises not because it fits the data better but because it fits the principles of economics, the laws of economics that allow us to analyse the cycle in the first place. A detailed analysis of Keynesian theories leads to conflicts and mismatches with some key economic principles. This makes this theory much less convincing.)

I consider that last bit there in particular, the final three sentences in the brackets, to be SQotD-worthy.

In the first of the two paragraphs quoted above, Schlichter actually mentions Piketty, albeit with his name between brackets and with a tentative question mark attached, merely as a possible example of the kind of thinker he is criticising. But if Metzger is right about Piketty (and I would be amazed if anyone is able persuasively to show him not to be) then that question mark can be dispensed with.

The intellectually corrupt Karl Marx, having promised his publisher a proof of impending proletarian revolution caused in the meantime by proletarian immiseration, then felt obliged to fiddle his numbers to prove that things were going from bad to worse for the nineteenth century proletariat rather than from bad to better. (Metzger might describe Marx’s yearned-for revolution as something like a “Discontent Event Horizon”.) The Piketty story has the look to me of a farcical rerun of that intellectually sordid Marx episode. (On the subject of the bad faith of Karl Marx, I recommend the late and much missed Antony Flew’s 1991 Free Inquiry/Libertarian Alliance article entitled (by the LA) KARL MARX WAS NOT A SOCIAL SCIENTIST (the LA likewise subtracted a question mark). Scroll down to where it says “FALSEHOODS OF IMMISERATION”, on page 5.)

But it isn’t just that Piketty’s numbers are wrong, although it would seem certain that they are. It is, as Metzger points out, that even if Piketty’s numbers were correct, Piketty’s understanding of what he believes they must be pointing to is defective.

Which just goes to show that if you come to a big pile of economic statistics with some a priori principles that are wrong, because they don’t make sense, then you cannot hope to make any sense of the statistics.

Piketty would presumably say that he is not doing this, merely letting the statistics speak for themselves. But neither can you make any sense of a pile of economic statistics if you expect those statistics to tell you everything you want to learn.

I met Detlev Schlichter earlier this week, and he told me that he had not then read Perry Metzger’s posting. I recommended to him that he might particularly enjoy it.

Putin and the Russian internet

Via the Twitter page of Dominique Lazanski, I recently found my way to a fascinating but depressing piece about Russian internet policy, by “Russia’s First Blogger”, Anton Nossik:

As for Putin’s solemn oath to protect the Russian Internet from any undue and arbitrary attempts at government regulation, well, he honored it for the next 13 years. As keen as Putin was to control the federal nationwide TV channels, he seemed absolutely uninterested in regulating the Internet, be it the content, the cables, or the e-commerce. Any attempts by overzealous Russian lawmakers, ministers or law enforcement (the infamous siloviki, or strongmen) to regulate the Net were routinely aborted by Putin’s administration. Anyone who proposed such legislation to please the Kremlin soon found out that the Kremlin was very far from pleased. Internet regulation bills sponsored by everyone from Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, to government ordinance drafts by ministers, and dozens of other proposals to regulate the Net had been quickly buried and forgotten for lack of presidential support between 2000 and 2012.

As a result, the Internet developed into Russia’s only competitive industry. Companies like Yandex and VKontakte easily outperformed international competition (Google and Facebook, respectively) in Russian-speaking markets. These Russian start-ups did not copy successful American models, but rather the other way round: Almost every Yandex service (maps, payments, webmail, contextual advertising, etc.) was launched several years ahead of its Google-based analog. The VKontakte social network has many services and features that Facebook badly lacks, such as social music and video hosting and an advertising exchange, allowing any popular page or group to monetize its traffic almost automatically.

The Internet also became Russia’s only territory of unlimited free speech. Opposition figures, banned elsewhere in mass media, found easy access to their audiences by going online. Moreover, privately owned online media sources, such as Lenta.Ru, Gazeta.Ru, NewsRu.com and RBC News, used to outperform traditional mass media outlets in terms of audience and pageviews. Alexey Navalny, Russia’s most prominent independent politician and Kremlin-basher, found millions of followers all over the country, despite being banned from all nationwide TV channels and radio stations for almost half a decade.

But then, President Putin decided to shut it all down. What had happened?

We should blame the 2011-2012 Moscow protests for Putin’s unexpected and instant conversion into a paranoid Internet-hater.

He blamed the messenger for the message, in other words.

He made his change of mind public during a speech on April 24. Putin shocked the entire world with his epiphany that the Internet was initially created as a special CIA project, and is still run as such. Putin went on to claim that Yandex, Russia’s biggest and most successful Internet startup – ranked fourth in the world by number of search requests, valued at about $15 billion on NASDAQ in mid-February 2014, earning more revenues and profits in 2013 than any other media company in Russia—is also controlled by foreign intelligence seeking to harm Russia’s interests. Those remarks instantly brought Yandex shares down 5.5 percent. As of this writing, the company is now worth $9.19 billion, nearly $6 billion off its mid-February mark.

And so on. The golden days of the Russian internet would appear to be over:

Under the new laws, any social media platform that wishes to serve a Russian audience will be obliged to retain all user data for at least six months and to surrender this information to Russian security services upon request, without a court ruling or any other form of justification or explanation. Moreover, any foreign social media platform serving Russian users has to physically keep all sensible user data within the boundaries of the Russian Federation. And we’re not talking Russian user data, but rather all personal information of any user who happens to have some readers from Russia – like, say, Barack Obama, who has no less than 3,000 Russian nationals among the 40.5 million subscribers to his Facebook page. Twitter should also prepare to move all of Obama’s personal data to Russia and hand it over to the FSB, since both Putin and Medvedev are his followers on Twitter. Ditto for Google. If any of these companies don’t comply they would be subject to administrative fines, up to 500,000 roubles ($14,000), and Russian ISPs would have to block access to these platforms.

This Orwellian masterpiece of legislation was signed into law by Vladimir Putin on May 5, 2014, and it will be enforced from August 1, 2014. Will that be the last day of Russian Internet? Maybe. Unless a new law kills it even faster.

As you can see, picking out the highlights of this piece was a task that was basically beyond me. This really is one of those Read The Whole Thing things. I am in no position to second guess Anton Nossik, but given that the excellent Dominique Lazanski linked to it, I assume the story he tells to be at the very least roughly right. And if it is roughly right, doesn’t it remind you of another similar tale that unfolded in Russia just under a hundred years ago? From dire economic necessity, Lenin had presided over a similar period of economic liberty and creativity, known as the New Economic Policy. And then he shut that down.

But Lenin shut down his NEP because he never believed in it. He only let it happen in the first place because people were starving and the Soviet State wasn’t yet able to suppress the resulting popular complaints. As soon as Lenin and his new apparatus of tyranny got strong enough to do this, bye bye NEP.

But what is Putin thinking? My first guess at a guess would be that he thinks that shutting down the Russian internet is of no more consequence than had been his initial impulse to leave it alone. Letting a thousand internet flowers bloom didn’t mean anything. And nor does him zapping all the flowers with legislative weedkiller. That’s his attitude.

But what do I know? Not much, but I will soon know rather more about such stories as this one, because Dominique Lazanski will be speaking at my home this coming Friday, on the subject of “The Future and Its Digital Enemies”:

I will talk about International Internet policy issues otherwise known as Internet Governance and how individuals, groups and governments play key roles in this process. Ultimately, it is the work of governments that is the real threat, but many play interesting roles in the political chess game. However, all is not lost, innovation and the market process are helping to undermine these threats.

Whenever that word “governance” is heard, you just know that something very bad is being attempted, so it is good to know that the Governancers are not having it all their own way in these matters.

In which this humble writer is pulled under the bridge and eaten

I thought this bijoux little commentette of mine to my post demanding reparations be paid to women, a reply to an irritating factual objection from running dog of the neoliberal neopatriarchy Tim Worstall, was rather good in the insane troll logic line:

Tim Worstall,

“As it happens the majority of wealth is held by women (longer life spans and inheritance etc to blame for that), so, on average women are richer than men.”

You just don’t understand.
Clearly it is a benefit to receive money (such as reparations) without having to work for it.
Therefore possession of whatever quality makes one eligible for reparations is a form of unearned privilege.
Relative group poverty is by definition the result of past injustice, and makes your group eligible for reparations.
Therefore you males, by your relative poverty, are the possessors of unearned privilege.
Therefore it is only justice that you privileged ones make reparations to those like me who are underprivileged.
(Standing orders and direct debits payable to the Natalie Solent Justice for Womyn Settlement Account.)

However Beatrix Campbell has me beat:

Crime is only “free trade” by another means, and since it involves force, it is not free.

Piketty’s Data, Krugman’s Shame

An addendum to the earlier post on Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”:

As was originally pointed out yesterday by Alisa, the Financial Times attempted to verify the data presented by Piketty in his book, and failed to be able to reproduce it.

They found that the data, as presented, contained (to say the least) substantial inaccuracies. More bluntly, if the correct figures from the sources he cites are used, and the calculations are performed correctly, the effects he claims to describe vanish entirely.

The Financial Times has now published two articles on the subject, but I would prefer to draw people’s attention to the blog post by Chris Giles that discusses the matter in full detail. It is absolutely worth reading, especially as Piketty’s reply to the FT on the matter is breezy and entirely non-substantive, addressing none of the points brought up by Giles.

There were hints of data problems even before my own earlier blog post on this matter. I will continue to assert that even were the data correct, it would make no real difference, as Piketty’s conclusions are absurd. However, it is of significant interest to know that his objective claims about the data are untrue as well.

One wonders why Professor Piketty chose to first publish his ideas in a popular account rather than in academic journals, where peer review might have caught these problems earlier. Perhaps then, however, we would not have experienced the treat of Paul Krugman explaining to us that no real counterargument exists to Piketty’s claims. Quoting Professor Krugman only a month ago:

The really striking thing about the debate so far is that the right seems unable to mount any kind of substantive counterattack to Mr. Piketty’s thesis

Note that Professor Krugman wrote this mere days after the book even became available to most readers, long before it could be expected that anyone could have double-checked the data or formulated a coherent response, and long before any but the swiftest of readers could have been expected to digest the contents.

I recommend that connoisseurs of schadenfreude read all of Professor Krugman’s writings in The New York Times on the subject of Piketty. They are, especially in the light of the emerging news, a rare treat.

Antoine Clarke on the boom and bust in French private investment in pre-revolutionary Russia

About a month ago, I was at the Institute of Economic Affairs to hear a talk given by Antoine Clarke to the End of the World Club. The audience was larger than usual, and of a very high quality. It listened, fascinated and engrossed, and with some rueful laughter at the intense relevance of a seemingly rather obscure slice of history to our own times.

The talk was about French investment, private but egged on by French politicians for their own foreign policy reasons, in pre-revolutionary Russia. This investment was huge, and for a while it provided a healthy income to French savers, by French standards. But then, because of events which the French media of the time somehow neglected to inform their readers about, it all started to go wrong, and wronger and wronger, and then of course very wrong indeed. Collusion and corruption on a huge scale among and between politicians, bankers and journalists is not, said Antoine, anything new.

Antoine has now gathered his spoken thoughts from that night into a blog posting at the Cobden Centre.


The first Russian bonds sold in France were in 1867 to finance a railroad. Others followed, notably in 1888. At this point the French government decided on a policy of alliance with Russia and the encouragement of French savers to invest in Russian infrastructure. From 1887 to 1913, 3.5% of the French Gross National Product is invested in Russia alone. This amounted to a quarter of all foreign investment by French private citizens. That’s a savings ratio (14% in external investment alone) we wouldn’t mind seeing in the UK today!

A massive media campaign promoting Russia as a future economic giant (a bit like China in recent years) was pushed by politicians. Meanwhile French banks found they could make enormous amounts of commission from Russian bonds: in this period, the Credit Lyonnais makes 30% of its profits from its commission for selling the bonds.

In 1897, the ruble is linked to gold. The French government guarantees its citizens against any default. The Paris Stock Exchange takes listings for, among others: Banque russo-asiatique, la Banque de commerce de Sibérie, les usines Stoll, les Wagons de Petrograd.

The first signs of trouble come in 1905, with the post-Russo-Japanese War revolution. A provisional government announced a default of foreign bonds, but this isn’t reported in the French mainstream media or the French banks that continue to sell (mis-sell?).

During the First World War, the French government issued zero interest bonds to cover the Russian government’s loan repayment, with an agreement to sort out the problem after the war. However, in December 1917, Lenin announced the repudiation of Tsarist debts.

Boom, bust. And surprise surprise, French governments of the twentieth century were neither willing nor able to provide anything like the kind of compensation for disappointed French savers that had earlier been promised.

Antoine Clarke is fluently English thanks to his English father and fluently French thanks to his French mother, and he has lived and worked in both countries. As long as I have known him I have urged him to make maximum use of this bilingualism, in connecting us Anglo libertarians to French stories and writings, and vice versa. This talk and his subsequent written version of it is a perfect example of the sort of thing I had in mind, and I thank and congratulate him for it. How many non-French libertarians already knew this story? Some, certainly, a bit, but certainly not me.

I demand reparations for the crimes committed against women by men!

My case to receive reparations is just as solid as the case for reparations to be paid to African-Americans by lesser-hyphenated-Americans.

Many members of a group to which I belong by accident of birth were enslaved by the group to which you belong by accident of birth (talking to you, heterogametic oppressors). Don’t waste my time with talk about how the law has given women equal legal status to men for generations now, because we are still poorer than you. Well some of us are poorer than some of you and some of us are richer than some of you, but let me tell you that even if I’m doing fine myself, the thought of people with bodies more like mine being on average poorer than people with bodies less like mine is a profound hurt that can only be assuaged by money.

No, the fact that you personally have never enslaved, beaten or otherwise oppressed a woman is not relevant. Can’t you see this thing is bigger than mere individual morality?

You can stop whingeing about how lots of men in history were oppressed quite as much as women were, or how people of both sexes were oppressed on many grounds other than gender, such as class, religion, nationality and race. I am quite aware of that already and join with all victim-groups in unbreakable solidarity, unless any of the oppressors included my ancestors such as to place me in a paying-out group, in which case the notion of paying reparations for the crimes of one’s ancestors is ridiculous. It is the present – a present in which many women are cruelly oppressed – not the past that matters! (Er, when it comes to us getting the money, that is. When it comes to deciding who pays the money, it’s the situation centuries ago that matters, obviously.)

Anyway, why should an artificial construct like “nationality” or “race” be the factor that determines who gets reparations? Gender, unlike race, can be determined objectively. Make gender the criterion and you will be troubled by very few of those pettifogging legalisms you get with race about how all the mixed ancestry people would have to pay reparations to themselves.

Cease your caterwauling about how your great-grandpa once put half a crown in a suffragette collection box. Obviously guilt can be inherited (by you) but the notion of heritable credit is contrary to reason.

None of your man-splainin’ nonsense about being partially descended from women, either. I’m certainly not going to let myself off from the solemn duty of identifying solely with my own gender just because some of my ancestors were men. See, if I can maintain decent standards of group segregation, so can you.

Do not presume to ask how many generations must go by before your group is to be permitted to cease its duty of unrequited toil (mediated via the tax collector and the Reparations Administration Agency) for the benefit of my group. Be assured that we will let you know when we no longer want your money. Until then, woe to that man by whom the offense cometh. That’s you, that is.

Samizdata quote of the day

Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

This is known as “bad luck”.

– Robert A. Heinlein

(As brought to my attention in a comment by “Plamus”.)

How to make a good argument (leaving the EU) sound bad

I thought Nigel Farage trounced Nick Clegg in the second of the two televised debates about Europe a few weeks ago. When he sticks to that subject, he’s an excellent proponent of the argument. But when he brings Romanians into it, when he smears an entire nation to make the case against immigration, he’s clearly doing the cause more harm than good. You can sense more moderate voters recoiling every time he strays into this territory. It’s as if the Ukip leader is confirming the caricature of Euroscepticism that the BBC, the FT, the Independent and the Guardian have been trying to paint for the past 30 years – the Eurosceptic as swivel-eyed loon, as Little Englander, as closet racist. People like me have always claimed that’s a straw man. But Nigel Farage is that straw man.

Toby Young

There are other examples I can think of where a good argument – such as leaving a bureaucratic superstate – can be spoiled if those who argue for it seem to be, well, just not very pleasant people. Yes I know, one should not be distracted by that sort of shallow thing, etc, etc. The last few weeks I have heard a lot of stuff from UKIP fans about how, no matter how bloody ghastly many UKIP people are, and how crummy some of its views are, that it is still a force for good, pushing debate, etc. The trouble is that I think it does matter, a lot, if people form associations in their minds about a group and if that group helps to reinforce that association. In my view, Farage’s focus on what he claims are the negative effects of immigration, and his invocation of the idea that foreigners are taking “our” jobs etc (the lump of labour fallacy) has done damage. He should have been far more optimistic and positive about why leaving the EU is a good thing, rather than confirm the biases of those who all too easily dismiss the anti-EU case as being narrow and stupid. A shame.