28 February 2012


I've been meaning to write about Putin. A newspaper turned up at the weekend: Saturday's Telegraph, with two multi-page features attacking him, built on a new book by a lesbian journalist with strong links to America. I also owe commenter candide3 a reply on the question of just how secure Putin's power base is.

So, I need to write something.  This isn't it though – for now I'm going to hide behind Peter Hitchens.

I like Vladimir Putin. I wish I did not. But I cannot help it... Mr Putin is without doubt a sinister tyrant at the head of a corrupt government. His private life and wealth are a mystery. His personality cult – bare-chested tough-guy, horseman, diver, jet pilot – is creepy and would be laughable if it were not a serious method of keeping power... Vladimir Putin, alone of all the major national leaders of our times, refuses to be pushed around by supranational bodies.

What he said.

22 February 2012

Blame the devil

Neutrino Cannon posted a link to a comment dialogue between Clio and Vladimir, on monarchy, with Vladimir taking the reactionary position.

The discussion includes the question: Why did Europe's monarchies fall?

Neither participant gives any attention to a theory I quite like, which is that the devil did it.

When there was only one religion, loyalty to the monarch was an moral absolute.

After the reformation, religious loyalty took a higher place than any other.

Edward, Mary, Elizabeth and James managed to navigate the new waters, though not without difficulty or incident. Charles ran aground, and while the Commonwealth failed and was rejected, enough of the theory it established survived to poison history ever since.

In France, anti-clericalism became a more important force than protestantism, but undermined monarchy also. That's secondary though: I think it's easy to underestimate the influence of the English revolutions of 1688 and 1776 on the French. It's true that England never got on with the revolutionary French regime, but isn't that often the way of things when a democracy thoughtlessly stirs up revolution in other countries? Writers in England and America were writing retrospective justifications for their seizures of power, and those were used by the Jacobins and later the 19th century European revolutionaries. Most of Europe was still monarchical until WWI, and Woodrow Wilson wiped the rest out in 1919.

There really was a total change in the dominant political ideology of Christendom, from Divine Providence to Nationalism and the Rights of Man. I personally don't actually believe "the Devil did it", but if I had to pick one point to represent Satanic interference in history, that would be it. Marx and Hitler were just products of history, aftershocks of that cataclysm.

As the power of religion to justify kingship waned, there were attempts to put monarchical centralism on a firmer theoretical footing than Divine Providence. Perhaps Hobbes is the first Neoreactionary. But the Whigs won out.

Update: don't miss Devin Finbarr's contribution: the unexpected richness of North America gave defeated radicals a springboard to return with power

Basic climate question

While I'm on the subject of climate, is there anyone with background in system modelling who can tell me what's wrong with the following. It  seems obvious to me, but I'm probably missing something important.

Take a global climate model, without human GHG emissions.

There should be no long-term climate trend, or at least none on the scale of what GHG emissions are supposed to cause.

Perturb the climate model in some way: maybe a major volcano, or a temporary solar variation, or something.

That perturbation, if it is big enough, will detectably affect the climate, including the global average temperature.

The perturbation is a one-off, so it will end. After the perturbation ends, does the global average temperature stay around its new value, or does it move back towards its old value?

My understanding is that the best current models of the climate exhibit positive feedback. That would mean that there are no forces that would cause the climate to move back to its old value. Block out the sun for a bit, the climate will get colder, and when the dust has settled (literally), it will still be colder than it was before.

For the temperature to return to "normal" after a perturbation, there would have to be net negative feedback: because the temperature is higher, something happens that removes the excess heat.

Therefore, without negative feedback, the climate would be a complete "random walk". It could be pushed up or down by solar changes, vulcanism, vegetation changes, even freak weather, and every such perturbation would affect the future climate forever.

That just doesn't seem remotely plausible to me. Surely such random events wouldn't balance so well as to keep the climate roughly stable for so long as paleoclimate data indicates?

I feel I must be missing something. Is there some way that the climate can exhibit positive feedback in response to anthropogenic CO2 emissions, as we are told it does, and yet recover from other random effects?

Peter Gleick

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

Just the other day I wrote in a comment at Samizdata:

It's a bit cheap, given that there's no evidence or even likelihood, that actual climate scientists are responsible for this hoax, to say that jumping to very firm conclusions on very little evidence, and indeed fraudulently improving the evidence that doesn't quite show what you want it to, are characteristic of one side of this debate rather than the other. But there is a pattern here, at least in the political realm, of sceptics being, well, sceptical, and the warmists not.
This is me, eating those words. And let me tell you, they're yummy.

Look at what the Heartland story tells us about the person behind it:

  • He believes it is justifiable to lie in order to advance the cause
  • He is not able to seriously consider the arguments of his opponents, even when trying to pretend to be one of them
  • He has no instinctive perception of scale — he thinks a couple of million spent by Heartland is significant compared to the hundreds of millions spent by Greenpeace, WWF, FoE, Oxfam, CAP, and the world's governments.
  • He doesn't think the morals he applies to others should apply to him. The major climate-related expense in the Heartland accounts is paying scientists to prepare papers and attend conferences —   something his own institute does at the same time, with the same sort of funding from the same sort of people.
  • His evidence doesn't prove what he thinks it proves. If a piece of essentially information-free data fails to clearly contradict a piece of probably-bogus data, he says the former proves the latter. (That is essentially the story of the Hockey Stick condensed to a sentence).

Now, of course, if the leak was done by some dim environmentalist activist, it would still be unfair to smear actual climate scientists by attributing those same qualities to them.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Peter Gleick. Macarthur fund. Leading climate scientist.

Of course, that's just one rogue scientist. They're not all like that. I mean, they have ethics task forces and stuff.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

19 February 2012

The predictable damage of the Euro

The previous post is something I just found in my sent mail folder. I sent it to a discussion mailing list on the 5th of August 2000, and I think it is interesting enough to look at now. I posted it unedited to prevent confusion between what I wrote over a decade ago and my present commentary.

I don't claim the piece is strikingly insightful: I had, and indeed still have, no formal training in economics, and the post is effectively a somewhat pompous and verbose narration of something really very basic.

To put it in historical context: though Euro notes and coins entered circulation on 1st January 2002,the Euro existed from 1st January 1999, in that the exchange rates of the member national currencies were fixed irrevocably at that point. Gordon Brown had been Chancellor of the Exchequer for three years, in Tony Blair's first prime ministerial term.

The last paragraph makes a prediction:
Ireland, though independent for decades, only had an independent currency from the 1970s.  Since that time, and with the help of EU subsidies, the Republic has become a modern and prosperous economy. It seems to be at a similar stage in the economic cycle to the UK. However, unlike the UK, the Republic of Ireland joined the Euro. Therefore, at present, where the UK economy is being restrained by relatively high interest rates, Ireland has the same cheap borrowing as the other Euro countries.  This puts them in the same position described for Britain during the Lawson boom.  Building projects are everywhere (remember Loadsamoney?), property prices are spiralling upwards.  Under prevailing economic theories, these are effects of incorrect monetary policy.  However, European monetary policy is not set for Ireland, which is a small economy compared with the stagnating economies of mainland Europe.  The prediction is that within a few years, the Republic of Ireland will face a sudden and traumatic deflation, while any simultaneous change in Britain will start earlier, be more gradual and of less magnitude.
Does that qualify me as a prophet? Not really. "Within a few years" is clearly wrong: the "Great Moderation" meant the economic state in 2000 persisted much longer than I expected it to. Further, there is no prediction of the actual form that "sudden and traumatic deflation" was to take in Ireland: insolvency of first the banks, then the government that had unwisely guaranteed their debt.

The point is not that I am a genius.  The point is that the problems caused by the Euro were extremely predictable. It is always going to be easy to dig through archives and find someone who predicted what would happen, and I'm sure we could find someone who predicted it more accurately than I did. But, since that is always possible, it proves nothing. The fact that I predicted the problems that the Euro would cause (and I remember nothing of actually writing that email) eliminates, at least from my point of view, the statistical error of pulling a single example from an unlimited search space. (If you've found this post by googling for Euro predictions, I'm afraid it proves very little).

Repost: 5th August 2000

Some notes on the controversy regarding Britain's potential membership of the European Single Currency.

The main argument of those currently in favour of Britain joining the Euro group is that it would have prevented the difficulties caused to many British businesses by the recent fall in value of the Euro against Sterling.  (Some seem to claim that joining now would remove these difficulties, but it is difficult to see how they expect this to happen)

This was not an argument put forward in advance of the Euro being launched - in fact the opposite was widely claimed, that Sterling would fall in value against the Euro with consequent damage to those importing raw materials or finished goods, or servicing foreign-currency debts.

This is in itself a partial answer to critics of the policy of remaining out of the Euro zone.  A high or a low exchange rate is not a good thing in itself, but helps some and disadvantages others within the national economy.

The common reply to this is that the unpredictability of exchange rates makes commercial planning difficult, and is thus a bad thing for everyone, even if fluctuations give temporary advantage to some.  A fixed exchange rate removes uncertainty and allows all businesses to make investments with greater confidence.

This argument has more merit, but I believe it to be flawed.  Movement in exchange rates is not random, nor are the markets independent of the companies and consumers that make up the world economy.  Exchange rate variations reflect real changes in economic conditions between currency areas.  If these changes cannot feed through exchange rates, they will exhibit themselves in different ways, and the real arguments over currency integration centre on the different effects and costs of these different chains of events.

More concretely, the recent fall in value of the Euro against other major currencies is the result of a recession in mainland Europe. High unemployment in the largest Euro-zone countries has led to low interest rates, so finance has moved out of the Euro into currencies that give higher returns, including the Pound, the US Dollar and the Yen.  This has produced the fall in the Euro's value, with the effects of making costs lower in Euroland in international terms, making exports from Euroland cheaper and imports into Euroland more expensive.  This should have the longer-term effect of helping the economies of the Euro members recover from the present recession.  It also has the effect of making the workers of these countries poorer, in that prices increase in Euro terms, reducing the standard of living.

If Britain was inside the Euro zone, interest rates would be lower in Britain than they now are.  This would encourage borrowing and investment in industry, driving up wages and prices.  Imports of goods from outside the EU would become more expensive, driving up prices further.  Overall, this inflation would cause an increase in the standard of living (just as has happened as a result of the strong pound), and would make British labour and goods more expensive relative to the rest of Europe (just as has happened as a result of the strong pound).  Businesses that export to Europe would therefore be hurt (as is happening now), while businesses that buy from Europe to sell outside the EU or in the booming domestic economy would do well (as they are doing now).

In other words, the real economic effects of the Mainland European recession on Britain would be fundamentally the same whether they are felt through a high pound or domestic price and wage inflation.  It is a real-world fact that Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands are having to cut their prices to stimulate sluggish demand, and that this will divert industrial investment into those countries from countries like the UK where economic growth is making standards of living higher and business more expensive.

That is not to say that the results are entirely identical, and that there is nothing at all to choose between being in the Euro and being outside.  There is one obvious advantage of being in, which is the simplicity of being able to spend the same money in a dozen countries instead of one, without the overhead of currency trading.

The disadvantage of being in is more subtle.  It is that exchange rates can and do change extremely quickly, based on the judgement of those dealing in the currencies concerning the economic situation and the likely future economic situation.  Prices and wages, however, change much more slowly, as it is awkward and expensive for businesses to alter them.  Wages increases are delayed until it is clear that staff cannot be recruited or retained without them, and decreases are strongly resisted.

To see the effects of this, look back fifteen years to the Britain of the mid-eighties.  In a similar economic situation to that of the last few years (European recession, British growth), the government adopted the policy of keeping the exchange rate between the Pound and the Deutschmark approximately constant by decreasing interest rates.  The result of this has become known as the "Lawson Boom", as cheap borrowing stimulated an already buoyant economy into a spiral of industrial growth and inflation, notably of property prices.  This is the only policy that at that time would have prevented the prevailing economic conditions from causing problems for those sectors of the economy that were dependent on European markets, or vulnerable to European competition.  The result, however, was the spectacular crash of 1987 once it became clear that inflation would have to be controlled.  It is widely recognised that this would not have happened if the economy had not been artificially stimulated by low interest rates over a long period under the policy of "shadowing the Deutschmark".

This is the real advantage of not being in the Euro.  The flexibility of an independent currency means that businesses will face economic pressures to adapt to changing conditions instantly, and are forced to take appropriate measures, rather than being insulated from outside developments until the dam bursts.

Even those who instigated and set up the Economic and Monetary Union project recognised this.  That is why the Maastricht Treaty made one of the preconditions of the Single Currency coming into effect a certain degree of "convergence" between the member nations.  The theory underlying this was that the free movement of goods and capital between EU member states would, after a period, put an end to the variations of economic conditions between countries that independent currencies are needed to deal with.

Whether this can happen is arguable, but so far it certainly has not. Within Britain, for example, if one region becomes economically depressed relative to another, workers tend to move from the poorer regions to the richer ones, thus easing the differences.  Whether this is really a good thing is another discussion entirely, but obviously there comes a point where adding more different currencies produces costs and inconveniences out of proportion to the benefits.  I might argue for an independent currency for Scotland, but not for Durham.

However, despite being given the legal rights, people are much less keen to move from Belgium to England to find work than to move from Scotland to England.  The long term aim of the European Union project is for the attitudes behind this to change, but that I would contend is a distant goal.

The other mechanism intended to produce the neccessary economic convergence is the so-called "cohesion fund".  This is a cross-subsidy intended to stimulate depressed regions at the expense of prosperous ones, thereby decreasing the regional differences that cause problems in a single-currency area.  It, however, suffers the same kind of barrier that the idea of migration faces, that taxpayers are much less willing to subsidise the economies of other countries than depressed areas of their own country.  Pumping funds into the North-East or South Wales is one thing, but supporting Greece or Portugal is quite another.

It should be clear that I am not attempting to argue that Britain should stay out of the Euro simply on the grounds that Britain's economy is doing well and Euroland's badly.  I have dwelt on current conditions, but they obviously are not set in stone.  In fact, my argument is that an independent Pound is as much in France or Germany's interest as Britain's (as those in Britain suffering from competition from Euro-priced imports are only too keen to point out). Similarly, if conditions were reversed (as they were, for instance, for most of the 1970s), the argument regarding the advantages of currency flexibility would be equally strong.  In fact, the only events that would really indicate that Britain ought to join the Euro would be if the exchange rate remained roughly constant for a long period, and looked like continuing to do so.  Under such circumstances, an independent Pound would contribute nothing to economic flexibility, and be merely a pointless and expensive administative overhead.  If Gordon Brown is waiting for this to happen, however, he may be in for a long wait.

Real evidence is hard to come by, but the above can be used to make predictions.  A useful "guinea pig" is the Republic of Ireland. Ireland, though independent for decades, only had an independent currency from the 1970s.  Since that time, and with the help of EU subsidies, the Republic has become a modern and prosperous economy. It seems to be at a similar stage in the economic cycle to the UK. However, unlike the UK, the Republic of Ireland joined the Euro. Therefore, at present, where the UK economy is being restrained by relatively high interest rates, Ireland has the same cheap borrowing as the other Euro countries.  This puts them in the same position described for Britain during the Lawson boom.  Building projects are everywhere (remember Loadsamoney?), property prices are spiralling upwards.  Under prevailing economic theories, these are effects of incorrect monetary policy.  However, European monetary policy is not set for Ireland, which is a small economy compared with the stagnating economies of mainland Europe.  The prediction is that within a few years, the Republic of Ireland will face a sudden and traumatic deflation, while any simultaneous change in Britain will start earlier, be more gradual and of less magnitude.

18 February 2012

Social-network threat models

There have been a couple of comments on my peer-to-peer blogging post, both addressing different threat models than I was looking at.

My posts were looking at countermeasures to continue blogging in the event that public web hosting service providers are taken out by IP enforcement action. The aim of such enforcement action is to prevent distribution of copyrighted content: since I don't actually want to do that I am not trying to evade the enforcement as such, just trying to avoid being collateral damage.  The major challenges are to avoid conventional abuse, and to maintain sufficient availability, capacity and reliability without the resources of a centralised service with a proper data centre.

Sconzey mentioned DIASPORA*.  That is an interesting project, but it is motivated by a different threat model – the threat from the service providers themselves.  Social-networking providers like facebook or google, have, from their position, privileged access to the data people share, and are explicitly founded on the possibilities of profiting from that access. Diaspora aims to free social-networking data from those service providers, whose leverage is based on their ownership of the sophisticated server software and lock-in and network effects.  To use Diaspora effectively, you need a good-quality host.  Blogging software is already widespread – if you have the infrastructure you need to run Diaspora, you can already run wordpress.  The "community pods" that exist for Diaspora could be used for copyright infringement and would be vulnerable to the SOPA-like attacks.

James A. Donald says "we are going to need a fully militarized protocol, since it is going to come under state sponsored attack." That's another threat model again. Fundamentally, it should be impossible for open publication: if you publish something, the attacker can receive it. Having received it, he can trace back one step where it came from, and demand to know where they got it from.  If refused, or if the intermediate node is deliberately engineered so messages cannot be traced back further, then the attacker can threaten to shut down or isolate the node provider.

In practice it can be possible to evade that kind of attacker by piggy-backing on something the attacker cannot shut down, because he relies on it himself.  That is a moving target, because what is essential changes over time.

(One could avoid using fixed identifiable locations altogether – e.g. wimax repeaters in vehicles. That's not going to be cheap or easy).

James seems to be thinking more about private circles, where end-to-end encryption can be used. That's more tractable technically, but it's not useful to me. I don't have a circle of trusted friends to talk about this stuff with: I'm throwing ideas into the ether to see what happens. Any of you guys could be government agents for all I know, so carefully encrypting my communications with you doesn't achieve anything.

17 February 2012


I've been reluctant to engage with the arguments that climate scepticism is the product of massive pollution-industry funding, because I always felt that the truth – that the public climate scepticism movement relies on the work of a handful of amateurs operating on a shoestring – was more embarrassing to the sceptic cause than the "well-funded denial machine" fantasy.

Meanwhile, it acted as a useful filter: anyone who pushed the "massive funding" line, either knew nothing about the debate (which is not a fault, but is worth knowing when you're discussing it with them), or else was incapable of recognising the very very obvious.

Thanks to the Heartland leak, the cat is now out of the bag: The NIPCC conference costs Heartland $388,000 a year to run, and the funding for the centrepiece of the whole sceptic campaign is a few back-office people to organise, and a few scientists to write papers. There's no budget for advertising or publicity, other than the website, because there is no advertising or publicity.

Oxfam have had huge climate-alarmist posters, in a campaign carried out by RKCR/Y&R all over Luton for a couple of years (anyone have a clue what that costs?).  That is the sort of thing that sceptics don't do, because they cannot afford to.

16 February 2012


In a facetious comment at Aretae, I wished for a "shit neo-reactionaries say" list along the lines of the amusing libertarian one.

I was hung up on a label, but the more I think about it, the more I like neo-reactionary, for the reasons Lawrence Auster gives in a comment at Mangan's:
"Neo-reactionary"--that's clever. The neo-reactionary is not an old-fashioned, hardline, darkly pessimistic reactionary, like de Maistre, but a modern, enlightened, cool reactionary. To paraphrase Irving Kristol on the purpose of neoconservatism, one could say that the historical task and political purpose of neo-reaction would seem to be this: to convert American reactionaries, against their will, into a new kind of reactionary capable of living in a modern democracy.
There's also a post from Arnold Kling, discussing Codevilla and referencing Moldbug in passing.

The only change I would make is to elide the hyphen.  Neoliberals and Neoconservatives don't need them any more, and I thnk google's search syntax treats a hyphen as a space.  Neoreactionary will bring back only neoreactionaries.

11 February 2012

More on peer-to-peer blogging

I was musing a few days ago on how to do blogging if SOPA-like measures take out hosting providers for user content.

Aaron Davies in a comment suggests freenet. I'm not sure about that; because you don't choose at all what other content you're hosting, I would expect the whole system to drown in movie rips and porn. The bittorrent idea where the stuff which you help distribute is the stuff which you want to consume seems less vulnerable. alt.binaries didn't die because of copyright enforcement, it died because the copyright infringement made such large demands on capacity that it was not worth distributing.

Bear in mind that I'm not going "full paranoid" here: my threat scenario is not "the feds want to ban my blog", it's "Blogger and the like have so much difficulty complying with IP law that they're becoming painful and/or expensive to use".

In that circumstance, simply running wordpress or geeklog on my own machine is an option, but rather a crappy one in capacity and reliability terms. I've already looked into using a general web hosting provider, and I could move onto that for probably five quid a month, but I've again been put off by reliability issues. Also, in the threat scenario under consideration, third-party web hosting might be affected also.

But Davies in passing mentioned email. When I saw that I went "D'oh". I hadn't thought of using SMTP. I'd thought of NNTP, which I have a soft spot for¹, but rejected it. SMTP could well be the answer — like NNTP, it was designed for intermittent connections. Running mailman or something on your home PC is a lot simpler and safer than running wordpress. The beauty of it is that not even Hollywood can get email banned. And if they tried, all you need to keep dodging is a non-government-controlled DNS, which is something people are already working on.

You still need a published archive though; one that people can link to. But that can work over SMTP too, as a request-response daemon. Those were actually quite common before the web: you could get all sorts of information by sending the right one-line email to the right address.

There were actually applications that ran over SMTP. One which lasted well into web days, and may even still exist here and there, was the diplomacy judge, for playing the board game Diplomacy over email.

Unmoderated comments would have to go under this scenario, whatever the technology, but moderated comments would be easy enough; the moderator would just forward acceptable comments onto the publication queue. Email clients in the days when mailing lists were very common were designed specifically to make following lists in this way easy (I remember mutt was much favoured for the purpose). Each list became a folder (by using procmail or the like), each post a thread, and each comment a reply. My own email is still set up that way, though I pretty much never look at the list folders any more, I think a couple of them are still being populated for things like development of the linux b43 wireless chipset driver.

The problem with using mail is spam. Everyone who wants to subscribe has to give me their email address — that's probably the biggest reason why the use of mailing lists declined; that and the impact of false positives from spam filtering.

 If generic publishing networks drown in media, and mail drowns in spam, then some more private network is needed.


  •  Anyone can access posts, as easily as possible
  •  I only have to process posts from sources I've chosen

Our big advantage is that the actual storage and bandwidth needed for blogging are rounding error in a world of digital video.

Reliable access requires that there are multiple sources for posts, to compensate for the fact we're not running industrial data centres.

The obvious approach is that if I follow a blog, I mirror it. Someone wanting to read one of my posts can get it from my server, or from any of my regular readers' servers. That just leaves the normal P2P problems

  • locating mirrors, in spite of dynamic IP assignment
  • traversing NAT gateways which don't allow incoming connections.
  • authenticating content (which might have been spoofed by mirror)

Authentication is trivial — there's no complex web of trust: each blog has an id, and that id is the digital signature. The first two are difficult, but have been solved by all the P2P networks. Unlike some of them, we do want to persistently identify sources of data, so presumably each node regularly notifies the other nodes it knows of of its location. Possibly other already-existing p2p networks could be used for this advertisement function. There's a DoS vulnerability there with attackers spoofing location notifications, so probably the notifications have to be signed. I guess the node id is distinct from the blog id (blogs could move, nodes could originate more than one blog) so it's also a distinct key. Like a blog id, a node id essentially is the public key. NAT traversal I'm not sure about — there's stuff like STUN and ICE which I haven't really dealt with.

Assuming we can map a persistent node id to an actual service interface of some kind, this is what it would have to provide:

  • List blogs that this is the authoritative source for
  • List blogs that this mirrors (also returning authoritative source)
  • List other known mirrors for a blog id
  • List posts by blog id (optional date ranges etc)
  • Retrieve posts by blog id and post id
  • Retrieve moderated comments by blog id and post id (optional comment serial range)
  • Retrieve posts and moderated comments modified since (seq num)

The service is not authenticated, but posts and moderated blog comments are signed with the blog key. (Comments optionally signed by the commenter's key too, but a comment author signature is distinguishable from a comment moderator signature).

The service owner can also

  • Create post
  • Add post to a blog
  • Edit post
  • Add a moderated comment to a blog
  • Check mirrored blogs for new posts & comments & mirror list updates

There's a case for mirroring linked posts on non-followed blogs: if I link to a post, I include it on my server so that whoever reads it can read the link too.  Ideally, there should be an http side to the service as well, so people outside the network can link to posts and see them if they have the good luck to catch the right server being available at the time.  That all needs more thought.

¹When RSS was coming in, I argued that it was just reinventing NNTP and we ought to use that instead.

Formalism Recap

Aretae responds, with the other prong of his anti-formalism.

To clarify, there are two possible weaknesses to formalism. The first is that it might simply fail to achieve its purpose: it is supposed to free us from the destructiveness of power used to maintain or increase power, by unifying power into a single sovereign — but even a de jure absolute sovereign may still have to compromise, with the popular, the wealthy, the well-armed, and those compromises might lead to just as damaging internal conflict as the more explicitly dispersed power structures we are familiar with.

The second possible weakness is that whoever is in power might resist beneficial innovation in technology or social organisation, for fear of the unpredictable results.

Strictly speaking, the second is just an instance of the first: if a ruler has absolutely no fear of being usurped, he has no reason to resist disruptive innovation. So if I perfectly dispose of the first problem, I can go home.

My previous post was a response to the first weakness: that even if de jure absolute, the sovereign would have to face threats, and if he feels he needs to deal with a threat by compromising on policy, we are back in coalitional government.

In the original statement of formalism, Mencius Moldbug had one solution for these weaknesses: the machine-gun. If that really works, great, but I'm not totally convinced.

So my recent posts were to say: if the sovereign really has to compromise, giving away power is bad, but giving away money and status is not so bad. I've actually made the same point before, on Over-Mighty Subjects.

Bear in mind that what I'm trying to create here is not a future written constitution or a handbook for princes, but a political formula which will support good government.

The machine-gun solution sounds far-fetched, because we assume that use of excessive force against popular insurrection will turn neutrals against the sovereign and make the problem worse. But we live with a political formula of popular sovereignty, which says the ruler has a duty to listen to and to appease the mob. There is therefore a presumption that the mob is right and the government is wrong. In my formula, the duty of the ruler is to prevent faction by keeping his sovereignty intact and undivided. The common presumption would be that the mob is wrong and the rulers right. I don't think this is far-fetched — on the contrary there is ample precedent for such a popular attitute.

So, I'm the sovereign (this argument applies to formalism generally, so it doesn't matter right now whether I'm the hereditary king, or the SovCorp CEO, or the ruler under some other formalist system). I have absolute power, but there are a few guys who if they really wanted to, could cause me trouble. Let's say Alrenous, who asked me how one gets latent power, is running a TV broadcaster: if he started using that to build a political base — well, I could have him shot, but he might already have so much support that that would start to undermine the political formula. Or if I had him shot too soon, before he'd really made a move, I'd be creating a whole lot of paranoia.

Alrenous gets invited to head office/royal palace, and we have a chat. I explain that I have no wish to interfere in his business, so long as he doesn't challenge my rule or my exclusive competence over law and policy. The Honorable Sir Alrenous leaves the palace and goes back to work, with official marks of status and a pension for life, and makes no move towards politics. Other TV magnates get the same treatment. If one rogue does try to build a political movement, well, that's treason and he should have taken the deal. The guys who did take the deal will stay onside.

That's not a perfect solution to Formalist Weakness #1, but it's adequate: I leave business mostly alone, because I want the economy to flourish and pay me taxes, but I don't tolerate active opposition, and because the virtue of loyalty, the key part of the political formula, is popularly established, that stance is understood and respected. I collect taxes and become stupendously rich: the optimium level of taxation over the long term is probably around 30% of GDP, a bit less than governments collect now, but while current governments waste 50-90% of it, I spend a third to a half on essential state services, and the rest is mine.

(I assume you would probably prefer not to spend 20% of your income on making the sovereign or SovCorp shareholders stupendously rich, but it's still a better deal than you get now.)

As an aside, those riches are necessary: we are used to the idea that successful businesses can influence government, but the main consequence of the separation of powers is that government influence can be bought incredibly cheaply. Steve Sailer marvelled recently at the concept that it seems to be cheaper to buy the presidency of the USA than to buy the college football championship. In Britain, the cost of buying policies is a couple of orders of magnitude lower still — entire 5-year general election cycles are fought with single-figure millions of pounds, total. If the ruler actually had control of the money the government currently wastes, he would be utterly immune to the influence of a few piddling millions here or there. It seems weird to write, as I did above, about governments bribing businessmen, but it shouldn't.

Back to the main point: buying off the latently powerful with status and money is not perfect, but it's an adequate response to the danger of internal factions arriving and skewing policy away from effective government, and towards strengthening one faction or another. But not being perfect, it does not eliminate Formalist Weakness #2. I've bribed the TV broadcasters, they get their pensions and their knighthoods and they swank around, but meanwhile someone's invented the internet, and these TV guys could be on the way out.

Sure, I can do the same again with the internet crew. But, there's always some risk, while I know exactly where I stand with the TV lot. Also, if the TV companies as a group realise where things are headed, my deals with them might start to break down. The safest thing for me to do is to strangle this internet crap in the cradle. I make policy, I'm unchallenged, it's central to the culture that nobody interferes with my rule, so if I say many-to-many publishing is a threat to state stability and is not allowed, that's the end of that. And so it goes: the economic and social structure is frozen, because the one we have is the one that keeps me in power. This is Aretae's point in his latest piece: "The coalitional nature of government is therefore primarily interested (in effect) at stopping innovation." 

If states are small and in competition, the threat of falling behind economically balances the threat of internal instability. It's ambitious enough, though, to be trying to engineer how one state should work. We're not realistically going to get to choose how big states are — that depends largely on military aspects that are beyond my expertise, and in the long run subject to change. Moldbug's Patchwork of city-states would be great, but all we can do is hope.

All I can really say is, If you knows of a better 'ole, Go to it. An aversion to disruptive innovation is likely to be a feature of any stable government at all, and I don't accept that unstable government is a price worth paying to avoid it. Note that our current governments, behind the curtain, are  moderately stable, and indeed we have the aversion to innovation that goes with that. In the mid 19th century, power fell into the hands of factory owners, and for a hundred years we had all the innovation that could benefit mass manufacturing industry. That was very good for economic growth, but don't be fooled for a moment into thinking it was perfect: I think if you look at the mutualists and agorists, they have substantial evidence that policy over that period was specifically pro-mass-industry, not generally pro-growth.

Aretae says small states and hyper-federalism will protect disruptive innovation, but the ruling coalitions of those small states, however concentrated or dispersed, will have exactly the same interest in preventing disruption, and what's to stop them cooperating to achieve that? Hasn't that been the dominant mode of international relations for the last half century? Small states become federations, federations become large states. All in the name of peace, trade and internationalism, of course, but what is the end result? ACTA.

The problem is real, I don't have a solution, but the more secure the sovereign is in his power, the more the risk-benefit balance tilts towards growth rather than stability.

08 February 2012


I never blogged on the SOPA kerfuffle; it happened while my creative(?) energies were elsewhere.

Looking back, a few minor points emerge:

Some commentators got all excited: "look what we did! What shall we do next?!" "We" meaning right-thinking internet-type people. The answer, obviously, is nothing: this, "we" agreed about, most things, we don't. I think Wikipedia's claim: "Although Wikipedia's articles are neutral, it's existence is not" was basically justified.

Libertarian commentators had a lot of fun jeering at leftist techies who wanted every aspect of the economy to be regulated by the government except the internet. The criticism is only justified against those who demand that government regulate things but don't specify exactly how they should regulate them (others can say they're in favour of regulation, but just want it to be better). But that's most people. So yeah.

In some ways, it's a disappointment that SOPA didn't go through; the circumvention techniques that would have been developed if it had would have been interesting and useful. At the end of the day, the biggest threat to free computing isn't legislation, it's that in a stable market, locked-down "appliance" devices are more useful to the non-tinkering user than general-purpose, hackable devices. So far, we tinkerers still have the GP devices, because the locked-down ones go obsolete too quickly even for lay users. I'm not sure whether that situation will persist for the long term: I've looked at the question before.

But if the government makes stupid laws that can easily be circumvented using general-purpose devices, the demand for those devices will be helpfully supported.

Note when I talk about circumvention, I'm not talking about copyright infringement. That was not what the argument was about. While I lean toward the view that copyright is necessarily harmful, I'm not certain and it's not that big a deal. The important argument is all about enforcement costs: given that copyright exists, whose responsibility is it to enforce it. The problem with SOPA was that it would have put crippling copyright enforcement costs on any facilitator of internet communication.

Currently, internet discussion is structured mostly around large service providers — in the case of this blog Google — providing platforms for user content. If those service providers become legally liable for infringing user content, the current structure collapses. The platforms would either have to go offshore, with users relying on the many easy ways of circumventing the SOPA provisions attempting to limit access to offshore infringers, or else evade the enforcers by going distributed, redundant and mobile. What will be to Blogger as Kazaa and then BitTorrent were to Napster?  It would have been interesting to find out, and possibly beneficial. There is a lot of marginal censorship that can be applied to easy-target platforms like Blogger or Wikipedia that will not induce sufficient users to create alternatives, as the sheer idiot clumsiness of SOPA would probably have done.

(Note Wikipedia might have been spared, but it would have suffered, because if existing less respectable platforms were removed, their content would migrate to the likes of Wikipedia. If 4chan did not exist, Wikipedia would become 4chan.)

Actually, it's interesting to think about how to blog over a pure P2P framework. Without comments, you're publishing a linear collection of documents. (I don't think you can handle comments — we'd need something more like trackbacks). Posts would need to be cryptographically signed and have unique ids. Serial numbers would be useful so readers would know if they'd missed anything. I wonder if anyone's worked on it. A sort of bittorrent-meets-git hybrid would be really interesting — search this list of hosts for any git commits signed by any of these keys...

The dance of censorship and evasion is very difficult to predict in detail. I found some time ago that the way to find the text of an in-copyright book is to take a short phrase from it (that isn't a well known quotation or the title) and google it. That used to work. I wanted some text from Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall the other day, so I did the usual, and got pages and pages of forum posts, containing chunks of the book interspersed with links to pages selling MMO currency and fake LVMH crap. My access to illicit literature was being messed up by someone else's illicit SEO.

06 February 2012

Law, Order and Prisons

This is a truly bizarre article.

The author, Christopher Glazek, makes a lot of good points about the American prison system, in which prisons are run by the inmates. He points out that according to some statistics, the majority of all rapes committed in the US occur in prisions. We have heard elsewhere recently that more black Americans are in prison today than were in slavery in 1860, and that more people are in American prisons than were in the Gulag Archipelago (although, to be fair, that is partly because the latter tended to die).

The solution proposed by Glazek is: to let the prisoners out to commit more crimes. There is no mincing of words; the title of the article is "Raise the Crime Rate". Not for Glazek any wishful-thinking "prison doesn't work" rhetoric, his thesis is clearly that it does work, but the price is too high.

Part of the weirdness is that he seems to regard a reduction in crime partly as a bad thing in itself:
Certain breeds of urban dwellers benefit, too. In gentrifying sections of Brooklyn, for example, steep drops in crime, combined with the virtual depopulation of entire city blocks, has underwritten a real estate boom. In neighborhoods like Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, wealthy people with children have reaped the benefits of climbing land values from apartments they never would have bought had it not been for the removal of tens of thousands of locals from adjacent areas.
Er, yes. Reducing crime makes neighbourhoods nicer and encourages people to live in them. That's more or less the point.

What Glazek never addresses is the question of why the US is unable to keep order inside its own prisons. From an international point of view, this is the obvious question. The UK, as he observes, imprisons fewer of its criminals, but here there is no assumption that prisons are run by the inmates. There is a possibility that here we are just misled, but I don't think so. There was for a time one exception to the rule, the Maze prison, where Northern Ireland's terrorists were held, but the management of that prison, with opposing factions kept in separate wings run by their own paramilitary hierarchies, was a major controversy. The terrorists were de facto prisoners of war, though de jure that status was always denied them, and the contrast demonstrates that the situation in the mainland prisons really is different. Compare to this astonishing paper on the Mexican Mafia, which demonstrates that gang prisoners in California have essentially the same status as the paramilitary POWs of the Maze H-Blocks.

There are statistics in the article: the US spends 200bn a year on a system which employs 500,000 correctional officers to supervise 2.3 million prisoners. Is it really not possible to control crime inside the prisons with a ratio of more than one officer to five prisoners?. The abandonment of law and order inside American prisons is a choice, one probably inherited from the country's frontier days, and one which simply cannot be justified. If violent criminals continue to commit — and suffer — violent crime inside prison, the answer is surely not to move them out to prey on the law-abiding, but to actually enforce order in the one place where it ought to be easiest of all to do. Don't, as Glazek recommends, put TV cameras all over the country: put TV cameras all over the prison. (That was a progressive idea in 1791). And finally, if you're going to release prisoners because there are too many, release the ones that don't commit crimes inside.

05 February 2012

Meritocracy versus Loyalty

This has been sitting in my drafts directory for three months, since I read this Ross Douthat column on Corazine. But it goes with some of what I was writing yesterday, so I've dusted it off.

Douthat points out, I think rightly, that the defining features of our modern elite are its arrogance and its recklessness.

Arrogance is perhaps an inevitable weakness of any elite, but I think he is right to identify the recklessness as something new since the days of a hereditary upper class.

For one thing, someone who has been elevated from a humble background wholly or mostly by their own efforts and ability is likely to have a very high opinion of that ability. that again seems almost an inevitable side-effect of having the most able people in positions of power.

I think it's more significant that a large number of people in positions of serious power have absolutely no-one above them.  If you are Governor of a state, or CEO of a company, you are theoretically responsible to voters or shareholders, but they do not play the role of a superior in a social or psychological sense, they are more the material a politician or manager works with than the patron he works for.

If the most significant person you know of is yourself, then the brutal one-sided logic of excessive risk-taking kicks in. You're already successful, you've got a well-upholstered safety net, so when you take a big gamble, if it comes off you're a hero and move up to the next level of achievement, and if it doesn't you take a break for a bit to play golf and then try something new.

That unbalanced incentive is widely recognised now, but in itself it is not what's new. Limited Liability has been around a good while, as have the country houses of disastrous politicians. What is new is the end of loyalty. In the past, the bulk of those wielding power were tied not just by their rolling contacts but by bonds of loyalty to superiors. A failed gamble would impact not merely a crowd of insignficiant peasants, voters or shareholders, but would hit the status and reputation of those whose approval or disapproval actually matters.

Obviously there were always a few who were beyond any such limitations, but think about how many there are now who have no practical superiors. It would have been hard to have made a list that would have included "CEO of MF Global".

Nor is the concept limited to business. To whom does Hillary Clinton, or the head of an agency, look up as a superior? To the President who appointed them? I don't think so. He's just another punter. What about Paul Krugman, or some pressure-group head?

The distinction I'm getting at, between a technical superior and a psychological superior, is whether the superior's opinion matters beyond the immediate game being played. If you're a department head in a company or a government agency, your boss can fire you. But that's all he can do, and that's the only risk you're taking. Once he's done that, he's not your boss any more. On the other hand, if your boss is your lifelong mentor, then he's a psychological superior. Even if he fires you, he doesn't stop being your superior; you still need his approval at some level. I think such relationships were once the norm, and have been becoming steadily less common for a few hundred years.

A response has been to try to build up abstracts to which powerful people feel loyalty. Many companies try hard to impress on their people the idea of being part of something bigger than themselves, but that's a tall order for an institution which itself is required to operate by cold logic.

The replacement of mentor-protégé relationships by meritocracy has had two drivers: first, modern communications, record-keeping, and the broadening of trust up to recent times have meant that positions are being filled from much wider pools of candidates than before, while at the same time, as I described yesterday, the concepts of personal loyalty and rewards for loyalty have become seen as suspect, even corrupt.

I therefore propose a two-pronged response to the problem of meritocratic recklessness: First, personal loyalty to a mentor should be recognised as something moral and admirable, and secondly, the most senior positions should be held by individuals on a longer-term schedule, to encourage the maintenance of such relationships.

04 February 2012

Basic Power and Political Power

I ran into a terminological problem in the previous posts. I was making the argument that it is more acceptable for non-sovereigns to demand a share in the spoils of government than to demand a share in the actual decision-making of government.

To do that I had to classify those people who have power₁ to make demands on government, but who don't use that power₁ to actually share in power₂ by influencing government policy. I need a different word to distinguish the capability to influence policy from the exercise of that capability. I would like to call the first "potential power", except that Etymology Man would come crashing through the window, and it's too cold in here as it is.

The best I've come up with is "Basic power" versus "Political power". So I can say that those with basic power owe loyalty to the sovereign, but can expect to be rewarded for that loyalty. Any attempt to gain political power, rather than wealth and status, is disloyalty, and should be opposed by all right-thinking people.

The terms aren't really obvious though, and I'm hoping to find better ones.

Honour Given and Taken

Not long ago, Fred Goodwin was a Knight, his successor Stephen Hester was in line for a £900K bonus, and Chris Huhne was a cabinet minister.

It would be neat in a literary way to show that these three withdrawn honours are part of the same thing, but it's more interesting, and more true, to see how they're all different.

Going in reverse chronogical order, Huhne is in some ways the most straightforward. He was in a position of trust, and he is accused of criminal dishonesty.

On more detailed reflection, oddities emerge. For one thing, while it would be nice to think that laws and policies are being made by people who are honest and trustworthy, the idea that any of his rivals or colleagues are honest enough to admit their mistakes or crimes is laughable.

For another thing, why is it the decision of the police to prosecute that triggers his resignation? The facts are not really any better known than they were before.

I suspect that what forced him out was the media deciding to claim that he must be forced out. That doesn't necessarily indicate any particular animus to him on behalf of the media; a cabinet resignation is worth pushing for just for story value. It might be that earlier, there were reasons for the press not to try to do him in, but those are now gone.

I could suggest a couple of possible reasons: one is that the media seemed somewhat invested in the coalition, but is now more soured on it. (The 2010 story of David Laws tells against that theory somewhat, but he might have been more specifically unpopular to the media). Another theory might be that Huhne's activity on climate change protected him, but that has mysteriously become less of a concern.

Ultimately, I don't think we can know what's really going on, and that's why day-to-day party politics isn't worth paying attention to.

On to Goodwin then. On the one hand, if Goodwin was rewarded for benefiting British Banking, it is fair to say that the any benefit he bestowed was more than undone. On the other, the whole process did not seem to have much to do with either justice or wise decision-making; rather it had all the appearance of a stampede.

Whatever knighthoods are for these days, it can't be what they were originally for. It's a bit murky. Interestingly, knighthoods would fit well into a formalist system, as a treatment of the coalition problems I just wrote about. It could serve as a formalisation of informal power: a recognition that the recipient has some power, is loyal to the sovereign, and is being rewarded for that loyalty. If that were the basis of honours, they would not be withdrawn for incompetence, or even for criminality, but only for disloyalty. It would mean that that person ought not be permitted to obtain any power again.

Finally Hester. Hester is CEO of a bank which is making modest profits in a difficult market. As such, he would normally expect a substantial bonus. The same stampede which took away his predecessor's knighthood took that as well.

There are legitimate questions about the amount of money made by banks and their employees, which I am not going to address — anyone worth reading on the issue would be either more knowledgable or less personally interested than me.

The question of bonuses per se is a separate one, though. What it amounts to is that companies that award large bonuses (relative to salary) are run in a more formalist manner than most other corporations. In many organisations, valuable employees are rewarded with more responsibilities, or better job security. Arnold Kling recently raised the point that this can produce bad outcomes. These companies avoid that, giving responsibilies as tasks rather than rewards, and rewarding valuable employees more directly with cash. This is the appropriate response to the sort of issue that Arnold Kling raised, and which Aretae picked up on as a widely applicable example of bad governance.

The fact that this formalist measure to improve governance arouses such opposition (again, independently of the actual sums involved; Hester's salary for 2011 was over a million pounds, and attracted little attention), says a lot about what is wrong with modern political culture.

So, three very different honours: a minor position in our corrupted and ineffective system of government, an anachronism that might once have been a formalist recoginition of power and reward for loyalty, and a straightforward, honest payment for value. All removed, for better or worse, in the same way, by an unthinking popular stampede, triggered by a media driven not primarily by ideology but by a need for drama.

Formalism and Coalition

Aretae insists that all government is coalitional.

Maybe so, but that doesn't mean it's a good thing to widen the coalition further, and spread power about randomly.

The point of formalism is that power should be aligned with some form of responsibility, so that the powerful not benefit from destructive behaviour, and that attempting to obtain more power should be illegitimate, so that energies not be directed to destructive competition for power.

Formalists tend to believe that stable, effective and responsible government would follow a largely libertarian policy, choosing to limit government action to maintaining order and protecting private property, and taking its own loot in the form of predictably and efficiently levied taxation rather than by making arbitrary demands of random subjects. Such a policy would maximise the long-term revenue stream from the state.

Given a policy which sets limits on government, it becomes reasonably straightforward to deal with those centres of power which are not sovereign but which cannot be eliminated. They get subsidies, but not power over policy. Given that the sovereign chooses, for reasons of efficiency, to take taxes and buy food with them rather than to take food directly from whereever he fancies, there is no problem in giving pensions or subsidies to those whose support is needed.

The key formalist idea is that if those with informal power go beyond what they are entitled to but seek to influence general government policy, then they are doing something anti-social and immoral. All those who have an interest in the continuation of stable, effective and responsible government will see such an attempt as a threat. Fnargl does not have a ring, and I do not much fancy engineering weapon locks implementing a bitcoin-like voting protocol, so a combination of popular will and, in due course, force of tradition is all we have to fill the gap. In as much as there is a general interest in anything, there is a general interest in good government, and I do not think it is all that far-fetched to to see sovereign authority as something that people will reflexively stand to defend, were it not that that they have been taught for 250 years to do the opposite.

What's striking is that our current political morality holds the opposite view: that attempting to influence policy is everyone's right, but to receive direct payoffs is unjust. The powerful are therefore rewarded indirectly via policies with enormously distorting effects on the economy or on the administration of government, whose general costs greatly outweigh the gains obtained by the beneficiaries. Further, it is easier for them to seek to protect and increase their power, than to seek reward for giving it up, even if the general interest would benefit from the latter.

I could do with an example to illustrate this — if a person has necessary power, such as a military officer, then he should keep his power and be rewarded for it. If alternatively his arm of the military is no longer needed, but he still has power because he could potentially use the arm against the sovereign, then it is preferable to pay him extra to cooperate in disbanding the arm, rather than to maintain it just to keep him loyal. The same logic might apply in the organisation of key industries, or sections of the bureaucracy.

It would not necessarily be easy to resolve these things perfectly, but it would be made easier by recognising that concentrating power over general policy — sovereignty — is a good thing, as far as it is possible, and that the sovereign who has control over policy has the right to use it in whichever way he sees fit: to hand out cash presents as much as to award monopolies.

The exercise of democracy makes things very much worse, by adding to the number of those with necessary power anybody who can sway a bloc of voters, and enabling them to make demands for more inefficient indirect sharing of the loot.