It's wonderful how this profit motive thing works, isn't it?

That rocket which blew up was carrying a satellite aimed at aiding Facebook in delivering free, if limited, internet to the poor of the world. We are told this is a bad thing:

But if we’re slightly more cynical about the whole endeavour, it’s not hard to see why Facebook might be so keen to provide these services beyond its possibly genuine desire to create a more connected world. Facebook’s user base has reached near saturation point in the US and Europe, making countries such as Nigeria and India potential goldmines when it comes to new sign-ups. More users, and more user data, benefit Facebook in one extremely simple way – financially.

Like it or not, this financial consideration is a significant factor in the way that the company both provides its services and limits access to others. 

We see the same facts and consider them rather differently. In pursuit of filthy lucre, of gelt, a profit hungry organisation is now providing free, even if to a limited version of it, access to the internet to the poor (or perhaps will be when they can manage to loft a satellite). In the absence of this profit hungry company, motivated by absolutely no more that the desire to stack the cash ever higher in the vault, there would be no such internet access for the poor, limited or not.

At which point Hurrah! for greed and the profit motive say we. And it puzzles us deeply that people will fret over the motivation and not look instead at the actual result.

Then there's this of course:

So far so good, right? Well, kind of. Providing access to the internet is a noble cause, particularly in parts of the world where it is severely limited or even non-existent. But should this infrastructure belong to a private company like Facebook, or should it be state-owned and maintained? Far be it from me to question the true nature of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy, but no matter how charitable a cause Facebook is championing, its primary aim is to make money – often from monetising its users’ data.

That's just a rerun of an ancient argument. When steel and coal were the big important industries then the left said that government must control them. When the telephone landline network was important then the state must provide that. Now that the internet has mushroomed up entirely free of state interference (except, perhaps that starting point in Arpanet) and is important then of course the state must provide and or control it. Because anything important must be controlled by the state, no other reason.

But we do admit that we rather like, even though we disagree with, the underlying economic argument being used.

"So, these blokes over here will provide this infrastructure and service at their own expense and for free to users. Anyone who wants to build the same or similar is of course entirely free to do so."

"No, we must tax the people so the state can build it."

"Err, why?"



Richmond Times-Dispatch the largest-circulation newspaper to ever endorse a Libertarian Party candidate

As far as I can tell, the Richmond Times-Dispatch has a higher circulation than any other newspaper to endorse a Libertarian Party candidate for US President, something it did on Saturday when it threw its hat into the ring for Gary Johnson.

Here's what it said:

In this autumn of our electoral discontent, hope springs, as it so often does in the American republic, from unexpected precincts. Much of the country is distressed by the presidential candidates offered by the two conventional political parties. And for good reason. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton meets the fundamental moral and professional standards we have every right to expect of an American president.
Fortunately, there is a reasonable — and formidable — alternative. Gary Johnson is a former, two-term governor of New Mexico and a man who built from scratch a construction company that eventually employed more than 1,000 people before he sold it in 1999. He possesses substantial executive experience in both the private and the public sectors.
More important, he’s a man of good integrity, apparently normal ego and sound ideas. Sadly, in the 2016 presidential contest, those essential qualities make him an anomaly — though they are the foundations for solid leadership and trustworthy character. (At 63, he is also the youngest candidate by more than half a decade — and is polling well among truly young voters.)

I don't think Gary is going to win, and I usually think you should vote for the lesser of two evils—or save the time, if you're not in a marginal state—but there nevertheless is something very cheering about this endorsement. I hope that a solid vote for Johnson (or a solid expected vote) will push the other candidates toward more libertarian policies.

US Presidential Election 2016: what’s the worst that could happen?

For anyone who is economically literate, concerned about civil liberties, opposed to corruption and cronyism, in favour free trade and fiscal conservatism, supportive of peaceful internationalism, and/or in possession of a conscience, the 2016 US Presidential election is unlikely to produce a good result.

Hillary Clinton’s Democratic campaign amounts to a Frankensteinian attempt to create a powerful but confused and unnatural electoral monster. In essence, she is seeking to sew together a continuation of the Obama-era status quo, a pitch to the centre and disaffected establishment Republicans, a pandering to Sanders-inspired left-wingers, and a kids-gloves approach to populist dissatisfaction.

Donald Trump’s Republican platform is a hodgepodge of bad ideas. The central narrative and policies turn on isolationist-nationalism and authoritarian populism, exemplified by aggressive nativist rhetoric and opposition to immigration, international institutions, and trade deals. Trump also has a confused foreign policy, synthesising isolationism with erratic aggression.

This has been combined with the usual Republican package of tax cuts and deregulation. However, any continuity with conservatism is a veneer and should be of no comfort to principled Republicans. Trump’s proposed tax cuts are unfunded, and would add at least $10 trillion to the budget deficit. His enthusiasm for deregulation seems confused, given his platform’s support for reinstating Glass-Steagall. And a moderate-alienating social platform sits in uncomfortable tandem with Trump’s own ambivalence on these issues.

It is, therefore, ambiguous how either candidate would actually govern. Clinton is more predictable and will probably fall back on continuing Obama’s policies with a more hawkish outlook on foreign affairs. Platitudes and watered down policies will be offered to the left, whilst centrists and moderate Republicans will have to make do with stability.

A Trump Presidency would have uncertainty as its defining characteristic. It is impossible to tell which, if any, of his policies he actually believes in or intends to implement, even if his flip-flopping is set aside. Does he actually want to pull out of the UN? Would he actually rip up existing trade agreements? Would he really consider using nuclear weapons? Does he genuinely intend to build The-WallTM on the Mexican border and ‘Make Mexico Pay’? Does he really think he can ‘bring back jobs’ through protectionism? Has he even read NAFTA?

If his expressed views and attitudes are taken at face value, he remains unpredictable. Asides from the contradictions between his policies, his temperament and belligerence appear to pose something of a security risk. The exact nature of his isolationism is unclear, as is the extent and manner of any realignment in US-Russian relations. It is also unclear exactly how far any trade war with China would go. Many of his policies are also near impossible to achieve. Attempting to follow-through on banning Muslims from entering the USA, building The-WallTM, and mass deportations will cause chaos.

Even a Republican controlled Congress is likely to resist Trump’s most draconian and nonsensical policies. Trump is likely to respond by trampling any constitutional restraints. Civil disobedience and resistance would be likely, as would spiralling cycles of violence. And if, as is likely, building a 2000-mile wall and deporting 11 million people cannot be done, the frustrated response of Trump’s base could be very dangerous.

Given all of the above, and how objectionable and destructive many of Trump’s policies are in themselves, a Clinton win is the less bad option. Whilst the Democratic platform falls somewhat short on civil liberties, surveillance, and criminal justice reform, it is at least not flirting with fascism. Likewise, whilst Clinton has embraced populism on trade (a reversal that exemplifies her lack of consistency and principle) and has picked up fiscally irresponsible ideas (such as ‘free college’) from Sanders, her budget adds less to government debt than Trump’s, and she at least doesn’t seem to be under the impression that she can personally manage a multi-trillion dollar economy as a dictatorial CEO.

It is also important that Clinton does not win an overwhelming mandate. The very real flaws with her candidacy should be reflected electorally, and her ramshackle coalition should not be proven viable. Paradoxically, Trump must also lose by a large margin. If Trump loses by anything less than a landslide, his impact on the Republican Party will be deep and permanent. It will remain a nativist-populist party, with any commitment to small government, fiscal responsibility, individual liberty, and tradition a distant memory. He will also have succeeded in making openly bigoted and inflammatory discourse, as well as uninformed and fantastical policies, mainstream and electorally viable.

Trump must receive less than 40% of the vote, whilst Clinton should not win more than 50%, with the gap being filled by third party candidates. In an ideal world, the Johnson-Weld ticket would win by a landslide (and a sane Republican Party would have nominated them itself). As it is, this is a somewhat unlikely result. However, the opportunity for the Libertarian Party to make a significant breakthrough is real. It is worth remembering that Ross Perot received 19% in 1992 and George Wallace received 13% in 1968.

If Johnson can break double-digits, dissatisfaction with the two main parties, and the importance of a fiscally conservative but socially tolerant bloc, cannot be ignored. I would say the same of the Green Party, as a principled liberal-left is desirable, if it were not for Jill Stein’s apparent commitment to the kookiest and most irresponsible aspects of the eco-left.

This election may not provide any good options. But it’s clear what the least damaging result would be.

How distressing that we should have to defend Keith Vaz

We are not in favour of Keith Vaz. This would be a mild statement of our attitude to him in fact. However, we do find ourselves having to step into the breach here and defend him. For we find it impossible to understand what it is that has been done wrong here.

The allegation is that he entertained, and had sex with, one or more men. Drugs were taken and cash changed hands. To which our reaction is, yes, and?

Freedom and liberty mean that consenting adults get to do what consenting adults wish to do. As long as there is no damage to people not consenting (or those not capable of consenting) that is, to us, the end of the matter.

One of the great advances in such freedom and liberty in recent decades is that men who wish to have sex with men may do so without fear of the law. A part of that great movement to take consenting sex of all kinds out of the grip of the law in fact.

The drugs, those allegedly actually taken, were and are legal, poppers. Cocaine, currently illegal, was apparently discussed - but then we think that cocaine should be legal anyway, see above about consenting adults.

Which leaves the cash issue - and again our question is, and? Any one of us is at liberty to swap bread with anyone we wish either as a mutual exchange of some sort or for cash. The giving of back rubs for mutual pleasure is legal as is charging cash for them - as the existence of one sort of massage parlour proves. That cash changes hands in the other sort of massage parlour we know but consider it to be that very same thing. 

Or to put this another way, consenting adults get to do as consenting adults wish and we don't see that the intermediation of cash makes any damn difference.

And that is what the law is today. Cash for sex is not illegal as it should not be.

As at the top, we are not in favour of Mr. Vaz. And the thought of him fired up and "very horny" is not one that is improving our appetite for breakfast. Yet why is it that consenting adults should not be getting on with whatever it is that consenting adults wish to get on with?

Which leads us to one final point:

VETERAN Labour MP Keith Vaz last night stood down from chairmanship of the Home Affairs Select Committee after he was exposed for paying young men for sex.

The married father-of-two was caught meeting two Eastern European male prostitutes, believed to be Poles, for sex eight days ago and boasting about having unprotected sex, according to a newspaper.

Mr Vaz, 59, has been chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee – which monitors crime, immigration and drugs policy - for nearly a decade. He has previously said he is ‘not convinced’ men who pay for sex should be prosecuted.

The committee is currently overseeing a major shake-up of the UK’s prostitution laws.

Why would we want to stop a politician who actually knows something about the subject under discussion from taking part in a discussion on that subject?


There's a reason we invented farming you know

The season for trooping off into the forests to pick mushrooms is upon us. And the signs telling people that they will be prosecuted if they do so are even now being nailed up. For there really is a reason that we invented farming, along with that concept of private property, all those millennia ago. That reason being something that Garrett Hardin made rather a fuss of and Elinor Ostrom gained her well deserved Nobel for.

Marxian access to a common resource only works up to a point:

Twenty years ago, no commercial fungi foraging was carried out in Britain. By 2013 it had risen to such a scale that there were 20 successful prosecutions for illegal fungi-picking in Epping Forest alone, with one person being caught with 20 sacks of mushrooms. Those found guilty were fined sums of around £200.

But many foragers insist that their handiwork does no harm. Carried out in a responsible manner, it causes no damage. It is the equivalent of the blackberry gathering that many families enjoy at this time of year, they argue.

But this is rejected by fungi expert Professor Lynne Boddy, of Cardiff University. “People say picking fungi is just like picking blackberries off a bush. But it is not,” she said. “Plants like the blackberry bush evolved to produce fruit that contain their seeds, which birds and animals eat and transmit through their droppings. These berries exist to spread seeds.”

By contrast, most fungi transmit their spores in the wind.

Hardin made the more basic point - as demand rises on such a common, open, resource we end up with a problem. With no limitation upon who may take what or how much the resource will be exploited beyond its capacity to regenerate.

Take, for example, fisheries. When technology is simply a line and a hook, then all who wish can fish the seas. When technology is vast nets which scoop up everything then some limitations must be placed upon extraction. The economic imperative for each individual player is to go get some while there is some left. This leaves none to regenerate for the next season. 

It doesn't matter what the resource is. When demand is low then that Marxist, open for all to fill their boots, access is just fine. When demand starts to meet the limits of what the resource can provide then some form of regulation is necessary. Hardin tells us that we must either have private property or government regulation - what he called capitalist or socialist methods of resource management.

Either works, dependent upon the specific resource we need to manage.

Ostrom proved that a third possibility exists- communal management. Voluntary  cooperation that is - and it does work, up to a certain size. When the group doing the managing, and self-limiting extraction, rises above a couple of thousand people then that system to breaks down. The group is too large to be self-regulating and we are back in the economics of the hunter gatherer and the stripping of the resource before someone else comes along.

Going off foraging is fun - the mushroom hunt is a central part of the folk and family experience in many parts of central Europe, just as the blackberry thing is in rural England. But all depends upon the volume of people descending to do it and the volume they wish to take when they do.

There really is a reason we invented this exclusionary clause in private property and farming. Simply because there's too many of us to be able to maintain that open access to that common resource. If we do try to maintain that Marxist access then the resource will disappear. Just as the cod did from the Grand Banks.

Sadly, Sarah Wollaston seems not to understand the basics here

Sarah Wollaston may indeed be a GP as well as an MP. But she seems not to have grasped the first and most basic thing about the relationship between economic and health inequality:

In her first speech as prime minister, Theresa May promised to tackle the nine-year gap in life expectancy between rich and poor, placing this at the top of her list of burning injustices. This yawning inequality has defeated successive governments, and the gap is even wider between rich and poor for years lived in good health. Closing it will require action across areas such as poverty, housing and education, as well as those more conventionally thought of as affecting health. May will need to start early and look far beyond the short-term political cycle for results.

In that little image above the point is made that analysis is a part of public health. why is such and such happening? This is a larger point as well of course, only when we have worked out what is happening and why can we even dream of trying to do something about whatever it is. Or even decide whether to do something.

And here, looking at lifespans and incomes there's one hugely important point being missed.

It's entirely true that the rich generally live longer than the poor. But why is this? Some part of it is undoubtedly that better diets, less self-destructive behaviour, leads to a long life. But is is also true that chronic illness leads to poverty.

We cannot thus insist that reducing economic inequality will equalise lifespans - simply because it is unequal lifespans and health which is one of the causes of income inequality.

As is so often true both processes are going on at the same time. And until the public health advocates start admitting that we should pay very little attention to them. Simply because they're not being serious.

Ireland might bring in citizenship by investment

The recent decision by the UK to leave the EU gives it the opportunity to make major reductions in its Corporation Tax.  It could cause problems for Ireland if the UK were to match its 12.5%, and even more if it were to lower it as the ASI has recommended, first to 6.25% and then to zero.  Investment that presently goes to Ireland might head for the UK instead.

Ireland could counter this by introducing citizenship by investment, as several other countries do. Presently Irish citizenship is only available to those with an Irish grandparent, or to those with a 5-year residency qualification, or 3 years with an Irish spouse or civil partner.  Residency with the intention to remain resident is also required.

Ireland could extend this by offering fast-track citizenship to those prepared to invest substantial sums in the Irish economy, or to create a significant number of Irish Jobs.  By doing so, Ireland would be emulating several countries worldwide which offer citizenship in return for investment.

The US awards 10,000 green cards annually (designated EB-5) to those who invest $1m, or $0.5m in a designated area of high unemployment, and who create at least 10 US jobs.  Several EU members have similar schemes.  Among the most accessible are Malta and Cyprus.  Malta offers 1,800 visas annually to those who invest €1.15m (of which €350,000 must be in property and €150,000 in government bonds), with a requirement to be at least a part-time resident.  An EU passport can be issued with a year.  Cyprus requires an investment of €2.5m and can fast-track a passport inside 3 months.

Other EU countries that do this include Austria and Bulgaria.  Worldwide one of the most successful second passports is offered by St Kitts and Nevis.  Those who contribute $295,000 to help their industry diversify from sugar, or who invest $500,000 in property, can secure a passport without any residency requirement.

The Maltese, Cypriot, Austrian and Bulgarian options all offer EU passports allowing free movement to live and work anywhere in the EU, and an Irish passport would do the same.  This would make it an attractive option, especially given that English is its main language.

While the Adam Smith Institute, unlike the European Union, does not make a habit of intruding on the sovereignty of independent nations, it does suggest that the government of Ireland might at least investigate the possibility of instituting a citizenship by investment programme.  It would create investment and employment to counter-balance any problems caused by the UK's new-found ability to make itself more attractive

Vaping isn't perfectly safe - and?

The latest piece of medical hysteria about vaping has arrived - with the finding that the consumption of a stimulant restricts the aorta. This apparently is sufficient to mean that vaping should be banned, or at least restricted, and therefore many more people should die from smoking:

Vaping could be as bad for the heart as smoking cigarettes, a new study suggests. 

The findings triggered warnings that electronic cigarettes may be “far more dangerous” than was thought.

Trials found that a typical session using a device caused similar effects to the main heart artery as smoking a cigarette.

This is not in fact a stunning finding. Stimulants tend to do this:

Researchers said a a typical vaping session had a similar impact on stiffness of the aorta - the main artery into the heart - as smoking one regular cigarette.

Lead researcher Prof Charalambos Vlachopoulos, from the University of Athens Medical School said: "We measured aortic stiffness. If the aorta is stiff you multiply your risk of dying, either from heart diseases or from other causes.”

Nicotine is a stimulant, stimulants tend to do this, nicotine will do this. 

As our friends at the IEA have pointed out, this isn't the point about vaping anyway. We have a stimulant that large numbers of people enjoy, a stimulant which is legal and a stimulant which will kill some large percentage of those who partake of it. Vaping is a safer, not safe, manner of taking that stimulant.

Of course it should be legal. In fact, given the greater safety it should be subsidised in theory.

It's worth noting that those nicotine patches, which we do subsidise through prescriptions, have very much the same effect on the heart. Because they're a nicotine delivery system and nicotine is a stimulant.....

In defence of Richard Branson’s honour

John McDonnell has, as is not unprecedented, suggested introducing a bad policy. As the drama surrounding ‘Traingate’ continues unfolded, McDonnell responded to Richard Branson’s intervention by floating the idea of stripping him of his knighthood.

Writing in the Sunday Mirror, McDonnell described Branson as a “tax exile who thinks he can try and intervene and undermine our democracy”, and went on to write that:

“But the whole purpose of the honours system is undermined when the rich and the powerful can collect their gongs without giving anything back. It’s even worse when tax exiles are given honours.
And tax exiles should not be allowed to keep the privilege of an honour or a title. It should be a simple choice for the mega-rich. Run off to tax exile if you want. But you leave your titles and your honours behind when you go.”

There are a few things wrong with this. It is certainly not the case that Branson has given nothing back. His tax arrangements do not invalidate his contributions. And he has every right to “intervene” in “our democracy”.

It is true that Branson is a “tax exile”. He is a resident in the British Virgin Islands and pays no income tax. However, this is perfectly legal and McDonnell is not accusing him of tax evasion. Virgin Group, the conglomerate that owns the various Virgin enterprises, does pay millions of pounds in UK tax, as do many of its subsidiaries.

Virgin Group employs around 50,000 people worldwide, many of them in the UK. Subsidiaries of Virgin, such as Virgin Mobile and Virgin Money, provide a plethora of services to millions of people in the UK. In fact, since the 1970s Virgin has operated in the music, aviation, and telecoms industries before selling its share in its subsidiaries. Many of these, such as Virgin Media and Virgin Records, still exist today under different ownership. Virgin, and Branson personally, have also made significant contributions to charitable causes.

Even if Branson’s tax status is problematic, that doesn’t trump these significant contributions. Even if the law is in need of reform, that doesn’t make what Branson is doing especially objectionable. People are not, and should not be, under an obligation to pay as much tax as possible, above and beyond what is required by law.

As for Branson’s “intervention”, I’m not going to comment in detail on Traingate. However, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the situation, as someone with a stake in businesses based in this country, Branson has every right to “intervene”. And, in any case, ignoring the opinion of everyone who is not resident in the UK is a horribly insular vision. This applies just as much to Branson’s “interventions” on matters such as the EU Referendum and drugs policy, and equally to those of other informed parties.

McDonnell also succeeds in the muddying the waters by mentioning Sir Philip Green’s tax avoidance. Whether or not Green is at fault over the BHS pension deficit, it is a separate issue from his tax affairs. His conduct, and whether it warrants the loss of his knighthood, should be judged without reference to tax.

Stripping legal tax avoiders of honours sets a bad precedent. Does minimising your tax bill invalidate job creation, providing services to millions, sporting achievements, public service, or community work? Or would McDonnell only strip honours from people the Labour leadership dislikes? The idea that your “contribution” can only be measured by, or trumped by, the amount of tax you pay is dangerous and ignores the fact that the state is not identical with society.