Thursday, December 31, 2009

Obligatory new year post

2009 has been a pretty good year. I got back into university, and it is going rather well this time.

All in all I don't care much for the naughties.

Here's hoping the teens will be better.

[Note to self: fill this out with some more stuff as and when it occurs.]

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

George Monbiot: worra facking liability

So George Monbiot is pissed off with readers of the Guardian for not doing their bit to combat climate change:

So what happens now? That depends on the other non-player at Copenhagen: you. For the past few years good, liberal, compassionate people – the kind who read the Guardian – have shaken their heads and tutted and wondered why someone doesn't do something. Yet the number taking action has been pathetic. Demonstrations which should have brought millions on to the streets have struggled to mobilise a few thousand. As a result the political cost of the failure at Copenhagen is zero. Where are you.

The problem with Monbiot's attitude here is that he is taking discussion of the serious problem of anthropogenic climate change and turning it into a discussion of the morality and lifestyle choices of Guardian readers.

Not only is this pointless, it is also actively dangerous. It is pointless because even if every single one of the 1,205,000 Guardian readers had moved to Copenhagen for the weekend it wouldn't have made any difference to the 46% of Britons who either don't believe that global warming is happening or don't believe that global warming is caused by mankind.

The fact that such a large proportion of the British public believe a scientific theory to be false is of course irrelevant to the actual state of the universe, but it does raise the question of *why* so many people believe that GW or AGW are false.

Part of the problem must be that thus far well-meaning environmentalists like George Monbiot have made out that global warming is something that requires us to adopt a particular set of moral standards, and have let it be known that anyone who falls short of those standards is a sinner.

And this is why Monbiot's stance is actively dangerous, as it turns what ought to be a sober, rational, quantitative (and probably rather boring) debate about a known fault in our industrial infrastructure into a passion-infused row about ideology and lifestyle-choices.

So here, in a nutshell, we have everything that is wrong with the modern, Monbiot-ist environmental movement. We have:

1) The idea that political change could be affected, if only we have enough people show up to protest.

2) The idea that, in the context of the environment, individual choices of ordinary people matter more than the collective actions of powerful elites.

3) The idea that you can get people to agree with you by repeatedly telling them that they are bastards and should be jolly ashamed of themselves.

If the international public response to the Iraq War teaches us anything it is that the number of protesters against a particular action is irrelevant. What matters are the decisions of elites. The idea that you can change the world by protesting in the streets is one that I just don't agree with, and it would seem the majority of Guardian readers agree with me and disagree with Monbiot on this one.

In the context of the environment small, individual actions really don't matter. If everyone does a little, we'll achieve only a little. I don't buy into the narrative of climate change that implies everything would be OK if only we all suddenly decided to change our behaviour 'cos George Monbiot says we ought to. People respond to incentives. Large groups of people will only make major changes in their lifestyle if they have a big incentive to do so. So, again, slagging off Guardian readers for having the good sense to avoid wasting their time is pointless and counterproductive.

Monbiot has misunderstood his relationship with his audience. Guardian readers are either 1) people he is trying to influence, and win round to his way of looking at the world[1] or 2) people who already basically agree with his political programme. So why is he slagging them off? When trying to influence people it is better not to criticize, condemn or complain. It makes Guardian readers ever so slightly less likely to give a toss what George, and by extension every other environmentalist, has to say about anything.

I, of course, have no positive suggestions (for most of the reasons described here) as to what to do about global warming or what an appropriate response to climate change might look like. All I know is that George Monbiot is making things worse, because my immediate thought on reading his article was not "I'd better do something about climate change" but rather "the fuck did I do?". If I, a typical sort of middle-of-the-road chap, respond as such then imagine how someone who is more generally sceptical of global warming might respond.

So, practically speaking, Monbiot and his brand of hair-shirted eco-puritanism are a liability to the environmental movement.

{Incidentally: This is all described rather more articulately by Charles Stross here}

[1] It could be argued that Monbiot agrees with the observation that people do not read newspapers to be informed, but rather to have their existing predjudices confirmed. But in being so unjustifiably critical of Guardian readers he is undermining both of the potential uses of newspapers.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Kettle (again)

This latest article by Martin Kettle pretty much summarises the problem with his entire political outlook:

My argument with other liberals does not depend on the view that Obama is right to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan, that Rowan Williams is sensible to try to keep the church together, that the Blair government was actually rather a good one, that limited agreements at Copenhagen are better than none at all, or that the Iraq inquiry is doing a pretty useful job in spite of some of the Vicars of Bray who have turned up to give evidence at it – although as it happens I believe all these things.

The problem is that Kettle confuses being self-consciously "mature" and "grown up" with accepting second best. F'sure be willing to accept that in the Real World things won't turn out exactly as we would want them to, but don't pretend that an appropriate response to this is acceptance.

What those immature "liberals"[1] that Kettle is decrying are doing is massively more helpful than what Kettle is doing. The liberals attack politicians for falling short. Kettle praises politicians for being mediocre. If we want a general improvement in the standards of our political culture then it is important and necessary that politicians are attacked for falling short. Politicians are powerful people, by and large, and as such need to be reminded as frequently as possible that when they behave badly they have behaved badly and when they have failed they have failed.

Suppose Kettle were to get his wish, and for everyone who has criticised Blair over the Iraq War or Obama over remaining in Afghanistan to recant and state that it is entirely understandable that these things should happen, and that you can't make a pancake without breaking eggs etc. Then what would happen? Politicians would suddenly discover that they can get away with anything. All thanks to the strength of Kettle's arguments.

So what is Kettle good for? If he is wrong, then he is wrong and not particularly interesting with it. And if he is right, then politicians should be allowed to be venal and corrupt, which would be pretty crap.

To reiterate: *I* understand that politics is a messy business, but then so is caring for the elderly, but you don't get journalists advocating lower standards of care-home cleanliness just *because* caring for the elderly is a messy business. Quite the opposite, in fact.

So yeah.

Where does Kettle get off saying things that are quite clearly bad and stupid?

Politicians are neither bad nor stupid. They are wrestling with difficulties.

Everyone is wrestling with difficulties. I'm wrestling with difficulties. Kettle, Lord help him, is probably wrestling with difficulties. That's the human condition! *Some* politicians are undeniably bad *and* stupid. That this may be true of a minority is beside the point. Politicians are sufficiently powerful that it is good SOP to give them a kicking when there is even the whiff of wrongdoing.

PS: Howard Jacobson does the same thing in The Independent, in the middle of an article slagging off the Coen brothers:

You don't have to like anybody. Men/ women, straights/gays, God/the devil – in art you can hate the lot. But there is something retarded at the heart of not liking when it targets the obvious. Living in this country at the height of Blair-baiting was like living in one giant fourth form. Listening to atheists is the same. It isn't that they're wrong, it's that they haven't moved on from the disillusionments of adolescence. Politicians lie, God isn't very nice. Get away!

The problem here is the same: the accusations of immaturity against those doing the right and necessary thing and having a go at powerful bastards. It's not as if Kettle or Jacobson advocate a more pro-active approach over just having a go. They actually seem to be saying that doing the political equivalent of growing a goatee and hanging out in dimly lit bars (i.e. playing the Kettle "too mature for manure" card) is preferable to the political equivalent of getting a job and just getting on with life (i.e. treating politicians as a class with contempt and occasionally having a go at powerful bastards).

In summary: Kettle thinks giving politicians the benefit of the doubt because they are powerful is a good idea. I disagree. Politicians should not be given the benefit of the doubt precisely *because* they are powerful.

[1]: I have a vague sense of who Kettle is referring to when he talks about "liberals" in this context, but I would prefer it if Kettle made it clear.

Friday, October 02, 2009

A monument higher than all the pyramids would rise

What's to say about Africa and Aids? Except that if the pope were as omnipotent as people make out, he'd be able to make individuals subscribe to the whole package of Catholic teaching on sexuality, on fidelity within marriage and chastity, not just condoms. I've never quite been able to believe in Catholics – Africans or otherwise – who are so scrupulous that they couldn't possibly use condoms, but will resort to prostitutes.

What's to say about Africa and Aids? What indeed?

You could begin by pointing out that chastity has a very poor record as a public health policy, and is generally only proferred by simpering, sanctimonious prigs that care more about their own superstitions than the lives of actual, real, people.

According to the BBC "Aid agencies can find that their biggest challenge is trying to overcome cultural objections to using condoms."

Presumably some portion of this cultural objection is down to Catholicism, and of those Catholics who hold this view, some would change their view in response to a papal bull endorsing the use of prophylactics.

You could go on to point out that his Holiness' advocacy of such traditional Catholic alternatives to the use of condoms has failed to halt the the continued spread of HIV and Aids across the world.

His Holiness is not omnipotent, but has at his disposal the means to end a great deal of human suffering, and yet chooses not to do so.

That is what you can say about Africa and Aids.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

From the pillar of fire and cloud

Moving from four to three submarines is bad for our defence – it leaves no margin for error, and makes it harder to maintain our present continuous undersea watch – but the move would not affect nuclear capability or be part of global negotiations. What President Obama wants cut are warheads. Britain has 160. This is already very low. France has 400, and the US and Russia have 2,700 each. Mr Brown (rightly) did not offer any cuts in warheads.

Occasionally you are presented with a mentality so different from your own that it is quite difficult to understand what the hell they are talking about.

In this case I do not think Charles Moore, who asserts that Trident "will give this country 50 years of security" (but not from global warming, climate change, asteroid strike, bird flu, terrorism, John Redwood, or any of the other realistic threats to the security of our nation) is as out-of-the-park meshugge as, say, the unresistingly imbecilic Melanie Phillips, but he is as close to that state of being as you can be whilst still being minimally coherent.

That nuclear weapons are expensive and unconscionable is by-the-by. What always surprises me about the likes of Moore and other cheerleaders of WMDs is that they choose to focus only on the nukes. Surely there are alternatives?

There must, surely, be cheaper ways of commiting retaliatory genocide than nuclear weapons? One possibility is for the British government to covertly secrete a sealed vial of anthrax, replete with satellite-bounced remote-control detonators, in the centre of every foreign city in the world. This would be cheaper than submarines and nuclear tipped ICBMs but still guarantee the possibility of the desired level of monstrous carnage.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Will decide, but he won't debate

Listening to Iconoclast and reading Sunny Hundal's views on whether the BBC should allow BNP MEP Nick Griffin to appear on Question Time (preview: Sunny's agin' it) it occurs to me that most TV/radio debates are fundamentally flawed. On Iconoclast there were four guests and one chairman. IIRC Question Time has five guests + one Dimbleby brother + a studio audience.

Partly as a result of this Sunny Hundal describes Question Time as:

...basically a populist shouting match where facts and figures don't have time to get checked. Someone such as Dan Hannan MEP can claim 84% of our laws are made in Europe and no one calls him out on his rubbish. Nick Griffin could similarly claim he's not racist and repeat lies that go unchallenged live on air. BNP pamphlets have repeatedly featured lies in the past. Who will have the research on hand to challenge that? His fellow QT panellists won't.

My preference would be to limit the number of debaters to two, and have only a few distinct issues discussed for a reasonable period of time, say 20 minutes each for three issues in an hour-long show.

Assertions made by debaters would have to be based on robust, ideally peer-reviewed, evidence that is cited by the debaters before they go on the show. These citations would be made available to all some time before the programme is broadcast so that they can be analysed by a panel of experts appointed by the programme and those that are found wanting can be made inadmissable.

In other words more like a court or parliament.

This view may seem elitist, but it isn't really elitist to claim that the views of ordinary people aren't as valid as the evidence-based views of experts. We demand a high standard of evidence in medicine, so why not demand a high standard of evidence in political debate?

Deliberative democracy is not best served by treating the truth as something relative or subject to an individual opinion.

It annoys me when people conflate respect for democracy with the idea that everyone's opinions are valid and useful. Most people don't know enough about enough to be able to make meaningful contributions.

For my own part I know my ignorance of most matters is such that I should avoid commenting, but that does not mean I cannot take down the ideas of others I know to be false.

Call it the Statler and Waldorf school of political debate: ideas are cheap, but the truth is expensive.

As such it is the democratic duty of we bloggers to attack bad ideas and incorrect assertions. Negativity is a powerful creative force. Our society will only begin to evolve when bad ideas are allowed to be called bad ideas and dismissed as such.


As per badconscience's point in the comments "Question Time" is teh suck and I need to crank up the Mills and dial down the Plato.

Both philosophers are hovering somewhere in the middle of my prodigious to-read pile (Mills is definitely a serious contender for my next big Amazon raid [i.e. this has moved from "wish list" to "shopping basket"]).

For my part elitism does piss me off, but not nearly to the same extent as ignorance and crass populism.

Update update: actually reading badconscience's blog post over on Liberal Conspiracy he makes the same point but somewhat better.

For the frightened baby on some foreign beach

I'm currently listening to a recorded version of BBC 4's Iconoclasts.

In this episode economist and writer Philippe Legrain argues that Britain should abolish all immigration controls and institute a policy of "open borders".

He makes an admirable and coherent argument in favour of this position. Amongst the points he makes are:

1) Freedom: it is right that people should have the freedom to live and to move wherever they want. People should not be favoured or discriminated against simply because they happen to have been born in a particular country.

2) Economics: companies like Google and Yahoo! in the US were co-founded by immigrants. These people went to America and created extraordinary wealth and innovation in their adopted countries.

3) Public services: if public services are placed under strain because of an increase in population then those public services must be improved, made more robust, and more flexible.

4) Overcrowding: the idea that Britain is "full up" is nonsensical. London is the most crowded city in the UK, but no one advocates immigration controls around the M25 to prevent people in other parts of the country from going to live there.

5) Population control: inasmuch as population is a problem, it is not one that can be solved by arguing over where people are located on the surface of the globe. Population is a global problem. No one would advocate instituting a version of the Chinese one child policy in the UK to limit population, so why seek to limit the local UK population by reducing immigration?

Listening to the programme I became increasingly infuriated by the assumption, apparently shared by the chair Edward Stourton, that the idea of freedom of movement is some kind of wild and crazy idea.

As Chris Dillow points out, it is a mainstream and highly respectable idea.

The chap from Migrationwatch, Andrew Green, attempts to refute the point that immigrants bring economic benefits, but is allowed to get away with not actually producing any evidence that there are economic dangers to immigration. The burden of proof comes back to Legraine to support his point that immigration is good for the economy, which he does very ably, but why should Green get away with not explaining what the economic downsides of immigration are?

Then the MP, Ann Cryer, claims that immigrants might not be able to speak English, and might lack skills to work. Legrain makes the point that there is huge demand in this country for low-skilled labour. The notion that people lacking in "skills" are economically useless is absurd.

Then Green brings the argument back to numbers. He says "we cannot absorb this number of people" of the 7 million new immigrants that will arrive in Britain over the next 20 years. Fair enough. The question to ask is "why not?"

Green makes the good point that the government isn't building enough social housing or scaling up services to cope with the increase in numbers. I suspect part of the reason for this is that the government is terrified of being seen to do any of the following:

1) Reduce prices in the housing market by increasing supply, thus incurring the wrath of the Daily Mail readers and damaging the fundamental driver of the British economy, as detailed by Ross McKibbin.

2) Be seen to be soft on immigrants, which is stupid, if you think about it.

3) Increase public spending, thus incurring debt, which as Will Hutton explains isn't all that bad.

These are failings of government policy.

The debate moves on to the question of whether immigrants will come here to work or stay forever. Legraine highlights the point he makes in his book, Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, that when the USA had an open border with Mexico in the 1960s Mexicans would migrate back and forth over the open border, but once the border controls were tightened the migrants moved one-way, for fear they wouldn't get an opportunity to get back into the States if they moved back to their home countries.

Legraine makes the point that many immigrants want to be able to go home and live in their home countries after they have made money in Britain.

Andrew Green responded to this point by repeatedly asserting that he "couldn't imagine" that people from Sub-Saharan Africa would move back to their home countries after having lived in Britain. He had the gall to claim that "the facts are against" Legraine. The problem is Green has no facts to support his side of the argument. He goes unchallenged on this point.

Stourton also said a rather extraordinary thing: he claimed that this issue "does not easily lend itself to fact and figure." In fact it does. There are facts and figures surrounding immigration. This is the ballpark. Opinion, hearsay, and prejudice should have no place in this debate.

This is the most frustrating thing about so much political debate. Ultimately it should all come down to empirical data and observed facts. Opinions are irrelevant. And yet for some reason the misinformed opinion of the general public is seen as somehow valid and useful, when it isn't. This isn't a counter-democratic point, it's a pro-evidence point. Everyone is equal under the law, comment is free, but facts are sacred.

The programme ends with Green threatening to sue Legrain if Legrain doesn't retract an accusation of racism made against him.

The accusation was made by Legrain after Green's use of the term "there are limits to what the indigenous community will stand for".

Legraine immediately demanded an explanation of this term and accused Green of "ducking the race issue" and of being a racist. He asked Green if he felt that people who have "arrived in Britain in the last fifty years were British, yes or no?"

Green demanded a retraction of the accusation of racism and answered that he did feel that people who have moved to Britain in the last 50 years are British.

Legrain eventually retracted the accusation under threat of legal action

I have no opinion on Legrain's contention that the term "indigenous community" is inherently racist.

I will say that Legrain made a tactical error in falling into the trap of accusing Green of racism. He should not have lost his temper, as in doing so he gave Green the opportunity to threaten legal action, forcing Legrain to subsequently retract his point.

This highlights one of the problems with talking about immigration. The use of threats, slurs, and race-baiting tactics seems endemic to the discussion. This makes the debate far more emotionally charged than it should be.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bonuses for MPs

But how do we attract abler MPs? Pay them less and reduce their perks is Cameron's answer – I can't wait until he gets his hands on Afghanistan. Steve Punt did a bit of salary research for Radio 4's The Now Show and takes a different view: "Another way of looking at it is that they do a rather thankless and time-consuming job under relentless public criticism and yet they're paid less than the head of estate capacity procurement at the Ministry of Justice or the head of consumer services at Calderdale Council."

The problem, as David Mitchell points out, is not that MPs are exceptionally greedy, or even exceptionally stupid, it is that they are incentivised to appear frugal when they have no desire (and who would?) to engage in frugality.

So: a solution? Performance-linked bonuses. This would mean that how much an MP is paid is reflected in how well that MP is seen to do their job by their constituents.

So: pay MPs a base salary of something somewhat less than they are paid now (say: £50 000/year) then pay them a bonus on top of that.

The bonus is determined by the electorate. So if a voter thinks an MP has done a good job then they can tick the box saying "I wish to contribute £20 to the incumbent's bonus."

If the MP had done a really good job and 15000 of their constituents ticked the box then they'd get a payout of £300 000 on top of their £50 000 salary. This would work out to a salary of around £110 000/year.

One of the good things about this system is it would allow people like me to express personal support for our MP, despite the fact I would never consider voting for his party. It also means that MPs wouldn't have to be childless millionaires in order to get by.

This brilliant idea of performance-linked bonuses for MPs brilliant idea (c) the inestimable Daniel Davies

Update: thanks to @PaulGrahamRaven for this video of Dan Pink talking at TED on why financial incentivisation might actually harm and disrupt creative faculties.

In the speech Pink argues that the kind of non-mechanistic, creative industries of the 21st century will actually suffer under a traditional Taylorist regime of incentivisation. Pink highlights results of the candle-problem as evidence that the prospects of true creativity and innovation are damaged by gross financial incentive.

People, Pink argues, respond better when they are given autonomy: freedom to persue our own projects in our own time and in our own way.

It's a good point.

The question to ask then is: what kind of work are MPs supposed to be doing? Are they performing the (relatively) mechanistic tasks that a good constituency MP is supposed to be doing, like sorting out parking tickets, solving planning issues, and trying to help their constituents with their problems?

Or are MPs supposed to be doing the more abstract, creative job of crafting excellent pieces of legislation?

Considering how royally (no pun intended) screwed-up our political system is the effect (either positive or negative) of any kind of incentive structure would not show up against the huge systemic institutional failure of the safe-seats/marginal-constituency problem.

Dan Pink identifies what is wrong with managerialism in much the same way as Dillow does, with recourse to scientific fact, and offers much the same solutions: more freedom, less hierarchy, no meaningless targets and greater worker power.

Managerialists believe in hierarchy and manipulating symbols, they believe that people must be coralled and controlled and inventivised to work well and be productive.

The truth, as Dan Pink describes, is that people work better when they are simply given a task that they believe is important, and are given as much freedom to persue it as possible.

MPs obviously know what they do is important, so this is an argument for greater independence amongst MPs from the party machine, a weakening of the parliamentary whips, and a rebalancing of power away from the Crown towards parliament, and more independently-minded MPs in general.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The PC brigade - what you know and what you do not know

People ask us if We know the PC brigade.

There is a small vanguard of the population of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that seeks to destroy British values, flood the country with immigrants, ban all petrol-powered cars, legalise all currently illegal drugs, introduce a compulsory universal 50 km/h speed limit, replace Elizabeth Windsor with the Speaker of the House of Commons as Head of State, disinherit the Monarchy, replace all Imperial-fascist measurements with metric-ISO measurements, require that exactly half of all senior figures in business, government and the media be female, build wind turbines on every square metre of open countryside, break all diplomatic ties with the USA, increase taxes on the middle classes, impose multiculturalism on all, ban the display of all Christian artefacts in any public place, and replace Christmas with a non-denominational all-faiths and atheistic celebration called "Winterval."

Once these objectives have been accomplished this elite vanguard will cede all legislative authority to the European Union.

We know this because the PC brigade knows this.

And We are growing stronger.

It may surprise you to know this: after all our existence and Our aims are an open secret, you would imagine that those in Authority might do something about such an open group of subversives.

What you so not realise is that we have successfully entered the corridors of power. Every senior civil servant and government minister is part of the PCB. We have a stranglehold on the BBC, and every major national newspaper. Members of Our Loyal Opposition are mere placemen, already inculcated in Our ways and ready to do Our bidding.

Even those press organs, such as the Sun and the Daily Mail, which appear to decry us, only do so on our explicit instructions. By allowing the lumpencommentariat such outlets for their helpless rage we have discovered that they can be kept in a state of torpid docility until such a time as we see fit to place them in one the Re-Education Camps.

I write this not to warn you, but rather to gloat at your hopelessness, and revel in the fact that Our power is of such an extent that we can talk of Our conspiracy against the British middle class openly and without fear of sanction.

We are, as ever, your imminent overpeople

The PC Brigade

Friday, September 04, 2009

Jenkins on prohibition

I've dissed Simon Jenkins in the past, but I really can't fault his latest article on the prohibition of drugs for total brilliance:

Push has finally come to shove. Last week the Argentine supreme court declared in a landmark ruling that it was "unconstitutional" to prosecute citizens for having drugs for their personal use. It asserted in ringing terms that "adults should be free to make lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the state". This classic statement of civil liberty comes not from some liberal British home secretary or Tory ideologue. They would not dare. The doctrine is adumbrated by a regime only 25 years from dictatorship.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Why the free market is not meritocratic

The price system does not reward ability. If you want people’s earnings to reflect their ability, therefore, you can’t have a free market.

This simple point is both obvious and universally ignored. Consider:

Bonuses for executives and traders have increased over the past 30 years - can anyone really claim that traders and executives now are actually “better” than traders and executives from 30 years ago?

(Traders and execs now have access to better tools, but surely this is an argument for paying the providers of said tools more rather than the people who use them?)

The point about the free market is that it signals demand. It does not reward past performance, but indicates what people *should* do in the future.

As the free market does not reward past performance (90 year old retired executives can’t go back to their former employers and demand more money from them now because they weren’t paid as much 30 years ago as their replacements are now) the free market cannot be a meritocracy.

The best thing about the free market is the way it matches supply to demand. It is this very thing that means it is not meritocratic.

The best social worker in the country probably earns no more than the average taxi driver.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Of investment bankers, entrepreneurs, VCs, and life

One of the tragedies of investment banking as a profession is that although bankers are paid stratospheric amounts by the standards of most people they spend their entire careers working for the fraction of individuals who end up becoming (much) richer than they are.

Consider: a very successful fortysomething investment banker who has amassed some £5 million in net wealth is assisting in the public flotation of a company.

This company was started seven years ago by a 30 year old. This 30 year old managed to raise £2 million in capital from a VC in exchange for a 60% stake in the company after two years of trading.

Now 37 the entrepreneur is taking her company public, floating at a market cap of £500 million. The entrepreneur will sell half of her 40% stake (i.e. £100 million) to the market, and immediately reinvest half that amount (£50 million) in the business.

Her VC partners are similarly selling half their 60% stake (£150 million) to the markets, and reinvesting half this amount (£75 million) in the business.

The company will raise £125 million to invest in new plant and expand worldwide. If things go as expected the stake held by the entrepreneur will double within three years to £200 million.

Out of all this the bank takes a 1% fee for buying the shares initially. 1% of £225 million or £2.25 million. The banker expects to receive 10% of this in his bonus, or £225, 000. He has already advised on three similar transactions so far this year, and the year is nearly over, so he *expects* his bonus to be around £900, 000, on top of his salary of £200, 000.

Around half of this will be taken in income taxes (compared with 18% capital gains tax or £9 million in the case of the entrepreneur) leaving the banker with take-home pay of £550, 000. After the flotation the entrepreneur has £41 million in cash and a 20% stake in a company that is expected to be worth £1 billion in three years.

The banker end that year with net wealth of £5.55 million. The entrepreneur ends that year with net wealth of £141 million plus whatever is left over from dividends and what she paid herself over the previous 7 years.

This is the heart of the tragedy of capitalism. As the man said, you gotta serve somebody. The banker serves the enrepreneur who probably feels hard done-by that she didn’t keep a larger stake in her firm. The VCs will be happy, but they are accountable to their own shareholders who are themselves accountable to equity and pension funds, who are in turn accountable to clients who really just want to live a quiet life/retirement.

Overall, on average, society wins, but at the cost of everyone being just the tiniest bit pissed off at the place they ended up in the pyramid. So they’ll keep pounding away on the hedonic treadmill in the hope that something will come up.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Sir Simon Jenkins fails again

Simon Jenkins' most recent opinion piece continues his long, glorious tradition of making an utter fool of himself.

In it he lays into Michael Fish and the Met Office for the incorrect forecasts of "barbecue summer" that the press had been bleating about over previous weeks.

One of the many points Fish makes here in defense of the Met Office is that "A lot of blame has to lie with the media who misinterpret the forecasts."

The Met Office, being composed of scientifically trained professionals, in fact said: "there is a 65% chance of above-average temperatures."

Jenkins, however, goes off on one about how the Met Office shouldn't be paid for by the taxpayers if it can't even guarantee "barbecue summer."

Ignoring basic probability theory (that if there is a 65% chance of something happening then there is a 35% chance of it not happening) Jenkins essentially blames the Met Office for the failure of the media to report what the Met Office actually said.

The money quote is where Jenkins says:

We listen uncomplaining to this drivel from one day to the next. We are British. Weather forecasting is like abstract art, any fool can do it once he has got the job.

Ironically, his description of weather forecasting perfectly encapsulates his own "profession" of overindulged, pompous columnist.

Jenkins' piece really is a classic of a certain kind of opinion journalism, based entirely on prejudice and bumptious "common sense" with no reference to actual evidence, statistical theory, or human psychology, and with an hilarious lack of awareness of how much of an innumerate prat he comes across as.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A History of Economics

I forgot to mention I read this book a few weeks ago. Galbraith is an excellent and entertaining writer.

An underlying theme is Galbraith's emphasis on how the economic ideology of different historical periods seems to flatter those who hold power. Hence you have physiocrats in France during the 18th century, mercantilists during the 17th century, and neoliberalism during much of the 20th century, with a dash of Keynesianism for those who like that sort of thing.

I was reminded of this book whilst reading this lengthy thread at Crooked Timber in which Daniel "dsquared" Davis argues that economics should really be split into two disciplines: industrial cybernetics and political economy, with one being based on the development of practical applications of empirical research (like engineering) and the other being based on a discussion of the ethics, morality, and political consequences of different policies (basically a branch of political philosophy).

IIRC Galbraith endorsed this point: the idea that you can separate ideology from reality in political discussions is naive in the extreme (as Daniel argues here). Also Galbraith coined the term "the conventional wisdom" to describe beliefs that are widely assumed to be true for the sake of ideological convenience (think EMH, rational agents, drugs are evil etc)

I was going to write up a lot of quotations but frankly I can't be bothered: I advise you to buy and read a copy of this excellent history of this peculiar science.

[image from here]

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Steep Approach to Garbadale: incest and interest

A good book, all told.

Reading Bank's mainstream fiction is kinda weird. I keep expecting to discover that someone is a Special Circumstances agent in disguise.

Also the shoe-horning in of circa 2005 TWAT lefty politics is interesting. Although nothing has changed in an objective sense it does seem that the world is a better place.

There is just a shimmer of Banks' patented gratuitous-unpleasantness towards the end, otherwise this is a superb novel about family, forbidden love, and beautiful mathematicians.

[image from here]

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Enemas of reason

I have established to my own satisfaction the prime source of everything that is wrong with British politics.

Surprisingly, it is not the Daily Mail (at least directly).

The problem is our first-past-the-post system of voting for MPs. This allows parties to gain power despite not having a majority of voters actually vote for them.

Further it means that politicians are not interested in garnering a wide base of support, they are only interested in attracting the votes of "scorekeepers" in marginal constituencies.

Scorekeepers, as detailed in this article by Danny Finkelstein, are people with no particular ideological commitments but who vote for the party (or more accurately, the individual at the head of the party) who they believe to be the most effective manager of the government:

The Scorekeepers “are non-ideological pragmatists who trust or distrust each side equally. They tend to see politics not as a contest of world views, but merely as alternate teams of possible managers of government, each contending that they can do a better job. The Scorekeepers are not choosing directions in their votes, they are hiring managers.”

The problem is that these scorekeepers are engaging in the same folly as managerialists or progressives. The notion that all our problems could be solved if only we all followed this or that political programme, or this or that heroic manager.

If the history of the 21st century teaches us anything it is that grand schemes for the improvement of the masses rarely work, and often have strongly negative outcomes for everyone. And all those scorekeepers are bound to be disappointed, so their support gradually wanders over to the other control party after a few elections.

Polly Toynbee highlights this here:

Our electoral system is the reason why each campaign seems more reductionist and vacuous than the last. The parties are competing for an ever more cleverly identified few thousand wavering voters in marginal constituencies. Pollsters find these few vague voters hardly think about politics at all. They are difficult to engage even for a fleeting moment, don't read papers but may vote if taken by some slogan that catches their eye. Most people are not like that: even if party tribalism has weakened, these target voters tend to be exceptionally uninterested in politics. Yet everything depends on them.

What matters most in politics is the constant churn of debate and argument and conversation and trial and error. I don't believe there is or can ever be one ultimate solution to political problems, rather there must be (controlled) conflict between parties against a backdrop of individual freedom, democracy, and an open society.

This outcome is best served in this country by the replacement of the current FPTP parliamentary system with an STV proportional representation system, a written constitution, separation of powers, and a reduction in the power of the executive relative to the legislature.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Vox stopped

I do not hate. I am not a hater.

However there are a handful of things I loathe.

I have a visceral dislike of those vox pops you get on the TV News where the journos go out into the streets and ask passers by for their opinion on whatever the current Issue of Note is.

My objection to these bits is threefold:

1) They are meaningless. If the intention is to gain an understanding of the public's views on a particular topic then a far more rigorous method is to use polling.

2) They are embarassing. It is painful listening to my fellow citizens embarass themselves with comments that they have not had the time to prepare beforehand. It is clearly patently unfair of the journos to pounce on someone in the street with a question concerning what may be a very complex issue and expect them to contribute a well-thought-out answer.

3) They are fake. There is a script to these things. Journos only ever seem to ask questions that have one obvious answer viz "Are you in favour of MPs swindling the taxpayer?" A: "It is distgusting. They are all the same etc"

The clear and obvious solution to my problem is to stop watching the news. Unfortunately, as I've already discussed, this is not really an option.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Proportional representin'

According to this 'ere news post by the Beeb Gordon Brown is proposing an alternative vote semi-proportional representation system and a fully-elected House of Lords.

This could be big.

A strange love: or how I learned to stop worrying and enjoy politics

I am interested in politics.

This is a matter of some concern.

The reason is simple: what goes on in Westminster is largely irrelevant to me and my life. I live in an advanced, socially stable, pluralistic liberal democracy. I have easy access to clean water, good housing, good food, healthcare, education, information, the company of others, culture, and the opportunity to pursue whatever idle desires may remain now that the problem of my personal comfort has largely been solved.

Politics, however, is a source of depression and irritation. There is so much wrong with how our political system works that observing it is like watching a man sweeping a dusty hall with the brush extension of a fully functional industrial-strength vacuum cleaner.

The costs of any possible, and hence marginal, improvements in my personal condition are so high that they outweigh the gains.

Spending more than £10.6 billion on an ID card system that might fractionally reduce the already miniscule probability of me dying in a terrorist attack is an act of such revolting waste and intellectual squalor that I am sick at the thought of it.

The act of vetoing the publication of the minutes of the meetings in which our government decided to embark on an illegal and murderous war (not to mention going to war in the first place) is one of cowardice, both political and primal.

There are better political systems out there. Ones that are more representative and more democratic. And yet we're stuck here with an absurd system of elected kingship.

Given the failure inherent in the Westminster of politics the rational response is to simply ignore the newspapers and blogs that discuss these remote phenomena and concentrate on things of genuine local importance, whatever they may be.

But I am, of course, not rational.

Given I cannot ignore this irrational interest in politics I can only ask the question:

Why am I interested in politics?

The stock answer is that I consider myself a responsible citizen and therefore ought to be aware of and engage in the democratic process. This is of course nonsense. The only duty of a citizen is to obey the law.

I suspect that the source of this political disease is similar to that of the unfathomable interest that some of my friends have in the game of association football. They, like me, lack the power to make any substantive changes to the rules of the game and who gets which job for which team, and frequently decry what they see as poor decisions on the part of those appointed, but ultimately it is the same impulse that leads them to read the sports pages just as I read the politics and business pages.

Chris Dillow comments on this idea of rational inattention of politics:

So, what would be wrong with someone who avoids, as far as possible, all political knowledge - they don’t buy a newspaper, ignore political websites, don’t watch TV news, turn off the radio when the news comes on, and so on?
The obvious answer is that paying attention to politics isn’t a matter of narrow utility maximizing. We should do so because virtue requires it. Being a good citizen requires us to follow politics.

But does it? There’s a long tradition of people shunning public life: monks, hermits, Voltaire advising us to cultivate our gardens, MacIntyre urging us to retreat into local communities. And what’s virtuous about wishing to impose one’s own ego and limited knowledge onto the rest of society?

Nor is it the case that ignorance about politics need, in principle, be associated with general ignorance or incuriosity. It’s perfectly possible in principle to be very informed and cultured on all sorts of matters whilst paying no attention to politics - just as one can be clever and cultivated whilst being ignorant about, say, fruit flies or medieval plainchant

Further: as Nassim Taleb argues in Fooled by Randomness politics is one of those areas of human endeavour where success has more to do with random luck than any exceptional, empirically measurable, skill. What Taleb says about corporate CEOs can be paraphrased for politicians:

Politicians are not administrators. [...] they are often "empty suits" [...] persons who are good at looking the part but nothing more. [...] what they have is skill in getting promoted within a political party rather than pure skills in making optimal decisions - we call that "political skill."

So not only do I lack the power to change things substantively, neither do most of the participants.

Another problem with politics is that most of it is filtered through what is written by journalists.

Taleb argues against listening to journalists' opinions on anything, as the skills required of a successful journalist are not those required of a good political scientist[1]:

A journalist is trained in methods to express himself rather that to plumb the depths of things - the selection process favors the most communicative, not necessarily the most knowledgeable.

To conclude. Politics is my idle entertainment. Just as some watch soap operas and others watch association football games, I watch Newsnight and read political blogs. It isn't all I do, of course, but at least it is explicable.

[1]: Taleb is also highly critical of the whole notion of "political science", but is even more critical of journalists, so I'll let that slide for a moment.

Monday, June 08, 2009

House of Suns: definitely not a review

Just finished this 'ere book by Al Reynolds.


1) An alright 500 page book with a good 250 page book struggling to get out.

2) There is a lot of boring, pompous, non-political politics goes on in "the Line". I feel the concept of someone creating thousands of clones of themselves and sending them out to explore the galaxy is good, but Reynolds kind of let it go without thinking through how it would operate IRL.

3) I don't know if it's a style thing (Stephen Baxter does it as well) but none of the characters talk as people talk. Ken MacLeod is much better at this sort of thing.

4) The most interesting characters (the Doctor and the Spirit of the Wind) don't get nearly enough of the airtime that is instead given over to the unconvincing political pomposity.

That said I really enjoyed this book. It's not as good as Century Rain or Pushing Ice, but is considerably better than Prefect.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Will Hutton, constitutional glutton

Will Hutton summarises what is wrong with British politics rather well:

Departments of state and, with them, great swaths of public spending, are treated as political spoils. With Geoff Hoon's resignation as transport secretary, this department alone will have had four secretaries of state in three years. It's a similar story in defence, with environment and energy only marginally less hard hit; these are all departments with long-term planning horizons, but whose political leaders are birds of passage. What chance is there of difficult decisions being taken? Systematic policy developed? Of careful attention invested in how effectively and efficiently cash is spent?

Damn straight. The problem is that, as Charlotte Gore points out when discussing proportional representation, a new constitutional structure is a procedural story and as such something no one has the slightest bit of interest in. Except me and other political geeks.

But all the moralising nonsense spoken about MPs and Parliament over the last few weeks ultimately comes back to problems inherent in the system. The press commit the fundamental attribution error and assert that the problem is with the character of individual MPs, rather than a problem endemic to the way the system works.

My own thoughts on parliamentary reform are with those of Thomas Paine, and I describe them over on Charlotte Gore's discussion of an elected Lords.

They are as follows:

Why not have the Lords elected for terms of (say) 12 years, and also have a term limit of one term per person?

Have 300 lords with 1/3 elected every four years.

Also set a time-limit of say, 12 years, until people who have served in the Commons can subsequently run for office in the Lords.

Combine this with an upper age limit of 35 for lords and you have a chamber that consists of older (and hence more experienced) non-career politicians that are not required to respond to every tabloid-editor’s whim or whip’s demand and can use their own moral and intellectual judgement on whether to accept or reject legislation.

Also you need to have separation of the legislature and executive, have independence of tenure of the legislature (i.e. elections every four years), and use the STV PR system to select MPs in the Commons.

And I still want my pony.

And otherwise I basically agree with this Martyn Richard Jones guy[1]. Lashings of democracy.

[1]: The only slight note of disagreement with Richard Jones is with his point 11 - "Elections for all Public offices - no appointments on the nod" - I assume he doesn't mean to elect every clerk and mid-ranking bureaucrat by popular vote. But apart from this he seems bang on the money.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Stuart Rose on feminism

Guardianistas seem split over the question:

I'd be interested to see how that splits on gender lines.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A (very) short story

There are many of these now. Hollow spheres and cylinders, mostly. Some cylinders. A few rods. The occasional torus. An endless fecundity of green worlds.

In the old days before fittle they thought the only way to colonise the universe was by throwing gunk out into space forever. Fapping out an endless stream of phlegm into the face of God in the hope that at some then-unimaginably distant point in the future and at some absurdly remote location the biomatter might just evolve into something you could play poker with.

At least I think that is what they believed. Corruption and degradation are a constant in this entropic universe. So it is said.

Lost in the strata of history we might find the truth of it, there are billions of dead worlds down there. Trillions of corpses that lived full and happy lives and some more that did not. Perhaps with them lies the truth of it. Where we came from.

They might have been Giants, of course, as the legends say. They might have been Gods. Or giant robots. Or intelligent waves of probability and potential. We might even have developed through a process of blind native favouritism.

All we know is what is remembered. And what we remember most of all is the name that was given. Our name.

We are the diatoms.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sanctimony in the UK

I've been trying to determine exactly why I feel so uncomfortable with the condemnation of MPs over their expenses claims.

The answer is I have been revolted by the sanctimonious priggishness of the newspapers. Sanctimonious priggishness is only fun when it is me directing it at others: even seeing someone else direct it at a third party is unpleasant, possibly because of rays of sanctimonious priggishness being reflected in my direction.

Daniel Davis calls it right: the MP who said that he deserved his taxpayer-funded duck house is exactly the kind of guy I'd vote for. Honest, to-the-point, pro-duck. Too bad he was a Tory.


During my working day I am exposed to a lot of newspapers.

As such I end up reading a lot of front pages. I'd rather not, but it is an occupational hazard, just like putting up with idiots buying shitloads of crap they don't need and then objecting to paying one penny for a bag "on principle".

Newspaper headlines are full of bile and self-rightous indignation at the best of times, but the tabs, and The Telegraph, have outdone themselves with their inane rantings on the issue of MPs expenses.

My objection is not to the reporting of the facts of MPs expenses (they should of course be public knowledge as a matter of course), rather it is to the attitude of the reaction to the reporting.

There is my visceral dislike of the vox-pop faux-outrage of TGBP as they rant away at their elected representatives whilst ignoring the various ways they're being fucked over by businesses, the media, their bosses, popular culture, and 21st century life in general.

But there is more to my dislike of this story.

Let's step back a moment.

In a society there are a few problems that need to be solved. One is the problem of how you identify error in a complex society. Another is how that error is broadcast, such that a solution may be found.

In a civilized society (or, in the absence of a civilized society, a pluralistic liberal democracy such as wot we 'ave 'ere) if you identify a problem you broadcast it, it is debated, critically analysed, and many solutions are proferred.

A solution or group of solutions will be selected after various deliberations and debate and compromise, then you move on. At some indeterminate time in the future the solution is tested or re-evaluated.

The way our system of liberal democracy has developed has lead to an important part of this process (primarily the identification and broadcast components, or as I shall call it "I/B") being carried out as a worthwhile byproduct of the profit-seeking activities of a collection of businesses called newspapers.

Newspapers are run by humans, so as I/B systems newspapers are subject to all the usual cognitive biases, and are therefore prone to horrible failure modes.

I suspect in the phase space of all possible ways of solving the I/B problem newspapers occupy a local maxima. There may well be better ways of dealing with I/B (some kind of universal Panopticon and a million bored apes?).

But here the press has failed in that is has chosen to concentrate on a minor side-effect of the wider problem:

MPs were writing the rules for their own expenses. To whom are they accountable?

Half our legislature is unelected. This is a bad joke.

Our executive is more powerful than our legislature. This is a bad idea.

If there is a problem here it is bigger than the problem of MPs expenses, it is a problem with the way our legislature is set up and our government is elected.

So why are the newspapers focussing on the sneering, snide, grumpy, petty, priggish, holier-than-thou, expenses-obsession rather than the actual issues.

The British are possessed of the same peasant mentality as the Americans. Easily distracted by the threat of external foes but fundamentally incapable of addressing the real problems.

I agree with what Joan Smith writes in The Guardian

The British public – not all of them, but the smug guardians of morality who are enjoying this crisis so much – say they are disgusted by the behaviour of our elected representatives. Let me say that it works both ways: for the first time in my life, I am sick of my country. I am sick of the daily undermining of democracy, and sick of the sadistic pleasure people take in humiliating decent public servants. Even so, I will go on urging my friend not to give up her seat. She is a brilliant constituency MP, and I don't believe anyone should give in to bullies.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Accidental Pornographer: not actually a review

A brief summary of lessons learned from The Accidental Pornographer:
  1. Do not fall in love with the concept before you have scoped out opportunities for expansion. Griffiths discovers that the potential market for his product is smaller than he assumed only after he is well into it.
  2. Do not get hypnotised by the prestige of others. Griffiths uses M&C Saatchi for marketing, despite their high-cost.
  3. In planning your cash-flow always bear in mind the worst case scenario.
I've actually met the author, Gavin Griffiths, though I didn't know who he was at the time. I was working in our local branch of WH Smith and he came in to ask if we had this book in stock, as he had written it and wanted to know if it had hit the shelves yet.

My fleeting impression of him was of an earnest and unobjectionable individual. This is reinforced by his book and his blog.

The book is recommended for much the same reasons as Paul Carr's book Bringing Nothing to the Party. It is story of business failure, though neither Carr or Griffiths fail completely.

And you learn more from failure than you learn from success. Karl Popper teaches us this.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

MPs expenses

I've been trying to articulate exactly why I don't care about the MPs expenses row. It could be because of the dry pointlessness of it all (as discussed here by Alex), it could be because of the po-faced hypocrisy (as identified here by Stephen Fry) of the public and media, or it could be that after having written to my MP about this I feel I've already done my civic duty and therefore have no need to be outraged.

But it mainly comes down to my belief that the purpose of a free press is to highlight error in as efficient manner as possible. Going on and on about this dishonorable behaviour on the part of some MPs distracts from more serious dishonour and dishonesty: when Jack Straw used executive privilegeto veto the publication of the Iraq war minutes, where were the days of outraged front-pages?

Parliamentary expenses should be public knowledge as a matter of course. And political error should be highlighted as a matter of course.

My problem with the "MPs expenses row" is that:

1) The media has taken years to respond to this issue.

2) The media does not respond as strongly to undisputably more serious problems.

Update 15/05/2009:

On second thoughts, I agree with Shuggy.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Laughter as an error-correction mechanism

Some bloke called Carlo Strenger has written a superior article on enlightenment values:

...the Enlightenment has created an idea of immense importance: no human belief is above criticism, and no authority is infallible; no worldview can claim ultimate validity. Hence unbridled fanaticism is the ultimate human vice, responsible for more suffering than any other.
it applies to the ideas of the Enlightenment, too. They should not be above criticism, either. History shows that Enlightenment values can indeed be perverted into fanatical belief systems. Just think of the Dr Strangeloves of past US administrations who were willing to wipe humanity off the face of the earth in the name of freedom, and the – less dramatic but no less dismaying – tendency of the Cheneys and Rumsfelds of the GW Bush administration to trample human rights in the name of democracy.

As one of the commenters points out, the profound principle that both 20th century secular ideologues and religious authorities throughout history have ignored, is that of always bearing in mind the possibility you might be dead wrong.

The healthy human response to harmless error or misunderstanding is to have a laugh. Thus error is highlighted for all to see and forgiven by all parties.

A further mistake on the part of humorless fanatics everywhere is to assume that there can ever be one, insoluble, and eternal truth. It may be that such a thing exists, but it is likely to be beyond our capacity to discern its true form from the vague shadows on the walls of our epochal cave.

And so human beings are prone to error. There's no problem with this, as failure teaches us more than success.

This idea was only properly articulated by Karl Popper in the 20th century: it is the idea you can never conclusively prove that an idea is correct, but rather disprove false ideas.

And so human knowledge grows and the enterprise of civilization advances, one laughter-inducing blooper at a time.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

John Sutherland: fool?

Just read this weird nonsense about Sir Jim Rose's report on primary school education by columnist John Sutherland.

I'll just highlight a few of the more ridiculous pronouncements:

In a library, you choose the book. Put another way, you control the book. I can't get over the feeling that, somehow, the computer controls the kid - he or she becomes nothing more than an information servo- mechanism. Or an empty file in which knowledge is not being discovered but (hateful word) downloaded. And computers, it seems to me, work best with what George Orwell called “Newspeak” - language stripped down to skeletal simplicity. Language, in fact, that is not language at all but code. Many skills have been enhanced by the computer but vocabulary, I suspect, has been shrunk, rigidified and deadened.

Deary me. Where to begin?

1) "You control the book" - no. As far as a child is concerned, the book is written, published, and printed by adults they have never met. The books they have access to are chosen by their school.

2) "the computer controls the kid" - no. With a computer connected to the Internet the child has the option of creating their own blog, editing Wikipedia, or interacting with their friends over social networking websites. If the child is particulary precocious they may even by able to write their own code, thereby truly taking control of the computer.

3) "computers, it seems to me, work best with what George Orwell called “Newspeak” - no. I don't see how anyone can make this claim without fundamentally misunderstanding what newspeak is. But wait...

4) "language stripped down to skeletal simplicity. Language, in fact, that is not language at all but code." - no. Although newspeak is "simplified English" the objective of the totalitarian governments of 1984 is to remove the capacity of the language to describe rebellion in terms anything other than negative. Newspeak is about control, not simplicity. It is about replacing ambiguity with certainty, and leaving no room for doubt.

Anyone who has read Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language will know that Orwell decried the lazy use of metaphor, as it substituted rational thought with mindless sloganeering.

Precisely the kind of mindless sloganeering that Sutherland uses when he talks of language "that is not language at all but code." It is not clear if Sutherland is referring to actual computer code or to leet speak or to the asanine babbling of most high-profile blogs. And that is part of the point.

Sutherland is unconsciously shutting down debate by making unfounded cliched statements that he has heard others utter about computers.

Sutherland's basic point is that he agrees with the general conclusions of Jim Rose's report: that "play" is a necessary and valuable part of a child's education. This can be filed in the "no shit, Sherlock" cabinet.

On a more cheerful note this discussion allows me to reference the Monkey Dust sketch that summarises the problems of education in the UK far more succinctly than Prof. Sutherland manages.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Night Sessions: a few thoughts

I read this book over the weekend. A few thoughts:

1) Very good treatment of religion. Harsh criticism of faith-based brutality mediated by a genuine understanding of the nature of faith. There is a part near the end that captures the essence of what losing a strong religious faith is like perfectly:

He knew exactly what he now believed, because it was exactly what he had rejected until now. He'd stepped out of shattered armour not naked and shivering, but fully clothed. It was as if his new world-view had all along been inside the armour and being kept in, rather than outside and being kept out.

2) Very plausible treatment of sentient robots. Probably the best treatment I've seen in a while. The key point that MacLeod makes is that yer typical sentient robot is likely to have a superior theory of mind to yer typical sentient animal. Therefore robots are likely to be kinder, gentler, and more empathetic than humans.

The book is strongly recommended, being well-written, and the characters spend a lot of time talking in pubs. There is little and life that could not be improved by spending more time talking in pubs. Certainly Stephen Baxter's work would gain a lot.

[pic borrowed from here]

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A mixed bag of economics

I took this test Are You an Austrian? The actual number of ticks for each economic tradition I got are as follows:

  • Keynesian/Neoclassical: 10
  • Chicago: 8
  • Austrian: 5
  • Socialism: 1
  • Keynesian: 1
My score was 47/100. So I am nearly half Austrian. Who knew?

Ranting about nothing very much

This Are You an Austrian? [1] quiz has some fail in it. Take question 4:

What is the economic impact of saving?

The first two of four multiple choice answers to this question are:

In normal times, saving is not economically harmful but in a recessionary environment it can cause the economy to spiral downward.

Saving reduces consumer spending and may not be translated into investment spending because of investor pessimism. This will reduce total demand in the economy and lead to unemployment.

One way of correcting this is to expand the money supply to keep interest rates low. This will support private investment and stimulate total spending in the economy.

Fiscal and monetary managers need to implement policies that discourage hoarding and encourage current expenditure. As for saving over the life cycle of individuals, we need a social safety net that will provide for people in their older years.


The vast accumulation of wealth within select classes and families creates an economic oligarchy that shuts out those who cannot gain a foothold within the economic system.

Inheritance taxes, and taxes on dividends, are essential to a society that values equality. After all, the yield from vast bank accounts really amounts to unearned income. No society can tolerate some people living off interest while others live paycheck-to-paycheck off the meager sums offered by minimum wages.

The first answer is basically right, but the second seems like a non sequitur straw man version of a raging Marxist. What does inheritance tax have to do with the question of whether saving is good or not?

[1]: Economist, that is.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What people are actually interested in

In lieu of actual content I've decided to post this image of the most read articles on The Daily Telegraph webwotzit, seen whilst reading about some sort of Westminster argy bargy by Boris:

Dunno why, but it tickled me.

Links here, here, here, here, and here because I don't want posterity to bother me about this.

Thursday, April 09, 2009


From these guys.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Ideology and the state vs. markets paradigm

Charlotte Gore, libertarian liberal democrat, has been responding at length to a comment I made on this post on her blog.

Chris Dillow has commented on the G20 protests, and of course manages to be far more coherent than I've been, what with my constantly changing opinion on the matter:

Most of the Left is more interested in smug self-righteousness than in economics.

The debate about what to do now is conventionally framed in terms of the state versus (actually existing) markets - that is, as one set of bosses versus another. The possibility that people can organize themselves - through either genuinely free markets and/or through democratic co-operation - doesn’t arise. But it’s this spontaneous free organization that is the Marxist ideal.

This is what I find most interesting about Dillow: he highlights the absurdity of exhorting people to support one set of rulers (state bosses) against another set of rulers (corporate bosses). All left/right distinctions kind of fall away when you frame the political debate in these terms.

T'be honest when it comes to political ideology I don't give a flying fig: they're interesting things to study in their own right, just as science, technology, business, political economy, and the history of all of these things are interesting.

But do I care to ascribe to any particular ideology? No. Not really. I am somewhat peeved that despite the fact that humanity possesses the technological and economic capacity to make the world a decent place to live for everyone we still haven't done so.

I am mildly annoyed that not every one of my fellow human beings is living the Good Life they deserve to.

But as to means to achieve these ends? I don't know. I strongly suspect we haven't even started to properly explore the phase space of all possible ways of running our civilization, and there may well be ways that are qualitatively better than the current statist/capitalist model of global political economy, but I am strongly sceptical that any particular Vanguard know What Needs to Be Done and have the ability to do it.

As long as our Leaders avoid doing anything really stupid then things will probably turn out OK.

Progress will happen, as progress always does, with many incremental steps and the occasional jarring revolution.

Civilization will continue to evolve.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Put people first

Yeah. So I've changed my mind about the G20 protesters. It is a shame that one was killed, but really they were just protesting for the sake of smashing things up and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

Edit 07/04/2009:

Nope. I've changed my mind again. I don't know exactly where I stand vis a vis the Put People First agenda, and the conduct of the police was depraved and disgusting.

Harnessing the body politic

Reading Hopi Sen's excellent analysis of Peter Oborne's less than excellent analysis on Charlie Brooker's excellent program Newswipe I was struck by an important point, from Oborne:

"You go back a generation or two, the people who came into the commons, whether from the left of the right, the primary objective was to serve the country or serve their voters, not to make money for themselves.

What is new is that the majority of people now coming into Parliament have sought politics as a career since coming out of university… so what we see is the use of politics as a way of making huge sums of money".

The first assertion is bogus: what people, and politicians especially, really want is power. But there's nothing wrong with this, it's just how we're evolutionary wired.

The trick is to create a system of government that harnesses the inherent desire for power and competitive instincts of homo sapiens sapiens to constructive ends.

Democracy works because when it works properly it enables politicians to achieve power by giving the public what they think the public wants.

That this is an absurd impossibility is without doubt: but at least they're trying and at least they're accountable and at least they're so keen to stab each other in the back that they can very effectively police themselves.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

G20: what was that about?

Since I read The End of Politics by the august Chris Dillow I have become even more sceptical of the capacity of politicians to identify and accomplish worthwhile goals.

So news that the 20 most powerful politicians on this fair globe of ours have got together and have decided that something must be done is not especially comforting, especially as much of what they suggest seems tangential to the main problem of anthropogenic climate change.

This is unsurprising given the other great lesson of The End of Politics is that there is no such thing as a clearly defined national interest or even (within fairly wide parameters) such a thing as a single global interest. Any government policy will result in winners and losers. There will always be tradeoffs between different interests. TANSTAAFL.

And yet rather than focus on the big problem of a powerful, complex, open, and unpredictable system that we also all happen to live inside these 20 individuals chose to focus on a powerful, complex, open, and unpredictable system that we all happen to rely on for ongoing wealth and economic development (I betcha can't tell which one is which!).

Mmm. Tradeoffs at work.

I have not opinion on the credit crunch. I imagine things will be back up and running soon enough. As to the climate it is best to try to tread as lightly as possible and stop pushing the button. We've got a good thing going on here: it would be a damn shame if we continue pissing it up the wall.

And it is not managerialist to desire that governments do something about climate change. Given the potentially huge negative consequences of continuing to vent gas this can be thought of as a case of stopping a crime: one of the few things that it is generally agreed states are pretty good not bad at.

But I repeat: there are always going to be winners and losers.

Which is why it is important that everyone is consulted, everyone's point of view is heard, and the losers are given respect and sympathy for their plight.

That is why the death of one of the protestors at the summit was particularly sad.

The Put People First campaign achieved a couple of it's goals: tougher action on tax havens, and closer regulation of all financial instruments. But there didn't seem to be any particular emphasis on the environment or climate change, undoubtedy the areas where most medium and long-term good can be accomplished.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who can read and has access to a history book. Financial panics and recessions happen every few years.

But if there is one good thing politicians can do it is to try to find some way of averting the negative consequences of anthropogenic climate change.

A global $100/barrel all-border tariff on crude oil would be a good start: such a tax would avoid the colossally complicated, inevitably inefficient, bureaucratic corruptofest that any kind of "embedded CO2" tax system would entail whilst encouraging investment in innovative alternatives to our current oil-based infrastructure.

Combine it with a cap 'n' trade system for CO2 emissions and we're well on our way to dodging the climate change bullet.