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]

Hopefully this is curtains for Roger Waters, but I doubt it

Former Pink Floyd band member Roger Waters, who has spoken about the Russian invasion of Ukraine (he has excused it, so it looks), is a regular critic of Israel, and so on, thinks it was going to be a smart idea to dress up in, er, rather 1930s-looking German militaristic sort of gear at a concert where there is also some sort of large, inflatable pig, with staring eyes, flying through an arena. There is red light, there is talk about conspiracies and the like.

And the kicker: this event took place in Berlin. I read that authorities are investigating the concert. I am no fan of hate-speech laws, being a hardline free speech guy, and I also reserve the right to state my views about this guttersnipe as loudly as I can. But however much one should stay on the JS Mill straight and narrow, it is mighty tempting to wish all bad legal and other consequences for this piece of excrement. No wonder his old band members broke off from him and have no time for him. (See this controversy.)

He’s an anti-semite, plain and simple. The old saying about “once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action”, applies.

Samizdata quote of the day – UK landlord insanity edition

“Making it harder to evict residents is only likely to make it harder to rent. Landlords will inevitably be more selective about who they offer properties to and charge higher rents when they cannot quickly evict bad tenants. That is likely to disproportionately hurt those who are poorer, younger, and from minority communities.”

Matthew Lesh, of the Institute of Economic Affairs, commenting on measures by the current “Conservative” government, to make it more difficult for landlords to evict tenants in certain cases (there appears to be some issue about the details). The impact is the same as making it harder to fire workers. Other things being equal, fewer people get hired. (Look at Italy, where firing people is hard and produces bizarre effects.)

The inverted quotes around “Conservative” are, as you might guess, there for a reason.

Samizdata quote of the day – Guardian insanity edition

“In recent years, the Guardian has devoted considerable time and energy to exposing the truth about Britain and slavery, as if we didn’t know it already. The fact that a British government was one of the first to outlaw the practise in Europe and the Royal Navy helped end the trade worldwide was to the Woke Left too little too late – which it was. But that was then and this is now, which makes it a little galling that the dead of Bristol and Liverpool and, naturally, the City of London, are being put in the dock for events that took place when ships were still propelled by sail and a woman could be hanged for stealing a sheep.”

Walter Ellis

The great thing for a while, in the minds of some, about atoning for the sins of people decades/centuries ago is that there is no real cost to oneself, although in the case of proposed reparations to the alleged descendants of slaves, the bill could be very large indeed. The absurdities and injustices this will cause, and the way it undercuts notions of personal responsibility by suggesting a whole nation should pick up a bill for something done by people a long time ago, are too obvious to need explaining in these pages. (Douglas Murray is good on the subject, as he is on most things.)

These are, as the late Robert A Heilein said, the Crazy Years.

Samizdata quote of the day – San Francisco edition

“The major retailers fleeing the city’s downtown have been so numerous that last weekend the San Francisco Chronicle felt compelled to publish a map so readers could keep track of the exodus.”

Wall Street Journal. ($)

Samizdata quote of the day – Elon Musk edition

“It might be exhausting just trying to keep up with Musk and he will get plenty wrong. And yet, all the criticism is hopelessly wide of the mark. Our political and economic culture sneers at and neglects men and women like him. But if Musk and his ilk ever chose to go on strike, like a seemingly endless number of workers in both the public and private sectors, the system could grind to a complete halt.”

Matthew Lynn, Daily Telegraph. Lynn’s article (£) is spot on. Yes, Musk received public subsidies for Tesla and the SpaceX business gets deals from NASA, but the point is also that he has made, particularly in the spacefaring area, a tremendous go of massively reducing launch costs via the recoverability of the rockets. He did it when far more expensive ways of space flight failed to deliver. If he did nothing else, that puts him on my list of heroes.

The line about him ever going on strike makes me wonder if Lynn thinks of Musk as a sort of Ayn Rand hero. It’s almost uncanny. Of course, some people, including Musk himself, tend to think of him more as a bit of a Tony Stark.

Musk can be maddening to some, and vexatious even to his admirers. But overall, I am glad he is around.

Samizdata quote of the day – office vs working from home edition

“Flexible working is not a new phenomenon. It has been around for decades, with varying degrees of success depending on the companies and industries that have implemented it. You do not need to be a working-from-home (WFH) evangelist to realise that working patterns have changed in recent years. Certain jobs, such as lawyers or journalists, can tolerate a level of WFH without a noticeable impact on performance. However, it is important to note that prior to Covid, its uptake amongst businesses has been very limited. The only reason it is plaguing our economy now, is not because businesses and start-ups across the nation have realised the phenomenal improvement in productivity. Far from it. It is simply because government-directed WFH orders, subsidies, and now policies have created a false sense of normality as well as a false labour market. And it is doomed to fail, like many so many state interventions, created far away from business reality.”

Andrew Barclay, businessman.

I was at a banking conference in Monaco (tough job, and someone has to do it) and this seemed to be the view of a lot of the folk present. Mind you, for a lot of my working life, my “office” is a table in a hotel business reception, airport lounge, cafe or my home. But I have done this for decades, and in my younger years (20-40) had the benefit of the cameraderie, mentorship and “culture” that comes with being in an office as part of a team. I follow a more “hybrid” approach these days, and it seems to work. (I actually think I work longer hours than when I was in an office.) I don’t see any reason for the State to intrude into this, either by penalising one form or working or encouraging it. A neutral approach is best. And what definitely should not happen is enshrining this or that way of working as a “right” beyond obvious constraints to protect life and health, both physical and mental. As ever (here comes the libertarian drum-roll sound), it is competition and vigorous enterprise that provides the best ways of people figuring out working patterns that suit them best, be they youngsters, middle-aged farts like me with or without children and dependents, etc etc.

Teaching maths and the “Soviet” mistake

“The Soviet Union was world-renowned for maths and science instruction but that failed to translate into a strong economy. Similarly, the UK has some of the top universities in the world yet has experienced stagnant growth for the last decade. Prosperity requires creating the right institutional environment for entrepreneurship, not dictating curriculums from the top.”

Matthew Lesh, Director of Public Policy and Communications, at the UK-based Institute of Economic Affairs, the UK think tank. (The quote is from an emailed press release I was sent today.) He responded to UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s comments on the case for extending the teaching of maths and how far too many people think it is okay to be poor at the subject. (I used to be poor at maths, but certainly did not wear that as a silly badge of pride.)

Lesh’s point, however, is certainly worth focusing on. Being good at certain subjects and having knowledge about subjects is not the same as having a flourishing economy, particularly if one has oppressively high taxes, heavy regulations, spending on flashy projects such as HS2 that crowd out private investment, etc. At the margins, having a more maths-literate population might have a positive effect if, for example, more people can get their heads around statistics – and how they can be manipulated – and important concepts for business and finance such as compound interest, for example. Of course, in an age when the teaching of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) gets more attention, this all fits.

Here is a paper from Stanford University about maths skills and economic growth.

I do worry that Mr Sunak, in his understandable and laudable desire to encourage teaching and better grasp of such subjects, can come across as assuming that this might be a sort of silver bullet to the UK’s economic woes. As the Lesh comment about Soviet Russia shows, having lots of maths whizzes in a country is no good if the underlying economics is poor. And by the way, a lot of those Russian maths aces, such as those of Jewish descent, emigrated to Israel as soon as they could, which explains, among other things, why Israel has been a STEM and start-up powerhouse.

On a final point, I remember some years ago (I cannot find the link, sorry) watching a televised talk by Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 and Gemini astronaut, given at MIT. He talked about teaching, and about why there needs to be another “E” in the STEM acronym: E for English. There’s no point in having all this knowledge if you are lousy at communicating it. He’s right. An example of how to communicate complex ideas brilliantly and clearly is that of Edward Chancellor in his recent book The Price of Time, where he writes about interest rates, and why manipulation of them is dangerous and a folly that goes back centuries. It is an outstanding case of clear exposition, fascinating facts and an enjoyable tone of voice.

Defence, Ireland and the “free rider” issue

“When was the last time an American president included Ireland in their vocal – and justified – criticism of Europe for slacking on its commitments? The fact is, with so many American voters claiming Irish heritage, Ireland gets a free pass, something it shamelessly exploits.”

Richard Kemp, Daily Telegraph (£).

I wonder if Ireland’s fairly low-key approach is a hangover from when, during WW2, it was neutral, presumably out of a reflexive hatred for the UK rather than some deep love of the other side. In the case of another country that gets praise here occasionally – Switzerland – it was also neutral, although the Swiss probably, for military reasons, feared with some justification that if it sided with the UK, it would have been rapidly invaded by its German neighbour. These days, the Swiss have imposed sanctions on Russia, along with the UK, EU and the US, so its own neutrality is fading. And Ireland, as an EU member state, has of course imposed the same sanctions, for what that’s worth. It is not a NATO member – something that might come as a surprise to some people.

There’s a wider issue for those of a free market and economics point of view here. Ireland could be accused, perhaps rightly, of being a “free rider” on other countries that are able and willing to spend serious money on defence. This “free rider problem” is a subject that comes up in economics and public policy, and used to justify, for example, compulsory public spending on things such as highways, education and defence because it is uneconomic and inefficient to charge individuals for the benefits of said, and yet there will always be those who benefit but have no incentive for pay up. Is this behaviour by Ireland a “free rider” issue, and if so, what if anything can be done about it?

Separately, Ireland has for a long time had one of the lowest rates of corporate taxation in the world. President Joe Biden, who likes to flaunt his Irish roots (as many US presidents, in their rather tiresome way, do) has been an advocate of a global pact through which major countries adhere to a minimum tax rate of 15 per cent, and who knows, that might go higher. This counts as a tax cartel, and a country such as Ireland (an EU member state, remember) loses out from that, as do other small EU states such as Malta and Luxembourg. Ireland boomed in the late 80s, and through the 90s, in part because of its low-tax charms. These angered the policymakers of Brussels, who perhaps rightly saw this as a challenge to their desire to create a more high-tax/high-spend regime across the EU. So Ireland can at times be annoying for the right reasons.

What this all comes down to is that Ireland has, in different ways, chosen to stand apart. For all that it might be annoying that Ireland doesn’t supposedly do more on defence (it has a big coastline and requires safe shipping lanes), there’s been a sort of independence of mindset about Ireland that I quite like. (And as a coda to all this, lots of Irishmen, during WW2, defied their country and fought during WW2 against the Nazis, to their everlasting honour.)

Samizdata quote of the day – anti-“picking winners” edition

“Over the next few years, all those heavily subsidised plants in the US, Germany and France are going to come on stream, selling chips into a global market where there are too many of them and prices are tumbling. The losses could be vast. Taxpayer money will have been put to terrible use and, in the UK, Treasury officials will perhaps be quietly breathing a sigh of relief that we were too hopelessly disorganised. There is a lesson to be taken, not least at a time when when `industrial strategies’ are more popular than ever. Just because a product is important it does not mean any particular country has to produce it. And if demand is growing, it is safe to assume private companies will be capable of meeting that need without help from the state. Too often, governments end up subsidising the wrong industries at the wrong time. They have a poor record of picking winners, and should instead set low and fair taxes, lower tariffs, keep competition open, and break up any cartels. Once they have done all that, the market can decide which are the industries of the future.”

Matthew Lynn, Daily Telegraph (£).

My only quibble with the quote from this excellent article is that his support for trust-busting activity needs to be qualified with the point that a lot of anti-monopoly activities by governments are often based on a misunderstanding of competition as a static game, not a dynamic process through time. We see this regularly in the recent wailing about Big Tech. (See an article here.)

Nigel Lawson, RIP

I am saddened to read that Nigel Lawson, former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, and an articulate advocate of the UK’s departure from the EU (and also a rigorous debunker of global warming catastrophism), has died at the grand age of 91. My condolences to his family and friends.

It is ironic that he fell out with Mrs Thatcher in the late 80s over the issue of the UK joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism in Europe. He was opposed to the euro, but saw ERM entry as a necessary way for the UK to try and control inflation. In that sense he was a fixed-exchange rate man, and in the 19th century he’d have been a Gold Standard defender, I suspect. In the end, he was at one with Mrs T. on the dangers of a centralising Europe. And of course, in his time at 11 Downing Street, he cut top rates of tax and simplified the system dramatically. Alas, his successors haven’t continued that trend. Lawson was also the intellectual driving force behind privatisation of state-owned businesses, and while arguably not enough was done to promote competition, the overall benefit in my view was considerable.

His speech explaining why the UK had to leave the EU remains, in my mind, one of the most brilliant and succinct explanations for why this was the right course. He focused, rightly, on the issues of democratic accountability and freedom.

Right to the very end, his mind was as sharp as those of all too many in power are blunt.

“Symbolic analysts'” jobs at risk?

“For decades, traditional manufacturing jobs were gobbled up by automation and offshoring. This led Robert Reich to postulate a hierarchy of work in which the “symbolic analysts” – essentially, people who worked with information as opposed to actual stuff – were at the top, while people who worked with actual things were at the bottom. With a remarkable lack of sympathy, journalists and politicians told coal miners and auto workers that they should “learn to code” as their jobs vanished.”

Glenn Reynolds, on his new substack column. He goes on to note the irony of how it is writers of code, rather than some in manual labour jobs, whose jobs are on the line. My own view is that this is not really the time to let one’s eyes gleam in pleasure at seeing this or that sector be taken down or elevated. (Beware the karma involved, folks.) What, above all, counts for me is ensuring that government stays out of the way as much as possible. To imagine that governments can somehow manage whatever AI comes up with is to ignore the hubris over matters such as the “climate emergency”, Covid-19, and all the rest.

Samizdata quote of the day – machine learning edition

“Artificial intelligence in particular conjures the notion of thinking machines. But no machine can think, and no software is truly intelligent. The phrase alone may be one of the most successful marketing terms of all time.”

Parmy Olsen, Bloomberg columnist. ($)