27 April 2008

Cognitive Surplus

Hugely important point from Clay Shirky (via boingboing)

Doing the numbers below, the entire volunteer effort that's gone into producing Wikipedia, in man-hours, is about one fifth of the time Americans spend watching television on an average day.

That kind of puts Seth Finklestein's "digital sharecropping" into perspective.

Here's the key section:

if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.
I've tended to be towards the sceptical end of the new-media hype, but this way of looking at things really gives a glimpse of the possibilities.

Black Mass

As I mentioned some time ago, I planned to buy John Gray's Black Mass when it came out in paperback. I came away from the book very disappointed.

I would guess the core of the book is the second half, which is a criticism of the Iraq war. This is a very strong attack on the overconfidence of the idea that a western democracy could be set up in Iraq, and on both the deception and self-delusion of the leading advocates of war.

That much is fine, but criticisms of the Iraq war are ten a penny. The book as a whole is an attempt to generalise from that to put neoconservatism in a tradition of rational utopianism starting with the enlightenment. Jacobinism, Marxism, Nazism, neo-liberalism and even Al-Quaeda itself are all described as incarnations of a single myth of an end time of perfect rule spread across the whole world by human rationality.

The problem with the thesis is that it proves too much. By the standards he sets, there's hardly a movement imaginable that would not be able to qualify as utopian. If you imagine a better future than the present, you're a utopian. If you rhetorically appeal to any religious or mythical glory, you're a utopian (even if the rhetoric is obvious hyperbole). If you claim that something that worked in one country could work in another, you're a utopian. If you exhibit undue confidence in the success of your current policy (such a rarity among politicians), you're a utopian. I felt that the only movements that avoided being labelled as a utopian were those which, with hindsight, actually achieved durable success. Therefore Reagan, despite all his rhetoric, was no utopian, because communism was really defeated.

The book also suffers by the association of the Bush regime with actual evangelical Christianity. While this might casually appear to be consistent with the argument, every earlier version of the utopia myth Gray describes relies on actual human achievement without divine assistance. The accidental coalition between secular ex-Trotskyite empire-builders and devout backwoods millenarialists plays no part in his wider thesis.

Fundamentally, I think Gray is misunderstanding the importance of myth in politics. The point is not that people believe the utopian myth to be true, it's that a narrative, whether an explanation of the past or a forecast for the future, feels subjectively more convincing if it accords with some myth than if it doesn't. The follower of Marxism or neoconservatism or whatever would not say that the final victory was inevitable, but the theories of the leaders would feel more persuasive because they carried in them the essence of the myth. Some ideas are easier to get carried away by than others.

And then there's the final chapter. Oh dear. I really don't want Anomaly to become simply a climate denial blog, but there's something overwhelmingly ridiculous about spending a whole book attacking political movements which you claim are apocalyptic religion in disguise, and then casually, in passing, signing up to the most alarmist of all climate change predictions in their entirety, and citing as scientific authority a book entitled "The Revenge of Gaia". If someone could explain that level of blindness in otherwise highly intelligent commentators, and I certainly can't, they would be making a real contribution to the understanding of political history.

The only slight indication of awareness of the contradiction in his position is the following feeble half-justification:
... In another sense the prospect is not apocalyptic at all. In wrecking the planetary environment humans are only doing what they have done innumerable times before on a local level ...
In the end the point is that Gray is not against mythology, only against one particular myth:
Happily, humanity has other myths, which can help it see more clearly. In the Genesis story humans were banished from paradise after eating from the Tree of Knowledge and had to survive by their labours ever after. There is no promise here of any return to a state of primordial innocence. Once the fruit has been eaten there is no going back. The same truth is preserved in the Greek story of Prometheus, and in many other traditions. These ancient legends are better guides to the present than modern myths of progress and utopia.
NO! STOP! The problem is with mythology as a guide to policy, not with just one myth. Myths are bugs in the mind, nothing more. The answer to bad policy based on myths is not other myths, it's accuracy and humility.

Of course, his own continuing preference for myth might explain the vehemence of the book. His claim that neo-liberals believed in their inevitable global dominance struck me as very strange: if neo-liberal means people like me, and I normally interpret it that way, we have always inclined more to pessimism and defeatism than triumphalism, even at the end of the eighties when a few of our ideas like privatisation were spreading across the world. But of course Gray himself was one of us at one time, and if he took a millenarian view of things at the time, then, like me sticking up for the Men in Skirts, he could be expected to turn against his old ideas violently. But his error was not his liberalism, it was his mythologising, and he has changed the myth instead of keeping the politics and rejecting myth.

Gray needs to put down Leo Strauss and the Bible, and read some Pratchett.

Fascism: right or left?

In the last few days I have seen, from several directions, the old question raised as to whether fascism should be considered right-wing or left-wing.

The argument familiar to libertarians is that, because fascism is collectivist, it should be considered left-wing. This is often traced back to Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, and has been brought up recently by Jonah Goldberg in his book. There is also the fact that the originators of fascism were on the left first.

There is a summary of some recent discussion among British libertarian bloggers at the curiously-named don't set fire to your jacket .

John Gray argues in his book Black Mass, which, as promised, I will review here shortly, that fascism, if not actually of the left, is at least a product the same enlightenment mythology, as he sees it. In this he is closely following Kuehnelt-Leddihn.

Mencius at UR has argued the contrary.
In the 1930s, there was no confusion at all as to whether the fascist movements were parties of the extreme Right or of the extreme Left. Everyone agreed. They were parties of the Right. Populist right-wingers to be sure, but right-wingers nonetheless. For once, the conventional wisdom is perfectly accurate.
In this case I would go along with him. This is not really a question which has a right or wrong answer, but I think its more useful to classify fascism as right-wing than left-wing. The reason is in what I consider the essence of government, as I wrote yesterday. Politics is not primarily about how society should be governed. It is primarily about who does the governing. So the similarity in policy between far-left and far-right is interesting and noteworthy, but it does not mean they are the same. Politics is primarily about what group should rule, and fascism and communism represent different groups. The left seeks to dispossess the rich; the right seeks to control them. The fact that, after gaining control of the economy, they would each do much the same thing with it, is not enough to make them allies. Since they will always oppose each other, it is not useful to classify them as on the same side.

One reason some libertarians dislike describing fascists as right-wing is that they consider themselves of the right. I think that is a mistake, caused by the history of the cold war, where they sided with the true right against communism. That is all over now, but the personal and organisational ties survive to an extent. Let the fascists have the "right-wing" label; our position is not left or right, but fundamentally "anti-politics". That should have public appeal currently, although it is an admission that we cannot really win the game, because we are not really playing.

Update: I've written a lot more on fascism recently; see here and here.

26 April 2008

The Essence of Government

Further to my previous post, I have come across this piece from last week by Jim Henley, also dealing with the problem of how libertarianism can make a practical difference.
I think libertarians are, rather, the court jesters of politics. I mean that in a good way. We whisper to Caesar that that he is mortal. We caper about, turning ourselves blue if necessary, reminding everyone that government power is inescapably violent and inescapably self-interested. You’re probably not going to care, but we’re going to make you actively decide not to care. And sometimes, maybe you’ll care after all. As a class, we can be stupendously silly people, believing and saying the most absurd things. But our rulers are silly people too, in different and more malignant ways. And as fools, we have the freedom to say so.
I think he's right, and if he's right about America, the same is even more true of Britain, where libertarian ideas are that much further from the mainstream.

The problem is that all politics is based on a lie: that the essence of government in a democracy is to serve the people, and that political questions are about how best to serve the people.

In fact the essence of government, in a democracy or elsewhere, is that the strong enslave the weak. What democracy provides is not a different essence, but, by the mechanism of dividing the strong against each other, a situation where the strong enslave the weak much less effectively. The point of democracy is to provide ineffective government, which is a good thing.

So if the debate is about what the government should do to better serve the people, then I am a libertarian (indeed now a Libertarian), and will bore my victims to death talking about lower taxes and more flexible markets and civil liberties and the rest of it. But the policies I complain about are usually not imperfections in our servant, the government. They are the reality of our master, the government, sticking out through the bars of the cage in which it is restrained.

25 April 2008

How to get better?

At Samizdata, Johnathan Pearce has asked another of the fundamental questions. By what route do we get from where we are to a better situation for the country?

The problem is that even attempting to carry out such a programme entails playing the political game. And a key part of the political game is feeding the movement by handing out patronage. If you're not doing that, you're not really playing the game, you're just posturing.

How did Thatcher manage to fight the overgrown state for three terms, with two landslide majorities, and yet leave it as large as she found it? Because every victory had to be paid for by buying support somewhere else.

So slimming the state through the system is out of the question. Fighting the system would not leave enough afterwards to help, even assuming (delusionally) that we had anything like the support to make it possible. There is the ASI approach of working through those in power, attempting to change their minds directly. The gains are marginal, but real. The necessity to a politician of defending statism so as to be able to reward supporters leads to a situation where the powerful believe their own propaganda beyond what is actually useful to them; that is why good argument can have some effect but never achieve real change.

Another opportunity for marginal change is direct action. The point of this is not to overthrow the system, but to change the incentives of those in power. Therefore aim not at the top, but at lower levels where the real damage is done by those making unseen decisions week by week and year by year.

20th Century Wars

Via L&P, a good piece in the Grauniad about the actual motivations behind the second world war. Right or wrong, WWII was a practical war against a geopolitical rival, not a crusade for justice or human rights.

Combining it with the latest excellent essays from Mencius (1, 2, more still to come), it would seem that the conventional wisdom is reversed: the first world war was an ideological war, fought in the name of democracy, while the second was a pragmatic struggle for power and influence.

It would be consistent with my theory of Humanitarian Intervention (and why not to do it), that the war fought for realpolitik has proved easier to justify in hindsight than the war fought for democratic ideology.

24 April 2008

The Lords

I suggested in a comment at Tim's that unicameralism would be OK, so long as it means getting rid of the House of Commons.

I was mostly joking. But maybe it's worth thinking about.

On the anti side, there's this amendment by the Lords to the Criminal Justice bill creating penalties for "Recklessly disclosing" personal data.

In order to rule that something is reckless, you need to have some idea of what normal practice is, to contrast against recklessness.

But in handling of data, there practically is no normal practice, and what there is is mostly terrible. We in the IT industry just make it all up as we go along. That's what being such a young, fast-moving profession is all about. The high-profile failures that we've seen have been notable more for bad luck than for being worse than the rest of the industry.

I'm not saying that the current situation is satisfactory. But slinging around vague terms like 'reckless', outside of the context of the Data Protection Act which, for all its faults, at least tries to define the concepts it deals with, will not improve anything.

Business IT does not work to a level of reliability adequate for protecting confidential data, or for other critical functions. If we were to operate on a similar basis to the people who write software for planes or power stations, costs and delays would increase to the point where 90% of what we now do would simply not be worth doing.

And that has to be the answer for confidential personal information. If it really needs to be secret, it shouldn't be on commercial-grade IT systems in the first place. If the state or a private business collects it, don't be surprised when it leaks. Most of the time, the recklessness is in collecting it in the first place.

Back on unicameralism, I think the reason for this mistake by the Lords is a desire to defeat the government, to make them look weak, to get more votes. So if we didn't have a Commons, we wouldn't have had this bad amendment.

Perhaps.

21 April 2008

Quote of the Day

"Hitchhiking is choosing to have faith in other human beings, and man, like a small god, rewards those who have faith in him."

-- Pippa Bacca and Silvia Moro, two performance artists who demonstrated their faith in humanity by hitch-hiking across the Balkans wearing wedding dresses.

I'm so used to reading (and writing) unproved statements that just hang there. Not only is their truth debatable, but so is the sincerity with which they are presented. Making an outrageous statement for shock value is so easy.

Pippa Bacca proved beyond all doubt that she really believed what she said. She also proved that she was wrong.

When you read my little pearls of arrogance here, please remember that I'm not prepared to stake my life on anything I write.

I'm sorry.

20 April 2008

Sovereignty and Human Rights

Britain has a very secure government. We are blessed with a government that doesn't have to worry much about being invaded or overthrown, and can devote its attention to vital issues such as whether people are lying on school application forms.

The people of Somalia are not so blessed. Their government does not have the resources to give its citizens ASBOs or check that only genuine garden waste is placed in the brown bins. Nonetheless, it does the best it can to provide a semblance of order and peace. Unlicensed interior design work may go unchecked, but piracy on the high seas is likely to be punished with beheading.

In one way this is a good thing, because it's actually quite important that cargo travels unimpeded up and down the coast of Africa without being snaffled by Captain Blood and his chums. But, on the other hand, our government officially believes that for a pirate to have his head detached, anywhere in the world, is an infringement of his human rights.

Therefore, the Royal Naval captain that encounters these miscreants is in a bit of a bind. If he lets them go, trade will continue to be impeded. If he takes them home to Britain, they will get the ASBO they so richly deserve, and can then claim Asylum as potential victims of the Somalians' inhumanity. This is likely to be frowned on by the man in the street. Dropping them off back in Somalia to have their blocks knocked off is right out.

If the Somalis had caught them themselves, there would not have been an issue. Heads would be removed, trade would flow, Amnesty International would increment a box in a spreadsheet, and we would not take our eyes off The Apprentice. But because we want, for our own good reason, to assist the Somalian government in its basic duty to order its territory and territorial waters, the otherwise harmless hypocrisy gets in the way.

The hypocrisy should go. We have our standards, and other people have theirs. If we disagree sufficiently with a foreign government, we might attempt to overthrow and replace it, but that's a big undertaking not to be treated lightly. If we are going to cooperate with foreigners to the extent of subsidizing their infrastructure or sending our leading exponents of the hop-skip-and-jump to compete there, we need to respect their sovereignty.

How bad is Mugabe?

The history of Zimbabwe, as seen from here via the media, is slightly strange. Mugabe and ZANU took over in 1980 and ruled, if not well, then at least averagely by African standards for twenty years. Then in 2000, came the land seizures, leading to the steady disintegration of agriculture, and eventually to the utter economic failure of today.

The assumption in these parts seems to be that Mugabe went bonkers in 2000. That is possible. But it seems at least as likely, based on the scant facts presented, that he held out against the destruction of white-owned agriculture for twenty years, and in 2000 could do so no longer. As I explained in the British context, it would be out of the question for him to defend his policy change in that way.

If my guess is correct, then the most important fact about Zimbabwe politics is that there is a powerful group of armed "war veterans" who will take what they want (land) and the most powerful individual in the country (Mugabe) is unable to stop them. If that is true, then the outlook, whoever is finally declared to have won the election, is not good.

It may be that the MDC, with western support, would be able to protect private property sufficiently for the economy to start to recover. If that is so, then the basic difference between ZANU and the MDC is that the MDC would have western support and ZANU doesn't. By a startling coincidence, that is exactly what Mugabe claims.

Aside from the destruction of the economy, the alleged evils of Mugabe are not so obvious. The level of political oppression that has been reported is what I would term mild to moderate: no worse than Russia and considerably better than China.

I suppose there's no direction to go but forwards, and forwards means getting rid of Mugabe and starting again with a new set of rulers who can accept outside help in restraining the "war veterans". But I expect civil war. My bet would be that Iraq will be peaceful and prosperous before Zimbabwe is.

19 April 2008

Invention of Tradition

Liberty and Power links to this Grauniad piece on how Highland Scottish culture - in this case specifically bagpipes - is all a 200-year-old fake.

The trouble is, yet again, that the headline doesn't agree with the story. The familiar narrative is that the formal "Highland Culture" that assails the tourist and the expatriate today was collected and defined by the likes of the "Highland Society of London" after the real highland culture had been dead just long enough to be safe. It was now opportune for the British establishment to promote and co-opt the history.

That's not the same as saying they made it all up from scratch. The highlanders wore heavy woolen woven cloths, often with various tartan patterns, so the revivers defined tartans and garment types. They played some kind of pipe, so they made bagpipes. The old highlanders didn't themselves publish reference books of clan tartans and kilts and bagpipe designs, because that's not the sort of thing a living culture does (particularly a backward peasant culture).

So what the Guardian's big revelation of the "fake" bagpipes amounts to is that the pipes made by businesses in Edinburgh according to fixed designs for the last 200 years are not quite the same as the ones actually carried by illiterate cattle-herders and peasants two hundred miles north and a hundred years previously. Also particular specimens in various museums are not actually as old as they claim to be. The first point is obvious, the second is important for the museums but not actually of much interest to the rest of us.

Why am I sticking up for the rent-a-Jocks? Do I have romantic dreams about my Grampian ancestors sticking it to the Sassenachs? Hardly. But the arguments that annoy me most are the ones I've previously fallen for. I have gleefully debunked the tartans and the like in the past, and I'm embarrassed to have been had. There's some relevance to the other issue, because, like the WMDs and the last decade's temperatures, this is a case where the details say one thing and the headline has been spun to say something else.

Unlike the other cases, I don't think there's any particular agenda at work here. The base of it was explained best by G. K. Chesterton:
You've got to understand one of the tricks of the modern mind, a tendency that most people obey without noticing it. In the village or suburb outside there's an inn with the sign of St. George and the Dragon. Now suppose I went about telling everybody that this was only a corruption of King George and the Dragoon. Scores of people would believe it, without any inquiry, from a vague feeling that it's probable because it's prosaic. It turns something romantic and legendary into something recent and ordinary. And that somehow makes it sound rational, though it is unsupported by reason. Of course some people would have the sense to remember having seen St. George in old Italian pictures and French romances, but a good many wouldn't think about it at all. They would just swallow the skepticism because it was skepticism. Modern intelligence won't accept anything on authority. But it will accept anything without authority.

Debunking feels good. Knowing that what the what the other fellow believes is wrong feels really good. I have a particular weakness for it, which is why I've been a perpetrator of this one example before.

Good reason to buy fakes

Luxury watchmakers are apparently starting to add anti-forgery features to make it easier to identify counterfeits (via Division of Labour).

How embarrassing for them to have to admit that the cheap knock-offs are otherwise indistinguishable from the real thing.

As I've said before, the legitimate purpose of trademark law is to protect the consumer from inferior goods. A technical or artistic innovation is a positive externality, which copyright and patent law is designed to internalize. A brand established by costly marketing is of no general benefit, and cannot be deserving of state protection except inasmuch as it is a guarantee to the consumer of superior quality.

In defence of lying scumbags

Apparently (via Mr Eugenides) The EU's new Unfair Commercial Practices directive will mean that psychics will have to prove they do not mislead their customers.

Now I'm more sure that psychics do mislead their customers than I am of almost anything, and we would all be better off if they stopped. They might not all be lying scumbags: possibly some of them are just nuts.

But I'm not sure that making every failed prophecy into a legal action will be an improvement. The problem in dealing with psychics, as with homeopaths, Christians, dowsers, mediums and the rest, is not that they are not obviously wrong (they are), but that many of the "legitimate" alternatives aren't provably better. If we start demanding proofs, we'll take out the pychics alright, but what about the equity research analysts? Homeopathy is crap, but how much respectable medicine has not been proved to be better? You can argue that we would be better without all these questionable experts and advisers, but I'd rather make up my own mind than have the choices regulated by the law.

Actually, the two examples I chose: equity research and medicine, are very regulated. Perhaps there are better examples. But even these aren't actually required to be accurate. Equity researchers have to show they're not being bribed to make particular recommendations, and doctors have to show that they're consistent with other doctors, but neither actually have to show that their predictions come true. The required standard for astrologers might turn out to be similar, but if the result of all this legislation is that they just have to put a line of small print at the bottom saying the mystical power of the stars can go down as well as up, I don't think it's really worth while.

Expanded blog reading

I've added one or two new feeds to my regular reading, as a result of the meet at the ASI on Wednesday.

There were talks from Tim Worstall, "Guido Fawkes" and Perry de Havilland, which served mostly to underscore how good blogging is as a medium, compared with, er, sitting listening to people giving speeches.

Some people really have it, though, and a few minutes listening to Chris Mounsey holding forth in general conversation were enough to persuade me that I should (a) be reading everything he writes, which for some reason I haven't been doing up until now, and (b) be in the Libertarian Party. Devil's Kitchen needs no introduction from me, but Mounsey's vision of a positive libertarian platform that can be put to the general public was an eye-opener.

I may doubt the general proposition that we need a Libertarian Party, but if it is the way to get Mr Mounsey's energy and vision to a wider audience, then we need this Libertarian Party. Since I let my UKIP membership lapse (for the second time) a few years ago, there's no reason for me not to be a member.

I also have added Question That, a newish blogger who was there on Wednesday (another Libertarian Party person), and, as a side effect of paying more attention to British political blogs, have added The Remittance Man, Mark Wadsworth, and Iain Murray's new outing, though as far as I am aware they weren't there.

18 April 2008

Libertarianism and Welfare

Johnathan Pearce at Samizdata kicks off a discussion:

"A barrier to people accepting libertarianism is the notion that we'd let people starve in the streets."

I think this is true. And while the notion is fundamentally unjustified, there is a grain of truth in it.

For one thing, to the extent that there are people who believe that the poor should be left to starve in the streets, they are likely to be found among our allies and supporters.

For another, while most libertarians would say, like Johnathan, that the unfortunate would be looked after by private charity, and might well end up better off than is the case today, most would also say that there should be some stigma to being a recipient of charity; that the deserving poor (as judged by donors) should be better off than the undeserving poor, in order to provide useful incentives.

Similarly, people should be encouraged to look after their families, meaning the poor with families to look after them will be better off than those without, and that misfortune falling on one person would also impact their families.

There is a separate problem which results in a bad impression of libertarianism: there are things (like redistribution) which we can see are wrong as a matter of principle. Pretty much by definition, we agree that the state should not redistribute income. There are other issues which do not so easily resolve to matters of principle - like whether the state should invade Iraq. We do not all agree about that, and therefore we do not take such a strong position. So while I, personally, might see the war as a vast waste of lives and resources, I would be cautious in arguing it, because people I respect disagree for reasons which eventually come down to matters of judgement. On the other hand -- state funding for opera! That is just wrong, and anyone who disagrees cannot be "one of us".

The result is that it looks as if I care passionately about withdrawing state funding of opera (or cutting benefit for the disabled, or whatever), but am indifferent to the bombing of civilians. That is not the case. Whatever the right answers, the Iraq war issue is much more important than the arts funding question. If we, as libertarians, give the opposite impression, it's because we see arts funding as an easy question and the right response to terrorism as a difficult question. For the pedantic mind, which characterises many of us, it is tempting to dwell on the easy but minor point rather than on the difficult but major one.

To improve the image of libertarianism, we should perhaps express more of a sense of proportion regarding things that could be done better, but, on the overall scale of things, aren't all that big a deal.

State Beneficiaries

Patrick Crozier asked (a week ago), who actually benefits from the state?

He works down the list, from Tony Blair to a welfare junkie, and observes that nobody is doing much better from the state than they would otherwise.

There is a good reason for this: rent-seeking. If any particular position as a tax-eater is excessively profitable, then people will fight over it until the cost of winning it approaches the value of the loot. Hence, becoming an MP, say, and grabbing that lovely 120K/yr, involves a whole lot of hard work and sacrifice, in the same way as getting the best bargains on the opening day of a sale requires camping outside overnight, elbowing and clawing your way to the front of the pack.

The winners of the tournament are making a marginal profit, or else they wouldn't bother, but they're not doing that much better than they would at something else.

The individuals who do actually profit significantly are those who do not have to compete for their position, either because the position is not open to competition (for instance because of nepotism), or because there is a lot of randomness in the selection process.

The waste of the public sector is not really to be seen in the rare government-produced fat cat or welfare cheat. They are unrepresentative. The waste is most visible in the vast hordes who have no plans in life beyond collecting handouts or doing worthless public sector jobs. Most of them could do something like as well in the private sector, but in sheer numbers they make up the most solid statist interest group.

Financial Regulation

I think its fair to say that the financial industry has not been admirable over the last few years. One of the best accounts of what went wrong is this:

Prince was saying he was constrained to follow the conventional wisdom, even when it was palpably insane.

It is therefore understandable that people are saying the manifest errors of the industry should have been restrained by regulators. Given that governments end up bailing out the casualties, it cannot be denied that government has the authority to attempt to prevent such bailouts becoming necessary.

The question is not whether the government is entitled to prevent excesses, it's whether it would actually succeed in doing so. Is it really the case that politicians or civil servants will be less influenced by the crowd effect of conventional wisdom than are financial executives with, in some cases, millions of their own on their line?

One year ago, there was no motivation for regulators to get banks to cut down on lending, to stop buying mortgages, and so on, even if the powers existed for them to do that (which, to a degree, they do). If you are asking regulators to prevent bubbles, you are asking them to outguess the market, which, while not impossible, is not something I would generally expect them to achieve.

14 April 2008

How to treat spin?

In March 2003, I wrote:
...much of the propoganda on WMD's has been misleading or dishonest. Sure, Iraq is months away from making nuclear weapons (if someone else gives them fissionable material). The same goes for the Sons of Glendwyr — getting fissionable material is the only difficult bit.
The government had tried to make us think Iraq had a nuclear weapons programme by telling us, effectively, that it didn't. That was much more revealing than an actual lie, even an obvious lie, because it proved that the government knew the facts and was spinning them in one direction.

Now some climate sceptics have been claiming that the world has not got any warmer for the last ten years. I actually didn't think that was true: from what I saw there was a confusion between US and global temperatures. I have not repeated the claim here because I didn't think it was true.

But the World Meteorological Organisation apparently published a statement that begins:
GENEVA, 4 April 2008 (WMO) - The long-term upward trend of global warming, mostly driven by greenhouse gas emissions, is continuing. Global temperatures in 2008 are expected to be above the long-term average. The decade from 1998 to 2007 has been the warmest on record, and the global average surface temperature has risen by 0.74C since the beginning of the 20th Century.
According to the Deltoid blog I got this from, they put out the statement "to correct the erroneous claims in the media that global warming had stopped"

The thing about the statement is that every factual claim is entirely consistent with the claim that global temperatures have not risen for ten years.

Since they unquestionably rose before 1998, they obviously remain above the long-term average, and likewise the last decade is the warmest on record. Temperatures have obviously risen over the last century. The rest of the WMO statement, (at least, the rest of what was quoted by Deltoid) also fails to contradict the proposition that temperatures have not risen since 1998.

Now, as facts go, it's a minor one. It's perfectly true that ten years is not long enough to draw any firm conclusions from. But like the 2003 Iraq claims, the fact of the spin is much more significant to me than what I can actually know for sure. I didn't know what WMDs Iraq might have, but I knew for certain that the government was trying to make it seem like they had more than was actually the case. I don't know how strong the evidence for AGW is, but I now know as an absolute certainty that the WMO is trying to make the evidence appear stronger than it is, in both cases not because the authorities are lying, but because they are spinning.

13 April 2008

Olympic Shame

I do not feel that the Olympics are tainted by being held in China. In fact, I think China is tainted by holding the Olympics. I would think much better of the country if it refused to hold them, and better still if it refused to participate. I would support any boycott of the Olympics, ever, wherever they are held. In fact, I think I will start a campaign to have the 2012 Olympics moved to Yangon.

To me, all the complaints about 2008 are summed up in this priceless photo (h/t Distributed Republic)

Protester with sign:  Would we have allowed Nazi Germany to host the Olympics?

No better demonstration could exist of the reality distortion field that surrounds this most objectionable of institutions.

Religiosity

My initial theme here was the difference between Europe and America. One of the most obvious is the importance of religion in America. Various explanations have been put forward for this difference, but mostly they do not account for the discrepancy.

I used to claim that everyone in England who seriously believed in God ran away to America to get away from the Tudors, but that doesn't explain the rest of Europe.

I have heard it suggested that the welfare state in Europe has displaced religion, but that is too recent to account for a difference in religiosity that is much more longstanding.

I am inclined to a much simpler explanation: religions in America are more successful because they are privatised by the constitution. While the history of religion in Europe is one of religions fighting for state power with which to eliminate the competition, American churches have concentrated their efforts on appealing to the population.

If the US Constitution included an amendment that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of education, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", then I believe the US would have the most successful schools in the world to go with the most successful churches in the world.

A New Era in Politics

Amid all the noise of the last few weeks, one minor story marks, for me, the beginning of the end of the old politics and the start of a new era.

The old politics is marked by belief in democracy. Voters complain about politicians incessantly, and, from time to time, vote against them. Unfortunately this entails voting for other politicians, and so has minimal effect.

In the new era, people see through the machinery of democracy and the abstraction of party, and hold politicians as individuals personally responsible for their misdeeds.

The sign of this new era, is, of course, the campaign to "bar" Alistair Darling from every pub in the country. Forget all the grand theories about Government, Politics, Budget; what has concretely happened is that Alistair Darling has forced various retailers of alcoholic beverages to pay more for their stock. Certain of those retailers have announced that they will decline to do business voluntarily with the man who did this.

It is my belief, alluded to previously, that we have far more influence over government in the course of our ordinary activity than we do as explicit participants in the political process. This is hardly a new idea; leftist revolutionaries have always known it, hence their emphasis on the Trade Union movement, or the mob.

This is only the beginning, though. It challenges one part of the great fallacy of politics: the part that says that the way to influence government is by participating in the political system. Imitating the publicans and ignoring the system is an advance, but they are still caught in the other part of the fallacy: the part that says that what matters are the decisions of a few famous people at the top of the hierarchy. In fact, the system of government (as opposed to the political system) has a position and a momentum of its own (as I discussed last month) and putting even direct pressure on the system's figureheads will have limited effects. The principle which is being applied to Alistair Darling needs to be applied to every functionary of the state who turns up with a badge or a uniform and makes our lives less pleasant.

Now, maybe some of these people are actually helping us. The refuse collector who leaves behind a second bin cannot be deterred without the end result being that the first bin is left behind also. That is one of the great benefits of this approach, that it distinguishes between the concrete complaints about what the state does and the endless whining about what the state doesn't do.

At present, the state employees most at risk of being threatened by the public are those who actively support the most state-dependent: the benefit officers, the social workers, the nurses in A&E on a Saturday night. If it becomes the norm that state workers can be prevented from doing their jobs by direct public opposition, both sides will benefit. The underclass will become more supportive of their servants or else will suffer the consequences, while the victims of the state -- the people with fixed addresses and jobs and bank accounts and something to lose -- will have some measure of protection from the persecution they currently face at the hands of "the system".

12 April 2008

Kafeel Ahmed, Idiot

At the time of the ludicrously inept propane-bomb attacks in London and Glasgow last summer, my biggest worry was that apparently those involved in the attacks were practising medicine. I would always hope to be treated by doctors with better knowledge of basic science than was demonstrated by those terrorists.

It is now emerging that one of the doctors, at least, was just the brother of the Glasgow suicide arsonist, who may or may not have been aware of the direction of his brother's activities, but who is not accused of being active in planning them. That's good news; there's every chance that the defendant, Sabeel Ahmed, may be a competent doctor.

The idiot arsonist himself was no doctor, but, apparently, a "climate change expert".

I would love to claim that climate alarmists generally are ignorant of chemistry and physics, but that is clearly not the case. I might with slightly more justification claim that there is a common tendency involved, which is to jump to worst-case conclusions. It is actually possible for a propane/air mixture to explode very destructively, it's just very very unlikely without a very sophisticated process of using the right proportions and mixing very well. It is possible that the feedback effect of the climate system to CO2 forcing could be positive rather than negative, but that likewise is very unlikely. The alarmist case is based on climate models that appear to show that the feedback is indeed positive.

As an argument, that's still a bit of a stretch; it's worth thinking about it but I wouldn't expect it to change anyone's mind. The actual irony of this case is that Ahmed S. was pursuing an activity -- climate alarmism -- which has a serious chance of weakening or destabilising western civilisation. Even competent terrorism is less of a threat than climate alarmism. To give up green activism in favour of incompetent terrorism is, for an opponent of Western domination an own goal of Gary Sprake proportions.