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Brian (Micklethwait) and I chat about how lucky we are to NOT live in the Middle Ages

Brian and I recorded a couple of conversations which remained unpublished at the time of this death. This is the first.

Any comments – which would be gratefully received – are probably best left here on Samizdata.

Interesting and significant (probably) to see Brian’s influence all over the preceding post. My apologies to anyone reading this who didn’t know him and feels left out.

A sad walk around Berlin

Our late colleague and friend Brian Micklethwait was very good at making people think. In particular he was very good at making me think, and even at times making me write. Often he would say something interesting that would make me write something as a response that I would never think to write for any other reason, and this blog, his own blog and its predecessors are full of articles and comments that were responses to things he started me thinking about. He had a tendency to repost my comments as articles when he found them particularly interesting, and many of our conversations took place in the articles and comment sections of various blogs. He loved posting photos of quirky things, fascinating objects, major pieces of architecture and engineering and interesting maps of places around the world that looked like they might be interesting.

Brian was not a great traveller. He was very pro-American, but he never visited the United States. He had done some travel earlier in life – including some behind the Iron Curtain before it fell, which I wish I had been able to do – but in the final two decades of his life when I knew him, he only ever really left London for regular summer trips to visit some friends in France. He clearly enjoyed this immensely, but travel was too much of a hassle for him unless there was warm hospitality as well as good company at the end of it.

He did, however, inspire me to travel. I saw photos of interesting things on his blog, and I researched them and wanted to go there, and I often did. He found this amusing, but he also liked to talk about what I had seen and photographed with me, so this continued the thoughts and conversations. (I still haven’t been on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, alas, although I have been on the similar but not quite as spectacular Matheran Hill Railway south of Mumbai).

In any event, in March this year Brian posted a pictographic map of Berlin in 1440 that he knew nothing of the origins of Berlin, but that he found the map interesting, showing a town or small city on two islands in the river Spree with a third island on the left that was at not that point significantly populated. As it happened, I knew relatively little about the origins of Berlin either, but I was instantly curious. I have been to Berlin many times, but I couldn’t have told you where the original town was. (Actually Berlin was technically two towns at the time – Berlin on one island and Cölln on the other). So I researched it, and discovered that although Berlin had some medieval city walls, these had not protected the city well in the Thirty Years War. The relatively unfortified city had subsequently been fortified into a star fort between 1650 and 1683, at which time the two outer streams of the river surrounding the three islands had been turned into a moat and the inner banks replaced with high walls. These walls then subsided into the swamps on which Berlin was built and were torn down starting in 1734, after which the two outer streams of the river were filled in, leaving only one island. The route of the north-easterly wall/stream was eventually used as the route for the Stadtbahn – Berlin’s main east-west railway. The south-easterly route, well, it was filled in and replaced with a layout of streets. Where it was is not obvious on a map or in a photograph.

I also found some modern maps and photographs of Berlin, and sent them to Brian. The inner island, the Spreeinsel, is recognisably the same between the oldest map and the newest photo, and does still have some remnants of being the important centre, including Berlin’s protestant cathedral, but the northern half northern half of it became the site of Berlin’s greatest museums, many of which have been reconstructed in recent times and restored to something even beyond their pre-WWII glory. In the comments, further conversation ensued. More people got involved in the conversation.

Inevitably in all this, I booked a trip to Berlin to wander around and look at the city from this new (or old) perspective. This was originally booked for April 2021. This was optimistic on my part given the circumstances, but I have actually done a lot of optimistic booking of travel over the last 18 months, the vast bulk of which has subsequently been rebooked, postponed and/or cancelled. (Lots of things have been ludicrously cheap to book due to travel companies promising anything in return for being given even small amounts of money, and have then been deferred to the indefinite future. Hopefully these companies will not now go bankrupt when they are forced to catch up with their liabilities). In any event, this trip was postponed to this month.

And, well, on Friday October 15 I got on a plane having received the awful news earlier in the day that Brian had died that morning.

Trying to find old things in Berlin is a struggle. There was a fairly small town there in 1400, but since then it has been drained, expanded, made a provincial capital, rebuilt, fortified, invaded once or twice, expanded again, demolished, rebuilt again, expanded some more, fortified, rebuilt again and turned into an imperial capital, torn down, blown up, bombed to rubble, blown up some more, turned into a communist capital, demolished again, neglected, expanded some more and rebuilt again and made into a national capital, just giving he highlights. In most cities, the geographical and historical bones stick through. In Berlin, much less so. The watercourses to some extent, but that is all.

I attempted to look for remnants of the old city walls. In most cities it would be helpful to type “[City Name] wall remnants” into Google, but “Berlin Wall Remnants” gets something else. To make things even more complicated there was another wall, the Customs Wall, that was built around 1737 for tax collection purposes (boo). Most Berlin place names refereeing to gates (most notably the Brandenburg Gate) refer to this wall. So, I actually found myself looking at the original maps of Berlin in 1440 (and the later map of the star fortress in around 1683), looking carefully for the rights bends and branches and former branches of the river. I started well, finding a piece of (obviously restored) medieval city wall in Littenstrasse>. But that was it for finding further pieces of wall. I followed the approximate line of Littenstrasse through Alexanderplatz, just to the south of the Stadtbahn along the top of what had been Alt-Berlin.

The street plan had been changed by the centuries and the Prussians and the fascists and the communists, and I found nothing more medieval. I crossed the Spree at Bodestrasse, between the Neues Museum (now again containing the bust of Nefertiti, as it did before 1939) and the Berliner Dom, the now restored protestant cathedral that had still been in post-WWII ruins when I first visited Berlin in 1992. I then doubled back to the top of the island before walking past the Humboldt University of Berlin, through Bebelplatz (site of the Nazis infamous book burnings), past the Roman Catholic St. Hedwig’s Cathedral (at present closed for the East German post-war modernist restoration to be removed and replaced with something more tasteful and less full of asbestos) and Oberwallstrasse, Niederwallstrasse, and Wallstrasssse, the latter three streets following the route (with a little straightening) of the wall of the star fortress, at least some of the bends in the shape of that wall being apparent. And back where I started, but on the other side of the river, having circumnavigated the old cities of Berlin and Cölln.

But there was one more thing to see. When we were looking at old and new pictures of Berlin, Brian’s cousin (I think) David Micklethwait commented that the only building that could be seen in the first, last, and intermediate pictures of Berlin was the Berliner Schloss (Berlin Palace), originally the Churfurstl Schloss (Elector’s Palace), home of the heads of House of Hohenzollern during their long journey from Margraves of Brandenburg to being Emperors of Germany before Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate in 1918.

Except, I did some further research and it is stranger than that. Rather than being the oldest building in the later photo of Berlin, the Berliner Schloss is actually one of the very youngest – the current building was completed in 2020. The original building was badly but not irreparably damaged in World War 2. The East Germans at times used it as a backdrop for a War movie (including firing live ammunition at it), partly repaired it and used it as office space, denounced it as a symbol of Prussian militarism, and finally demolished it in 1950, partly for ideological reasons but mainly because they were arseholes. The Palace of the Republic – the East German parliament – was then built on the site. After German reunification in 1990, the new German government demolished this building, partly for ideological reasons and partly because it was full of asbestos.

After much discussion, the Palace was rebuilt as the Humboldt Forum, a museum featuring a reconstruction of the Berliner Schloss on the exterior but with an entirely modern interior. (The result was then denounced by the New York Times as an attempt to hide the history of Prussian militarism). Brian found this amusing, as it fitted in with another of his ideas – the triumph of modernism on the insides of buildings but not so much on the outside. His recent thoughts on this subject came in the context of hospitals, alas.

So, I finished my walk around old Berlin with a visit to the Berliner Schloss / Humboldt Forum. And, well, it’s weirder than that.

If you are going to reconstruct old buildings after a war, there are a few things you can do. You can take what is left, and use modern techniques and designs to rebuilt the rest, leaving you with a building that is half and half new and old. (Lots of buildings in Britain and for that matter in West Germany that were quickly rebuilt after WWII are like this). You can reconstruct the new parts in hopefully a sympathetic and complementary style, but also in such a way that the new bits are obviously new rather than old. (Much of the recent restorations of central Gdansk are like this, and I like them a lot). You can attempt to restore the damaged part of the building to the same design as before. The aforementioned Berliner Dom is an example of this. Or you can demolish the ruins and start again, either in the same style or differently. Rebuilding exactly what was there before (as was done in the centre of Warsaw) perhaps works if you do it right away (as the Poles did) but the longer you leave it, the more the result looks like trite and artificial, at least at first. (For an example, look at the Dresden Frauenkirche. It’s a brand new Baroque building with no wear built to modern health and safety standards)

And well, the architects who rebuilt the Berliner Schloss decided to make the fact that it is a reconstruction obvious, by building the front wall (including the main entrance) and two side walls as perfect reconstructions of the original down to every detail, but the back wall in a rather severe modernist style. Similarly, the main courtyard has three interior walls in the Prussian Baroque style of the original building and one in modernist wall. If you look at the building from the front or the sides, it looks like an (admittedly brand new) Prussian Baroque palace. From the back, it looks like a modernist building. From other angles, it looks mostly like an old building, but not quite.

Does it work? I’m not sure. It would have no chance of working anywhere other than in the strange city of Berlin, which is a mix of old and new and original and reconstructed and broken and repaired and has been a showcase of every German regime for the last 500 years – for good or for bad.

A month ago, and a year ago, and ten years ago, and twenty years ago, I would have talked about all this with Brian when I got back. I might have e-mailed him photos when I was still there. There would have been more sharing of photos and conversing and commenting on blogs. He might well have called me an idiot if I said something I disagreed with. I have no idea whether he would have liked or disliked the rebuilt Schloss Berlin, but he would have had something interesting to say about it. He loved talking about what buildings looked like in the context of the surrounds of the cities they were in, and found that too much architectural commentary didn’t focus on this and instead talked about buildings in isolation. I agreed with him on this point, which is one reason why I go places to see stuff.

Anyway, the point is that I miss Brian. Fuck cancer.

Samizdata quote of the day

The Prime Minister’s rhetoric was bombastic but vacuous and economically illiterate. This was an agenda for levelling down to a centrally-planned, high-tax, low-productivity economy.

– Adam Smith Institute review of the Prime Minister’s speech at the Tory conference.

Berlin dreams big

“Berlin’s vote to take properties from big landlords could be a watershed moment”, writes Alexander Vasudevan in the Guardian.

Judging by the history of such schemes it could be. But not in the way he thinks.

The vote in Berlin is not legally binding, but it does show the popularity of such a measure (the popular appeal of taking their stuff and giving it to us is eternal), and as the Guardian says it will “serve as a template and inspiration for activists in Europe and elsewhere”.

Professor Vasudevan (he is an associate professor in human geography at Oxford) continues,

Smaller landlords and state-owned social housing have been aggressively targeted by large institutional players for whom housing has become a vehicle for the management of global capital funds.

I have little doubt that the large scale institutional landlords such as the property company Deutsche Wohnen that the initiative targets have transformed the Berlin housing market, and not for the better. But it is worth asking why it paid them to to go on a speculative property buying spree in the last few years when it did not pay them to do this earlier? I would guess it is because they have taken advantage of artificially low interest rates created by government.

What about compensation? For obvious historical reasons, German law frowns on confiscation without compensation. The article says,

Efforts to enact the socialisation process will undoubtedly face legal challenges, not to mention the problem of compensation of the property corporations. Campaigners are adamant that their model would balance a commitment to fair compensation with “budget-neutral” socialisation.

When fair compensation is “balanced” with something else, it means unfair compensation.

When the normal operation of law is suspended we are always told that it will apply only to people or groups that few would leap to defend. It never stops there.

Steal Labour’s clothes, look like Labour

Britain’s electricity supply is in peril. On Monday (20 Sep) the Financial Times reported,

Peter McGirr wanted to modernise the British consumer energy market when he founded Green three years ago, building a customer base of more than 250,000 households. Now, with the sector in meltdown, he says it is “incredibly unlikely” the Newcastle-based supplier will survive until Christmas without government intervention.

Five smaller suppliers have collapsed in the past six weeks, with four or five more expected to join them in the next 10 days as the industry is battered by unprecedented surges in wholesale electricity and gas prices.

Observers are predicting as few as 10 suppliers will make it through the winter, implying 40 could go bust. Some executives have privately suggested the sector could go back to a big four, five or six companies.

How did this happen to us? I know who to blame for setting the UK on this disastrous course. On Tuesday 24 September 2013, eight years ago tomorrow, the then Leader of the Labour party, Ed Miliband, gave his big speech to the Labour party conference in Brighton. One item was particularly popular:

“If we win the election 2015 the next Labour government will freeze gas and electricity prices until the start of 2017. Your bills will not rise. It will benefit millions of families and millions of businesses. That’s what I mean by a government that fights for you. That’s what I mean when I say Britain can do better than this.”

The response from the Tories was immediate and scathing:

As the Guardian reported,

Energy minister Greg Barker attacks Labour’s plan to cap energy prices

In response to Ed Miliband’s announcement, the energy minister says capping energy prices would have catastrophic consequences for investment in the UK

Figures from the gas industry chipped in:

The lights could go out if Labour introduces its 20-month freeze on energy prices, Ian Peters of British Gas said. “If we have no ability to control what we do in the retail prices” and wholesale prices suddenly go up within a single year “that will threaten energy security,” he said. Asked if that meant the lights would go out, he replied: “I think that is a risk.”

But Mr Miliband’s policy had equally vigorous defenders. On 25 September 2013, the day after Mr Miliband’s speech, Alex Andreou of the New Statesman thundered:

Ed Miliband’s critics think his energy pledge will make the lights go out. They are wrong

The critics were wrong. Ed Miliband is innocent OK! It was not his pledge that a Labour government would limit energy prices that has brought us so near to having the lights go out.

The Conservative manifesto of 2017 included energy price controls, duly introduced by Prime Minister Theresa May on 1st January 2019.

And here we are.

Ctrl-F “frack” 0/0

The government has published this UK gas supply explainer.

There has recently been widespread media coverage of wholesale gas prices, and the effect this could have on household energy bills. The impact on certain areas of industry, and its ability to continue production, has also attracted attention.

This explainer sets out the background to the issue and the action the government is taking to protect the UK’s energy supply, industry, and consumers.

Natural gas prices have been steadily rising across the globe this year for a number of reasons. This has affected Europe, including the UK, as well as other countries around the world.

Later, the author of the “explainer” reassures us consumers that energy prices may not go up as much as one might expect:

The high wholesale gas prices that are currently visible may not be the actual prices being paid by all consumers.

This is because major energy suppliers purchase much of their wholesale supplies many months in advance, giving protection to them and their customers from short-term price spikes.

The Energy Price Cap is also in place to protect millions of customers from the sudden increases in global gas prices this winter. Despite the rising costs of wholesale energy, the cap still saves 15 million households up to £100 a year.

Isn’t it nice that the government protects consumers by stopping energy firms passing on price rises?

Completely unrelated: Four more small energy firms could go bust next week, the BBC reports.

Some of you may remember that the Bishop Hill blog used to cover climate and energy issues in a moderate and well-informed way. Unless I missed the announcement of a move, that blog does not seem to have been active since 2019. However I recently found that the Bishop is on Twitter, one of the few reasons left to visit that horrible place.

An axe age, a sword age, an age when the Beeb admits rent control doesn’t work

“Why rent control isn’t working in Sweden.”

Surely Ragnarok is upon us.

Samizdata quote of the day

“President Biden’s tax plans might soon make Europe look like a capitalist heaven by comparison. He wants to raise the long-term capital-gains tax from just below 24% to above 43%. Switzerland has no such tax. In Britain, inventor of the welfare state, it is 20% and in Germany 26%. On income tax, the U.S. may soon top the scale. Mr. Biden wants a top marginal income-tax rate of just below 40%. Add state and local income taxes, like California’s 13.3% for top earners, and wealthy U.S. taxpayers could pay more than their European counterparts.”

Josef Joffe, Wall Street Journal ($)

I have been covering this news story about the tax proposals in my regular day job in the banking and wealth management/media sector. Joe Biden, who has been having such a shit-show lately over Afghanistan, is equally terrible over tax and the economy, and also a bit two-faced. This is a man who, let it not be forgotten, was a senator for Delaware for many years. Delaware is a bit like a mini-“Switzerland”, one of those states that is favoured by corporations and creators of trusts (South Dakota, New Hampshire, Nevada and Alaska are similar).

The US is going to have to familiarise itself with the “Laffer Curve” all over again.

This is what so many libertarians cannot understand…

So many libertarians, such as the good fellows at Reason magazine for example (who I do like, I hasten to add), have a simplistic, dare I say dualistic notion about bad-things-done-by-private-business and bad-things-done-by-the-state. One is met with “so start up a rival company” the other with “an outrageous example of state overreach that must be opposed politically.”

And in an ideal world, yes, that makes sense. We do not live in anything resembling an ideal world.

In an era when three (two really) credit card companies and a handful of payment processors have an off-switch for pretty much any on-line business they take a dislike to (unless they are called Apple or Amazon), as more and more of the economy goes virtual, what we have is turn-key tyranny for sale to the highest bidder, and the highest bidder is always going to be a state. I am uncertain what the solution is, but as we do not live in a ‘free market’, not convinced “so go set up your own global credit card and payment processing network” adds anything meaningful to the discussion. It is a bit like saying when the local electric provider turns off the power in your office (or home) because they disapprove of what you are doing “so go set up your own electric supply company”, as if that would be allowed to happen.

Fascism is the organised attempt to introduce socialist planning with the consent of big business

– Edward Conze (1934)

Stephen Davies on Brexit and political realignment

Writing books about “current affairs” is tricky. If you write your book while whatever you are writing about is not yet over, you are liable to be wrong-footed by later events, especially if you thought it was over.

But if you wait until you are sure that whatever it is has finally finished, your book is liable to be lost in a throng of rival books on the same subject, written by people all of whom, like you, know that it’s now or never, and at a time when whatever happened is now pretty much obvious to all. But what if you are spot-on about what is happening while it is still happening, but you wait until the dust settles? Then you miss your chance to have been “prophetic”. “That’s what I said!” works far better if you actually did say it, loud and clear, before it all became obvious.

Stephen Davies latest book, entitled The Economics and Politics of Brexit: The Realignment of British Public Life, is a rather cunning answer to this dilemma.

Davies has written a book about a process which still has a way to go, but also about one of the consequences of this process which is already very clear. The larger process is the political realignment which Britain is now still in the thick of. But one of the many consequences of this realignment has now been pretty much settled.

→ Continue reading: Stephen Davies on Brexit and political realignment

Samizdata quote of the day

“When something is free, only the well-connected get much of it.”

George Gilder, The Scandal of Money.

Hey, Scottish council workers, how about we use your pension to build social housing?

To its credit the Times publishes several columnists who go against the opinions of its readers. Sometimes, however, I suspect that the Times ignobly picks writers who are not the best ambassadors for their causes. The readership of the paper’s Scotland section is devoutly Unionist. Every week Fiona Rintoul reminds them why. In an article called “Scotland can prosper once we take the wheel”, she writes:

Fresh ideas have also come from Jim Osborne, of the Scottish Banking and Finance Group. He has proposed reforming the pension system to benefit pensioners and the wider community. Scotland’s council pension funds, which control £45.5 billion of assets, could, he feels, help to support the expansion of Scotland’s social housing stock. This chimes with global developments in pension funds’ asset allocation. With bond yields at historic lows, pension funds are turning to infrastructure investments for yield.

Osborne has also suggested that Scottish local authorities be allowed to issue municipal bonds to power spending. Again, this chimes with global developments as bond markets diversify. Scottish local authority “munis” could form suitable investments for pension funds too.