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]

Has higher education had its Bernie Madoff moment?

A big story is developing about claims that financiers, Hollywood celebs and others engaged in criminal fraud to enable their children to get into posh Ivy League universities and other such places.

Beyond the salacious details about such a story – and you can imagine how this plays to the “poor ordinary folk outraged by rich people doing Bad Stuff” sort of narrative – is the issue of what the likes of Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds has called the education bubble. With credentialism in the workplace rising, demand for college/university degrees expanding, and fuelling rising student debt, higher tuition fees and yes, more debt, the higher ed. industry is exhibiting the kind of distortions and potential for fraud that we saw in the period leading up to the financial crack-up of 2008. Remember the Bernie Madoff Ponzi fraud scam? The hedge fund that wasn’t was able to scam people at a time when asset prices were rising everywhere and getting into the juiciest hedge funds was the name of the game, rather like getting into the poshest schools was seen as important to people today. By preying on insecurity, vanity, status and worries that being outside meant failure, Madoff defrauded people out of billions of dollars. The parallels with what is going on in higher ed. are quite close.

On a related point, I recently read US academic Bryan Caplan’s book, The Case Against Education: Why The Education System is a Waste of Time and Money. I might not go as far as agreeing with the totality of his ideas, but it seems to me that when people are allegedly committing crimes to get kids into a university, and where the kind of “snowflake” issues are turning some of these places into echo chambers for the Hard Left, it is time for radical change.

Due process of law is just so 19th Century

As some in the US will know there have been moves to ensure that when a university/college student (usually male) is accused of rape or some other form of sexual assault, the matter must be handled by a court of law, not simply for the accused to be put in front of some sort of academic panel and, without even hearing from an accuser or with a chance to challenge the version of events, can be expelled, and hence ruined for life. (Here are comments from a while ago from Tim Worstall.)

UK journalist and documentary-maker Louis Theroux thinks that when a person is acquitted by a court of law, that’s not the end of the matter. Perhaps he is a bit fuzzy on his understanding of the law of libel. When I trained as a reporter, I distinctly remember that articles about a person who was acquitted of sex assault must never imply that somehow the verdict was, you know, not the end of the matter and that X or Y was probably a bit dodgy, to be shunned and avoided, etc. (In reality, of course, social ostracism is still a factor and people who are thought of as “having got away with it” might find their lives get more difficult. To some extent that’s inevitable.)

Anyway, here he writes:

“There are two different standards. There’s a criminal standard in which you go to prison, but just because you haven’t been found guilty of a crime doesn’t mean that you haven’t done anything wrong – that you haven’t made someone very uncomfortable and possible committed a gross violation.”

Theroux says that just because a person has been acquitted by a jury does not mean there aren’t problems. Well, up to a point. The reason we have juries, due process, burdens of proof, etc, is because it is considered better to avoid innocent people being wrongly accused of crimes, even if it means a criminal goes free. Given how emotions can and do run high, risks of mistrials are large. (This is arguably even more so when public figures are implicated.)

The fact that universities and other entities hold less onerous tests of guilt than courts is not something to celebrate and at the very least, a student who joins a university should be made aware that they could be accused of bad conduct, expelled, and so on, even if their case does not go to court. That’s unlikely to encourage people to go to these places, particularly in the current climate where men are presumed to be “toxic”. (It is worth adding that recruits to the armed forces can go to a court martial that holds slightly different standards to a civilian court, at least under the English Common Law, and that recruits are to some extent waiving due process protections by signing the dotted line. Maybe a student should be asked to do the same.)

Theroux takes what I think is a rather odd turn in arguing that maybe sex assault/rape should not be such serious offences so it would be okay to bypass the courts and still get the perpetrators. I think I have got that right:

“If you define rape very, very narrowly – as it was, someone being dragged behind a bush – it kind of gives license to anyone who sexually assaults someone in a way that’s not as bad as that to sort of say ‘Well, I’m not a rapist’.

One of the signs that we live in mad times is the way that the bar is being lowered, it seems, as far as accusations of ill conduct are concerned and over how traditional checks and balances over this are being eroded. The erosion is being called for in plain sight. And scarily, there appears to be relatively little objection to this.

My comments on social media to a True EU Believer

I wrote this on Facebook today in response to a guy arguing that the EU was necessary for the following reasons:

As global trade widens and becomes more complex, rules must be harmonised and we need large bureaucracies to enforce this, so the UK should be involved, to influence this necessary process:

The UK’s own democratic arrangements are poor or not working well so why is the EU so bad?

We need to regulate even the most basic items, such as how lightbulbs are made, because, er, fair trade.

The costs of all this EU stuff are well worth it because it stopped a war for the past 70 years between the major continental powers. So stop going on about free trade, silly rules and farm subsidies. Look at the bigger picture.

As you can detect, I am not impressed by these statements. This was my response:

A few things: it is a big claim that the EU (or what used to be the EEC) has been the major reason for stopping Germany from invading France yet again after 1945. I would argue that the “glue” of the EU has had some positive impact, but surely, the fact that Germany was utterly destroyed in 1945, split in two, and that the Western powers faced the Soviets, and were protected under the NATO umbrella, was the key to why there wasn’t another continental war. And even if all the red tape, rule harmonisation, costly farm subsidies and all the other palaver was justified as a price worth paying on that basis, why would the UK, which wasn’t a defeated power and with a different history, want to subsume itself into a federal project? It does not follow at all. The case is not made. De Gaulle was also correct in his “non” to UK entry in the early 60s as he rightly feared that his Franco-German compact would be bent out of shape.

As global trade expands and the world becomes “smaller” with the Internet and jet travel and containerisation, it doesn’t require ever larger, more elaborate bureaucracies of transnational states to be built. In fact, what things require is more, not less, devolution of power, more variety, and less one-size-fits-all thinking. Why should complexity require more centralisation, rather than less?

The idea that we need single EU rules on how lightbulbs and other materials of the modern world are made is not justified on the basis of protecting “fairness”, and in fact all too often, such regulations are imposed and lobbied for by industry groups knowing that they raise barriers to entry against cheaper or different manufacturers, and reduce competition. Unless there are very clear-cut safety issues, I invariably smell a rat when people defend government bans on certain mechandise by talking about “fair trade”. It’s protectionism with a nice tie.

My position is not an “anarchist” one. It is more in tune with a general classical liberal approach to business, government and diplomacy, and above all driven by scepticism about big projects to reshape very old institutions and national loyalties. The launch of the single currency was an exercise in hubris, the results of which are still with us.

Take-home fact: Members of the European Parliament cannot, as far as I know, repeal a directive once it has become law. Nor can MEPs initiate a new law on their own, as an MP can. The MEPs are pale shadows of truly effective legislators and the democratic deficit in the EU is unsustainable.

Young voters and Corbyn

The myth at the heart of the ‘Corbyn project’ is that it is a grassroots movement of enthusiastic young people. This group, so the theory goes, is disgusted by free markets and longs for industries to be nationalised and collectives of workers to seize control of the means of production. Books have even been written about how the ‘young’ have ‘created a new socialism.’ But if this is true, why does a poll today reveal that support for the newly-formed centrist Independent Group predominantly come from young people? Forty-seven per cent of 18-24 year olds approve of the creation of TIG, with just 14 per cent disapproving of it. This is strange behaviour from an age group we’re constantly told are supposed to be most rabidly in favour of Jeremy Corbyn. Listening to high-profile Corbynistas in their plentiful media appearances you would assume that the people most likely to back TIG are ageing Blairites and ‘centrists dads’. Far from it.

Young people are the least likely to oppose introducing competition into government services, and the least likely to favour the government pursuing equality of outcome. Perhaps this explains why so many young people approve of a group that has also won approval from the IEA and the ASI for its favourable view of austerity and Osborne cuts, opposition to renationalisation, anti-tax hike, and pro-tuition fee positions.

In reality any meeting of the hard left looks more like a retirement home than a university seminar, even in London, where more young people live. So Corbynism is not a movement led by a generational shift in the way we view the world, but one driven by the same few hundred thousand people in the country who have always leant towards the left. The only difference is that now they are better organised and able to seize the infrastructure of an old established party thanks to an ill thought-out £3 membership scheme. To put Labour’s support into perspective, the party’s total membership is less than half the number of people who voted Green in 2015.

Tim Harwood.

It may be true that some of the support for Momentum comes from the young, but the idea that most 20- and young 30-somethings have the hots for an ageing anti-semite, IRA supporter, Hamas chum and Marxist seems a tad far off the mark. The new and devastating book by Tom Bower is hardly going to make life easier. With their penchant for the goodies of modern capitalism (iPhones and all the rest of it), if not being in agreement with the global trade that makes this possible, it always struck me as more likely that a more genuinely liberal creed would appeal. The problem, as I see it, though, is that the breakaway MPs from Labour and the Tories who have formed the Independent Group are largely motivated by a desire to keep Britain inside the clutches of a federalising EU project marked by disdain for what voters want, and squaring that circle is going to be difficult.

Classical liberalism (ie, what I think liberalism actually is) has never been a majority taste among the young, in my experience, but it isn’t doing well at the moment, even though there are student groups and others doing what they can to counter statist nonsense and resist it in colleges, etc. That’s why I applaud the likes of the Atlas Network, Students for Liberty and the work of groups such as FREER, etc. Whatever might be the real support for Corbyn and his fellow socialist troglodytes, more needs to be done to spread better ideas when people are still at a formative stage in thinking about these things. I do what I can in speaking to meetings, and actually a practical step I’d urge those who scoff about such efforts to consider is mentoring students whom they know, giving them reading material and steering them towards ideas that their own lecturers might not be exposing them to. This doesn’t have to be done in a blunt fashion, either.

The Gilded Age and William Jennings Bryan – Modern parallels?

At the end of the 19th century, a young William Allen White—a critic of William Jennings Bryan’s populist Democrats—wrote a column titled “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” There he mocked the wealth-haters, saying the populist felt that “what we need is not more money, but less capital, fewer white shirts and brains… We need several thousand gibbering idiots to scream about” the power of financial titans, because “we don’t care to build up, we wish to tear down.”

Karl Rove, who sounds vaguely familiar.

There are all kinds of parallels between the “Gilded Age” of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Morgan, and the populist, anti-gold standard levelling views of Bryan, and what is going on today, with AOC, Robert Reich saying billionaires must have all done something evil, and the rest.

Bryan was famously opposed to the gold standard, as well as being an opponent of teaching Darwinian evolution to children and supported taxing land and was for prohibition of alcohol. It’s sometimes odd to find a political figure who is wrong on so many issues in one go, and so dangerously appealing to people seeking a person on a white horse who is going to drive the “money changers out of the temple”, as it were. Right now, with the rubbish coming out about why billionaires should be banned, and must have got their wealth immorally, it feels all very familiar.

Of course – and this is where these issues get complex – some of what is going on with the Big Tech entrepreneurs of today, and the Leftist grandstanding or PR they sometimes engage in, is creating renewed enthusiasm for government powers that came out of the late 19th Century in the era of Teddy Roosevelt. I note that Instapundit blog supremo and law professor wants the US government (I mean, what could possibly go wrong?) to use anti-trust powers to bust up the Facebooks and the rest, and in part this appears driven by political animus as much as any ideas of competition, although Glenn Reynolds’ arguments that there are problems certainly are strongly made.

Yes, it is true that it looks odd to say captains of business taking what appear to be annoying SJW stances, but part of me cannot help but think that these people aren’t sincere enough to willingly wreck their firms by so doing, by “going broke by going woke”. To some degree, they have entered a Faustian Pact of making nice SJW noises, getting close to various causes, in the hope that the Left’s crocodiles forget to eat them. If there’s a recession, as there will be eventually, expect this trend to change. Firms cannot afford to damn their customers (as in Gillette, for example) if business is on the skids.

And in contrast to the Bryan denunciation of the “cross of gold”, today’s Left and Trumpist Right rarely refers to the massive balance sheet expansion of the US Federal Reserve (quantitative easing), which juiced asset prices such as real estate and equities after 2008, disproportionately benefiting the already-wealthy. In fact, if anything, today’s Left is beholden to the print-until-you-drop approach, without a thought for the Zimbabwe/Venezuela/Weimar consequences. Take its recent enthusiasm for something called Modern Monetary Theory.

The recent row about Amazon and its planned new big offices in Queen’s, New York, suggests that a sort of high point to this strategy has been reached and that maybe the Silicon Valley Big Techs will realise that there is no point trying to make all nice to those who want to destroy them. Eventually, the malevolence of the looter Left shows itself. Even though some critics of these firms might be motivated by dislike of corporate welfare (NYC wanted to give Jeff Bezos a fucking helipad, when the multi-billionaire has his own private space programme), it is hard not to smell are far more pungent smell of anti-capitalism. They cannot be appeased.

Joel Kotkin has written an interesting study of some of these modern “Gilded Age” trends, such as the culture of modern Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Washington, vs the rest of the US. On a far smaller scale, there are echoes of this in the UK.

But Kotkin, as he shows in a thoughtful (mostly) item on all this, has his own rather William Jennings Bryan-like blind spots:

One can appreciate the economic benefits that firms like Uber, Lyft, Salesforce, and others have brought to San Francisco and other tech-oriented cities. Yet the concentration of high-end businesses has also helped create a neo-Dickensian reality: sky-high housing prices, widespread homelessness, and a rapidly shrinking middle class. There are now more drug addicts in San Francisco than high school students. Rising rents have undermined that city’s cherished bohemian culture and hastened a rapid decline in the minority population, both in the city and across the tech-dominated Bay Area. In 1970, 96,000 African-Americans lived in San Francisco; today, barely 46,000 make their homes there, constituting less than 5 percent of the city’s population. More than half of the Bay Area’s lower-income communities, notes a recent UC Berkeley study, are in danger of mass displacement. Amazon, it seemed to many progressives, threatened to bring the same conditions to New York.

This is zero-sum thinking on steroids. For a start, much of why the cities of San Francisco and others are so expensive is not because of demand but lack of supply (ie, planning laws); are Kotkin and others arguing that they would prefer for modern, disruptive businesses to not exist at all? A century-plus ago, the Sears catalogue business made its fortunes by blending the tech. of telegraph wires and railroads to bring supplies across the plains of the US. Sears today is in financial dire straits, as times change. But the Kotkins of this world would, presumably, have complained about how all the folk working for these businesses were driving up prices to “sky-high levels”. How dare they be so successful. As for the demise of the “cherished bohemian culture”, well, your mileage may vary as to how cherished that is.

Finally, I recently met Adrian Wooldridge, co-author with Alan Greenspan, former Fed chairman, of Capitalism in America. The book makes a number of claims (it is a good read) about American economics, and one of them is that the appetite for the “creative destruction” of capitalism is waning. Recent trends suggests that this is true. And that’s bad news for the world in general.

Samizdata quote of the day

“A termite has about 100,000 neurons and we probably get through that number over a big weekend.”

John Searle, American philosopher.

A book right out of the R. A. Heinlein tradition

Gregory Benford has a new book out, called Rewrite, and while I tend sometimes to be careful of pre-publication hype, this looks mighty promising and a good way for me to while away the hours as I fly to Hong Kong in a few days’ time. The author gets an interview in Wired magazine, proof that good things occasionally do appear in that publication, despite what appears to be its turn to eco-lefist nonsense in recent years.

I really enjoyed his novel, Timescape. Chiller, a book that features cryonics, is also good.

By the way, there is a Robert Heinlein Society, which runs a scholarship programme. I think the writer, former Navy officer, fencing expert and blood donor advocate would have approved.

Heinlein once wrote about The Crazy Years, a period in his early writings known as the Future History series. I am not the first person to wonder if our own era deserves that moniker, although with hindsight is it any nuttier than any other?

Samizdata quote of the day

“Corbyn’s first wife, Jane Chapman, told his biographer Tom Bower that she never knew him read a book in four years of marriage.”

Nick Cohen.

The constant denial that humans possess agency

Following on from the posting below about the “ISIS bride” is this comment from Brendan O’Neill at Spiked:

Indeed, the story of these three London girls who ran off in 2015 was always a very telling one. It contains lessons, if only we are willing to see them. Too many observers have focused on the girls’ youthfulness and the idea that they were ‘groomed’ or ‘brainwashed’ by online jihadists. Note how ‘radicalisation’ has become an entirely passive phrase – these girls, and other Brits, were ‘radicalised’, we are always told, as if they are unwitting dupes who were mentally poisoned by sinister internet-users in Mosul or Raqqa. In truth, the three girls were resourceful and bright. All were grade-A students. They thought their actions through, they planned them meticulously, and they executed them well. Far from being the passive victims of online radicalisation, the girls themselves sought to convince other young women to run away to ISIS territory. The focus on the ‘grooming’ of Western European youths by evil ISIS masterminds overlooks a more terrible reality: that some Western European youths, Muslim ones, actively sought out the ISIS life.

A point that comes out of this is how it is so common these days to downplay the fact that people make choices and have agency. Whether it is about young adults joining Islamist death cults, or people becoming addicted to drink, porn or social media, or falling into some other self-destructive and anti-social behaviour, very often people talk about the persons concerned as passive, as victims. “She was groomed to be a terrorist”…..”he suffered from alcoholism”…..”he was damaged by over-use of social media”……the very way that journalists write sentences or broadcast their thoughts seem to suggest that people don’t really possess volition, aka free will. (Here is a good explanation of what free will is, at least in the sense that I think it is best formulated, by the late Nathaniel Branden.)

Sometimes debates about whether humans really do have volition can sound like hair-splitting, an obscure sort of issue far less important than other matters of the day. I disagree. For decades, centuries even, different arguments have been presented to show that humans are pushed around by whatever external or internal forces happen to be in play, whether it is the environment, toilet training, parental guidance, economics, the class system, whatever. Over time, these ideas percolate into wider society so that it becomes acceptable for people to talk as if their very thoughts and actions aren’t really under their control. The self-contradictory nature of people denying that they have volition (to deny is, after all, a decision) is rarely remarked upon.

When people think about the problem of “snowflake” students, or identity politics, or other such things, remember that these phenomena didn’t come out of nowhere. We are seeing the “cashing in”, as Ayn Rand put it almost half a century ago, of the idea that people are not agents with will, but mere puppets.

Update: A lively debate in the comments. There is some pushback on the idea that the ISIS bride sees herself as any sort of victim but I think that charge is correct because of the entitlement mentality she is displaying by demanding that she returns to the UK to have her child, and no doubt fall on the grace of the UK taxpayer. And that mindset is all of a piece of thinking that actions don’t bring consequences.

After all, if she is the devout believer in creating a Global Caliphate, based on killing and enslaving unbelievers and all the assorted mindfuckery of such a goal, it is a bit rich, really, for her to come back to a country the prosperity of which is based on it being a largely liberal, secular place. She wants to have her cake and eat it.

Of course, some young jihadis can be brainwashed and are surrounded by a culture that encourages such behaviour, but it is worth pointing out that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who, whatever the pressures, don’t do these things, and some are trying their best to move away from this mindset. And one of the best ways that liberal (to use that word in its correct sense) societies can resist the pathology of Islamist death cults is by resisting the “victim culture” and insisting on people taking ownership of their actions, with all the consequences for good or ill that this brings.

As an aside, here is an interesting essay by a Canadian academic debunking what might be called “apocalyptic ethics” and a rebuttal of the argument that as religious fanatics embrace death, they are beyond the rational self interest test of ethics. The article deals with that argument beautifully.

Samizdata quote of the day

“With journalism’s popularity waning and scandals raging, journalists have never been more interested in the political opinions of `stars.’ While the idea of a reporter caring what they think about matters beyond what it was like to work with some other actor or director, this wading by the make-believe set has begun to impact its bottom lines. `Stars’ are asked to weigh in, to speak out on everything, and fewer and fewer people want to hear it. It’s a business model straight out of a Monty Python skit.”

Derek Hunter, Outrage Inc: How the Liberal Mob Ruined Science, Journalism and Hollywood. Page 209.

(As per usual I put in my bleat about how sad it is that the word “liberal” nowadays means something rather different than what it once did.)

Nissan, Brexit and the state of journalism

Guido Fawkes has a smart observation about the recent announcement by Japanese carmaker Nissan that it will not produce a new model from its plant in the UK’s Northeast. This has produced a storm, with people claiming that this shows the UK’s move towards independence from Brussels is a mistake, and that all those thick Northerners who voted for Brexit were misled, and will suffer, etc, etc.

However, there’s a big fat problem with this “a pox on Brexit” narrative. If moving out of the snug embrace of the EU and its Single Market is such a dumb idea, only to be entertained by fools or knaves, etc, why hasn’t Nissan relocated to France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, or some of the other benighted states of the EU, rather than produce the new models in far-away Japan?

Guido also mentions EU emission standards and other issues as a factor for the firm pulling out. Of course, it may be that one reason why not a single other EU state appeals to the folks in Tokyo is the high labour costs and restrictions of doing business in these places (imagine Italy, for instance!), but if that’s true, then the Single Market’s alleged charms aren’t enough to outweigh the Big Government features of the EU’s constituent members. The EU is, in this sense, stagnating under the weight of its own bureaucracy.

Guido asks why Sky News and others haven’t asked the kind of questions asked here, but that misses how for much of the UK media, to ask these questions assumes a level of objectivity and understanding of business that simply isn’t encouraged in journalists today. (I should know, as I have been a financial reporter, but being a crazed libertarian I just about avoided the infection when I was being trained.) Most UK journalists regard business with suspicion and tend to tilt left politically, in my experience. So points about regulation and red tape encouraging a firm to move from A to B just don’t compute. As a result, the questions aren’t asked. (Just imagine, if you will, how the average Western journalist would react to a book such as this, by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins of the Ayn Rand Institute, defending banking and modern finance. You just know what the response will be.)

A few months ago, a US-based commodities and derivatives business, ICE, decided to pull certain futures contracts out of London and back to Chicago, because the costs of complying with EU regulations known as MiFID II were so great they outweighed the benefits of being in the Single Market. As the regulatory process gets worse (I see zero desire to reverse it), the presumed desirability for non-EU countries to be involved will wane. This is a point that we cannot expect the likes of the BBC, or Financial Times, Economist or most of the rest to grasp. And part of the reason is the mindset of the journalists who work for these entities.

Caffeinated

Now it is fashionable to sneer at Starbucks. The coffee, once recognised as a marked improvement on what was available before, is disparaged as being bitter or tasteless or inadequate in any one of a number of different ways. That is the proof of Starbucks’ success. You are free, and indeed able, to complain about the quality of its product because of Starbucks.

In that respect, the company is a shining example of how capitalism and the market is supposed to work. A new product creates a new market and is in turn — for some, anyway — superseded by other competitors offering, in this case, smaller, independent, more innovative and interesting, coffee served in a less “corporate” environment. Innovation inspires emulation and then, in turn, the original innovator begins to look cumbersome and outdated. But your local independent artisan coffee shop selling coffee sourced form a single Indonesian estate only exists because of Starbucks and the corporate muscle it flexed to create the very market upon which smaller competitors can piggy-back. This, again, is the way the system is supposed to work. The rising tide, in this instance, really has lifted all boats.

Alex Massie.

Well, it may be “fashionable” to dislike Starbucks (usually a pose taken by those who haven’t the faintest notion of what building a business involves) but I could not give a flying expleted-deleted about a lot that passes for fashion. I use Starbucks quite a lot and it has also helped spawn the model of the coffee shop that is also a sort of office/study zone for anyone with a laptop.

The dislike of Starbucks is often nothing more than a reworking of the general hatred of enterprise and trade that is indulged by people who, hypocrically, enjoy its fruits. I recall this great episode of South Park and how it lampooned the hatred of big business chains of this type.

And who can possibly dislike a business that got a name-check in an Austin Powers movie?

Oh behave!