Archive for the ‘libertarian’ Category

The Book

Red Plenty is a fictionalised history, or possibly a work of hard historical science fiction, which covers what it describes as the “fifties’ Soviet dream” but which might be better termed the Soviet sixties – the period from Khrushchev’s consolidation of power to the first crackdown on the dissidents and the intervention in Czechoslovakia. This is a big book in a Russian way – it’s always been a science-fiction prerogative to work with the vastness of space, the depth of history, and the wonder and terror of science and technology, but it’s also been fairly common that science-fiction has had a bit of a problem with people. The characters who re-fire the S-IVB main engine for translunar injection, with nothing but a survival pack of big ideas for use on arrival, tend to vanish in the cosmos. At its best, this has given the genre a disturbingly calm new perspective – chuck out your literary chintz, the rocket equation will not be fooled. At worst, well, OH NO JOHN RINGO.

Red Plenty covers a lot of big ideas, some serious hardware and even more serious software, and great swaths of the Soviet Union. But you will also need to be prepared to meet quite a lot of difficult but rewarding people, rather like the geneticist character Zoya Vaynshtayn does at the party Leonid Kantorovich’s students throw in Akademgorodok. In that sense, it has a genuinely Russian scale to it. The characters are a mixture of historical figures (as well as Kantorovich, you will spend some time in Nikita Khrushchev’s interior monologue), pure fictions, and shadow characters for some historical ones. (Emil Shaidullin roughly represents Gorbachev’s adviser Abel Aganbegyan; Vaynshtayn the historical geneticist Raissa Berg.)

So what are they up to?

Rebooting Science

Kantorovich, a central figure of the book, is remembered as the only Soviet citizen to win a Nobel Prize in economics, and the inventor of the mathematical technique of linear programming. As a character, he’s a sort of Soviet Richard Feynman – an egghead and expert dancer and ladies’ man, a collaborator on the nuclear bomb, and a lecturer so cantankerous his students make a myth of him. Politically, it’s never clear if he’s being deliberately provocative or completely naive, or perhaps whether the naivety is protective camouflage.

A major theme of the book is the re-creation of real science in the Soviet Union after the Stalinist era; biology has to start up afresh, economics has to do much the same, and everyone is working in a large degree of ignorance about the history of their fields. Some things simply can’t be restarted – as Spufford points out, despite all the compulsory Marxism-Leninism, even genetics hadn’t been erased as thoroughly as independent Marxist thought, and nobody in charge was willing to even think of opening that particular can of worms. On the other hand, the re-opening of economics as a field of study led to what the biologists would have called an adaptive radiation. Pioneers from engineering, maths, biology and physics began to lay spores in the new territory.

Comrades, let’s optimise!

The new ecosystem was known as cybernetics, which was given a wider meaning than the same word was in the West. Kantorovich’s significance in this is that his work provided both a theoretical framework and a critical technology – if the problem was to allocate the Soviet Union’s economic resources optimally, could it be possible to solve this by considering the economy as a huge system of linear production functions, and then optimising the lot? The idea had been tried before, in the socialist calculation debate of the 1920s, although without the same mathematical tools.

This is one of those events whose significance has changed a great deal over time. The question was whether it was possible for a planned economy to achieve an optimal allocation of resources. The socialists thought so; their critics held that it was impossible, and elaborated a set of criteria for optimal allocation very similar to the ones that are familiar as the standard assumptions in the economic theory of the firm in perfect competition. These days, it’s often presented as if this was a knockout argument. From the firm in perfect competition, we hop to Hayek’s idea that a market economy is better at making use of dispersed, implicit knowledge. Basta. We won.

The socialists weren’t without intellectual originality. In fact, they did actually formulate a mathematical rebuttal to the firm in perfect competition – the Lange model, which demonstrated that optimal allocation was a possibility in theory. The Hayekian critique wasn’t considered that great at the time – it was thought a much better point that the barrier to effective planning was a practical one, not a fundamental one. And even then, it was well known that the standard assumptions don’t, actually, describe any known economy. It would simply be impossible to process all the data with the technology available. Even with the new tools of linear optimisation, who was going to do all those sums, especially as the process is an iterative rather than a formal one? Stalin and Hitler had their own way of solving these arguments – no man, no problem – and the whole thing ended up moot for some time.

Computers: a technical fix

But if it had been impossible to run the numbers with pen and paper in 1920, or with Hollerith machines and input-output tables in 1940, what about computers in 1960? Computers could blast through millions of iterations for hundreds of thousands of production processes in tens of thousands of supply chains; computers were only likely to get better at it, too. Red Plenty is about the moment when it seemed that the new territory of cybernetics was going to give rise to a synthesis between mathematics, market-socialist thinking, and computing that would replace GOSPLAN and deliver Economics II: True Communism.

After all, by the mid-60s it was known that the enormous system of equations could be broken down into its components, providing that the constraints in each sub-system were consistent with the others. If each production unit had its own computer, and the computers in each region or functional organisation were networked, and then the networks were….were internetworked? In fact, the military was already using big computer networks for its command-and-control systems, borrowing a lot of ideas from the US Air Force’s SAGE; by 1964, there were plans for a huge national timesharing computer network, for both military and civilian use, as a horizontal system cutting across all the ministries and organisations. Every town would get a data centre.

The Economics Fairy Strikes Again

But, of course, it didn’t happen. There’s a good paper on the fate of the Soviet internetworkers here; Spufford has a fascinating document on the end of indigenous general-purpose computer development in the USSR here. Eventually, during the 1970s, it became increasingly obvious that the Soviet economy was not going to catch up with and outstrip anyone, let alone the United States, and the Austrian economists were retroactively crowned as having obviously been right all along, and given their own chance to fail. Spufford frames the story as a Russian fairytale; perhaps we can say that in fact, economics is the fairytale, or rather the fairy. Successive groups of intellectuals have fought their way through the stacks of books, past the ideological monsters, and eventually reached the fairy’s grotto, to be granted their greatest wish. And it’s always the same one – a chance to fail.

Why did the Soviet economists fail? Red Plenty gives a spectacular sweep through the Soviet economy as it actually was; from the workings of GOSPLAN, to the management of a viscose factory, to the world of semi-criminal side payments that actually handled the problems of day-to-day survival. In the 1990s, the descendants of one half of the socialist calculation debate swept into Russia as advisers paid by the Thatcher Foundation. Arriving on the fairy’s magic cloud, they knew little of how the Soviet economy worked in practice, and duly got their opportunity to fail. The GOSPLAN officials of the 60s were reliant on data that was both completely unreliable, being the product of political bargaining more than anything else, and typically slightly less than a year out of date. And the market socialists were just as reliant on the management of Soviet industry for the production cost data they needed to make sure all those budget constraints really were consistent.

That’s a technical explanation. But there are others available. Once communism was achieved the state was meant to wither away, and not many of the people in charge of it were at all keen on this as a pension plan. Without the power to intervene in the economy, what was the point of the Party, again? Also, what was that stuff about letting people connect computers to the telephone network and pass messages from factory to factory? Where will it end? The central government, the Politburo, GOSPLAN, STAVKA – they would never accept it.

Another, more radical, is that the eventual promise of Red Plenty was to render not so much the top of the pyramid, but the middle management, redundant. The rapid industrialisation had created a new management class who had every intention of getting rich and staying that way. (This was the Yugoslavs’ take on the Soviet Union – the new class had simply taken over from the capitalists.) What would happen to their bonuses, and their prerogative to control the planners by telling them what they wanted to hear?

And yet another is that the whole project was flawed. Even if it was possible to discern the economy’s underlying cost-structure, write the software, and optimise the whole thing, how would this system deal with dynamic economics? How would it allocate investment? How would it cope with technological change? It’s no help to point out that, in fact, a lot of the questions are nowhere near being solved in any economics.

Soviet History

One view of the USSR’s history is a succession of escape attempts. The NEP of the mid-20s, Nikolai Voznezhensky’s term at GOSPLAN in the 1940s, the Soviet 60s. Each saw a real effort to get away from a political economy which was in many ways a wild caricature of the Industrial Revolution, screwing down the labour share of income in order to boost capital investment and hence industrial output, answering any protest against this with the pistol of the state. As well as trying new economic ideas, they also saw surges of creativity in other fields. They were all crushed.

Arguably, you could say the same thing about perestroika. The people who signed the Alma-Ata protocol to arrange the end of the Soviet Union and the dismissal of Gorbachev were not, in fact, heroic dissidents, but rather career communist bureaucrats, some of whom went on to become their own little Stalins. Spufford says in the endnotes to Red Plenty that part of the book’s aim is a prehistory of perestroika – one view of the characters is that many of them are developing into the people who will eventually transform the country in the 1980s. Green politics was an important strand in the great dissident wave, right across the USSR and Central Europe; Zoya Vaynshteyn’s genetic research, which turns up some very unpleasant facts, is a case in point. Valentin, the programmer and cadre, is going to retain his self-image as a bohemian hacker into the future. Another Party figure in the book is the man who refuses to get used to violence, which will also turn out to be important in 1989.

Anyway, go read the damn book.


Deeply unprofitable Crooked Timber thread produces an interesting point. Not so much “why do libertarians hate Fairtrade coffee?”, but why on earth do they insist on lying? From the link:

By guaranteeing a minimum price, Fairtrade also encourages market oversupply, which depresses global commodity prices. This locks Fairtrade farmers into greater Fairtrade dependency and further impoverishes farmers outside the Fairtrade umbrella. Economist Tyler Cowen describes this as the “parallel exploitation coffee sector”.

Coffee farms must not be more than 12 acres in size and they are not allowed to employ any full-time workers. This means that during harvest season migrant workers must be employed on short-term contracts. These rural poor are therefore expressly excluded from the stability of long-term employment by Fairtrade rules.

The problem here is paragraph two; I’ve not attempted to estimate the cross-elasticity of demand for Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade coffee, and it’s not the kind of thing I’d try unless someone was paying me to do it. But it’s perfectly simple to consult the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation International standardisation documents and see if they actually forbid full-time employment or set a maximum limit on the size of farms. Here’s the standard on the use of hired labour. Requirement

All regular work is undertaken by permanent workers…The objective is that as often as possible, work is undertaken by permanent workers. Only work that is added to usual work levels during peak seasons may be undertaken by seasonal workers.

So – no. Not even close. 180 degrees out, in fact. The point arises downthread that the great majority of work on a coffee farm is seasonal in nature, so Cowan couldn’t possibly have been right even if you let him have his own facts. This is marginally unfair to him; it’s not his prose, but rather something he’s (very) favourably quoting. The original source is here; note the cites back to Cowan and to people at George Mason University, the Koch Industries school.

For some reason, I still followed a link to his blog after this, to this interesting sociological result. Apparently, if you’ve been to jail, you’re more likely to self-identify as black when you leave jail then when you went in. This is interesting, but then numskull racist twit Steve Sailer showed up in the comments. As far as I can make out from his semi-coherent comments, he’s very angry about this, which is odd for someone who believes in biological racism (surely it wouldn’t matter? your DNA, after all, doesn’t care which census box you tick).

Further, Sailer’s freakout reminded me of the old joke about the Wee Free minister who hears that a hippie commune has moved into the next island along. He listens icily as the various novel features are described – the long music, the loud hair, the ruthlessly commercial communists, etc. Eventually they tell him the newcomers believe in free love. “Free love?” he explodes. “That could lead to mixed dancing!” Similarly, it’s clear from Sailer’s comments that he’s opposed to rape in prison because he thinks it might lead to multi-culturalism. And does he think about it. All the time, it seems.

Perhaps his mate Anthony Browne from PolEx could offer him counselling as part of the Big Society?

If you think the Superfreaks had demonstrated the truth of the Dunning-Kruger effect well enough, especially after this further hammering, and their attempt to gain everyone’s esteem by having NewsCorp send out copyright nastygrams, think again.

Here’s some science, via Lou Grinzo’s blog. We’ve been taking very, very thin samples of the leafmould in the bottom of a rather special Irish lake (peat – not much oxygen, so things *last*), and it’s possible to draw some interesting conclusions about the Younger Dryas event, which flipped the planet into an ice age 13,000 years ago after a huge ice barrier in North America collapsed and let vast amounts of fresh water pour into the Atlantic.

The killer detail, literally: the new ice age kicked off within months. We had thought it took decades, but instead it tore in within a year. A year. No time to adjust; not even that much time to flee.

This should surely kill off any daft ideas of fiddling with the atmosphere. Shouldn’t it?

Libertarianism, by which I mean yer bog standard comments thread North American subtype, is irrational. This struck me in the context of this post of Charlie Whitaker’s, which was of course criticised by the local libertarian in the usual terms. First of all, let’s define terms; the standard set-up of modern right-libertarian arguments is based on two layered arguments. The first is a weak-form argument, which derives from the Austrian tradition in economics and, therefore, eventually from classical liberalism. It goes a little something like this: As Hayek and von Mises pointed out, we can’t possibly know enough to manage the whole economy, and therefore, we should rely on market mechanisms as far as possible.

The notion that GOSPLAN wasn’t a triumph is hardly controversial, and for most of the political spectrum, the debate is really about how far we can rely on market mechanisms and what the alternatives to them should be. But the libertarian argument does a hop, a skip, and a little leap of faith here; it extends this argument to claim that any nonmarket organisation will inevitably be less efficient than any market alternative, and that it will be so much less efficient that the costs, whatever they are, will always be worthwhile. We can characterise this as the argument from efficiency.

What’s worth pointing out here is the degree to which the volume has been turned up. All the points of doubt in the economic argument have been replaced by conviction. The argument against central planning is built on scepticism, drawing its strength from flexibility like a great bridge or the backbone of a ship; but suddenly, there’s a lot of massive but brittle certainty about. What may very well be very small efficiency gains, which may well come at great cost, are being used to legitimate a very strong normative claim indeed.

This is something libertarianism shares with conservatism; the belief that 1) the government will always be incompetent at allocating investment, but 2) it is perfectly competent to de-allocate it. Ministers and their officials cannot under any circumstances be trusted to choose projects to fund, but they have perfect knowledge of what to cut. Now, this isn’t actually as stupid as it may sound – as Daniel Davies says, it’s much easier to identify stupid proposals than it is to come up with intelligent ones. But economic decisions have a fundamental duality – the decision to buy X involves not buying Y, the decision not to buy Y involves going without Y. Cutting, privatising, deregulating – these are the same activities as spending, nationalising, or legislating.

Clearly, there is a need for a stronger philosophical foundation.

This we find in the doctrine of the illegitimacy of taxation. The ability of the state to collect tax depends on its monopoly of force, and therefore taxation is actually a form of theft. Again, a hop, a skip, and a little leap of faith, and we arrive at the position that as all the activities of the state depend eventually on tax, therefore an NHS blood transfusion is as illegitimate as, say, being shot seven times in the head by a policeman. The immediate counter-argument is to knock the ball forward from Hobbes up to Locke, and to appeal to the social contract. It’s entirely possible to enter into a voluntary association to which you pay dues and in which you agree to accept its internal discipline; and here we come up against the rock. You didn’t choose to be born into a democratic society – and therefore the contract is invalid.

Of course, at this point most people will lose their temper with the obvious stupidity on display. The horrors – to be born into a democratic society rather than, say, Somalia or the eastern Congo! What an appalling imposition! But then, we parted company with empiricism way back when we decided that Railtrack was necessarily a better idea than any other way of organising the railways.

But there’s another, more fundamental point here. The doctrine of the total illegitimacy of the state is a huge, extraordinary claim. It is at least as extraordinary as the claim that a central planning commission with 1920s information technology could manage an advanced economy with better results, both in terms of equality and in terms of economic growth, than any alternative. (And, going back to the DRC for a brief holiday, it has arguably amassed a comparable pile of corpses.) Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, but then, we’re dealing with libertarianism here.

Here is the point; if we’re being rational about this – and we better be, as it’s absolutely indispensable for any libertarian argument to work whatsoever – things should change as soon as we accept this claim. In fact, even deciding that such an extraordinary statement is worth considering, rather than noting that it is at least as crazy as Stalinism and passing it straight to /dev/null, should lead us to change our minds about other extraordinary statements. If we decide it’s worth bothering with, we must have changed the criteria we use to assess these things. We need to update our Bayesian priors.

If minarchy makes the cut, why doesn’t anarchy, an Islamic caliphate, libertarian Marxism, deep ecology, or the joke from The Onion about the political scientists who discover a new form of government which has features of both anarchy and fascism? Further, libertarianism is very excluding – it denounces everything, all the way across the centre ground and well over into conservatism. If you can find a place for it in your worldview, your priors have to be very odd indeed to exclude social democracy.

And therefore, it is, indeed, irrational; all the strength in it comes from the prior assumptions, and these assumptions have to take a very strange form indeed. Further, accepting a zone of political possibility large enough to hold libertarianism forces a rational person to accept a wide range of views as possible that libertarianism demands that you denounce and attack at every opportunity.

“Prior assumptions”, after all, is a polite way of saying “prejudices”, and irrational forms of politics inevitably become ways of expressing prejudice.

As a reward for putting up with this drivel:

What is the legacy of the so-called “loony left”? The conventional wisdom is clear; it was all their fault, for panicking the swing voters and preventing a sensible, Newish Labour solution emerging earlier. Well, how did that work out?

And it has always seemed disingenuous for the Labour Party establishment to blame local councillors for a period when the party’s central institutions were regularly totally out of contact with the public mood and spectacularly incompetent; it certainly serves the interests of the top officials and MPs to push responsibility onto an amorphous and vague stereotype essentially based on hostile newspapers’ take on the 1980s. Arguably, believing hostile newspapers’ take on itself has been the fundamental mistake of the Left since about 1987; the entire Decent Left phenomenon, after all, was all about demonising anyone who was right about Iraq in identical terms. Does anyone imagine that the Sun in the Kelvin McFuck era wouldn’t have savaged and libelled any non-Tory power holders?

In a comment at Dunc’s, Paul “Bickerstaffe Record” says:

I want to kick off a bottom up meets top down economic analysis of how Labour /Left leaning local authorities should now be challenging the Thatcherite orthodoxies of cost control/rate capping in a sort of ‘1980s no cuts militant’ meets 2000s grassroots-dictated economic policy. The institutional/legal framework has of course changed out of recognition since 1984, but heh, that’s a challenge rather than an insurmountable problem

He has a point. Consider the position; it’s still conceivable that Labour might luck into a hung parliament next year, cue Liberal and Nationalist (of various types) rejoicing, but any realistic planning has to include a high probability of a fairly rabid Tory government in the near future. Further, the financial position is not great – it’s nowhere near as bad as Gideon Osborne makes out, as a look at the gilt rates shows, but it’s very far from ideal.

So whoever is in charge will be looking for cuts, and it is a reliable principle of Whitehall politics that one of the best ways to get a policy implemented that you want for your own ideological aims is to attach it to a supposed saving. Only the special relationship and the police-media complex can beat this principle as all-purpose justifiers.

The possibility space includes a Labour government in coalition or under a toleration agreement with the Liberals, which is likely to still be strongly influenced by the Blairite stay-behind agents, a Conservative government heavily influenced by products of 80s Tory culture (the mirror image of the London Labour party in the same period), and some sort of grand-coalition slugthing. It is clear that the balance of risks is towards an effort to legitimise a lot of ugly hard-right baggage through an appeal to cuts.

The Tories are planning to make all spending departments justify their budgets at line item level to none other than William “Annington Homes” Hague; it’s certainly a first in British history that the Foreign Secretary will control the public spending settlement, if of course he finds the time to show up.

Therefore, even though there is a need to steer the public finances back towards balance once the recession is clearly looking over, there is a strategic imperative to push back and push back hard against the agendas the cross-party Right will try to smuggle through. After all, the nonsense industry is already cranking up.

Which brings me back to the importance of being loonies, and a bit of politics by walking around. One thing that strikes me about North London is how much stuff in the way of public services here was visibly built in the late 70s and the 1980s; there is a reason why Ken Livingstone hopped right back into the Mayor’s office. Despite all their best efforts, the Thatcherites were never quite able to shake the core welfare state; was it, in part, because down on the front line people were still pushing out its frontiers and changing its quality?

A lot of ideas (service-user activism, notably, environmentalism, a renewed concern for architecture and urbanism, and the whole identity-politics package) that were considered highly loony back then are now entirely orthodox and are likely to stay that way, especially given the main parties’ obsession with putting taxpayer funds into the “third sector”.

I fully expect that anyone who talks a good game about making black schoolboys click their heels in front of teacher – you know the stuff they like – will be able to secure reliable venture capital funding in the million class from a Cameron government, just as they have been able to from Boris Johnson’s City Hall, with remarkably little monitoring. William Hague will be snarky. Let him. Nobody cares what the Foreign Secretary has to say.

This creates both opportunities for action – perhaps someone should prepare a Creative Commons or GPL toolkit for citizen-initiated delivery quangos and thinktanks – and also targets for ruthless mockery, when the Tories’ preferred third sector entities fuck up. We’ve already had some very fine examples of this courtesy of Boris Johnson. Clearly, the only rational response to the times is to go mad.

OK, this is outrageous stupid shit of the sort we expect from our gallant allies. Simply, a graduate student at Nottingham University is writing a thesis on terrorists, and as part of this he gets a copy of an Al-Qa’ida training manual from a US government website. Being a postgrad and therefore by definition permanently broke, he got a friend who worked in the university administration to print off the 1,500 pages rather than paying the shared printer fees.

Now this seems silly – 1,500 pages? Seriously? Wouldn’t it have been better to search that lot rather than read it through? Don’t they have grep at Nottingham? But that’s not the point. The point is that “someone” noticed the document on the administrator’s computer and grassed them to the police, who predictably freaked, arrested everyone under the Terrorism Act, kept them locked up for eight days, arrested his family, seized all computers they could lay hands on, etc.

The key detail is that both people have names that might give rise to suspicion of being insufficiently willing to condemn, etc, etc. Now, yer man has been released, however, the administrator is Algerian, and is going to be deported on “unrelated” immigration matters. Yeah, right.

Further, the university:

A spokesman for Nottingham University said it had a duty to inform police of “material of this nature”. The spokesman said it was “not legitimate research material”, but later amended that view, saying: “If you’re an academic or a registered student then you have very good cause to access whatever material your scholarship requires. But there is an expectation that you will act sensibly within current UK law and wouldn’t send it on to any Tom, Dick or Harry.”

Right, sunshine. There is no such thing as “legitimate” research material, just as there is no such thing as “legitimate” thought. We all have the right to read what we damn well like, and as a fucking university you have a duty to stand up for this. As soon as you accept that reading X, Y, or Z, even though not illegal, is the sort of thing They don’t like, you’ve already lost. Ecrasez l’infame.

The University of Nottingham’s vice chancellor is Sir Colin Campbell, who can be reached on +44 (0) 115 951 3001, and by fax on +44 (0) 115 951 3005. More people to shout at are here.

Hat tips: Kings of War, IRG.

This is hilarious, and depressing: you may find tech-libertarians annoying, but just think yourself lucky we got Paul “Van der” Staines, and not this guy. Dmitri Golubov, for it is he, was nailed in 2005 for running a massive credit-card phishing operation (in that case he was probably behind some percentage of the spamwave I spent part of that year trying to keep out of AFOE’s comments); now he’s starting the Internet Party of Ukraine.

Well, if he’s a spammer he’s presumably competent. Here’s their platform:

Golubov and the Internet Party are running on a platform of rooting out public corruption and reducing bureaucracy. Other parts of its platform include the “computerization of the entire country,”

Dunno what that means, but it’s probably rather like Patricia Hewitt’s promise in December, 2003 to deliver “online services” to every household in Britain – this blog existed then, and anyone with a BT landline could at least get dialup. Else something more like the J.G. Ballard character whose “attempts to streamline all the furniture in the dayroom unsettled the other patients”. But I doubt a Cybersyn-like real-time planned economy is on the cards.

“free computer courses and foreign languages at the expense of the budget,”

And ponies.

“the creation of offshore zones in certain regions of Ukraine,” and the organization of Ukraine as a “tax free paradise with the aim to attract money from all over the world.”

Of course…does anyone know if that’ll get him an invite to CPAC?

Felix Salmon recalls the impact the appearance of wealth, and Buenos Aires’ status as a quasi-European city, had on Argentina’s finances; part of the reason the banks thought it could pay back the money they lent it was that it looked OK, or rather the steaks were superb, the wine better, the company classy (and white); how could anything go wrong?

It’s worth reading. It’s also interesting, as it’s his response to a debate between carta dell’oro glibertarians Tyler Cowen and Megan McArdle about why those terrible lefties persist in believing that Cuba is richer than northern Mexico. Cowen’s argument is essentially that there is a distinction between perceived wealth and actual wealth; the outsider sees crappy roads but not humming export industries, handsome Spanish buildings but not stinking jails. This is OK as far as it goes, but there is a far more interesting and fundamental point here.

Essentially, what they are talking about is J.K. Galbraith’s paradox of private affluence and public squalor. Naturally, right-libertarianism obliges them to carefully avoid citing him, but this is exactly the point he made in the 1950s; it’s quite possible, indeed common, for prosperity to coexist with ugly and generally ‘orrible visuals, precisely because people will optimise the stuff they control and which affects them individually, like their own homes. Further, there is some sort of indifference curve between private and public goods; people are willing to put up with crappier public spaces if they can compensate with greater private comfort. You can argue endlessly about the slope of the curve, but there is at least some tradeoff.

The international aspect, though, is interesting and I think original; as a foreigner, the visual terms of trade are inverted. You don’t spend time in private space, and you spend much more time than usual in public or semipublic, so private affluence is invisible except in so far as it spills over into the public square (good steakhouses, say, and high culture). Further, a lot of travelling occurs between cultures where different private-public exchange rates apply. It occurs to me that much tourism is motivated by precisely this factor; tourism as a form of commuting from the suburbs of private affluence to the city of public prosperity. In a sense, urban tourists are unconsciously spending a few days in socialism. (Other forms of tourism may provide something similar by creating pseudo-public spaces of great luxury, the poverty of the country being concealed.)

This goes double for questions of egalitarianism – tourists don’t stray into the favela, and a colleague of mine recalls the Ericsson engineer he worked with who was robbed of all his possessions down to and including his underpants on the first day of the project, so private suffering is as invisible as private affluence – and maybe triple for questions of politics.

After all, you’re unlikely to be the object of oppression as a visitor unless you’re actually coming to seek it out; if you don’t speak the language you’re unlikely to miss much through the censorship of the news. Add to this some special factors that apply to visitors who have come to do something rather than just to visit; if business is good, your old friends the fundamental attribution error and the salience heuristic will assure you that things are OK, if you’re as smart as you are. If it’s bad, well, look how dirty the streets are.

I have no idea why “libertarians” would support this idea at all; especially not Jim Henley, who ought to know better. Briefly, “Direct Instruction” suggests that teachers should be given prepared scripts to use in class and instructed to follow them exactly, with classes streamed by ability and repeating courses until passed.

First of all, this is of course wildly managerialist and authoritarian; who precisely gets to decide what goes in the script? What happens to local, democratic accountability? The examples given refer to big school systems (>20 kilostudents), which implies that the sort of parish-meeting board of governors folk like Henley romanticise would maybe have some influence over paperclips.

And, of course, the entire history of brilliant centralising education schemes shows that brilliant centralising education schemes don’t work. This is one, so it almost certainly won’t. So how the hell did libertarians, subtype North American, come to like it?

My explanation is that it’s purely the politics of ressentiment: school teachers and their trade unions are a traditional rightwing enemy image in the US, as in the UK through the 1980s, and this appeals simply because it would piss them off. It’s worth remembering that even Henley and Co are actually very right-wing people indeed; in an alternate time line, they’d be on the other side.

Hence the neato anti-trade union ads; from the “Center for Union Facts”, indeed. Further reading is here; apparently the Center consists of a bunch of Wal-Mart money and a well-known tobacco industry lobbyist. I think the phrase is “nice mates you got there”.

This is one of the reasons I don’t have ads on this blog; you either have to filter them, in which case you are in a sense taking responsibility for their content and could be accused of a conflict of interest, or else if you disclaim any control and make it clear that it’s entirely up to the BlogAds or Google computers, you run the risk of something really horrible turning up. And then, if you decide to censor it, you’ve got to answer why you don’t censor X, Y, or Z.

Salvador Dali described his work as making use of a paranoid-critical method. Like a paranoiac, he attempted to find meaning in the associations of entirely unrelated images, an analogue to Freudian free association. Tate Modern currently has an exhibition on Dali’s influence from and work for the cinema; perhaps as well as the Looney Tunes and Chaplin movies he indulged in, he also picked up the American taste for conspiracy theories.

I didn’t know, however, that one of his earliest Surrealist works was entitled Departure: Homage to Fox News.

What could have more contemporary meaning? There’s always something weird about rolling news, a form of television that’s positively designed to be viewed with the sound off. Sound has a special role in film and television; it’s the bridge between the world of images and the world of text. Almost all film post-sound relies on words for plot unity, to avoid becoming a surrealist collection of imagery. Rolling news feels like news, although no doubt there’s a reason why Sky News insists on flashing huge red BREAKING NEWS graphics every time they update the latest missing white girl story.

But especially if you can’t hear the narration, it’s merely an associative volley of random visuals with text labels that may, or may not, be accurate. Now consider this LGM post about CNN’s Glenn Beck and his “method”..

Remember that scene [in A Beautiful Mind] where Russell Crowe has pasted up a number of newspaper stories and is making associations and drawing connections between them by running strings from one story to the next, and then that story to another, and so on? You could easily do the same with the stories here. It’s not a great leap to see a certain synchronicity between them..

It’s a radical revision to the Foreign Intelligence Supervision Act! It’s a flock of hairy telephones! It’s…a naked Condoleeza Rice circus-riding two fiery giraffes through the gates of the Natanz enrichment plant!

It is, of course, also true that running strings from one story in the newspaper to the next in the hope of discovering esoteric truths is a pretty good description of blogging. As always, it’s a question of filtration; stare at your navel closely enough and eventually it stares back into you.

Which brings me to some substance. Looks like the British government IT monster escaped, heading west to eat some more creamy brain tissue. Like the infovore in Charlie Stross’s Atrocity Archive. The NSA apparently wants to do something so astonishingly stupid that its stupidity almost goes around the bend and looks like it might be intelligence. Details; Bruce Schneier points us to this essay by Sun Microsystems security diva Susan Landau on the infrastructure requirements of what the NSA apparently wants. To be quite clear, they want to build in an interception backdoor to every backbone router in the US.

And this after the Great Greek Green Greasy GSM Grokker Gremlin Gripe. Wait; I think I see the pattern. Yes! The hairy telephones…slash open the eye. Their engineers are secretly trying to capsize the whole project of telecoms surveillance…right?