The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley

There’s an interesting reason why politics, the creation of laws and regulations, just isn’t very good as a way of doing things. That being that the world’s a complicated place. And so it is with this idea that every child should be safe from the terrors of pornography on the internet. The powers that be demanded that all such possible access be filtered out unless responsible adults deliberately asked for access to be possible.

And lo! the regulations were made and:

“But it’s very simplistic: URLs with Sussex or Essex in them, for example, are blocked.”

Rather less amusingly the websites of many charities and educational sites are also blocked. If all “porn” is blocked then so will be places that discuss how to escape the porn industry, what to do about an addiction to porn and, a memory so glorious that perhaps we should build a statue to it, the website of the MP who campaigned for there to be an internet porn filter.

The point being that this world of ours is a complicated place. Enough of us now understand Hayek’s point about economic planning, that we can’t for the only thing that we have that is capable of calculating the economy is the economy itself. It’s not possible to run a model and then direct it: what happens is emergent from the very method of calculation. What is less well understood is that this applies to all these other areas of life as well. It’s not possible for us to just gaily insist “porn filters for all!” and for that to be actually implemented.

Therefore, logically, we should stop trying to micromanage life in this manner and go off and do something more useful with our energies. And given that doing pretty much anything would be a more useful use of our energies that leaves us all with a great deal of choice over what to do.

Men are not ‘over’, women are not discriminated against

In what seems to me slightly contradictory, two popular modern memes hold that, firstly, we are experiencing ‘the end of men’, who are steadily being eclipsed by women in many levels of academia, areas of the economy and so on; and secondly that women are discriminated against in the labour market, which is why they only earn around three quarters as much as men on average per hour.

A 2013 paper by Kingsley Browne in the Boston University Law Review challenges both of these claims, arguing that the dominance women enjoy in many areas of society refutes the idea they are discriminated against, but their relative scarcity in other areas shows how men are still not ‘over’. He explains this discrepancy between sectors to differences in preferences and characteristics between the sexes, differences he believes are biologically caused.

Common examples of perceived workplace inequality – the “glass ceiling,” the “gender gap” in compensation, and occupational segregation, among others – cannot be well understood if the explanation proffered for their existence is limited exclusively to social causes such as discrimination and sexist socialization.

Males and females have, on average, different sets of talents, tastes, and interests, which cause them to select somewhat different occupations and exhibit somewhat different workplace behaviors. Some of these sex differences have biological roots. Temperamental sex differences are found in competitiveness, dominance seeking, risk taking, and nurturance, with females tending to be more “person oriented” and males more “thing oriented.”

The sexes also differ in a variety of cognitive traits, including various spatial, verbal, mathematical, and mechanical abilities. Although social influences can be important, these social influences operate on (and were in fact created by) sexually dimorphic minds.

As I have written before, even if the very substantial work-related differences between men and women are socially constructed, satisfying their preferences as they are, rather than as an egalitarian might want them to be, makes men and women best off. I have also written how the gender wage gap isn’t evidence for firm discrimination between the genders, because it is entirely explained by women’s decisions (to take safer, more satisfying jobs, to work lower hours and to take substantial time out of the workforce).

He points out that women have recently come to dominate many high status fields and that most of the gender wage gap is between, not within, professions. Taken together, he argues there is no general ‘glass ceiling’, although of course there are many individual instances of discrimination.

In many respects, however, women have made breathtaking advances in the past several decades. Professions such as law and medicine are reaching parity among new entrants, and women represent over 60% of newly enrolled pharmacy students and over 75% of new veterinarians.

Even within fields in which men predominate generally, such as science, technology and engineering, there are interesting variations: women are underrepresented in metallurgical and mechanical engineering but much closer to parity in biomedicine and bioengineering.

And he gives strong evidence for differences between men and women in: competitiveness, which are not easily explained by ‘stereotype threat’ given that they start very early and only appear in specific sorts of high pressure competition; risk-taking (boys and men take more risk); interest in children (girls and women show more of it); spatial reasoning ability (men excel); verbal ability (women excel); and occupational interests.

Whether these are biological or social they massively affect the fields that women want to enter and the ones they can do well in. And this is OK! It makes people happier to do jobs (including work in the home) they want to do and jobs they are good at. It’s OK for our labour markets to reflect this—it makes us better off overall.

Plus ca change, c’est la meme chose

A little bit of interesting history. We used to have, here in the UK, an official of the Royal Household who determined what might be shown to us proles on the stage. The Lord Chamberlain’s office included the responsibility to:

so that he could only prohibit the performance of plays where he was of the opinion that “it is fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace so to do”.

Of course we did away with all that fuddy duddy nonsense with the Theatres Act of 1968. The Earl Peel now has no such responsibility or power.

Yes, of course we did away with all of that fuddy duddy stuff, there’s no one able to limit what the proles may see upon the stage or screen:

Seventies comedies would not be allowed on television screens today because they were so racist and offensive, the outgoing head of Ofcom has said.

Ed Richards, who stands down as chief executive of the media watchdog at the end of this month, said programmes from a previous generation were no longer suitable for today’s more enlightened audiences.

What it is that we proles may be shown seems to have changed a little, the August Personage who gets to decide it seems to have changed, but it does still seem to be that the bien pensants of the day get to decide what may or may not be shown to the populace.

Haven’t we all had such a radical expansion in freedom and liberty, in cultural expression?

Not that we’re in favour of racism, sexism or whatever, particularly. It’s just that we can’t help thinking that an actual free market in these things would work rather better. If people didn’t like what was being shown then they wouldn’t watch it and it would quickly fail and be taken off the air. And at least in the Lord Chamberlain’s day they were very clear about this: you may not show these things because people would like them too much. The modern censorship is making the opposite argument: you may not show them because no one would like them. But if that is so then we don’t need the censorship, do we, because something that no one likes won’t survive. We thus suspect that the censorship survives precisely because those censoring know that the populace does not share their views.

How very liberal, eh?

Someone’s got a very dark sense of humour concerning Cuba

Much chuntering about the fact that Broadway musicals have returned to Cuba for the first time in 50 years. And whoever it was that put this package together they’ve a very, very, dark sense of humour:

In the play, the setting is New York: the East Village, in the early 1990s, with a bohemian, artistic crowd trying to make ends meet over Christmas.

In real life, the setting is Havana – with a disparate group of actors, trying to put on a musical, to show over the festive period.

Because for the first time in 50 years, a Broadway musical is transferring to the Communist island, and – in a case of life imitating art – a play whose first scene opens on Christmas Eve will raise its curtain on December 24. Rent will then open to entertain crowds of curious Cubans, most of whom will never in their lives have seen a musical on that scale.

“Getting permission to bring the show here was extremely challenging,” said Robert Nederlander Jr – producer of the show, and the third generation of a Broadway dynasty. “It took us well over a year to negotiate.”

Our best guess is that we should congratulate Mr. Nederlander on that sense of humour.

Rent is a story (loosely a story, a collection of songs loosely nailed to a story might be a better description) detailing the travails of various people of interesting sexuality, their struggles with being HIV positive, the threats of becoming so, and how they cannot find secure and decent housing.

To take this to an island that, until recently, would lock up in isolation camps those who were HIV positive, distinctly demonise those of interesting sexuality and where there hasn’t been decent or secure housing since the socialist revolution is, well, it is humorous, isn’t it?

Well done Mr. Nederlander, well done, our caps are raised in admiration. We are left wondering though who, other than you and ourselves, is going to get the joke.

Europe’s Digital Dirigisme

Google has recently announced that it is ending its Google News service in Spain before a new intellectual property law – dubbed the ‘Google tax’ – requires Spanish publishers to charge the company for displaying snippets of their articles.

Whist newspapers claim that Google infringes copyright by using their text, Google argues that their News service drives traffic to the featured websites, boosting advertising revenues. Certainly, Germany’s biggest publisher Axel Springer scrapped plans to block Google from their news items when they discovered that doing so caused their traffic to plunge.

This is yet another complication of Google – EU relations. In May, the European Court of Justice ruled in favour of the ‘right to be forgotten’, which has so far resulted in over 250,000 takedown requests. Building on this ‘success’, the EU now wants to force search engines to scrub ‘irrelevant or incorrect’ (read: inconvenient) links at a not just a European but a global level.

And as the European Commission’s four-year antitrust investigation into Google drags on, the European Parliament symbolically voted to break up its operation and ‘unbundle’ its search function from other services. Whilst the parliament has no power to touch the internet giant, it sends a very strong message as to what European politicians want.

European politicians portray such moves as guarding against monopoly, enabling fair competition and safeguarding the privacy of individuals. However, it’s not obvious that the way Google presents search results is to the detriment of its actual users (as opposed to rival firms), whilst the ‘right to be forgotten’ sets a dangerous precedent against internet openness. American firms and politicians have responded harshly to the actions, branding them politically motivated, anti-competitive and detrimental to trade relations.

European policy makers should be very careful not to cause harm to the digital economy through politicized regulation. Policymakers may be concerned by the digital domination of American firms like Amazon, Facebook and Google ­­ – yet it’s worth noting Europe fails to produce many rivals of its own.

As the Eurozone struggles with weak growth and low inflation, the WSJ reports that the number of those engaged in early entrepreneurial activity in countries like Germany, France and Italy (5%, 4.6%, and 3.4% of the population respectively) is a fraction of those in the US (12.7%). Once they are established, these businesses tend to be smaller and slower-growing than their US counterparts. They also seem less likely to hit the big time: among the world’s 500 largest listed companies, only 5 of the European firms were founded after 1975, compared with 31 from the US and 31 from emerging economies.

Digital policy analyst Adam Thierer argues that the relative performance of US and European tech firms is largely driven by the regulatory culture in each country. US policy makers have by deliberate design fostered a culture of permissionless innovation, which allows and encourages entrepreneurs to innovate, push boundaries and take risks. As a result, the American tech sector has boomed, producing inventions and companies beloved and envied across the world. In contrast, European culture has been far more risk-averse and policy far more bureaucratic. The result of unnecessary regulation and data directives has been a dearth of successful European firms. Those European ‘unicorn’ firms which strike big have overwhelmingly come from countries fairly removed from continental Europe, such as the UK, Scandinavia and Russia.

The EU’s move towards net neutrality regulation, market interventions and tighter data laws will only further disadvantage tech firms. State interference is particularly unhelpful in dynamic, evolving digital sectors, where fast-paced progress is typical and innovation key to staying relevant. Moreover, European policymakers may want to check Google’s power through legislation, but it is large incumbent firms who have the resources and lawyers to comply with new regulation. Those hit hardest are smaller competitors, and the fledgling start-ups the EU should focus on encouraging.

In some sense, European policymakers are onto something with their suspicion of ‘big tech’. The vast majority of UK internet users say that they’re uncomfortable with what they share online and with whom, and even the technophilic Wired ran a recent cover story on how the data industry is ‘selling our lives’. Perhaps people really are fed up of Google, which then only maintains its 90% European market share in search because there’s no decent alternative.

But attacking Google’s influence requires innovation, not regulation. Tech history is littered with market leaders such as IBM, Nokia and AOL who have slid, sometimes quite spectacularly, from the top spot. In tech-orientated sectors it is particularly hard for large firms to stay relevant and embrace new trends ­– let alone to develop them.

To facilitate creative destruction and the emergence of challenger firms, Europe needs a digital policy which is favorable to new technology and experimentation, and which encourages individuals to accept risk and forge ahead with business plans without first jumping through hoops and courting regulators (the trials and tribulations of Uber and Skype spring to mind here).

Blockchain-based projects which aim to ‘decentralize the internet’ and give users more control over their data are part of an exciting peer-to-peer movement which could re-sculpt the shape of the net. But these innovators are entering unchartered territory (a wild west, if you like), and an open and permissive regulatory culture is essential in allowing them to flourish (or fail).

Were Europe to grasp this, the benefits could be enormous. But if European policymakers carry on down their current path of tightening control, we’re likely to see less entrepreneurship, less competition, reduced consumer utility, and probably a lot more Google.