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]

Games and money

The BBC is breathlessly reporting cases of parents whose bank accounts have been cleared out by their children playing games with in-game purchases.

We are technically savvy but didn’t think to put a password on and my son, who was 12, ended up spending around £700.

It was on his own phone and he managed to download Clash of Clans through a Google Play account, enter his own children’s bank card details and buy lots of in-game items.

It is possible to prevent this. My own children often ask to buy in-game items, which tells me I have somewhat succeeded in training them to ask first. Steam has a PIN code that only I know. The iPad requires my fingerprint before it will take money. And Google Play is set up to require a password. So far, so good.

I installed Mini Golf King on my phone for my son who is five. He knows he’s not allowed to spend money in games, yet this game successfully tricked him into spending £300 on in-app purchases.

[…]

People will say “well, you should be supervising him”. I was! I was in the room.

But the game is a children’s game, rated PEGI 3 [suitable for players aged three and above].

I would allow him to watch a U-rated film and I assumed PEGI 3 games were safe to play with casual supervision.

Now things are getting tricky: user interfaces are hard to get right even when you are trying not to confuse people. I can remember a handful of occasions where I have done something daft with a computer, have been met with no sympathy at all from support staff, but objected that the problem is that the user interface was misleading. There are worthy complaints here.

Now politicians are taking an interest. There is always this instinctive call: The Government should Do Something! I do not see the need. Complain instead to marketplace. Google Play, the Apple App Store and Steam are in a position to enforce user interface standards and they can probably do better with default settings, spending limits, and better-designed family accounts.

The restructuring of capitalism as we know it

A new kind of capitalism. A new way to measure progress. An end to the obsession with growth. We know what they really mean. Once in a while they spell it out nice and clearly.

nothing short of dramatic structural change in the way capitalism works can deliver the 2030 target of a 45 per cent cut in carbon emissions. To deliver the net-zero carbon emissions demanded by 2050 will require an economy so different from ours that we are unlikely to recognise it as capitalism.

Very unlikely, I would say.

a Sustainable Investment Board, comprising the chancellor, the business secretary and the governor of the Bank of England. First proposed by City analyst Graham Turner, the board’s original aim was to achieve a 3 per cent productivity target by funnelling private sector investment into high tech.

The state telling the private sector where to invest its money. Fascinating; and I am sure far more productive than the private sector deciding where to invest its money. Why have billions of investment decisions made by millions of people when three posh blokes obviously know better? A different kind of productivity! Greener productivity!

a £250bn National Investment Bank, its money raised over ten years, to fund some of that investment, combined with regional development banks

This is just more of the state deciding where to spend money.

I am no fan of the Stalinist planned economy

I sense a but coming…

Yet the unpleasant fact may be that centralised state intervention, planning and ownership might be the only thing that’s going to achieve the rapid reduction in carbon emissions we need.

Oh, it will achieve the rapid reduction of something all right.

If millions of human brains simultaneously accepted the need for a survival level restructure of society, akin to a wartime mobilisation, the population itself would become the change agent.

Why can’t well all just get along? Also, bring back rationing!

we are going to need a transition beyond the market and beyond an economy where incomes are largely based on work.

To each according to his need.

The central bank becomes an arm of the state, its preoccupation becomes to direct capital away from carbon

Just when you thought central banks were a bad idea, someone finds a way to make them worse.

capital flight is the financial elite’s all-purpose answer to the shutdown of its gravy train. In which case, having created the carrot, a government serious about climate change has to create the stick.

Ok, no more Mr Nice Guy, I guess.

the left has to put it to people straight. The “rights” of global finance capital have to be subordinated to the needs of the human race, via the democratic states we live in.

I am sure it will all turn out lovely.

Who is saying all this? Some crazy fringe lunatic everyone will ignore? I hope so but I am not sure. It is in the New Statesman, circulation 35,000. Paul Mason used to be economics editor of two state-funded TV news programmes, Newsnight and Channel 4 News. He is not nobody. People will be listening to him. He might be saying things that even more influential people want him to say. It is a bit of a worry.

The thing is, even if the end of the world is now imaginable, even if climate change threatens an end to universal human rights, an end to development, and “the fracture of globalisation and multilateral systems” (whatever that means); even if it really is as bad as they say: making ourselves less free and therefore poorer is only going to exacerbate it. Economic growth is more important, not less, because richer people can build infrastructure to overcome the environment. Richer people can move around. Economic growth means more people (even poor people!) get richer. When there is a natural disaster in a poor country, far more poor people are harmed than are when there is a natural disaster in a rich country. That is the difference that old fashioned, bog-standard, neo-liberal economic growth makes. That is why I am against Paul Mason’s brand of communism: because by reversing ordinary economic growth it will be more harmful than the IPCC’s most dire predictions about climate change.

There is not even any reason to suppose that freedom and growth is incompatible with reducing carbon emissions: solar energy is undergoing something of a Moore’s law cost reduction; new technology means using energy more efficiently. And there are undoubtedly ways to turn things around that Paul Mason has not though of. He thinks a few hundred human brains can direct “millions of human brains” to solve problems; but that is not how it works. Millions of human brains are very good at solving problems if they are free to figure things out for themselves.

Ultra-processed food

The BBC reports that ultra-processed food has been linked by scientific studies to early death.

Then come “ultra-processed foods”, which have been through more substantial industrial processing and often have long ingredient lists on the packet, including added preservatives, sweeteners or colour enhancers.

If a product contains more than five ingredients, it is probably ultra-processed, says Prof Maira Bes-Rastrollo, of the University of Navarra, citing a maxim.

This sounds quite vague. My problem with “processed food” as a concept, is that industrial processes involving food include things like mixing two ingredients together in a large vat. Surely if there is a problem it is to do with the content of the food. Something harmful is present, or something beneficial is missing. If so, tell me what that is, there is no need to be vague about it.

→ Continue reading: Ultra-processed food

A very British attitude to tax

Here is very British YouTuber Dr Jake explaining the tax implications of monetising a YouTube channel:

On having to pay an accountant, file paperwork for self-employment, spend hours finding and filing receipts, throw himself on the mercy of a Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs amnesty, pay hundreds of pounds in back-dated tax and spend hours every year filing paperwork so he can pay a large proportion of the small income he gets from his hobby business to the state, he says:

isn’t a huge amount of money […] not brilliant […] now I’m a law-abiding citizen […] at least I can sleep at night

I would go on an extended rant about the unseen consequences of all this, but as usual, even thinking about tax and its complications has sucked out all my enthusiasm for anything. I think I will go and have a cup of tea instead.

Lego vs Lepin

I like Lego. It is nostalgic. It is a good quality product: the bricks fit together just so. It has a certain feel to it. I like the product design. I like the Ninjago and the Technic. I like the movies. I do not want Lego to change. I do not want to hear about them taking the monosodium glutamate out of the bricks to save the environment because I know the world will be a worse place as a result: the bricks will not feel the same or they will not last as long or they will not fit together in quite the same way. I get warm fuzzy feelings about the company. I do not want them cutting costs or laying off staff or going out of business.

I do not like Lepin. Lepin is a Chinese company who copy Lego sets piece for piece, slightly change the artwork into a bizarre alternate reality version of the original artwork, and sell them for a fraction of the price. It is an inferior product: the bricks do not fit together so well, the plastic is not so durable, there is probably a greater chance of having a set with a missing piece, there are reports of strange residue on the bricks. More importantly, if other consumers do not mind these things as much as I do and do not love genuine original Lego as much as I do, I am more likely to find myself living in a universe where original genuine Lego is not as good as it is now because it is pressured into cost-cutting, just as I find myself living in a universe where Nik Naks don’t contain monosodium glutamate for some unfathomable reason.

Chinese police raided Lepin factories in China, arrested people and seized goods. Now people are saying that Lepin is no more. It is the end of Lepin and Lego is saved. Hurray!

But I am not sure how happy to be about state violence against non-violent people who did no more than copy an idea. I am ambivalent about intellectual property. Lepin did not take anything that Lego had not already given away the moment they published their designs. A lot of activists complain about digital rights management. I see it as an elegant non-violent method to preserve a revenue stream for a product that is by its nature infinitely copy-able. DRM is much better than inducing the state to lock up people who threaten your business model. It does not really work for designs for physical objects but despite my concerns above I am not convinced this is a big enough problem to warrant a large state apparatus just to solve it. Lepin bricks are, after all, only viable because they are cheaper, and only cheaper because they are inferior. As much as I enjoy living in a universe with monosodium glutamate snacks and real Lego, raids and arrests and seizures is not a good price to pay for this.

Another question that arises out of this: why now? Is the Chinese state making a renewed effort to align with the rest of the western world’s ideas about intellectual property, or did the owners of the Lepin factory recently stop paying their dues to the state?

Enemies everywhere

Lovers of liberty are surrounded by enemies. Paul Marks posted a video by tech and social commentary YouTuber Computing Forever explaining possible consequences of yesterday’s votes on articles 11 and 13 of the EU Copyright Directive. I am also fond of the gaming YouTuber ObsidianAnt, who is less certain but still worried.

It is unclear how this directive will be implemented, but it seems awfully unpleasant. Even if this is not the end of the Internet, regulations have ratcheted a little bit more and there is no sign of any future change in direction. At best, life will be made harder for small content creators and innovation will be stifled. YouTube, I suspect, will make a minimum effort to implement tougher content filters which will annoy the big channels and kill off marginal smaller ones. Google will pay the occasional big fine since the system will be impossible to implement perfectly. Some other content sharing platforms will exit the EU or be killed off. All kinds of unseen new things will never come to be. To some extent rules like the link tax will be ignored and not enforced, except against people who are sufficiently unpopular. To some extent people will work around the directive, and in response the EU will try to tighten regulations further.

This is a great example of just how hard it is for grass roots efforts to change the minds of the European Commission. Years of campaigning could not stop the directive. I can not imagine any way the direction of travel can be reversed. The EU is making a really good case for Brexit.

On the other hand, when asked, the British government responded: “We support Articles 11 and 13, which seek to ensure creators and producers are rewarded when their works are used online, but agree they must include safeguards for freedom of expression.” I do see any sign of safeguards. Will the UK government now refuse to implement the directive during the transition period? Boris is against it, at least.

Meanwhile, some more EU plans are afoot to fit cars with speed limiters and black boxes. “The Department for Transport said the system would also apply in the UK, despite Brexit.”

The British government may not be much better for liberty than the EU and in some cases may be worse, but I can at least imagine how it might be possible to change it. I think we need to get out of the EU so we can concentrate on opposing opponents of liberty in Westminster. Perhaps in a few weeks we will have some idea how close a prospect that is.

Free market meat

Vegans have a point: the great thing about civilisation is we can overcome basic natural urges to improve the world. Animals do not want to be eaten; humans have the ability to reduce animal suffering; not eating them is a good thing to do.

On the other hand, bacon tastes good. If I honestly answer the question of why I am not a vegan, the answer comes out something like this: I care about eating bacon more than I care about the welfare of pigs.

There is a spectrum, though. A well-cared-for pig can live happily on a pleasant farm for years, oblivious to its impending doom. I imagine it is possible to sneak up behind it one day and kill it painlessly. Probably such methods of bacon production are more expensive than intensive factory farming of pigs, but if I have enough spare disposeable income I will pay that price to alleviate a little bit of bacon guilt. It is quite likely the bacon will taste nicer too.

This sets the scene for this question:

So you’d be happy for us to have low animal welfare and environmental standards in the name of consumer choice?

Or this question:

How would you maintain environmental and animal welfare standards in your model? Would it be entirely a matter of consumer choice?

These questions are asked in the context of a discussion about free trade. If we just allow people to buy food from wherever they want, the argument goes, then they will buy meat from places where animals are poorly treated because it is cheaper.

One possible answer to that is: so what? People ought to be able to choose how much they care about things like animal welfare. Honestly, I agree with this. I do not think the non-aggression principle applies to animals. I do not think it is right to harm a human solely to protect an animal. Whatever the role of the state is, it is not to intervene in individual choices about animal farming.

That is not to say that treating animals nicely is not desirable. I happen to think there is a good chance that as people get wealthier, they start to be able to afford to care about such things as animal welfare, and they do. This is why there is a market for free range animal products, and in the UK meat branded “Organic” is purchased partly because the Soil Association, who license that brand, mandate strict animal welfare standards. This is exactly how it should work. Somebody cares about animal welfare, somebody puts their money where their mouth is and markets products which promise better animal welfare, people voluntarily buy these products.

Banning imports of food from certain countries because they have lower animal welfare standards is harming people solely to protect animals. It is insisting on threatening people with violence for treating their farm animals in a certain way. And it is threatening people with violence for voluntarily trading in animal products from certain sources. It takes choice away from people. It is regressive: by removing cheaper products from the market, poorer people have to eat less meat. It might be argued that eating less meat is better for them, or that the trade-off is worthwhile because it is perfectly possible to cheaply obtain enough protein from other sources, but this is paternalistic nannying. If these things are true then it ought to be possible to persuade people to change their ways. Resorting to the violence of trade regulations is admitting that you can not persuade people to make these decisions voluntarily. Complaining that people make the wrong voluntary decisions is condescending.

However, I have a problem. My Big Idea (such as it is) is that the left tends to win arguments because it successfully appeals to people’s sense of virtue, and we ought to get in on that action. Helping people who are suffering is virtuous. Reducing animal suffering is virtuous. Our job is to demonstrate that freedom achieves these things better than the ideas of the left do.

A Guardian article by Chris McGreal is an example of the left being really good at this.

In these industrial farming units, pigs, cows and chickens are crammed by the thousand into rows of barns. Many units are semi-automated, with feeding run by computer and the animals watched by video, with periodic visits by workers who drive between several operations.

The article paints a picture of rural America reduced to a few people farming grain to feed animals in factories in the worst possible conditions. All this is done in the name of profit because nobody cares about animals suffering; they only care about getting dinner on the table as cheaply as possible.

This might actually be true. If so we have a paradox: being kind to animals is virtuous; people want to be virtuous; but everybody is choosing voluntarily to buy meat from producers who are cruel to animals. Perhaps they are misinformed, in which case opponents of this type of animal production need only to inform them; there is no need to use violence against people who buy meat from the USA.

Or perhaps all this talk of virtue is mere signalling. Perhaps nobody really does care about animal welfare. If true, then persuasion will not work. People who care about animal suffering have no choice but to resort to violence. This is the problem with the state, of course. You use clever semantics to hide the nature of the violence: you call it regulation; you say it is legitimised by democracy. At the ballot box you trick people into thinking that other people will pay the cost of the decision. Someone voluntarily buying Organic bacon pays the price and they see that they are paying the price. If you convince people to vote for the politician who will instruct the police to arrest the person who buys bacon from the USA, you remove from the marketplace the cheap bacon and nobody sees.

What path, then, is left for us to convince people that freedom minimises suffering, even of animals?

It might just be true that state meddling does not work to minimise animal suffering at all. If so, we should make sure of it and tell people.

In Everything I Want To Do is Illegal, Joel Salatin writes,

I want to dress my beef and pork on the farm where I’ve coddled and raised it. But zoning laws prohibit slaughterhouses on agricultural land. For crying out loud, what makes more holistic sense than to put abattoirs where the animals are? But no, in the wisdom of western disconnected thinking, abattoirs are massive centralized facilities visited daily by a steady stream of tractor trailers and illegal alien workers.

But what about dressing a couple of animals a year in the backyard? Why is that a Con-Agra or Tyson facility? In the eyes of the government, the two are one and the same. Every T-bone steak has to be wrapped in a half-million dollar facility so that it can be sold to your neighbor. The fact that I can do it on my own farm more cleanly, more responsibly, more humanely, more efficiently, and more environmentally doesn’t matter to the government agents who walk around with big badges on their jackets and wheelbarrow-sized regulations tucked under their arms.

Okay, so I take my animals and load them onto a trailer for the first time in their life to send them up the already clogged interstate to the abattoir to await their appointed hour with a shed full of animals of dubious extraction. They are dressed by people wearing long coats with deep pockets with whom I cannot even communicate. The carcasses hang in a cooler alongside others that were not similarly cared for in life. After the animals are processed, I return to the facility hoping to retrieve my meat.

And when I return home to sell these delectable packages, the county zoning ordinance says this is a manufactured product because it exited the farm and was re-imported as a value-added product, thereby throwing our farm into the Wal-mart category, another prohibition in agricultural areas. Just so you understand this, remember that an abattoir was illegal, so I took the animals to a legal abattoir, but now the selling of said products in an on-farm store is illegal.

The picture here is one of the state actively stifling innovative attempts to make a profit at selling well-cared-for animals. It may well be that without all this regulation, being cruel to animals may not be the most profitable way to produce them. Or at the very least that marginally more people would buy meat from well-cared-for animals because it would be marginally cheaper.

The other case to make is that economic growth solves all problems. Enough economic growth gets you tasty lab-grown meat at a fraction of the price of tortured-animal meat. Anything that impedes economic growth by a fraction of a per-cent per year directly causes the suffering of millions of additional future animals, not to mention people. If we can market that argument in an appealing way and counter the more-to-life-than-profit rhetoric of the left, we will be onto a winner.

Persuading people that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is wrong

Sure enough, it cropped up in my Facebook feed: “As usual, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is right: There should be no billionaires.” What does she say?

A system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health is wrong.

I came here to write about it, but Jonathan got here first. And he is right that classical liberal ideas are not popular. But I am optimistic that this can be changed.

I explained on Facebook that I thought Ocasio-Cortez is wrong for two reasons: Wealth is created. There’s not a fixed quantity of it. So billionaires don’t take anything away from anyone. Even just stating it like that is worth doing. Because deep down, people know it is true. They know that people do useful things or make useful things when they do work. Once you get past semantic misunderstandings about what “wealth” is, it is self-evident.

Even my second reason did not meet much objection: that the “system” that allows billionaires to exist is also the best there is. There is no other way of distributing resources without removing incentives from people. If people cannot keep the fruits of their labour, you get less labour in the world, and people on the whole will be poorer. It is not a hard point to understand. The example with the butcher and the baker works. There are plenty of examples of places with different “systems” and even more poor people.

I encountered the argument that no-one needs all that money and that billionaires are greedy. This is an opportunity to discuss how billionaires become so rich. The popular image of Scrooge McDuck and his pile of gold does not bear much scrutiny. Typically, billionaires are rich because they are useful in small ways to vast numbers of people. Businesses like Amazon, Paypal and Windows are very scalable. Bezos, Musk and Gates do not wake up thinking, “5 billion is not enough, where can I get my next billion?” They simply keep doing what they do because they enjoy it and they know how to do it.

Another objection I encountered is that nobody needs all that money. I think people have an image of a pile of gold being kept from poor people but it is not hard to pierce that misconception. There is only so much stuff a person can have. Billionaires do not have much more stuff than an ordinary, moderately rich person. Once you have a nice house, a boat, and a fancy car (which in any case has no more utility than a cheap family car), there is not so much more a person can have. What happens to the rest of the money? It is spent paying people to do things that are ultimately useful to other people. It is invested. Billionaires tend to be quite philanthropic, and they tend to have their own pet projects related to making the world a better place. Because there is very little else to do with so many resources. It is not hard to turn it into a discussion about whether Gates, Musk and Bezos are more likely to know how to improve the world than, say, the US Federal government. And it is hard to have an especially strong opinion that the US government knows best how to improve the lives of poor people. There is at least room for doubt.

And so ordinary voters, even ones who have suffered good educations, can be persuaded that billionaires are not a problem, and perhaps also that capitalism is not a problem, and perhaps also that redistribution of wealth is not the best way to improve the world. We need to develop the marketing techniques to do this, and then sell these marketing techniques to politicians. The left have claimed a monopoly on virtue for too long. It should not be so hard for classical liberals to dispense with the greedy banker image and market themselves as the ones who care about the poor and downtrodden enough to have solutions that work.

Things politicians should say more often

Similarly to the sentiment expressed by Cowperthwaite, the outgoing Governor of California Jerry Brown has said:

You know what a governor is on an engine? The governor prevents the engine from getting out of control. Well, that is what the governor has to do in state government.

He also said:

The Democratic constituencies want more money and more laws. I take a different view. We have too many damn laws. The coercive power of the state should be invoked sparingly.

I do not know very much about Governor Brown’s policies or actions. He improved California’s finances and turned a large deficit into a large surplus. He had a habit of vetoing bills, and complained in the NYT article that “almost all of the bills that I have vetoed have been reintroduced”, but I do not know if a veto rate of 16% is high enough. In any case these are the sorts of thing I want to hear more of.

In the USA the role of the state seems to be discussed more widely than it is here in the UK, where mostly the criticism of the government is that it should “do more”. In British politics the recent counter-example of Jacob Rees-Mogg springs to mind:

I don’t think it is the job of the government to tell me how much sugar to eat.

I would welcome more examples. From anywhere.

The First Man and the unfashionableness of optimism

A week or so ago I went to see The First Man at the cinema. At first it seemed to do a good job of turning historical figures into real people. The domestic lives of the astronauts contrasted with the bravery of their test flights. There were lots of scenes of worried housewives which seemed believable enough. Armstrong is portrayed as a serious engineer with good attention to detail. He makes some mistakes which his bosses put down to being distracted by his daughter’s ill health. After she dies, Armstrong is understandably never truly happy. He does not express his emotions, and tells one friend who tries to talk to him, “if I wanted to talk to someone, do you think I would be standing out here [away from everyone]?” I like that line: I have felt like that at times.

When the Gemini 8 flight has problems, his wife hears about it and she goes to complain that her audio feed has been switched off to protect her from hearing about what is going on. Don’t worry, she is told, we have everything under control. No you don’t, she retorts, “you’re a bunch of boys playing with balsa wood models.” There is a certain truth to that line which I enjoyed: it is hard to have complete understanding of a complex enough system, and there is a certain playfulness to engineering.

There is a montage about protestors complaining about the cost of the Apollo program and listing better ways of spending tax dollars such as by helping poor people. We see Gil Scott-Heron on stage reading his poem Whitey On The Moon. It made sense to portray these things in the movie.

A lot of Armstrong’s colleagues are killed. The Apollo 1 cockpit testing scene is hard to watch if you know what is coming. A lot of the movie is spent with Armstrong taking the deaths hard. There are a lot of funeral scenes. There is a scene where Armstrong’s wife makes him explain to his kids that he might not survive Apollo 13.

They fly to the moon. I have a big criticism of the cinematography: I am sure spacecraft do not vibrate that much. There must be other ways to portray speed and acceleration. They fly home. Once home, Armstrong’s wife visits him in quarantine. He seems sullen. She seems sullen. The End.

And then it hit me: no-one is happy about going to the moon. There is no pride, no sense of achievement, no celebration of the accomplishment whatever. All we learn is that we are doing it to beat the Soviets, it costs a lot of money, there is a huge human cost, people worry and suffer, relationships are strained. This is a joyless movie. It portrays no up-side. The closest we get to any kind of positive commentary on the Apollo project is when Armstrong first applies for the job. The superiors ask why he wants to go to the moon and he answers with a speech about mankind’s need to explore. The superiors seem skeptical, but pleased: the message is that this guy can be trusted to say the right things. Being happy about going to the moon is for the stupid masses.

On my bookshelf I have a couple of anthologies of the Eagle comic from the 50s and 60s.

Phosphates for The World

They feature cutaway drawings explaining wonders of technology, present and future, all of it wonderfully unapologetic. We are doing awesome things and we will do even more awesome things soon, kids are told. Today’s teenagers are bombarded with worry and pessimism. BBC Focus magazine is a science magazine that seems to be aimed at young audience and it features an article about climate change and how having children is bad. The Week Junior seems to be full of articles about endangered animals and banning plastic. If I did not know that most of the terrible problems are not terrible problems and that the world is in general getting better, I might be a bit despondent about all that. If I was an impressionable youth I might rebel against it; I hope they do.

A letter from Marcel Bich

In 1973 Marcel Bich wrote a letter to shareholders when Société Bic was made a public company.

These principles of management have been developed over the past 20 years since I founded the company and then managed it. They were not shaped by a formal education in a French or American business school but are the result of the tough school of business which I entered at the age of 18 by the smallest door. Nobody will deny me the title of “money maker” as our company started in 1953 with an initial investment of 10,000 new Francs and today, it has grown to 150 million francs par-value share capital, all through internally generated funds, representing on average of almost doubling each year over the last 20 years.

Bic lowered the price of pens from something normal people could not afford to the point where they were disposable and cheap.

Bich didn’t just profit from the ballpoint; he won the race to make it cheap. When it first hit the market in 1946, a ballpoint pen sold for around $10, roughly equivalent to $100 today. Competition brought that price steadily down, but Bich’s design drove it into the ground. When the Bic Cristal hit American markets in 1959, the price was down to 19 cents a pen. Today the Cristal sells for about the same amount, despite inflation.

Of course, there are those who do not like this. But never mind that: back to the letter, Bich sounds like an excellent chap:

We are fiercely anti-technocratic. The way to keep the price of beef down is not by government price regulation, but by producing beef efficiently.

Technocracy is a widespread disease today. Starting at the top with the ENA (Ecole Nationale d’Administration ), it reaches all levels. It is particularly attractive to French people, Cartesian by nature. It results in a large number of administrators and organizers, but when it comes to rolling up your sleeves and doing the actual work there is nobody. Technocracy results in high production costs and, much more critical, low morale among employees who become discouraged and bored with their jobs in which they cannot take any initiative. By placing confidence in workers, employees and executives, everything becomes simpler. Contrary to popular belief, private enterprises have a greater chance of success today than they ever did. As proof, just look at the increasingly serious difficulties in which large state -owned companies find themselves.

It is an excellent letter.

Cosplayers and gamers

Some Guido commenters were wondering why socialists in the UK are so far removed from “working class” people. One pointed out that the left is mainly “wealthy people cosplaying socialism”. Another replied: “The Marxists gave up on the working class when they realized they were too comfortable under capitalism to lead the revolution.”

I wondered if the idea of cosplaying socialists was new, and Google instead led me to an article about what computer games might be like under socialism, written by a socialist. It contains this somewhat honest rephrasing of the mantra that real socialism has not yet been tried:

the lack of images of a socialist future is a huge challenge to the Left because it leaves us only with the failed examples of “actually existing socialism” from the 20th century.

And the naive idea that problems can be solved by people Just Getting Along and Working Together:

the institution of horizontal structures and regular assemblies on the workplace would create a culture of cooperation and participation

I wonder why, if workplace democracy produces a better product, there are not successful companies that practice it. Perhaps the idea is that capitalists want more profits, not better products, and the two are unrelated. In any case it does all sound rather wonderful: this vision of workers under no pressure to perform yet performing to their full ability, all sharing resources and maintaining creative control, funded by government art funding when there is work to be done and supported by universal basic income and Flexicurity schemes when there is not.

Except that there will always be work to do because cyclical layoffs are “due to poor planning or to the inconsistency of game development cycles”, and in Socialist Game Development we will have instead “a low level of competition between companies and a high level of coordination between projects”.

The article goes on to explain how by “letting citizens democratically decide what to produce, how to produce it, and what to do with the surplus” we can avoid planned obsolescence while still enjoying “fast developments in the field of artificial intelligence and robotics” which will give us more time to play games in the first place. We can all stay at home and claim our UBI while contributing unpaid labour in the form of “user generated content and modding”. And if the bosses refuse to pay the UBI, “it’s the socialists’ duty to constantly remind them of the possibility of their heads ending up on a spike”. See? Socialism not only works, it is also nice.

It does all sound a bit risky, though, what with those failed examples, and I am comfortable. I think we should stick with letting people discover greater efficiency in the search for increased profit, and then we can all enjoy creating new games in our spare time when capitalism makes everything cheap enough.