Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: Economics
As already noted here, I did a piece last week for Samizdata entitled The Institute of Economic Affairs and its support for Liberty League Freedom Forum 2014. “Hayek1337” has just added this interesting and informative comment, which I want to remember before it disappears off the bottom of Samizdata:
It’s worth noting that Liberty League is ultimately run by Anton Howes, James Lawson, and Will Hamilton – who I’ve considered great friends since their first conference (and the 80s dance floor in some dingy Birmingham club).
Their contribution in the silent background is huge, even if largely ignored. They had the entrepreneurial drive, and they’re the ones who make sure the conference actually has worthwhile speakers,and young people filling the rooms. They do it on the side, Anton’s a full time PHD student for example, but often has a bigger impact than a lot of these full time think tankers. They don’t make a penny from their efforts, it all goes to the conference and supporting student societies. There’s also whole Liberty League team around them, promoting Liberty across all corners of the UK at student societies.
Obviously the IEA is a big backer, and it’s got a hell of a lot of financial muscle, but Liberty League is very close to others in the Free Market movement, and isn’t an IEA project. I’ve seen those three at every Adam Smith Institute Next Generation since time began, and I met two of them at Freedom Week, back when it was set up by JP Floru of the ASI. So, you’ve got to look at return on investment, and those in the background. People like Madsen Pirie of the ASI, and Donal Blaney in the more Conservative movement have played a key role here – identifying and developing entrepreneurs in the battle of ideas, or as Atlas calls them, “multipliers for liberty”.
I guess it’s a case of the more multipliers for liberty the merrier …
Indeed. Quality is good, but quantity of quality has a extra quality about it. It’s not just more of the same. Things become possible, even inevitable, that were impossible before quantity kicked in.
I’ve admired Anton Howes for quite a while, and I hope to get to meet and learn more about James Lawson and Will Hamilton at LLFF2014, which is happening next weekend. Here are some pictures of these three, at the top of this clutch.
What I’ve heard about James Lawson (him in particular) says he might be an excellent Brian’s Fridays speaker.
... but something from me here, about the IEA and LLFF2014.
Incoming from Simon Rose, entitled “End of the World not happening tomorrow”.
What this means is that the End of the World CLUB MEETING is not happening tomorrow, because of a double booking mix-up of some sort. But for a moment there, I was wondering what mad prophecy Simon was taking it upon himself to contradict.
The End of the World Club is an up-market version of my Last Friday meetings. Despite its rather grumpy old man title, these meetings are very good, with excellent speakers. For instance there was that fascinating talk by someone who had lived through the Zimbabwe inflation.
And, I first came across Dominic Frisby when he addressed the EotW Club, about this book. Ever since Frisby spoke at my home, about his next book I have been hearing his voice on television, what with me being fond of TV documentaries. Here (click on that only if you want to hear noise at once) is what he sounds like. More Frisby audio info here.
Email me if you want to know more about these EotW meetings, and I’ll put you in touch with Simon Rose.
If the world ever does end, I want Frisby doing the voice overing for it.
On Monday last I attended a BBC Radio 4 event, at which Evan Davis interviewed Deirdre McCloskey:
Yes that is the same screen, and it remained the same colour throughout. In “reality” I mean. If you were there, which I was.
But digital cameras, when set on “automatic” as mine always is, have minds of their own when it comes to colour. One picture happens to have a lot of a certain colour in it, and it changes the overall colour of everything to compensate. For instance, when you take indoor pictures but there is outdoor sky to be seen, then even if in reality the sky is deepest grey, the camera turns the sky deepest blue, and the indoor bits orange. Likewise, when the sky is blue, but if you are outdoors, the camera, for no reason, is liable to fill a clear blue sky with pollution and turn it a sort of slate colour. What was happening here is that these two pictures are both cropped. But the left one was only cropped a bit, while the left one was cropped a lot. And the stuff that got cropped out of the left one meant that the screen was no longer green. It was blue.
As to what Deidre McCloskey actually said, well the thing I was most intrigued by was that she was entirely cool about being asked about how she used to be Donald McCloskey. In which connection, don’t you just love how that circumstance is alluded to in this:
That’s an article reproduced at her website. So, is that her handwriting? Could well be.
I doubt the medical side of the switch was as easy to do as that.
The libertarian propaganda side of this is that McCloskey is a character, rather than just a boring bod in a suit. The usual evasive sneers against pro-capitalists just won’t work on her. And I even think it helps that (maybe because of those medical dramas - don’t know) her voice is a strange hybrid of male and female, often sounding a bit like electrical feedback. She also has a slight but definite stutter.
The reason I feel entitled to mention all this is that it clearly does not bother her, or if it does she has learned very well to stop it bothering her, and indeed to make a communicational virtue of it all. I guess she figures if you are saying interesting stuff, it really doesn’t matter if your voice sounds a bit funny and if people sometimes have to wait a second or two before hearing the next bit of it. In fact it probably even helps, because it gets everyone listening, proactively as it were, guessing what is coming instead of just hearing it.
See also: Hawking.
Incoming from Sam Bowman in the form of an email, dated March 6th, entitled “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism - an apologia”:
Thanks for mentioning my Libertarian Home talk on Samizdata. I look forward to seeing you tonight if you can make it.
“Tonight” was March 6th (Simon Gibbs introductory spiel about Sam and his talk here), when Sam gave his talk at the Rose and Crown. This is not yet available on video, but it presumably soon will be, because as always at these Libertarian Home Rose and Crown talks, a video camera was in action. On the right is a photo that Sam took of me and him with his mobile, after he had given his talk.
And thanks for coming on Monday!
That was an ASI event, about whether prison works. (Answer, with all kinds of reservations: yes.)
I typed out quite a long email to you but decided against it, because I figured none of it would be new to you.
Wrong. Now that my hair is mostly grey and I no longer say everything I am thinking, other libertarians seem to assume that I now know everything that there is to be known, and because I own lots of books that I have read everything that there is to be read, about libertarianism. None of this is true. I do not read and have not read nearly as much as I have time to read and have had time to read. I regret that Sam didn’t preserve this longer email.
Having said that, since it’s something we’re both interested in I thought I’d try to outline my position a bit more briefly:
Excellent. I asked Sam, quite a long time ago now, if he minded me recycling what follows in a posting, and maybe then sticking bits of it up at Samizdata. No, he said, post away. So here it is:
I still hate the term ‘social justice’ (Hayek did a real number on me), and philosophically I’m not on board with the Rawlsian view of ethics. My moral position is preference utilitarianism – that people getting what they want is what’s good. Having said that, practically I think that ethical consequentialists and believers in ‘social justice’ are in basically the same position: both think that improving the welfare of the poor is a high priority.
I think it makes sense to treat libertarianism as being about means, not ends. Most political positions claim that they’re good because they will make people’s lives easier, happier, etc. (There are some exceptions of course.) I think many people make the error of forgetting that the world is complex, so they assume that differences of opinion about politics must be down to differences of opinion about what sort of world we want.
People sometimes also try to waterproof their beliefs by attaching moral claims to empirical arguments – eg, a supporter of the minimum wage, presented with strong arguments that undermine their empirical claims, may fall back on the argument that it’s just indecent for people to earn below £x/hour, and a decent society should simply not allow that, consequences be damned. Of course we libertarians often do this too – presented with strong arguments in favour of the minimum wage we may fall back on the claim that it’s just wrong to interfere with private contracts between adults. I think there’s some merit to both these claims (much more so the latter, obviously) but they shouldn’t be treated as unbreakable absolutes. If they were, were the earlier, empirical arguments just rhetoric?
So you can boil my position down to this: if I was convinced that free markets and a high degree of individual liberty were not the best way of allowing people to get what they want, I wouldn’t support them. My libertarianism/liberalism is entirely contingent on empirical beliefs I have about the world.
I make explicit the fact that I’d be relaxed about redistribution of wealth from rich to poor if I thought it led to good outcomes, and indeed I think the libertarian empirical case is much stronger on regulation of people’s lives (in the broadest sense) and commerce than it is on wealth redistribution. I also think that it’s where we have the most original things to say.
How this makes me any different to people like Milton Friedman and FA Hayek I am not sure, given that both were also explicitly supportive of wealth/income redistribution. Of course, any consequentialist libertarian would have to concede that, at least in theory, they would be open to the idea of redistribution.
Some emails, rather like some comments, can have particular expressive merit. Because people are relaxed rather than mounted self-consciously on their official high horses, so to speak, they often communicate in this more informal circumstance with particular eloquence. So, my particular thanks to Sam for allowing me to publish this. More of his many thoughts here, although you may have to scroll your way past a huge photo of Sam in front of a brick wall. (Odd. Did anyone else have this problem?) I recommend doing this.
Earlier this evening Detlev Schlichter spoke to the Libertarian Alliance (London Tendency), on the subject of Ludwig Von Mises and his claim that economics is a body of knowledge based upon “A Priori” knowledge.
I attended and took photos:
As you can see I was sitting just behind the video camera, and had fun lining this up with the object of its attentions.
The talk was good, as you will be able to hear when the video is up and viewable.
While sorting out the link to Libertarian Alliance (London Tendency) I discovered that Sean Gabb, leader of the Libertarian Alliance (South Coast Tendency), has recently given a couple of talks to the Libertarian Alliance (London Tendency). I did not know this. Interesting.
On the right is a fake-up of a new building, for another of those Mega Mega Companies that you have never heard of, until they suddenly construct themselves a new Big Thing in the middle of London. Construction is expected to start next year. As you can see, it will be part of what is now the Gherkin/Cheesegrater cluster.
Also a potential part of that cluster, and potentially the biggest Big Thing in it, the Helter Skelter (aka “The Pinnacle"), now looks like it will soon resume being built as well, as already noted here.
Of the Helter Skelter’s rise from the dead, Londonist says:
The optimism is driven by an improving economy and (believe it or not) a growing shortage of suitable office space in the financial centre.
It’s like 2008 never happened.
On November 24th, which by my calculations is around seven weeks ago, I did a posting entitled Happiness is Gold Blend at only £3 instead of £4.50.
Today, also in Sainsbury’s, I found that my pleasure was not diminished:
I was just coming to the very final end of the stash I had purchased on November 24th, since which date, Nescafe Gold Blend has been stuck at £4.50. Until today.
Small pleasures. Including the pleasure of having bought exactly the correct amount, to tide me over until the next price reduction.
It is interesting how the prices of basic supermarket products now seems to fluctuate rather more than they used to. My last stash of Gold Blend also cost £3 a go, for two. Today, I bought three of these packets. For the last few weeks it went up to £4.50, and I held off, waiting in hope of a price drop again. Today, I was nearly out and would have to buy some, no matter what the price. But, glory be, it was down to £3 again.
Could these fluctuations be a consequence of containers? Is it that containers have made supplies of things like branded coffee less continuous, more prone to famine or feast? And are we now enjoying a capitalist version of what happened under communism, in which suddenly a rumour would fly around Moscow saying that a consignment of meat had arrived, and immediately the queues would form. With us, the news that Gold Blend is on offer at Sainsburys flies around on our mobile phones, or in this case is featured on my blog, at which point it’s first come first served.
Or is it merely that logistics geniuses, armed with super-computer-networks, are now able to do sums about the precise prices they need to charge at any particular moment for any particular thing, in order to make maximum use of scarce warehouse and store space? If you get my meaning.
Or maybe it’s a bit of both?
Michael Jennings presumably knows the answer to these questions, because Michael Jennings (see the first two of these comments) knows everything .
Anton Howes spoke earlier this evening to Libertarian Home, about what made the Industrial Revolution get started. I took this photo of Howes, as he relaxed afterwards:
Howes really is a class act, as I already knew from when he addressed my Brian’s Last Friday, in July. What he has to say about the Industrial Revolution is already fascinating, and full of fascinating detail. When he has done all his research, then this talk will turn into something very formidable.
Meanwhile, a way to understand where Howes is coming from, and what kind of thesis he is exploring the further biographical and other detail of, is to read a book called Bourgeois Dignity, by Deirdre McCloskey. Howes recommended this book at the talk he gave in July. I bought a copy and am reading it now.
McCloskey’s basic thesis is that the thing that made the difference was ideas. The Industrial Revolution was not merely a bunch of people responding to economic incentives. It was people doing something they had come to believe in, surrounded by other people who also got the point, enough to let them get on with it. The Industrial Revolution was an ideology, brought to life by a core community of industrial inventors and creators, and sufficiently bought into by the wider society for those creators not to be suppressed.
The Industrial Revolution had plenty of chances to happen far earlier, in such places as China and Imperial Rome. That it did not happen earlier in such places is because, although the material conditions seemed to be all present and correct, they just weren’t thinking the right way to make the breakthrough. So McCloskey says, anyway.
As to what Howes said, well, the good news is that, unlike the talk he gave at my place, tonight’s talk was recorded on video by Simon Gibbs, and will accordingly materialise at Libertarian Home, by and by.
For some reason, descriptions of crazy economic times seem always, sooner or later, to involve toilet paper. It was true in Russia. It is true now in Venezuela. And it was true in Zimbabwe:
That’s one of the pictures that Corrie (short for Coralee) Chipps showed to members of the End of the World Club, when she gave a talk to us about the Zimbabwe inflation earlier this evening, at the IEA. Not exactly what you’d call entertaining, but most informative. I hope to blog more about this.
Tomorrow evening I have another Brian’s Last Friday. Richard Carey will speak about “The English Radicals: 1640-1660”. Click on Contact (top left) to cadge an invite.
Until now, I have been slightly struggling to get good speakers soon enough for these evenings, but now I have at last got ahead of myself and have fixed, barring mishaps, the next three speakers also.
Oct 25 - Preston Byrne on Mortgage Subsidies: Why They Didn’t Work in America and Won’t Work Here.
Nov 29 - Dominique Lazanski on Digital Freedom in the UK and Europe.
Dec 27 - Antoine Clarke on Immigration and the Bad Arguments Against It.
Note in particular December 27, Antoine Clarke. This might seem like the sort of date I might want to cancel, but actually, the more that a date might seem like cancellation fodder, the better this is, by not cancelling, an opportunity to tell people that there will be a Brian’s Last Friday, every last Friday, every month, no matter what. Even if it’s just me talking to myself on Christmas Day, or some such strange thing.
I’m already starting to get emails from people who are just assuming there will be a meeting on Friday the whenever-it-is, and simply asking who will be speaking and can they come. I want to encourage this sort of thinking. You know the dates for years in advance, just as I do.
So, I am especially grateful to Antoine for agreeing to do that one in December. I have no idea how many people will show up, but I have a feeling that the day after the day after Christmas Day might prove quite a draw. Public transport will be back in business, unlike on the previous day, and … what else is there to do on that particular day? Work? Play with presents? Go to other meetings?
Can someone explain why some items for sale on Amazon have hugely inflated prices attached to them?
Here, for example, is a CD of the Brahms Violin Concerto, played by Pinchas Zukerman. Someone is asking £339 pounds for it, new. I have this CD, and Zukerman plays the piece very well, I think. But he does not play it £339 well. So, what’s happening here? This kind of thing seems to happen quite a lot.
Surely, nobody is ever going to pay £339. Are they? Maybe they are, in some stupid way, and that explains it.
Or is there some automatic increase going on here, and has someone forgotten about it, and just let the price climb and climb?
Comments explaining, or even just guessing the way I have, would be most welcome.
Today I did something I very rarely do these days. I bought a newspaper:
It was The Times of May 24th 1940. Originally it cost 2d, which means two old pennies, from the days of pounds, shillings and pence, which I remember very well, because they lasted into the sixties. Today, I bought it in the local gay charity shop in Churton Street, for £1. There were quite a few more copies of The Times from that time still on sale there, most of them from late in 1939. £1 each. How long they will last, who can say?
Patrick Crozier, do you want me to get more copies for you, if they are still there?
Patrick Crozier’s talk at my place last month, based on The Times in 1913, was superb. He turned the talk into six Samizdata postings, which you can find by going to the last one, and following the links back. Highly recommended if you’ve not read them yet.
LATER: Twenty more copies.
Yesterday was a grey and drizzly day, as was today come to that.
This didn’t look as good as it would have on a sunny day.:
That’s Barclays Bank, Kings Cross. I can’t help thinking that all that razzamatazz reflects rather badly on Barclays Bank, Kings Cross, even though Barclays Bank, Kings Cross, is not itself razzamatazzed.
This, on the other hand, is just what you want on a grey and drizzly day:
However, although you may want it, so (I fear) will tramps, and tramps always win such contests, don’t they? Whoever smells worse and looks scarier wins. So, unless you are yourself a tramp, this will be a no go area for you, as for me.
Just for now, however, no tramps, and here is how it looks when I point my camera upwards:
Very seventies. Very trashy. But, it keeps the drizzle off. I guess what’s happening here is that middle-aged architects, who were tiny tots in super-trendy seventies households with all the trappings of the time, are now powerful enough to be doing it again, in a vain attempt to recapture their lost youths.
This roof is between Westminster City Hall and that new office block with the crazy angled walls, in Victoria Street.