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!

Monday, January 14, 2008

A brief comment on Peter Hain

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Peter Hain spending £185,000 on coming fifth out of six contenders for the Labour party Deputy Leader post is that I can't remember who won. Can any readers remember who actually got this frightful non-job, and if so, do you think they gave had roughly fifteen grand's worth of fun out of it so far?
9 comments this item posted by the management 1/14/2008 01:05:00 AM

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Film Review Corner: This week, "I'm Not There", directed by Todd Haynes

Too much Dylan.
7 comments this item posted by the management 1/10/2008 01:48:00 AM

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Atomic Madeleines

I've mentioned in the past that, as a child of the Chernobyl cloud, arguments over the safety and desirability of nuclear power have a very Proustian feel to them for me. And with the British government's decision to commission an unprecedented and wildly uneconomic program of nuclear power stations, I haul "Nukes and Nukemen" from my archives …

Just a couple more points:

1. One of the points made in the review is that North Sea Oil is running out. Which is true, but on the other hand, I don't actually recall us striking North Sea Uranium. The raw material for nuclear fuel is under the ground in a lot of places which are in general, a little bit more politically unstable than the places where oil is found. If this power station building program goes ahead, I can be pretty confident that some time around 2015, we will discover that the government of South Africa is completely unacceptable and violates the norms of civilised society in a dreadful way and some such.

2. Nuclear power stations were whizzy modern things when the nukemen started up their dog and pony show, but they aren't any more. They're basically 1950s technology. Although there is an awful lot of difficult science which goes into making a nuclear reactor, once the reactor is up and running, the rest of the station is the same "jolly big kettle blowing steam into a windmill" that has been the basis of industrial power since James Watt.[1] Nearly all the efficiency improvements in the nuclear industry over the last fifty years consist of either a) improvements in the efficiency of turbines, etc, which are not specific to nuclear, or b) more efficient ways of solving safety and reliability problems particular to the nuclear industry. It is very hard to see where big cost-efficiency improvements come from in nuclear[2].

3. On the other hand, a hell of a lot of money is being put into renewables research and development at the moment. If the choice between nuclear and renewables is even close at present, it is going to massively favour renewables by the time the nuclear power plants come on stream. We appear to be locking ourselves into an obsolete path.

(edit) 4. The nuke lobbyist I saw on Newsnight last night had pulled out yet another of those half-truths that have had the nuclear industry wondering for fifty years why nobody trusts them. Apparently the trouble with wind-power is that "you can't just turn it on and off you know, it's not flexible and it can't be made to respond to demand". Which is true so far as it goes, but this is also true of every other method of generating electricity except gas. The need for storage is particularly pronounced for nuke stations - some significant proportion of the electricity produced by the nuclear plants in North Wales was used in pumping water from Llyn Padarn to Marchlyn Mawr, 500 metres vertically upward through tunnels dug into Elidir Fawr, so it could fall back down through the Dinorwig pump storage scheme.

Nuclear power is just basically the answer to a question that nobody asked. It is zero-carbon in operation, but that's about the only good thing you can say about it, and it rather points out how bad a criterion for judging anything CO2/kW is rather than anything else. This is one case in which the free market's verdict is correct.

[1] Actually Heronas of Alexandria, of course, and yes I do know that Watt actually invented the reciprocating piston engine and thus doesn't have much to do with turbines, but somehow the sentence looked nicer that way.

[2] Vitrification of nuclear waste on an industrial scale would make the disposal problem a lot cheaper, but since you have to basically assume this problem out of existence in order to get any nuke scheme through a laugh test anyway, I don't want to double-count this.


19 comments this item posted by the management 1/09/2008 02:34:00 AM

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

I can't go back to Salford now, the police have got me marked

From the Guardian, a hard tale of life round Jamie's way. This one really ought to be set in schools as a test of "advanced reading between the lines", as it seems pretty clear to me that there is also a tale here of heroically daft behaviour (which would run - man tries to effectively join a teenagers' gang, gets new girlfriend and wants to chuck all of local mates, constantly blames police for problems while making it impossible for them to help him, out of a totally misplaced belief in Manc omerta - I mean, at one point "Kenny" is " youngest son of the most feared family in the area" and untouchable, but nine paragraphs later he's suddenly found an ASBO in his breakfast cereal and is forced to obey it. Who sorted out that then?).[1] But blaming the victim aside, Jesus Christ, what a bloody story. I think he probably made money on the house though[2].

This is another dispatch from the "white working class"[tm] wars, by the way, and I frankly don't see how the John Cruddas council house scheme (which I reiterate would involve getting rid of the right to buy, something that the working class would not necessarily thank you for) would help. I'm particularly interested in the anti-Polish racism angle - this was the cornerstone of the BNP's surge in Wrexham in the 2006 elections, although it appears from the results that they are nowhere electorally in Salford (only running a candidate in one ward, which AFAICT wasn't this one). I would not necessarily read too much specifically racist content into the nativist rant that the attacker comes out with toward the end of the story - it looks just like a normal bully's speech to me - but on the other hand, the wild insularity of these little urban islands certainly is the sort of thing that racism is made of (the author notes that he had spent "the majority of his adult life in Moss Side and Hulme", but this might just mean "was a student" - unless there are two Ed Joneses in Lancashire journalism, he's the ex-bass player for Tansads and actually from Wigan, which might as well be Vancouver as far as passing for a native was concerned). (Update: there must be two of them - the biographical details for the Tansads guy just don't fit).

But I don't think that the problem here is really anti-East European racism - it's the more general category of bullyism. If Ed Jones and his Polish and Slovakian friends hadn't moved into that house and fallen out with the local bullies [3], then the bullies would have been picking on someone who'd lived in Salford all their life, because that's what bullies do. What to do about that is the ten ton gorilla of all social policy questions, because it absolutely goes to the heart of a whole load of issues which we all care about. If there are areas like this, then they are going to be not unlike the Salford that Ed Jones describes, because there is basically the choice is between economic development (which changes the character of the area and its community), and continued state subsidy through the benefit system (which has the corrosive effects described). I would say that it's the communities that need to be sacrificed, but I would guess that the Salfordians would disagree, and they get a vote too.

My personal view is that the Cruddas council house plan - and any other plan which subsidises the maintenance of these communities by "allowing children to live near their parents" - is exactly the worst of both worlds. It seems to me to be subsidising the existing social structures without making any real provision for economic development[4]. I think that's going to create communities that are inescapably and intractably tangled up with state involvement - both in terms of the economic subsidy and the implicit dependence on the broadly-defined law enforcement community (including social services, the council ASBO teams etc) to shore up the very social structures that we're trying to maintain. At some point I really must write the Great Welsh Holiday Cottages Post, because that's my mental model of regional development, but I really do believe that the Welsh nationalists wasted at least ten years in trying to preserve a past tense agrarian society, before basically getting with the program and seeing that there really is no substitute for economic development.

Update: Of course, these urban and suburban islands have a particularly important place in the electoral geography of the UK as they are historically the solidest of solid Labour, and this is a big problem. I've written in the past about how the "local politics" that this encourages in MPs like Hazel Blears is probably counterproductive to national politics and suspect that this might be a real problem for Labour, in that the future for these areas lies in one of two directions - either they go down the Barking & Dagenham route with increasing far-right nationalist presence, or the way of the Welsh Valleys, which are much, much less solidly Labour than they used to be.

By the way, assuming that the BBC plan to relocate 1,500 jobs to the mediacity:uk[5] complex means that there is likely to be a thin four thousand middle class Southerners heading for this district, clutching the sale proceeds of a flat in Shepherd's Bush. Jeepers Creepers. Enter the dragon, exit Johnny Clark.

[1] Also there's a little question mark in my mind about the author's admission of having "done two years in jail", which is actually quite difficult to achieve because four year custodial sentences (edit; I've just realised that "two years" doesn't necessarily mean "24 consecutive months" and "in jail" might include "on remand", so this might not be right, see comments) are not handed out for scrumping apples, or indeed much else other than aggravated mugging or possession of Class A Drugs with intent to supply. Whatever the author did, it's clearly in the past because at the end of the day he did get the mortgage on the house but I can't help thinking that a lot of the problem here comes from not having lost the habits picked up when he was doing whatever got him the jail sentence.

[2] Assuming it's in Broughton, which is where Hazel Blears did an ASBO walkabout in 2007, then four-bedroom terraced houses are going for about £120k - there is one up for auction with a guide price of £90k at the moment, and if you buy it, my advice is to get a big dog.

[3] Not all of the people in that story fit into this category, though, and I (making allowances that it is probably pretty fucking difficult to be objective about this sort of thing when you've been forced out of your bloody house) am not too keen on the way that some of them are referred to. "Michelle", in particular (she goes to raves and takes Es! Feel the desolation!), gets a writeup that really isn't far from what Julie Burchill is talking about in her articles on "cultural racism", plus the Eastern Europeans are given quite a chance to make sneery comparisons with "the culture of degradation around them".

[4] I realise I'm thinking about this as a development economics problem rather than a social policy one. Not sure about the implications of this.

[5] I don't know why, but jokey harrumphs about the use of typography in branding these developments are just beginning to seem a bit 2003 to me. Neville Brody (by which I mean "David Hillman", see comments) kicked off the whole phenomenon with TheGuardian in 1987 and it appears to me that post the iPod, it's here to stay.


61 comments this item posted by the management 1/08/2008 04:22:00 AM

Friday, January 04, 2008

Notes from the new self-awareness, part whatever it is

Oliver Kamm, of the Henry Jackson Society, gives William Fullbright a walloping for being a "segregationist".

In fairness, the Senator From Boeing could never be accused of having allowed his foreign policy interests to interfere with the mission of bringing pork back to his home state; they were one and the same. Fulbright, on the other hand, committed the political sin of being against the Vietnam War in 1972 - I think that Oliver is the first prominent Decent to actually follow the logic of international democracy promotion to its conclusion and retrospectively support Vietnam, and it will be interesting to see how long it takes for Hitchens to do a similar volte-face (as he has a *lot* more sunk costs in this case).

Update: It gets better! Ethnocentrism and wilfull indifference to Japanese people! This is shaping up to be quite a year.
53 comments this item posted by the management 1/04/2008 10:51:00 AM

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Prelude to a Critique on the Production of Bombings By Means of Bombings

Happy New Year!

Anyhoo, while out drinking with Alex from the Yorkshire Ranter in December (top tip - any readers wishing to emulate this feat - pack the harder of your spare heads, the guy drinks quickly), I was made aware of a small weakness in the argument of my post below entitled "More From Napoleon's Golden Bridge". As nobody can be bothered re-reading things these days, I'll précis - basically, I was arguing that the government was making a mistake in its policy of shutting down jihadi blogs and bulletin boards in order to stop them being used as recruiting tools. My basic idea was that, on the basis of a few general observations about blogging, the kind of person that was likely to be recruited through this channel was exactly the kind of person that we wanted the jihadis to be recruiting - basically, opinionated, egotistical morons and Walter Mittys who were bound to end up destroying the jihadi movement from within.

Alex noted that jihadis differ from other forms of nutter political organisation in that they have a method of making use of irritating narcissists who aren't very bright. Specifically, they can attach bombs to them, a disciplinary procedure which is not currently available to the BNP and SWP and which certainly does look like it's analytically important. It's certainly a point worth making and requires taking into account.

Thinking about Alex's point brought home to me the extent to which we, the public, really don't know anything about the terrorists that we're meant to be scared of. The crucial piece of information here is the relative capital and labour intensity of the suicide bombing production function[1]. If British jihadis are labour-constrained (ie, they have a stockpile of explosives but a dearth of volunteers), then obviously this critique goes straight through. If, on the other hand, they are capital constrained (ie, they have a load of potential bombers hanging round idle for lack of explosives), then it doesn't, and it could still be the case that adding to the pool of jihadi unemployment could have the destructive organisational effects I had first considered. In fact, there could be all sorts of perverse effects on the output of terrorist attacks, depending on how the factors of production are put into use (here's a paper on this general subject via Felix Salmon - I don't actually think it's much good, because in my experience trying to use consumer theory to analyse production problems is a sure-fire way of confusing yourself, but it sort of outlines the kind of things that one can get into).

Of course, the answer to the question of whether the British jihadis are short on labour or on capital is about as operationally sensitive a piece of information as you can think of, which is why I don't think we're likely to see it in a press release from MI5 any time soon. But I think it's at least indicative that (and here we have to be careful, as in my opinion it's clear that there has been a lot of constructive obfuscation if not outright disinformation in the media reports) a number of the high profile raids and arrests have had at least an element of home-manufacture to them. Equally pertinently, the 7/7 and 21/7 bombers both seem to have been responsible for making their own explosives[2], while last year's propane cylinder attacks were operating at an even lower level. To be honest, I am very surprised indeed at how poor the British jihadi movement's access to manufactured explosives and weapons is - if we're to take published reports at face value, it seems to be substantially worse than an ordinary criminal gang.

On the other hand, this isn't conclusive at all. Even if we take it as tentatively established that British jihadis are capital-constrained because they have to manufacture their own weapons, then they could still be labour-constrained in weapons manufacture. This actually seems quite likely, as the capital requirements for the Leeds bomb factory as described in the official report were quite nugatory[3] - it was estimated that the 7/7 explosives cost no more than £8000 to produce, which is an amount that could easily be floated on a couple of credit cards.

So, low-quality internet recruits could be given jobs like stirring a big pot of boiling hydrogen peroxide on a stove[4], or losing their fingers crystallising TATP, or (perhaps more realistically) ferrying tubs of industrial ingredients round the country to deliver them to people more competent and serious than themselves. Does this mean that recruiting bored young lads through the internet is likely to assist their ability to significantly step up the number and violence of the attacks they carry out? I still think probably not, because my guess is that the actual limiting factor is human capital.

In other words, ask yourself the question - are there people out there who are such total liabilities that they aren't even any use as cannon fodder for suicide bombers? And before you answer, consider this; of the three suicide bombing attacks in the history of the UK, two of them (London 21/7/05 and Glasgow 30/06/07) ended in ignominious failure. Apparently the answer is yes.

Or rather, this points out that we're looking at a complicated production/destruction function here. Palestinian and Iraqi terrorists have access to plentiful physical capital, and so they are able to economise on human capital, making use of more or less anyone able to carry a bomb (including, of course, the absolutely unspeakable evil of using children and unwilling carriers). British terrorists have to make their own bombs from scratch, and then transport them quite a long way to the attack (the 7/7 bombs were transported from Leeds to Luton in the boot of a car and then from Luton to London in backpacks, which is no joke when you consider that we are talking about homemade peroxide explosives here). And unlike Iraqi or Palestinian terrorists, British jihadis are few in number and seemingly organised on a cell structure[5], which more or less rules out the complicated logistics inherent in any strategy based on having the top terrorists manufacture and transport the bomb before handing it off to a clueless untrained recruit to carry it the last hundred yards.

As a result, British jihadi suicide bombers are going to have to be quite unusual people, in that they need to have practical bomb-making skills (and bomb-handlingskills, as the 21/7 attacks showed), significant physical courage and enough motivation and self-discipline to keep their mouths shut throughout the planning and production process (self-discipline and keeping one's mouth shut being characteristics not typically found in abundance on the internet). This is a result of the capital scarcity which forces the British terrorists to operate on a small, artisanal scale rather than the industrialised terror prevalent in less fortunate countries[6].

So, conclusions? Well, given that this has basically been introduced as an "economist's approach" to the question, the fact that it started off with a breezy piece of cynical contrarianism then oversimplified massively and waffled around the most important question by talking unspecifically about unobservable factors, ought to clue you up to the likelihood that it's not going to end in a useful conclusion. I still think that the Lyrical Terrrorists of this world are most likely the representative recruits to jihadism from blogs and message boards. I also still think that this kind of recruit is likely to be a massive liability to the jihadis (and therefore an asset to us). They'll consist partly of Walter Mitty gobshites who will be useful as flaming radioactive beacons to the intelligence services, partly of bottle-merchants who will collapse missions at crucial stages and partly of politicians and narcissists who will divert vast amounts of jihadi energy into pointless internal feuding.

However, the percentage of morons and arseholes on the internet, while high, is not actually 100%, and it is entirely possible that there are a small number of broadly functional Muslim kids out there who could potentially get drawn into the organisation out of a mix of two parts ideology to three parts adolescent psychology (I'm particularly worried about the recruitment of ordinary criminals like Richard Reid and Jermain Lindsay). And the trouble is that "a small number" is really all that you need for something horrible to happen. So I think I maintain my original theory as having some value to it, but perhaps rather more tentatively with respect to the policy conclusions.

[1] Or more correctly, "destruction function". As I've remarked before, weapons are unusual pieces of capital equipment in that rather than assisting in the production of goods, they destroy things which have already been made; they are also generally delivered, at great expense, to people who don't want them. The purchase of weapons systems is, however, recorded in the national accounts on an equivalent basis to more normal kinds of investment.

[2] That is to say, assuming that the official reports on both bombings are correct (and I have no means of gainsaying them), and that Maghdy El-Nasry (the biochemist who rented the Leeds "bomb factory" apartment) was indeed innocent of any involvement, which is the current state of official play.

[3] One potentially significant qualification to this is that I've seen other media reports which suggest that a commercial refrigerator was needed to store the HMDT explosive used as a trigger for the 7/7 bombs. This would be a bigger capital requirement but a) this wasn't in the official report and I am not sure if it's even true and b) it is not exactly an insurmountable obstacle anyway given that it is apparently not unknown for some British Muslims to work in the restaurant trade.

[4] Which, by the way, is such a wildly stupid way of making explosives that it's caused me on at least one occasion to question whether this is not disinformation (and I am also rather sceptical about whether peroxide/flour mixture is a viable explosive too - I still don't understand why the peroxide doesn't start oxidising the flour, rather quickly). But as noted above, I'm just not really in a position to gainsay the official reports.

[5] This organisational detail might be very important indeed, on an analogy with firm size effects and industrial organisation, which can have quite profound implications for choices of production process. It's important to remember that there is no phone number for "al-Qaeda" and it is not possible to be recruited to "the jihadis". It might easily be the case that even though the jihadi movement as a whole was labour-constrained (ie, missions were not being carried out for lack of volunteers), all the recruitment was going on into cells which were capital-constrained.

[6] And even in Palestine, the uneducated or clueless suicide bomber is the exception rather than the rule; most of them have been quite well-educated and trained cadres. Iraq (with all of its unusual conditions) is just about the only place in the world where the bad guys have successfully operationalised the reduction of human beings to war pigs.

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11 comments this item posted by the management 1/02/2008 11:32:00 AM

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