I am not sure that this is a suitable subject for a blog post, probably more a project for an aspiring PhD student, but with all the discussion of conflicts of interest in the Trump cabinet, it strikes me that the most glaring conflict in the public sector is ignored: The CoI between state and local politicians elected with the support of public sector unions who then participate in compensation negotiations for the members of those unions. Here the temptation of the politicians to buy the support of the unions with public money is overwhelming. The impact of this is potentially trillions when public pension liabilities are included.
This is such an obvious conflict that I have looked to see if there are laws preventing this, but my initial research shows nothing.
It would be interesting to see if there is a statistical relationship between union support and subsequent pay rises. I would expect this relationship to be especially strong with deferred compensation (such as pensions) since this is very difficult for voters to monitor and can be easily gamed with unrealistic assumptions about, for example, investment returns.
Roger Barris, quoted by Tyler Cowen, “Understudied conflicts of interest in American government”, Marginal Revolution, 2017-01-11.
January 22, 2017
January 21, 2017
[In] 1815, George Stephenson, a humble, self-taught engine-wright with an impenetrable Geordie accent (to which he probably gave the name), put together all the key inventions that — at last — made steam locomotion practicable: the smooth wheels, counter-intuitively less likely to slip if heavily laden; the steam-blast into the chimney to accelerate the draught over the coals; the vertical cylinders connecting directly with the wheels; the connecting rods between the wheels. A year later came his redesign of rails themselves, then later his multi-tubular boiler.
As his biographer, Samuel Smiles, put it:
“Thus, in the year 1815, Mr Stephenson, by dint of patient and persevering labour … had succeeded in manufacturing an engine which … as a mechanical contrivance, contained the germ of all that has since been effected. It may in fact be regarded as the type of the present locomotive engine.”
Suddenly the movement of goods and people fast and cheaply over long distances became possible for the first time.
Not content with that, in 1815 Stephenson also invented the miner’s safety lamp (though snobbish London grandees, unable to conceive that such a humble man could have done so, gave and have continued to this day to give the credit to Sir Humphry Davy). The year of Waterloo was an annus mirabilis of the industrial revolution, putting Britain on course to dominate and transform the world, whether we beat Boney or not. Steam, followed by its offspring internal combustion and electricity, would catapult humankind into prosperity.
Incidentally, there is a tenuous connection between Napoleon and Stephenson. If Bonaparte’s conquests and the corn laws had not driven up the price of corn, then horse feed would have been cheaper and the coal owners who employed Stephenson would not have risked so much money in letting him build a machine to try to find a less expensive way to pull wagons of coals from the pithead in Killingworth to the staithes on the Tyne.
Matt Ridley, “Waterloo or railways”, Matt Ridley Online, 2015-06-18.
January 20, 2017
A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.
January 19, 2017
William G. K. Elphinstone (1782-1842) commanded the British 33rd Regiment of Foot (later the Duke of Wellington’s regiment, and today incorporated in the Yorkshire Regiment), and was almost certainly the worst battalion commander in any of the armies during the campaign. His troops broke at Quatre Bras and lost their colors at Waterloo, which he afterwards tried to cover up by secretly ordering new colors; a deception that failed to retrieve the regimental honor. He went on to prove quite possibly the most inept officer ever to command an army, when, as a major general during the First Afghan War (1839-1842), he dithered on so heroic a scale that, of his 4,000 troops and 10,000 camp followers, only one man escaped death or capture.
Al Nofi, “Al Nofi’s CIC”, Strategy Page, 2015-06-18.
January 18, 2017
Whether they were captives in ancient Crete, orphans in the Florentine Ospedale degli Innocenti, widows in South India or country wives in Georgian England, women through the centuries spent their lives spinning, especially after water wheels freed up time previously devoted to grinding grain. Turning fibre into thread was a time-consuming, highly skilled craft, requiring dexterity and care. Even after the spread of the spinning wheel in the Middle Ages, the finest, most consistent yarn, as well as strong warp threads in general, still came from the most ancient of techniques: drop spinning, using a hooked or notched stick with a weight as a flywheel.
Spinning was the major bottleneck in making cloth. In the late 18th century, the thriving worsted industry in Norwich in the east of England employed 12,000 looms but 10 times as many spinners producing fine wool thread. The demand for spinning was so high, estimates the economic historian Craig Muldrew, that it employed more than a million married women in an English workforce of 4 million, providing about a third of the income of poorer families.
A spinster is a woman who spins. Unmarried women with no children and few domestic chores could work longer hours without distraction, earning as much as male day-labourers and, Muldrew suggests, possibly delaying or even avoiding marriage. Spinning also gave poor girls a more lucrative option than domestic service, leading to complaints of a servant shortage. With labour short and wages high, the eve of the Industrial Revolution was a great time to be a spinster.
But a bottleneck is a problem waiting to be solved, and inventors started looking for ways to get more thread with less labour. Like self-driving cars or cheap, clean energy today, spinning machines seemed obviously desirable. In 1760, Britain’s Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce offered prizes for ‘a Machine that will spin Six Threads of Wool, Flax, Cotton, or Silk at one time, and that will require but one Person to work it’.
Nobody won, but within a few years the northern English carpenter James Hargreaves introduced the spinning jenny. It was, writes the economic historian Beverly Lemire in Cotton (2011), ‘the first robust machine that could consistently produce multiple spindles of thread from the effort of a single spinster’. Soon after, his fellow Lancastrian inventor Richard Arkwright refined mechanical spinning with water-powered innovations that improved thread quality and integrated carding and roving (twisting fibres to prepare them for spinning) into a single process. Arkwright’s mills decisively moved thread production from the cottage to the factory.
It was suddenly a bad time to be a spinster, or a family whose household income depended in part on spinning.
January 17, 2017
Bernie Sanders, the Brooklyn socialist who represents Vermont in the Senate, generated a great deal of mirth on Tuesday when he wondered aloud how it is that a society with 23 kinds of deodorant and 18 kinds of sneakers has hungry children. Setting aside the fact that we must have hundreds of kinds of deodorant and thousands of choices of sneakers, Senator Sanders here communicates a double falsehood: The first falsehood is that the proliferation of choices in consumer goods is correlated with poverty, among children or anybody else, which is flatly at odds with practically all modern human experience. The reality is precisely the opposite: Poverty is worst where consumers have the fewest choices, e.g., in North Korea, the old Soviet Union, the socialist paradise that is modern Venezuela, etc. The second falsehood is that choice in consumer goods represents the loss of resources that might have gone to some other end — that if we had only one kind of sneaker, then there would be more food available for hungry children.
Lest you suspect that I am distorting the senator’s words, here they are:
You can’t just continue growth for the sake of growth in a world in which we are struggling with climate change and all kinds of environmental problems. All right? You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country. I don’t think the media appreciates the kind of stress that ordinary Americans are working on.
This is a very old and thoroughly discredited idea, one that dates back to Karl Marx and to the anti-capitalists who preceded him. It is a facet of the belief that free markets are irrational, and that if reason could be imposed on markets — which is to say, if reason could be imposed on free human beings — then enlightened planners could ensure that resources are directed toward their best use. This line of thinking historically has led to concentration camps, gulags, firing squads, purges, and the like, for a few reasons: The first is that free markets are not irrational; they are a reflection of what people actually value at a particular time relative to the other things that they might also value. Real people simply want things that are different from what the planners want them to want, a predicament that can be solved only through violence and the threat of violence. That is the first reason that this sort of planning leads to gulags. The second is that there are no enlightened planners; men such as Senator Sanders imagine themselves to be candidates for enlightened leadership, but put a whip in his hand and the gentleman from Vermont will turn out to be another thug in the long line of thugs who have cleaved to his faith. The third reason that this sort of planning always works out poorly is that nobody knows what the best use of resources actually is; all that the would-be masters know is that they do not approve of the current deployment of resources.
Kevin D. Williamson, “Bernie Sanders’s Dark Age Economics”, National Review, 2015-05-27.
January 16, 2017
Despite the fact that I don’t smoke pot — because if I do I will be asleep in approximately three minutes — I have long advocated complete legalization. Largely for libertarian reasons but also because the criminal law is essentially unenforceable. But the medical marijuana regulatory scheme interests me as a grand example of government getting something entirely wrong.
The original medical marijuana regulations allowed people to buy from a single supplier or grow their own or designate a grower. While the system was far from perfect, and found to be unconstitutional, it had the advantage of regulating with a very light hand. But, oh Heavens, there was “leakage”. Medical pot was not always only used by medical users. Yikes.
So Health Canada came up with a regulatory scheme which was going to licence grower/distributors and put the users and their growers out of business. Enter Big Green and a bunch of promoters who sold shares in publicly listed companies based on the new regulations. The promoters made a lot of money using a simple story: there were 45,000 medical pot users in Canada (projected to grow to 450,000 users in a decade) who each used about 3 grams a day and who would have no choice but to pay between $8 and $15 a gram for their “medicine”. You do the math.
To my not very great surprise, people used to paying $0 to $5.00 a gram did not rush to sign up. And, very quickly, at least in Vancouver, pot shops – for registered users only of course – began to spring up. Becoming a registered user was not tough. As the 5th Estate guy discovered, telling a naturopath a charming story about stress and sleep disturbance over Skype gets you your registration. At which point you are free to buy. (I note the 5th Estate did not ask the pot shop owners where they were getting their pot – which is a rather good question because it is certainly not from the licenced growers as they are not allowed to sell except by mail order.)
As anyone who has lived in Vancouver knows, the Vancouver Police Department has better things to do than bust dispensaries. Plus, given the injunction halting enforcement of the Health Canada regs, it is not obvious what they would bust the dispensaries for that would have a chance of getting past the Crown. But even if they did bust the dispensary and even if the Crown brought charges, it is pretty difficult to see how a judge could find a person guilty who was selling to a registered user.
The problem is that the boffins at Health Canada have not quite figured out that their regulations are assuming a world which does not exist. First, they assume that people want to smoke “legal pot”. That might be true if police forces were in the habit of kicking down doors to arrest people smoking pot at home but, I fear, that hasn’t happened in years. (It may occasionally occur as a means of harassment but the probable cause issue is usually sufficient to kick the charges.)
Jay Currie, “Gone to Pot”, Jay Currie, 2015-06-15.
January 15, 2017
The Bourbons, said Talleyrand, learned nothing and forgot nothing. Sometimes it seems as if our modern liberals are just like the Bourbons. Here, for example, is a headline from the U.K.’s hard-line liberal newspaper, the Guardian:
FAR-RIGHT PARTY STILL LEADING IN DUTCH POLLS, DESPITE LEADER’S CRIMINAL GUILT.
What was the crime of which the far-right leader — Geert Wilders — was guilty? It was incitement to discrimination; in other words, not even discrimination itself. He had discriminated against no one, but made a speech in which he called for “fewer Moroccans.” Significantly, the Guardian gave no further details of what Wilders meant by this — whether, for example, he proposed that fewer Moroccan immigrants should be allowed into the Netherlands, that the illegal Moroccan immigrants should be deported, or that Dutch citizens of Moroccan descent should be deprived of their citizenship and forcibly repatriated. For the Guardian, it hardly seemed to matter.
More significant still was the Guardian’s inability, even after the victory of Donald Trump in the United States—which must, in part, have been attributable to a revolt against political correctness — to see that the conviction of Wilders on a charge so patently designed to silence the fears of a considerable part of the population couldn’t possibly reduce his popularity. By illustrating the moral arrogance of the political class against which Wilders’s movement is a reaction, the charge might actually make him more popular.
Theodore Dalrymple, “Incitement to Hypocrisy: The Netherlands unevenly applies a law forbidding provocation”, City Journal, 2016-12-28.
January 14, 2017
Among the great ironies surrounding the state of academia is the continued insistence on hearing more and more “marginalized voices” and increasing “diversity” on campus, as if there is some kind of archaic conservative establishment making that difficult to do.
One would likely be hard-pressed to find a more left-leaning group than college professors and admissions officers, who prioritize pulling marginalized groups out of their marginalization and adding people of diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds to campus conversations.
Yet in their efforts to achieve a more egalitarian conversation, left-wing academics and their students completely ignore (at best) and marginalize (at worst) students and the rare colleague who disagree with them politically.
And therein lies the ultimate irony: The very voices that decry inequality in all its manifestations either accept or turn a blind eye to the stunning dearth of conservative academics and the de facto censorship of right-wing students on overwhelmingly left-wing campuses.
Were it some other group suffering such a marginalization, there is no doubt that the left would be up in arms, crying discrimination and demanding rectification.
Some might even call such a monopoly on prevailing campus orthodoxy a type of “privilege,” defined as an asset “of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to,” to quote Peggy McIntosh, the matriarch of privilege’s modern construction.
While the marginalization of right-wing thinkers on campus in no way compares to the experience of black Americans throughout history, it might behoove left-wingers on college campuses to think about the various privileges from which they benefit simply by being members of the overwhelmingly dominant group in their academic communities.
Tal Fortgang, “38 ways college students enjoy ‘Left-wing Privilege’ on campus”, The College Fix, 2015-06-24.
January 13, 2017
Markets adapt to political changes, and the hierarchy of values that distinguishes between an hour’s worth of warehouse management, an hour’s worth of composing poetry, an hour’s worth of brain surgery, and an hour’s worth of singing pop songs is not going to change because a politician says so, or because a group of politicians says so, or because 50 percent + 1 of the voters say so, or for any other reason. To think otherwise is the equivalent of flat-earth cosmology. In the long term, people’s needs and desires are what they are; in the short term, you can cause a great deal of chaos in the economy and you can give employers additional reasons to automate rote work. But you cannot make a fry-guy’s labor as valuable as a patent lawyer’s by simply passing a law.
This is not a matter of opinion — that is how the world actually works. One of the many corrosive effects of having a political apparatus and a political class dominated by lawyers is that the lawyerly conflation of opinion with reality becomes a ruling principle. Lawyers and high-school debaters (the groups are not alien to one another) operate in a world in which opinion is reality: If you convince the jury or the debate judges that your argument is superior, or if you can get them to believe that your position is the correct one, then you win, and the question of who wins is the most important one if you are, e.g., on trial for murder. But if you shot that guy you shot that guy, regardless of what the jury says — facts are facts. Galileo et al. were right (or closer to right) about the organization of the solar system than were Fra Hieronimus de Casalimaiori and the Aristotelians, and the fact that Galileo lost at trial didn’t change that.
Kevin D. Williamson, “Bernie Sanders’s Dark Age Economics”, National Review, 2015-05-27.
January 12, 2017
To the outside world the sheer nastiness of scientific feuds often comes as something of a surprise; politics, by contrast, is a relatively polite affair.
Matt Ridley, Genome: The autobiography of a species in 23 chapters, 1999.
January 11, 2017
It’s an enticing idea though hardly an uplifting one, a pricer version of the escapist Free State Project. Yet the underlying rationale behind those fleeing to New Hampshire, or trying to establish civilization in the middle of the ocean is the same: We’ve lost the battle for freedom at home.
This defeatist mentality is common among refugees. It is also understandable among those whose countries have fallen into dictatorship and civil strife. America is neither a dictatorship nor on the verge of a second civil war. Adam Smith observed that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation. It will take more than eight years of Barack Obama to fell the most powerful nation on earth.
There’s a strange irony with projects like Seasteading and the Free Staters. The type of people naturally attracted to these movements are hardly weak willed or easily deterred. A list of advocates for setting up some small piece of libertarian paradise reads like a Who’s Who of Silicon Valley. Men and women who feel confident enough to creatively destroy entire industries but, somehow, feel incapable of winning a political argument against those often less intelligent and accomplished than themselves. There is more than a whiff of nerds being intimidated by the cool kids.
The dream of running away and creating a perfect society, or at least a better one, is hardly new. It must have been in the minds those early colonists who spread across the Mediterranean in the wake of the Greek Dark Age. It was, of course, the impetus for British settlers to establish their colonies in North America and the Antipodes. There are times when the only sensible thing to do is leave.
The cost, however, is enormous. Creating a new society, even while carrying the best of Western Civilization, is a dangerous and incredibly complex undertaking. It took the thirteen American colonies more than a century and half to reach anything like a critical economic and political mass. This is the basic flaw in Seasteading, even leaving aside the enormous cost of building the infrastructure. Societies are not computer software, they cannot be programmed or adjusted at will. They must evolve organically over time if they are to survive. This is why many Seasteading proposals come off as pitches for high-end hotels and conference centers. The social element is missing.
Richard Anderson, “A Billionaire’s Utopia or How To Run Away From Your Problems”, Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2015-05-28.
January 10, 2017
I am an equal opportunity feminist. I believe that all barriers to women’s advancement in the social and political realm must be removed. However, I don’t feel that gender is sufficient to explain all of human life. This gender myopia has become a disease, a substitute for a religion, this whole cosmic view. It’s impossible that the feminist agenda can ever be the total explanation for human life. Our problem now is that this monomania — the identity politics of the 1970s, so people see everything through the lens of race, gender, or class-this is an absolute madness, and in fact, it’s a distortion of the ’60s. I feel that the ’60s had a vision, a large cosmic perspective that was absolutely lost in this degeneration, in this splintering of the 1970s into these identity politics.
Camille Paglia, “Everything’s Awesome and Camille Paglia Is Unhappy!”, Reason, 2015-05-30.
January 8, 2017
January 7, 2017
My classmates [destroyed themselves on drugs]. The authentic imaginations, the really innovative people of my generation, the most daring of my generation took the drug. Now I, for some reason, felt that the LSD was untested, and I did not want to experiment with it. But I was very interested in it. I was interested in all types of vision quests at the time. I went up with fellow students [from SUNY-Binghamton] to see Timothy Leary speak at Cornell. I saw him, and it made me uneasy that here was the guru with such a crowd around him, but his face was already twitching. I could see that this was not going to end well, and it did not.
So when I got to graduate school in 1968, I can attest to the fact that no authentically radical student of the 1960s ever went to graduate school. So all that were left were the time-servers, who parasitically [lived] on the achievements of the 1960s, for heaven’s sake. Any authentic leftist who had a job at a university in the 1970s or ’80s or ’90s should have been opposing the entire evolution of the university — that is, toward this administrative bureaucracy that has totally robbed power from the faculty. The total speciousness and fraud of academic leftism is proven by the passivity of these people in every department of the university to that power play that happened.
Camille Paglia, “Everything’s Awesome and Camille Paglia Is Unhappy!”, Reason, 2015-05-30.