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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

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.

image

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
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.

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.

Marginal Eurostar economics
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Click to see the big picture
And on my other personal blog …
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