April 2006

27 April 2006
Competition time

Here’s a little challenge for you should you feel so inclined:

Name a Scottish professional footballer

I am damned if I can.  In the Seventies it would have been difficult not to what with Bremner, Dalglish, Wilson, Gemmel, McQueen, Jordan etc all playing.

Just to prove that the boot can be put on the other foot:

Name a successful English manager

I am talking serious silverware here ie League Championship, European Cup or managing a serious football team for a reasonable length of time.  For the League I think Howard Wilkinson (in 1992) is the most recent.  For the European Cup I think it’s Joe Fagan (1984) and for the serious football team the nearest I can get is Kevin Keegan in his Newcastle days.

Just blips or signs of deeper truths?

Update Aargh!  Turns out that Bob Wilson wasn’t/isn’t Scottish.  Not that that stopped him playing for the national team.  Ditto his successor.

26 April 2006
The NHS may be better but how would you know?

The Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, is claiming that the NHS has had its best year ever.  Not entirely surprisingly, her remarks have generated quite a hoo-ha with all sorts of people saying that far from being good the NHS is, in fact, rubbish.

Now, although I would tend to agree with Hewitt’s critics, the question, to my mind, is: how would you know?

In the free-ish world the answer is very simple.  A successful enterprise is one that I choose to do business with and can pay its bills.

Now, while the NHS, with its £80bn budget, or whatever it is, can probably pay its bills (hmm, thinks:"maybe, even this isn’t true"), it is not true that I or any other potential NHS patient chooses to do business with it.  If, by some miracle, the NHS were suddenly privatised and its entire budget handed back to the people who had paid for it, I can’t imagine that the NHS would see much of that money ever again.  No, my guess is that most of that money would be going straight to BUPA.

22 April 2006
Against Compulsory Purchase

A correspondent recently asked me what my views were on compulsory purchase. Although it was the topic of quite a few discussions on Transport Blog and I did reach a conclusion, I never quite got round to stating what it was. So, here goes: I am against it.

I am against it because:

  • it involves force which I am against
  • it encourages corruption and abuse
  • I believe its absence wouldn't be that great a loss

But how would you build roads or railways without it?

The fear has always been that without compulsory purchase then along the line of a proposed route there will be "hold-outs" ie landowners who will demand a much higher price than the prevailing market rate (not least because without their sale the road or railway cannot be built), and that therefore, for the most part, roads and railways would be too expensive to build. Now, for all I know this may be true - it's not a theory that has ever been tested to destruction - but there are grounds in both theory and practice for believing that this may not be the case.

So, the theory?

Well, more ideas than theory. One way might be, say, if you were trying to build a railway, to survey the route, ask the landowners along the route at what price they would be willing to sell and take out an option to buy. A more sophisticated way might be to survey a couple of routes and to take out options on both of them. That way "hold-outs" might be discouraged from holding the railway company to ransom.

And the practice?

  • Pipelines - my understanding is that these, typically, don't need compulsory purchase
  • Two of the earliest modern highways in the US were built without compulsory purchase (see p172)
  • The Stanhope and Tyne railway (apparently) was built without compulsory purchase

Why so few examples?

Well, one possibility is that it is very difficult (though clearly not impossible) to build a road or railway etc without compulsory purchase. But there are a couple of other possibilities:
  • Crowding out. If the possibility of state action exists people might be less inclined to look into other, potentially more expensive options.
  • There may be other things going on. At the dawn of the railway age all joint stock companies needed an Act of Parliament to establish themselves. In more modern times all road or railway schemes have required planning permission from the state (another thing I am against), so there is little point in buying the land without the permission and difficult to get the permission without knowing what land is involved.

What makes you think it causes corruption and abuse?

I've heard of a few examples and, no, I've got nothing to hand right now but I guess 5 minutes Googling the terms "eminent domain" and "Wal-Mart" should turn up a few examples.

Assuming that corruption and abuse do occur, why do you think they happen?

I think the abuse occurs because the state can't help itself. If it has a power it will abuse it
As far as corruption goes whenever the state is given a power which can make others rich, money is going to flow in the direction of the people with the power to influence decisions.
20 April 2006
How should you fisk a podcast?

As I have mentioned before I have been listening to Stefan Molyneux's series of podcasts. Most of them have been pretty good although one or two have made me hum and haw a bit. But the one on 9/11, in which he gives credence to the claim that it was organised by the US government (link to follow), set the alarm bells ringing.

Now, I think the claim that 9/11 was anything other than what it appeared to be, is absurd and I could write a whole long piece about conspiracy theories and falsafiability, but it is another issue that interests me: how should you even go about fisking a podcast?

Well, couldn't you just go through it line by line?

You could, but think of the effort involved and especially the effort involved in comparison to fisking a blog posting. While, it is easy to scan and take excerpts from a posting it is much harder to do this with a podcast. Meanwhile, it is much easier to produce a podcast (once you've got the right equipment) than it is to write a posting (something that Brian Micklethwait has mentioned - here, I think - see what I mean about how difficult it is to track things down in podcasts?). There is a severe imbalance here, in terms of effort, certainly if one is attempting to balance verbal podcasts with written blog postings.

In that case, isn't the obvious answer to do a verbal fisking?

Yes, but there are a number of difficulties with this. Not necessarily show-stoppers but things that will slow you down:
  • Linking. How do you put an html link into a podcast? The only way you can do it is by creating a blog posting with the links to the original podcast and your fisking. Cumbersome.
  • Excerpting. You still have to find, cut and paste the bits you want to excerpt.

So, what is the answer?

Well, maybe, the answer is to do nothing. Maybe, you have to accept that podcasts are not really fiskable and because they aren't they shouldn't be taken too seriously. Exactly, the same, of course, is true of all other forms of broadcast media.
16 April 2006
How's this for a scheme? You aim to take one red paperclip and then through a succession of trades end up with a house. The guy's up to a year's rent on a flat. I wonder how long it'll be before some clever marketing people start making offers. (Hat-tip Marginal Revolution)

New Earth

So it’s happened again.  Not for the first time I have dreaded the return of Doctor Who only to be pleasantly surprised by the first episode.  OK, so I spent most of the time hiding behind the sofa in fear of some victimist moralising but apart from one ugly moment we were largely spared.  Otherwise, what we got was pretty good stuff.

Thoughts:

  • This would have made an excellent two-parter.  There’s a lot of mileage in the idea of stem-cell research going too far.  You could have had one of the stem-cell people (SCPs) escaping and all sorts of odd things going on with the hospital trying to recapture him.  Actually, that was a general criticism of the first (new) season.  A lot of good ideas were given far too short a shrift.
  • Is it just me or was the Cassandra Rose preferable to the Rose Rose?
  • How did the SCPs learn to walk, talk and think?
  • Who thought it was a good idea to place the control that opens all the doors in a corridor and make it that easy to operate?
  • And what was that last bit with Cassandra-Mick going back to see Younger Cassandra?  Oh, I know, to tell her that she’s so beautiful so that she doesn’t turn into the self-obsessed megalomaniac she does turn into.  But hang about, doesn’t this violate the “don’t change history” rule?  Talking of which, aren’t all points in time somebody’s history?
  • Liked the cat make-up.  At least, I assume it was make-up. 
  • David Tennant is a fantastic doctor.

Update: Much more here.  Oh, and the SCPs learnt to walk/talk etc by osmosis.  Was it worth it?

15 April 2006
So, the "second" (actually 28th, or something) series of Doctor Who starts tomorrow night. I suppose I'll watch it. This time last year I thought it would be a disaster. After Rose, the first episode, I thought it was going to be wonderful. But as the series dragged on, my original fears were confirmed. Except that it wasn't a disaster. It was a huge success. I might not have liked it. I might have found the silliness, the tacked-on politics, the sexual suggestiveness and the lack of explanation jarring, but plenty of others didn't. So, I guess it'll be more of the same this time around. Oh well.

Light blogging

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last week or so.  The reason is that Stefan Molyneux’s series of podcasts have provoked rather more thought than I had expected.  I am currently working on a response (see here) but it may take some time before it’s ready to be posted.

07 April 2006
Corporations again

About a week ago I put up a posting on corporations.  In it I mentioned that Chris Dillow of Stumbling and Mumbling didn’t like them but that I wasn’t quite sure why.  Suitably prodded Mr Dillow sought to explain himself.

And failed.

For the most part I just don’t understand what he is saying.  Well, that’s being polite.  Readers are welcome to speculate on the precise meaning of: “Markets are democratic”, “the cult of the CEO”, “the ideal-type big business”, “statistically significant alpha” but I can’t be bothered.  If it sounds like gobbledygook it probably is.  Actually, that’s not quite true.  He did provoke me into finding out what “rent-seeking” means.  It means getting the government to put your competitors out of business.

The few bits I did understand, I have either dealt with or don’t seem terribly important.  Some corporations spout gobbledygook.  Apart from being a bit rich, it doesn’t seem to be any big deal.  If they spout gobbledygook to me I simply take my business elsewhere.  Corporations are hierarchical.  Again big deal.  If they are big enough, they seek to put their competitors out of business.  Again big deal.  It is a characteristic of all big institutions.  The problem here is not the institutions as such, but the power of the state.

02 April 2006
01 April 2006
Are corporations a bad thing?

Are corporations ie limited liability companies, a bad thing? Stefan Molyneux (who has a pretty good series of MP3 talks) thinks so (hat-tip Jay Jardine). So, it would appear, does Chris Dillow, although I can't quite be sure because while he's in favour of the market and against "business", he hasn't (as far as I know) elaborated on the matter.

Molyneux's argument seems to boil down to this:

  • Corporations ie limited liability companies, are creatures of the state
  • They enjoy privileges ie limited liability, that other organisations don't have
  • They are efficient at what they do
  • They are easy (for the state) to tax and (because they are efficient) bring in enormous revenues
  • They are very powerful, using that power to get what they want out of Congress (in the US example)
  • What they want, usually, is to exclude the little guy
  • This they achieve by getting Congress to approve subsidies and regulations that aid corporations and harm sole traders

I am not quite sure where medium-sized corporations fit into Molyneaux's scheme of things.

For good measure I could also chip in the argument that the real problem with corporations is that in a world dominated by corporations states are reluctant to allow anything else.

My thoughts:
  • It can't see anything philosophically wrong with corporations
  • It may be possible that corporations could exist without the state
  • It seems to me that corporations have achieved a great deal
  • This is really an issue of size rather than type
  • The real problem is the power of the state
Q&A

So, you can't see anything "philosophically" wrong with corporations?

The state may allow them to exist but ultimately no one is forced to deal with them, so it seems to me that I can hardly object to them

Corporations without the state?

All you actually need for limited liability is an agreement with your creditors that your liabilities are limited. The list is probably not that great including, for the most part, banks, suppliers and employees. All of these people already have contracts with you - usually written - so, it wouldn't be all that difficult to write in a clause to all those contracts on liability in the event of insolvency.

But who would deal with you?

Well, you'd have to offer something in return. Independent auditing of the accounts might be one. Higher prices (in the form of higher wages or interest rates) might be another. Presumably, these things exist right here and now - assuming, that is, that creditors have some reason to doubt whether they will get their money back or not.

But you say only "possible"?

Well, the big fly in the ointment is that (to the best of my knowledge) no corporation has ever existed without the state's say-so. Of course, it is possible that the state (normally) banned corporations - or in some other way made it impossible to create them - and so special legislation was needed. The other possibility is that people did try to create them and failed.

The great achievements of corporations...

Oh, railways, drugs, computers, cars, cheap food etc. Just a few things.

So, it's size rather than type?

Yes, it's the big ones that are the worry - no one is particularly worried about the political influence of the local panel beaters. Anything big, whether it be a religion, a media organisation, a paramilitary organisation or a trade union will attempt to throw its weight around. Corporations are no different.

So, the state should attempt to keep things small?

It can try but I doubt if it'll succeed and even if it does succeed that is likely to be a bad thing. Size has its uses. There are such things as economies of scale and there are other advantages. I rather like the fact that as a consumer I can walk into a McDonald's on the other side of the world and order something familiar.

But you doubt if the state will succeed?

Government action seems to me like squeezing a tube of toothpaste. Sure one part will go down but the tube will pop up somewhere else. For instance, in the UK campaign donations above a certain size were banned so all of a sudden political parties started accepting "loans".

So, what can be done?

Not much. A separation of powers and a written constitution help but ultimately the price of freedom is forever making the case for it.
Medworth recommends this essay on Islam and the West. It's long but it's worth the effort.