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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Category archive: Economics

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.

Sunday November 16 2014

Something a lot of people don’t get about rather small and incremental improvements is that even if they don’t mean anything to you (by which I mean to them) they can definitely mean something to someone, and potentially a great deal, and to quite a lot of someones.  My understanding of economics is that this is one of the most basic ideas embodied in it.  (The notion even has its own intellectual revolution: the Marginal Revolution.)

A price increase of around fifty pence for something costing, say, thirty quid may not seem much, and it may not change your behaviour.  But for some people this will be the proverbial straw that changes a light bulb to parsnips, the difference that makes all the difference.

Consider these slightly new, slightly snazzier trains, that have been announced by Eurostar, to replace their existing trains, next year.  Their front ends, so we are now being told, will look like this:

image

The Evening Standard (where I found all these pictures) tells us that these new trains will slash the journey time from London to Paris, but it neglects to reveal by how much.  Google google.  Here we go.  The Daily Mail supplies the answer to this obvious question.  It turns out that the journey time from London to Paris will be “slashed” (their word too) by … fifteen minutes.

But this posting is not (see above) a rant about how little difference this will make to most people.  It is a rant about how much difference it will make to some people.  For some people this fifteen minute reduction will make the difference between being able to go to Paris in the morning, get the job done, and then return to London that same day in time to read a story to a daughter.  Or … not.  Connections just missed will turn into connections just made, and fifteen minutes (doubled for the two journeys) will stretch out into something more like two hours.

Not for most people.  Just for some people.  And when you consider how many people might or might not choose to use Eurostar, depending on considerations like the above, that “some” people turns out to be really quite a lot of people.

In short, fifteen minutes does make a difference.

Or consider another small improvement that these new trains will involve, this time an improvement measured not in minutes but in inches.

Here is how the new trains will look on the inside:

image

Now that may not seem very interesting.  But it interests me greatly.  It’s been a while since I travelled on Eurostar, but my abiding memory is of how small and cramped and dreary the interior of the carriage was.  For such a supposedly twenty first century experience, the whole thing had a very twentieth century feel to it, in a bad way.  The above picture immediately makes me think that these new trains will be a significantly more spacious and less soul-destroying experience than the old ones, the old ones that I will still be partaking of when I journey to France and back, just after Christmas.

Judging by this photo ...:

image

… it would appear that they have done to the design of the Eurostar what they have also been doing to some of the trains in the London Underground.  These new London tube trains now bulge outwards, over the platforms.  Not by much, but by just a bit, just enough to make a real difference to the inside.

A few days ago, I overheard a conversation between some out-of-towners who were enthusing about the new and wider tube trains that were recently introduced on London’s Circle Line.  They were rhapsodising.  It was like listening to the scripted pseudo-public babbling away on a TV advert, so delighted were these truly regular members of the public about the new train that they and I were travelling on.  And I agree with them.  Whenever a train that I am awaiting emerges from its tunnel and reveals itself to be one of these new and slightly wider trains, my spirits are lifted.

And that was just inside a tube train.  When it comes to Eurostar, we are talking about two hours.  Two hours stuck in a dreary little tube, or in a rather less dreary, rather less constricted sort of tube.  That is quite a difference.  I can easily imagine, when some future decision about a cross-Channel journey presents itself to me, that these extra few inches ("cramped" is all about inches) could be the difference that will be all the difference, to me.  At the very least, I will try to give the new carriages at least one try, when they do finally appear.

Thursday October 23 2014

Earlier this evening, I attended this gathering.  I took a ton of photos, of which I choose this one to show you:

image

I choose that photo not because it is any great shakes as a photo, but because it focuses (insofar as it does focus) on what was in many ways the most impressive thing about this event, namely the number and quality of those who attended.  In this respect, the evening reminded me of those big Liberty League gatherings that happen earlier in the year. Simon Gibbs and his helpers put in a huge effort to make this occasion work well, and to get a decent turnout of intelligent, paying customers.

Don’t get me wrong, the speakers were numerous and articulate, and all admirably concise, which was necessary given how many of them there were.  A lot of ground was covered.  A lot of food for thought was served up.  If there was a big winner issue, so to speak, that best explains how much harder it has recently got to make ends meet, it was probably the cost of housing.  There was general agreement that planning regulations need to be relaxed, although also general pessimism about the politics of accomplishing that.  Also making a strong showing were energy costs, and the heavy and rising taxes on petrol and drink and tobacco.

But you can have all the speakers up front that you like.  If enough aren’t there to listen, then your event falls very flat.  This one was the opposite of that.

Friday September 19 2014

I’ve been reading Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and very entertaining and informative it is too.  Strangely, one of the best things about it for me was that he explained, briefly and persuasively, both the rise to global stardom and the fall from global stardom of British agriculture.  The rise was a lot to do with the idea of crop rotation.  I remember vaguely being told about this in a prep school history class, but although I did remember the phrase “crop rotation”, I didn’t care about it or about what it made possible.

Here is Bryson’s description of this key discovery:

The discovery was merely this: land didn’t have to be rested regularly to retain its fertility.  It was not the most scinitillatingof insights, but it changed the world.

Traditionally, most English farmland was divided into long strips called furlongs and each furlong was left fallow for one season in every three - sometimes one season in two - to recover its ability to produce healthy crops.  This meant that in any year at least one-third of farmland stood idle. In consequence, there wasn’t sufficient feed to keep large numbers of animals alive through the winter, so landowners had no choice but to slaughter most of their stock each autumn and face a long, lean period till spring.

Then English farmers discovered something that Dutch farmers had known for a long time: if turnips, clover or one or two other suitable crops were sown on the idle fields, they miraculously refreshed the soil and produced a bounty of winter fodder into the bargain. It was the infusion of nitrogen that did it, though no one would understand that for nearly two hundred years.  What was understood, and very much appreciated, was that it transformed agricultural fortunes dramatically.  Moreover, because more animals lived through the winter, they produced heaps of additional manure, and these glorious, gratis ploppings enriched the soil even further.

It is hard to exaggerate what a miracle all this seemed.  Before the eighteenth century, agriculture in Britain lurched from crisis to crisis. An academic named W. G. Hoskins calculated (in 1964) that between 1480 and 1700, one harvest in four was bad, and almost one in five was catastrophically bad. Now, thanks to the simple expedient of crop rotation, agriculture was able to settle into a continuous, more or less reliable prosperity. It was this long golden age that gave so much of the countryside the air of prosperous comeliness it enjoys still today, ...

The fall of British agriculture was all mixed up with refrigeration, which enabled the wide open spaces of the late nineteenth century world to make masses of food and to transport it to hungry urban mouths everywhere before it went bad.  Prices fell below what the farmers of Britain (where there were no wide open spaces by global standards) could match.

Sunday August 24 2014

One of these (which was one of these):

image

The economics of car ownership is interesting.  On the face of it, I might be the sort of person who would get a really small car (even if not this exact one).  But the way I (and many others?) see it is: If I go to the bother of getting a car, and finding somewhere to park it, and a way of insuring it, and of protecting it from burglars and vandals, I might as well spend a bit more and get a proper car.  You either buy a car, of the sort that can do all the things proper cars do, like transport another four people, transport bits of furniture, drive to Scotland or Paris or some such place, impress rather than amuse friends and enemies, and so forth.  Or, you don’t.

You don’t buy a bit of car.

The only exception is if your entire country has only just started buying cars, in which case even a bit of car is worth having.  Especially if, for the time being, that’s all you can get

Wednesday July 09 2014

The key moment for me on that boat trip came near the beginning, when Eamonn Butler, Joint Head Person of the Adam Smith Institute asked me to send in any good photos that I took.

Until that moment, I had not been sure whether photography was really tolerated, let alone encouraged.  But I took that as an invite to snap away all evening.  (It wasn’t that really, but that’s how I chose to interpret it.)

The bread-and-butter shot when photoing occasions like this one is the posed group.  People in groups, who are friends, or who are maybe becoming friends, and who know that they are being photographed, are duly photographed, resulting in pictures like most of these ones:

image image imageimage image imageimage image imageimage image image

Photos 1.1, 2.3 and 4.2 don’t quite fit the posed group template, because here the people in the shot aren’t posing for it, merely being photoed.  But the message is much the same.  Here are some attractive, intelligent, companionable young people, having a good time in each other’s company.  They believe in libertarianism and free markets, and are going to make that count for something in the years and decades to come.  Socially isolated human atoms they are not.

3.1 is also a bit of a departure from the norm, but you want a bit of craziness at such events.  If absolutely everyone is being nice and polite and well behaved, then it ain’t a proper party.  Once again, Mr Arm Tattoo (the previous posting in this series featured that same Arm getting itself a drink) contributes a bit of quirkiness and danger to the event. When I was a kid, only self-declared professional criminals had tattoos like that, or so I was raised to believe.  At best, people who worked at fair grounds.  Those days are now long gone.

Friday July 04 2014

A while back, I asked Madsen Pirie how it was that the Adam Smith Institute had been so successful in getting young people interested in libertarianism, free markets, and so on.  Simple, he replied.  Have a party, with free drink.  That gets them to come. Start the party by saying that libertarianism and the free market and so on are great but get that over with quickly, and then serve the drink.  That’s it?  That’s it.  Well, there is a bit more to it than that.  The message may be brief on the night, but it needs to be good and it has to be backed up during the day with a mass of sober activity and verbiage.  But, ignore the free drink and you are not understanding the ASI.

This was certainly the formula for this Boat Trip, as you can see:

image image

When I first got there, I chatted with ASI Junior Boss Sam Bowman, and I think I mentioned this give-them-the-message-and-then-fill-’em-up doctrine.  Sam then talked about how the ASI gets ideological bang for its alcoholic buck by buying its own good but cheap drink - good but cheap champagne on this particular evening - in bulk (that being why it’s cheap), and bringing it to events like this.  Which means that lugging big crates of drink around London, from the ASI office to wherever the latest event is is a big part of the life of an ASIer.  Serving alcohol is central to their entire way of going about things.  This is not some sort of afterthought.  Alcohol is to the ASI almost what petrol is to a car.

Drink also makes for good photos, I think.  (The ASI used the one of the table full of glasses, with the tattooed arm.) Nothing says jollification to come like a table full of full glasses, especially if the sun is shining all over them.  And once the punters get their hands on the bubbly, that makes for more good photos, because the bubbles make automatic focussing work so very well.

Thursday June 26 2014

From City A.M. today (again):

Chequeholders will soon be able to cash their payment almost instantly by taking a photo on their smartphone and sending it to the bank.

The government’s Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill will allow banks to process cheques using “digital imaging” technology for the first time.

As well as removing the hassle of a visit to the bank, the new scheme is expected to allow cheques to be cleared in two days, instead of the current six.

Yet another surprising impact of digital photography.  Had I known about it when I gave that talk I did about this, I’d have given this a mention.

Thursday June 12 2014

I plan to be going to the land of the foreign people.  Quite soon.  Early August.  The air tickets are already bought.  But, have just discovered that my passport needs renewing.  It gave up the ghost in about February.

Bugger.  Passports are just now being particularly delayed.  Questions are being Asked In The House about it.  So I guess they are now throwing money at the problem.

There is also a throw money at it option for us punters, about an extra hundred quid, which I have in mind to use, just to make sure that all goes well.  But first I have to get a haircut and then I have to get some “passport photos” done.  I know how to take photos of myself.  I do not know how to take “passport photos”.  This is why God invented shops.

Monday June 09 2014

This morning, did an SQotD about Uber.

Other Perry (Metzger) added this:

Uber does not always offer cheaper service. They operate on a market pricing mechanism to assure availability.

This means that, for example, on New Year’s Eve in NYC, you are assured you can get an Uber car even though normal taxis are essentially unavailable because of excess demand, but you will also discover the Uber car will be quite expensive. This is, of course, as it should be — the spike in price encourages as many Uber drivers as possible to work during a rush period. However, it is also decried by those who do not understand economics.

You could turn this around and say that Uber will be a sort of ongoing economics lesson for the citizenry.

Libertarians like me are always going on about how prices are a signalling mechanism.  Uber makes this extremely clear, I think.

Friday June 06 2014

Incoming from 6k, alerting me to a New Statesman piece by Ed Smith, about how, after a small digger has dug out a deep hole under a posh London house to make the house bigger, it makes more sense to leave the digger in the hole than go to the bother of extricating it.  Makes sense. What a great story.

So, many of the squares of the capital’s super-prime real estate, from Belgravia and Chelsea to Mayfair and Notting Hill, have been reconfigured house by house. Given that London’s strict planning rules restrict building upwards, digging downwards has been the solution for owners who want to expand their property’s square-footage.

So, enter the digger, and dig dig dig.  But then:

The difficulty is in getting the digger out again. To construct a no-expense-spared new basement, the digger has to go so deep into the London earth that it is unable to drive out again. What could be done?

Initially, the developers would often use a large crane to scoop up the digger, which was by now nestled almost out of sight at the bottom of a deep hole. Then they began to calculate the cost-benefit equation of this procedure. First, a crane would have to be hired; second, the entire street would need to be closed for a day while the crane was manoeuvred into place. Both of these stages were very expensive, not to mention unpopular among the distinguished local residents.

A new solution emerged: simply bury the digger in its own hole. Given the exceptional profits of London property development, why bother with the expense and hassle of retrieving a used digger – worth only £5,000 or £6,000 – from the back of a house that would soon be sold for several million? The time and money expended on rescuing a digger were better spent moving on to the next big deal.

Today being a Friday, I was delighted to learn that there is a feline aspect to this, in the form of Ed Smith’s final speculations.  This man is clearly learning fast how to get noticed on the Internet!

In centuries to come, says Smith:

… they will surely decipher a correlation between London’s richest corners and the presence of these buried diggers. The atrium of the British Museum, around 5000AD, will feature a digger prominently as the central icon of elite, 21st-century living.

What will the explanatory caption say? “Situated immediately adjacent to the heated underground swimming pool and cinema at the back of the house, no superior London address was complete without one of these highly desirable icons, sometimes nicknamed ‘the Compact Cat’. This metallic icon was a special sacrificial gesture, a symbol of deep thanks to the most discussed, revered and pre-eminent god of the age, worshipped around the world: London Property.”

Ed Smith is a former first class (and occasional test) cricketer, and now occasional cricket commentator.  As well as a writer of books.  Writing this posting also got me ordering a copy of his latest.

Friday May 23 2014

I don’t like my mobile phone, because I don’t use it enough to justify the expense.  Only the map app is of any real use to me.  I rarely use either the phone itself (i.e. for phoning) or the camera.

Or rather, I did hate it, until I read this, at David Thompson’s blog, about how much power it takes to charge up a mobile phone, and therefore how much it enlarges the carbon footprint and hence the self-hatred of an agonised mobile-phone-using Guardian writer:

How terrible should I feel, and what can I do?

A helpful commenter, apparently, responded thus:

Telephone chargers use pathetic small quantities of energy.

Is that true?  I had been assuming that my mobile uses a formidable large quantity of energy whenever I recharge it, and hence a formidable large quantity of money.  Which is why I have been hating it.  All that juice, just for a map and about three calls a month.  But if my phone only uses a pathetic small quantity of energy, and hence only a pathetic small quantity of money, then I am happy about it again.  I may even get to like it.  It’s a Google Nexus 4, by the way.

So, how much does it cost (to hell with my carbon footprint – let the trees around whatever power station I use gulp that in for their breakfast) for me to power my phone from empty of power, to full?  Answers gratefully received in the comments.  Educated guesses welcome.

Incidentally, a pet hate of mine is when I ask someone, who knows something quite accurately (that I want to know) and far more accurately than I do but who nevertheless refuses to guess, because he can’t be as accurate as he would like to be.  (It’s almost always a he – only human males are regularly this socially obtuse and lacking in empathy.) How much does this cost?  Don’t know.  Guess!  No, can’t, don’t know.  Rough figure?  Less than a quarter of a pee?  Oh no, definitely more than that.  More than ten quid?  Oh no, less than that, obviously.  (Obviously to him, in other words.) Right, so you do have a rough idea.  So, what is this rough idea?  Five pee?  Five quid?  What?  What?!?!  You get the idea.

I am not calling you an idiot, unless you do have an educated rough idea of what it costs to power up a mobile phone like mine, but refuse to part with it on the grounds of your answer being too vague to satisfy you, in which case I definitely am calling you an idiot.  If you know but can’t be bothered with telling me, or if you know but you now don’t like my tone, well, I can’t say I’m happy about that, but I perfectly understand.

Wednesday April 09 2014

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.

Sunday April 06 2014

...  but something from me here, about the IEA and LLFF2014.

Sunday March 30 2014

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.