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]

Piketty and the Shoe Event Horizon

In Douglas Adams famous non-fiction series on galactic economic history, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, we are presented with a description of the tragedy of the planet Frogstar B.

On Frogstar B, for a time shoe production increased faster than the rate of overall economic growth. As a result, with time, shoe production became a larger and larger fraction of the economy, until finally the Shoe Event Horizon was hit, at which point nothing but shoes could be manufactured, and lacking any other goods or services, their civilization collapsed.

Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” describes a similar tragedy that lies inevitably in our future, the point at which the only economic activity left is investment, all money is held by a tiny minority of wealthy people, and our civilization permanently ends.

Will we be wise enough to learn from the people of Frogstar B, and place a heavy tax on capital before our doom is reached?

I hope not, because of course Douglas Adams was writing comedy, not an economic history. Sadly, Piketty appears not to be a parodist, and presents the claim, in all seriousness, that something like a Shoe Event Horizon, in this case the Investment Event Horizon, could actually happen.

Normally, I would ignore such a book, but numerous commentators (all of whom, by strange coincidence, were already enthralled by the idea of expansions state power) have responded to Piketty’s call for heavy wealth and income taxation with rapturous reviews, driving Piketty’s work to the center of much of our current political discussion.

It is therefore, sadly, our duty to seriously to consider his arguments and the effects of his proposed remedies…

→ Continue reading: Piketty and the Shoe Event Horizon

Fidel Castro lived like Louis XV, claims his ex-bodyguard, wrongly

… Wrongly, for Castro is no Louis le bien aimé. The French royal personage whose mode of life was closest to that of Comrade Fidel before senility overtook him was Marie Antoinette, who played at being a milkmaid and a shepherdess in the Queen’s Hamlet built for her in the gardens of Le Petit Trianon. As the Queen found refuge from the demands of court life by milking cows into buckets of Sèvres porcelain in the company of her dear friend and confidante the Princesse de Lamballe, so the First Secretary

“enjoyed a private island, Cayo Piedra, south of the Bay of Pigs, scene of the failed CIA-sponsored invasion of 1961 . . . a “garden of Eden” where he entertained selected guests including the writer Gabríel Garcia Márquez, and enjoyed spear-fishing.”

Sharing that simple pleasure, they talked about books and the nature of absolute power.

Pot, Meet Kettle.

The United States Government, feeling that it does not have a sufficient worldwide reputation for completely lacking self awareness, has decided to indict members of the Chinese PLA for conducting computer based espionage against US commercial targets.

Note that the Snowden releases have revealed that the US has engaged in precisely the same behavior, including numerous attacks against Chinese equipment maker Huawei.

Indeed, we currently lack evidence that the Chinese state has conducted wholesale interception of calls from entire countries, but the NSA has done precisely that. We have no evidence that the Chinese have intercepted US equipment shipments and sabotaged them, but the NSA has done precisely that. We have no evidence that the Chinese have systematically undermined internet standards or bribed security companies to sabotage their own software to make communications less secure, but the NSA had done precisely that. Indeed, I could reiterate dozens of Snowden revelations here, but I won’t waste everyone’s time by doing so. (Note that I do not claim the Chinese government has not done such things, only that we do not have evidence of it, while we know for certain that the US government has done such things.)

Today’s rhetorical question is therefore this: if foreign countries begin indicting and arresting US officials for espionage and industrial sabotage, will the US government protest?

Sensible people, the Swiss

Swiss voters reject plan to establish world’s highest minimum wage

Swiss voters have rejected a proposal to create what would have been the world’s highest minimum wage after siding with the government and business leaders in a referendum.

That should read “…after siding with the government, business leaders, and those Swiss people who could least afford to be unemployed.”

The plan, which would have pushed up the basic annual salary for a 35-hour week to £27,000, was rejected by 75% of voters. It would have required employers to pay workers a minimum of 22 Swiss francs (£14.66) an hour.

Government ministers opposed the proposal, made by the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions and supported by the Socialist and Green parties, arguing that it would put smaller companies out of business.

Fortunately for some of the poorest Swiss people, their so-called protectors overreached themselves.

To fight Boko Haram, arm the people

So argues David Codrea, writing at the website of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership:

President Goodluck Jonathan’s government embraces “gun control,” both as a signatory to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, and also as a matter of national policy.

“In Nigeria, the right to private gun ownership is not guaranteed by law,” the GunPolicy.org entry for Nigeria documents. For those not familiar with that resource, it’s a project of the Sydney School of Public Health, and while of decidedly anti-gun bent, nonetheless provides instructive and useful compilations of gun laws from around the globe.

“[C]ivilians are not allowed to possess machine-guns, military rifles and handguns … private possession of semi-automatic assault weapons [and] private possession of handguns (pistols and revolvers) is prohibited,” the site advises. Add to that licensing, background checks and registration for what they are allowed to own, a prohibition on concealed carry and stiff criminal penalties for gun law violations, and Nigeria is one of those places where the “law-abiding” are at extreme disadvantage.

Boko Haram, which doesn’t let such details slow them down a beat, finds such conditions enabling.

Not all are satisfied with the status quo.

“[T]he youth vigilante volunteer group, popularly called the Civilian JTF, has called on the Federal Government to allow its members carry arms and ammunition in order to do its work well in Borno State,” The Nigerian Voice is reporting.

“We used sticks and knives and worked closely with soldiers and fought the Boko Haram members out of Maiduguri,” a spokesman for the group related. “They are now killing civilians in the villages.”

For a sceptical view of the likely efficacy of arming civilian vigilantes to fight Boko Haram, please read Tim Newman‘s comments to my previous post about Boko Haram. He can very reasonably back up his pessimism by saying that he has lived and worked in that part of the world, as I have not. Nonetheless it had not been quite clear to me until just now that arming the people has not yet been tried. Disarming them has. It has not prevented an extremely violent insurgency.

Nothing says “I love you” better than a gift of a nice rifle!

Ah Sarah Palin… hardly a libertarian, that is true (to put it mildly, with her casual penchant for torture of prisoners) but she does have an endearing talent for saying the right things to annoy the right people by suggesting a ‘scary looking’ rifle makes a wonderful present!

And indeed it does! When she is right, she is right!


Taking a ride in an Uber taxi

It’s one thing to read a Guardian piece complaining about Uber. That certainly makes Uber seem like a fine thing, but you can’t trust everything you read, can you? Maybe Uber is not actually as great as the Guardian is making it appear. Last Friday evening, a week ago, by a lucky chance, I went one better. I had an actual trip in an Uber-taxi. It was a good experience.

Rooted as I am in the twentieth century, I was not the one who set this journey in motion. The man who did was my twenty first century friend Rob, who is as computer-savvy as I am computer challenged. I and Rob were guests at a dinner party, and I heard that he and another guest had some kind of lift home fixed, going back towards central London, and I asked if I could join in. Yes, fine. I then rather delayed things by taking what turned out to be rather too long to do my thankyous and farewells, because, basically, I am not used to taxis being this fast in answering the call. But, eventually I was aboard, and off we went.

It was only when I was in it that I learned that this was one of these new-fangled Uber taxis, this being why it had arrived so quickly to pick us up and why I should have been quicker off the mark when leaving the party.

What Rob had done, as soon as he and the other guest decided they needed to be off home, was crank up the Uber app on his smartphone and summon – and here’s the point of this system – the nearest Uber taxi, by looking for blobs on his smartphone Uber-map.

On our journey, we and the driver chatted about how the new system worked. New technology often has this effect, I find. It gets people talking. It reminded me a bit of the early days of blogging, which got all sorts of people in touch with each other who would never normally have been communicating.

Our driver preferred his new Uber-life partly because he now gets no grief from a demanding taxi-cab office with its rigid time and place demands and general stress and hassle. He now eludes that middle man and, via his new and improved middle man (Uber), instead relates directly to his passengers. There is an elaborate regime to register both complaints from drivers about passengers, and from passengers about drivers, but for a driver who wants to do an honest job, that’s all good, just as it is for passengers who are willing and indeed eager to behave themselves.

We passengers also like the service that the driver and his comrades provide, because it is cheaper than old-school taxis, and quicker, and easier to track. But given that Uber is so cheap for us passengers, and given that the driver pays twenty percent of the reduced fare that we pay him to Uber, how come the driver is nevertheless such a contented guy?

A big plus for the driver is that he now works exactly when he likes, that being what a lot of the grief between him and his former taxi office had been about. He can start and stop when he pleases, with no warning concerning either, provided only that he finishes all paid-for journeys he embarks on.

But just as impressive as the increased flexibility the driver enjoys is that the flip side of us having hailed the nearest Uber taxi to us when we wanted to start our journey is that our driver is immediately available to start his next useful journey just as soon as he has completed his previous one. Our driver had been taking someone to that particular part of suburban London, and within moments there we were, wanting him to take us back to the middle of London from that same out-of-the-way spot. He doesn’t have to drive back, empty, to some damn taxicab office. He resumes work at once. This is why Uber-taxis are cheaper. This is not done by lowering the standard of living of the drivers or the quality of the product. It is done by seriously improving the efficiency of the drivers and their vehicles.

You can tell that Uber is a massive efficiency gain by the fact that the regular black cab drivers are in a state of fury about it, and have been threatening to screw up London’s traffic, with some kind of demo/disruption or suchlike. Their excuse is that there is apparently some law or other which, in the opinion of the cabbies and their lawyers, these new Uber-taxis are breaking, concerning computer tracking or something. But such complaining seems likely only to publicise that if the law is getting in the way of Uber, then it should stop.

If you want some more jeering at those angry black cabbies, see what City A.M.’s Guy Bentley has to say about them.

That the black cabbies are demonstrating against Uber in particular, rather than against “Kabbee, Hailo, Addison Lee, GetTaxi, Uber and Green Tomato” merely serves to establish Uber in the public mind as the market leader. I daresay there are also “network” reasons why one big brand leader is advantageous to most customers. So, big win for Uber, I’d say.

I am sure that there are many, many tweaks to Uber that I am not even remotely aware of, the kind where not only do I not know the answer but where I had never even thought of the question. But presumably Uber-savvy commenters can fill in many more details.

In particular: what could go wrong? Our driver didn’t seem to have any worries. But, was he perhaps being a tad optimistic? Will his income maybe decline if lots more want in on the driving side of things? What about if robot cars join in, and snatch away his job? Great for us passengers, because if it’s not it won’t catch on. But not so great for our driver.

Once you start talking about systems like Uber and robot cars in the same sentences, is the longer term implication of things like Uber going to be: fewer privately owned cars? Will Uber 3.0 be the first robot car killer app?

But oh yes, back in the here and now, one further detail I do now remember the driver talking about. If you are an Uber customer based in Los Angeles (as a recent passenger of his was), you can use the exact same account to whistle up our London driver as you have already been using in LA. The exact same account. Think about that. In any Uber-enabled city, and there are now a lot of such cities around the world, you can use taxis with the kind of confidence you already have about Uber-taxis in your own back yard.

My guess would be that a characteristic Uber first time user is someone who is about to venture to a foreign city where Uber is in action, and he signs up for Uber beforehand, so that he knows his taxis in the strange foreign landed will then be sorted at non-punitive expense and without grievous risk. Where he lives, he has a car and trusts the local taxis. But in foreigner-land, Uber taxis will be a massive plus. Then, once he has sampled the service in a strange city, the obvious next thing will be to use it back home more regularly. If that’s all approximately right, you can see why the black cabbies are spitting blood.

But alas for the black cabbies, their complaints are only advertising Uber to a global audience of city-hopping tourists and businesspersons. London’s black cabs are famous the world over. So if they are now moaning about Uber, that’s a global story. With enemies like this, Uber hardly needs an advertising agency.

But that’s enough guessing from me about Uber. Over to our commenters and their amazing ability to share a collective conversation with us and with each other, thanks to the work of an earlier generation of computer-magicians.

Samizdata quote of the day

I don’t know if (politicians) are enemies or more prey but I certainly didn’t go into Westminster to make friends and in that I’ve certainly succeeded.

– the ever splendid Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes)

The Curragh Incident

The centenary of the Curragh Incident (or Curragh Mutiny as it sometimes known) took place a couple of months ago. I had been expecting to see a fair amount of comment on what was a fairly dramatic event but so far not a dicky bird. That is not to say that there hasn’t been any comment, just that I haven’t seen it. Assuming there hasn’t been any, perhaps, belatedly, it is about time I got the ball rolling.

Since 1910 the British Government had been attempting to grant devolution, or Home Rule as it was then known, to Ireland. Ulster and the Conservative Party (or Unionists as they were then known) objected. Some 500,000 of Ulster’s British population signed a covenant stating that they would resist it. When this failed to impress the government the Ulstermen established their own army, the Ulster Volunteer Force – not to be confused with more modern creations bearing the same name – and even set up a provisional government, just in case.

The government, at first thought the Ulstermen were bluffing. But by early 1914 they had realised they weren’t and that they were going to have to call in the military. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty sailed a cruiser into Belfast Lough. At the same time orders were issued to the British garrison at the Curragh in Southern Ireland at which point the officers resigned their commissions, or to put it another way, walked out. This, incidentally, was something they were perfectly entitled to do.

The government backed down while denying that they had done any such thing. The officers returned to their posts but the Secretary of State for War did not. One assumes that this meant the end of government plans to “coerce” Ulster but seeing as the First World War broke out at the precise moment things were coming to a head, we shall never know.

The Times 14 March 1914, p9

The Times 14 March 1914, p9

My guess is that the mutineers were right. Indeed I suspect that had their successors taken a similar stance in 1969 we would have saved ourselves a whole lot of trouble. But that’s another story.

Samizdata quote of the day

We have to break people away from the choice habit that everyone has

Marcus Merz

Truly there is are few things more valuable than an honest enemy, for by their own words they are revealed.

The state has been astonishingly successful at “breaking people away from the choice habit” in the UK, where arguing for choice in medical care results in people looking as you incredulously as if space monkeys are flying our of your mouth.

Islam has no truly moderate wing

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in the course of being interviewed by Sam Harris:

The reason the so-called Muslim “extremists” are so successful at recruiting, keeping, inspiring, and mobilizing people – and then finally getting them to wage jihad – is that what they’re saying is fully consistent with the teachings of Muhammad.

My thanks to the ever alert Mick Hartley to alerting me to this interview. Hartley entitles his posting “The faith has no truly moderate wing”. That is certainly how Islam seems to me when I read its scriptures.

It may of course just be wishful thinking on my part, but I predict that, some time within the next hundred years or so, there will be a mass-abandonment of this horrible religion, by all those who find themselves being raised as Muslims but who just want to be human beings, rather than in a state of perpetual war – at best mere ceasefire – with all non-Muslims, and constantly at the mercy of lunatic preachers nagging them to actually do what they still go through the motions of saying they believe. The only truly effective way of shaking free from such influences is to say that the lunatic preachers are wrong about everything – about Allah, about the obligation to submit to Allah, about the whole damn thing. It is because they fear what I hope for that devout Muslims have always threatened such mayhem if anyone now proclaims themselves in public to have abandoned Islam, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The effort to establish the right to abandon Islam unmolested is a key locus in the righteous struggle to reduce Islam to insignificance and political impotence.

Christians often complain that atheists only complain about Christianity, rather than about Islam. This criticism does not apply to Sam Harris.

Interesting headline photograph

If I emerge from the front door of my block of flats, but then realise that I have forgotten to bring my camera with me, then, unless I am in an extreme hurry, I turn around, go back up the five flights of stairs to my home, and get my camera. I cannot bear to be out and about in London without it, being a ever-more voracious photographer of whatever I see on my perambulations that interests me, and that’s more and more, the more I think of different interesting things to keep track of.

Plus, I just know that if I am not careful in this way, then the one day when I do not have my camera with me will be the exact day that an Airbus 380 on its way into Heathrow gets into trouble so serious that it is visible even to me, and plummets down into central London.

One of the things I like to photograph is the front pages of newspapers, because of their often amusing or arresting headlines. I mostly do this in the shop where I often buy my monthly copies of the Gramophone and the BBC Music Magazine (by “music” this magazine means classical music) and my weekly copies of the Radio Times, so the proprietor doesn’t mind me photographing other things. He knows that I am not going to buy any of these newspapers, but that I might be about to buy something else, and that I regularly do, even if maybe not on that particular day.

And, I take a lot of other photographs, of such things as cranes, bridges, Big Things, roof clutter, signs and notices, and other digital photographers, especially when they are engaged in photographing such things themselves, or in photographing themselves.

All of which is my explanation of why I took the photo below (on March 14th 2014) but then forgot about it, until I went trawling through my photo-archives seeking something else entirely:


I couldn’t find that exact story on the www, but here is the Evening Standard version of the same thing.

For me, this is always an interesting moment in the see-saw that is now British politics, between regimes which contrive as much government as the voters feel they can afford and regimes which unleash more government than the voters feel they can afford. (The option of having less government than the voters feel they can afford, is not, alas, considered worth offering.)

I cannot remember to the nearest year when the Blair/Brown regime was reported as having pushed public sector pay above this same mark, contriving a country in which public sector workers were, on average, reported to be getting more than private sector workers, but I do remember noticing that moment, and thinking it of some significance.

And this latest little tilt in the balance between production and predation strikes me as significant also, and worth noting here even if the announcement happened a couple of months ago. Just for now, for the time being (or so it says in the newspapers): production gets you better wages than predation. Good.

I know, I know. As good news comes, this is pretty small stuff. After all, even this feeble milestone took them four years to get past. As “austerity” goes, it is very mild indeed. But it is good news, I think. And I particularly enjoy being told it by a newspaper which so obviously disapproves of the story that it is telling.