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]

Samizdata quote of the day

“It is one thing to compete with China. I firmly believe we need to do that in every domain, from artificial intelligence to Covid vaccines. But the minute we start copying China, we are on the path to perdition.”

Niall Ferguson, in the Spectator. He also writes about Prof. Neil Ferguson, the character whose modelling of pandemics has had such a baleful impact on our existence.

And the lesson for today is…

…from the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 20, Verses 12-19:

12 At that time Marduk-Baladan son of Baladan king of Babylon sent Hezekiah letters and a gift, because he had heard of Hezekiah’s illness. 

13 Hezekiah received the envoys and showed them all that was in his storehouses – the silver, the gold, the spices and the fine oil – his armoury and everything found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them.

14 Then Isaiah the prophet went to King Hezekiah and asked, ‘What did those men say, and where did they come from?’

‘From a distant land,’ Hezekiah replied. ‘They came from Babylon.’

15 The prophet asked, ‘What did they see in your palace?’

‘They saw everything in my palace,’ Hezekiah said. ‘There is nothing among my treasures that I did not show them.’

16 Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, ‘Hear the word of the Lord: 

17 the time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord. 

18 And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’

19 ‘The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,’ Hezekiah replied. For he thought, ‘Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?’

While I would not go so far as to claim this post was divinely inspired, 2 Kings 20: 12-19 actually was the lesson in a church service broadcast on Radio 3 on Wednesday morning. I caught a little of it while in the car heading down to Bisley to perform an activity that once would have been proudly described as contributing to national security. (Do not try this line now.)

Anyway, for some reason over the next few days I found myself paying a little more attention to news stories like this one from today’s South China Morning Post,

“US blacklists about 60 more Chinese firms including top chip maker SMIC and drone manufacturer DJI”,

…or to this one from the BBC two days ago, “Huawei: Uighur surveillance fears lead PR exec to quit”,

Or to any of a thousand others. But what is the lesson for today? What should we do about the threat from the People’s Republic of China? “War is the health of the state”, wrote Randolph Bourne, and cold war is its daily vitamin pill. It was not so long ago that people like me were enthusiasts for China’s turn to capitalism. I still am, mostly. Now that their rulers have cast off all but the fig leaf of communism, a significant fraction of the human race has been lifted out of poverty in my lifetime. The Chinese people are not free, but they are much more free than they were in the days when the Eight Revolutionary Operas were almost literally the only music allowed. I am happy for them.

Yet when I see that famous video of Joe Biden, the man soon to take up residence in the White House, jovially saying, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man”, I cannot but remember the words of the prophet:

And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’

‘The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,’ Hezekiah replied. For he thought, ‘Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?’

Modern slavery

At CapX, James Bloodworth writes,

And yet, left-wing politicians and activists still flock to anything emitting a whiff of revolution “like bluebottles to a dead cat”, as George Orwell once put it.

The much-vaunted Cuban healthcare system is a case in point. Throughout the six months of the Covid pandemic, we’ve seen various stories emerge that have highlighted Cuba’s so-called medical diplomacy. Jeremy Corbyn himself has praised the “inspirational” efforts of Cuban doctors who have been sent by their government to help other countries treat coronavirus patients.

And yet this week it was reported that 622 doctors have joined a case against the Cuban government at the International Criminal Court, accusing their overseas medical program of being a form of slavery. Hundreds of Cuban doctors have testified that the dictatorship has forced them to live abroad without knowing where they are going, has confiscated their passports, controlled their movements and expropriated most of their wages. Yet none of this widely available information seems to have filtered through to left-wing politicians and activists who continue to bovinely sing the praises of Cuba’s “health internationalism”.

An article from last year written by Maria D. Garcia and Hugo Acha and published in the the Miami Herald tells an individual’s story:

Dr. Rodriguez recounts how she and her medical colleagues were forced to sign contracts giving the Cuban Ministry of Health power of attorney over their actions in Brazil. She was required to use a special Physical Person Card instead of her passport, and she was prohibited from going anywhere without permission of “advisors.”

She also explained that she was ordered to act as a support echelon for paramilitary operations, if and when necessary.

After many months considering the terrifying risks of escape, Dr. Rodriguez decided to take action. She drove 12 hours from a small town in the Amazon to Brasilia in 2014 with Cuban intelligence officials at her heels. After arriving safely at the U.S. Embassy, she applied for asylum under a special parole program that was terminated in 2016 under President Obama.

To put it plainly, Rodriguez was the victim of a human trafficking enterprise.

I look forward to next week’s study on the superiority of male leaders in economic crises

The Guardian reports,

“Female-led countries handled coronavirus better, study suggests”

Countries led by women had “systematically and significantly better” Covid-19 outcomes, research appears to show, locking down earlier and suffering half as many deaths on average as those led by men.

The relative early success of leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen and Finland’s Sanna Marin has so far attracted many headlines but little academic attention.

The analysis of 194 countries, published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum, suggests the difference is real and “may be explained by the proactive and coordinated policy responses” adopted by female leaders.

[…]

“In almost all cases, they locked down earlier than male leaders in similar circumstances. While this may have longer-term economic implications, it has certainly helped these countries to save lives, as evidenced by the significantly lower number of deaths in these countries.”

[…]

She added that while female leaders “were risk averse with regard to lives”, locking their countries down significantly earlier than male leaders, that also suggested they were “more willing to take risks in the domain of the economy”.

Now that the Great and the Good (you can’t get much greater and gooder than the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the Word Economic Forum) have officially endorsed the idea that sex based differences exist and it is OK to mention them, and that stance has been warmly endorsed by the Guardian, I look forward to reading the follow-up report on the superiority of male leaders when it comes to protecting the economy. After all, 99% of the time we are not in a pandemic and the economy is the political issue that most affects people’s lives.

A change of tune

“Brussels moves to preserve access to London clearing houses”, reports the Financial Times.

Brussels is to adopt emergency measures to preserve Europe’s access to crucial UK financial market infrastructure after the country’s post-Brexit transition period expires, the bloc’s regulation chief said on Thursday.

Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commission’s executive vice-president in charge of financial policy, said Brussels would adopt “time-limited” access rights to make sure that European companies could still access UK-based clearing houses after the end of this year.

“This decision is being taken to address the possible risks to financial stability related to the specific area of derivatives clearing,” Mr Dombrovskis said. “However, we would encourage all market participants to prepare for all possible eventualities, as we have consistently called on them to do throughout this process.”

Mr Dombrovskis did not specify when the access rights would expire, but the move will provide short-term certainty for traders in the specific area of clearing while Brussels continues to discuss future relations with the UK.

To be frank I have only the vaguest idea what a clearing house does. It sounds worryingly like tidying. But whatever it is, for the EU to adopt “emergency measures to preserve Europe’s access to crucial UK financial market infrastructure” seems a distinct change from its previous policy, also mentioned in the article:

Brussels has repeatedly urged the financial sector and companies to adapt to the fact that Britain is leaving the single market; the EU also adopted legislation last year to make it easier to force clearing houses to relocate to the continent. But progress has been slower than the EU had hoped and investors have kept their business in the UK.

I am not surprised at the investors’ decision. I do not need to be an expert in decluttered differentials to be able to work out that if the EU felt the need to pass laws to make it easier to force investors to move their business out of the UK that means they would be better off staying put.

The lasting impact of Wuhan coronavirus will be geopolitical

The report findings come as a group of Conservative MPs in the UK have written to the Trade Secretary to say that they plan to amend the Trade Bill currently before Parliament to legally require the Government to reduce strategic dependency on China. The letter — which cites the HJS report — is signed by 21 MPs including David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith, and Owen Paterson.

Click the link, read the report, interesting stuff.

Wuhan coronavirus, in terms of foreign political fallout for the Chinese Communist Party globally, is like Chernobyl was for the Soviet Communist Party, but multiplied by twenty.

Another reason why state funding of political parties is a bad idea

“Viktor Orban ruins his rivals with power grab”, the Times reports.

Under a regime described by critics as the “omnipotence law”, Mr Orban’s government is able to take sweeping measures to tackle the coronavirus epidemic without parliamentary approval.

Within days of the reform it announced that parties, banks, multinational corporations and local councils would be obliged to pay into a £3.3 billion national fund designed to cushion the blow to the Hungarian economy.

Political parties must hand over half of the grants they receive from the state, a total of about £2.8 million, Gergely Gulyas, one of Mr Orban’s closest ministerial allies, said. The measure will apply to all Hungarian parties, including Fidesz, the prime minister’s party, which is backed by businesses that have benefited from public contracts. Some of its struggling rivals, however, are heavily reliant on public funding. Jobbik, the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, is still reeling from a fine of nearly £1 million after auditors found that it had underpaid for billboard advertising.

Emphasis added. From what little I know of Hungarian politics, the Jobbik and Fidesz parties seem to have swapped bodies. I hold no brief for either. But I can sympathise with the plight of anybody – or any body – that suddenly has their financial support kicked away. Unfortunately that is what happens when the state pays your bills: what the state gives, the state can take away. Hence the “self ownership” tag on this post.

As I wrote the above, I remembered having written something very similar before. That post was about the last of the Kalahari Bushmen. The plight of the last opposition parties of Hungary is not quite as desperate as theirs, but give it time.

Oh-oh

Gordon Brown says world leaders should create temporary global government

Random thoughts about our predicament

With the virus encouraging more people and businesses to develop online, remote working models, it is going to put a premium on things like high-speed, reliable internet, video, two-way video, etc. And paradoxically, that means digital viruses are even more a threat (and often come from the same places as the biological ones, such as China). So I expect that spending on cyber-security, as well as developing more resilient business models (diversified supply chains, closer-to-home manufacturing of essentials such as medicines), and leaner, more scalable medical services, will increase. That should happen as a free market response, rather than because the State wills it.

This virus will be used to bash free trade, encourage protectionism, and so on. But the verities about the division of labour and comparative advantage remain. Complete self-sufficiency cannot be squared with a high standard of living; autarky means a cramped, sclerotic world. There is a reason that the 1970s sitcom, The Good Life, was indeed a comedy because it took the piss out of the idea of freeing oneself of a complex division of labour. It brings enormous costs.

Protectionism, like its twin, anti-trust, are often the playthings of sore losers in business, and hit the consumer or smaller-scale entrepreneur. We should not lose sight of the enormous gains made since the end of the Berlin Wall and wider expansion of trade.

The current disruption should encourage a more clear-eyed understanding of the risks of doing business with dictatorships and closed societies such as China, and a need to find alternatives where possible. Wholesale theft of intellectual property can no longer be tolerated as easily as in the past. How to deal with that remains a difficult question.

On the need to avoid undue risk, it is worth pondering the following: According to the US broadcaster Tucker Carlson, 95 per cent of generic drugs used in the US are imported from China, although I am not sure what he uses as a data source for this. Most good investors understand the need for good portfolio diversification, so the same surely will apply to supply chains after this virus episode.

The developments might also encourage, or they should, a more self-reliance culture (people should learn first aid, store more non-perishable foods at home and other necessities), and in countries where people have not become too sheeplike, encourage a more robust approach to self-defence and respect for property. Imagine what happens if looting breaks out in certain situations.

Another takeway: this horrible episode has put certain rather silly (at least they are to me) concerns into perspective: PC pronouns for certain genders, “woke” remakes of action films like the much-delayed Bond film, “cancel culture”, etc. It might even remind people that screaming that the world is coming to an end unless we switch off industrial civilisation RIGHT NOW is so silly, and so monstrous, that it blunts the public to legitimate worries out there. Greta needs to put a sock in it, and go back to school and hit the books. And the man formerly known as Prince Harry simply must, for our sanity, fuck off.

How a standard rut gauge created a standard rail gauge

Some MapPorn:

This is a map of the world’s different railway gauges.

Fun fact, if fact it be. In the schmoozing after a talk I attended earlier in the week, someone told me that Britain’s four foot eight-and-a-half inch gauge is the result of how far apart horse-drawn carriages had their wheels, in the pre-railways north-east of England, that being where the railways in Britain got started. The point being that such carriages also had a standard gauge. Their wheels dug ruts in the un-tarred roads of those times, so if your carriage had a different “gauge”, it couldn’t travel in those ruts, and thus couldn’t travel at all. These ruts were rails before rails. And that regular distance apart transferred itself to the newly emerging railways.

I haven’t checked this. I didn’t want to bother with any facts that might destroy my story, until I’d told my story. But as of now: feel free to destroy away.

Another question: Will the railway gauges of the world ever change? By which I mean get somewhat less numerous. Say: As a result of some sort of new intercontinental high speed rail system being developed. I seem to recall reading that in Spain, the new high speed trains are the same gauge as those in France (and thus also Britain) and different from the regular Spanish gauge. Or would a some futuristic global high speed system will just add yet another standard? (Will Brunel’s preferred seven foot gauge for the old Great Western line rise from the dead and conquer the world? Guess: No.)

Cue the commentariat who will, I predict, change the subject to the QWERTY keyboard, and then disagree about how that happened, and about how keyboards will be in two hundred years time.

Five, six, seven, eight, who do we assassinate?

Please try not to get arrested, but in the shadow of the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, might it not be interesting to have a discussion about the rights and wrongs of assassination?

Most states, most of the time, follow a rough convention that important government employees – heads of state, government ministers, top brass et cetera – of State A do not assassinate their counterparts in State B, however wicked those counterparts may be. President Trump has shown himself indifferent to that convention. He could be praised for his courage (including personal courage: his own risk of being assassinated has obviously gone up) or damned for his disregard of the evil consequences that are likely to fall on others. In a world where national leaders target each other, wars are more likely.

Or are they? Did the fact that men like Soleimani could kill minor employees of other governments, not to mention civilians, without much personal risk, actually smooth the path to war? It does seem unjust that those steeped in guilt are sacrosanct while relatively innocent spear-carriers are acceptable targets.

Here is another question for us and anyone watching us to ponder. Many people have argued strongly over the last few hours that President Trump was right to break the convention of the immunity from assassination of senior state employees. But I have heard no one argue against the convention that only senior state employees can order assassinations.

ADDED LATER: In the comments “Chester Draws” made a very relevant point:

There is a convention that political leaders are not killed.

There is also a convention — literally — that embassies are not to be attacked. Iran broke that one first. And then again recently.

That fact alone, that until now the Islamic Republic of Iran got away scot-free with invading an embassy and kidnapping diplomats, made me much more willing to approve the unconventional killing of a representative of that government. Let those who boast that the rules do not apply to them learn that in that case the rules do not apply to them.

Free Carlos Ghosn

In other low probability news, Carlos Ghosn has escaped from house arrest in Japan, possibly in a cello double bass case.

Mr Ghosn strikes quite the Randian hero. Grandson of a Lebanese entrepreneur living in Brazil with a Nigerian mother, he moved to France to study and then moved his way up the ranks in Michelin tyre factories. After 3 years there he was a plant manager. After 18 years he was CEO of Michelin North America. Then he went to work at post-privatisation Renault and made it profitable. He took on roles at Nissan, too, an by 2005 he was CEO of both Renault and Nissan. In 2016 he became chairman of Mitsubishi too.

Maybe he upset someone at Nissan because they reported him to the Japanese government for under-reporting his compensation to the Japanese government. Now he is “suspected of masterminding a long-running scheme to mislead financial authorities”, the worst possible crime in the view of authorities but considered not at all immoral in these parts. He has also generally been attracting the ire of people who do not like it when other people earn a lot of money.

“In 2016, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who was at the time the finance minister, pressured Renault into reducing Mr. Ghosn’s compensation.”

I mean, what the fuck? Fuck off Macron.

“His own pay far outstripped those of his counterparts in Japan — he earned four times the pay of Toyota’s chairman in 2017 — and he was unrepentant.”

That is definitely Randian hero territory. They want you to repent. But never repent! It will not help you.

Ghosn says it was all plot and treason by Nissan executives who did not want him to integrate Nissan, Mitsubishi and Renault. One problem is that once Japanese authorities decide to prosecute, they nearly always get a conviction. Running away was probably his only option.

But it is hard to escape from the World Government. Interpol want him, Turkish authorities arrested pilots who helped him escape, and now the Lebanese authorities are hauling him in front of judges. It remains to be seen how helpful they will be. There is no extradition deal between Lebanon and Japan.