Blog RSS

The Pin Factory Blog

"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Sir Arthur C Clarke giving wings to the imagination

Written by Dr Madsen Pirie | Thursday 20 March 2008

arthurcclarke.jpgOf the three greats of post-war science fiction, Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov, I was fortunate to meet two of them – Clarke and Asimov. The passing of Sir Arthur C Clarke, aged 90, marks the final end of that era. These were the writers who stretched the imagination and let it soar. They
were the companions of my boyhood, radiating an optimism that planted itself deep.

The backdrop of their stories was that humans will always face danger and adversity, but can win through by force of character and ingenuity. They radiated the sense that humanity can solve its problems by a combination of creativity and effort; if people apply themselves they can overcome the difficulties that assail them.

Clarke himself was a futurist as much as a writer. He was more realistic than the others, in that the things he described seemed more possible and more immediate. From the geostationary TV satellite to the space elevator, his imagination created the technology of the future, and it spurred people on to help bring it about.

None of the three saw a limited future for humankind, or one where humanity learned to live within its means. On the contrary, they saw our descendents making the universe their canvas and painting an unlimited future upon it. They profoundly affected the psyche of their generation and its successors; we shared their dreams and couldn't wait for the opportunities and choices they would unfold.

Rest in peace, Sir Arthur, and thank you.

View comments

And another thing...

Written by Junksmith | Thursday 20 March 2008

The doctor's taken me off my antidepressants. It hasn't affected me at all, but suddenly my husband's become a complete idiot.

View comments

Blog Review 541

Written by Netsmith | Wednesday 19 March 2008

There's something really a little odd about the current financial shenanigans, based as they are, at root, upon mortgages in the US. As is being noted, here and here , it's not quite right to think of the US as having a national mortgage market: it's a series of discrete regional ones.

Explaining why the Bear Sterns share price is above the offer from JP Morgan. It's bondholders willing to take a loss on the equity in order to ensure that the bonds don't default. Morgan might even sweeten their offer.

Excellent (if almost certainly apocryphal) advice on how to deal with hecklers. 

An interesting report of the Arctic ice melting, the seals vanishing and so on. From 1922. 

Arthur C. Clarke has died. A nine word obituary from one of his own stories. 

It will be fascinating to see whether this here internet thing along with blogs manages to make this campaign work. Does the manner in which the Chancellor raised alcohol taxation mean that he should be barred from every pub in the country?

And finally, if this is his first published piece then I think we've got a lot to look forward to. 

View comments

The Conservative approach to public services

Written by Tom Clougherty | Wednesday 19 March 2008

Many people seem to have misunderstood the Conservatives' approach to public service reform. All their announcements are so carefully couched in compassionate, centrist rhetoric that people often miss the radical ideas at their core. Their recent green paper on the penal system is a good example. The headlines were all about rehabilitation: had the Tories had 'gone soft'?

In reality, the proposals were exciting ones. Public sector prisons would be made independent 'Prison and Rehabilitation Trusts', with a single governor responsible for prisoners, both during incarceration and after release. These trusts would be paid by results, with a premium awarded if the prisoner is not reconvicted within two years. Similarly, drug rehabilitation would be contracted out to the private and third sector (again, with payment-by-results). This is an excellent example of how market incentives and private-sector discipline can be introduced into government activities, unleashing powerful forces to drive improvement.

With these green papers, clear themes are beginning to emerge in the Tory approach to public services, from crime and welfare to health and education. The first is autonomy and accountability. So schools and hospitals would be freed from government control, and full responsibility vested in head teachers and hospital chiefs. The second theme is payment-by-results: these newly-independent hospitals (or prisons or benefit agencies) would be paid according to outcomes, giving them an incentive to get the best possible success rates at the lowest possible cost.

The third theme is a much greater role for the private sector. The proposed 'supply-side revolution' in education would allow the private and voluntary sector to set up new schools and receive per-pupil state funding. Private sector healthcare companies would compete freely with NHS providers on the same payments tariff. The delivery of welfare-to-work schemes would be contracted out. The fourth theme is addressing the asymmetries of information that exist in public services. Thus, for instance, the Tories would introduce 'crime-mapping' so that residents had a clear picture of crime in their area, and could really hold police chiefs to account.

So – autonomy and accountability, payment-by-results, private sector competition, and greater transparency. They seem like good principles to me. 

View comments

Common Error No. 65

Written by Dr Madsen Pirie | Wednesday 19 March 2008

65. "Drug patents should be scrapped so third world countries can access them."

pills.gif Scrapping drug patents would be a sure-fire way of reducing the number of therapeutic drugs being developed and marketed. Pharmaceutical firms research new ones to bring future profit streams for their company. The scientists might work from commitment or for peer group respect, but company money provides the research facilities, the equipment, the grants and the salaries.

There is a compromise between allowing the drug companies to recoup their costs and show a return, and allowing them to exploit monopoly prices. At present they are allowed 20 years of patent protection before other companies can copy their work and produce generic equivalents. The research company has to recoup its investment within that time before it faces competition from low cost variants of it drug.

In practice their 'protected' time is shorter. The process of testing and trials, of attempting to establish product efficacy and safety, and the process of securing regulatory approval takes an estimated 12 years from when the patent is registered. That leaves 8 years of unique market exploitation, and it is why some drugs cost so much.

Poorer countries cannot afford these prices, and there are calls for them to be allowed generic copies. If this happens, the cheaper versions will rapidly leak into rich country markets, undermining the drug's and the manufacturer's profitability and their ability to continue to develop new drugs. Some drug companies have, however, reached voluntary agreements with poor countries, allowing controlled generic production for poorer patients.

The present compromise broadly works, and means that rich country patients pay high prices for drugs so that in a few years poor country patients will have access to them at lower prices. It means rich people have the first access to new drugs, as they do to everything, but it also means that poorer people can benefit from them later on.

View comments

Quote of the day

Written by Wordsmith | Wednesday 19 March 2008

America's abundance was not created by public sacrifices to the common good, but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes.

Ayn Rand

View comments

Blog Review 540

Written by Netsmith | Tuesday 18 March 2008

If anyone should doubt the basic tenets of public choice theory (that politicians do what benefits politicians, not constituents) then this little story should put them straight.

On a related matter, the winners of the most expensive MPs awards, broken down by staff allowances, postage paid, travel and so on. 

This might not be the wisest of all decisions. Increasing the demands upon company cash flows at a time of tightening credit. 

As the composition of the medical workforce changes there are going to be inevitable changes in how medicine is practised. 

On marginal tax rates: 7% of the working population face 90% marginal rates. And no, it's not the rich either. 

It's one thing to insist that people should be allowed to buy insurance. It's quite another to insist that they shouldn't. 

And finally, yes, you really can get pizza delivered in orbit. 

View comments

Common Error No. 64

Written by Dr Madsen Pirie | Tuesday 18 March 2008

64. "Freedom is all very well for the strong, but the poor and the weak come off worse without the state services."

In fact the poor and weak usually get the short end of the stick within the state services. With limited resources and many claims on them, the best of the state service tends to go to the articulate and self-confident middle classes who know how to use the system. Under a system which allows these people the freedom to provide for themselves, the state can concentrate its scarce resources on those who really do need them. Universal services and benefits have to spread their resources thinly to everyone.

It is not just the "strong" who benefit from freedom. Most people benefit by giving effect to preferences and having competitors struggling to supply them. Everyone benefits by the improvement which innovations and new types of service bring when the service is private. It might be the strong who take the lead in demanding better services, but the improvements made as a result usually spread down to benefit others. It is the discriminating customers who improve the product, but everyone gains from the improvement. Even those who know nothing about electronics have their products improved by the actions of those who do.

There is good reason to suppose that if the poor and weak were given the same type of choices that others have, they would get better services than those doled out to them under universal state provision. Choice of schools, as in Sweden, leads to improvement in education and in parental satisfaction. Choice in healthcare would achieve similar improvement.

The weak can receive more support if resources are not dissipated among those who could do without it. It might be better simply to allocate money directly to the poor to enable them to command adequate services. The freedom to choose is as valuable to those in the lower economic strata as it is to the strong, for it gives them access to the better services they need.

View comments


Written by Tom Clougherty | Tuesday 18 March 2008

I'm currently reading the IEA's latest book, Prohibitions. Edited by John Meadowcroft, it tackles the whole range of prohibitions – from drugs and prostitution to the sale of body parts. It looks like an excellent (and timely) contribution to the public debate. You can get it here from the IEA website.

The introduction sketches out the general case against prohibition. The opening points are theoretical. Any restriction on what we are allowed to do with our own body "assigns partial ownership rights in citizens to the state", reducing individual liberty. Such prohibitions must therefore be considered very carefully, with "an assumption that government will not intervene, even if a good case for intervention can be made, other than as an absolute last resort." Without such an assumption, liberty can be gradually undermined by a series of well-intentioned and seemingly worthwhile interventions, "until it has completely disappeared."

Laws should instead be based on Mill's harm principle: the state should only prohibit things that directly harm others. Once that principle is breached, and autonomous individuals are prevented from freely choosing actions that only harm themselves, almost any intervention can be justified.

The chapter then outlines a series of practical arguments against prohibition. Firstly, prohibition places markets in criminal hands, imposing costs on the whole of society. Secondly, prohibition "increases the risk of already risky activities". Unlike legitimate corporations, drug producers have little incentive to ensure the safety of their product, and users must purchase drugs without adequate knowledge of their purity or contents. Similarly, prostitutes forced to work illegally are at much greater risk than those working in legal brothels.

Thirdly, prohibition criminalizes people who would not otherwise be criminals, by making illegal acts voluntarily undertaken by consenting adults. Fourthly, prohibitions divert police resources away from activities that actually harm third parties, imposing an opportunity cost on society and leading to higher taxes. Fifthly, prohibition increases public ignorance, making it harder for them to get the information required to assess the risks of a particular activity.

The upshot of all this is that "prohibition almost never works and is almost always counter-productive". I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the book.

View comments

Unethical climate science debunked

Written by Dr Fred Hansen | Tuesday 18 March 2008

The 2008 International Conference on Climate Change, which took place from March 2-4 in New York City, changed the momentum of man-made climate change scepticism. The groundbreaking event at Times Square, with 100 scientists and more than 500 attendees, exposed what were described as "absolute horror stories" with biased reporting, even in scientific journals. Science journalists were accused of "outrageous and unethical behaviour" with regard to the censoring or suppressing critical studies on climate research.

Among the many speakers in New York, three leading scientists presented solid, dramatic and verified new material completely refuting the myth that climate change was caused by mankind's production of carbon dioxide... The number of scientists attending the conference apparently well exceeded the number involved in the IPCC process... I felt touched by 100 scientists with the courage to put their convictions in writing to the United Nations' Bali climate summit. The scientists from 17 nations include internationally eminent climatologists – and authors of the scientific report prepared for the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) including some IPCC Lead Authors.

A new 'Manhattan Declaration on Climate Change' was initiated stating "that carbon dioxide (CO2) is not a pollutant but rather a necessity for all life." Senator Inhofe’s register, put together by the USA Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, already contains more than 500 scientists who previously endorsed the IPCC views but have meanwhile changed their mind. The sceptics have reached a consensus on four key points:

1) The Earth is currently well within natural climate variability. 2) Almost all climate fear is generated by unproven computer model predictions. 3) An abundance of peer-reviewed studies continue to debunk rising CO2 fears and, 4) "Consensus" has been manufactured for political, not scientific purposes.

Contrary to expectations the media coverage was excellent – that’s the new momentum.

View comments


About the Institute

The Adam Smith Institute is the UK’s leading libertarian think tank...

Read more