March 2006

24 March 2006
Did you catch that dodgy BBC documentary on estate agents the other night? Well, so did Rob Fisher who gives it a well-deserved fisking.


I liked this photo of Chris Tame who died this week. I found it on the web site of the Libertarian Alliance which he founded. It shows him in front of the Alternative Bookshop which he also founded. What I particularly like about it is that he's clearly very proud and clearly very fit - that mattered to Chris. He's probably got Elvis blaring away in the background.

The unabridged version of Sean Gabb's tribute to Chris is here.

When I linked to a set of aerial photos of Mexico City I did so partly because they seemed to indicate that things were going right for the place. Seems the numbers are also going right.

22 March 2006
"Why is the bread in Paris better than any that I can find in Washington?" asks Alex Tabarrok, initiating a wonderful comment thread.

20 March 2006
Home care

The government is planning to save money on casualty by giving better health advice to patients with chronic diseases - the idea being that, armed with this advice, said sufferers are less likely to clog up casualty in future.


  • I sighed when I first heard this.  While, for all I know the aims of the scheme might be entirely laudable they will almost certainly fall victim to the law of unintended consequences.
  • Then it occurred to me that this really might be quite devious

So, the unintended consequences?
Well, who knows.  This is always the fun aspect of government policy - predicting where it’s going to hurt.  There’s bound to be more bureaucracy.  There may be inappropriate pressure put on doctors to dissuade their patients from going to casualty when they really need it.  There may be cases of patients being poorly advised and ending up dead.

The story right now is that there is a cash crisis in the health service.  At the same time there is a policy of trying to turn nurses into doctors.  It strikes me that the former may be being used as an excuse to introduce the latter

What makes you think that?
For starters the time lag.  The cash crisis is here and now.  An advisory service what with all the recruitment and training involved is going to take months if not years to make an impact.  Then there is the track record.  Rail privatisation being used as cover to introduce vertical fragmentation.  The War on Terror being used as cover to introduce ID cards.

Update 22/03/06
Dr Crippen also has some thoughts

19 March 2006
Some readers may remember me banging on about Vashti Bunyan's Just Another Diamond Day some time ago. They may also remember that I was very grateful to the hardcore fans who kept the flame alive by passing around the half-a-dozen or so vinyl copies in existence amongst their friends. So, you can just imagine my shock when I found out that Laban Tall was one of these clog-wearing wierdos.

17 March 2006
A cartoon
To any Muslim readers who should stumble across this I am sorry if you find my re-publication of one of the Danish cartoons offensive.

But I have to do it.

I am doing this solely because some people are trying to stop me. If freedom of speech were secure I wouldn't bother. But it isn't, so I will.

Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of modern Western civilisation. Without it, Western civilisation (which I think is a good thing) is doomed. But that freedom is currently under threat. It is, therefore, up to me and anyone else who values freedom, to show what we will not be bullied.

14 March 2006
Japanese People Pushers

If, for some reason, you can’t or don’t want to watch this video it shows some railway staff pushing passengers on to a train in Japan.

I was rather surprised by this.

Yes.  Although many of us have heard tales of passenger pushers (and a colour supplement photo of them from 20 years or so years ago remains seared into my conciousness) I have, despite moderately enthusiastic efforts, never actually seen them in action.  Nor have I heard people pushing described by a reasonably reliable commentator as an on-going practice.  I had started to think that it was something that had died out since privatisation, once again demonstrating the superiority of the free market both in general and on the railways.  But, no.  Worse still, the train is a Keio train.  Keio has never been state-owned.

So, on the railways, state=good; private=bad, then?
Well, not quite.  It may be a privately-owned train but that does not necessarily mean that it is on a privately-owned line.  And, anyway, I still have a couple of fall back positions should the need arise.

Keio (along with several other private railways) runs trains through the state-owned Tokyo subways.  However, the train’s livery looks a bit odd (to me) which tends to suggest it is not the sort of train that would end up on one of Tokyo’s subways (I know what those ones look like).

Subways with an “s”?
Yes, there are two of them (networks not lines).  One, Teito, owned by the Japanese Government and another, Toei, owned by the Government of Tokyo.  Don’t ask me why, I don’t know.  Mind you, for the best part of a hundred years the Waterloo and City line was not part of the London Underground, so the situation is not entirely without precedent.

So, your fall-back positions…

  1. It’s possible that the Japanese don’t mind being packed in a crowded train as much as we Westerners do - though I doubt it.
  2. But if they do, the chances are that it’s all down to fare control, which I am against

So, why did you think passenger pushing had died out?

  • Despite looking for it I didn’t see it on either occasion I was there (in 2002 and 2005)
  • JR have clearly made efforts to create more space on their trains
  • The Yamanote Line seemed less crowded than it did before
Seat folded out of use

Who are JR and what efforts have they made?
JR East, to give it it’s full name, was one of the companies created when Japan’s national railway was privatised (properly) in 1987.  Since then it has introduced 6-door carriages and carriages in which the seats are folded out of use at peak times.

What do you mean by “properly”?
I am trying to distinguish between the sort of privatisation in which you create a free(-ish) market and the sort of privatisation eg British rail privatisation,  where most things end up contracted out.  Contracting out and the free market are not the same thing.

So, how do 6-door carriages help increase passenger space?
They are quicker to load.  That means less hanging around at stations which, in turn, means that journeys times can be cut which means that more trains can be slotted into the timetable.

Yamanote Line in the peak

What made you think the Yamanote Line was less crowded?
Compare a report I wrote in 2002 with the photo (right) I took in 2005.  Mind you a (Japanese) railwayman friend was rather surprised when I told him what I’d seen.

What makes you think there is fare control in Japan?
See here

13 March 2006
The NHS Fast Track scheme

Last week, on his BBC programme, Sweeney Investigates, John Sweeney was looking into the government's Fast Track programme. This is the scheme in which NHS patients are treated by outside contractors. Sweeney, reckoned they weren't doing a very good job. Although he didn't say it in as many words the implication was that private enterprise can't deliver health care.

My take:
  • It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if there were all sorts of problems with this scheme. However, it would be wrong to think that this undermines the case for the free market

So, what sorts of things were going on?
Botched operations caused by surgeons brought in from abroad who didn't know what they were doing because they were unfamiliar with the language, procedures and equipment and, in some cases, hadn't been screened properly

How can this not undermine the case for the free market?
  • the thing being examined is not a free market; it's an example of contracting out (or out-sourcing as it is sometimes known). They are not the same thing even if they both get tagged with the same "private" label. In a free market the supplier is paid by the customer. Under contracting out the supplier is paid by the state which gets its money - lest we forget - by force. I am in favour of the free market but because I am against force I am also against contracting out.
  • the private ie real free market sector, is still very good.
What makes you think that the private sector is still very good?
The thing that really does it for me is NHS Blog Doctor. He is an NHS GP who blogs. He tells everyone he knows to take out private medical insurance. As he says:
When I started as a doctor, I could genuinely say to patients that they really did not need private health insurance. Better bed and breakfast perhaps, but the NHS still delivered. Now I tell people to keep up their BUPA payments whatever the cost. Sell your daughters into the slave trade if necessary, but do not forgo private medical insurance.
That's one hell of a recommendation

12 March 2006
Just in case there are any readers out there who haven't read about this already, apparently the Telegraph has taken down an article by Patrick Sukhdeo in which he made some (mild, if I recall correctly) criticisms of Islam, citing "legal reasons" …link
The NHS stiffs long-term patients. Another reason to be against it.

11 March 2006
They wanted to end selection by ability but ended up with selection by wealth. Another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences
10 March 2006
Thanks to Natalie for the thumbs up to my Q&As. I wasn't quite sure if they were as easy to read as they were to write, so it's nice when they are described as "exhilarating". Natalie is also quite right in thinking that they fit in with the Wiki. The idea is that by breaking down points in this way they can easily be copied and pasted into a new Wiki page should the need arise. At least, that's the theory...

06 March 2006
China headed for a crash? Tyler Cowen thinks so
04 March 2006
High-rise living - fine so long as the state keeps out

A McC ponders housing policy.  He thinks the tower blocks of the 1960s were dreadful but he has doubts about both the affordability, suitability and durability of the “luxury” appartments that seem to be going up all over the place.  He thinks there will come a time when people once again want spacious houses.

My take:

  • like most people I agree with him that the tower blocks of the 1960s were, in the main, dreadful
  • they were dreadful because, in the main, they were built and funded by the state
  • I rather like “luxury” apartments
  • The affordability argument is a red herring
  • I really don’t know if it is true that lots of things are being built to a poor standard these days or indeed to a poorer standard than in the past.  It would be interesting to find out
  • Apartments do not have to be rabbit hutches
  • I don’t know whether people want to live in spacious houses or not (I suspect they do)
  • The way to find out is to abolish planning

So, it’s all the fault of the state?
There are plenty of perfectly nice privately-owned and customer-financed high-rise blocks in the world.  Perhaps not so many in London (I wonder what the status of the Barbican is?) but plenty in North America.  There are also plenty of rotten low-rise estates owned or funded by the state

So, why is state housing so bad?
For much the same reason that most state enterprises are bad

So, why is the “affordability” argument in respect of luxury apartments a red herring?
Because although few can afford luxury apartments by increasing supply they help to reduce prices.

So, apartments do not have to be rabbit hutches?
No, according to a friend, in Singapore the average appartment is the same size as a 3-bed semi over here.  Probably doesn’t have a garden, though.  Even so, Singaporeans seem to find them perfectly adequate for bringing up families

How would abolishing planning help to find out what people want?
Because the abolition of planning would create a market in housing.  Developers would be free to experiment with all types of building in all kinds of places.  The varying profitability of these developments would tell them what was the best compromise between what people want and what they can produce

Why would profitability tell us what people want?
Because profit is good


Last night Channel 4 screened Downfall, the film about Hitler’s last days.

My thoughts:

  • It’s a great movie
  • It goes someway to explaining why the Germans followed Hitler for as long as they did
  • It demonstrates (for the first time I know about) the devastating effects of artillery
  • (I feel) it is at times a bit stilted.  (As I understand it) there are good reasons for this
  • It’s tempting to think: there but for the grace of God go we.  In other words, that it would have been, (indeed could be) quite easy for us to go down a similar path
  • That’s no reason to indulge in self-loathing
  • How did Traudl Junge get through Soviet lines?  She was (obviously) a woman and she was wearing an SS uniform - either of which (one would have thought) would have put her in line for a pretty hard time.

So, why did they follow Hitler for as long as they did?

  • He could sell them dreams.  For most of Downfall, Hitler is demented but on at least one occasion he calms down and convinces those around him that there are all sorts of secret resources that he can call upon and that all will be well.
  • (believing in his specialness) many had sworn oaths to him personally, which they felt honour-bound to obey.  Why, I don’t know.
  • The “stab in the back” myth of 1918.  This was the (laughable) idea that had the German Army kept on fighting it would have won.  The consequence was that this time around many were determined not to repeat that “mistake”

The devastating effects of artillery?
For example:

  • 60% of First World War casualties were caused by artillery
  • I have been told (here, I think) that a high explosive shell has the same energy on detonation as an express train travelling at 90mph - though not, sadly, the number of carriages
  • An HE shell will blow a man apart to such an extent that not a trace can be found.  That would have been the fate of the most of the 50,000 missing in action whose names are listed on the Menin Gate memorial at Ypres

Why the temptation to think that we could go the same way?
Because (it seems to me) that the British are not that different from the Germans

But that shouldn’t force us to question ourselves?
No, because:

  • No other civilisation has ever done any better
  • The economic forces that made the Second World War so destructive are the same ones that gave us the extraordinary prosperity (of all kinds) that we enjoy today. 

Stilted?  Why?
It seems to me that the film is entirely based on eyewitness testimony.  The upside is that we know that this is what actually happened.  The downside is that it jerks about a bit depending on which eyewitness supplied the testimony.  I am rather glad the producers avoided the temptation to make things up.  It is just too important that everything we see is true, or, at least, as near to the truth as we are ever likely to get.

The man who saved the world - when the Soviet Union's missile strike early-warning system developed a glitch …link
01 March 2006
Peter Briffa is having a go a George Monbiot. He thinks Monbiot it getting a bit too steamed up over global warming and the contribution made to it by aircraft. For what it's worth I have no idea if climate change is happening or not but if it is then there are fairly straightforward ways of dealing with it and they don't involve banning people from flying.

Incidentally, if climate change is happening then surely there ought to have been some victims by now? I seem to remember being told almost 20 years ago that micro-nations like Vanuatu and Tuvalu would soon be history but still they stubbornly hang onto their above-sea-level status.

Against the nurse assault law

Yesterday morning, GMTV was leading with the government’s plan to introduce a £1,000 fine for assaulting NHS staff.

My thoughts:

  • I’m sure there is a problem
  • This won’t solve it
  • The root cause is a lack of will to enforce the law (except under certain circumstances)

So, there is a problem with assaults on NHS staff?
Apparently so.  On one level it is difficult to believe - why assault someone who is trying to help you?  On another, I can believe just about anything is possible when the welfare state, nationalised medicine and a weak criminal justice system combine

So, what’s the Welfare State got to do with this?
I am not quite sure but it seems that wherever it goes, trouble follows.  Brian Micklethwait has some ideas on the mechanism

And nationalised medicine?
Queues - the curse of the NHS.  So bad they have to lie about them.  An acquaintance of mine spent 7 hours in casualty when his 1-year-old daughter broke her leg.  I think he could be forgiven for getting a bit emotional

And you reckon the criminal justice system is weak?
Well, less effective than it used to be.  How else could crime have gone up?

So, this new law won’t solve things?
We already have a law against assaulting NHS staff or anyone else for that matter.  It’s called criminal assault.  If the state is incapable of enforcing the existing law what are the chances it will be able to enforce this one?  And if it were capable of enforcing the existing law it wouldn’t need this one

But, isn’t there the argument that these types of “targeted” laws are more effective?
There may well be statistical evidence to back it up.  Unfortunately, one of the iron laws of politics is that as soon as you start using a statistical relationship to guide policy the statistical relationship starts to break down.

The other problem with laws like this is where it leaves the rest of us.  With a lower level of protection, one assumes

What makes you think that statistical relationships break down?
The classic example is the Phillips Curve.  Actually, that is the only one I can think of off the top of my head but it is a bit of a corker.  Some time in the late 1960s, someone (Phillips presumably) noticed that there seemed to be a relationship between inflation and unemployment: the higher the inflation, the lower the unemployment.  So, politicians increased inflation in the hope of lower unemployment - at which point the relationship broke down and they got both higher inflation and higher unemployment

What laws does the state have the will to enforce?
Any law that can be applied against people with money.  Taxes, smoking bans, planning laws, health and safety, for instance

Why does the state lack the will?
I am not quite sure.  My best guess is that for a good 40 years now, the state has been gripped by victimitis - the belief that people who do bad things are in fact victims of the (apparently) law-abiding and respectable.  Perhaps the result of reading too many whodunnits, who knows.  Anyway, the result is that the state will do almost anything to avoid arresting, prosecuting, convicting or punishing the perpetrators.  Instead it spends most of its time trying to convince criminals to become better people, not that this has been noticeably successful

Parking spaces more expensive than the cars parked in them - golly …link