Err, yes Mr. Naughton, this is entirely the point

John Naughton, over in The Observer, is very worried about, err, capitalists being capitalists. Something of a pity really for someone, let alone a journalist, of his richness in maturity should by now have realised that this is the damn point of it all:

The real lesson of the Uber exposé, though, is that it’s time to discard the rose-tinted spectacles with which we have hitherto viewed these Silicon Valley outfits. For too long, they have been allowed to trade fraudulently on the afterglow of the hippie libertarianism that supposedly infected the early days of the personal computer industry. The billionaire geeks who currently run the giant internet companies may look and talk like a new species of entrepreneur but it would be more prudent to view them as John D Rockefellers in hoodies.

And the economic philosophy that’s embedded in this new digital capitalism is neoliberalism red in tooth and claw, which is why they minimise the number of “ordinary” (ie non-geek) workers on their payrolls, outsource everything they can, despise trade unions, view regulators as barriers to “innovation” and are outraged by the temerity of European institutions that seek to curb their freedoms of action.

Yes, exactly. Companies operate to the benefit of their shareholders. They’re also pretty red in tooth and claw when they do so. And if that were all the economy were about then agreed, we consumers might not enjoy the experience all that much. Which is why we do our darndest to make sure that that’s not all there is in the economy. The other magic ingredient we look for is competition. This means that we’ve any number of red in tooth and claw capitalist institutions trying to do the best for their owners and for their owners only. But they can only do this by offering us something that we think is worth it. Their proposition must offer us value: both in the simple sense that no one buys anything at all that they don’t think is worth more than they are paying for it and also in the more detailed sense that competition means that the offering must be better than that of those others.

It’s competition in the market that tempers that profit lust. Just as it’s competition that tempers the inherent inefficiencies and producer capture of formerly monopolistic and non-profit making state services.

On that capitalist side of it this is the very point of the entire system. We want them to be sharp elbowed, nothing but profit seeking, neoliberals. Because only by producing something that we both desire and are willing to pay for can they become those billionaires (geeks or not).

This is not the right time for another pay claim by NHS unions

On Monday, NHS unions plan stoppages ‘short of strike action’. It may not feel like it if your hospital treatment has been cancelled or you are lying in a ward with fewer nurses to look after you.

The stoppages come after strikes back in October failed to move the government to raise its pay offer for NHS staff. A pay review body recommended a 1% increase for all NHS staff, but the government argues that this is unaffordable and unfair. After all, the 3% ‘increment’ rise puts more money into the hands of higher-paid NHS workers than lower-paid ones.And some 55% of NHS staff already get an annual 3% rise: so the government is saying that any extra cash for wages should go to the workers who do not get this. So it is proposing a 1% rise for the others, but not an extra 1% on top of the existing 3% increments.

Extending the 1% rise to all NHS workers, says the government, will cost around £300 million. Some 75% of hospitals’ budgets is staff costs, so the extra cost that the union proposals would impose on them would mean cutbacks in staff – some 4,000 nurses lost this year, and another 10,000 next year. That could leave hospitals unsafe, risking another Mid-Staffordshire disaster.

Many members of the public would say that NHS staff should count themselves lucky. Average pay in the UK grew just 0.1% last year, and many businesses are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. But NHS pay has been rising since 2012. More than 5,000 nurses were recruited last year, and more midwives too. Public sector pay is generally higher than private sector pay for the same job, even before you count the more secure and higher public sector pensions. Lower paid workers, including those in the NHS, have been helped by the rise in the tax threshold to £10,000. Moreover, the £133 billion NHS budget – some 18% of public spending or over £2,000 per man, woman and child – is ring-fenced, so there is no chance of it falling – unlike the fortunes of most high-street businesses.

And if you want to know how bad things can really get, look at Portugal, which slashed its health budget 17%. Our public finances are not quite in that much of a mess, but things are still tight. The UK has economic growth of 3% but it is still fragile, and there are lots of things that could still spell disaster – a potential crisis in the eurozone, ebola, tension with Russia, you name it. The British government is 1.45trillion in debt, and adding to that debt by another £100 billion a year, despite creaming off 40% of the national income in taxes.

This just is not the right time for another pay claim. And certainly not for another Winter of Discontent (with images of ambulance crews dropping ‘non-emergency’ cases off in the snow to find their way home). The mind shivers. It is clear the government cannot budge, so why don’t we all go back to work and try to get Britain out of this mess?

So we’re to have internal exile in the UK now, are we?

Welcome to the new land of freedom, liberty and human rights:

Terror suspects will be moved out of big cities and put into ‘external exile’ after a shock U-turn by Nick Clegg.

The Deputy Prime Minister has agreed to re-instate the so-called power of relocation – which was scrapped in 2011 at the demand of his own Liberal Democrats.

At the time, one senior party figure labelled the measure ‘abhorrent’, ‘Stalinist’ and ‘authoritarian’.

But the abolition of the power has been blamed for two terror suspects absconding and, at a time of huge concern over jihadis returning from Syria, Mr Clegg has struck a deal with the Tories to allow its return.

Under legislation to be unveiled next week, the law will allow fanatics to be forcibly ordered to leave London, Birmingham, Manchester or other big cities to separate them from their extremist network.

They will then be made to live in more isolated rural towns identified by the Home Secretary, on the advice of MI5 and the security services.

This is quite what the Soviets did and didn’t we all complain when they did this to Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner, sending them off to Gorky where they couldn’t annoy the Muscovites any more. Various Fascist regimes, other communist regimes, had much the same sort of policy. Those who said things that the rulers didn’t like got sent off to some rural backwater on the say so of the nomenklatura.

And the point about such systems is that they’re meant to be examples of dystopias of various kinds, not a bloody handbook for how to run our own country.

It may well be that Abu Hookhand or whoever desires that we all be slaughtered in our beds until the Caliphate is established: but that still means that Hookhand or whoever should be, must be, accorded exactly the same rights a you or I have. Punishment can only come from having been charged, tried in an open court, with a jury, evidence, defence, a judge and the right of appeal right up through the system.

Do we individually and as a society face any danger from such extremists? Sure we do, they’re opposed to almost all of the things that we think make up a decent society. But the danger from a few bearded nutters is as nothing to the risks of killing our own liberties in defence against them.

Either we have equal rights and liberties or we don’t have rights and liberties at all, not ones that we’ll be able to maintain.

Free Education? Don’t make the situation worse!

We love to moan about the system – how it conditions our thought, places expectations upon us, is inflexible and ill-suited to the modern context etc. – and that moaning isn’t limited purely to students. Free education sounds wonderful but, in reality, a subsidised higher education sector works against students’ best interests.

The increasing supply of universities, places, graduates, qualifications etc. continuously devalue educational qualifications. With the exception of courses that have a significant vocational content such as Medicine, Engineering, Nursing, Teaching and Natural Sciences, many graduates will find their course’s academic content mostly unnecessary for the line of work they plan to enter. Unfortunately, an oversupply of graduates means that many firms advertise relatively well-compensated occupations as being exclusively ‘grad jobs’. This serves to reinforce the perception that you actually need a degree to even be capable of doing these jobs when, in actuality, it’s just that so many people currently have degrees that it’s pointless applying if you don’t. The necessary skills are better taught outside of a university.

What about all those who would essentially be coerced into going to university because, with free education and the increased supply of graduates, they’d have even less of a chance out there without a degree than they do now? What about those who left education earlier and whose relatively meagre qualifications are further devalued because of more graduates in the labour market? Funnily enough, the income inequality that education subsidies purport to alleviate would only increase. The training required to get a ‘good job’ (and, therefore, to fill them) would simply be lengthened due to qualifications’ devaluation. Normative signposting for how best to spend time is a subtle deprivation of civil liberty.

What is education? Why do we value one form of learning over another? Why stop at higher education? Why not subsidise gap years to Southeast Asia where people ‘discover themselves’? Subsidising one form of education almost always forcefully elevates it to a normatively superior perceived status; this perpetuates social structures, labour market characteristics, outcomes etc. since this normative dimension of legal institutions works to resist our attempts to reinvent social structures and deviating from the accepted norm. Does society really need to pay to offer free behavioural conditioning and thereby limit its own evolution? Free education protests are (mostly) unintended expressions of backward, socially destructive and misery-perpetuating conservatism veiled in social liberalism via equal opportunities and rights rhetoric.

Is private currency history repeating itself?

As I and others have said before, free banking & competitive currency provision either completely ignored, or unfairly dismissed by opponents who really don’t know too much about the system. A recent example came on the FT’s Alphaville blog.

By author Izabella Kaminska, and entitled “Private money vs totally-public money, plus some history”, it purported to show how cryptocurrency was just a rerun of earlier monetary struggles, looking specifically at the formation of the Bank of England:

As the BoE’s historical timeline helpfully points out, the BoE came into being when a private syndicate decided to risk all in 1688 by providing the UK government with funding when no-one else was prepared to do so. This ultimately proved to be a very good decision. It turns out lending money to government on terms you can enforce and control can be very profitable, especially if it leads to wise public investments that improve the wealth of the nation and make it easier to collect taxes as a result.

Soon enough the Bank’s success meant it could raise financing for both the government and private interests from almost anyone, issuing notes and deposits to all those who were prepared to do so.

Before the Bank knew it, its notes had become the most liquid and trusted in the land.

Open and shut then—free banking evolves naturally into superior central banking! Or maybe not. As George Selgin pointed out in the comments.

Ms. Kaminska goes out of her way to dismiss the famously efficient and stable Scottish system as an “oligopoly” without even bothering to offer any evidence that the banks in that system colluded or otherwise behaved differently than they might have had entry into the industry been unrestricted. (For her information on the Scottish system Ms. Kaminska relies on a single blog post that in turn draws on some untrustworthy sources, happily ignoring the extensive literature on the other side of the question.)

Ms. Kaminska then imagines that the English system’s only fault lay, not in the dangerous concentration of privileges in the Bank of England, awarded it not owing to any enlightened concern about stability but simply in return for its fiscal support of the English government, but to the fact that that monopoly was as yet not complete!  In fact a currency monopoly is extremely dangerous because it immunizes the monopoly bank from the normal discipline of routine settlement, making it capable of acting as a sort of Pied Piper to less privileged banks.  (Peel’s Act itself, in turn, caused trouble by undermining the English system’s ability to accommodate changes in the British public’s demand for currency.)

In light of these facts, Ms. Kaminska’s claim that English banking crises were caused by smaller joint-stock note issuing rivals, which were at last allowed to compete with it, albeit only outside of the main, metropolitan market, beginning in 1833, is utterly–I was going to write “laughably” except there’s nothing fun about it–mistaken, as she might have discovered had she bothered to read, say, Walter Bagehot’s Lombard Street, say, instead of copying and pasting from the Bank of England’s own self-serving web pages. She would there have come across Bagehot’s careful account of how England’s artificially centralized “one reserve” system, dominated by the Bank of England in consequences of its accumulated privileges, exposed it to financial crises to which Scotland and other less centralized (‘”natural”) banking systems were immune.