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]

When you see a fruitcake

Count this against the serendipitous beauty of found objects, but I just got suckered into opening an email I had not intended to, and found this bit of salient, nonsensical prose heading up a doubtless spurious offer to buy stocks in some ethanol company that I suspect is not incorporated anywhere near the State of Delaware:

Some fire hydrant conquers the ball bearing. When you see a fruit cake related to the deficit, it means that the accurately proverbial fairy takes a coffee break. Now and then, another purple power drill eats a freight train defined by the tornado. For example, a demon defined by a spider indicates that some pig pen sells the recliner to the salad dressing over a rattlesnake. When a cantankerous support group reads a magazine, the federal deficit starts reminiscing about lost glory…. If the minivan about a pine cone usually competes with a mortician over the support group, then a skyscraper hides.

This is as good a bit of expiatory nonsense as any I have ever read. And I have read a lot.

Daryl Hannah, up a tree…

Daryl Hannah was arrested yesterday for sitting in a tree, defending the South Central Farm, a community garden in Los Angeles scheduled for development by the property’s owner, Ralph Horowitz. The City of LA, which has most recently owned the land, had been kind enough to allow locals to use the acreage to grow tomatoes and corn whilst it lay fallow. Then it sold the land to Horowitz, who evily has decided to develop the property…

The kicker? Horowitz is the property’s rightful owner from away back – the city having seized the land from him in the first place in 1986, citing immanent domain, when it wanted to build an incinerator on the site. He’s now being accused of being an ‘evil developer’, and member of the LA Jewish Mafia.

Then along came the D-list celebrity activists, including Hannah and folk singer Joan Baez, who took up the ill-conceived cause, found a tree on the property, and started sitting in it.

Far from being a bleeding-heart shoe-in, the farm is so stinky a lefty effort that the local alt-weekly newspaper, the LA Weekly, ran an investigative expose about thuggery on the part of pro-farm organizers and their intimidation tactics in pressuring the ‘farmers’ to support the ’cause’.

The only net effect, of course, will be to prevent any landowner, including the government, from allowing community gardens anywhere, ever, or any other benevolent use of property, for fear of squatter confiscation.

A brutally ‘fair’ outcome, satisfactory only to those who fail to recognize that unfairness is the basis of benevolence – it is what we call charity.

Showtime at the Smithsonian: The opposite of privatization?

The Smithsonian’s entrepreneurial impulse to exploit new media for profit is a healthy one, at root. The Smithsonian is already a quasi-private entity, where most staff is on the public payroll, while most executives are paid with privately solicited donations. It could conceivably, like the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office and the federal student loan agency Sallie Mae, aspire to becoming a self-supporting entity within the government. So of course, the institution is taking a lot of flack for its deal to produce on-demand, for-pay documentaries in conjunction with Showtime. Congress has even joined in, cutting the institution’s funding while citing the high executive pay as an excuse.

The deal is bad, but not for the reasons being stated in editorials. It is bad because of an anti-competitive clause that gives Showtime first-refusal over the ‘right’ to fund documentary projects seeking to use Smithsonian archival material. Far from privatizing the Smithsonian, this makes Showtime a de facto government agency. Forcing documentarians to seek funding from a single source in order to pursue a creative project based on national archival material is an awfully pink concept, and the kind of move that gives privatization a bad name.

China’s not-so-great wall

Techdirt points to a story in the Toronto Star about three Canadian hackers who have created a software work-around for China’s ‘great firewall’. The subtle irony is that the hackers’ solution, called Psiphon, is inherently cooperative:

Psiphon takes the concept of a third-party computer doing the work yours can’t because of censorship, and protects it by relying on trusted friends and close family, to create a program the creators say is nearly fail-safe.

One has to love the idea of the failure of the enforced, monolithic collective inspiring genuine, entrepreneurial cooperation.

The fact, as Techdirt points out, that three hackers are able to out-perform a cast of 30,000 censors also suggests another truth: that freedom is always cheaper and more efficient than oppression.

The standards of the assembly line

Tom Evslin tells a story on Fractals of Change that illustrates exactly why we need to throw over our quaint, industrial-era notions of what constitutes work (aka labor, aka toil). Here’s his take on why a great programmer is worth fifty good ones:

I was consulting to a development manager at a tech company. He told me that the CEO, his boss, wouldn’t give him the salary and option freedom he needed to close a great programmer he’d found. Salary would have been 20% above what he had approval to offer; and, thanks to the new accounting standards for stock options, he didn’t have the authority to offer options. He lost the potential new hire and had to settle for someone merely “good”. Ironic thing is that he had several open positions so, once he gets through hiring several people, he’ll end up paying more in the aggregate than he would have paid for the superstar – and probably won’t get as much productivity.

Why do we persist in evaluating productivity as if the only model for productivity is the assembly line? In particular, creative work of any kind is anything but incremental; it is in fact inherently exponential. If Einstein could accomplish a civilization’s worth of ‘work’ in a single calendar year (1905, while he was ‘working,’ incidentally, as a patent examiner), why don’t we recognize the folly of measuring human endeavor by counting man hours?

‘Human resources’ is an unfortnuate misnomer, containing the implication that humans are to be mined or exploited like other natural resources. What humans are is entrepreneurs, wealth-creation machines designed to create capital. It is about time that companies with the means to ‘fund’ human effort figured this out. If more employees were treated like capitalists, the world would be a better place to work in.

Partisan neutrality?

Mike Masnick, posting on Techdirt, notes an unfortunate development in U.S. politics: the adoption of network neutrality as a partisan issue. At which point the discussion starts to sound eerily familiar:

The only reasons the telcos are in the position to violate network neutrality are because they’ve pretty much been granted subsidies and monopoly rights of way – and part of that bargain was that to increase competition, there needed to be open and fair access. To suddenly claim that we need a hands off approach is ignoring the fact that there’s never been a hands off approach and the companies involved were granted special rights.

This neutrality dilemma reminds me a lot of similar discussions of free markets. The difference is that it is a less mature discussion – for now. We have been talking about markets for a long time now, and we no longer frame the debate in terms of whether a market is simply free or un-free, as all markets exist in a relative state of freedom at all times.

The debate on neutrality, being younger, so it still sounds, like a bunch of people agitating for or against a perect state of being known as ‘neutrality’. But like freedom, neutrality an ethos, not a state of being. As Masnick implies, there may be such a thing as objective reality (I like to think so), but there is no such thing as objective neutrality.

A little bit legal

The decision reached today on US immigration policy (as a compromise on Bush’s guest worker scheme) sounds… confusing. Not to mention expensive. Three categories of illegal immigrant, each slighly more illegal than the last…. What does it mean to be a little bit legal? Is that logically similar to being a little bit pregnant?

I tend to agree with Coyote in Arizona, who is tired of defending his borders:

To answer my premise that “immigration should be legal for everyone” with the statement that “it is illegal” certainly seems to miss the point (it kind of reminds me of the king of swamp castle giving instructions to his guards in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) The marginally more sophisticated statement that “it is illegal and making it legal would only reward lawbreakers” would seem to preclude any future relaxation of any government regulation.

A lot of attention is being paid to the question of whether or not allowing immigrants in the US to seek legal status after arriving illegally constitutes an amnesty program. Seems to me of little import what one calls it. Of far more concern to me is the fact that institutionalizing a drawn-out state of official limbo as an added feature of an already drawn-out immigration process is just a bureaucratic nightmare waiting to happen.

Shall we play “name that unintended consequence”? In this case, my guess is that, just like social welfare programs, this program could create a separate class of pre-citizens working into a de facto state of indentured servitude, having bartered rights for opportunity.

Any government that creates a legally sanctioned secondary class of citizen, even if that status is temporary, is headed for trouble. By definition, you cannot make a market of ‘inalienable’ rights. And a scheme that trades citizenship for labor is nothing but a fancy breed of feudalism.

The black market in labor, where individuals strike illegal deals over gardening, harvesting, sewing or childcare, may or may not be ethical, depending on your personal philosophy, but it is voluntary in a way that government-created and government-regulated secondary labor markets cannot be.

Why aid still won’t work

In this month’s lead essay at Cato Unbound, ‘Why Aid Doesn’t Work,’ William Easterly makes a rational case for directing international aid dollars toward programs where the results can be objectively measured by hard scientific methods. He is persuasive, but in the end, the scientific method is still just a patch, a facsimile for what is really missing: legality.

In the developed world, the distinction between government and non-government organizations is meaningful, but not in places where government is corrupt and ineffective. In a lawless state (ie, one where corruption dominates the channels through which people get things done, for good or for ill), both aid organizations and entrepreneurial warlords effectively operate by the same rules. One’s moral orientation is not the point. If the basic sphere of operation is illegal (in the deepest sense of the word), then there is little chance that your efforts will result in enlightened, long-term improvement. Will Connors, a Chicago journalist and blogger working in Ethiopia has written compellingly about corruption in the aid community there.

Any aid-before-government aparatus is still going to break down – it will just do so further down the road. As Easterly suggests, you may demonstrably produce healthier, taller, better-educated children by buying them meat to eat twice a week, but if the best they can hope for is to grow up to be a corrupt low-level official, have you really accomplished anything lasting?

Better to see aid dollars spent as investment dollars – sunk into private businesses, rather than programs of any kind. It is possible. It is even possible that the weaker the local (corrupt) government, the greater the opportunity for leveraging capital investment. In Carol Pineau’s documentary, Africa: Open For Business, the CEO of Daallo, a Somali airline, marvels that the only reason he is able to thrive is that there is no government at all in his country. No government means no corruption, he observes dryly.

Government art

Here is a teaser from the first chapter of Good & Plenty, Tyler Cowen’s new book about public art and the liberal tradition, out next week:

I write with one foot in the art lover camp and with another foot in the libertarian economist camp. I try to make each position intelligible, and perhaps even sympathetic (if not convincing) to the other side. I try to show how the other side might believe what it does, and how close the two views might be brought together. Furthermore, I use the fact of persistent disagreement as a kind of datum, as a clue for discovering what the issues are really about.

Q: What does the inside of Tyler Cowen’s head look like? A: A sack o’ cats heading for the river, i.e., all fur, teeth and claws, yet somehow… endearingly cute. At any rate, the internal wrestling match should make for a most excellent read.

Free money

Should money be as free as speech? After all, it is also a form of communication.

In the past year, the internet has spawned a few companies aimed at helping individuals borrow and lend without bothering to involve a bank or credit agency. Zopa, based in the UK, aggregates individuals into groups for the purpose of making small loans, with a socially conscious slant. In the US, Prosper just launched a sleek, well-designed person-to-person lending site. Borrowers can also form groups on Prosper, for the sake of leveraging better interest rates. I also know of at least one nascent project, Bruce Boston’s Quid St., which aims to aggregate individuals for the purpose of making capital investments (as opposed to loans). I met Bruce recently, and he mentioned what an influence gaming had on his view of how to build an online marketplace. Which put me in mind of the Park Paradigm, a blog about digital markets whose authors think future finacial markets may evolve out of sports book and gambling sites. And not entirely unrelated note, Paypal made it possible just this week for people to send each other money anywhere, via cell phone.

What we are witnessing here, I think, is the creation of a new international capital market.

But we already have an international capital market, you say. Well, yes and no. When it comes to lending and investing and otherwise redistributing capital, we make do with a rudimentary, feudal system that has never really caught up with our momentum toward the free flow of other types of currency–cash, ideas, information, energy, goods and services, even political will. We have developed extremely liberal mechanisms for exchanging these forms of dynamic and stored energy, but capital remains over-managed, its governance, distribution and oversight resting in the hands of a select few.

The invention of a truly open and free capital market will be as significant a development as the invention of the printing press, affecting the free flow of wealth and opportunity much the way that invention affected the free flow of intellectual capital. 500 years after Gutenberg, it’s hard to imagine a world without cheap, plentiful and ungovernable words. One hundred years from today, it will be just as hard to remember a world where capital flowed through banks and currencies were government-issued.

Capital, and as a consequence personal wealth, will exist in a much more fluid and dynamic state than it now does, and all our discussions about wealth, wages and income will take place in an entirely new financial language. We may not end up solving poverty, so much as rendering it obsolete, all because of the technology-driven privatization of capital that is just now beginning.

Europe and the people without culture (?)

Last week, Umair Haque (bubblegeneration) predicted that Europe would prove to be the next innovation leader–not because of any forthcoming shift toward a culture of entrepreneurialism, but because the day is coming when content will be key, and Eurpoeans simply remain more, ah, cultured than Americans. This pronouncement that drew numerous responses (including my own) that ranged all the way from ‘Huh?’ to ‘Excuse me?’ Innovators in Silicon Valley like Chris Yeh took particular exception.

Since then, Haque has taken the debate on the relative values of financial vs. social capital further, yea, invoking the spectre of Wal-Mart:

Let me use an example to illustrate. The cost of Wal-Mart killing your local mom and pop bakery isn’t just terrible food, no more friendly chats, and unemployment. In fact, Wal-Mart offsets your loss in quality with scale economies, creating value.

Actually, the real economic loss is more subtle, and much more pernicious: we lose entire sets of people deeply committed to what they do, which is where real creativity ultimately flows from. We lose people with skin in the game, and replace them with workerbots. The guys at your local bakery were makers of tiny cultures, not just producers of goods. Which do you think will be more valuable in a world of Chinese/Indian/etc hypercompetition – scale economies, or creativity driven by passion and commitment?

The debate on Bubblegeneration is a significant (in that it’s particularly cogent) articulation of the Euro-centric argument for a managed economy – the twist being that the stated protectionist goal is the preservation of ‘culture’ not jobs per se.

But looking closely, Haque’s argument contains the seeds of its own undoing: in the world of hypercompetition he speaks of, it’s true that creativity driven by passion and commitment will dominate – which is exactly what entrepreneurs like Chris Heh and his rather cultured friends in Silicon Valley embody. The truth is that while the world may have fewer (and probably better) mom and pop bakeries moving forward, that level of creative energy is being re-invested in other more dynamic areas of human endeavor and achievement – i.e., the mom and pop software shop.

The non-obvious utility of patents

Different people have described the Metabolite patent, currently under review by the US Supreme Court, as being about protecting a fact, but if you could patent the fact of homocysteine’s correlation to B12 levels, then we’d all owe Metabolite licensing fees just for existing in a state of B12 homeostasis.

To play devil’s advocate, I read the patent as applying to the observation of the relationship. As such, it is a bit as if Galileo had filed on his observation that the earth orbited the sun. At the time, his view certainly met the USPTO’s criteria of originality, utility and non-obviousness.

There is a dangerously bumpkinesque notion afoot, which holds that patents obstruct progress. This is (pardon the pun), patently false. Why is it that the most vociferous critics of the patent system, the citizens of the web – people who can understand that markets are conversations – can not seem to grasp that patents are conversations, too? Patents protect the free flow of ideas within our business, academic and entrepreneurial cultures.

Before we blitely trash the Patent Office, let us be clear on the actual ethos of patent protection. The point of patents is not to protect the patent-holders; it is to allow the rest of us to read the patents, adding to our collective knowledge base. The protection provided is a carrot. Nothing more… → Continue reading: The non-obvious utility of patents