Thursday, 29 August 2013

Taxes on the stupid - and where the money goes

A fool and his money are soon parted and Marc Gawley has some great examples of offers designed to help the process along.

He also has a link to an article from Tim Harford (the man who gives geeks a good name) about insurance which is to similar effect. Although Harford doesn't mention it, PPI (it's my hobby horse and I want to ride it) was itself a great example of this. The products were probably every bit as pointless as mobile phone insurance, and a lot more expensive too. (But just because you have to be an idiot to buy something does not mean you have been mis-sold it - perhaps the contrary is more likely?)

The National Lottery is another example of what we might call taxing the stupid.

But I want to point out that there there is also a redistribution effect to these taxes - they tend to benefit sensible people with highbrow tastes. (More below.)

Nick Cohen and Richard Dawkins

Nick Cohen (the right's favourite lefty?) stands up for Richard Dawkins' atheism activities in the Spectator and then follows up with a convincing reply to his critics.

His first point is that 'militant atheists' are much less of a threat that real religious militants. If you want someone to be rude to, then it's safer to choose Dawkins than an Islamic fundamentalists. That's a fair point and well made.

His wider point, to quote from his reply piece, is that: "Multiculturalism has become an excuse to ignore the suffering of others. If you can’t see that, the world has passed you by." There is also a great deal of truth in this. Tolerance of difference is closely akin to fatalism about human nature. It's a pretty conservative creed in that respect (traditional conservatives prefer the different cultures to be in different countries, but otherwise don't disagree much with multiculturalists). One traditional attack on conservatism is that it stands in the way of attempts to ameliorate actual human suffering by insisting that institutions, procedures or traditions be preserved. That's part of Cohen's point here. (Of course, there is much to be said on the other side of the debate, for example by pointing to the meaning that established institutions and structures give to people's lives, but that is for another day.)

One of Cohen's themes, here as elsewhere, is to question why the liberal-left has found itself in league with some fairly unsavoury people. In particular - what is going on with the Cambridge Liberal Democrats (see after the break for context)?

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

On bullshit jobs

"I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit," says a professor at the LSE in a provocatively interesting article. That has the ring of truth to it. What about this?

"For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic."

This seems to be true within the law. The best-paid barristers are thought to be the top tax and commercial silks. The worst-paid? Criminal and family lawyers. Even within criminal law, the best-paid almost certainly include that chap who got Harry Redknapp off. (Always treat with the greatest suspicion any media report of lawyers' earnings that does not include a link to the primary source: the money made on the Leveson Enquiry, for example, was made public and you can tell more from that than from random estimates in the papers.)

What happens now that people in the future will think is wrong?

We now think that there are some things that people used to do that are morally wrong. Presumably there are some things we do now that future generations will think is wrong. What are they?

This is a fun intellectual parlour game. It's normally played by liberals, but I want to play too.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

"Today the German Bundestag will decide the fate of Greece"

Some phrases that caught my eye from an article in the London Review of Books (including the title of this post).

"Un New Deal pour l’Europe" - the title of a book. The book apparently points out that "The euro is essentially a foreign currency for every Eurozone country", and does so using what is a foreign language for every Eurozone country.

"The EU that has emerged from this epic battle is significantly more autocratic, German-dominated and right-wing, while lacking any compensatory charm." - The LRB's worst nightmare?

"The Troika issues Memoranda of Understanding ... : ‘The government will ensure that the legislation’ – for cuts in health and education, public sector redundancies, reductions in the state pension – ‘is presented to Parliament in Quarter 3 and agreed by Parliament in Quarter 4’; ‘the government will present a Privatisation Plan to Parliament and ensure it is speedily passed’; even, ‘the government will consult ex ante on the adoption of policies not included in this Memorandum.’" - The LRB's on to something here. These provisions sound like what one might find a defeated country agreeing to in the treaty that ends a war. We can all agree that it's pretty undemocratic.

"The most aggressive component of the Troika is the European Commission’s Directorate for Economic and Financial Affairs. Its public face is the beefy blond Olli Rehn, usually photographed haranguing Mediterranean lawmakers in viceregal style. ... Like many European commissioners, Rehn had been summarily rejected by his own electorate. Educated in the US and at St Antony’s College, Oxford ..." - ah, someone who knows where the phrase "New Deal" comes from. And a beefy blond to boot! Must be a baddy ...

"[In] Gekaufte Zeit, a book that is provoking debate in Germany[, Cologne-based sociologist Wolfgang] Streeck argues that since Western economic growth rates began falling in the 1970s, it has been increasingly hard for politicians to square the requirements of profitability and electoral success ... The outcome in Europe will be either one or the other, capitalist or democratic, Streeck argues; given the balance of forces, the former appears most likely to prevail. Citizens will have nothing at their disposal but words – and cobblestones." - It's a view, anyway. The LRB does like its cobblestones.

Meanwhile, in an alternative universe not hitherto known to humankind, "Jürgen Habermas devotes The Crisis of the European Union: A Response to demonstrating that the balance of power ‘has shifted dramatically within the organisational structure in favour of the European citizens’." The LRB continues, discussing Habermas, "'Only the Federal Republic of Germany is capable of undertaking such a difficult initiative,’ he concludes, with a flourish of the sort of provincial arrogance that used to be a British prerogative but has become common in the German media."

Inhabiting yet another alternative universe, but perhaps a more worrying one, we find: "For Europe!, a manifesto co-authored by the German Green Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the Belgian Liberal Guy Verhofstadt, has even wilder pretensions. ‘Only the European Union’ is able to ‘guarantee the social rights of all European citizens and to eradicate poverty’; ‘only Europe’ can solve the problems of globalisation, climate change and social injustice; the ‘shining example’ of Europe has ‘inspired other continents to go down the path of regional co-operation’; ‘no continent is better equipped to renounce its violent past and strive for a more peaceful world.’ Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt out-catastrophise Habermas: if the single currency fails, so does the European Union – ‘two thousand years of history risk being wiped out.’" - Gosh, would that really happen? (Clue: no.)

Finally, the title: "The Munich sociologist Ulrich Beck’s German Europe ... opens with his incredulity on hearing a radio newsreader announce in late February 2012: ‘Today the German Bundestag will decide the fate of Greece.’"

The history of the internet in two cartoons

‘The dog’s been on the internet again.’

The first cartoon is a famous New Yorker one. It even has a rather po-faced Wikipedia page to its credit. The second one is from the Spectator. If I were writing a Wikipedia page, I might start talking about British cynicism versus American optimism. But I'm not.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Legal celebrities

"Jules O’Riordan, former BBC Radio 1 DJ Judge Jules, joined media firm Sheridans as a paralegal in October 2012. He has extensive experience in producing music and  promoting music industry events and a deep knowledge of the music industry." That's what I read anyway.

You will recall that Dave Rowntree, formerly drummer with popular beat-combo Blur, is a solicitor, apparently at Kingsley Napley.

"This is how neighbours become strangers"

The perennially sensible Hugo Rifkind (God's way of showing you the perhaps surprising fact that Giles Coren would have been much nicer with a Conservative Cabinet Minister instead of a humorist for a father) makes this point:

"This week, as you’ll probably have gathered by now from the bouncing chests of beaming triplets in vests, is A-level week. So as people across England collect the results that may perhaps send them off to university, consider this: when they get there, they are less likely to meet Scots than ever before. In 2012, Scottish applications to English universities slumped and they have stayed slumped. This year, barely 3 per cent of Scottish 18-year-olds applied to go to university outside Scotland. This compares with around a quarter of Welsh students seeking to study outside Wales, and almost a third of Northern Irish students wishing to do so outside Northern Ireland.

Scottish students, it’s true, have always vastly preferred to stay at home, not least because Scotland has excellent universities of its own. But the numbers are now dwindling into a highly significant insignificance, and for one simple reason. Tuition fees. Today, Scots who cross the border pay £9,000 a year, and Scots who stay at home pay nothing at all.

I’m not one for conspiracy theories. I do believe that when Alex Salmond said that ‘rocks would melt in the sun’ before Scottish students would be asked to pay for their education, his principles were sincere and his political calculations were short term. But this is how neighbours become strangers. This is a whole generation of educated, affluent, middle-class Scots hitting adulthood without experience of England, or close English friends, or a sense of the south being in any way theirs at all. Even in such a world, probably, Unionism can survive as a political ideal. But it will never go to the bone.

Like so many things, Scottish independence will come very very slowly and then all at once.

Also in the Spectator this week, a consultant in the NHS tells us that "we import 40 per cent of our doctors [:] ... the General Medical Council registers approximately 13,000 new doctors every year; 7,000 come from British medical schools, and the remainder come from other EU countries and from outside the EU". In my experience, about 40% of British doctors want to emigrate to Canada or the Antipodes, so perhaps a lot of those imports are just to make up for the Brits whose dreams have come true, but there's more to it than just that.

What is the chance of the average English person coming across a Scottish doctor (a) now and (b) in 20 years' time? Probably lower than the chance that, in 20 years' time, English people will say to each other " did you know, Scotland has still got an NHS just like the one we used to have?" in the same way that we tell each other than women only got the vote in Switzerland in 1971, laughing at the cute old-fashionednesses of foreigners.

Friday, 16 August 2013

The worst mistake in the history of the human race

That's Jared Diamond description of the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural society. This is an interesting article which muses on that idea in the context of the Göbekli Tepe megaliths (about which, I have to admit, I knew nothing). I think a bit of shortening would have done the article no harm, but it's got some good bits, e.g. on the Adam and Eve story as a parable for that mistake. I also liked this comment on archaeology: "Without any imagination, this is all a pile of rubbish", and this too:

"I saw one woman so pious that her burka didn’t even have an opening for her eyes. She was leaving a cell-phone store, accompanied by a teen-age boy wearing a T-shirt that said “relax, man,” over a picture of an ice-cream cone playing an electric guitar. ... I was reminded of Schmidt’s hypothesis that hybrid creatures and monsters, unknown to Neolithic man, are particular to highly developed cultures—cultures which have achieved distance from and fear of nature. If archeologists of the future found this T-shirt, they would know ours had been a civilization of great refinement."

Lehman Sisters and Swedish playgrounds

One of the reasons for the international fascination with Swedish male urination is the idea that Swedish men are becoming emasculated by doing a lot of childcare. They're not. Frankly, I'm more worried on the emasculation front by the testicle-eating fish who ply the Øresund. (There's also a worry about Islamisation, but the open air swimming pools we went to in Stockholm showed no signs of being policed by Wahhabis - and they were also free of nightmare fish.)

The more interesting question is this: what is the effect of male childcare on Scandinavian children? Think of the famous comment, adopted by Harriet Harman, that the financial crisis could have been avoided if more women had been in charge: "Lehman Sisters" instead of "Lehman Brothers". We see that sort of idea a lot. But what about the other way round? What happens when nursing, midwifery, nail bars, childcare, etc etc are full of men?

Some highly speculative ideas on childcare are set out below based on recent data gathering in Sweden.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Confessions of a Sociopath

This is the title of an apparently genuine memoir - but the economists have found the weak spot.

Prospero at the Economist judges it about right, taking a light tone. "I have learned that it is important always to have a catalogue of at least five personal stories of varying length in order to avoid the impulse to shoehorn unrelated titbits into existing conversations". The 'varying length' bit is the key, I feel. Note also this: "There is deceit, presumably: [the author] claims to have averaged a 9.5% stock market return since 2004."

Tyler Cowen gets a bit carried away, but, like Prospero, he is unimpressed with the outstanding investment returns the author claims to have made.

So I went to the author's blog and found this. Pretty unconvincing. The only clever thing about this stock purchase was the timing - and there is no explanation for how she managed that.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Miscellaneous royals and aristocrats

1. There is a French Canadian aristocracy - who knew?

"Rebecca Grant, a distant cousin of the Queen, sang at the recent Coronation Party in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. ... A member of the band Jive Aces, Rebecca is the singer/actress daughter of the 12th Baron de Longueuil, a French-Canadian title inherited from an ancestor who was Governor General of New France. It’s said to be the only French colonial title recognised by the Queen."

I hope it is true that an indigenous aristocracy survives in Canada thanks to its French heritage.

Are there any English colonial titles at all?

2. In Nuremberg, where the names were cool but the customs uncool:

"In October 1553, the erratic and unpopular Prince Albrecht Alcibiades von Brandenburg-Kulmbach suspected three local gunsmiths of plotting against his life. Invoking an ancient custom, he commanded a hapless bystander to execute them on the spot. Frantz's father, Heinrich, had no option but to carry out the commission and, tainted by the act, no options thereafter but to become a professional executioner."

From a short but interesting piece in the Literary Review.

3. His Tremendousness Giorgio Carbone

"As His Highness Giorgio I, Prince of Seborga, Carbone did not draw a salary, but he could help himself to cheese and ham from the village shop without paying." It's a short obituary, but still finds room for a Princess Yasmine von Hohenstaufen Anjou Plantagenet.


This is a short post about nudging that makes a brilliant point. You will recall that 'nudging' is the idea of using theories about how people behave (in particular in response choices they are offered) in order to encourage people to choose the right thing, but not forcing them to do so. The motive is paternalism, but the means are more compatible with liberty than traditional paternalism. Perhaps the best-known examples are putting organ donation and contribution to one's own pensions saving on an opt-out rather than opt-in basis.

Bryan Caplan makes the simple but (at least to me) new point that nudging is invariably viewed as a way of adding more paternalism, rather than softening the paternalism we already have. We talk about changing road-use policies to make it easier to choose to cycle and harder to choose to drive, for example, but we do not talk about allowing opt-outs from compulsory seatbelt laws.

One moral is that political ideas come with ideological baggage. Even something that look likes a neutral tool, available for use by either side of the political divide (Labour - nudge people to recycle more! Conservatives - nudge people to stay married!), comes into existence with people and their motives behind it.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The history of the world in one chart

Available at this link.

London Underground links

A couple of Buzzfeed series with a story to tell.

1. Victorians building the tube in the first place.

2. Maps, of varying degrees of seriousness. No doubt Marc Gawley has views on which are most useful.

The story, of course, is that the Victorians were very good at the physical infrastructure but now we're better at ordering and presenting information.

People sometimes say that the Victorians would be disappointed that, for all our carbon fibre and nuclear power and so on, the trains don't go any faster now than they used to. But perhaps we should be prepared for disappointment too. Moore's Law can't go on forever (can it?). Perhaps the next 100 years will have information technology hardly more advanced than we have now, but lots of very fast trains. You could say that the Romans were pretty good at physical infrastructure too, but those later chaps with the Gutenberg press had the advantage in ordering and presenting information.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Some unconnected links

1. Facts about Filipino seafarers' penises that I would never have guessed.

2. A disappointing crop of New York Times' properties for $1.3m. The first one looks quite nice, but as for the rest ...

3. More Zadie Smith. I suppose you could call this science fiction. I think it confirms my earlier diagnosis of her lack of material for inspiration, but judge for yourself.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

"Was police killing of 95-year-old necessary?"

Asks the Chicago Tribune. As well as "questions in headlines to which the answer is no", this could go under the heading of "wholly unnecessary US law enforcement measures".

This is what happened to a 95 year old man with a zimmer frame:

"The old man, described by a family member as "wobbly" on his feet, had refused medical attention. The paramedics were called. They brought in the Park Forest police.

First they tased him, but that didn't work. So they fired a shotgun, hitting him in the stomach with a bean-bag round. Wrana was struck with such force that he bled to death internally, according to the Cook County medical examiner.

Another PPI scandal

Mr and Mrs Harrison had a PPI claim against Black Horse Limited. It was relatively big, as PPI claims go (the cost of the PPI to them was £10,529.70) but not what you might call a big money claim. They lost the claim in the County Court and the High Court (see judgment here) and again in the Court of Appeal (judgment here). For whatever reason, the Bank folded before the claim reached the Supreme Court, and paid Mr and Mrs Harrison the £10,000-odd pounds they wanted (and no doubt some interest as well).

Mr and Mrs Harrison's lawyers are now claiming over £1,500,000 in costs for handling this £10,000 claim. This does not seem to have surprised the Cost Judge hearing the claim.

It seems to me that there is no rational, sensible or efficient system of civil justice which could permit over £1.5m to be spent on just one of the two sides to a dispute over £10,000. When you read about the sums put aside by banks to deal with PPI mis-selling, pause to consider how much of that will go to the lawyers and how much to the borrowers - and consider also whether this massive redistribution of wealth from publicly-owned banks to claimant law firms has encouraged socially useful entrepreneurial activity in the parts of the north-west where these law firms operate. People respond to incentives: these incentives are all wrong.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Urinating in Sweden - you can do it standing up

One of things that Sweden is well-known for, at least in the world of internet news, is attempts to ban men from urinating standing up. (Try a Google search.) There are claims that Swedish feminism has gone too far or that "Young Swedish women demand that their men use the lavatory in a strictly sedentary posture". Even Tyler Cowen thinks it worth spreading news on this important topic (see link 4).

I have recently returned from Sweden. I'm sure I will give more considered comments on other issues in due course but I think it is worth delivering the news that male urination in the conventional manner is alive and well in Sweden. Indeed, you could say that it is pretty widespread in everyday life, judging by these examples:

- in one place we went, there was a urinal in the communal (i.e. hand-washing) part of what was billed as a unisex facility. I can't have been the only person to use it;
- in one restaurant, there were only urinals in the gents (so far as I could see);
- in another place, my son had to wait while a man used the only child's urinal (despite the fact that adult urinals were free at the time). (Actually, I'm not sure what that example shows, other than a lack of sensitivity. Perhaps just that the existence of urinals for boys shows that the habit is not about to die out.)

But don't just take my word for it. The opening of a new football stadium in Stockholm was celebrated in the local newspaper with the photospread below, flaunting photographic evidence that Swedish men are still pretty traditional in that department. (I've been to that herrarnas and can confirm that it is very rött.)

Monets for sale on Amazon

But I sense a certain degree of scepticism in the reviews: here and here.