15 July 2007


I asked yesterday whether those who believed that concerted effort on an international scale was necessary to prevent climate catastrophe were really willing to countenance what I consider the only realistic approach to achieving that — a war of global conquest by the US.

It was a trick question. The fact is that almost nobody really believes in anthropogenic global warming (AGW) sufficiently to support policies they would otherwise have opposed. I am quite sure that if I miraculously convinced the "media liberals" that the neoconservative world empire was a prerequisite for significant CO2 reduction, they would decide to take their chances with the weather. The "sacrifices" they are advocating are all things they would advocate whatever the weather.

Among the vast majority of people who don't believe in AGW enough to do anything about it are everybody making investments. Office towers two miles upstream of the Thames Barrier wouldn't be worth a billion pounds each if investors thought the Isle of Dogs was going to be part of the sea. The policies which global warming alarmism is justifying are causing huge movements of capital; the threat of global warming itself — nothing.

That's because there's one thing that people are willing to do about AGW: vote for something pointless. Voting is the cheapest of responses. (Of course, if government actually does something, there may be trouble, but I'm wandering from the point).

Actually, perhaps that is the point. AGW is a good issue for politicians, not because voters agree with the policies, but because it makes the politician look like a good person. The ideal course of action for a politician is to use the issue to show how concerned they are about everyone, do enough about it to show they are genuine, but not actually achieve any policy change that causes anyone the slightest inconvenience, like raising fuel taxes or building wind turbines. As soon as anyone is asked to make real sacrifices (rather than the "sacrifice" of having the policies they've always wanted implemented), their estimate of the seriousness of AGW goes sharply down. Looked at that way, the lack of real meaningful action on AGW is not a bug, it's a feature.

14 July 2007

John Gray on progress

I spotted the latest book by John Gray in a bookshop, and was a little confused because I remembered him as a classical liberal from reading his book Liberalism when I was a student. I wondered whether there was another John Gray. Wikipedia sorted me out: there is only one John Gray (apart from this one, who isn't relevant), but his views have changed over the years.

The links from the Wikipedia article are engrossing - this attack on Blair and neoconservatism is very persuasive, and led me to the 1999 speech I referred to in my previous piece. The discussion with Laurie Taylor about the religious and utopian aspects of modern humanism chimes very closely with the cryptocalvinism theory of Unqualified Reservations blog, which I have already praised.

But one of the major thrusts of his current arguments is one that would never have struck me as being necessary to make. In the Laurie Taylor piece, particularly, he is very keen to insist that there is not really any such thing as progress. We have progressed in technology, and science is dragged forwards as a result, but morality is not on a steadily improving track.

This is so obvious: anyone can tell the difference between a machine that works and one that doesn't, so technology does not regress unless the economy producing it is destroyed. It is hard to deny the science underlying working technology, so science tends to progress along with the technology - it can on occasionally jump ahead, and even drop back level again, but it does not fall behind.

There is no equivalent incontrovertible test between good morality and bad morality, so morality can wander all over the shop, go round in circles, or go wild. In the long run, one could say that good morality works for its society and bad morality doesn't, but so many other things affect the success of a society - movements of power and technology - that it doesn't constitute an obvious experimental test.

History is one damned thing after another; there is no meaning to our lives unless we choose to pick one; humanity can probably solve most of the problems it encounters, but more will come along and there is no good reason to believe they can all be solved. It's disorienting that people I consider sensible might doubt any of these things.

Black Mass is on my paperback list, anyway.


I commented on a post at Tim's:

The gist is that the CiF poster he quotes does not believe that we can go on with national governments acting purely in their own countries' interests:

"Gordon Brown needs to change the course of New Labour and replace the national agenda with a new cosmopolitan realism in order to tackle the challenges of terrorism, globalisation and climate change."

The problem is that this is anything but a change of course for New Labour. As I quoted in my comment:

Today the impulse towards interdependence is immeasurably greater. We are witnessing the beginnings of a new doctrine of international community. By this I mean the explicit recognition that today more than ever before we are mutually dependent, that national interest is to a significant extent governed by international collaboration and that we need a clear and coherent debate as to the direction this doctrine takes us in each field of international endeavour. Just as within domestic politics, the notion of community - the belief that partnership and co-operation are essential to advance self-interest - is coming into its own; so it needs to find its own international echo. Global financial markets, the global environment, global security and disarmament issues: none of these can he solved without intense international co-operation.

That was Tony Blair in 1999, encouraging the US to stay the course - behind Bill Clinton - of subjugating the Balkans.

The election of the relatively anti-internationalist Bush in 2000 was a setback for New Labour's "International Community", but luckily for Blair, September 2001 brought him over into the internationalist camp.

If one truly wants a global authority to deal with global warming, or anything else, there are two things that need to be done:

  • Create a global authority.
  • Get it to agree with your policies.
It's conceivable that a global authority, once existing, could change its policies, but not that a bunch of people that agree with some policy, but have no power, could become a global authority. So the appropriate strategy would be to encourage whatever practical internationalism exists, and then to change its policy. The only internationalist movements with realistic access to power in the world today are the US neoconservatives, and the EU. I have already explained why the EU does not, and will not, have sufficient power to challenge the US, so any internationalism today must start with neconservatism.

If I believed what Ulrich claims - that only a system of global cooperation can save us from catastrophe, my political strategy would be to throw in totally with the War on Terror. If the US gained the support of the EU to make Iraq into a colony, and then conquer Iran, world government would be that much closer. A powerful military base in the Middle East would put more pressure on the other major oil producers in the region. Venezuela, Canada and Nigeria are all relatively easy to handle. The next stage would be to bring Putin to heel. I admit I can't see an easy way to do that, unless our Empire's oil production can be hugely ramped up. A carefully placed nuclear "accident" might do the job, perhaps.

Once substantially all the world's oil comes under the control of the Empire, it could rule the world. The politics of environmentalism would at that stage be very useful as a rationale for politically managing the oil supply, so it should not be too difficult to apply stage 2 of the climate change strategy, and convert the Emperor to the desired policy.

This whole political programme is, I must admit, very unpleasant. We are talking about at least two decades of continuous war of Imperial conquest. But, as Ulrich Beck says:

When taken seriously and thought through to its logical conclusions, climate change demands a political paradigm shift.
so, we must ask, are we prepared to make the necessary sacrifices, or aren't we?

06 July 2007

Hypothetical Questions

When one discusses future actions, one is making a hypothesis: If I get off the Northern Line at Moorgate, then I will be able to catch the 6.38 to Luton.

What would cause the hypothesized event to occur is skipped over. Normally this is fine, but the workings of the decision-making process are themselves in question, the hidden assumptions that are being made about them are of relevance. That is what caused my confusion over the Newcomb's Paradox / Voting question — which could only be understood by making explicit the process by which the hypothetical decision was being made.

Political questions are similar — when one says "If the UK were to reject the new EU Treaty then ...", one is skipping over the question of how the rejection is to be reached. I tend to flippantly express opinions as to policy in the form "If I were Supreme Führer, ..." which is a way of alerting listeners to the fact that realistic mechanisms are being ignored for the purposes of discussion.

As with Newcomb's paradox, but scaled up to the polity, when the mechanism of political decision-making itself is part of the question, hypotheticals which brush aside the mechanics are pretty much meaningless. "If we had PR / yearly parliaments / a 'Formalist State' — the specific changes that would make such changes possible would be as significant for the consequences as would the hypothesized changes themselves, so it is a bad idea to ignore them.

Mencius' "magic ring" is the equivalent for political structure of my "if I were Führer" for particular policies: whatever realistic means are put forward to achieve a similar political structure, those means will have their own side-effects on the end result.

04 July 2007

Views of Democracy

What do I think of democracy? I've been contradicting myself like mad recently, so I need to take stock.

The Mencius Moldbug theory, which I referred to this morning, is that democracy is something which the ruling caste wastefully pretend to be governed by. It has no substantive effect on policy, but carrying out the rituals helps to prevent the masses from rising against the permanent government.

I don't buy that. I don't really think that democracy is the "rule of the people", but I do think its effects can be underestimated. What in many cases produces the underestimate is the observation that elections rarely change anything significant. However, that would be the case even if democracy were working perfectly. Politicians in the modern age know pretty well what will get them elected and what won't, and therefore take the positions that will get them elected. The election, provided the politicians are acting sensibly, is a non-event. Looked at that way, it is a sign of the imperfection of the democratic system that elections have any effect at all.

So, we have some democracy. Good thing or bad thing?

I am going to be boringly conventional and say it is better than the alternatives I have come across. Mencius has not really explained his alternative: Abu Dhabi, Singapore and other port city-states are not necessarily replicable across real countries, and while I get that the enlightened self-interested despot would produce an open, free, high-economic-growth society that he could extract the maximum tax revenue from, I don't see how he would prevent his subjects using their freedom to try to grab his loot. I don't think today's AR-15 vs armour comparison really covers the difficulty of holding onto power without a highly militarised police state. I stand by what I wrote here last year: The biggest cost (in the widest sense) of any political system is that which it expends in preventing its overthrow.

So if democracy is a necessary expense for a society free enough to have a really good economy, what about the story today that repressed societies are growing faster? Well, I agree with Tyler Cowen that they are not yet at the level of productivity that would be inconsistent with their lack of freedom. That is, I am claiming that repression limits productivity more than does freedom, not growth.

It still remains to decide whether - given that democracy is just part of the overhead cost of freedom - we should have lots of democracy, or just a minimum. This morning I was arguing for a minimum, but in the past I have asked for more than we actually have currently in the UK. Bryan Caplan claims that the US government follows better economic policy than it would if it actually obeyed public opinion.

I'm not sure. I suppose that despite the undemocratic features in the UK that I've complained about, the actual policies I object to are not ones that are opposed by the large mass of public opinion, and so more democracy would not actually help.

Why Five Years?

I happened to ask in a debate recently, why should we elect governments for five years? Most democracies seem to use four or five years between elections, but I've never seen a justification. One or two years would be quite practical, and ten or more years very easy.

I mentioned I'd been reading Unqualified Reservations lately. One argument made there is that all governments extract the maximum loot from the population, and the difference between governments is in the horizon they have (a government with a long horizon will try to maximize growth so as to be able to steal more in future), and in the dead-weight losses involved in holding on to power.

If one considers the value of elections to be that they prevent expensive civil wars and revolutions, by making it more tempting for rival factions to wait their turn, you can get some idea of how long an elected term should be. In order to maximise the time horizon of government, giving it an interest in shearing the sheep rather than slaughtering it, it should be as long as possible, but not so long that rivals give up waiting and try to overthrow it, necessitating wasteful countermeasures.

Given those concerns, I think we could beneficially stretch the term a bit longer than five years. Even ten might be possible, but that would be pushing it. More than ten, and I think the opposition would not be willing to wait.

It might not matter. Other features might be manipulated to advantage incumbents to a degree that compensates for overly short elected terms. I can imagine that there's a sort of equilibrium - incumbents have enough power over the system that they only ever allow just enough chance of being deposed to prevent violent revolution.

03 July 2007

Wild Speculation

I've got this story in my head and I can't get rid of it.

Evil Terrorist Mastermind: You my friends have been selected to smite the crusaders. Here is an hundred grand - go and prepare bombs as you have been trained.

NHS Suicide Squad head off to the god-forsaken wastes of Blackburn or Glasgow or somewhere.

First NHS Terrorist: Right. We are going to use car bombs, so we need some cars. Let us consult the Exchange & Mart.

Second Terrorist: Sod that - I always wanted a Mercedes-Benz. Let's go to the dealership.

Third Terrorist: I concur.

(Terrorists buy nice shiny Mercedes (2 of), and a Jeep Cherokee, and show off driving them around for several months while accustoming themselves to the Land of the Infidel.)

First NHS Terrorist: I have received word: the attack is to be when the new leader of the infidels takes over. We must make our bombs. Where is the fertilizer?

Second NHS Terrrorist: ah... about the fertilizer

Third Terrorist: We had not enough money left after buying the cars. I blame the Jews.

First Terrorist: Oh shit. Well we must do the best we can. I'm going to B&Q to look for something that might blow up.

There's absolutely no reason to believe that's what happened, but whatever the real story is, it probably isn't any less stupid.

Oh, and do bear in mind that the whole NHS thing might be a bit of a red herring: the police seem to be rounding up telephone contacts of the self-immolationists, which in itself is a perfectly sensible approach, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if most of those arrested the last couple of days were to turn out to be innocent within the next few days.

Climate Change poll

From my January 2006 entry:

... democracy really is a protection as well as a threat. On the really important issues, the people are generally better informed than on issues that have little relevance to them, and I trust them more than I trust the Establishment. If Britain was ever in danger of falling into Communism since 1945, and it may have been, the danger came from the establishment, and our best protection was the proletariat.

I think this is borne out by the story today that the public has not been convinced by Global Warming alarmists:

The public believes the effects of global warming on the climate are not as bad as politicians and scientists claim, a poll has suggested.

The Ipsos Mori poll of 2,032 adults - interviewed between 14 and 20 June - found 56% believed scientists were still questioning climate change.

There was a feeling the problem was exaggerated to make money, it found.

They may not be able to evaluate the science, but they know propaganda when they see it. It's a lot easier to see that the issue is being deliberately exaggerated than to predict the future climate. And because significant policies are being put forward on the basis of the claims, the public is giving them more attention than they do "academic" issues like evolution.

Not that I would deny that the public is capable of getting important questions seriously wrong - see Caplan etc. I think the lesson is that the public is better at estimating honesty and sincerity than science or economics, and therefore when seeking to influence the public, modesty is good and exaggeration fatal.

02 July 2007

Suicide Arsonists

There is now one reason to be worried about what Bruce Schneier has called the "Terrorist Special Olympics" going on in Great Britain.

Apparently the "mastermind" behind this shocking display of idiocy was a doctor. The idea that someone so ignorant of basic science as to be involved with these bargain basement incendiaries was actually practising medicine in this country is actually a little frightening. Let us all hope he is innocent.

There was previously just a tiny sliver of doubt in my mind. Were the two Mercedes cars left in London - the one that crashed and the one that was towed away by Westminster Council for being illegally parked - really as ill-prepared to do anyone any damage at all as news reports implied?

Possibly, as well as the "Propane, petrol and nails", there was also a stick of dynamite that the police had neglected to mention. Maybe the petrol was mixed with ammonium nitrate. I couldn't really be certain.

To set my mind at rest, there was the suicide arson attack on Glasgow Airport. This time, the car did actually "go off", to the degree we would expect of the non-explosive combination of fuels that featured in descriptions of the London contraptions.

The media, and the Home Secretary, have spoken inaccurately of a "Detonator". Propane and petrol do not detonate. They ignite. The result is something that scientists call a "fire". And therefore, these cargo-cult terrorists are not bombers, but arsonists. One could call them "Suicide Arsonists", but their equipment is not actually adequate even for suicide, so Attempted Suicide Arsonists are what they are.

The sensible response would be nothing at all. However, I cannot ignore them all by myself. I am therefore attempting to stir up some apathy. The "two minutes silence" has become a familiar ceremony to us all as we attempt to show our concern about some tragedy or another. I suggest that to mark this farcical terror campaign, we all stop what we are doing and publicly carry out a "one minute giggle". Posters showing images of burning men holding Molotov cocktails, and would-be car-bombs being towed by traffic wardens. How about noon on Friday?


"Krazy Klown jihadis" - The Register

"Darwinian-Award dim" - Rachel

Interesting Wall Street Journal article - noting that no evidence of actual high explosive was found in the cars, and that propane-tank bombs have been used previously in Germany, and didn't work there either.

01 July 2007

Perception of Value

The most revealing aspect of the row over Prince's release of his album in the Mail on Sunday is the choice of words by the co-chairman of the Entertainment Retailers' Association: "It would be yet another example of the damaging covermount culture which is destroying any perception of value around recorded music".

The "perception of value around recorded music" is the music industry's main asset - one it spent billions creating. New, fashionable recordings are sold at a very high markup. However, this does not mean that the industry is reaping huge profits, because the cost of making new recordings fashionable is very high.

That is not a criticism of the industry - there is no reason why they should not market their product in that way. However, it is does mean that, should new technology make their current strategy impossible, we should not conclude that no other strategy is possible. Without the "perception of value" and the high gross margins it produces, the heavy promotion of popular music would not be feasible, but its production and distribution would be.

The main thread of the Prince story - the dispute between the producer and the high-street retailers - is not interesting. In any industry which sells its products through shops, the retailer performs a double function of physical distribution and advertising. The extra benefit that the producer receives from the retailer's advertising is usually paid for in one way or another, and keeping "the channel" happy is a concern across industries. Disputes such as this between a producer and a retailer are commonplace.