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Category archive: Economics

Thursday November 26 2015

I say new.  New for me.  Old and superfluous to requirements for the people who were getting rid of them.

Audiences for regularly repeating events tend exactly to fill whatever comfortable spaces and places are offered to them.  Given that my speakers tend to be pretty good, the single best way for me to persuade more people to attend my Last Fridays of the Month meetings (there will be another such meeting tomorrow evening) is to improve the seating arrangements.  More and more comfortable chairs are the best way to make these events better.

When these meetings resumed, in January 2013, there was a rather ungainly sofa, which seats two in comfort and three in discomfort unless all three are very thin, and one other comfy single chair.  The rest was all stools and upright chairs and old loudspeakers and suchlike.

Worst of all there was this:


That picture having already been shown here, here.

But, to replace the above abomination, there is now this:


Despite appearances, these two beauties work very well as a three seat sofa.  Better yet, they cost me: nothing.  I went out shopping a few months back, and Goddaughter 2 happened to be with me.  We saw these two semi-sofas being inserted into a skip.  So we skipped the shopping and grabbed them, all this being only a couple of dozen yards from the front door of my block of flats.  Moments later, and they’d have been covered in subsequent rubbish.  No Goddaughter 2, and I don’t know how I would have managed.  Almost certainly, not.  Amazing.

And then, about a week ago in a charity shop I encountered these two little numbers, also very comfortable:


I had to pay a few bob for them, and some more bob for a taxi to get them home, but it all added up to far less than I was thinking of paying for something similar, singular, new, to see if another similar, singular, new, would be worth a further quite large outlay.

The above improvements may not seem like much, but they increase the number of truly comfortable seats at my evenings from three-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half.  So the chance of a comfy seat have now more than doubled.

All I need now is to replace that goofy original sofa, with its goofy great arm rests that take up about one and half people’s worth of space, and things would be looking even better.

Monday November 23 2015

I have been reading Peter Foster’s book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism.  And very good it is.  Here are some of the things Foster says about Robert Owen (pp. 86-69, pp 92-95:

After he built Cromford, Arkwright became involved in the development of another even more spectacular water-driven venture, at New Lanark in Scotland. The fast-flowing river below the beautiful Falls of Clyde made the site ideal.  Arkwright’s partner there was David Dale, a respected Glasgow merchant. The notoriously prickly Arkwright fell out with Dale, reportedly over a triviality, and withdrew. Dale took control and continued to expand, but the reason New Lanark is so well preserved today is not that it is seen as a monument to capitalism.  Quite the contrary. Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen, turned New Lanark into the promotional centre for a Utopian dream, where he nurtured anti-capitalist sentiment. A fair amount of anti-capitalist sentiment still seems to pervade the site today.

Owen’s New Lanark was very far from being an experiment in socialism understood as collective ownership and control.  Workers had neither shares in the mill nor much - if any - say in how it was run.  Nor was Owen a political revolutionary.  What he did share in common with more radical socialists was opposition to religion; belief that human nature was an indeterminate clay ("blank slate"), there to be moulded by men such as himself; distaste for the “individual selfish” competitive system and private property (even though they enabled him to promote his muddled ideas); demonization of money; and a generally woolly notion of how economies - as opposed to individual businesses - work.  Owen rejected Adam Smith’s idea of gradual improvement under a system of “natural liberty.” For him, cotton masters, the men who owned and ran the mills, were (except for himself) greedy and selfish, while workers were oppressed sheep to be led, with himself as the Good Shepherd.

Adam Smith had shrewdly noted that people by nature give far more deference to the ideas of the wealthy than they deserve.  Of few people was this more true than Robert Owen.

Owen was born on May 14, 1771, in Newtown in Wales, five years before the publication of The Wealth of Nations. He received only a rudimentary education before being shipped off by his parents to work in the drapery business. He proved an assiduous employee and developed a keen interest in the then-booming textile industry. He started his own business but soon returned to employment as a mill manager in Manchester.  Close to his 20th birthday, he was reportedly managing 500 workers, at the then substantial salary of £300 a year.  Owen soon found investors to help him start his own mill.  He also became interested in education and social reform (which was the rule rather than the exception for industrialists of the time).  However, when he visited New Lanark he saw a place where he might indulge a nascent vision of industrial harmony, a New Jerusalem in which he would be the secular Messiah.

Owen courted David Dale’s daughter, Anne Caroline, married her on September 30, 1799, and took over New Lanark early in 1800 on what seemed generous terms, essentially promising to pay Dale out of the mill’s future profits.  New Lanark was the basis for the fortune and reputation that enabled Robert Owen to indulge his ideas. The scale of New Lanark seems extraordinary even today, but to visitors from the present, if they could travel back to Owen’s time, the most arresting feature of the place would be that most of its employees were children, supplied by orphanages in Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Child labour has become one of the great fixed images of the Industrial Revolution, but it is inappropriate to take our modern sensitivities back to earlier times. Child labour was common - as it still is in many poor countries - because it was, and is, necessary for the survival of both the children and their families.  It was most necessary for orphans.  Indeed, orphanages paid cotton manufacturers to take their charges off their hands.  David Dale reportedly treated his young employees well.  By 1796 he was employing 16 teachers at the site.

Owen’s desire to prevent children under 10 from working appears wholly admirable, until we remember that this might have led them to starve. His desire to educate children and provide an early equivalent of daycare was worthy but ultimately self-interested in business terms, since these measures increased the skills and contentment - and thus productivity - of the workforce, as did his organization of medical insurance, savings opportunities, food and other provisions. There was no conflict between good business and morality. Indeed, Owen himself constantly, at least in the early days, stressed the importance of these measures for increasing profitability.

The village shop that Owen set up at New Lanark was reportedly an inspiration for the modern cooperative movement, which was founded in the town of Rochdale in Lancashire.  According to a potted history at the New Lanark site, when Owen arrived, there were lots of small traders in the village, “selling poor quality goods at high prices.” He was able to buy in bulk, lower the prices and still make a profit.  But of course this is exactly what supermarkets and big-box stores do today, even as they are castigated for putting the “little guy” … out of business.

Robert Owen put the little guy out of business too. He also made sure that no other traders could survive in the village, by paying his workers with “tickets for wages,” which they could spend only at his village shop.  Elsewhere such enforced commitment to the company store would be cited as evidence of corporate villainy, but Owen declared that his own motives weren’t “selfish.” The important thing was not what was good for him, but what was good for mankind, although he clearly expected a little kudos for showing mankind the way.

At New Lanark, Owen in fact displayed more of the enlightened capitalist than of the Utopian dreamer.  One might not doubt his good intentions when it came to spreading education and advocating factory reform, but he seemed eager to bury the fact that many other cottom masters, and businessmen of the time more generally, were enlightened and reform-minded.

As the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, both mill owners and authorities were disturbed by Luddite riots that resulted in the breaking of new machinery, which was seen as destroying jobs. Robert Owen claimed that what had brought about these awful, and worsening, conditions was economic liberalism and the competitive system, which, he declared, was based on “deception.” He came forward with a series of bold proposals for “villages of unity and co-operation,” which struck many as workhouses by a more glorified name.

Although the great and the good expressed polite interest in Owen’s solutions to what were, after all, pressing problems, many were profoundly skeptical.  John Quincy Adams, then U.S. ambassador to Britain, described Owen in his memoirs as “crafty crazy ... a speculative, scheming, mischievous man.”

Owen managed to draw the ire of both radical reformers, the political economist heirs of Adam Smith, groups that rarely saw eye to eye. The radicals saw Owen’s communities as oppressive, while the economists viewed them as impractical and counterproductive. The reformer William Cobbett described them as “parallelograms of paupers.” The political economist Robert Torrens said it ws difficult to decide whether Owen was a “knave” or an enthusiast “in whose brain a copulation between vanity and benevolence has engendered madness.”

Owen welcomed a steady stream of “philanthropic tourists” at New Lanark. Their number included Grand Duke Nicholas, future czar of Russia.  Some - although presumably not the grand duke - found disquieting authoritarian overtones to Owen’s operation. After watching Owen’s child labourers drill like little soldiers at the mill’s Institution for the Formation of Character (which has been lovingly restored with taxpayers’ money from the European Union), the poet Robert Southey compared the place to a slave plantation.

Parliament ultimately rejected Owen’s scheme. One member suggested that “this visionary plan, if adopted, would destroy the very roots of society.” Owen responded to criticism by making his schemes more grandiose.  Undaunted, he set off to proselytize in the New World, and not merely to lecture but at last to put into effect his grand plan.  He bought an existing cooperative community in Indiana, which he renamed New Harmony.

Owen attracted a large number of settlers, described by one of Owen’s sons, Robert Dale Owen, as a “heterogenous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle ... and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.” Owen Sr. soon went back to Britain to spread the word of his success.  Another son, William, confided dolefully to his diary, “The enjoyment of a reformer, I would say, is much more in contemplation, than in reality.”

New Harmony soon started to fall apart.  Skilled labour did not feel inclined to have its income, under Owen’s plan, “equalized” with the unskilled or, worse, with those who did not wish to work at all.  A collectivist scheme such as Owen’s could in effect work only if powered by either religious conviction or forced labour, a lesson that would not be lost on Owen’s more revolutionary successors.

The abolition of money led to a bureaucratic nightmare.  When even lettuce had to pass through the company store, it inevitably wilted before it reached the plate.  (Moscow McDonald’s would encounter analogous problems in trying to get supplies through the collapsing Soviet system almost 200 years later.)

After an absence of two months, Owen returned to New Harmony, arriving by river with intellectual reinforcements dubbed the “boatload of knowledge.” He forced the community through numerous reorganizations, all the while churning out portentous exhortations such as the “Declaration of Mental Independence:’ which promised to free man from the “slavery” of private property, religion and marriage.

One visitor, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, wrote, “He looks forward to nothing else than to remodel the world entirely; to root out all crime; to abolish punishment; to create similar views and similar wants, and in this manner to abolish all dissension and warfare ... He was too unalterably convinced of the result to admit the slightest room for doubt!’ Every other member of the community to whom the duke spoke acknowledged that Owen was “deceived in his expectations!’ The final blow to the community was a falling-out between Owen and William Maclure, a wealthy emigre Scotsman, which led to the two men suing each other over property, the concept New Harmony was meant to transcend.

The one undoubted benefit Owen did bestow upon the former colonies was his children, who turned out to be a good deal more level-headed than their father and who would become prominent in American affairs. Owen then set off on an even more quixotic scheme: to persuade the government of Mexico to grant him a huge swath of land on which to test his theories.  He required Mexico first to abandon Catholicism.  Mexico demurred.  Owen returned to London and embarked upon expansive new ventures.  He became the first president of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, an organization that lasted a year.  Seeking to trump both the pecuniary root of all evil and “unnecessary” middlemen, he set up “labour exchanges,” whereby merchandise was exchanged for “labour notes,” whose value was meant to be calculated according to the hours of sweat embodied in each product.  The administrators found that they could not possibly calculate values this way and were forced to copy market prices.  The labour exchanges collapsed too.

Owen staunchly opposed the “superstition” of religion, and yet his own views were at root profoundly religious, based on a “New Moral World” set up in opposition to a demonic set of greedy capitalists. He founded the Rational Society, complete with Halls of Science instead of churches, and “social hymns.” Sample verse:

Outcasts in your native soil,
Doom’d to poverty and toil,
Strangers in your native land;
Come, and join the social band.

Owen’s acolytes founded another Utopian community, at an estate called Queenwood in Hampshire, whose collapse Owen hastened by spending it into the ground.  One of his more clear-sighted disciples noted that “Mr. Owen was no financier, and had no idea of money.” Queenwood, like New Harmony, imploded amid lawsuits, yet again over property.

Robert Owen represented a psychological type that would persist throughout the business world.  Although such businessmen have a good grasp of their own business, they fail to understand the nature of markets more generally and believe themselves to be morally exceptional in a world marked by short-sighted greed.

Friday July 03 2015

This posting is not so much me passing on advice as me seeking to solidify some ludicrously overdue advice from me to myself, about how to photograph speakers.

Don’t try to do it when they’re speaking.

Last night I took about two dozen photos of Dominic Frisby, who was address the Libertarian Home crowd at the Two Chairmen pub in Westminster.  Almost all these photos were useless.  This was because Frisby was talking, and when people talk, they move.  The indoor light was very scarce, so the slightest motion meant a blur, and a succession of blurs was accordingly all that I got.  My only photographic successes during the Frisby talk were when I switched my attention to the people listening to him.  They were keeping still.

People like Richard Carey:


And Rob Waller, who was the “organising fascist”, as he put it, of the meeting, i.e. he set it up and did the introducing:


I think Rob clocked me, don’t you?

The only half-decent Frisby photos I got were during the Q&A, when, just like the two persons featured above, he too was listening rather than talking:


Doesn’t he look adorkable.

As to what Frisby said (on the subject of Bitcoin), well, it was all videoed, although the video camera was being hand-held, as this further snap of Richard Carey, helping out with that, illustrates:


I include that snap also because of the John Lilburne reference, Lilburne being a man whom we libertarians should be bigging up every chance we get.

Finally, a book photo.  On account of Frisby’s talk beginning a few minutes earlier than I had been expecting it to, I arrived a few minutes late, and the only seat I could find was the one with Frisby’s books on it, which he had presumably earlier been sitting at.  That explains the odd angle of this photo:


Both books highly recommended.  More about Frisby by me (+ further links) in this Samizdata posting.  In this I mentioned that Frisby was working on a Bitcoin book.  As you can see, that book has now materialised.

It helps that books, like people who are listening, or for that matter doing photography, and unlike people who are talking, do not move.

Sunday June 14 2015

Can artists learn about how to do art when they get old, from sportsmen?  Can sportsmen learn from artists about how to handle their career twilights?  I face my own twilight now, so I read Ed Smith’s piece about such things with keen interest.

Choice quote:

The weird aspect of sporting maturity is that it happens so early in life. An athlete’s career is played out in fast-forward.  Professional and emotional maturity are wildly out of sync.  Andrew Flintoff told me recently that his cricket career was practically over before he felt at his most confident as a person.  Many sportsmen feel the same.  By the time they’ve grown up, it’s gone.  The period of critical decision-making and the exercise of power arrives frighteningly early.  Only when they retire do sportsmen become young again as they rejoin civilian time.

Yes, if you leave pro sport but land on your feet afterwards, much as Ed Smith himself seems to have done, it might be like being born again, rather than the slow death that it often seems to be for many sports people.  But, no chance of any such resurrection for those artists, or for me.  This is it.

Today there was a reminder, for cricket followers anyway, of how sports careers, like lives, can be cut cruelly short.  Sometimes, sportsmen only get to have just the one (short) life.

Two cricket fielders, both running for the same catch in the outfield, collided and had to be taken away in ambulances.  The match was called off.

I learned about this in an odd way.  Cricinfo was doing basic commentary.  Just runs, dots and wickets as they happened.  No frills.  No explanations.  And then, the commentary just stopped.  What was going on?  A complicated run out.  Rain?  But they usually say if it is raining.  Eventually I tuned into the BBC’s radio commentary, and got the story.

Google “Burns Henriques” and maybe also “Surrey” during the next few hours and days, and you’ll get plenty of hits.  Rory Burns and Moises Henriques are the names.  Surrey is their county.  At first I thought Surrey were maybe looking at another death (to add to this one, which caused havoc at the club).  So, I imagine, did everyone who was at the ground and who saw it happen.  But now that seems unlikely:

One piece of misinformation circulating was that Henriques was receiving CPR. Thankfully, rumour was quickly replaced by the sight of Henriques and Burns both sitting upright and giving the thumbs up as they were lifted into ambulances and taken to nearby St Richard’s Hospital in Chichester.

So, can you get hurt, do a thumbs up, and then go to hospital and die?  What do I know?

Get well soon, gentlemen, and hopefully well enough to play again, also soon.

More sports news, old sports news, from a movie I’m watching in the small hours of tomorrow morning on the TV.  I know - how does that work? - time travel.  The movie is Secretariat, about a champion horse in 1970s America.  So, the horse’s champion jockey, the usual diminutive jockey size, walks into the Belmont Ball on the eve of the big race, with a tall and gorgeous blonde on his arm.  He is asked how he convinced the tall and gorgeous blonde to attach herself to him.  He says:

“I told her I’m taller when I stand on my wallet.”

Old joke?  Maybe so, but first time I heard it.

I had no idea how Secretariat would end.  But I know the end now.  Secretariat won Belmont (on June 9th 1973, by the way) by thirty one lengths, a Belmont winning margin never seen since.  Even I know that’s a lot of lengths.  I did not see that coming.

LATER: Burns (a confusing name in a story when injuries are being listed): facial injuries.  Henriques: seriously broken jaw.  Nobody died or is going to.

LATER STILL: One man’s facial injury is another man’s opportunity.  Arun Harinath, playing for Surrey for the first time this season in place of Burns, has just scored a century against Glamorgan.  Such are the downs and ups of sport.

Tuesday June 02 2015

Today I attended an event at the office of the ASI, at which Tim Worstall spoke about his latest book.

I took photos, but almost everything I took was terrible.  This one, much cropped and enhanced, was one of the least worst ones:


That’s Sam Bowman in the middle there, with his back to the window, and on the right, Worstall, holding his glasses, waiting for Sam to finish his intro.  That almost everyone had their backs to the windows didn’t help me photo their faces.

The only half decent photo I took was when I got outside, and photoed people who were saying those prolonged goodbyes that happen at these kinds of events.


Through the upstairs window you can see the party continuing.

The gist of Worstall’s talk was that the Green claim that the earth’s resources are about to run out is based on a failure to understand the meaning of the word “reserve”.  Reserves are not all the resources they even know about or know how to go looking for; they are the resources that they already have lined up to be extracted, given current market conditions and current technological ability.  The entire point of “reserves” is that they are already on the warehouse shelf, metaphorically speaking, and are indeed about to “run out”, aka be consumed.  That these “reserves” are about to be consumed does not mean that all the earth’s resources, known and unknown, easily obtainable at today’s prices and with today’s technology or difficult, are all about to vanish, any more than the fact that all the food now in warehouses will soon disappear and then immediately be replaced means that we are all about to starve.

I have long suspected-stroke-assumed something along these lines.  Good to hear it spelt out in detail.

Saturday May 30 2015

Paul Johnson’s appealingly brief biography of Mozart looks like being a lot of fun.  Here is a bit from near the beginning (pp. 9-11):

Mozart’s musical progress began in 1759, at age three, when he began to remember themes and pick out chords.  The next year he was taught brief pieces on the clavier and reproduced them correctly.  In 1761 he began to compose pieces, which his father wrote down.  It was essential to his father’s belief in his miracle-genius that his son should be displayed “to the glory of God,” as he put it.  In 1757, when Mozart was two, Leopold had been appointed court composer by the prince-archbishop, and as a senior musician, had opportunities to show off his son.  But in Salzburg they were limited, so in 1762, when Mozart was six, he took him to Munich, capital of Bavaria, to play before the elector.  Nannerl went with them, as a co-prodigy, and by now a very accomplished one.  But as a child of eleven, she did not raise much of a stir.  Mozart did, and was feted at many fashionable gatherings.

Next they went to Vienna, capital of Austria and of the German- speaking musical world, in so far as it had one. Maria Theresa, the empress, who had survived the attempt by Frederick the Great of Prussia to destroy her and was now a formidable woman, received them graciously but, though a robust Catholic, showed no signs of treating Mozart as a personified miracle.  She was not unmusical.  On the contrary, she was gifted, a fine singer, and had been educated musically by her vice Kapellmeister, Antonio Caldera. But her advisers were strongly against spending much on music.  Under Emperor Charles VI, her father, and his Hofkapellmeister, Johann Joseph Fux, there had been 134 musicians in the imperial chapel.  Under Maria Theresa, the number fell to 20.

Hence, the empress received the Mozarts, but that was all.  Her daughter, Marie Antoinette, picked Wolfgang up when he fell on the slippery parquet flooring.  Her mother listened patiently when he played a difficult piece by Georg Christoph Wagenseil.  When he jumped up onto her lap and kissed her, she made no complaint. Leopold got a bag of Maria Theresa thalers; the children, presents of court dresses, in which they were painted (not too well).  But no job was offered. Later, when her son did offer some kind of job, she objected, in a devastating letter: “You ask me about taking the young Salzburger into your service.  I do not know why, believing you have no need for a composer or useless people.  If, however, it would give you pleasure, I would not hinder you. What I say is so that you do not burden yourself with unproductive people, and even give titles to people of that sort.  If in your service, this debases the service when such people go around the world like beggars. Furthermore he has a large family.”

The last point is curious as Leopold did not have a large family.  Otherwise the letter gives a telling glimpse of how a sovereign saw music on the eve of its greatest age in history.  Musicians were exactly in the same position as other household servants - cooks, chambermaids, coachmen, and sentries.  They existed for the comfort and well-being of their masters and mistresses.  The idea that you took on a composer or performer simply because he was outstanding, when you already had a full complement of household musicians, was absurd.  And of course performing music for money, outside palace or church employment, was mendicancy.  There was plenty of it, of course.  The trade was overcrowded.  Groups played at street corners for coppers.  In London there were “German Bands.” There were also Italian street musicians, who played “Savoyards,” what we would call hurdy-gurdies, or barrel organs. All this was begging, and beggars usually had, or came from, large families: hence the empress’s error.

In short the only respectable way a musician could earn his living was in salaried employment at a court, a wealthy nobleman’s house, or a cathedral or major church.  Leopold had such a job, but it was at a low level and miserably paid.  To rise higher - at a court like Vienna or the elector’s in Munich - required interest. That was a key eighteenth-century word, usually to do with family connections.  When George Washington distinguished himself in colonial service during the Seven Years’ War, when Mozart was an infant, he aspired to rise in the British regular Army or its Indian offshoot.  But he had no interest at the Horse Guards (War Office) or the East India Company in London.  So he went on to become a revolutionary leader, and first president of the United States.  When Napoleon was a young teenager in Corsica, he greatly admired the Royal Navy ships that anchored in its harbors.  But he had no influence in the London Admiralty, and so a commission in the Royal Navy was out of his reach.  He went on to become emperor of France and conquer half of Europe.  Thus history is made.  In Mozart’s world, to become a court painter, architect, or musician required interest, and his father had none.  Fortunately in his case, he could go on “begging” by composing and performing.

Wednesday March 11 2015

Nothing from me here today, other than this.  But, I posted a review earlier today at Amazon, here, of the book Inflation Matters, by Pete Comley.  Five stars.

Tuesday March 03 2015

Yesterday evening’s rather blatant quota photo was because yesterday, I (a) failed to do my blogging duties here in the morning, and then (b) went on a photo-walk, from which I returned in a state of exhaustion.  It was all I could then do to pick out just the one nice photo and shove it up, accompanied by just enough words for me not seem rude.

Single photos are good when I have nothing much to say, nor much time or energy to say it with, because they take very little time to do or to look at.  They don’t exhaust me.  Nor do they take up much of your time unless you decide that you would like them to.  It’s up to you.  You can be done with a photo in a second, literally, while still quite liking it.  Or, you can contemplate it for as long as you like, even for as long as it might take you to read a quite long essay.  What you do not want from a blogger who is posting only for the sake of it is a long essay, which turns out to be saying nothing.  That you can not get a nice little second of fun from and be off, certain that you probably missed very little.  Hence quota photos.  Hence also quota quotes, provided they are short, and to a point.

Tuesday February 24 2015

This blog is where, among other worthier things, I boast about what a clever fellow I am, given that not many other people are in the habit of saying this.  A recent incoming email from Michael Jennings, entitled “You told me about this 12 years before the New York Times did”, gives me another opportunity thus to indulge.

The New York Times piece is this, which is a about how rich people have less stuff than poor people, because stuff is now so cheap.

And I said this in this, just over twelve years ago, as Michael says.

I’m guessing it’s the BJT Bosanquet reference that he particularly remembered.

Monday February 23 2015

This coming Friday I have another of my Last Friday of the Month meetings at my home in London SW1.  This coming Friday is, after all, the last Friday of the month, so the logic is inexorable.  Every Friday (even if the last Friday of, say, December 2014, happened to be Boxing Day, as it was) there is a Last Friday of the Month meeting at my home.

I have been having email problems, in the form of people using gmail suddenly not receiving my emails, so even if you thought you were on my list but hear nothing via email, be assured that this meeting will happen.  Try emailing me (which should work) and then telling your spam filter not to reject my reply, which you will have to do despite it being a particular individual reply.  I know, crazy.  I hope to write more about this problem in a posting at Samizdata, Real Soon Now.

Or, if you intend coming to this particular meeting, you could leave a comment below, and I will respond saying message received and look forward to greeting you.

Anyway, this coming Friday (Feb 27), Pete Comley will be talking about inflation.  He has recently published a book on the subject, which you can learn about in this posting at Comley’s website.  And you can hear what Comley sounds like and a little of how he thinks by listening to this short interview with Simon Rose of Share Radio.


The thing about Comley is that he takes a long-term - very long-term - view of inflation.  He began a recent talk I attended by discussing inflation at the time of the Roman Empire.

And in the long-term, there are not one but two major influences on inflation.  There is, of course, the supply of money, by the powers that be who have always insisted upon supplying money.  And when they make too many coins, too many bank notes or create too much bank credit, the price of regular stuff in shops goes creeping, or rocketing, up.  But there is also the demand for that regular stuff.  In particular, human population fluctuates.  At some moments in history, population shoots up.  At other times it falls, or at the very least the rate at which it increases falls.  Just now, in country after country, the birthrate is falling, and that has consequences for inflation.

Before you say it, I’ll say if for you.  Many simply define inflation as the first of these two processes but not the second.  Inflation is what money issuers do to the money supply.  A price rise caused by rising demand is simply not inflation.  It is a mere price rise.  Fair enough.  It certainly makes sense to distinguish these two processes from each other, however hard it may be for consumers to do this when both are happening to them.  And if you do that by restricting the definition of inflation in this way, then be aware that Pete Comley’s talk will be about inflation thus defined and about price rises sparked by rising demand, and for that matter about price stability caused by static demand.  (He says, by the way, that we might be about to enjoy just such a period of price stability.  And although you can never be sure about such things, better handling of the recent financial crisis, and we might have got there already.)

There is also the question of what causes money issuers to inflate, in the second and more restricted sense of inflation.  They seem to do this more at certain historical junctures than at others.  Inflation, restrictively defined, does not just cause bad economic experiences; it is itself caused, more at some times than at others.

All very interesting, or so I think.  Libertarians like me tend to be quite well informed about recent monetary history and about the evils of fiat currencies, the Fed, the Bank of England, and so on and so forth.  We tend to know a lot less about similar episodes in the more distant past to what he have recently experienced.  In general, we are more interested in the fluctuating supply of money than in the way that population fluctuations influence prices.

Pete Comley has a small but particular soft spot for me, on account of me having been the one who drew his attention to this book about the long-term history of prices (The Great Wave by David Hackett Fischer), which seems to have had quite a big influence on his latest book, which is called Inflation Matters.  It certainly does.

Friday February 13 2015

I just came across this Economist piece from last November (I think that link will keep on working), saying that there may soon be ultra-cheap trans-Atlantic flights.  I did not know this.

Norwegian Air Shuttle, a low-cost carrier that has been expanding rapidly across Europe, has begun flying across the Atlantic and to Thailand. Next March Wow Air, an Icelandic carrier, will start flights on routes such as Boston to London, via Reykjavik, with introductory prices as low as $99 one way.

Time was when …:

… the fuel burned by long-haul planes made up a large proportion of the cost of operating the flights. That made it hard for budget carriers to find enough cost savings elsewhere to cut prices sufficiently to tempt flyers to switch from carriers offering more comforts.

This is now changing, with the launches of some new and far more fuel-efficient planes: Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, already in the air, Airbus’s A350, which will start flying within weeks, and a revamped version of Airbus’s A330, coming in 2019. Ryanair’s boss, Michael O’Leary, recently reiterated a promise that he would eventually sell transatlantic flights from as little as €10 ($13) one-way and with average return fares of around €200-300. The full-service airlines will also be ordering these new planes, but their cost disadvantage compared with the nimble budget carriers (because of such things as their legacy pension schemes and labour agreements) will become more stark.

Perhaps I will one day set foot in the USA after all.

As for that Economist link above, no, unless you subscribe.  You have to google “making laker’s dream come true”.  Then you can read it.

Or: this link seems to get you straight to a recycled version of the piece.

Wednesday January 28 2015

… because the HDI is basically a measure of how Scandinavian your country is.

That’s Bryan Caplan, complaining about something called the Human Development Index, in a piece entitled Against the Human Development Index.

Wednesday January 21 2015

At this blog, I am finding my one-a-day habit quite easy to stick with.  Part of this, I think, is that the penalty (in my mind) of failing to do something today is (in my mind) very large, by which I mean very large when set beside the effort of doing something (which can be something very easy to do).

Most people talk about habits and how you get into them as if they are all about, well, habit.  The brain is automatically triggered to do whatever it is, whenever, each day, or whenever you have just done something else.  You lock your door when you leave your home when nobody else is there.  After dinner, you immediately wash up.  Whatever.  It becomes painful to neglect such habits.  And there is, I’m sure, plenty of truth to such notions.

But the relationship between cost and benefit is also significant, regardless of mere mental triggers.  The longer you have been able to stick with a good habit, the worse it feels to break it, because of all that past investment.  On the other hand, the penalty for sticking with a bad habit (like me failing, yet again, to do a Samizdata posting after a longish dry spell there) is not great.  Percentage-wise it is tiny.  Instead of your dry spell lasting twenty days, it lasts twenty one days.  Big deal.

This is surely part of why getting out of a bad habit is very hard, at first, and getting into a good habit is hard, at first.  The prices of each particular failure are small, at first.  But as the good habit persists, the price of a failure to maintain it rises, while the cost of maintaining it stays the same, or (because of the mental trigger effect) actually falls.  (You get, as the saying goes, into the swing of it.)

Talking about “past investment” in a habit sounds like the “sunk investment fallacy”.  This is where you persist in investing in something not because the future investing you do will be profitable, but because of all the investing you have already done, even though future investment will be lost also.  But the reason why there is a special name for this error is that the sunk investment “fallacy” feels like it is true even when it isn’t.  The label exists because the error is so tempting, and consequently so common.  If you do not persist, all that past investment will feel wasted.  And of course, if continuing to “invest” in the habit will actually be beneficial (if the habit would be worth starting now even if you hadn’t already started it), then you really would be wasting all that past investment, if you let the habit slip.

I am not sure about this, and am not confident that I have expressed this very well, perhaps because I have it a bit wrong.  But that is the sort of thing that this blog is for.  I post half-baked thoughts and thereby get to bake them a bit more.

One obvious complaint about this kind of thinking is that blogging is supposed to be fun.  Well, for me, it is fun, when I can make myself do it.  Above all, it is fun when I have done it.  So, although not all aspects of doing it are fun, it is still fun, mostly.

Tuesday November 25 2014

As discussed in this earlier posting, here is a chunk of Frisby, from his book Bitcoin: The Future of Money? (pp. 197-201 – the chunk entitled “Beware the hype cycle").  And for the reasons stated in that earlier posting, this posting might rather suddenly disappear, so if you feel inclined to read it, do so now.  And then when you have, buy the book and tell me that you have done this in the comments, because this might cheer up any passing authors or publishers:

There is a cycle that a new technology passes through as it goes from conception to widespread adoption. The research company Gartner has dubbed it the ‘hype cycle’. It has five phases: the technology trigger, the peak of inflated expectations, the trough of disappointment, the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity.

In the first phase the new technology is invented. There is research and development and some early investment is found. The first products are brought to market. They are expensive and will need a lot of improvement, but they find some early users. The technology clearly has something special about it and people start getting excited. This is the ‘technology trigger’. The internet in the early 1990s is a good example.

As this excitement grows, we move into the second phase.  The media start talking about this amazing new technology.  Speculative money piles in. All sorts of new companies spring up to operate in this new sector. Many of them are just chasing hot money and have no real product to offer.  They are sometimes fraudulent. This new technology is going to change the world. The possibilities are endless. We’re going to cure diseases. We’re going to solve energy problems.  We’re going to build houses on the moon. This is the ‘peak of inflated expectations’. This was the internet in 2000.

But at some point, the needle of reality punctures the bubble of expectation, and we move into the third phase.  Actually, this technology might not be quite as good as we thought it was; it’s going to take a lot of work to get it right and to make it succeed on a commercial scale.  A great deal of not particularly rewarding hard work, time and investment lies ahead.  Forget the ideas men – now we need the water-carriers.  Suddenly, the excitement has gone.

Negative press starts to creep in. Now there are more sellers than buyers. Investment is harder to come by. Many companies start going bust. People are losing money. The hype cycle has reversed and we have descended into the ‘trough of disappointment.’ This was the internet between 2000 and 2003.

But now that the hot money has left, we can move into phase four. The incompetent or fraudulent companies have died. The sector has been purged. Most of those that remain are serious players. Investors now demand better practice and the survivors deliver it. They release the second and third generation products, and they work quite well. More and more people start to use the technology and it is finally finding mainstream adoption. This was the internet in 2004. It climbed the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’, the fourth phase of the hype cycle, and entered the ‘Plateau of Productivity’ - phase five - which is where the likes of Google, Amazon and eBay are today.

Of course, cycles like this are arbitrary.  Reality is never quite so simple.  But it’s easy to make the case that crypto-currencies in late 2013 reached a ‘peak of inflated expectations’.

Perhaps it was not the.  It wasn’t Bitcoin’s dotcom 2000 moment – just a peak on a larger journey up.  Many Bitcoin companies, for example, are not even listed on the stock market.  Greater manias could lie ahead.

But it’s also easy to make the case that it ws the peak of inflated expectations.  In the space of three or four years, Bitcoin went from an understated mention on an obscure mailing list to declarations that it was not only going to become the preferred money system of the world, but also the usurper of the existing world order.  At $1,000 a coin, some early adopters had made a million times their original investment. Speculators marvelled at the colossal amount of money they were making. The media were crazy for it. Bitcoin was discussed all over television.

It caught the imagination of the left, the right and the in-between.  Computer boffins marvelled at the impossibly resilient code. Economists and libertarians marvelled at the politics of a money without government or border. There were early adopters, from the tech savvy to the black markets (black markets are usually quick to embrace new technology - pornography was the first business sector to actually make money on the internet, for example).

Every Tom, Dick and Harry you met under the age of 30 with an interest in IT was involved in some Bircoin start-up or other.  Either that or he was designing some new alt currency - some altcoins were rising at over a thousand per cent per day.  ‘Banks, governments, they’re irrelevant now,’ these upstarts declared.

I suggest that in late 2013 we hit the peak of the hype cycle - the peak of inflated expectations.  Now Bitcoin is somewhere in the ‘trough of disillusionment,’ just like the internet in 2001. The price has fallen. There have been thefts. Some of the companies involved have gone bankrupt.

The challenge now is for all those start-ups to make their product or service work. They have to take Bitcoin from a great idea and a technology that works to something with much wider ‘real world’ use. They have to find investment and get more and more people to start using the coins. This is a long process.

There are many who will disagree with this interpretation.  And, with investment, it is dangerous to have rigid opinions – I reserve the right to change my mind as events unfold.

Monday November 17 2014

This morning I did a rather negative would-be posting about some Art, Art which had at first rather appealed to me but which, upon further consideration, I decided I did not much like or admire.

But then I realised that my rule for stuff that other people are doing with their own time and money and others are buying and enjoying with their own money and time is for me just to walk away.  Why moan?  The world is full of stuff I don’t much care for.  So long as I don’t get taxed to pay for it, or made to pay attention to it against my will, what on earth is the point of me seeking it out and bitching about it?

For me, this is one of the great benefits that has been brought about by the internet.  In the age of the mass media, you had this whole tribe of professional hacks who, day after day, week after week, were made to pay attention to things which quite often they would rather not have been paying attention to.  Inevitably, an air of irritation, even hatred, entered the souls and writings of these people.  The subtext, and often the text, was: I wouldn’t have picked this in the first place.  Only the Culture vultures who really were allowed to pick whatever cultural prey they were inclined to descend upon were able to communicate genuine pleasure, because they were the only Culture vultures who truly felt pleasure.  The rest of Culture writing was a mixture of grudging reportage and grumbling, with the occasional cheer when some hack found himself not clock watching, not trying to think of what the hell nice things he could say about something he considered nasty, or worse, just … shrug.

But now a tidal wave of amateurs has crashed into the culture-writing game and it has become, well, a game.  It has become fun. We bloggers and twitterers pick on stuff we like, and say: hey, this is cool, this is fun, this is good, this is something I really enjoyed immersing myself in.  Maybe you’ll like it too.  Commenters and other twitterers then say things like: well, I prefer this, or this, or that or that.  If, on the other hand, you said you didn’t like something or other, the response from other www-chatterers is, not unnaturally, just to say: well then why the rude word do you waste your time moaning about it?  Walk away.  If what you are moaning about is some Big Thing, heavily promoted, made much of, that everyone else seems to be paying attention to, fair enough, you are warning the rest of us off it.  But if it is just some little thing you found on the internet and you don’t like it, so rude-word-ing what?

For as long as there was just the one big Culture, that the media people agreed or had to agree was It, then all who wanted to be Cultural had to pay attention to that Culture, whether they liked It or not.  It was their duty, just as it was the duty of professional Culture-writers to write about It, to pay attention to It.  There was an air of joylessness and obligation about It all, like a queue in a passport office.

Favourite-blogger-of-mine Mick Hartley has written from time to time about the way that Art is now turning into fairground entertainment, often implying that this is a bad thing.  I also notice this when I visit London’s South Bank Arts enclave, which now has a much more “visitor attraction” feel to it than it used to have.  Hartley does do quite a lot of moaning, but mostly the Cultural stuff he does now is drawing attention to something he likes, thinks deserves to be more noticed, more enjoyed, more celebrated.  His posting today is a perfect example of this.  It’s not Art, it’s street art.  Street art is fun, it appeals to people, and it is also where a lot of the official Art action is now, because the Artists know that these street people are upstaging them.

Political money is now tighter than it was a decade and more ago, and if the Arts fraternity want yet more money, they must try appealing to their audiences rather than baffling them or insulting them.  They must now try to give pleasure, the way they tended not to in the twentieth century.

But there is more than economics going on here.  After all, there is still a hell of a lot of Official Money being competed for.  There is still a great big Culture out there, still being paid for, if not enjoyed.  No, the other difference is that there is also that damned internet out there, where regular punters get to say what they really think about it all.  If they are being got at by Culture, they can now get back at it, by saying: bollocks, and: I prefer this, or this, or that or that.  It’s a different world.

And you’ll never know what it was I just moaning about.  I will instead look for other things, that I actually like.

The sort of place I will be looking will be at places like Colossal, which, by the way, is where I found the thing that I liked at first but then didn’t like, that got me started on all this.  I don’t like everything at Colossal by any means.  But I like a lot of it.

Or, maybe this is really a posting that is not really about Art as such, more about getting old, as so many postings here are.  As you get old, you stop worrying about what Art is, if you are one of those people who ever did worry.  You just stop paying attention to Art, as in: Where Art Is Going.  It will go where it goes, and you go where you want to go.  It’s not the world getting happier.  It’s not Art getting more fun.  It’s just you.  It’s just me.

Ah blogging.  You can change your mind in mid posting, or even right at the end if you feel inclined.  What’s that you say?  You disapprove.  I must make up my mind.  Must I?  I tell you what, you go away and read something else, something you’d prefer.  This was just a bit of fun, and for you it wasn’t.  Forget about it.