Monday, May 31, 2004

A Union Man

My shiny new union card

On Friday, my shiny new NUJ membership card arrived, along with a copy of their freelance fees guide. According to their rates guidelines, I should be getting 230 pounds per thousand words. Given that I've written about 14,500 words since I began this blog almost two months ago, I calculate that you, dear readers, owe me the modest sum of 3,335 pounds. I demand my rights, you exploitative bastards! Or otherwise, the membership might have to vote on withdrawing labour. I'll happily accept either cash or cheques.

Seriously, any feedback on what and how I write here would be very welcome.

Also, remember that you can just email me to take me up on my offer of a free book in my Irish Times competition.

Peter 笔德


Blair Loses the Muslim Vote

Updated with Internet Archive pages, extra links and text: 15 July 2005

I first wrote this article back in May 2004, when the Guardian was reporting on opposition to Tony Blair among Muslims, taking the Islamist extremists of the Muslim Association of Britain, as the authentic voice of British Islam.
Last night, 14 July 2005, their spokesman appeared on Newsnight. I suppose that you wouldn't expect any better of the BBC either.

The MAB have, since I first posted, seemed to think the better of having major personalities of terrorism such as Sayyid Qutb of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and Sheik Yassin of HAMAS, both of unblessed memory, eulegised on their website. Fortunately, the missing links are available through the internet archive.

London Anti-war March

The Guardian reports today [Note - originally written on 31 May 2004] on the consequences of the Iraq war, the Israel-Palestine conflict and the anti-terrorism crackdown for Muslim support. In particular, it mentions the role of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), which seemed to provide most of the organisation behind the big London anti-war protests of last year:
The association, which formed part of the Stop the War coalition, has published tactical voting guidance on its website, suggesting which candidates should be backed in certain areas.
Among the shining exemplars held up as examples of moral greatness are Said Qutb (Internet Archive link here), described by Paul Berman and as "the intellectual hero of every one of the groups that eventually went into Al Qaeda, their Karl Marx (to put it that way), their guide".

The MAB write of his book Signposts, the founding manifesto of the modern Islamist terrorists in Egypt that became al-Qaeda:
It was after he was introduced to Maududi’s ideas, especially his emphasis on Islam being a complete way of life, and establishment of Allah’s order on earth as every Muslim’s primary responsibility that Qutb changed into a revolutionary. His two years sojourn (1948-1950) in the US opened his eyes to the malise of the western culture and non-Islamic ideologies
After his return to Egypt he resigned his job in the Education directorate and devoted himself to the idea of bringing a total change in the political system. Ikhwan gained ideological vitality when Sayyid Qutb in his jail cell wrote a book in which he revised Hassan al-Banna Shahid’s dream of establishing an Islamic state in Egypt after the nation was thoroughly Islamized. Sayyid Qutb recommended that a revlutionary vanguard should first establish an Islamic state and then, from above impose Islamization on Egyptian society that had deviated to Arab nationalistic ideologies.
Sounds like the textbook description of Qutb to me: He was disgusted by American culture, and so advocated the overthrow of Muslim regimes, which he labelled as apostates in a state of "Jahilia", pre-Islamic paganism or idolatory.

Another one of their plaster saints is the late and unlamented Sheik Yassin (Internet Archive link here) who, according to their website:
Sheikh Yassin himself has proved a powerful inspiration for young Palestinians disillusioned with the collapse of peace hopes.

He has inspired them to offer up their lives, promising that suicide bombers who are willing to die for the sake of the dignity of Palestinians and in the service of a longer-term victory will achieve martyrdom.
It looks like the Greens, Lib Dems, Respect and anyone else with this outfit's endorsement shouldn't spend much time in moral self-congratulation, given the MAB's open support for major terrorist figures.

How about a little full disclosure from the Guardian as well, or is a little basic web browsing beyond them?

I myself had confused them with the Muslim Council of Britain, who were in the news in March for condemning terrorism and encouraging Muslims in Britain to assist the police in fighting it.

Nick Cohen has been on their case for some time as shown in these articles in the New Statesman: First, Second and Third

The Day After Never

Update 1: Took out 3 paragraphs describing my neighborhood (What the hell was I thinking when I wrote them in a film review?), added to para. 4?added new sentence "New York Times..." to para 11

Day After Tomorrow Movie Poster

Poster ad for "Day After Tomorrow" at Limehouse Station, seen from my bedroom window

Sinister corporations control the world these days, enmeshing us in their webs of manipulative propaganda to make us consume things we don't need. That's the only rational explanation I can give for why I went to I went to see the new disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow last night.

Overall, I thought it was the best piece of unintelligent escapism I've seen all year. It had a wit and suspense that was missing from the director's earnest and completely unironic B-movies Independence Day and The Patriot. Throughout, the film used arresting visual images of a world reeling under giant tornados, skyscraper-height tidal waves, and a cold that can freeze the fuel of aircraft in flight and kill anyone not under shelter in seconds. Although the lead character, paleo-climatologist Denis Quaid, warns of the coming apocalypse, the American government, in the form of a Dick Cheney-like vice president as icy and unmovable as an Artic glacier, dismisses the threat.

To begin with, I don't put much credence in the film's science, but I'm hardly the first person to say so, or the most qualified. The story seems to have come from a pulp science-fiction book called "The Coming Global Superstorm", by two authors who normally specialise in writing about UFO abductions, the paranormal and other subjects of the X-Files.

For a depiction of global catastrophe, it's quite parochial in its outlook. Europe and Asia are destroyed by unprecedented global storms, but in a strange manifestation of the Special Relationship, only Britain gets any screen-time. Ian Holm plays an English scientist echoing the apocalyptic forecasts of the lead character, climatologist Denis Quaid. However, I found it hard to take him, last seen as Bilbo Baggins, seriously as a prophet of doom; I half-expected him to produce a ring from some waistcoat pocket.

Smugly superior environmentalism seen to offer little help in saving either Canada, France or Germany. In a world buried under snow and ice, I'd doubt how much use a little fuel-efficient Dinky-toy of a Renault Espace or an environmentally-friendly bicycle might be for fleeing through snowdrifts, as compared to one of those typically-American SUVs the Quaid character travels in from Washington to New York to rescue his son, Jake Gyllenhal who is holed-up in the New York Public Library with an array of stereotyped stock characters.

Predications about how America would react struck me as being off target too. Independence Day seemed to foresee the modus operandi of the Bush administration quite well - attacking the aliens without going to the Security Council for approval, denial of POW status to the captured UFO jockey, first use of nuclear weapons (a definite no-no under the third Geneva Convention), the pervasive influence of Jewish neo-con advisors in the White House....

Slate ran a competition this week to rewrite the contrite speech of the Cheney figure, delivered from the santuary given to the American population by a generous Mexico, that concluded the film. I think all the competition winners published made the same obvious mistakes in foresight as the scriptwriter did.

First, the most relevant political fact about the areas ostentatiously destroyed in the movie, the northern states of the US in general and New York city in particular is that, as Michael Moore callously pointed out after 9/11, these electorates haven't, by and large, voted for the current Republican administration. After the storm, there'll be no more New York Times, no more Yale Law School, and no more Federal government bureaucracy. However, in the southern states, solidly Republican since Nixon's time, many or most people can survive. The result: A Republican electoral majority as solid as Siberian earth on winter.

Furthermore, nothing I've seen tells me that repentant self-abasement is part of Dick Cheney's vocabulary, under any circumstances. Probably the obvious gambit for the VP to play would be the religious one, which would resonate nicely with all those born-again religious conservatives. God, he could say, has chosen to destroy the sinful people beneath a great torrent, as He has been offended by their vile practices, and save the Godly to start anew.

The storyline doesn't reflect the likely outcome in terms of international relations either. With Moscow, Paris, Beijing and London buried under glaciers, America would be the only permanent member still in existence, giving more reign for a unilateralist foreign policy; "Does the Security Council agree with me? Yes, I do. Resolution passed!"

Rather than beg the Mexicans for help, I'd be pretty damn sure that, with a functioning military, the Americans would be putting their requests for lebensraum and other resources in an insistent rather than a supplicating tone. Mexico could put no serious military force in the field to oppose even the National Guard, never mind stand up to nuclear threats from a desperate US.

Apparently, Al Gore has laid his touch of death on the movie, which has been underperforming the new Shrek sequel at the US box office.

Will the movie have any effect on attitudes? I think it probably will bring people towards the environmental movement, but probably not very many. According to Slate's review by David Edelstein, "Meanwhile, global-warming experts I know are already girding themselves for a major PR setback, as everyone involved in this catastrophe becomes a laughingstock. Is it possible that The Day After Tomorrow is a plot to make environmental activists look as wacko as antienvironmentalists always claim they are? Al Gore stepped right into this one, didn't he?"


Friday, May 28, 2004

Why I Write

The Lab Rat

Almost every blog I read today seems to have some comment on blogging, inspired by a report by the New York Times, profiling the individuals who forfeit food, society and even sex in favour of obsessively writing the continuous stream of comment that makes up the typical blog.

My own behaviour, writing this and other articles at almost 1am, after an early start and a day spent on my feet probably conforms to this pattern. My life right now reminds me of those experiments I've read of where lab rats were offered a choice of two buttons; pushing one dispensed food, while the other dispensed cocaine. The rats were soon relentlessly pressing the button to get drugs, ignoring the readily-available food for days on end, mirroring the obsessive behaviour of human addicts, and spending long times in Soho restaurants talking of their planned media projects.

Peter 笔德

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Confessions of an Irish Foreign Correspondent

Irish Times opinion editor Paddy Smyth writes of his experiences as a foreign correspondant for the paper in the current issue of the Irish Jesuit magazine Studies.

In describing his time writing for the IT from Washington, he draws a parallel that has often occurred to me:
And, true, the stories that conformed to type tended to be easier to write and to sell back home, although the real joy of reporting comes from confounding expectations. Let us take Bush as an example. Let us take Bush as an example. Perceptions of the man were particularly difficult to shake: the bumbling Texas fool, who could barely string a sentence together, was the standard villain of Dublin chat shows, but any amount of money does not elect a fool. A brief reminder of our own linguistically challenged Taoiseach, “the most cunning of them all”, should be sufficient to disabuse such notions. Bush has many of the same characteristics of innate canniness, a man-of-the-people demeanour, and a charm that disarms. But would they believe me?
Not, it seems, his own editors.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

The Salisbury Review and Richard Lynn

Update1: 24 May, removed repetition of Lee Kuan Yew in para. 10, cleaned up 1st sentence of last para. and changed 2nd sentence from "...assorted losers..."

I have an eclectic taste in magazines. In Borders one recent lunchtime, I came across the current issue of The Salisbury Review, which I'd taken as the voice of the faintly-absurd High Tory reactionaries, led by that Quentin Crisp of the British right, Roger Scruton.

Among the book reviews was one of Richard Lynn's book IQ and the Wealth of Nations, written by his old friend Chris Brand, one-time psychology lecturer at Edinburgh University. The Salisbury Review does its credibility no good by associating itself with this eccentric.

Like your humble correspondent, Brand seems to be somewhat slow in turning around his articles, with this review coming out two years after the book's publication by an obscure American mail-order house.

By his own account, Mr Brand is something of a modern-day Galileo, persecuted for speaking the uncomfortable truth. However, well-known house journal of the politically-correct left, The Daily Mail, reported (6 February 1998):
Mr Brand was suspended after he wrote: 'Academic studies and my own experiences, as a choirboy, suggest that non-violent paedophilia with a consenting partner over 12 does no harm so long as the paedophiles and their partners are of above average intelligence and educational level.' His views were the last straw for university bosses, who had stood by him in 1996 when he was accused of being a racist after writing a book which claimed women were not as intelligent as men and blacks had lower IQs than whites.
In 1996, he told Scotland on Sunday:
"Here's how I'm a scientific racist," he explains. "I do think not only that there's a link between race and psychology, in particular between race and IQ, but of course I think, and have the honesty to tell you - other people wouldn't - that the link is, shall I call it, deep seated?"
Lynn writes elsewhere that humanity is getting more stupid due to the desperate lack of eugenic measures in modern society; so, in a hundred years (or about seven generations), British society will be running short of intelligence, bringing it down somewhere near the current level of Romania. This hysterical pessimism and sloppy statistical work would assure him of a home in the green movement, if his prejudice was of a more fashionable variety.

I can't say that I pay any respect to this body of work. Is IQ more important than an open society and free markets? I very much doubt it.

In the first place, I've never thought much of the argument that IQ is largely heritable, for the simple reason that Catholic nations with intelligent celibate priests are not any less economically successful that Protestant ones. The Chinese and Japanese, as far as I can tell, adhere to a belief that the hallowed virtue of educational success is the result of hard work and moral character rather than some innate intelligence. Lee Kuan Yew, with his eugenic leanings, seems to be an eccentric exception to this, but his upbringing has often been described as owing more to imperial Britain than his overseas Chinese ancestors, whose language he didn't learn to speak until he entered politics. As Frank McGahon also pointed out, politicians who adhere to these ideas tend to be of the authoritarian and collectivist bent, Lee himself being a good example.

In addition, has natural selection ever really, even for the last five hundred years, led to people starving en masse because they lost out in economic competition? Why have Ashkenazic Jewish immigrants to the US gone from poverty to prominence in a few generations while predominantly marrying among themselves? It's just too crude a measure.

On a more personal note, while I seem to have a high IQ, I also have a specific learning difficulty. The MENSA meetings I've gone to in the past have been gatherings of pub bores, proud of their supposed high intelligence. The lesson I draw from my own experience in dealing with dyslexia using the books of Tony Buzan and Dominic O'Brien is that the application one shows in trying to improve oneself is much more important than any supposed genetic or racial concept of intelligence.

Peter 笔德

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?*

*"Who Watches Over The Guardian"

New York succumbs to tidal wave
The Day After Tomorrow: "I told you should have voted for Nader!"

Thinking about Climate Change
Sometimes, I really doubt my ability to get anywhere near a sufficient understanding of the whole issue of global warming. Mistrustful as I am of both the environmentalists and some of the skeptics, I've decided that I'll just have to sit down and read as much of the IPCC Third Assessment Report as possible. I've only dipped in so far, but I've found it surprisingly compact and accessible, so I reckon it's worth looking into it. One thing I've taken from reading Lomborg's book is the determination to go to the original sources as much as possible for economic and scientific information.

For example, compare George Monbiot's letter to The Times critiquing Bjorn Lomborg's article in that paper. I spent some time comparing his prediction of China's great rivers drying up - obviously a huge catastrophe for the country

We now know, for example, that the Himalayan glaciers which feed the Ganges, the Bramaputra, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the other great Asian rivers are likely to disappear within 30 or 40 years. If these rivers dry up during the irrigation season, then the rice production which currently feeds over one third of humanity ceases to be viable, and the world goes into net food deficit. If Lomborg believes he can put a price on that, he has plainly spent too much of his life with his calculator, and not enough with human beings.

- with the relevant analysis in the IPCC third assessment report predicting a mixture of reduced flow in India and increases in water flow in China's rivers:

"A macro-scale hydrological model was used to simulate river flows across the globe... The study suggests that average annual runoff in the basins of the Tigris, Euphrates, Indus, and Brahmaputra rivers would decline by 22, 25, 27, and 14%, respectively by the year 2050. [Water flow] in the Yangtze (Changjiang) and Huang He [Yellow] Rivers have the potential to increase as much as 37 and 26%, respectively. Increases in annual runoff also are projected in the Siberian rivers.."

In 1998, one of the hottest of years in recent history, the increase in water flow in China's rivers led to some of the most serious flooding in modern times. Undeniably, this is a problem for China, but it's hardly an unmanageable one. In fact, the government is planning water projects three times the size of the Three Gorges dam to bring water from the wet south to the more arid north, according to the New Scientist (registration required).

The more I read of his writings, the more critical I become of what I see as many instances of apparent laziness and inaccuracy in selecting and using sources. His attempts to think of social, economic and scientific factors never seem to go beyond spending an hour writing a newspaper column, instead of the painstaking process of model-building and testing done by the professionals. In other words, here we have a poet wandering into a debate among physicists, policy-makers and economists. But then how much fun is actually thinking carefully and with an open mind compared to jumping up and down screaming for attention? Perhaps George needs to spend more time with some textbooks and a spreadsheet, and less hanging around with the pikeys (or "the travelling community", as my countrymen would say) and George Galloway.

The Unobservant

Peter Schwartz, who runs the Global Business Network that produced the report said in a recent interview with National Public Radio:

"...particularly The London Observer both implied that the Pentagon tried to suppress the report on the one hand, and secondly that they exaggerated our conclusions, made it a prediction rather than a worst case scenario. And then turned it around and said, well, see, this proves that the Bush administration is wrong."

Here are links to the GBN report and the Observer article in question.

Has the Observer been less than ethical by engaging in what some have called, in a different context, "sexing up" the report?

The Day After Tomorrow

Last week the Guardian gave plenty of space, everywhere from news, features, editorials, reviews and now another op-ed piece by Zac Goldsmith (he of the large shareholding in mining multinational Newmont) to plugging the new disaster movie that Peter Schwatz dissociates himself from, The Day After Tomorrow.

CURWOOD: And I can't help but ask you then, what's your take on this upcoming movie "The Day After Tomorro? And were you involved in its production in any way?
SCHWARTZ: I wasn't, but I was asked to be. I chose not to be, mainly because this is pure entertainment. They weren't really interested in making a realistic view. I think they were enamored of a number of the images that turn up in the movie.

Over at The Daily Ablution, you can hear the muffled, gasping screams as Scott Burgess holds a suffocating pillow over their heads. following on from his other excellent posts on the topic.

Monbiot's review is quite nuanced (by his standards anyway), so I need to find someone else to hang this two minutes' hate on.

Scribe of environmental and social apocalypse JG Ballard sticks his oar into the floodwaters as well.

Generally, there's hearty approval for this movie, with one feature piece saying "But yesterday The Day After Tomorrow won praise from both the British research establishment [two scientists quoted by name] and the environment movement [obviously the final word on any scientific issues; Brent Spar anyone?]

Friday, May 21, 2004

More on The Future of Money

I've posted before on Bernard Lietaer's advocacy of negative interest rates, cited by George Monbiot as one of the major sources for the economic analysis behind "The Age of Consent".

The Fed research recommending negative interest rates is this paper published in 2001 by Richmond Fed economist Marvin Goodfriend.

I'd say this is the most totalitarian piece of economic analysis I've ever read. In it, Goodfriend proposes tracking the use of dollar bills, perhaps through embedded microchips, in order to minimise the "hoarding" of cash i.e. to encourage, none too gently, the population to spend their cash rather than save it. My reaction to this would be to hold cash balances in some form in a nice and stable currency like Mexican Pesos instead.

The rationale wasn't in order to limit transactions, although the proposal would in all likelihood effectively eliminate financial privacy for anyone paying with cash. Instead, the emphasis seems to be on pushing real interest rates into negative territory in order to escape a liquidity trap, that is the point at which monetary policy becomes ineffective because the central bank rates are already at or near zero, that Paul Krugman and others have suggested Japan is suffering at the moment.

However, this still isn't the same as the permanent state of negative interest rates that Lietaer is proposing.

If you’re suffering from severe insomnia anytime soon, and fancy figuring out how the warped minds of economists work, you might like to read a short survey on selecting appropriate discount rates, which apparently describes the interest rate methodology used for discounting in the IPCC reports.

Nobody as far as I can tell wants to use Lietaer’s approach of discounting at negative rates. In fact the authors say (note 6, page, 9)

The other authors would agree, we believe, that if per capita consumption were expected to decline rather than increase over time, one could justify a zero or even negative discount rate. Since all of modern experience is with gradually increasing per capita consumption, however, the most reasonable assumption seems to be that future generations will be better off than the present generation. This forms a rationale for a positive discount rate, incidentally, even if we are unwilling to discount because we feel a greater affinity for generations nearer to ours than for those far removed in time.
The Copenhagen Consensus papers on global warming seemed to focus on this issue of how high a positive interest rate should be for valuing future costs and benefits. I was surprised to read the objections to using a low rate with no time preference, chosen arbitrarily rather than through the use of a financial asset. I'll be interested to see the response of William Nordhaus, who Krugman characterises as a strong environmentalist, to the reports of the CC.

Having dipped into it a few times, I would probably be on for reading the entire Third Assessment Report, if only to practise my speed reading. It might be a good idea to do this as part of an apocalypse event.

To sum up, it doesn't look like Lietaer and Monbiot have a case.

Peter 笔德

Thursday, May 20, 2004

London Under Attack!

Lethal Chlorine Cloud Drifts Across East London
Lethal Chlorine Cloud Drifts Across East London in BBC Panorama documentary.

See the transcript here.

Last Sunday night, the Beeb was doing it's bit to calm public fears about terrorism - by running a realistic docu-drama simulation of a day of major terrorist attacks on London, beginning with three of Al-Qaeda's signature near-simulanteous suicide bombings on the tube. It climaxed in the release of a huge cloud of poisonous chlorine gas from a hijacked tanker in Commercial Street, about twenty minutes walk upwind from my home in London's Docklands. On most days, I'd be likely to be caught by the gas at home or at work.

I wasn't surprised to hear of severe weaknesses in the training available, not just to first-responders like security guards and train drivers, but also to the emergency services.

The fact that these services and the military can't make their radios talk to each other was quite startling; wouldn't this be needed even in the usual course of their work?

Other SNAFUs include a lack of a siren network, which was dismantled in the early nineties, shortages of recovery vehicles and medical services hamstrung by rationing.

So, in summary, I don't feel very safe, but I'm damned if I'm letting anyone scare me.

As for Ireland, I would suspect that the preparedness is much, much worse.


Know Thyself

After a long search, I finally found the site for testing social and political attitudes, the political compass. My results are:

Your political compass

Economic Left/Right: 7.75

Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -1.44

This puts me somewhere near Milton Friedman, which strikes me as an accurate measure.

My political compass

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Let's do lunch!

More on social networking: Clay Shirky producted this report for the Global Business Network consulting outfit. His homepage has more frequent updates and links on the same subjects.

I came across the orginal article in the February Harvard Business Review.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Know thyself - Are you a neocon or a realist?

The Christian Science Monitor has an interactive quiz to allow you to discover your foreign policy orientation. I reckoned I'd come out as a "realist", but -
Based on your answers, you are most likely a neoconservative. Read below to learn more about each foreign policy perspective.

I think one of their quotes captures it quite well:

"Republicans are good at wielding power, but they're not so wonderful when it comes to the more idealistic motives of liberal internationalism. The Democrats are better at liberal internationalism, but they're not so good at wielding power. I would say that if there were a Joe Lieberman/John McCain party, I'm in the Joe Lieberman/John McCain party."

Robert Kagan

Friday, May 14, 2004

Why aren't you feeling more oppressed?

Updated: 13 May 2004

The Irish World newspaper, which caters to the Irish community in Britain, reports on the latest developments of interest to
Professor Mary Hickman of London Metropolitan University said there was still strong opposition to recognising the Irish as an ethnic minority. She called on the Irish community to form links with other ethnic groups, pointing out that according to the census, households headed by Irish people are among the most ethnically mixed in Britain.

She warned that Home Secretary David Blunkett was pursuing an integrationist agenda and suggested that the GLA could help to achieve what cannot currently be achieved at a national level
What exactly is an integrationist agenda with respect to the Irish? How different can two neighboring, nations of white, northern European, English-speakers be? Not that there aren't cultural differences, but compared to the other immigrants - Kosovans, Afghans, Iraqis, Russians, West Africans, I think we have a much less difficult adaptation to daily life in London and face less prejudice.

What would this academic suggest? We could start wearing some distinguishing costume like Rastafarian dreadlocks or Chassidic gear of black suits, beards and sidelocks, speak entirely as Gaeilge, and be coralled into designated areas of London by the GLA? I dunno.

Peter 笔德

Update 1: 14 May, Changed quote format and rewrote last two sentences for greater clarity.

That's not a bug, it's a feature!

Comical Ali (Former Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf
"There are no invisible amendments to this blog. Never!"

Since I consistently scribble down whatever crap takes my fancy hold myself to the highest journalistic standards, I've decided to make two changes to the blog.

First, I've taken advantage of the Blogger update to add the ability to make comments to the blog. It's worked when I've tested it, but the free version of Blogger, even after its recent upgrade, obviously isn't as good as those hackers who run TypePad. Maybe, when I finally learn more about how this HTML thing works, I will eventually get this facility working better. I've already had one complaint that it isn't working correctly, so I hope that it's fixed now. If not, just mail me at the address above.

Secondly, I will try and make my changes to existing posts more transparent by adopting the Bloomberg news wire format for changes; in future, if I update a post, I will add a subtitle to point out the update and write the date and a summary of what has been altered or added at the bottom of the story.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Aristocracy is Dead, but the Corpse Twitches Still

Mrs Thatcher Takes Power

Fruity, absurd dinosaur of the conservative English right, Peregrine Worsthorne,
reviews Anthony Sampson's latest installment in the four-decades long Anatomy of Britain series in the New Statesman.

Who Runs this Place?

The review embodies everything I dislike about Britain's conservative right as compared with its Reagan/Bush counterpart - cranky antiquarianism, anti-modern, convinced, for no particular reason, of its unique virtue and indispensability.

While the old aristocracy was at least evolved out of an ethic separate from, and ideally superior to, the current capitalist triumphalism, today's meritocracy, which is the product and beneficiary of that capitalist triumphalism, is enslaved to it body and soul.

Well, whatever it's many failings the overthrow of the aristocracy by the the working-class bruisers like Tebbitt, bourgeois triumphalists like Mrs T. and their heirs in New Labour have done something the old elite has not - kept Britain together.

Perry forgets in his aspirational nostalgia for the old "ethic" that the older ruling class proved itself monumentally incompetent in its management of that dirty thing called capitalism.

This week saw the twenty-fifth anniversary of the election of the first Thatcher government. The century just past was one long catalogue of the utter failure of the elites of the government, industry and the civil service to diagnose or prevent Britain's decline. The whiff of accomodation with Hitler, abysmal performance of the war economy and the endless humiliations afterwards, culminating in the visit of the IMF and the Winter of Discontent - all this happened on their watch. It took Thatcher and her cabinet "with more old Estonians than old Etonians" as Nicholas Ridley put it, to steer the ship of state away from the rocks and build an active base of support for the right among the newly-empowered Essex men. If this is moral failure, then more power to it, I say!

Peter 笔德

Thoughts from the Unreal World

Norman Rockwell's Freedom of Speech

Check out the free lottery at the end of the article!

Today's lunchtime reading, over one of those new Starbucks lemon muffins, was an article by George Packer on blogs in the current issue of Mother Jones. Ever since the Iraq war controversy started, I've tried to broaden by outlook by reading more material written by all those idiots who don't share my beliefs which I would probably disagree with.

If I was living in Ireland, this would probably not be an issue; in fact, during my brief visit last month, reading about the criticism of Mary Robinson in the Old Grey Lady of D'Olier Street left me feeling like a character in a Philip K Dick novel, unsure of whether to trust my perceptions. Being in China left me with the same sensation of being unmoored from objective reality, as reported through the media.

Nevertheless, I've come to quite appreciate the New Statesman and Mother Jones in particular. The NS has had some excellent opinion pieces by Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch, which mesh nicely with my own strongly anti-anti-war attitude. I'll post later on a review last week by Peregrine Worsthorne.

MoJo has the great distinction in my eyes at least, of being the magazine which fired Michael Moore for bad journalism. I loved their recent piece, in the best shock-horror tone on Americans for Tax Reform leader Grover Norquist, that devil in human form who wants to cut taxes and even (gasp!) shrink the government.

Although I'm being an irony-tourist in the journals of the silly left, I admire their writing and analysis, which is often as good as, for example the Weekly Standard.

Anyway, back to George Packer.

I can fully identify with how addictive he finds reading blogs; I too can happily spend hours, or sometimes entire weekends, reading them and following the links that interest me through cyberspace. I began with Andrew Sullivan in March 2001, shortly after he began his blog and over time my obsession has grown. Quite a number of blogs have been so addictive that I have gone through their entire archives - including Blog Irish, Internet Commentator, A Better Tomorrow, and the Daily Ablution recently (all these are now linked in the header of the page except ABT).

It's true blogs are so far largely a medium for comment and analysis. Naturally, when so much media reporting and academic information is online for browsing, embedding links for rapid responses is the most convenient way to go. How many of us could write dozens of letters to the newspapers, with such transparent citations as is possible in a blog? To my mind, the argument is far richer this way. Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist , while an interesting book, could be much better as a collection of webpages allowing one to link supporting or dissenting analysis and new data; as it is, I have to read it with three bookmarks, one in the main text, another in the footnotes and a third in the bibliography. Here, the medium really is the message, allowing us not just to shout at the TV tube, but to construct mentally, and if motivated enough in writing on a blog, a well-sourced counter-argument. Certainly, a lot of what I have written here has been a transcription and refinement of my own inner dialogue.

Blogs can and do go beyond mere interpretation; often someone's informed opinion (as in the case of Paul Krugman, although his webpage is not quite a blog) or on-the-ground experience (such as Salaam Pax), and ability to gather and interpret information is such that a new and better media experience is created. One of my favourite examples is NKZone (which incidentally today is carrying news of DUP boy-wonder Jeffery Donaldson's attendance at an upcoming meeting on Seoul on the topic of NK), which aggregates information from the domestic and foreign media, NGOs and academia on the Hermit Kingdom. Rebecca MacKinnon is a true micropundit...

An alternative channel is desperately needed in many subjects, particularly in politics, where the media tends to obsess in solipistic obsession with itself and its thoughts. In Ireland, where liberalism means the Sunday Independent and its deep-thinkers, I can see how this medium is going to be to Irish society what talk-radio was to America in the nineties - the place where popular political opinions surpressed by the mainstream media get a hearing.

Even for those bloggers I often strongly identify with, like Andrew Sullivan, I think the medium of blogging makes weighing rhetoric much easier. For example, it's quite obvious from what he writes (such as a boyish triumph when the head of the PFLP was decapitated by a helicopter's missile) that he has no real knowledge of Israel and its wars beyond what he reads in the papers, and his efforts on that topic often fall flat. Where he brings his experience and passion to bear, on US politics, Anglo-American culture and especially on homosexuality, his writing is sublime in the empathy and insight it creates.

Norman Rockwell's painting Freedom of Speech above, with its rough, ordinary, but Lincoln-like figure at a public meeting can bring me near to tears with its celebration of freedom of speech and the realisation that it's the common man who needs it most, not the intellectual who might champion it most vocally. Electronic and print media have to adapt to the fact that they have a new army of skilled amateur journalists scrutinising them - truly a change for the better and a real enhancement of freedom of speech.

Finally, Packer contends that "So far this year, bloggers have been remarkably unadept at predicting events...". In the spirit of Popper, I would like to make the following prediction: within the next 12 months (i.e. by the end of May 2005) the Irish Times will suffer a scandal over conflicts of interest, falsified information or plagarism.

So in the spirit of Julian Simon and adapting the methods of FM radio stations, I make this offer: Anybody who wants to can email me at the adress in the header to take on the bet: If I loose, I send that lucky person a copy of my favourite book, The Penguin Essays of George Orwell. If I win, I get a paperback book from you of my choice of equal value. Deal?

A Confession from your Humble Blogger

While I have plenty of real-world experience in seven-odd years as a banker and businessman in evaluating commercial projects, perhaps I could be accused of being as guilty as Lietaer in taking on economic issues for which I don't have a proper training. Indeed, I should point out that I've never taken a course or literature survey in cost-benefit analysis of a social or macroeconomic issue. That being said, I think my points in the review below should stand up to scrutiny, so informed objections or clarifications would be welcome.

I think Dale Carnegiecalls this type of spiel the "hit me!" strategy.

I must confess to being slightly uneasy about how I am editing these postings too, as I just went back to clean up the language a little on the previous posting. Unlike on wiki, I don't know how to make these revisions visible while keeping the page readable.

Peter 笔德

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Showing No Interest - Monbiot's Mad Economics

It is possible to change the way we live. The economist Bernard Lietaer has shown how a system based upon negative rates of interest would ensure that we accord greater economic value to future resources than to present ones.

The Future of Money
Lietaer - The Future of Money

I thought that it would be unfair to comment on this nugget of wisdom before I had actually read Leitaer's book, which as someone once said, does prejudice one so. Well, I went through The Future of Money in the Barbican library at lunchime today. Lietaer says at the beginning that he isn’t an economist: It shows! As a blueprint for redesigning the world, it's not up to much, although the community/alternative money discussion seems fairly practical. My focus was on the proposal for negative interest rates, which Monbiot obviously drew on in the passage from his Guardian column quoted above.

Lietaer's book contains plenty of historical background and a gentle introduction to conventional economic thinking about money, the banking system and the economy. However, its sloppy and indistinct analysis shows the danger of theorising and explaining the economy without using formal economic models, careful definition and rigorous testing. The danger is that while loosening some of the restrictions of formalised thinking, Monbiot's brand of economic aromatherapy will take over.

The text seems to show confusion on his part between a tax to impact physical cash in the form of bills and a negative level of interest rates in society as a whole. This question isn't resolved, which severely undermines the author's claim of consistency with the very different Keynesian concept of liquidity preference

interest has been usually regarded as the reward of not-spending, whereas in fact it is, the reward of not-hoarding.

The citing of a proposal by a Fed economist to tax holdings of dollar bills, probably suggested to help control the black economy, also seems a confused and incorrect interpretation.

I think what Laitaer has missed is an appreciation for the strong reasons for which nominal interest rates are almost always positive. In attempting to turn time's arrow backwards, he is ignoring basic facts about human nature and our knowledge, making his scheme impractical for all but the most coercive and least rational of societies.

First, as mortal and impatient beings we obviously prefer consumption now rather than in the future. The time preference is human nature; assuming this can be engineered away shows just how little Laitaer's understands about how utopian in conception and totalitarian in execution his idea would be.

I don't use the world Stalinist lightly, but an obvious parallel suggests itself. Consider that loanable funds - the savings we control through insurance companies, bank deposits, pension funds and other means - are a commodity for which one man’s demand is another’s supply: Force it to be sold at a zero or a negative cost and we can expect supply to be diminished. Agricultural policies in the Soviet Union and in China did exactly this in forcing artificially low prices on farmers to benefit city-dwellers, which led directly to famine by eliminating any incentive or even compensation for the costs of production.

Another factor putting a floor on interest rates is the problem of institutional performance, especially default and devaluation of the currency through inflation. Existing private currencies carry the risk that issuers can go bankrup, like airmiles if BA goes under, or travellers' cheques if Amex had collapsed after the salad oil swindle.

Here, I have to deviate from the classical liberal ideas of Hayek and say that I believe that since only governments have the lifespan, the ability to appropriate resources and a mechanism for representation of users, that only they can crete successful and broadly-used currencies. (I'm probably going to get hate mail for saying this, saying "You...moderate!!!") for anything other than short-term transaction purposes.

Under the extreme conditions of social collapse during civil war in Yugoslavia or Lebanon, it was neither money issued by communities nor commodities such as gold performed the role of money, which was filled by foreign currencies such as the Deutsche Mark.

My original contribution to the criticism of this idea is to point out the role of information. Interest rates should be positive to reflect our much poorer information about the future. We can’t predict social and technological change with any kind of accuracy, so the fable in The Future of Money about the myopia caused by wearing the spectacles of positive interest rates misses the point. Uncertainty about the future makes discounting necessary and not any feature of our present financial institutions.

While we can forecast quite poorly in the short-term (think of the disastrous projections that Eurotunnel or the e-commerce start-ups made) projections of economic costs and benefits, for example to carbon abatement over a three-century horizon, is more science fiction than social science.

Fifty years ago, who would rationally offer lower borrowing rates for an investment to pay off in the long-term - oh, about the year 2000 - for someone gearing up to produce rocket cars, household robots, nuclear-powered cars and videophones for the twenty-first century consumer than on a five year government bond?

Peter 笔德

Monday, May 10, 2004

Bringing the Irish Media to Book

Update 1, 13 May 2004

American Embassy, Dublin

Anti-Americanism in the Irish media? What on earth gave George Dempsey, former first secretary at the U.S. embassy in Dublin, the idea that Irish newspapers and broadcasters tend to give a platform mainly to people sloppy with their facts and with fringe views of the world scene?

I love how Joe Humphreys' follow-up in today's Irish Times to yesterday's front-page story by Henry McDonald in the Observer puts "Anti-Americanism" in scare quotes, as if it were some novel, outrageous and unprecedented slander.

His anger might well have something to do with being jeered at by a section of the audience on Questions and Answers shortly after 9-11. McDonald wrote shortly afterwards that "The hidden agenda of this highly contestable piece of classic Irish what-aboutery was that somehow the Americans had it coming to them". Well, maybe he's reading Blog Irish, Frank McGahon, Irish Eagle too.

The book From the Embassy is coming out in June, published by the Open Republic Institute, whose website is worth an extended visit.

I had thought that Dempsey's "an invasion of the body snatchers from a planet peopled by time-warped 1960s radicals and Marxist revisionist historians" was perhaps too-strongly expressed. A Google search for other comments about Dempsey brought up a page from a postgrad student at DCU:

Late on Monday night [this was probably at some point in 2003 during the Iraq war], having fought with American George Dempsey through the television screen about war on Iraq, I took down from my bookshelves, a soviet[sic] publication entitled What is Dialectical Materialism by V Krapivin.

Hmmm... Indeed... Wouldn't you?

Later on, it also has some other gems, including comments about The End of History and the Last Man.

I found Fukuyama's book profoundly depressing in the context of the current war... He makes it all seem so plausible. Why would any society want anything other than a liberal democracy?

Dia idir sinn agus an t-olc! As Nietsche wrote, "the problem in reforming man is man". Apparently, there exists some deficiency in human nature that makes us prefer liberal democracy to the alternatives; the Stalinist dictatorship of North Korea, hereditary Arab autocracy as found in Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, chaotic Latin American caesarism as in Venezuela under Chavez, Iran's Islamic theocracy, or the blurring of communist totalitarianism into mafia capitalism in Cuba or China.

Peter 笔德

Updated: 13 May - Inserted name of IT journalist, changed formatting in last paragraph

Friday, May 07, 2004

Beijing's Fragile Consensus

UK think-tank, the Foreign Policy Centre published a report on China as a model for other developing countries, labelling its policy package as "The Beijing Consensus".

Globalisation and its Discontents

Stiglitz's "Globalisation and its Discontents", which I am reading at the moment, also contains little nuggets of admiration for the PRC's approach to capital account liberalisation and other development issues.

I'm not sure that there actually is that much actual consensus though....

Beijing's fragile consensus

Peter 笔德

Blogs and the Irish press

U.S. paper the Irish Echo shines a spotlight on the A-team of Irish blogs, including Frank McGahon's Internet Commentator, Blog Irish (brilliant name, brilliant blog), Slugger O'Toole (NI news with a broad view) and John Fay's Irish Eagle.

I've long found the Irish press parochial in outlook and often amateurish in analysis and fact-checking. As John Fay says,

"With Google, everything became checkable. Before Google, it was much harder to check what a journalist/columnist had written. The newspaper editors were assumed to be checking the facts. Google has allowed us news consumers to find out that often the emperor has no clothes when it comes to fact checking," -- and then to blog angrily about it.

Analysing for myself and then putting my arguments into words is precisely what I am trying to do here myself.

All these bloggers are as good as any opinion pieces in any Irish newspaper, and Blog Irish and Frank in particular better than any Irish equivalent on dead-trees. I'm waiting to see who is the first one to be signed up for a column. Given all the outraged letters to the editor I see in the Irish Times about Mark Steyn, I can imagine there may be a vacancy for a token right-winger sometime soon.

Peter 笔德

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Deliver Us From Reality - Part 3

Even the repayment of debt, the pre-requisite of capitalism, is mathematically possible only in the short-term. As Heinrich Haussmann has shown, a single pfennig invested at 5% compounded interest in the year 0 AD would, by 1990, have reaped a volume of gold 134 billion times the weight of the planet.

Compound interest makes principle grow hugely over time in ways that are indeed profound and surprising, but this statement is bonkers. For a start, there was no year zero AD, but I quibble.

Come with me through the following thought experiment: In practical terms, if I had my penny, what choices would I make as to how to use my penny?

Throughout history, inflation devalues assets, both governments and individuals default on their debts and political changes leave property rights in flux. Our hypothetical investor would be quite likely to find himself losing some or all of his assets, in the periodic changes of dynasty in China or in the periodic collapses of political order in Europe, from the fall of Rome to the Russian revolution. Look in the Financial Times and you won't see prices posted for markets in Julius Caesar's debts or shares in Crassus' money lending business.

Remember also that under law usury was forbidden from roughly 400 AD to 1400 AD. England's Jews and the Knights Templar both learned the hard way, when their spendthrift creditors to liquidated their debts by liquidating the debtors.

In reality, no asset would survive as long as the example assumes; even land would be certain to be confiscated or lost over twenty centuries. Only really in England have some aristocratic families been able to hold onto significant holdings, and only then since the Norman Conquest, in a country exceptional in Europe for its political stability.

The only real alternative would be for our theoretical investor to bury the penny in the ground for his extremely patient and no doubt multitudinous descendents to retrieve, with no interest!

Wednesday, May 05, 2004


Today's vocabulary is


All reactionaries are paper tigers!

(yi qie fan dong pai dou shi zhi lao hu)


More Links on Global Warming

Planet Earth

The UO's Faculty of Security Studies hosts the Apocalypse Project, a multidisciplinary study of theories about the end of the world as we know it. I've already written below about the oil project.

To kick it off, there was a discussion about climate change in January. Here are a number of links I've found. I haven't read enough on this to form any kind of firm personal opinion. I don't trust either the energy industry or campaigners to report the science correctly, and I am not sure if even the current consensus is strong enough to say when and why climate change will occur.

That being said, I doubt that Kyoto, with its big loophole for big emitters i.e. relocate outside the developed countries, would make any difference at all. Given this, I'm expecting some the EU to keep its framework and for some version of Senator McCain's bill for purely domestic cap and trade to make it onto the statute books sometime soon.

U.S. Senate resolution on Kyoto

Senator John Kerry on the negotiation process surrounding the treaty

Guardian op/ed by scientist Diana Liverman, bemoaning the increasing politicisation of climate science.

Letters to the Guardian in response came from from one of the scientists criticised in the article above, another sceptical scientist, Kendra Okonski of the International Policy Network think-tank and Cindy Baxter from the Stop Esso pressure group.

The Guardian links to this draft paper by Bjorn Lomborg, which seems to be a first draft of his extremely long chapter on the subject in "The Sceptical Environmentalist".

This summary article in Nature confirmed my suspicion that apocalyptic anxiety about the climate isn't a recent phenomenon.

My personal view is that a society's ability to adapt and how that is hindered by poverty and political instability, rather than climate change, will be the key issue. Peter Schwartz, the Global Business Network founder and one of the fathers of scenario planning has recently been working on this. His book "Inevitable Surprises" devotes a chapter to the topic of environmental change.

Tom Ley passed on this link to information about the longer-term Milankovitch model linking climate changes to irregularities in Earth's orbit.

Peter 笔德

Political Networking

Howard Dean
Howard, we hardly knew ye!

I have been reading a lot on social networks and their influence in business and politics, inspired by the rapid rise and unexpected fall of Howard Dean's candidacy for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

I can’t recommend this article on social networks, Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg, by Malcolm Gladwell, strongly enough. I read his book “The Tipping Point”, about social “epidemics” and viral marketing on my ten-hour plane ride to Beijing; it was full of interesting observations, such as the role of "connectors", "market mavens", "the law of 150" and so on.

Tom Steinberg’s analysis is the best I’ve read so far.

May’s Atlantic Monthly contains the inside story as seen by Paul Maslin, the campaign’s pollster, told in an essay and Q&A.

The campaign’s inspiration in new-economy thinking is most visible in Gary Wolf's piece in the December 2003 issue of Wired.

My take on this is that Dean was just a weak candidate, offering more of the same policies that won Mondale just two states twenty years ago and haven’t proved any more palatable to the electorate any time since. In the words of Richard Nixon, “The people have spoken. The bastards.”

Kerry seems to have captured the centre much more than any of the other candidates for the nomination. As for Bush, he seems to my mind to have managed to position himself as an intolerant authoritarian on social issues while spending money like a drunken sailor, the opposite of Republicans such as Reagan or Schwarzenegger.

It will be interesting to see what role all this new concept of loosely-organised, internet-based campaigning plays in the November contest. Key in this year’s tight race, the media says, will be the ability of both parties to mobilise foot solders to campaign and to vote. Noam Sheiber relates Joe Trippi's success with conventional and new methods in doing just that. Two months later, Sheiber had second throughts.

Interestingly, the New York Times magazine has written more recently on the centrally-directed "ground war" being run by the Republicans.

The hype was reminiscent of the excesses of the bubble and seemed to reinforce the narcissism and closed-mindedness inherent in any campaigning group in many new forms. Trippi and others spoke at the Digital Democracy Teach-In to present their first take.

The new McCain-Feingold rules on campaign finance could have unpredictable effects on the parties.

Pressure groups could easily take their symbosis with the media to its logical conclusion. Anyone for RMT-TV?

Peter 笔德

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Thinking the Unthinkable in Copenhagen

The Little Mermaid

There's a good paper just published recently by the Copenhagen Consensus project, using a welfare economics analysis of climate change policy, that I'm reading during my daily commute.

I feel we should be skeptical about the dissidents as well as the panic-mongers, as Lomborg seems in parts of The Skeptical Environmentalist to be wandering into areas outside his professional competence as a statistician, particularly the science, if not the economics, behind global warming. The CC forum seems like a novel way to think about environmental policy in a forum free of vested interests. It's sponsored by those sinister people at Carlsberg and Tuborg, who may actually want global warming to happen so that we have to buy more beer, but I doubt it.

Note that his new project seems incorporate a mechanism for bringing different views into a debate. The panel evaluating the arguments is a collection of very heavy hitters, including North, Bhagwati, Schelling and others. However, the evaluators seem to be weighted towards U. of Chicago and George Mason economists. Also, it might be more credible if there were some scientific or medical experts too. However, it seems a significant improvement on what has gone before.

Peter 笔德

Points of Order

I'm reading this interesting book at the moment. As Churchill said, "I could never figure out what those damn dots meant." And now I can write that sentence without any anxiety.

Peter 笔德

Taking the Extremist Test

No, I'm not! I do believe in government, in some cases (see below) acting as the risk manager of last resort. Anyway, it's just for amusement; nobody ever has dark fantasies about being dominated by an evil libertarian.

You are Anarcho-Capitalist

What: Anarcho-Capitalism

Where: At the distant top-right of the politcal spectrum

How: Anarcho-Capitalists believe that big business should take over goverment to the point of government not existing. While they believe there should be law, they also believe that the law should be owned by businesses. Anarcho-capitalism is a modern belief and has never been attempted.

What political extremity are you?

Peter 笔德

Deliver us from Reality - Part Two

Birds of a feather flock together; more comment on the Monbiot article is to be found at Samizdata.

Peter 笔德

Monday, May 03, 2004

Knickers to Capitalism!

The Moonbat

I've just stumbled across the collected articles of George Monbiot on the web, which has provided me with a few hours of innocent amusement. This article in particular, in which our hero takes a swipe at the logic of capitalism, is definitely well-worth a read if you're concerned about whether capitalism can survive. If this is the calibre of the criticism, then the future is unlikely to be troubled by much intelligent criticism.

Take a look. Anyway, I would like to try to scratch some graffiti onto the impressive edifice of the great man's thoughts with my blunt pen.

The article, "Deliver Us from Finity", is subtitled "Capitalism is not even mathematically possible.." I will take that as the null hypothesis.

With the turning of every year, we expect our lives to improve. As long as the economy continues to grow, we imagine, the world will become a more congenial place in which to live. There is no basis for this belief. If we take into account such factors as pollution and the depletion of natural capital, we see that the quality of life peaked in the United Kingdom in 1974 and in the United States in 1968, and has been falling ever since. We are going backwards.

Ahh, when would you prefer to live? Unless you're Bill Clinton or some other drooping boomer nostalgic for lost youth, I don't quite know what's so attractive about being alive at that particular date in American history. As for Britain, how the hell was 1974, the year of the three-day-week a highlight? Here there is obviously some sort of "adjusted" economic wealth calculation going on; the lack of sourcing might make it less open to any fact-checking.

Given that environmental policy really only started seriously in the early seventies when Nixon set up the EPA, I find it very hard to believe that there was continued worsening of environmental degradation. I'll go out on a limb and cite Lomborg, who reports, using statistics from the EPA, UNDP, other government statistics and scientific literature showing longer life expectancy, higher income, more free time, less pollution of air and water... what exactly is it about prosperity and good health that's so disagreeable?

Resource depletion? There's certainly a hell of a lot more oil now than then, and other minerals are cheaper and in greater supply. This is worth a more detailed study; without him citing his sources - which he tends to misquote anyway - I'm not inclined to wet myself.

The reason should not be hard to grasp. Our economic system depends upon never-ending growth, yet we live in a world with finite resources. Our expectation of progress is, as a result, a delusion.

Well, here we have the Old Mother Hubbard model of the economy appearing. Yes, we live in a world of finite amounts of minerals. Natural resources are scarce, therefore when they are treated as private property, they have positive prices. However, in Sheik Yamani's famous words, "The Stone Age didn't end for lack of stones; neither will the Oil Age end for lack of oil." Yorkshire mining villages have plenty of coal to hand, while Hong Kong has to import all raw materials, even its drinking water. Which is richer? Which is likely to stay richer? It's human ingenuity in manipulating the environment that's the key resource.

Like Marx, George ignores the effect of the price system in driving innovation. Capitalism has proved a self-licking ice cream cone: It's the profit motive that has driven the more efficient use of and substitution for scarcer and more expensive resources.

The survival of humanity has been displaced in the newspapers by the quarterly results of companies selling tableware and knickers.

Victoria's Secret

Come to think of it, knickers probably illustrate the essential truth quite well: Using less material, but more skill over time, we produce a product much better than the huge M&S underpants the typical English female of 30+ needs to cover her massive behind.

Speak this truth in public and you are dismissed as a crank, a prig, a lunatic.

And justifyably so, it seems!

Judging by this article, in which he progresses from the reasonable, but probably mistaken, arguments of the Malthusians to sheer lunacy, I think those labels are perfectly accurate.

On the other hand, if he's correct, then he has performed an original piece of economic logic that has remained hidden from the worldly philosophers from Plato to Adam Smith, Keynes and Marx. In the two years since its publication, I haven't heard of this proof appearing in Econometrica. Maybe Greg Mankiw is surpressing it because he fears George will take his job.

Peter 笔德

The Rhetoric of Panic

The Sunday Torygraph yesterday quoted a report by Oxford academics on the "woeful misrepresentation of the underlying science" of climate change and species loss by the WWF and Friends of the Earth.

The report itself is good for a few chuckles too. It blames poor journalism, including over-reliance on press releases, ambiguous conclusions in the scientific literature and hyperbolic publicity by pressure groups. Notice how the Telegraph picked the one theme of misbehaving charities and were silent on the other two. Is it just me or are British journalist much, much sloppier than their counterparts elsewhere, apart of course from those in my beloved homeland?

Energy at the Crossroads
Reading Chapter 3 of Smil's book, where he lays out the evidence on the level of remaining oil reserves brought home to me how effective panic is as a persuasive tool. I had read the more optimistic sources, but skimming the book, I had an uneasy sensation of fear and uncertainy, lasting until the author presented his own synthesis and rebuttal.

Dismal scientist that I am, I have a strong distaste for anyone trying to jerk my emotions, rather than make a reasoned argument, which seems to be the modus operandi of most pressure groups.

While I mistrust environmentalists, and I'm also skeptical of the skeptics: I'd trust Lomborg's intentions somewhat, but not take as given his analysis before comparing it with contrasting views. In the case of his work on oil, I was incorrect in taking it as being completely sound and finding out about the work of Campbell and others in his book would have boosted its credibility in my eyes.

Also, I came across interesting UK blog The Daily Ablution this week via

Peter 笔德

Oil, Iraq and the Dollar

Paul Krugman, that notorious Republican running dog, rebuts the conspiracy theory that America's concern to protect its gains from seigneurage led to the Iraq invasion.

The original article (which is unavailable on the web) appears to be driven by a strange mix of two conspiracy theories. The common and widely-aired one is that the Iraq war was launched for economic rather than the ostensible political reasons. What's interesting is that it also brings into play the sour suspicion that the weakness of the Euro for much of the time since its launch has been as the result of la speculation anglo-saxaine.

To Krugman's brief riposte, I'd add several other points.

First, the dollar has, for the moment, a dedicated constituency of buyers, particularly among Asian exporters seeking to maintain their foreign trade earnings, as I've argued in my post below.

Second, a rather obvious point, there is no straightjacket locking exporters in to holding dollars. Anybody receiving dollars for oil or any other commodity, is perfectly able to exchange them at a minimal cost for any other freely-traded currency, including euros; so far, only the prospect of lower investment returns in other markets and the intervention to keep the dollar strong, particularly against the Yen, has prevented this happening on a large scale.

While researching this, I came across George Monbiot's assertion in his book The Age of Consent that central banks and those of deveoping countries in particular must hold only dollars as reserves. He cites a paper published by the New Economics Foundation, but by my first reading , he has misinterpreted this research quite badly. I'll re-read this interesting paper and post some comments soon.

Peter 笔德

Talking Back to the Media: Reflections on a Month of Blogging

Well, it's been about a month now since I set up this blog. I'm glad I did. Although, I know that it can have some unpredictable effects on my life.

I've long thought that with so much media and academic content online, we have all become our own journalists who search for and weigh up different sources, allowing us to spot inaccuracy and bias much more readily. Change must be on the horizon for the print and broadcast media, even if most media professionals don't recognise it. We aren't just left with the option of shouting at the TV anymore.

A lot of my content just comes from posting my evaluations of the news stories, op-ed pieces, other blog postings and so on that I read. Often, I've just cut and pasted material from emails I've sent. The recent thread on the dollar, in response to the "seigneurage motivated the Iraq war" argument is a good example.

In my humble opinion, my writing style has improved somewhat through the exercise of publishing online. I've been reading the Penguin Guide to Punctuation over this weekend too. I find it very hard to resist going back to polish and correct previous posts, which takes up most of my time working on the blog.

Also, it's motivating me to study and think much more seriously about a lot of issues. The oil project in particular seems like an excellent way to figure out a problem and get beyond the rhetoric of panic. I spend several hours reading economics texts in Waterstone's yesterday, driven by my curiousity about the issues raised by the seigneurage article (see posts above and below).

The layout looks quite presentable, after much tinkering, but I need to figure out how to have sidebars for particular stories, if I can.

I'm slightly scared by exposing myself through this medium. Plenty of people may disagree with me, but I hope that nobody thinks that I have stepped at any point beyond reason or humanity.

Peter 笔德

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Betting on Terror

Wired News just published an interview with Admiral Poindexter. I had thought of him as some Captain Birdseye type, but he is in fact a physics ace and ex-student of Richard Fenyman. Last year, under his direction, DARPA floated the idea of creating the Policy Analysis Market, a variation on the Iowa Electronic Markets that would allow the anonymous users to trade on their perceptions of various terror events happening.

I read stories in Wired, (see here and here) last year about this and I was surprised when it was killed.

Market foresight (i.e. the Efficient Market Hypothesis) is a controversial thesis, but hardly one unsupported by real-world evidence. No statistical techniques seem to have any profitable forecasting ability in real world tests. Very few mutual funds consistently beat the market. Most hedge funds have a limited life-span, no matter how smart their managers are (or in the case of Mr. Soros, how many muddled books they write.

Thomas Malone writes in the current Harvard Business Review of using markets internally for allocating resources, including investment capital and production capacity, more efficiently.

Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University - if Chicago is a "freshwater" faculty, these guys are distilled water - published a paper on decision markets in 1999.

This paper from the U. Iowa suggests how data from the Iowa Electronic Markets could be used for real-world decisions.

One common objection against this is that by allowing someone to profit from the prediction of a terrorist act, these might provide the incentive to commit it themselves. Of course, Hilary Clinton would think that; "a futures market in death".

First, as fanatical Islamists, are al-Qaeda any more likely to gamble than to carry bacon sandwiches or vodka in their cabin baggage?

Second, would the PAM make terror an attractive proposition? Well, are John Kerry and George W Bush raising the money they need for their campaigns by betting on themselves at the Iowa Electronic Markets? Are they motivated to run by the chance of winning a bet that they themselves have made?

Third, would anyone seriously think that the transaction history would allow any trader to cover his tracks from the CIA, any more than they would from the SEC or IRS?

It's pretty complicated to implement, I think, much more so than I thought when I first heard of it. There seems to be some confusion between political risk and terrorism losses. A host of institutional problems makes it difficult to implement.

Someone told me of a site called TerrorBet, which seems to be part of an Irish sports betting exchange is preparing to do something like this in Europe, which is more logical given the absurd constraints on gambling under U.S. law.

I doubt that it could be a serious money-making proposition though, because the number of trades and the volume would be absolutely tiny from individuals. Larger players would need to deal in huge sizes to lay off their risks. Say if Bechtel or Kellogg Brown & Root need to hedge some part of their Iraq risk?

Also, to build a serious marketplace for corporations and professional traders, you need to operate in and between the very different legal and economic frameworks of the markets for insurance, derivatives, and international public and private law.

Predicting or pricing terror risk may well be impossible using analytical solutions or past history. The losses could be so large and unpredictable from selling protection that it simply couldn't be priced in any way at all, leaving society to pass the responsibility to governments who have both the resources and the legal powers that individuals and companies don't.

U.S. insurers are trying to pass on their risk this way right now by removing the legal requirement for them to offer terrorism insurance. Remember how their airlines got an obliging Congress to give them a retroactive and zero-premium insurance policy in the form of a subsidy package after 9-11? Why can't I get one for my motor insurance?

Another possibility is that if Canary Wharf, BA, BAA and the other owners of terror-prone assets had to self-insure, they could create a private entity to spread the risk, which could be purely commercial or government-sponsored. This could then use the civil law, with its lower burden of proof, to go after the assets and persons of characters like those prosthetic-limbed clergymen or Arab princes who propagandise and finance al-Qaeda.

I think that the potential market probably works best as an information mechanism, and an academic motivation may draw in people that wouldn't be partial to a gambling site. I'd expect these would be useful mechanisms for analysing closed political systems. Why not use them for forecasting things like breakdowns in paramilitary cease-fires in Northern Ireland? Or changes at the top of the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy?

Peter 笔德

Making Intelligence More Intelligent

Failures of intelligence and forecasting are very much in the news. Why was it common belief that Iraq had gas and germs ready to go and was close to a nuclear weapon? Conversely, why were the Iranian and North Korean programs underestimated?

My suspicion is that there are technologies, organisational methods and knowledge sources that can easily be adapted to understand and report on political and security risks from street crime to global geopolitics in a way that secretive, hierarchical, closed systems such as traditional police and intelligence agencies can’t. Think Windows versus Linux, BBC versus blog, Comical Ali versus Salaam Pax.

Open Source Intelligence, using information available from the media, academia and other sources seems a like a promising prospect. Intelligence professionals seem very aware of the problem of observers' biases and deception in political analysis, surveyed in a book on the CIA website. Using limited resources and a more diverse base of analysts is probably a good idea, especially as the best researchers or people with first-hand experience are more likely to be working in academia, business, the voluntary sector or even schlepping around as backbackers.

Could we develop this idea into a broader mobilisation, to make both criminal-law enforcement and anti-terrorism policing work better?

Peter 笔德

Saturday, May 01, 2004

No Blood for Pitta Bread!

Mute 27 Cover

I have an affectionate respect for Mute magazine, which always has a surprising new angle or link in every issue. They like to wander off the reservation, going beyond art and culture, perhaps on the theory that "I don't know much about economics, but I do know what I like". I'm working my way through the current issue now.

They report that two German scientists have come up with a theory, published in a German international relations journal, that the Iraq war was launched to protect the status of the U.S. Dollar as the global reserve currency and the seniorage profits that result from this. These lads are probably a bit loopy. I strongly suspect that either I or they are making some very basic mistakes. However, I don't have access to the original paper (yet!).

I'm no scientist, but I had thought that fossil fuels are described as hydrocarbons, whereas carbohydrates are those nutrients that Dr. Atkins gets worked up about. The

The amounts available from oil exports for purchasing U.S. dollars in general and treasury debt in particular, which I guess at about $29bn/year (at March's 2.8mn b/d IEA production estimate @ the $28/b top of the OPEC range) sounds big, but the big players though aren't the OPEC countries but the Asian governments, especially China and Japan, who keep their earnings from trade in dollars rather than foreign currency as a mercantilist strategy to maintain their level of exports. Think of China with (I think) about $500bn in dollar assets. Mr. Hu and his colleagues know that if their currency rises in value against the dollar, the consequences in terms of unemployment could result in them hanging from the 长安大街 lampposts.

The same mercantilist logic seems to motivate all the other economies - Korea, Japan, Taiwan, HK and Thailand. Any push to devalue the dollar would run into this huge tsunami of intervention, such as that undertaken by the Bank of Japan recently.

See for example this column from William Pesek on Bloomberg.

I can imagine I'll come across the paper again in the oil project, so a fuller analysis can probably wait.