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!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Swells, shrivels

I was just looking around to see what Steven Wells thought about the USA vs Spain game, and found he's gone and died on us. What a fucking shame. He was probably the first journalist who I actually recognised as being a distinct entity, having previously more or less assumed that the stuff in the NME and the papers was produced by an undifferentiated blob of miscellaneous employees. I knew he'd been sick because he quite famously wrote about it:

And suddenly it hits me. I'm poleaxed, sobbing uncontrollably. I feel very vulnerable and very, very scared. This is followed by 24 tedious hours of horribly gothic adolescent introspection during which almost every conscious line of thought concludes with, "But what's the point if you're going to die anyway?"

Who'd have thought that post-traumatic shock would have so much in common with being a Radiohead fan?

Swells was utterly reprehensible in many ways; self-obsessed, totally wrongheaded on most important issues, often quite callous and with a pretty juvenile tendency toward provocation for its own sake. But at least he wasn't fucking boring; at the end of the day this will also presumably be Julie Burchill's defence when she faces the Great Scorer. RIP.
12 comments this item posted by the management 6/25/2009 06:42:00 AM

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Oh nukemen, will you never change?

Felix hops down to a sandwich show, at which apparently great big swigs of industry Kool-Aid were served to wash down the Pret a Manger. Apparently, the presiding GE nukeman:

was there, talking about nuclear power, and specifically what he calls a PRISM reactor — a fourth-generation nuclear power station which runs on the nuclear waste generated by all the previous generations of nuclear power stations.

Wow! That sounds fantastic, safe, carbon-neutral and most importantly cheap! So, tell me more about this "Integral Fast Reactor", of which you speak:

They’re super-safe: if they fail they just stop working, they don’t melt down. And they can even literally replace coal power stations:

This sounds even better than the old breeder reactors, the last miracle technology to come out of the nuke industry that was going to solve all our energy needs without any of that nasty "radioactive" (wiggles fingers) stuff. And you say that this runs on waste material?

Fast reactors also solve at a stroke the problem of what to do with the vast amounts of nuclear waste which are being stockpiled unhappily around the world.

So, you can just take that nasty toxic waste and basically shovel it into your new IFR reactor and it works!

... (tumbleweeds, crickets)

The answer is unfortunately no. You have to reprocess the waste before it can be used in the IFR. Specifically, you have to reprocess a hell of a lot of it, via a process that has never been made to work on a commercial scale[1] before you can even get started. That's why the only country that's ever had a serious look at this technology (France) decided that this was a technology way too expensive and speculative even for them.

Ahhh, nukemen.

[1] See past nukemen posts. Lots and lots of things work in labs but can't be scaled, basically because the size and number of blemishes and cracks in an item scales roughly as a power of its size, while the size of atoms doesn't. Very big things, made to very high tolerances, are very expensive.
2 comments this item posted by the management 6/24/2009 09:00:00 AM

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

If this is analysis of Anti-Semitic tropes in contemporary media, I want my £20,000 back

Back in March, Denis MacShane (who is a privy councillor[1]) took office as Chairman of the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism. In the press release announcing his appointment, the EISCA proudly announced that the report on antisemitic discourse that was commissioned from it last March would finally be published "this spring".

Tomorrow is Midsummer's Day, a point at which I think we can declare spring to be officially over on anybody's definition, and no report. In between times, MacShane's main activity as Chairman appears to have been deleting the EISCA blog and breaking all old links to it (I think that most of the material is still there in the "archives" of the main EISCA website but I can't tell and it's impossible to check). MacShane himself has been busy, obviously, telling Zimbabwegians that everything's OK now and they should go home and campaigning against other people being paid more than Denis MacShane, but EISCA itself appears to have produced precisely zero in the first hundred days of MacShane's appointment. It is also overdue on its Companies House return which was due on 3 April. Update: ach, apparently Companies House webcheck won't let you link directly to searches; EISCA's Company No. is 06140653 if you want to see for yourself. Note as well that the entire purpose of the annual return is to keep CH up to date with important changes like, say, a new chairman, and also that it's actually a criminal offence to be 28 days late. I've sent what I hoep will be taken as a friendly heads-up to Stephen Pollard, as I suspect that although he's no longer Chairman, it will be him in the frame as far as CH are concerned.)

This is too bad, in my opinion. I am slightly annoyed about the twenty thousand quid - I am now beginning to believe that no publishable report was ever delivered, and the DCLG's continued failure to so much as reply to my inquiries gives me no confidence whatsoever in this regard. But I'm much more concerned with the general practice of people accepting appointments to "thinktanks" which don't seem to produce any "think". Stephen Pollard and now Denis MacShane have both added a small but measurable amount of gravitas to their political views by claiming chairmanship of EISCA, which is out of any reasonable proportion to what the institute has actually achieved. And I only happen to know about EISCA because it was started up by Pollard, who is one of the journalists I have on my watchlist - as I've said before, how many other such "Institutes" are there out there, doing nothing but gild the CVs of policy entrepreneurs?

Quite apart from anything else, MacShane ought to be worried about the potential reputational exposure to himself, given that he is already the subject of one controversy regarding a thinktank. A semi-attached floating corporate vehicle which doesn't carry out an activity is always a potential source of problems, which is why a wise man thinks two or three times about the directorships he accepts.

(Note that both the European Policy Institute, which is not the same thing as EPIN, and EISCA, which is not the same thing as the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism, have names which are easy to confuse with similar and much more substantial operations. This confusion must be irritating to EPIN and the Roth Institute, and reflects an additional cost of the proliferation of Potemkin thinktanks).

[1] I know! Privy cleaner, now that I could have believed.

Update: A bit of internet digging reveals that although MacShane typically lists on his CV that he was "Director of the European Policy Institute, 1992-94", what actually happened according to this oration on his taking a job at Birkbeck College is that he founded it himself in 1992, and ceased to be its director when he became an MP; he was an "Associate Director" according to the register of members' interests until 2002. I don't think this is consistent with the statement in the Mail story that "The EPI was set up 20 years ago by a network of people on the Left working in Europe and the US"; it is true that it published things in the 1990s, like this pamphlet; it even had a subsidiary called "Epic Books. But I can't see any evidence of anything it's done in the last ten years, and it's apparently now "administrated" by MacShane's brother, who is a poet and playwright with no easily available history of policy involvement. In my opinion as the Chairman-Designate of the soon-to-be-launched British Institute of Urology[2], this is taking the piss.

[2] A joke. Actually, it would be highly unlikely that I'd be allowed to register this as a company limited by guarantee like EISCA, as both "British" and "Institute" are reserved words, and the right to call something the "Institute of Urology" is the exclusive property of University College London under the UCL Act 1988.
2 comments this item posted by the management 6/23/2009 03:18:00 AM
Covering the issues that matter!

In the early days of blogging, a particular comments moderation policy was independently invented by a number of us, specifically that "if something would earn you a punch in the face if you said it to someone in a pub, you're not allowed to write it in a blog comments section".

It appears that a new generation has come up, who need to be reminded of the corollary - that "if a phrase would be banned from your blog comments section, it's probably not a good idea to say it out loud to a gang of angry lads outside a nightclub".
1 comments this item posted by the management 6/23/2009 12:44:00 AM

Friday, June 19, 2009

Big picture award

This week's "seeing the big picture" award goes to these guys.

Basically what happened here is that in one of their whacky referenda a few years ago, the state of California hypothecated some money from a gasoline tax into a trust fund which was meant to provide maintenance for trails in public parks to repair the damage caused by jeeps, dunebuggies, dirt bikes and other "off highway vehicles".

Now the state is in terminal budget meltdown, and there is a proposal to slightly alter the terms of that legislation so that the funds can be used for maintenance in public parks more generally, including those in which OHVs are banned. The site linked above is organising a great big write-in protest in order to ensure that this option is taken of the table. "We must not balance the budget on the backs of the quadbikes".

The situation is desperate, but not serious. Somehow I can see people finding better uses for the money than bailing out this sort of political behaviour. Like taking the same amount of money and giving it to Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky and West Virginia and letting them use it to provide public services 50% as generous as those enjoyed in California.
7 comments this item posted by the management 6/19/2009 08:49:00 AM

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The future of content on the internet lies elswhere, I hope

Well, quite. As a matter of economics, it is indeed true that if the excellent-quality news website which is currently provided to me for free by the BBC were to disappear, then it would be easier for the Evening Standard to charge me money to read similar content produced by Paul Waugh. But I hope I'm not being excessively short-sighted and selfish if I confess that I don't really see what's in this for me.
2 comments this item posted by the management 6/18/2009 04:47:00 AM

Friday, June 12, 2009

Political campaign endorsement

It is a minor source of etymological amusement that despite the name, the "Speaker" of the House of Commons is actually meant by constitutional convention to shut up. By which I mean that the Speaker ought not to give public voice to his personal political opinions, in order to ensure that there is no suspicion of favouritism in the management of the business of the House. Even after leaving office, by convention the Speaker does not take part in party politics.

It is with this in mind that I heartily endorse the candidature of Frank Field.
5 comments this item posted by the management 6/12/2009 08:26:00 AM

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Cheese and the Onion

Are the only two things I know about the state of Wisconsin. But now, a third factoid - according to the CDC, it is the USA's capital of swine flu, with 2217 confirmed and suspected cases, thrashing Texas's meagre 1670 and California's 973. Not having a large population or a land frontier with Mexico hasn't stopped those plucky Wisconsiners - they're going down with it like ninepins. Roughly 10% of all the swine flu cases in the world are in Wisconsin - it has half as many as Mexico, and is gaining market share - between 1 June and 8 June, 1 in 6 new cases in the WHO data were attributable to Wisconsin. Does anyone have the foggiest idea why this might be the case, other than the obvious explanation that something's up with the reporting system? I checked whether Wisconsin was a big pig producer and discovered a) that the US pork industry likes crappy recipe-laden trade association websites in bright colours a lot more than it likes statistics and b) eventually that no it isn't, it's 17th biggest in the Union, which given the cluster of desert states and tiny urban ones means it's solid mid-table. Also, North Carolina and Virginia (homes of the real pork powerhouses don't seem to have very many cases at all.

Any ideas?

(by the way, the CDC reckons that there are actually 100,000 cases of swine flu in the USA rather than the 13,217 "confirmed and suspected" cases. In other words, they reckon that the passive reporting system in place undercounts swine flu by a factor of roughly 8. Veterans of the Lancet/Iraq debate will not be surprised.
18 comments this item posted by the management 6/09/2009 02:10:00 PM

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Idea for a sitcom

Does anybody else think that "The Accidental Guerilla" would be an excellent title for a sitcom?
Instead, their aims are local and rational. They want above all to survive, to pursue their interests, and to be left alone to maintain their primary identities. [...] The problem in understanding this is that politics is frequently the study of hierarchy; but in reality, humans operate in multiple social networks at once, using their role in one system to influence another

So basically I'm seeing a situation comedy starring David Kilcullen as an ordinary bloke stuck at the sharp end of a war zone, trying to maintain his normal economic and family life while mediating between ruthless insurgents and an occupying imperial army, while trying to play off one against the other to his personal advantage. If you put in enough comedy poofters and saucy waitresses, this sort of thing can be a hit. Praise Allah and pass the wet celery.

Update: Thanks to Neil in comments for noting that "The Accidental Guerrilla And His Accidental Gorilla" would be even better. Frankly I can't think of a better high concept in the world right now than a wartime/buddy movie about the grizzled Aussie COIN guy and his daft but loyal pet ape. Hollywood, I'm waiting.
13 comments this item posted by the management 6/07/2009 05:45:00 AM

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Vale of Blears

And indeed, Vale, Blears. Back to "the people of Salford", the people dearest to her heart.

My view on Blears as the Last of the Corporation Socialists have been rehearsed a couple of times round these parts, but I still think I was right about her career. The reply to George Monbiot's open letter was completely summatory:
Re the “open letter” by George Monbiot (10 February): George, I would like to invite you to Salford, and allow some of my young party members and myself to show you round our city. Then you will see why I’ve been voting Labour in the Commons these past 12 years.

That was the entire text. Monbiot's j'accuse was about a thousand words of indictment from environmental policy to the war in Iraq. Hazel's response was "why don't you come to Salford, then you'll understand?". The idea is that if we all took the time to meet a handful of teenage Labour hacks, and look at a few freshly painted (but still rather grim) housing estates, suddenly the scales will fall from our eyes, and we will Get It.

Not actually an evil kind of politics, but a horribly limited one, and quite disproportionately irritating. Vale.
16 comments this item posted by the management 6/03/2009 06:22:00 AM

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The past is a different country ...

Am I really the first UK commentator on the expenses scandal to think of excerpting a few of the more bracing bits of "Plunkitt of Tammany Hall"?

Now, a few words on the general subject of the so called shame of cities. I don’t believe that the government of our cities is any worse, in proportion to opportunities, than it was fifty years ago. I’ll explain what I mean by “in proportion to opportunities.” A half a century ago, our cities were small and poor. There wasn’t many temptations lyin’ around for politicians. There was hardly anything to steal, and hardly any opportunities for even honest graft. A city could count its money every night before goin’ to bed, and if three cents was missin’, all the fire bells would be rung. What credit was there in bein’ honest under them circumstances’? It makes me tired to hear of old codgers back in the thirties or forties boastin’ that they retired from politics without a dollar except what they earned in their profession or business. If they lived today, with all the existin’ opportunities, they would be just the same as twentieth-century politicians. There ain’t any more honest people in the world just now than the convicts in Sing Sing. Not one of them steals anything. Why? Because they can’t. See the application?

Understand, I ain’t defendin’ politicians of today who steal. The politician who steals is worse than a thief. He is a fool. With the grand opportunities all around for the man with a political pull, there’s no excuse for stealin’ a cent. The point I want to make is that if there is some stealin’ in politics, it don’t mean that the politicians of 1905 are, as a class, worse than them of 1835. It just means that the old-timers had nothin’ to steal, while the politicians now are surrounded by all kinds of temptations and some of them naturally – the fool ones – buck up against the penal code.


For instance, the city is repavin' a street and has several hundred thousand old granite blocks to sell. I am on hand to buy, and I know just what they are worth.

How? Never mind that. I had a sort of monopoly of this business for a while, but once a newspaper tried to do me. It got some outside men to come over from Brooklyn and New Jersey to bid against me.

Was I done? Not much. I went to each of the men and said: "How many of these 250,000 stories do you want?" One said 20,000, and another wanted 15,000, and other wanted 10,000. I said: "All right, let me bid for the lot, and I'll give each of you all you want for nothin'."

They agreed, of course. Then the auctioneer yelled: "How much am I bid for these 250,000 fine pavin' stones?"

"Two dollars and fifty cents," says I.

"Two dollars and fifty cents!" screamed the auctioneer. "Oh, that's a joke! Give me a real bid."

He found the bid was real enough. My rivals stood silent. I got the lot for $2.50 and gave them their share. That's how the attempt to do Plunkitt ended, and that's how all such attempts end.

I've told you how I got rich by honest graft. Now, let me tell you that most politicians who are accused of robbin' the city get rich the same way.

They didn't steal a dollar from the city treasury. They just seen their opportunities and took them. That is why, when a reform administration comes in and spends a half million dollars in tryin' to find the public robberies they talked about in the campaign, they don't find them.

The books are always all right. The money in the city treasury is all right. Everything is all right. All they can show is that the Tammany heads of departments looked after their friends, within the law, and gave them what opportunities they could to make honest graft. Now, let me tell you that’s never goin' to hurt Tammany with the people. Every good man looks after his friends, and any man who doesn't isn't likely to be popular. If I have a good thing to hand out in private life, I give it to a friend – Why shouldn't I do the same in public life?

Another kind of honest graft. Tammany has raised a good many salaries. There was an awful howl by the reformers, but don't you know that Tammany gains ten votes for every one it lost by salary raisin'?

The Wall Street banker thinks it shameful to raise a department clerk’s salary from $1500 to $1800 a year, but every man who draws a salary himself says: "That’s all right. I wish it was me." And he feels very much like votin' the Tammany ticket on election day, just out of sympathy.

Tammany was beat in 1901 because the people were deceived into believin' that it worked dishonest graft. They didn’t draw a distinction between dishonest and honest graft, but they saw that some Tammany men grew rich, and supposed they had been robbin' the city treasury or levyin' blackmail on disorderly houses, or workin' in with the gamblers and lawbreakers.

As a matter of policy, if nothing else, why should the Tammany leaders go into such dirty business, when there is so much honest graft lyin' around when they are in power? Did you ever consider that?

Now, in conclusion, I want to say that I don't own a dishonest dollar. If my worst enemy was given the job of writin' my epitaph when I'm gone, he couldn't do more than write:

"George W. Plunkitt. He Seen His Opportunities, and He Took 'Em."

Also: This extract confused William Riordan, the author of "Plunkitt", but it's crystal clear to me:

One of the fixed duties of a Tammany district leader is to give two outings every summer, one for the men of his district and the other for the women and children, and a beefsteak dinner and a ball every winter. The scene of the outings is, usually, one of the groves along the Sound.

The ambition of the district leader on these occasions is to demonstrate that his men have broken all records in the matter of eating and drinking. He gives out the exact number of pounds of beef, poultry, butter, etc., that they have consumed and professes to know how many potatoes and ears of corn have been served.

According to his figures, the average eating record of each man at the outing is about ten pounds of beef, two or three chickens, a pound of butter, a half peck of potatoes, and two dozen ears of corn. The drinking records, as given out, are still more phenomenal. For some reason, not yet explained, the district leader thinks that his popularity will be greatly increased if he can show that his followers can eat and drink more than the followers of any other district leader.

The same idea governs the beefsteak dinners in the winter. It matters not what sort of steak is served or how it is cooked; the district leader considers only the question of quantity, and when he excels all others in this particular, he feels, somehow, that he is a bigger man and deserves more patronage than his associates in the Tammany Executive Committee.

The amount of food eaten is of course a noisy indicator of the size of a politician's support, but remember that we are dealing with a group of people here who were past master of faking headcounts or ballots. Of course they wouldn't trust each other on a simple ballot, but wasted or surplus steak and potatoes are much harder to conceal than stuffed ballot boxes (or rather, as the estimate of ten pounds of beefsteak a head shows, there's a limit to how hard you can kite the food consumption on outing). It's a classic tradeoff in econometrics - preferring a less efficient estimator to a biased one.
5 comments this item posted by the management 6/02/2009 03:06:00 AM

Monday, June 01, 2009

Secret Society Blogging: The United American Mechanics

"This group was formed by a small coteries of men who were opposed to immigrants coming to the United States. The men met in a grocery store in Philadelphia on July 8, 1845, to form the organization called Union of Workers. The name was soon changed to Order of United American Mechanics (OUAM). Its objectives were to be a patriotic, social, fraternal and benevolent order, composed of native white male citizens, who would purchase goods only from white businessmen, help native Americans[1] find employment, protect the public school system[2] aid widows and orphans of deceased members and defend its members from harmful economic competition by immigrants. The order's formation was an outgrowth of the American Nativist movement, which opposed the German, Irish and Roman Catholic immigration of the early 1840s. One primary reason for opposing the "foreigners", which led to the OUAM being founded, was that many Americans resented immigrants ("greenhorns") being hired by businesses for lower wages.

According to Albert C Stevens in his Encyclopedia of Fraternities (1907) the OUAM organizational meeting took place on July 4[3] 1845, with an audience of about sixty individuals. A majority left which they heard the the new group would be a secret society. A handful remained. Some of the key organizers were Freemasons. The name "Mechanics" was chosen because the group saw itself as a secret fraternity of operative[4] mechanics and tradesmen; however, its membership never was composed entirely of mechanics and tradesmen.

The ritual of the OUAM very much bore the influence of Freemasonry, apparently because some of its founders were Masons. In the tradition of Masonry, the ritual was secret, with required vows of secrecy. The emblem included the Masonic square and compass, along with the arm of labor wielding a hammer and the American flag.

The anti-immigration feelings of the OUAM were not confined to this organization in the fraternal arena. For in 1853 the OUAM organized the Junior Order of United American Mechanics (JOUAM). As a juvenile group, it was to train youths who would later join the OUAM. By 1885 the junior order had become an independent adult group, employing the same objectives and symbols as its parent society. The OUAM also formed auxiliary organizations[5]: the Daughters of Liberty and the Daughters of America. The latter group was really an affiliate of the JOUAM

In time, the OUAM changed its posture from a Nativist fraternal group to a fraternal society dispensing life insurance. It even changed its name by dropping the word "Order" and simply called itself United American Mechanics. Today the society is part of the Junior Order of United American Mechanics, the society organized in 1853[6].

A few footnotes and glosses:

[1] "native Americans" doesn't mean "Native Americans" in this context, as you know.

[2] "Protect the public school system" in this context means "from Catholic influence".

[3] Lots of societies revised their birth dates to July 4, for obvious reasons; actually it was July 8, as noted above.

[4] This is a term of art from Freemasonry. "Operative" masons are those who cut stones; "speculative" masons follow the rituals of Freemasonry.

[5] "Auxiliary" organisation - ie, one for women relatives of members, women not being allowed to join OUAM. I'll try to do a few writeups of ladies' auxiliaries in coming weeks.

[6] Presumably the OUAM became part of the JOUAM rather than vice versa for financial reasons relating to their respective life assurance funds.

OUAM are a funny bunch - you can see how there are elements of proto-socialism, the co-operative movement and Fascism there, all mixed up in the American cultural and political environment of the 19th century. If Europe had avoided the First World War, you can sort of see how the Nationalsozialistiche Deutsche Abeiterpartei might have ended up as an insolvent life assurance fund, merged into the Hitler Youth(actually this would be unlikely because the German state were early to recognise the need for state pensions, but perhaps the really interesting scenario for alternate history buffs is what the OUAM might have turned into if things went differently in America).

I really do think, by the way, that I have an explanation for the development of the "paranoid style in American politics" which has an Ockhamist advantage over Hofstadters. Remember that societies like this were absolutely ubiquitous in the USA during a formative period in its history. If one is, oneself, given to meeting up in the back rooms of grocery shops to try and stitch up a few deals to the economic benefit of those present at the expense of those absent, how much of a stretch is it to believe that similar stitch-ups are being carried out on a grander scale, in more salubrious surroundings, by the members of more exclusive societies?

Next week I'll bite the bullet and type in a few hundred words on the Order of Red Men, a fraternal benefit organisation which did, actually, end up controlling large parts of the lives of millions of people. I bet at least a few people in comments will guess how ...
16 comments this item posted by the management 6/01/2009 03:39:00 PM

This sort of behaviour certainly deserves to be publicised

Via PDF, the authentic voice of the English Democrats, ladies and gentleman. Have a look; this is apparently the sort of person who votes English Democrat. D^2D would never presume to tell anyone how to cast their vote[1], but readers who have a vote in the European elections this week would presumably like to know the character of the people who are apparently soliciting their support for the English Democrats. Ghastly.

[1] a transparent lie.
6 comments this item posted by the management 6/01/2009 11:35:00 AM
What if God was one of us?

Frankly, the only surprise is that this hasn't happened a couple of times before. I call dibs on the sitcom rights.
4 comments this item posted by the management 6/01/2009 09:08:00 AM

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