20 September 2005

Large and Small Organisations

Very good piece by Arnold Kling on the differences between large and small organisations.

If large organizations are dehumanizing, then why do they exist? Brad DeLong says that my assessment of large organizations must be incorrect, or else we would not have Wal-Mart.

A point Kling doesn't make about Wal-Mart is that it is a fairly young organisation. It was in the 1970s that it became a really large organisation, and in the 1980s that it became spectacularly huge. As I have pointed out previously, it is over time that the bad effects of states and other large organisations accumulate. After thirty years, Wal-Mart is a very effective organisation, but one would expect the problems to start soon. The massive state-managed economy Britain instituted in the 1940s started falling apart in the 1970s, and the Soviet organisation set up through the 1920s and 30s probably peaked in effectiveness in the early 60s. Small organisations can stay effective indefinitely.

This piece by Paul Graham is also relevant - describing the Venture Capital / takeover cycle as a way of getting more of the best of both worlds.

Death toll

OK, so the death toll from the Great North Run matched that of the Hatfield rail crash.

I wonder how long the court case will last?

Dr Andrew Vallance-Owen of BUPA said, "At BUPA we encourage everyone to take an active interest in their health and running is a great way to keep fit. This year BUPA is sponsoring six runs including the BUPA Great North and BUPA Great South Runs."

Oops, wrong page. That was last year. Actually, he said that fun-runners who failed to prepare properly for such gruelling events could suffer heart attacks. (Metro, Monday 19 Sep).

Not that there is any evidence that the victims did fail to prepare properly. The brother of 28-year-old Reuben Wilson said that Wilson had trained for the race. The immediate assertion that "if it didn't work, you weren't doing it properly" is one of those things that I generally find very annoying. Facts first, please, then conclusions.

Seriously, I don't think that the organisers of the race should be considered liable for the deaths that occurred. But there is at least is much justification as in many other cases of accidental death, including Hatfield.

09 September 2005


There are two views of politeness. One is that it's a kind of magical fairy-dust that you can add to whatever you do by using meaningless words like "please".

That might be OK for teaching toddlers, but it's rubbish.

Real politeness is caring about other people. "please" isn't meaningless, it's a contraction of "if you please", and it means that you're recognising that the person you're talking to might not want to do what you're asking, and that you're accepting that they might choose not do it.

Giving an order including the word "please" isn't polite, it's gibberish. Saying "please" isn't polite, unless you mean it.

Now the message you get if you go to http://www.legos.com/

"... We would sincerely like your help ... Please always refer to our products as LEGO bricks ..."

Is, as far as I can see, genuinely polite. They're not giving orders or making threats. They're pointing out what they call the stuff they make, and saying that they'd prefer it if their customers called it the same. There's nothing to suggest that they are unaware that Cory Doctorow or anybody else can call it whatever they like, but like other global companies these days, they prefer to call their product by the same name everywhere (Snickers, anyone?). Unlike Mars, they can't rename their product from "Legos" to "LEGO", because it was never Legos in the first place, it's just that Americans seem to be a bit confused. So they've made this polite request. Complaining about seems ridiculously touchy.

The problem here is not BoingBoing, it is the people who never got beyond toddler level, who don't know the difference between speaking politely and being polite, who say "please do not smoke here" when they mean "if you smoke here we'll send security guards to throw you out", who say "please do not copy this CD" when they mean "if you copy this CD we'll sue you for $100,000". They leave us in the position where we're not quite sure whether the Lego message is insufferable bossiness or a mild request.

On reflection, the motive might not even be marketing. It might just make their skin crawl to hear the word "legos". Mine does, a little, and I'm nothing to do with the company at all.

Quote of the day

"Hard as it is to believe, it would appear that promoting marijuana as a medicine for cancer and AIDS patients did not make it seem cooler to teenagers."

Jacob Sullum

For my to-do list

I don't like hardback books.

They're too bulky, too heavy, and the dustjackets rip easily. I want a book I can shove in the already-crammed pocket of my laptop bag and read on the train. Paperbacks meet the need, and they're cheaper too!

The only thing the hardbacks have going for them is that they're available first, when the publicity hits. So what I want is some kind of application that I can notify when I hear about an interesting book, and which will let me know when the paperback comes out.

This one that Tim Worstall has picked up a review of would be a first choice: "Why Most Things Fail" by Paul Ormerod.

On a related note, "Freakonomics" is just out in paperback.

CPRE propaganda

In the news today: some utter, utter drivel from the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

If it had happened all at once, there would have been a huge outcry; determined, concerted action. But it didn't; it happened over several decades - gradually, incrementally, without anyone really knowing who was responsible, or whether it was anything to do with them. And so those who can remember how things used to be look back uneasily. They find it hard to believe that it happened. But it did. It's 2035, and the countryside is all but over.
The report itself is 48 pages. It will take me a while to give it the fisking it deserves, though I hope to get round to it. My first pass was to look through it for any evidence at all that would seem to contradict the key relevant fact, that Britain is mostly empty.

The report does state that the developed area of Britain is increasing (by 21 square miles per year, apparently), but nowhere does it put this in context of the area which is undeveloped. The nearest it gets to such a claim is the last bullet point on page 15:

"the total area of 'tranquil countryside' declined by 20% between 1960s and 1994, and continues to do so".

The source for this claim is a 10-year-old publication by the same organisation.

They do make some accurate points: Farming is declining (good!). Light pollution is an aesthetic problem (can be fixed, by, er, pointing the lights downwards, and should be.) Some bird species are in dangerous decline (but how much of that is caused by changing farming methods rather than encroaching development?). But the central claim is that we are running out of countryside, and that claim is utterly false, and indeed is made dishonestly, since they surely must have noticed that there was no evidence to support it, when they looked for some to put in their report and couldn't find any.

Related posts:
Crowded Island
The War on Housing

Why Clarke must lose

I don't much like this government. I don't like Blair, and I don't like Brown. Their centralising, high-spending, high-taxing, interventionist policies are damaging the economy and the nation.

But set against the whole context of nasty statist politicians, they're not exceptionally bad. They get some stuff right - like this from Gordon Brown.

Somehow I can't see Ken Clarke making that speech. And that's his problem. For all his cuddly image and centrist appeal, if it comes down to an election between Gordon Brown and Ken Clarke, I think I'd prefer Brown. It's kind of a "hanging or electrocution" type question, but there it is.

The trouble with ambiguity is that people suspect the worst. If the Tory party campaigns on a platform of "we want to cut spending but we're not going to", voters who don't want cuts will expect to get them, and voters who do, won't. Everybody will be put off.

Trade and Peace

Various observers have picked up on the new report from The Fraser Institute:

Economic freedom is almost 50 times more effective than democracy in diminishing violent conflict between nations, according to the Economic Freedom of the World: 2005 Annual Report.

Well, if trade is such an effective way of preventing wars, how did we get to be in this one?

Perhaps it's something to do with the fact we refused to trade with Iraq for 12 years? As I argued previously, deliberately antagonising the government of a foreign country, without taking any effective steps to remove it, is a very bad policy. Is there any example in history of sanctions achieving any political goal, other than the goal of provoking a war? (and other interesting by-products)

I think it should be a rule of thumb: don't introduce sanctions against a country unless you're willing to fight it.

08 September 2005

Tree-stump shaped demand

Some points from the argument between Tim Worstall and Jesse Taylor over "price-gouging".
To recap: John Stossel made an argument, with a hypothetical example, to the effect that if you pay a high price for some essential, you should be glad that the price was set high, because had it been set low the vendor would have already sold out and you wouldn't have it at all.

Jesse Taylor attacked this argument as "odious".

Tim Worstall then nominated Jesse Taylor as an "Economic Idiot"

After that, things started to get unfriendly.

The sides are so far apart in their unstated assumptions that they appear quite unable to comprehend each other. After much pondering, however, I think I understand Taylor's claim that the seller is "artificially encouraging scarcity".

Read on...

No Electronic Voting

Proposed trials of voting via internet or text message in next year's local council elections have been scrapped by the government. (Via Risks Digest)

Just occasionally the government trips over reality and notices. It's also encouraging that Opposition spokesman Oliver Heald was, firstly, able to dig this out, and secondly, correctly said that "Remote electronic voting is even more vulnerable than all-postal voting." The reference to the vulnerability of large-scale postal voting strongly suggests that he understands the issues.

We're not completely out of the woods - a Department of Constitional Affairs spokesman has said "We are not ruling out piloting e-voting in the future and any future plans will be taken forward at the appropriate time." I hope that's "at the appropriate time" in the Humphrey Appleby sense.

Previous: Voting fraud

07 September 2005

Emergency Preparedness

Just as it's too early to say with confidence what caused the death of de Menezes - though I sure as hell want to know - it's too early to say what, if anything, really went wrong in New Orleans.

I don't think it's too soon to draw some general lessons, however.

This article in the NRO alleges the following (my emphasis):

... a working group decided that the workable solution to the problem of thousands of stranded citizens was to ask churches to set up a giant car-pool system. The plan further called for a DVD to get the word out, which was still in production when Katrina struck. A cynic might say that such a plan was drafted so city officials could say they had a real evacuation plan, written down on official letterhead and signed and announced and all of the other things that make bureaucrats swoon, but was in point of fact yet another exercise in passing the buck to the next schmuck to occupy the conference-table chair.
Again, at this point I would treat this as an unconfirmed allegation, but anyone who has had the "disaster recovery" duty dumped on them in a business is likely to see it as at least plausible. The general lesson is that, if you might someday be dependent on an organisation's disaster plan, it would be a good idea to find out in advance what it is, and whether it makes any sense. That's the only way to be sure it isn't an exercise in pointless box-ticking.

Everyone should do this, everywhere. Make a list of, say, the three most likely disasters to hit your area. Find out what the contingency plans are. If they're stupid, make a fuss. In any case, make your own plans.

And, of course, get risks in perspective. It's silly to be planning for the likes of a nuclear strike, if you haven't planned for a house fire. House fires kill 700 people a year in the UK. That's a 7th of July death-toll every month.

06 September 2005

Why QMV?

Anyone reading the previous piece on the EU textile quotas might by surprised by the bizarreness of the U's "Qualified Majority Voting" rules.
To recap:

Under QMV, a decision needs 232 out of 321 votes, AND a majority of countries, AND countries constituting 62% of EU population.

Where did those numbers come from?

The problem of the EU is that it is not a country, and no-one needs it.

If, say, a bunch of the biggest and richest US states felt like they were being outvoted in the federal government by people who were practically foreigners, it would be enormously difficult for them to just leave - they have 200+ years of history, essential government functions, and the precedent of a failed war of seccession to hold them in.

In the EU, any country could just decide to leave, much more easily. The institutional arrangements have to guarantee the most important members a reasonable say, because the EU can't afford to lose them. At the same time, the EU has to pretend that it is really one country, and that a Slovakian or a Lithuanian is equal in status to a Frenchman or a Dutchman. The method of squaring this circle has been the weighting rules that ensure, on matters of significance, that the important countries can't be overruled by unimportant countries. That was just about possible with 15 members, but now with 25, including the large population of Poland, it's proving near impossible.

Some earlier arguments on the issue here


An interesting point in The Telegraph (a week or so old, but I just came across it at EU Referendum.)

The EU textile quotas that are causing all this trouble lately were introduced in haste back in June. Viewed in the cold light of day, they were particularly badly implemented (leaving aside the fact that they were a stupid idea in the first place), and it might seem reasonable to try to reverse them.

The interesting issue, however, is Qualified Majority Voting. The regulation was passed under QMV, which requires 232 out of 321 votes, AND a majority of countries, AND countries constituting 62% of EU population. link

To have prevented the measure would, therefore, have required 89 out of 321 votes, or countries constituting 39% of EU population. To reverse the measure now, however needs 232 votes and 62% of population - vastly more than would have served to block it in the first place. The unwise decision, therefore, is practically set in stone.

While I've looked at organisational features before, this implication of "supermajority" type voting hadn't occured to me. In general, since I see legislative productivity as a bad thing, making it more difficult to pass legislation (via things like QMV) would strike me as beneficial. But this "trap" effect of supermajority votes could have nasty side-effects. If it is very much harder to reverse a measure than prevent it, there is greater incentive to use deceit or panic to achieve political aims. In an ordinary-majority system, it is still easier to prevent measures than reverse them, but a body "insulted" by being bamboozled by a minority into passing what it later regards as a bad law is likely to take revenge by reversing it.

But with supermajority voting, even a majority will be unable to do so. When combined with the lack of popular oversight and accountability of the EU institutions, that produces a huge incentive for dishonesty, artificial hysteria and generally bad politics.

05 September 2005

Questioning Copyright

Good piece at the Social Affairs Unit questioning the value and validity of intellectual property. It is very good to see that, as the reclassification of copyright infringement from something like trespass to something like theft goes on, the Right is taking the lead in dealing with the issue intellectually.

The author (Austrailan economist William Coleman) lists four justifications for property, and shows that one of them (allocational efficiency) applies to IP er, see below, and two others (justice and incentives) partly. Unfortunately, he does not examine the extent to which his other justification, far from applying to IP, actually tells strongly against it:

3. The economisation of violence: In the absence of a code of property, resources are wasted in force and violence to take possession, and defend possession.

In the modern world, enormously more force, violence and wasted resources (in the form of the policing powers under such legal frameworks as the US DMCA) are needed to maintain copyright than would be used if there were no copyright. This is what has made IP the hot issue that it now is.

To clarify: with physical property, if there is no clear legal ownership, rivals are very likely to fight over it. With legal property ownership, the violence and waste(in the form of crime and policing) is much reduced. With, say, recorded music or computer software, in the absence of legal protection, they will be freely copied; but the attempt to provide legal protection produces a huge wasteful activity of hidden, criminal copying and intrusive, destructive policing in an attempt to prevent it. Thus the "economisation of violence" argument is not merely nullified but entirely reversed.

Correction: in fact, Coleman doesn't say that the allocational efficiency argument supports IP - he starts talking about it and wanders off the point. In fact, like the economisation of violence argument, allocational efficiency tells strongly against intellectual property: the most efficient allocation is for anyone who wants a copy of something to be allowed to make one. Only the justice and (most significantly) incentive arguments have any force in favour of IP.

04 September 2005


The media here in Britain seem to be a bit geographically challenged when it comes to assessing the relief efforts on the Gulf of Mexico. They seem to have, consciously or not, transposed the damage from a map of the USA to a map of Britain without taking note of those funny "scale" markings in the corner, and they imagine that what has happened is something like Bristol being destroyed by bad weather, and Britain having to respond, when the actual destruction is more like Scotland or Denmark being taken out by bad weather, in terms of area and population. The nearest big cities to New Orleans are Dallas and Atlanta, each about 500 miles away - that's further than London to Glasgow. How would you go about evacuating Scotland with 12 or 24 hours notice? How whould you supply it, with sea and air links taken out first of all, and roads impaired for the last hundred miles or so?

And the second implication of this scale, of course, is the perspective on the terrorism issue...

Read the rest of this piece