Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Mankind cannot bear too much reality

As Matthew has pointed out, although the Euston Manifesto is now ready for the real world, some of it's signatories perhaps aren't. Quite apart from the numerous signatories who used the opportunity to plug their books, mention their blogs or announce to the world that they are gay, there are quite a lot of signatures on that list where it is quite hard to see the connection between the stated rationale for signing and the Manifesto itself. Here are a few of my favourites; you can see the context for these excerpts here in order to check I'm not being too unfair:
[...] (in Catalonia) Spanish has now the same status as any other foreign language at school although 60% of the population has Spanish as their mother tongue among other outrageous policies [...]

(actually this is more or less comprehensible; as far as I can see about a dozen of the signatures come from people who appear to have split with the Socialist party over the issue of Catalan nationalism)
[...] How many people here have lost friends, because we just couldn't sit at a dinner table where toasts were made to Osama Bin Laden? [...]

(just you then, apparently. I hope this bloke doesn't show up to the real world launch; fair do's he didn't drink a toast to Osama himself but even attending one of those parties might land you up in Gitmo and I for one wouldn't like to take the chance)
[...] Overheard at Normandy two days ago a conversation between the French tour guide and a Dutch tourist at a colossal WWII concrete German Bunker (defending France from Allied invasion...) Dutch Tourist: " How do you feel about giving tours here?" French Tour Guide: " It is important to show that not all Germans were bad. You know some of the Allies were not so good." [...]

("French Tour Guides Say The Darndest Things!" actually lots of French people can't tell the difference between Dutch and Germans and the guy was probably trying to be polite)
[...] - We must stop the fascist neo cons from taking over the world somehow, so I am willing to try anything that might have a chance of success.

(ooh. mate. bad news mate. about that manifesto.)
[...] The Left needs to relearn the meaning of the words comprimise, core values, and practicality. Lets throw civility in there too. I can't tell you how many times I turn on the news(CNN, FOX, NBC, etc) and see some red faced liberal trying to sell his ideas, while the calm conservative sits there and lays forth a rational viewpoint. [...]

(I promise you I didn't take this one out of context. Basically, this guy quite literally signed the Euston Manifesto because Michael Moore is fat).
[...] In the 2005 UK General Election I set up and stood for a new 'political' party called 'FIT For Integrity and Trust' - I stood against Tessa Jowell because I felt her support for more casinos, 24 hour drinking, resisting smoking bans and her links to shady dealings with Berlusconi reflected the lack of integrity which the Labour party in power were now associated with. I only got 57 votes but on the streets I found that people really liked what we were saying. Prior to registering as a political party I was working with a group of friends to campaign for a proper and appropriately empowered second chamber which would not be sullied by the shady appointment system rewarding donations and political expediency. The FIT initiative has been hibernating since the election, your initiative could give it new life - it has certainly given me something to wholeheartedly support. [...]

[...] I have become so angry about the erosion of our civil liberties that I typed in 'how to start a revolution' on google and came up with Nick Cohen's website, and consequently the Euston Manifesto. [...]

(what the hell? did you used to throw a lot of drinks parties where there was one guy who wouldn't join in the toasts?)
[...] Humanity stands teetering on the edge of a dark abyss. We are on the cusp of World War III -- and unlike no. 2, the bad guys have an exceedingly strong chance of winning ... The only remaining hope for positive change is the Left .... And yet in this time of crisis, the Left has seemed content to be irrelevant. The more thoughtful Leftists discuss Marx over drinks in pubs while the world collapses [...]

(discussing politics in a pub? you say that like it's a bad thing?)
[...]Lamentable lack of vision from the left, viz: the Today programme, during the 2004 Athens Olympics: J Humphreys:" George Galloway, describe life on board Uday Hussein's yacht in the Olympic Harbour?" GG:" Sorry, didn't catch that, bit of a din from the dock gates- a few thousand Iraqi worries, Athens riot police are on top of things" JH : " and that knocking sound?" GG : " oh, just some athletes relaxing below after losing their races. Uday says he'll let them go once we put out to sea" [...]

(apparently someone became confused between the EM and radio 4's search for new light entertainment scriptwriters)

There are more out there if you want to look for them.

Update: no, lads, as a matter of fact I did "engage with your ideas". I do both, serious argument and light-hearted badinage. Until one of those "platforms" starts giving some specific details about the criteria for starting those humanitarian wars you are so fond of, I consider the engagey-ideasey ball to be in your court.
0 comments this item posted by the management 5/24/2006 06:32:00 AM

Monday, May 22, 2006

Sraffian sidebar update

I have added another name to my short link list. It's the Robert Vienneau blog, in the vague hope that its presence there will remind me that the original purpose of D^2D was heterodox economics. Robert Vienneau is (more or less) an economist of the Sraffian persuasion. Economists are in general rather wary about Sraffians, because we have a nagging suspicion that they might be right, which would be irksome if true as it would involve chucking away everything we did in grad school and learning a lot of really complicated and tedious maths instead. Sraffians also have a frightening habit of creating "simple examples" to illustrate their system; this is Sraffian for "something which starts off by calmly claiming that there are two goods called corn and iron, and five minutes later has ballooned into a wretchedly complicated optimisation problem with no differentiable production function, no equilibrium and all sorts of strange terminology, illustrated with a graph that is if anything more incomprehensible than the model". There used to be lots of Sraffians (or at least, neo-Ricardians) in British universities in the 1970s; I think Andrew Glynn and Paul Ormerod at least got their toes wet in corn-iron models. But these days, not so many.

I have tended to have good luck in conversation with Sraffians by a) agreeing with everything they say and b) learning to say "yes, of course, that follows from the properties of a linear programming system" in a tone of voice that implies I know what it means, all the while backing toward the door and/or looking for a weapon. Anyway, Robert's blog is good reading; in particular, he regularly has a good old go at Gregory Mankiw (Thank You Mr Mankiw) from time to time, which is a salutory reminder that Mankiw's textbook is, as more or less the standard work on neo-classical economics, full of rather more and more serious fundamental mathematical errors than the profession would care to admit.
0 comments this item posted by the management 5/22/2006 12:55:00 AM

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Nukes and Nukemen

Blair has lost it.

I am now prepared to say that it is time to stick a fork in the Blair administration; it's done. The reason? The decision this morning to approve in principle a load of nuclear power stations, based on "a first cut" of the DTI's review of energy policy.

It seems a bit harsh to write someone's political career off entirely on this basis alone, particularly when it is probably quite sensible to have a few more nuke stations as part of energy policy going forward (quite apart from anything else, it would make us less dependent on a big natural gas pipeline with Vladimir Putin at the other end of it, albeit that we are not exactly going to discover North Sea Uranium any time soon). But I have my reasons.

I grew up in North Wales, at a point roughly equidistant from the Wylfa and Trawsfynydd nuclear power stations and on the northern edge of the Chernobyl cloud (Update: thinking about this it can't be true; the Chernobyl cloud passed over Cumbria. I suspect I was actually smack bang in the middle of it. I don't have superpowers or anything). Because of this, as an inquisitive teenager, I made it my business to find out a bit about nukes and nukemen.

In my experience, nuclear advocates don't half talk an awful lot of bullshit. Not very many of them are actual liars (unless the context is a leak they are trying to cover up), but there are an awful lot of Walter Mitty characters and chancers in the field. I think that this is a constitutional problem for nukemen, mainly because the lack of power plant building in the UK over the last twenty years means that almost all of their knowledge of nuclear reactors is theoretical (or at best, based on presentations of other people's nuclear reactors) rather than hands-on practical with their own kit. In general, all the problems of nuclear reactors have been solved, in principle. The problem comes when you have to put them into practice, because most nuclear engineering solutions rely on being able to make very big things, machined to incredibly fine tolerances.

(Somewhere in North Wales, there used to be what amounted to a big lead-lined swimming pool, which had a teeny tiny hairline crack which was only noticed when something very nasty indeed began to leak out of it. It is powerfully difficult to weld these things once they are in place, so the main safety response to this problem was 1) a fence, which was moved back a couple of feet every year, and 2) a small laboratory that as far as I know, may still to this day be working hard on the problem of designing a robot that can carry out precision welding in very hostile conditions. While we're on the subject of fun nuke anecdotes, did you know that there are farms in Caernarvonshire that still aren't allowed to sell their lambs, because the Geiger counter still goes click a bit too often?).

Big things are expensive, and fine tolerances are expensive. Nukemen have a really bad habit of forgetting this fact. This is why, in general, nuclear projects tend to go over budget in such an extravagant, life-affirming, joyous kind of way. Also, partly because of the ill-informed criticism that they often get from well-meaning crusties, nukemen are constitutionally inclined to always minimise the dangers of radioactive waste. This habit of mind tends to feed off the first one, in a kind of chain reaction; because they are trying to tell the public that most of the waste from a nuclear plant is basically less radioactive than Cornwall, they find it difficult to admit to themselves or the budget committee that you need to spend millions and millions of pounds on building a special facility to deal with the teaspoonful or two of high-grade waste, which tends to fall into the category "Very Very Very Not Safe".

What I am trying to say here is that the nuclear lobby systematically puts out estimates of the efficiency and safety of its industry which are genuinely laughable, even by the standards of long-dated projections in general. They always, until their backs are absolutely forced up against the wall, give projections which are based on the perfect nuclear project which exists in their mind rather than anything that could actually be built. They tend to assume that every stage, from putting a fence round the site to lowering the rods, will be completed in the most efficient way possible, rather ignoring the fact that the typical big construction project looks a lot more like Wembley Stadium, and nuclear power stations are more complicated. At present, they appear to be pushing the idea that you can basically buy nuclear reactors off the peg from Westinghouse or Areva. Remember, these are the guys who kept on insisting that BNFL could be a viable independent privatised company, right up to the point at which someone reminded them that a prospectus is a legal document and people who fib in them go to jail.

So what I'm saying here, is that the fact that our Prime Minister has taken at face value a "first cut", which of necessity reflects the barely filtered optimism of the nuclear lobby, is as good an indication as I need that his judgement is shot. Britain may or may not need nukes. I am certain, however, that its politics does not need nukemen.
0 comments this item posted by the management 5/17/2006 01:56:00 AM

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Forehead that Ate London

Alright you bastards; I'll get this in myself before anyone else does. My picture is now up on the Guardian website. I am not bald; that is just unfortunate cropping of the photo I sent them, although I have to admit that my forehead is, if anything, slightly bigger than the photo implies (at one point, my nickname was "Mask). The rather strange facial expression would be more explicable if you could see I was holding a baby at the time; thankfully, the innocent child has been cropped out of the picture too.
0 comments this item posted by the management 5/09/2006 04:10:00 AM

Monday, May 08, 2006

Lookee Likee

Mrs Digest noticed this one:

The Wiggles

Franz Ferdinand

Have they ever appeared on stage together?
0 comments this item posted by the management 5/08/2006 05:58:00 AM

Thursday, May 04, 2006

My Election Diary

(note: everything below is "morally true", by which I mean that much of it is a pack of lies, but it all ought to be true as it reflects deeper insights into electoral psychology. I daresay I will cough up the literal truth if bullied assiduously enough in comments)

1845 Knock off work, having realised that the polls stay open until 2200 and I don't have to vote at lunchtime, thanks to a helpful commenter on my original Commentisfree piece.

1850 While riding the Tube home, I suddenly get horrible pangs of guilt at protest voting. Can't stop thinking about the old Onion joke "at last, our long dark night of competent local administration is over". Camden is an odd place, and rather too keen on chucking ASBOs about, but it does basically work in the sort of way that Lambeth doesn't. It would be pretty hard luck on the users of council services if they ended up being mismanaged because of protest voters.

1900 Arrive home, having rationalised the decision. Most of the services are managed by contractors anyway and most of the rest are staff jobs. All the actual council does is "set policy", which as far as I can tell from the Camden New Journal they regularly fuck up in the most grandiose way possible and the sky does not fall in. So protest it is then.

1905 Missus goes off to vote. Rationalisation process now working apace. Anyway, if the council is hung, New Labour will have to be nicer to us to win it back. This will be good for the working class of the borough as it means that Milliband will have to cough up that �300m worth of housing stock improvements that he is currently withholding as a bribe to make the council tenants vote to transfer their stock to a housing association. I personally think that the tenants are being a bit bloody minded in their refusal to consider a housing association, but they keep voting to turn down the plan, so it is a bit rough to deprive them of their improvements. Ah yes, protest voting is the right and even the moral thing to do.

1935 Missus comes back. My turn to vote. Stomach now churning at the thought of voting out Pat Callaghan, popular local Labour councillor, who I like.

1936 Fortitude, Davies. You knifed Frank Dobson despite him sorting out that parking ticket and you can do this now. Pro-test! Pro-test!

1940 Arrive at polling station. Small kerfuffle relating to the can of lager I am sipping from, resolved amicably.

1941 I am apparently at the wrong polling station. I heard "the school" and went to my son's school. Apparently that is in a different ward and my polling station is the posh school up the road. Small kerfuffle related to this, also resolved amicably.

1942 Receive friendly admonishment from Labour teller about the "Street Drinking Prevention Zone" which I will have to walk through to get to the polling place. Fuck New Labour. Fuck them. Filled with petty anarchistic rage.

1944 Doubts recur. I actually think that the no-drinking zone is probably a good idea given the state of the Market these days, and most of the ASBOs Camden has handed out have also done quite a bit of good by chucking the crack dealers out (presumably onto some other poor bugger's patch, but such is the way of the world). Slight concern about all the posters up saying "164 drug arrests were made in this area last month", "Our sniffer dogs can find minute traces of ecstasy", "Zero tolerance for cannabis" etc � the local economy is on its uppers already without frightening off the tourist trade. But I suspect that this was the idea of the Met rather than LBC.

1945 Arrive at correct polling station. Small kerfuffle about the can of lager I am sipping from, resolved amicably. Oh look, we use the old-fashioned metal ballot boxes, how cute!

1946 Hell is this? Apparently I get three votes. Every time I get the hang of democracy, they bring out a new version with a more complicated interface. It's a bit like Microsoft Flight Simulator. I am damned if I'm voting again.

1947 Well, isn't that neat? I cast a vote for Pat, and then for two randomly selected Lib Dems. Bad news for Jake Sumner, who seemed like a nice enough lad on the one occasion I met him, but a) not nice enough to overcome the urge to protest vote and b) I am probably doing him a favour by dissuading him from a career in New Labour politics.

1948 Democracy served for another year. Back to drinks and telly. Consider painting my index finger purple as a meaningless gesture of solidarity with democrats everywhere, but then realise that it would actually be a(genuinely, as nobody would understand it) meaningless gesture of taking the piss out of some of my weblog enemies.

Epilogue: And as you can see, I was not just blowing smoke about being the median voter �the ward of Camden Town with Primrose Hill returned � Pat Callaghan and two random Lib Dems! My middle class guilt is also largely assuaged, since I don't think that the fall of Camden to NOC can credibly be blamed on the likes of me. Gospel Oak, which is two-thirds council housing, returned three Tories (almost certainly an opportunistic piece of electioneering over the housing transfer thing). Kilburn did three Lib Dems and so did Cantelowes, while Kentish Town did two. Labour did not hold onto the working class vote at all well as far as I can see.
0 comments this item posted by the management 5/04/2006 11:09:00 PM

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Because I always like to take the unpopular side ...

Brad DeLong passes on a thought experiment from John Tierney's column about immigration reform, and the fact that it gives great opportunities to Mexicans, while probably depressing wages for US-born unskilled labourers by about 8%.

Here's another thought experiment, which raised a heck of a kerfuffle when I suggested it at Arnold Kling's site:

Imagine that I have invented a new kind of robot, one that will allow jobs in agriculture, construction and domestic service to be carried out much cheaper. In order to build it I need a special metal which is only mined in developing countries, so they will get rich out of my invention too. But this robot promises so many benefits to rich Americans (cheap domestic servants, bigger profits for real estate firms and farm owners) that this doesn't matter. All I need is a hell of a lot of money for development costs.

Would your reaction to my good news be "Fantastic, Danny! And furthermore, I know exactly what the fairest way would be to finance the development of this new technology; we can levy an 8% income tax on the working class!"

(the point I am trying to make here is not really about immigration at all; it's just to point out that economists of the neoliberal stripe are very good at talking about "the economy as a whole", benefits to "consumers" in the aggregate and even Hicks-Kaldor compensation gains. But not so very good at writing the fucking cheques.)
0 comments this item posted by the management 5/03/2006 01:53:00 AM

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