Your taxpayer rupees paid for this

I’m still in India, Calcutta to be precise, one of the best cities in the country for many varied reasons.

Newspaper subscribers in the city were greeted by this paid front page on one of their main broadsheets (if you’re not familiar with Indian numerical terms, 1 lakh = 100,000, 1 crore = 10,000,000);

I’m not going to poke fun at the Indian version of English deployed within the infomercial, there’s more speakers of the language here than in any other country so it’s as much their language as ours after all.

I will, however, examine the insidious way the reader is encouraged towards gratitude for the efforts of a certain publicity-shy state minister over the last couple of years in his job of spending their money.

Picking out a few example statements;

Free Power to Agriculture“; someone is paying for it, just not the farmers.

Telangana exceeds national per capita consumption“; is that a good thing? Interesting difference between India and a western country where the former might see increased usage as a key metric of modernisation. In the west, we’d just feel bad about it.

This is the most instructive part though;

One assumes reliable and cheap electricity supply is the requirement most rate/taxpayers would express, not employment, promotions, changes to employment status, etc.?

This is how India differs from most other Anglosphere countries however.

India is an amazing country. Firstly, it never should have been a country in the first place; the British conquered, bribed or annexed a lot of disparate kingdoms (none of which were anything close to a democracy) into what then became lumped together and known as “India”. The mutiny in 1857 is now referred to in India as the First War of Independence, but in reality, it was no such thing, if the British had lost there would have been an inter-regnum which would have seen various Maharajas competing for top dog status, the population wouldn’t have been consulted or considered. The Partition of 1947 was a disaster that was perhaps waiting to happen as a consequence of this unnatural joining of many different kingdoms.

India is amazing also because it is simultaneously the epitome of a capitalist economy and also a centrally-planned state. You’re probably wondering why and how this can be.

The vast majority of transactions,  95% in fact, in India are cash. As a consequence it’s hard to get a breakdown of the values but one could reasonably assume most of the volume is below US $10 in value. The important point is that the Government doesn’t have much opportunity to be involved in these transactions. This is why a paper cup of masala chai still costs roughly what it did 20 years ago (10 rupees), a shave at a barbers’ still costs about 60 rupees and an autorickshaw journey of a few kilometres is still less than 100 rupees. The input costs are the major factor in the price, not the government overheads, and these have remained flat or reduced over time.

On the macro level, however, the taxes paid in a country of a billion or more people still total a very large number. As with politicians the world over, this money is then diverted to pork-barrel projects that buy short term votes; dams, electricity distribution projects, highways, border skirmishes with Pakistan, etc.. However, because of the 95% cash transaction issue, the politicians usually steer well-clear of the full Communist central planning drive for utopia as it’s obvious to anyone with half a brain that the oppressive infrastructure just isn’t in place to enforce it. It’s a nice halfway house really; the politicians can get comfortably wealthy through the usual methods but are happy enough to let most people simply get on with commerce. And commerce works; the middle class here has grown 20 fold in 25 years.

Bill’s Opinion

One of the main brakes slowing India from becoming a centrally-planned disaster is the inability of a government to intervene in the minutia of the population’s lives. Unmonitored transactions is a key foundation to this freedom.

As the American Founding Fathers and Hayek’s Road to Serfdom warned us, concentrations of power and information in the hands of government officials always leads to abuse. Just because  your guy got voted in and used the additional power in a relatively useful way, there’s no guarantee the next guy will be benign with the increased reach.

It’s for this reason, I hope cash, gold and cryptocurrencies have a long life ahead of them. Imagine a world were every single transaction is tracked electronically and then consider what that information would be worth to a malicious leader.

Oh, and irony of the day; Calcutta isn’t even in the state of Telangana.

A fundamental misunderstanding of the internet

The Australian state government of New South Wales are planning legislation to ban automated software that can rapidly buy multiple tickets for events such as concerts.

At first blush, this would seem a great win for the consumer. Which is presumably why it was announced (not the “great win” part, but the “it would seem” bit).

Why such scepticism here?

Firstly, let’s examine how such legislation might be drafted. It would need to;

  • Define the software by the function it performs.
  • Define the owner or user or beneficiary of the software.
  • Define the operating jurisdiction of the legislation.
  • Explain how to police the legislation for software running from another country (over a VPN, for example) or even another Australian state.
  • Explain how to identify and prosecute the owner of the software.
  • Define when the crime is committed; after just one ticket is bought?

As the title of this post infers, the legislation required for the banning of “bots” suggests the proposer has very little idea of how the internet works.

In addition, it’s yet another government solution where the market could be quite capable of resolving the issue;

If the artists and event organisers really wanted to prevent secondary sales of their tickets, they have many options available to deploy such as using pre-confirmed registered users on a website or ticket collection at the event with a standard form of identification.

Also, consider the consumer; plenty of people are clearly currently happy to pay above face value for tickets. The event organisers are missing a trick here; why not run the ticket sales process as a time-limited auction? This is, in effect, what the”scalpers” are doing and are taking the risk that they won’t sell all the tickets.

Bill’s Opinion

If you really want to fuck something up in a truly expensive and ineffective way, ask a government employee to implement a solution that nobody asked for.

Mason flew over the cuckoo’s nest

No, of course it’s not banning Uber or Airbnb when local authorities set the regulations such that Uber and Airbnb can’t operate.

The idea that an Uber driver is a “rent seeker” is particularly amusing too, given that their competition had previously operated a closed market and, in many locations, with the addition of a speculative market in licences or “plates”.

Bill’s Opinion
Increasingly, the left and right side of politics are using the same words but with altogether different meanings. It is hard, if not impossible, to engage in a civilised discussion with any hope of swaying the other side with logic while this doublespeak and echo chamber environment exists.

Ideology Uber Alles

The transport regulatory body for London, TfL, announced yesterday that it was revoking the operating licence for Uber due to safety concerns and governance issues.

The Socialist Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, publicly supports this decision.

Uber will appeal this decision, resulting in a stay of execution for about a year while the legal process is underway.

Some pertinent numbers might be useful. London has;

44,000 Uber drivers

3.5m customers

Around 50 sexual assaults a year by Uber drivers

Around 125 sexual assaults by other taxi drivers per year

Any number higher than zero is too high for sexual assaults but the relativity of the figures above make sense; a would-be attacker is less likely to do so if you’ve been able to identify him from a picture of his face and have a record of his car registration on your phone.

Indeed, even the Financial Times gets it right in an opinion piece yesterday, proving the old saying about stopped clocks being accurate twice a day;

Bill’s Opinion

This is an ideological decision made for reasons of Socialist dogma. The disruption that Uber has brought to London has had two main effects;

1. Shaking up a previously fat and happy taxi industry.

2. Excellent price and service outcomes for the consumer.

Sadiq Khan and the UK extreme left wing cannot reconcile 1) with 2). They are wracked with anger and jealously that an innovative idea has resulted in a heavily-unionised industry experiencing change and the parent company owners becoming rich.

The outcomes for the consumer are a very distant 2nd place to this envy in their list of priorities.

How this plays out will be highly-interesting; a popular mayor may find himself badly-damaged by this knee-jerk decision.

Have we reached “Peak Elon Musk” yet?

Perhaps it’s a function of the modern news cycle, driven by clicks and speed to publish rather than the traditional print media that produces these archetypes such as Steve Jobs and, recently, Elon Musk.

One can’t log on to social media or news sites without being presented with a quotation meme, spurious story about their management style or genius of innovation.

These must surely be taken with a large pinch of salt; nobody is perfect and, sure these people have been very successful, but not all of it was due to their intellect or perspiration.

Take Musk, for example; his high profile spacecraft business, SpaceX, is partially-funded by Venture capital, but the majority owner is Musk.

Where did Musk make his fortune? His other company, Telsa Motors Inc., which has been the beneficiary of nearly $5bn in government subsidies. He may be good at manufacturing solar panels and lithium batteries but he’s no John Galt. Many of us would probably indulge ourselves in a spacecraft hobby if we’d been given billions of dollars of government welfare.

There are also suspiciously few voices questioning how Musk reconciles the green credentials of Telsa with the massive amount of traditional fossil fuel burned with each SpaceX flight.

The government handouts continue in Australia, a country which loves to fawn over famous Americans as if Übermensch. The state government of South Australia made some pretty poor decisions for ideological reasons over the last few years with regards to their energy supply,  resulting in several disastrous state-wide blackouts last year.

Like a knight in shining armour, Musk made a now famous boast that he could solve their problems with his batteries and, if he’d not completed this solution within 100 days, South Australians wouldn’t need to pay a penny. Again, after being the recipients of $5bn from taxpayers purses, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at most people’s generosity.

There is also the question of how much of the problem the 100MW battery will actually solve? Various reports suggest that it will have an hour’s capacity. What happens in the 2nd hour of an outage?

Also, given that the installation will have a price tag over over $150m, South Australians could be forgiven for asking about the probity of the government procurement process that selected a supplier on the basis of a Tweet?

Bill’s Opinion

Musk is likely a very talented engineer with some excellent innovative ideas. He is, however, even more talented at self-promotion and convincing starstruck government officials into handing over other people’s money.

Nice trick, if one can pull it off.

Believe the action not its promise

China joined the club of countries vowing to ban diesel and petrol vehicles. France and Britain have made similar assertions.

In typically hubristic European style, the French and Brits even put a date by which it would happen… in both cases, at least 5 general elections’ time. To quote the pederast Keynes again, “in the long run, we’re all dead”.

China have been a little more circumspect; “in the near future“, was the inscrutable statement. By an amazing coincidence, this is precisely the timetable parents the world over offer in response to the question, “when can I have a pony?“.

Let’s assume the Chinese are going to follow the Anglo-Franco timetable and bring the ban in for 2040. What are the possible outcomes?

1. Automobile manufacturers will fast-track any existing R&D projects that will result in hydrogen/electric/cow manure cars in time to sell in 2040 at the same price or cheaper than the equivalent petrol/diesel vehicle… and they are successful.

2. Ditto (1) but they are unsuccessful; the cars don’t go as fast, far or cost more.

3. The current R&D projects are already due to complete well before 2040.

Looking at these in a not so random order;

Option (1) is all good, win/win for everyone and even the planet, with the not minor assumption that the Chinese can produce electricity without recourse to those pesky fossil fuels by then, otherwise we’ve just centralised the pollution.

Option (3) is pretty good for everyone too, but would suggest that government mandates don’t drive innovation, markets do.

Option (2) is a bit of a problem though, depending on the type of commitment made. In a country with a properly-functioning rule of law, there might be some delicate unwinding of legislation made by politicians who may be long departed to the retirement home or their final destination (presumably carried by eco-friendly hearses) .

If there’s a compelling feet to the fire type of commitment in place or an ideological bent to the governing party when the 2040 New Year’s Eve light show (the emissions from fireworks will surely be banned by then) happens, we might see some subsidies/tariffs/taxes given or imposed to get to that stated goal. i.e. more government intervention due to a “market failure“.

Bill’s Opinion

Originally, this part of today’s post was going to quote the story of the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894. The trouble is, upon further research, it looks like that might have been horseshit and was most likely to be an urban myth.

But perhaps there is still a lesson to be learned from the invention of the car?

Consider the major steps in the development of human transport:

  1. Human power – we could only move as fast and as efficiently as our own bodies.
  2. Horse power – we could only move as fast and as efficiently as horses or other beasts of burden.
  3. Steam power – we could only move as fast as a steam engine powered by coal could drive us.
  4. Refined fuel power – we could only move as fast as a petrol engine could drive us.

Those last 3 steps weren’t invented as a response to a crisis but as an innovation to realise an opportunity.

The hope that innovation will be sparked as a result of creating a purely false crisis (i.e. a new law) is not supported by strong historical evidence. Perhaps opportunity drives innovation more often than crisis?

 

 

Is there utility in viewing the government as a person?

It may seem a strange question to ask but, if one listens out for the linguistic clues, the inference can be drawn that some people do indeed imbue their national government with personality traits.

Specifically, discussing what the government “thinks”, “wants” or “owns” suggests some level of consciousness and self, over and above the visible collection of elected and unelected policy setters and administrators.

Clearly it can’t be true that a government has a single view on most matters; the many individuals involved will all have nuanced and differing perceptions of the solution to a particular issue or even the definition of the issue. Perhaps in cases of extreme threats to all, such as a war, there might be some level of consensus but, even then, opinions will differ on specific tactics and details.

The fact that a concept is not real does not necessarily mean that there isn’t utility in the universal acceptance of the “delusion”.

For example, we all accept the integrity of money, despite the fact that it’s just words and pictures written on paper. It’s more useful to us to believe that the $100 note in our pocket really is worth, say, about 13 hours work of an unskilled labourer (i.e. USA minimum wage) than to overly question the concept of paper money, or indeed, fungible transfer of labour to a stored value. Why is it useful? Well, if we all go along with the idea, the idea works!

A government clearly isn’t a single homogeneous living entity, but perhaps there’s some value to be had by treating it as such? This is the question we wish to address in this post.

What concepts might apply to our “new” person, Mr/Ms/Miss/Mrs/Xhe Government?

Here’s a list, by no means exhaustive, of concepts which might apply to the new higher form of life we’ve just created;

  • We could assign motive to its actions
  • We could assume no internal dichotomy in its statements and /or actions
  • We could presume every statement and action is internally logically consistent
  • We could assume every statement and action is part of a highly-considered plan

Stop laughing at the back…..

No, seriously, if we view our government as a single entity, we should have tangible evidence that the four statements are true, or at least generally true.

The fact that selecting any national or state government and a random issue would quickly show that our four “person concepts” apply so rarely as to be most likely random coincidence tells us that the idea of viewing our governments as having human aspects is daft and falls apart at first contact with reality.

So, back to our original question;

Is there utility in viewing the government as a person?

Like the idea of a fungible way of transferring labour called “money”, is there still a worthwhile reason for suspending reality and taking the concept of a single, thinking entity called “government”?

Try as we might, we can’t think of one. Feel free to offer suggestions in the comments.

This leads us to ask the obvious follow-up question;

Are there negative consequences in viewing the government as a person?

Taking our four concepts above, we can see plenty of problems;

  • We could assign motive to its actions

We’re going to be disappointed to learn that, even if an action had a motive behind it, the motive, or at least the individual who originally had the motive, is transient and highly temporary. It’ll be replaced by a different motive as soon as the individual concerned is replaced.

  • We could assume no internal dichotomy in its statements and /or actions

This runs the risk of misdirecting us when a range of government actions seem to be arbitrary and/or contradictory. “Why did the government give me a tax incentive to buy a diesel car five years ago and has now reversed the tax break in favour of unleaded petrol?”, for example. This could be quite expensive or worse on an individual basis.

  • We could presume every statement and action is internally logically consistent

Again, disappointment looms large for those of us who’ve fallen for the concept. It also risks us making regretful decisions based on what we might have thought of as an ethical position or moral compass. Joining the armed forces during a period of proclaimed non-intervention in foreign conflicts, for example.

  • We could assume every statement and action is part of a highly-considered plan

In a similar theme to the other points, we run the risk of taking personal actions (or not taking them, such as not saving for our retirement) based on an assumption that there is a credible and committed plan to provide for us.

Why on earth would you assume your government has any aspects of an individual person then?

Facetiously; because you’ve been poorly-educated and are unable to think for yourself?

More soberly, perhaps because the delusion is more attractive than believing the alternative? That is, the government is, at best, a collection of many thousands of individuals all with personal prejudices, agendas and varying levels of competence and incompetence.

Bill’s Opinion

The only utility in viewing one’s government as a person is mental comfort. It enables the believer to avoid confronting the possibility that practically nobody within the government has your best interests at heart and, even if they did, would be highly unlikely to have the competence or energy to do anything positive about it.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.