Sometimes it IS less about the argument than the person making it

The UK’s ex-Prime Minister, John Major, has lent his considerable gravitas (where’s the irony font when you need it?) to the punditry around the Brexit negotiations, urging the current Prime Minister to allow MPs a free vote to ratify the final negotiated position.

Around the same time, another ex-Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has suggested that the peace in Ireland was being placed at risk by the Brexit negotiations and their focus around the border arrangements between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK, for those who live under a rock) and the Republic of Ireland.

This is, of course, sophistry of its purist form by both elder statesmen. Major, for example, is quite aware that the vast majority of MPs of all political hues were in favour and actively campaigned for the Remain option, despite 17 million of their constituents getting out and voting the opposite. How does he feel they will vote when offered a chance to critique the final Brexit negotiation?

Blair also is quite aware that hostilities are not going to reoccur because the UK leave the EU but because the IRA or split-off factions decide to commit violence. One absolutely does not have to follow the other, it’s a choice the erstwhile terrorist will have to make. It would be a very interesting choice too, in these post-911 days.  One suspects NORAID might not be such an efficient fundraiser these days and would most likely attract unwelcome attention from the Homeland Security agencies. Certainly, the first shots in “The Troubles 2 ™” won’t be fired by British or Irish troops or police.

So why the interventions at this stage in their retirements and who exactly are they trying to persuade?

Major, for example, left office as a laughing stock, with a series of failed and insipid policies (motorway traffic cones hotline, anyone?) behind him as he handed over to Blair with a record majority.

Blair’s “New Labour”government started well, aping the economic policies of the Conservatives, managed to broker a peace deal with the IRA (at what cost, we might still ask, however) but then threw his legacy away by blindly following George W Bush into Afghanistan and, more egregiously, Iraq.

The general public in the UK have not forgotten either. In addition, the core membership of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party hold Major and Blair in contempt respectively.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider the irony of two elder statesmen calling for the sovereignty of the UK Parliament to be maintained as paramount whilst being opposed to Brexit, a policy which will return much of the power previously handed over to the European Parliament. Deep down they must both understand that their positions have a logical inconsistency, surely?

So, the question remains, who exactly are they hoping to persuade?

Bill’s Opinion

It’s probably a different answer for both.

Major, for example, has no grassroots support from the public or his party’s membership, his party’s MPs are likely ambivalent about him at best (many weren’t adults during his premiership) and has little credible legacy to protect from his time in office. He seems to spend a lot of his retirement at the MCC watching cricket.

It’s most likely that Major is appealing directly to the Prime Minister to allow MPs to vote on the final deal because he hopes they will moderate the extent of a divorce he’s opposed to.

Blair similarly is the recipient of little public love and is openly criticised by his party’s membership and MPs. He has, however, amassed an incredible personal wealth since leaving office from various ventures and positions within the very institutions Brexit is terminating the UK’s relationship with.

It’s most likely that Blair is virtue signalling to his European colleagues that it will be business as usual for his wife and him following Brexit; i.e. he’s reapplying for his current job.

Mexican standoff… in Australia!

A week or so ago, I wrote the following;

And now for some speculation; this will blow up in the Australian Prime Minister’s face as it is highly-unlikely that this will be the final sexual dalliance to be or have been occurring at senior government levels. By writing his moralistic code of conduct, he’s just given a green light for these stories to emerge.

Today a journalist tacitly admitted there’s a battle underway between those who now believe they should be reporting matters sexual in the Australian Federal parliament and those who would keep the status quo code of silence;

Politicians (and men of public stature more generally) are fearful of what past misdeeds might be uncovered next.

Journalists are at internal war over what is in the public interest and what is not.

Note the subtle men of public stature dig there.

Unless all of the latent scandals being prepared for public consumption are about gay sex, presumably there’s a significant ratio of women involved in these rendevous cinq à sept, and not all of whom are Foreign Minister?

Yesterday a minister, Michaela Cash, made some unsubtle hints about two senior opposition MPs which she was then pressured into retracting. But, of course, the inferred allegation they were both adulterers is now out there permanently.

Shots have been fired, it will be interesting to see if the response is a return volley.

Bill’s Opinion

This is pure Game Theory being played out in public;

Journalists are contemplating whether or not they can claim a public interest angle to publishing details of politicians’ sexual dalliances.

Politicians are using parliamentary privilege to make allegations about their opponents.

As both groups have individuals break ranks and start letting the information flow into the public domain, there will be less reason for others to maintain their silence.

In other news, Australian popcorn futures have suddenly doubled in value.

Is Socialism a result of human genetics?

John McDonnell, Deputy Leader of the UK Labour Party told those who would listen at Davos that the problems Venezuela is currently experiencing are a consequence of an incomplete implementation of Socialism, rather than a design fault with the ideology itself.

Ponder that for a moment; Not Socialist enough.

Today’s thoughts are not meant as a persuasion attempt to argue that Socialism is a catastrophically bad system due to a hard-coded flaw in the dogma.

If you don’t believe that the millions of deaths in the 20th Century in places as diverse in culture, history, environment and natural resources as Russia, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, North Korea, Bulgaria, Romania and Ethiopia are directly attributable to a design fault with Socialism then you may wish to find something else to read today.

Correlation isn’t causation, but when we start reaching the levels of murders that are uncountable (pick a source; 100 million? 200 million?), the on the ground buried in the ground evidence is just too compelling. How many more deaths under Socialist governments would it take to convince you? Half a trillion? More?

I’m suggesting a hypothesis that undeniably really bad ideas that refuse to die in the face of overwhelming evidence must be somehow genetically hard-coded.

Malthusianism and collectivism are two examples.

Malthus has been wrong with regards to humans now for almost 300 years yet the basic idea is still attractive to those who discover it, from the supporters of eugenics, through The Club of Rome to the religiosity of Al Gore and his supporters.

Collectivism has killed several hundred million and counting but dreamers like McDonnell still pine for the opportunity to finally implement the correct working version.

Let’s pause for a moment and count the ways McDonnell is suffering from cognitive dissonance;

  1. Denial of the overwhelming evidence across multiple geographies and points in time that collectivism finishes in tyranny, poverty and mass murder.
  2. Denial of the overwhelming evidence that trade and commerce between individuals has resulted in the most incredible fall in absolute poverty on a global scale.
  3. Dunning Kruger-ism at the improbability that he, and his closest cohorts, with their almost non-existent experience of managing anything more complicated than a local political party sub-branch, could measure and manage a national economy to deliver sustainable improvements to the lives of all its citizens.

Note that in point #2 above, I use absolute poverty rather than relative poverty as the true measure of success. Put crudely, if we’re all equally scratching around killing pet rabbits for food, being equally poor is little comfort. If I can afford to eat, clothe myself and heat my home, the worry that Jeff Bezos is richer than Croesus is a luxury I can only afford because I am not dirt poor.

PJ O’Rourke said that Communism DOES work and is an absolutely perfect system inside his family home; he brings in the income and his wife and children distribute it according to their needs. The problem is that it just doesn’t scale any wider than the border of his property.

People like McDonnell are trying to scale to the macro what only works at the micro level. Perhaps a clue is to be had there.

Bill’s Opinion

It’s not credible to believe that the “if only we could implement Socialism properly” crowd are unaware of the brutal legacy of bloodshed of Socialism.

Its also hard to believe that, being aware of these mass murders in the name of their preferred dogma, they don’t care.

There must be something deeper, more fundamental to the human psyche that is the root cause of this refusal to give up on what is so clearly a bad idea.

Perhaps human evolution, so heavily-dependent on cooperation and self-organisation by specialities (at its simplest, the hunter goes off to hunt while the gatherer stays home to gather) has resulted in an instinct that teaches the positive value of collecting and distributing resources at a group level.

At the small scale of tribal/extended family, this would have been a very successful strategy.

The evidence is in that it results in tragedy at the scale of national populations.

How then, do we teach ourselves to let go of ideas when they cease to work for the circumstances with which we are faced?

That’s the thing with concepts….

Apparently, cryptocurrencies make no sense.

The author offers the following qualities as being important for a currency;

  • facilitating transactions;
  • a store of value;
  • lending of last resort.

And then goes on to explain why cryptocurrencies, specifically Bitcoin, fail to tick any of those three qualities.

Tellingly though, he hints at the reason why our current currencies do provide those features;

Bill’s Opinion

Fiat currency passes his three tests not because “the government guarantees it” but because we believe that guarantee.

Money is fungible, a unit of measure and a store of value because we have bought into the idea*. When enough of us cease to believe in a concept, it stops being real.

Some examples of this include; the 12 gods of classical Greek religion, purgatory, the noble savage, copper bracelets for arthritis and the Bermuda triangle.

Sure, cyptocurrencies are a million miles away from being trusted stores of value or tools to transact exchange today. However, should enough people find that they trust the concept enough to use it in a limited way, there is nothing to distinguish “Billy Occam Coin” from good old greenbacks.

In the meantime, if you distrust those central bankers but don’t want to buy a cryptocurrency that fluctuates 10% up or down daily, gold seems to have passed the test of time as a value store. You might find your local bartender reticent to give you change from an ounce of it when you order a beer, though.

*I disagree about the “lender of last resort” requirement – many of our economic issues today would have been avoided without this “public service”. Let failed banks die and new ones fill the space.

Sorry seems to be the easiest word

Anyone who has been involved in rearing human infants will understand that the word “sorry” is the coda to the process of reconciling a malevolent or negligent act, not the start.

It’s also totally meaningless for the word to be said by anyone other than the person who committed the act, unless it’s used in the context of sympathy (“I’m sorry that happened to you”) instead.

Australian politicians don’t seem to have learned this important life lesson, however.

A decade ago the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, apologised for previous Australian governments’ treatment of the Aboriginal people of Australia.

This year, the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, will apologise for child abuse committed in various institutions.

In addition to the word “sorry”, these apologies have a significant commonality; they are both meaningless because the speaker was not responsible for the crime. In most cases, the speaker was not even born at the time of the crime.

This new apology will receive much gushing news coverage and several soundbites will be carefully crafted to ensure their future use in television documentaries.

But let’s be clear; it will change nothing.

Fortunately, I’m not a victim of institutional child abuse (or any other kind of child abuse for that matter) but I am able to empathise with those who are. I assume that, if an apology were to be offered to the survivors, it would be far more likely to give them “closure” if the apology was delivered by the perpetrator.

If the perpetrator refused to give the apology or was unable to (most are dead now), perhaps it might give some satisfaction if their direct manager apologised for their part in the problem.

But there seems to be a rapidly diminishing law of returns in play as the apology moves further and further away from anyone actually involved at the time to the point that, when we reach the Prime Minister (in just his 3rd year in the job), it may as well be delivered by an out of work actor. At least the dramatic delivery would have a good chance of seeming genuine.

Bill’s Opinion

Apologising for history is virtue signalling nonsense.

We can understand why it is attractive to politicians however; it’s far simpler to say sorry for something you weren’t responsible for than to competently oversee the investigation and prosecution of criminals and assisting any living victims.

In other news, on behalf of the whole of western Christendom, I would like to take this opportunity to apologise for the sacking of Constantinople in 1215. Hopefully we can all move on from here and find common ground.

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.