My hotel in New Delhi is in the leafy diplomatic district of Chanakyapuri. Some of that extensive foliage nearly took me out today when a tree fell in front of my Uber on the way to visit the Red Fort. Effete Westerner that I am, I thought the driver would turn around and find another route. However, he got out first to check on the welfare of a gardener who had barely managed to jump clear. Then he helped him, along with various auto-rickshaw drivers whose way was also blocked, to pull the large tree to the side of the road so that traffic could pass. For a wiry bunch who looked none too well-fed, I have to say those Delhi-ites were strong chaps.
There was a big police presence outside the US Embassy compound as we continued our journey. Perhaps that was something to do with the attack on the Embassy in Beijing an hour or so before? It didn't add too much to the already dense traffic in my way.
The Red Fort is a disappointing, poorly maintained and rather shabby affair compared to the splendours of the Amber Fort. It's still a military complex and has heavy security. It was a bit disconcerting to see sentries standing in metal cabins with guns poking through firing slots. It needs some imagination to picture its former glories, whether as home to Mughal emperors or as a garrison for the British Army.
It's certainly large enough. There's a lot of grassy open space which was, after recent heavy rains, an implausibly deep green. At the entrance to the complex, after separate pat-downs and metal detector screenings for men and women, you arrive in the covered bazaar which used to cater to the ladies of the Emperor's Court by selling jewellery and clothing. Now its tenants aggressively sell souvenirs to the masses of tourists who pass through every day. Some of the handicrafts were not bad and I might have bought more than I did if I had not developed a serious aversion to the pushy tactics of Indian shopkeepers. Given time to browse and a little attention to what I was actually looking for, I would have opened my heart and my wallet. As it was, it wasn't long before I was repressing a powerful urge to bark Anglo-Saxon and leave empty-handed.
I am glad that I have seen the Red Fort but, having checked it off the list, will not be making any special efforts to return. I enjoyed rather more my transfer by auto-rickshaw to Connaught Place for lunch and a bit of light shopping. Having watched the drivers of these nimble vehicles tootle in and out of traffic comprised of heavier, stronger cars, buses and trucks, I was curious to see how it felt for their passengers. It felt like a fairground ride! My long legs didn't easily fit but I soon found a way to get them entirely onboard after nearly being kneecapped by a passing Delhi bus! The bus drivers are apparently notoriously aggressive even in a driving culture where everyone appears homicidal, suicidal or both!
After lunch in a hipster cafe (which served a decent paneer tikka) I took a stroll to get in some exercise and headed back to the hotel to relax and prepare for my final dinner in India on this trip.
It's a fascinating country and, d.v., I shall return. I've seen a lot of interesting stuff during my short visit, but there's an entire sub-continent to explore! Next time I will come in Winter though and be less hesitant even then about sacrificing sartorial propriety to comfort! I shall also practice the polite, arm-at-45 degrees, palm open toward the offender gesture that I saw Indians use politely to warn off hawkers, beggars and (genuine or fake) tourist guides touting for business. Getting annoyed only amuses them. Expressing that annoyance only lowers you in the eyes of passing members of the majority of polite and friendly Indians who find them just as annoying as you do.
As for the various scams I encountered, it seems churlish to worry about them after taking into account the excellent value offered by the hotels, restaurants, guides and taxi companies who took such excellent care of me. In any case the total losses amounted to less than the rip-off perpetrated by a currency exchange desk at Heathrow Airport. Next time I shall also order my rupees well in advance!
Today I travelled to New Delhi from Jaipur via Agra. My friend and I wanted to visit the thousand-year old step well called Chand Baori and – of course – the Taj Mahal. After breakfast we checked out from the hotel at Jaipur and headed out front to meet the car and driver we had hired. We set off at 10 am and arrived at Chand Baori at about 1145 am. First we visited the Harshshat Mata temple in the same village and then headed to the step well.
Up until today, I had not been much troubled by people hassling me in the street. That was probably because we had a professional guide with us in Jaipur and he had waved them off. At the step well we declined the services of a pleasant young chap outside and headed straight in. A wilier older "guide" simply started to provide the service unbidden. He wasn't very good at it, but I reasoned that the economy of refusing to pay his modest fee was not worth the grief of getting rid of him. I concentrated on my photography and he spoke mostly with my friend. When we were done, we paid him a modest sum and headed back to the car – where once we were underway my friend realised that her iPhone was missing.
We tried calling it in case she had dropped it in our car somewhere, but it had already been switched off – presumably to prevent the use of the "Find my iPhone" location feature. She set it to wipe its data on next connecting to the internet and cancelled her SIM. She recalled that our "guide" had bumped into her clumsily at one point and we realised that it must have been him who had stolen it. It was an old and damaged phone she'd just been using for India. Her brand new Pixel was safe so, sadder, wiser and determined to be less generous with beggars and service pests, we continued to Agra.
I reckon the first time I heard there was a place called India was when, as a boy, my grandmother produced an old Viewmaster 3D viewer with slides of famous monuments from around the world. The Eiffel Tower for France, the tower of Big Ben for England and – of course – the Taj Mahal for India. We've all seen it many times in photographs and films and I was braced for disappointment. As a photographer I was also apprehensive that I wouldn't be able to find an interesting new perspective on one of the most pictured monuments in the world.
The fact is, it's just as magnificent as every cliché says. The general shape cannot surprise anyone now but the context is attractive, the other buildings in the complex are appealing and the architectural details of the Taj itself are elegant. If you haven't been, I can't spare you the expense by telling you it's not worth it. It just is. Sorry.
We spent a happy couple of hours wandering around the exterior before returning to our car and continuing to New Delhi where we will spend our last day tomorrow before I fly back to London on Friday
This morning I set out again with my guide and our driver. Our destination was the fort in the village of Amer called either the Amer Fort or the Amber Fort. As the official website uses the latter, so do I. On the way, we visited one of the "step wells" that were built to provide access to deep-lying ground water in the Rajasthan desert. This particular example is called Panna Meena ka Kund and dates from the 16th Century. It is in Amer, below the fort.
Tourists who arrive early at the Amber Fort and are prepared for a long, tedious haggle can take an elephant ride around the complex. It begins and ends at a platform (ele-pad?) on the entrance side of the huge parade ground.
I wondered why there were so many forts close together and asked if they were remnants of local warfare but my guide said it was simply the policy of the Maharajahs of Jaipur to build a fort on a nearby hill to protect each and every one of their palaces. They built many to accommodate their wives or simply to suit the local seasons. Temperatures range from 1 to 49 degrees between Winter and Summer and the monsoon season has its own requirements.
It rained steadily as we toured the complex, which didn't seem to relieve the intense humidity, I was as wet from perspiration as I was from large, warm raindrops. The architecture of the fort features both Hindu and Muslim motifs. The Maharajas were Hindus but married into the families of Moghul emperors. The fort contains private quarters for each of the Maharajah's wives as well as a common area (overseen by his own quarters) where they could socialise. There are also receiving halls for his public audiences visible from behind discreet screens in the ladies' quarters.
From the fort we drove to Gaitor to visit the Chattris or cenotaphs. These are elaborate marble crematorium platforms; one for each of the late maharajahs of Jaipur. The most recent one dates from the death of the present Maharajah's father in 2011. They are not where each was actually burned however. They are monuments used for commemorations on the anniversaries of their deaths. As you might expect they are magnificently carved and decorated.
We had planned to visit more forts, but the humidity was getting to me and I asked to head back for an early shower. We made one final stop on the way to view the Jal Mahal or water palace on the Man Sagur lake. This is currently in course of restoration and its future use is uncertain.
I had a restful late afternoon working on my photographs and writing this and the previous post. This evening I am returning to what is now one of my favourite restaurants in the world.
I didn't make it to Rishikesh, alas. My friend in Dehradun didn't feel up to it, so I spent the day relaxing at my hotel. On Saturday morning, I took an early plane to Delhi and a connecting flight to Jaipur. It's off-season but this is part of the "Golden Triangle" of Indian tourism, along with Delhi and Agra, and is much more geared toward foreign visitors.
I had one of the ten best meals of my life in the hotel's signature restaurant on Saturday night. Once more I puzzled the waiting staff by abstaining from bread and rice, but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of an elevated version of local cuisine.
On Sunday morning, I set out on a guided tour of the city. We began with "the Palace of the Winds", a place that was used for the entertainment of royal ladies living in purdah. When the various festivals in the city were going on, they could view them from their seclusion through its many windows. There are no stairs. The various levels are reached by ramps along which the ladies, in their heavy attire, would be carried to the various vantage points. It's now government-owned and is one of the city's signature attractions. It's hard to get a different picture of something so much photographed, but I was pleased with this one. I was helped by the overcast skies which made for good, diffused photographic light all day.
From there we walked to the Jantar Mantar, not a palace but a set of enormous scientific instruments built three hundred years ago by Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh II, a man with a serious interest in astronomy and astrology. It's one of five astronomical observatories he built in North, West and Central India.
On the way there I took a tumble and measured my length on a funky Jaipur pavement. I had my camera around my neck and a backpack full of gear on my shoulder. As I fell in Peckinpah-time, I remember being mostly concerned about protecting my equipment. I fell on a telephoto zoom lens attached to the strap of my camera bag. Miraculously, it seems to be undamaged. Kind locals rushed over to help me up, but only my dignity was hurt. It reminded me of the endless prat falls in the comic strips of my Beano and Dandy-reading youth because it turned out I had – and what a cliché this is – slipped on a banana peel. Not only that but one discarded by the monkeys that raid the nearby fruit stalls!
At the Jantar Mantar (literally, "calculation instrument" but usually translated as "observatory") you can set your watch to Jaipur time by the huge sundials (adjusting by 32 minutes to get Indian Standard Time) or use huge globes set into the ground to determine the current position of the zodiac constellations. People have their photographs taken in front of the structure relating to their particular star sign. The object in the picture is the "giant equatorial sundial" which stands 90 feet high. This structure is used as the logo of the local council and features everywhere in the city.
Our driver then took us to the City Palace. This is still the home of the current Maharajah, a twenty-year old who went to boarding school in the U.K. but is currently studying for a degree on the East Coast of the USA. We toured the public spaces and some of the private rooms. Our guide was delighted to have an English car enthusiast to whom he could tell the story of a previous Maharajah who, when visiting London, was given the bum's rush from a Rolls-Royce showroom. He returned in full royal regalia and ordered six cars for delivery to Jaipur. When Rolls-Royce engineers arrived after six months for an after-sales servicing, they found he had given them to the city sanitation department to use for collecting rubbish!
Also prominently displayed are two enormous, elegant containers which accompanied another Maharajah to London for a coronation. He didn't trust the local water and so took then filled with Jaipur water for his consumption during his stay. One of the best parts of the visit was time spent with a local gentleman in the arts and crafts gallery of the palace. He demonstrated his skills with a "brush" with just one hair by executing a sketch and then showed us his work. I bought a splendid piece to add to my little art collection back home. Here he is, signing it with that "brush".
I spent today around Dehradun (known to the British in the days of the Raj as "Dehra" and often to the locals just as "Doon"). It's a lively city of more than half a million souls and the "interim capital" of the Indian state of Uttarakhand. The official plan is to build a new capital in the mountains, but I am told that may never happen (though the plan will probably never be officially renounced) because the politicians, officials and their families don't want to move to some soulless new town.
It's not a typical tourist destination. I'm here to visit a friend. I clearly stand out a bit from the crowd, though the attention – in this very polite country – is not unfriendly. I am just the subject of mild curiosity. After looking around a bit to get a feel of the place, I lunched with my friend at a mildly hip cafe and got another taste of Indian Indian food as opposed to the British Indian food I've been enjoying all my life. As my diet precludes carbohydrates at present, my food choices have not been entirely typical; no chapatis or naan bread, no potatoes or rice. However I have enjoyed the greater delicacy of the spices and the lighter consistency of the dishes. My friend reckons the British versions have too much tomato, butter and/or cream. Presumably our first Indian restauranteurs checked out our traditional diet and decided modifications were in order. Given the more sedentary lives we lead these days and the greater care many of us take with our diets, I reckon it's time for a reboot of British Indian cuisine but I'm sure no-one will do anything so radical on the say-so of a first time visitor on only his second day!
In the afternoon we visited the local Mindrolling Buddhist Monastery. This was founded only quite recently – in 1965 – by monk refugees from Tibet. I know little about Buddhism but I have always found its monasteries and temples attractive, soothing places. This one was no exception, though in the heat and humidity I was not quite as soothed as I might have hoped. I enjoy a bit of sunshine as much as the next chap, but I am not constitutionally adapted to it on quite this exuberant scale. I don't think I could have coped with it at all last year when I weighed forty kilos more! Despite this, I enjoyed my wander around the extensive site. I then drank a litre of water in a shady place before grabbing a taxi back to base.
In the morning, continuing the spiritual theme, I'm visiting the Hindu holy city of Rishikesh before returning to dine with my friend's family in the evening.
It has been a while since I visited a new country but here I am in India for the first time. Most English people think we have an idea of this place. It is writ large in our history, cinema, television and literature. We've all read "The Jewel in the Crown", right (or at least watched the TV adaptation)? We all have Indian colleagues at work or Indian friends or neighbours. We all eat "Indian food" (though mostly adapted to our tastes, apparently).
This is not a trip for Speranza. I dropped her off for her annual service before heading to the airport yesterday. I will collect her when I return to England in ten days time, fettled and fitted with an Apple CarPlay system to bring her up to date. I wanted to work in a road trip though, so arranged to transfer from Delhi airport to Dehradun by car. This was a six hour trip that allowed me to see Indian life at ground level in cities, villages and countryside. I was strongly advised not to drive here and, after my experiences today, I understand why. I am a libertarian, but Indian drivers tend more to outright anarchism. They drive on the left, mostly. If a junction is coming up on the right, they sometimes decide to get into position a mile or two early, however. If a motorcyclist in a town sets off from the right side of the road, he may just stay there. When emerging from a junction, the Indian driver's trust in fate is impressive.
To be honest, I rather liked it. The further we traveled and the more I observed the local techniques, the more I wanted to have a go myself. It would have to be in a hire car though and preferably a four-wheel drive SUV – ideally of military specification. I would also like it to have a very loud horn, because that's a more important component here than the steering wheel. From my observations today, it seems that the person with the loudest horn has right of way. The driver we encountered with a Dukes of Hazzard "General Lee" type horn seemed to take even higher priority so, ideally, my hire car would have one of those.
The motorised road users were fun enough but when we left Delhi things got even more interesting. I am used to seeing cattle as I drive through the English countryside, but only out of side windows. Here you can see them from the others too. The composure of Indian drivers, who never seem to look angry or surprised no matter how fast or erratically you drive at them is only exceeded by the bovine pedestrians and their relatives pulling the bullock carts. My driver cut in on one so sharply that I thought we must spook him but Indian bullocks are made of stern stuff. I watched him in the mirror as we pulled away and he was completely unperturbed. We also encountered a goat herd and his flock. He was one of the few Indians not clutching a smartphone, though he may have had one about his person somewhere. Nothing about his dress or his demeanour contradicted the idea that he had time-travelled in from the Biblical era. In the next village another chap – in thoroughly modern dress and clutching a cellphone – was lounging in front of his home petting a goat which seemed to enjoy being stroked as much as any pet dog or cat. It was an oddly touching scene.
My favourite road users however were the serene and elegant Indian ladies riding pillion on motorcycles – sidesaddle. As the guy in charge of the machine (safety-helmeted as none of them were) dodged in and out of traffic, they sat upright and calm, one hand resting gently on the pillion. The voluminous fabric of their outfits swirled in the wind with such graceful abandon that the fate of Isadora Duncan seemed certain to be theirs. Yet they remained as poised and stable as the Spirit of Ecstasy on the front of a Rolls-Royce – even those with a child or three in hand.
The other thing that struck me on the journey was the high value Indians place on education. There were more advertisements for educational programmes than for consumer products and seats of learning (some more impressive than others) were dotted along the route. I am told that many of the students are being exploited by scoundrels whose diplomas are not worth the paper they're printed on, but I couldn't help liking Indians for their enthusiasm for learning, however naive.
As we passed over the hills on the final approach to Dehradun, the road become rougher and yet more dangerous. A new tunnel is being built and our route seemed to be across the construction site. This did not deter my valiant driver. He tackled the unfriendly surfaces with such vigour that he managed to get all four wheels of his clunker of a Chevrolet "mommy van" off the ground at one point. If he has been driving it this way from new, it is a credit to its makers that it only looks as scruffy as it does. It had over 160,000 kilometres "on the clock" and he seemed determined to destroy it before it reaches 170,000.
We had already encountered a couple of monkeys in the villages down below but on the hill roads, they were legion. I am no naturalist, but watching their mutual familial care at the roadside was fascinating.
I didn't see much of Dehradun before we reached my hotel. The picture below is the view from my room's window. I shall take a tour with camera in hand tomorrow. For now, I have just enjoyed the view from the rooftop bar of the foothills of the Himalayas and my first taste (in the hotel restaurant) of Indian food without the "sneer quotes". It tasted good, but less creamy or buttery than the version for English palates. On my current diet, that suits me just fine.
For the duration of this trip, I shall not be blogging about politics. Given the mess the Government is in over Brexit, I am sure that will be as much of a relief to you as it is to me!
I am ideologically attracted to any alternative to fiat currency, which gives far too much power to the state. It's a power that has been ruthlessly exploited to steal (at least that's what it would be called if anyone else did it) from savers, investors and lenders by debasing currency through inflation. As Professor Philip Booth points out in the introduction to this book, the current pound coin when introduced purchased just 20% more than the "threepenny bit" from 1937 that it resembled. Under the "wise stewardship" of HM Government, the pound sterling has lost 98% of its value over the last century. The good old greenback that replaced it as the world's reserve currency has lost 85% of its value since 1971!
These losses are not caused by stupidity, but malice. Abandoning the gold standard and moving to currencies backed only by trust in the state gave untrustworthy states (that is to say all of them) the chance to tax secretly via inflation. So I would just love there to be a private alternative.
Currency serves three purposes. It's a means of exchange, a store of value and a unit of accounting. Historically it was either made of or linked to a substance (like gold or silver) that had an intrinsic value and a limited supply. Professor Kevin Dowd does a good job in this little monograph of explaining both how private currencies, including such cryptocurrencies as Bitcoin, work and why governments hate them so much.
He tells the story of two alternatives to the US dollar introduced by businessmen there; 'the Liberty Dollar" and "e-Gold". The Liberty Dollar was an actual coin (technically a medallion, because it didn't meet the legal definition of coinage) that was denominated in dollars and periodically revalued against them. People could exchange them for goods, hold them as a more reliable store of value because they were made of silver or gold, but couldn't really account in them because the relevant authorities wouldn't recognise them. The inventor, one Bernard von NotHaus, was trying to make a point about the US Government's abuse of its powers by providing a private, voluntary barter currency as an alternative. Liberty Dollars were not forgeries. They didn't pretend to be dollars. Indeed the whole point of them was that they were NOT dollars. They were something not merely different, but in key respects better.
By the time the US authorities stamped out the scheme and secured a 22 years sentence (vastly reduced on appeal) for Bernard, the people who held Liberty Dollars ended up richer than if they had held the "real" ones. He had made his point – in practical if not legal terms the authorities were the thieves – but he paid a heavy personal price to do so.
e-Gold went a stage further. Notes were issued against an actual reserve of gold held in London (to be beyond the reach of the US authorities). Doug Jackson, an American libertarian, came up with the idea – again neither to defraud nor even for personal gain – but to make a politico-economic point. Though holders of e-Gold again did better financially than if they had kept the dollars with which they bought it, he met the same fate. As Professor Dowd observes;
If one compares this case with the Liberty Dollar, one immediately notices worrying parallels: two decent businessmen operating out in the open, operating under the rule of law but trying to offer alternative monetary systems in one form or another, and both taken down by government agencies that were arguably operating outside the law themselves and have never been held to account – in essence, the victims of arbitrary government attack.
The ferocity of the government's response in both cases can only really be explained by its fear of citizens getting too close to a dirty secret. Economics is famously dull and few can be bothered to study it. Governments have, by the introduction of fiat currency, been able to hoodwink even quite intelligent citizens. We have accepted inflation as a fact of life (even though there was none for 300 years in the UK until we came off the High Gold Standard) and have somehow failed to connect it with the immorality of government policy. A couple of clever gents had to be "taken down" not for any actual threat they posed to the US dollar, but because their educational projects might just have succeeded in revealing the ethical horror at the heart of the Fed.
Hence Bitcoin, not actually the first cryptocurrency and now only one of many, but so far the best known. The ferocious use of state power to suppress earlier private currencies made it necessary for this new one to be utterly anonymous. Again, the motives were ideologically libertarian.
the designers of cryptocurrency sought to create not just a new currency, but a new anarchist social order
In the words of Wei Dai, the inventor of a Bitcoin predecessor,
the objective is to have a crypto-anarchy in which the government is not temporarily destroyed but permanently forbidden and permanently unnecessary. It's a community where the threat of violence is impotent because violence is impossible, and violence is impossible because its participants cannot be linked to their true names or physical locations.
Bitcoin has succeeded so far because even its inventor is anonymous, known only by the nom de guerre "Satoshi Nakamoto." It is completely decentralised. There is no central authority or organiser whatever. The "coin" is digital and uses public key cryptography. Authorising and tracking of transactions in Bitcoin is monitored by the community collectively. Before a coin changes hands, it is checked by the network to ensure that the user hasn't already spent it. As "Nakamoto" explained on its launch in 2009;
The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that is required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust ... A generation ago, multi-user time sharing computer systems had a similar problem ... Users had to rely on password protection to to secure their files, placing trust in the system administrator to keep their information private. Then strong encryption became available to the masses, and trust was no longer required. Data could be secured in a way that was physically impossible to access, no matter for what reason, no matter how good the excuse, no matter what.
It's time we had the same thing for money. With e-currency based on cryptographic proof, without the need to trust a third party middleman, money can be secure and transactions complete.
The other ingenious innovation is the way in which the money supply is limited. This it too technical for me to explain here without re-typing large parts of the book, but if you are interested (and by now I hope you are) you can read the whole thing in PDF format here.
Professor Dowd doesn't think Bitcoin will endure but he is confident that one of its competitors will and he believes it will not be possible for governments to suppress it. Paradoxically, given that the whole purpose of a crypto-currency is to evade state control, the more powerful the oppression, the more valuable it becomes!
A state can be defined as a "regional monopoly of violence" but if Wei Dai's dream of making violence impotent comes true, at least in this respect, it will no longer be of use. As Professor Dowd says;
If the state really wants to get rid of Bitcoin, it should eliminate the state controls that feed it, for example, if the state ended the wars on drugs and terror, reduced taxes, ended policies of financial repression and re-established the privacy of individuals' personal financial information.
We all know, whatever our views on the value of statism, how little any state wants to do that! In the end the value of a functioning crypto-currency beyond the reach of state violence may be to restore honest money in general. That, gentle readers, is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
I have been reading another of the books I snagged at the recent Think! conference organised by the IEA. You can read it too, online for free. It's a well-researched, well-reasoned piece of work. It won't please those on the Right or Left who rage at Auntie's perceived bias because it reaches a nuanced conclusion. Yes, the BBC has a bias but it's not a crudely political one. It's the predictable bias of the kind of middle class professional person who chooses to work in a public service broadcaster. In the chapter "Why is the BBC biased?" written by Stephen Davies of the IEA, he explains why people with views as radically divergent as, say, Owen Jones and I all feel that the BBC is against us;
...certain views are marginalised and either misrepresented or even ignored. It is not a straightforward matter of either left or right views being treated in this way. Rather, all views that are not in the conventional wisdom are slighted, even if they are widely held among the public. Examples from the right would be support for radical reform of the welfare system or the NHS; from the left, it could be the popularity of public ownership of utilities ... Certain views are clearly represented as being uninformed or exotic, such as scepticism about man-made climate change, hostility to immigration or doubts about the benefits of formal education. Sometimes this judgement may be true, but to simply ignore and disregard a view is actually counterproductive if your aim is to inform.
In addition there is an intensification of the structural tendency of the modern media to see political and intellectual divisions in binary terms. This leads to many perspectives being simply ignored or misrepresented. In the last 30 years for example, it has become part of the conventional BBC view that opposition to the EU is definitively located on the right. This means that the continuing and at one time prominent socialist critique of the EU is simply not represented. On the other side, opposition to immigration is thought to be associated with other views conventionally placed on the right, so that left-wing opposition to labour migration is airbrushed out, despite being common among many Labour voters. At the same time, the strong support of most free-market advocates for freer immigration is ignored and glossed over. In other words, the very existence of certain kinds of combinations of views is simply ruled out, and they are not even considered, despite being perfectly coherent intellectually and widely held.
The last discussion I had on immigration, for example, was just this week with a new friend who is an active member of the Labour Party. He is of the same vintage as myself and is a "Old Labour" socialist from the provincial working class that founded the Party. He is uncomfortable with the "Metropolitan elite" now in charge and is more scathing about identity politics than any Tory I know. He is firmly in favour of restricting immigration; believing that it has reduced working class wages. I, on the other hand, would be in favour of open borders if we could first abolish the welfare system that distorts the labour market and attracts unproductive immigrants. For so long as that system exists, I favour a liberal immigration policy that actively encourages skilled workers to come here, regardless of their origins, but offers no welfare benefits to first generation immigrants unless and until they have paid a minimum contribution into the system.
Neither of us fit the simplistic right/left BBC narrative, so our views never feature. He and I haven't talked about the BBC yet, but it would be perfectly understandable if we both thought it was biased. That wouldn't matter so much if the BBC was not (a) funded by state force and (b) the provider of 75% of all television news viewed in the UK. Though the internet is undermining its near-monopoly it still shapes the views of most voters, who rarely ignore its narrative. Hence Auntie's conniptions at the result of the EU Referendum. A decision was made on the basis of opinions outwith her conventional wisdom. It's from "out of left field" as our cousins across the pond say and must be wrong, or mad, or both.
So who are these people who choose to work for a public service broadcaster, bringing their unconscious biases with them?
The initial factor is the very narrow and restricted background of BBC staff, both of presenters and producers. The proportion who are privately-educated (and, by extension, upper-middle class) is several times the national average (Milburn 2014). Generally they come from professional backgrounds rather than commerce or business, much less from working-class households. Much of the critical comment on the narrow base from which the BBC draws its senior staff emphasises the lack of ethnic or gender diversity; but, while there is undoubtedly something to this, it is swamped by the social origins phenomenon. The women and ethnic minorities who do work for the BBC in roles such as producer, presenter and senior manager are likely to come [my emphasis] from the same kind of educational and social background as their white, male colleagues.
What this naturally leads to is a common shared set of beliefs and attitudes, deriving from common or shared experience. In a very real sense the conventional wisdom referred to earlier is the shared outlook of a specific social group or formation. The problem, of course, is that, in the absence of challenges or dissent from people from a different background, all kinds of beliefs remain unquestioned, with the status of 'obvious truth' or 'common sense' attached to them. These kind of unexamined assumptions exist at the level of general principles rather than particular issues. Examples might be that it is always good to help the less fortunate or that most social problems should be understood as having structural causes rather than being explicable through individual agency or action, or that business activity is a zero sum game. Moreover, once a particular set of attitudes becomes widely shared within any organisation, it tends to attract people who share them, and so the situation becomes self-perpetuating and reinforcing.
Then there is the fact that no-one who disapproves of an organisation funded by force would dream of applying for a job there. This is a problem for all state organisations, not just the BBC. I could not live with knowing that every penny I "earned" had been taken by force from my fellow men. I would be as ashamed of working for the Government or the BBC as I would be to work for the Mafia – and for the same moral reasons. I derive my self-respect from taking care of myself and my family and from being a burden to no-one. I am proud of the fact that every penny I have earned came from voluntary transactions with clients who had plenty of other choices. That is why it's difficult to get classical liberals of any stripe into Parliament, Whitehall or the BBC. The self-selected political and administrative classes comprise people who have no moral objection to living parasitically on their fellow-men. We can't expect such people to favour a smaller government, privatisation of the BBC or less state intervention in private life. If they did, they wouldn't be there.
Some may go into politics, the Civil Service or the Beeb with the honourable goal of relieving the burdens of oppressed taxpayers. Few stick to that objective. They will find most of their colleagues bemused by them while they are junior, fearful when they are senior and downright hostile if they come near the levers of power. If not independently wealthy (and why would they work in such mundane roles if they are) they will find themselves under financial as well as social pressure to conform. Their advancement is very likely to depend upon the approval of people who share the conventional wisdom.
This is an interesting book and worth a read. I would love to hear your views on it, gentles all.
I am reading one of the books I snagged at the Think IEA conference last weekend. It's called A U-Turn on the Road to Serfdom and it contains practical suggestions, based on the 2013 Hayek lecture by Grover Norquist, as to how we might effectively work towards a smaller state. In it Norquist remarks on the electoral effect of the Tea Party movement in the US.
There have been some very good studies about how this affected the voter turnout in places where you had rallies, compared with places where they planned a rally, but it rained, so it was cancelled. You could see that we gained between three million and six million voters in 2010 because of increased political activism: the idea of showing up, seeing other people, realising you weren't alone and that you weren't crazy was very important.
This struck a chord. I am an activist by inclination. In my youth, I was regional chairman of a Maoist school students organisation, Chairman of the Conservative Association at my university, marched to legalise homosexuality in Scotland and Northern Ireland and campaigned on political issues. Once my career became serious and I had a family to take care of, however, I eased off and became politically very isolated. I fell prey to the propaganda of the Left-Establishment orthodoxy. With only the BBC and the mainstream media to guide me, I came to believe that I was – if not alone – part of an unfashionable minority.
Then came the "War on Terror". The Islamic terrorists were rank amateurs compared to the IRA whose campaign I had lived through without once feeling civilisation was in danger. The Irish Republican terrorists were highly-trained (by the Soviets), well-funded (by Irish-Americans) and well-protected (by the Kennedy dynasty in the US, by judges in Germany refusing to deport them, by the Catholic Church refusing to excommunicate them and by its priests providing them with safe houses). The Islamic terrorists have money from their Arab and Iranian sponsors and some of the older ones were trained by the CIA during the Russian campaign in Afghanistan but mostly they are laughable InCel losers. Films like Four Lions and plucky Glaswegians like John Smeaton ("We're from Glasgow, we'll just set about ye") constitute an adequate societal response while law enforcement deals with them as the simple (in all senses) criminals they are.
I mourned the losses of my American friends in 9/11 but feared (presciently as it turned out) the nature of their likely response. I feared (even more presciently) that authoritarian opportunists would cynically use 9/11 as cover to attack civil liberties. How was one classical liberal with a family to take care of and a demanding career to take on Tony Blair, George W. Bush et al. as they – by appearing to respond manfully to panicked calls to "do something" – set about dismantling our freedoms? So, my activism revived a little and I started this blog.
I know. It's hilarious. One man writing from Moscow about the PATRIOT Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act and other such legal euphemisms, was going to make a difference, right? Well, I wasn't quite that dumb. I knew I was lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. I had no real hope that I would make a difference but I felt a moral obligation to chip in my two cents' worth. To be honest, I didn't want to die having stood silent while the civilisation I believed in was damaged. I don't believe that I have changed the world for the better but I have changed me.
I have experienced the warm feeling Norquist describes, of realising that I was neither alone in my views nor crazy to hold them, through fellowship with the readers of this blog and of others like it. I am not sure I have illuminated much with it, but I have kept that "little candle" alive and with it the hope that one day it will pass to someone who will be able to make the difference I have not. I hope the fellowship that has helped me so much has also helped my little band of readers. We have huddled together in the darkness and, at worst, we are still here and still thinking freely.
Though my little candle has not started any fires, those of other bloggers have. To light a fire you need – it seems – more incendiary views than mine. I have just finished reading Fatwa : Hunted in America by Pamela Geller for example. Her blog Atlas Shrugs, now renamed as The Geller Report, found a readership large enough for its advertising to fund campaigns that made a real world difference. She has become enough of a threat to merit (and I do regard it as a high honour) an ISIS attempt to assassinate her. Her security team killed both of her attackers. Her blog revenue also paid for those trained professionals to be there and do that. I envy her that.
Geller is not afraid. She is a feisty, aggressive, Jewish lady and will not back down in the face of what she fears is an embryonic Shoah, instigated by jihadists and supported by the Left/Liberal Western Establishment. She goes too far with her conspiracy theories. I no more believe that the Blairs and Merkels of this world are secretly plotting the downfall of the West than I believe in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Blair and Merkel do exist, alas, and their conduct does threaten the West but they are greedy fools, not traitors. Despite her imaginative excesses, Geller does great work in exposing the weakness of the West's leadership and the bias of the West's media. Her reward has been for ISIS to try to kill her and for mainstream journalists to "victim blame" her for that! Even President Trump publicly wondered in the aftermath of the assassination attempt (and this really is a compliment from him) why she was so provocative!
Meanwhile the social media giants seek to demonetize her online publications and to smear her relentlessly. Yet she remains, and this I can only admire, a spirited activist. I would be proud if I had pulled just one of her stunts: the one in which she put up two near-identical "hate sites" on Facebook. Every word on the sites was the same, except that one said "Kill the Jews" and the other said "Kill the Palestinians". Then she reported both pages to Facebook's team monitoring compliance with its Terms of Service. The "Kill the Jews" page remains, Facebook having ruled that it was free speech in compliance with its ToS. The "Kill the Palestinians" page was (but of course, did you ever doubt it?) taken down. She has cleverly proved the sinister bias in not just "The" Social Network but all the social networks. For another small example of that bias, I use an aggregator called Feedly for my daily reading list of news and blogs. I can't add the Geller Report to that list because Feedly doesn't recognise its existence. Yes, her website is there. Yes, her free speech is unimpeded. But I have to remember to visit her site because Feedly silently declines to accept it. Yet it would (and quite rightly) let me aggregate any number of hateful anti-Western sites.
Geller's book is not well-written. It is in her authorial voice, which is a tiring high-pitched scream. It's repetitive and just a wee bit narcissistic but it's really worth a read. Her career, whether on any given point she was right or wrong, illustrates clearly the anti-Western bias of the West's political, intellectual and journalistic leadership. While most of our citizens remain proud of the West's achievements, it really seems our elites are are subconsciously intent on civilisational suicide out of sheer self-loathing. Reading it made me feel guilty that, in pursuit of comforts she has cheerfully exchanged for physical danger and vilification, I have sacrificed so little to its defence.
For the last four years, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has held a conference targeted at students under the banner THINK. Despite my age and my not being in formal education, I attended the first in 2015. I felt a bit out of place but enjoyed it thoroughly. In particular, I have been thinking, talking and writing ever since about a speech by the IEA's Director of Education, Dr Stephen Davis about medical advances to extend human life, driverless cars and vertical horticulture.
When I saw that Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, would speak at this year's event, I signed up to go again. Yesterday morning I went to the Royal Geographical Society in London and, despite the bright sunshine (thank goodness the hall was air conditioned) spent an enjoyable Saturday. Quite apart from the content, I loved being in the company of so many earnest and intelligent young people interested in the key ideas of economic liberty. In my circle of contemporaries, discussion can sometimes be a Pessimism Olympiad driven by an economically-illiterate media and a governing elite whose hostility to liberty is played upon by parasitical, rent-seeking toadies. It was refreshing to be among youngsters full of hope and ambition. Even their naivety is not a bug, but a feature. It will lead them into areas of research that the cynical would dismiss too soon.
The full programme can be seen here. After introductions by the organiser Christiana Stewart-Lockhart (coincidentally a school friend of Miss Paine the Elder, whom I have known since she was a teenager) there was an amusing welcome speech by Mark Littlewood, Director General of the IEA. He referenced the late, great Hans Rosling's Ignorance Survey, which demonstrated that chimpanzees out-perform humans on multiple choice questions about key facts, because (as Rosling said) "Chimps don't watch the evening news". Fake news is not a new phenomenon. Mark quoted Gladstone as saying
Men are apt to mistake the strength of their feeling for the strength of their argument. The heated mind resents the chill touch and relentless scrutiny of logic.
Anyone who has ever attended a political debate in a calm state of mind will recognise the truth of that.
The next presentation was by Tim Harford. His book, Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, was in the goody bag and I will review it here when I get around to reading it. Given all the other books I picked up yesterday, that might be a while!
He made an interesting point about why the economic future is so hard to predict. As Galbraith said
the only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable
Tim put up a still from the original Bladerunner movie of Rachael, the "replicant" with whom the hero falls in love. He then showed the pay videophone in a bar on which the hero calls her to ask for a date and we all laughed. We often fail to understand that new technologies will not just slot into the familiar world but will change it and us. We also often think the dramatic, expensive innovation is the most important, whereas often it's the simplest and cheapest. While we all think of the invention of the printing press as the disruptive technology that gave us the modern world, he argued the invention of paper was more important. The Chinese circulated many scribe-written books on paper centuries before printing. Had all Gutenberg Bibles been printed on animal hides (as some were) a modest print run of 3,000 copies would have required the slaughter of half a million beasts! It wasn't the press that made mass literacy possible, but a cheap medium on which to print.
He gave several examples of new technologies that had no marked effect on productivity when first introduced. Decades later, when people worked out their possibilities, the real change came. Replacing the huge steam engine that drove a 19th Century factory with an electric one had only marginal effects at first in the US. Many industrialists that retained their old steamers probably thought themselves wise not to waste capital. It was only when the government cut off the supply of cheap labour by restricting immigration that manufacturers realised they could put small engines on every workbench to maximise productivity. Tim suggested we may see similar effects with the "IKEA-isation of solar power", for example, as the technology becomes "cheap enough to change the world."
Roger Bootle then gave us his "positive view of Post-Brexit Britain". As I am always trying to explain to friends who oppose it, Brexit doesn't guarantee anything good or bad. It only brings the levers of policy-making back onshore. If Corbyn's Labour wins the next election, our post-Brexit future will be dire. If future governments decide to regulate commerce in the same way as the EU or worse, then it will also be dire. The positive is merely that we now have the option to aim for freer trade, less discriminatory immigration that allows talent from anywhere in the world to come to our shores and more economic and social liberty. He believes, as do I, that this is more likely outside the EU, but we can – and may – screw up our own future. There are no guarantees. After all, we have often screwed things up for ourselves in the past.
As evidence of the EU's propensity to screw up, he cited "the greatest self-inflicted wound in all of economic history", the Euro. Since its introduction, the UK's economy has grown 40%, versus results in the Eurozone ranging from 30% growth in Germany (in whose interests it was designed) through economic decline in Italy to catastrophe in Greece. By allowing Germany to run huge trade surpluses without its currency rising in value, it has disturbed the balance of international trade and inflicted pain on every other EU state. The Euro is one of the main reasons for the "populism" that has given us not just Brexit but Trump, Orban, PiS in Poland etc. The gains of globalisation are now under threat because of a piece of political idiocy from France and Germany.
He urged his audience to push back against the myth that the EU promotes freer trade. It is in fact a protectionist customs union, with over 1000 tariffs; 12 for coffee alone. I have long argued that it is a racist institution because, as he said, the tariffs are structured to reduce competition from the Third World. For example they penalise coffee-producers who try to add value by processing their beans instead of just selling them as good little peasant farmers to the First World. The massive corporate lobbying business in Brussels (of which the pan-European law firm in which I used to be a partner was part) is there to ensure the interests of European corporations (and rich white Europeans like the French and German partners in my old firm with hobby farms to exploit the CAP) are protected, while Asian and African farmers stay dirt poor.
Dr Linda Yueh spoke about her new book The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help us Today. I downloaded a copy as she spoke and will review it when I finish reading it. After lunch the IEA's current media star, Kate Andrews debunked the Gender Pay Gap and told us how delighted she was to walk past the new statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. Much has been made by militant feminists of the fact that she is the first woman to be honoured in this way, but they are too ignorant to realise that she was a free-marketeer economist and an individualist. She is by far closer to my own economic and political views than any of the men represented there. She would have been contemptuous of their distortion of statistics in a rent-seeking frenzy to keep alive a movement that has served its purpose.
The most difficult part of the day for me was a discussion between Chris Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA for whom I have a lot of time and Raj Chande of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team (aka the Nudge Unit) for whom I have none. Behavioural Psychology is fascinating and useful stuff. I learned a bit about it acting for retailers when I practised law. They use lighting, music, architecture and interior design to play with our minds and encourage us to spend more. In my case, they were never a match for my mother's frugal teachings, but I have smiled when walking around shops to recognise the games they play. I am using it on myself to change my habits for healthier ones and reached my target of losing 40 kg this year yesterday morning. It's all good stuff but both those examples are voluntary transactions. I don't need to go to a supermarket or shopping mall. I didn't (for 60 years) play mind games on myself to control my appetites. It's very different when government – funded by force with our money – uses it on us, its masters. There are now over 150 people in the Nudge Unit and it is exporting its programme of manipulation to the US and Singapore.
Mr Chande talked of the government respecting our liberties, while nudging us to behave "better" (as defined by it) and Chris Snowdon seemed prepared to accept that this was at least better than authoritarian regulation. I beg to differ. Law is the removal of liberty (for good cause one hopes). In our Common Law tradition the legislature is required to justify every new law precisely because it doesn't grant rights, but removes them. The state has become so huge and out of control that the debate each time has become perfunctory and too many laws are made, but at least there is a theoretical possibility of opposing them. There's no such democratic accountability for "nudges". They're tools of policy and wonderfully deniable if they go wrong. They are part of a trend for an over-mighty apparatus to become impatient with democracy and find ways to by-pass it. Over a thousand local electors in my London Borough have submitted protests over a new parking scheme for example, but the Council tried to sneak it through without any discussion at all. Only vigilant citizen journalists using local social media brought it to the attention of that thousand voters and made the bloody Council discuss it. They are clearly peeved at having to do so.
The bouncy, impertinent arrogant Mr Chande reeks of this attitude of contempt by the governors and their rent-seeking hangers-on like him for the people they are meant to serve. He told us that he was "a libertarian until I went into government". Power corrupted him and he's happy about it. I am very much not and for me he can stick his condescension where the sun don't shine.
The most disappointing part of the day was that Dambisa Moyo couldn't make it in person. She spoke to us over a dodgy Skype link from NYC and all credit to her for getting up so early to honour her commitment to speak. After the game-changing radicalism of Dead Aid, I was rather disappointed with just how orthodox her thinking is in other respects. She cited the fake Oxfam statistic of 8 billionaires owning more wealth than half the world's population (debunked later, see below). She expressed concerns over income inequality as a problem in its own right. She spoke of her concerns for the future of democracy because 138 people contributed half the money spent by candidates in the US Presidential Election, without noting that they mostly gave to Clinton and might be repenting the money wasted. She spoke of "populism" and declining turn-outs for elections in the West. In the typical style of the global elite, she seemed to think that was a failing on our part, as electors. We are not reading the right books or listening to the right experts, apparently. I asked her if she couldn't see that, as voters were not being offered real choices, their disillusionment and disengagement might be rational? I said
I have voted religiously all my life but will face a choice at the next election between two parties, both of whom want to steal more of my and my childrens' money and indebt still further my grandchildren yet unborn. Why is it wrong if I reject both?
This was the only question of the day to raise a cheer and a round of applause. She sympathised politely with my concerns but essentially restated her opinion unchanged. I am afraid she is not the ally friends of Liberty might have hoped for.
Tom Standage of The Economist (which has also lurched to the authoritarian left of late, leading me to cancel my subscription of 15+ years) spoke enthusiastically and knowledgeably about self-driving cars (or Autonomous Vehicles - AV's, as they have become known). Moving on from the naive enthusiasm for them expressed at the first Think conference I attended, he has given a lot of thought to their possible social and economic effects. As Galbraith's quote above makes clear, this is a thankless exercise in forecasting. As Tim Harford's talk illustrated such a technology will probably have more effects we don't expect than those we do. He told us that he expects the first driverless zones to be entire city centres like Seattle or entire cities like Singapore. The cars will probably be owned by the cities themselves and therefore integrated into public transport systems. Otherwise robotaxis are likely to continue the trend begun by Uber in taking as many people off buses and trains as they do out of private cars.
He waxed lyrical about the "opportunities" for governments to raise revenue from them. The technology requires them always to know – and signal – exactly where they are, so congestion charges can become far more localised and sophisticated. Surge pricing on the Uber model can control peoples decisions to use them so as to keep traffic flowing smoothly. A "zombie" tax on empty vehicles will stop operators keeping them on the road to avoid parking costs. He went on, chillingly, to outline some of the uses totalitarian governments might make of the technology. Ultimately it will allow government to control who goes where. China is currently engaged in herding a particular ethnic minority into an area which is "effectively an enormous concentration camp", he said and he can visualise a future in which AV cars, buses and trains simply refuse to take them anywhere else. In freer societies, he said it was as likely that AVs would generate "exurbs" (burbs beyond the burbs) by making transport very cheap ($0.70 a mile vs $1.50 for a private car and $2.50 for an Uber) as that they would lead to people living more densely in traffic-free cities. All would depend, as he had the audience repeatedly call out, "on pricing". To be more precise, on the pricing of such externalities through taxation.
In an afternoon session, Dr Vernon Smith – winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics and long associated with the IEA – was interviewed by Professor Philip Booth and fielded questions from the enthusiastic young audience. He was scornful about the very idea of using economics to predict the future and, as you would expect, enthusiastic about the approach that won him his prize; constructing practical experiments to test economic theories. I was very envious of the silver Western-Style bolo tie he wore; a gift from an academic friend when he won his Nobel, which featured the profile of Adam Smith.
The most elevating speech of the day was from Dr Jamie Whyte on "The Economics of Oxfam and Inequality". He thoroughly debunked the Oxfam statistic uncritically quoted by Dambisa Moyo. Yes, 8 billionaires have as much money as 3.5 billion people because those people have nothing. Divide the 8 billionaires' money amongst them and they would get a one-off $118 – hardly world-changing. A more valuable measure, never mentioned by Oxfam and their ilk is that in 1980, 40% of the world's population lived in absolute poverty defined (in today's numbers) as living on less than $2 per day. Only 8% still do. That's arguably the best progress in human history and it is ongoing.
Oxfam's numbers are systematically rigged to produce the most socialism-inducing envy. For example, a graduate of Harvard Law with a debt of $250,000 will feature in that bottom half of the world alleged to be victims of economic injustice, despite possessing a qualification guaranteed to make him rich. He or she is not a member of an impoverished class. He's just at a different stage of his life and will end in the top half or higher. The stats also ignore non-private income and benefits. "If I earn £200 per year and you earn £100, then I am only twice as rich as you if you ignore the value we both receive from the NHS, the state education system etc." Oxfam and other purveyors of fake statistics are in favour of redistribution, but never account for it in their figures.
He argued persuasively that if you look at individual welfare (in the broadest sense) you would be celebrating the achievements of capitalism in raising the living standards of us all. Equality of welfare matters, not equality of income or of wealth. He also gave a name to the phenomenon that led me to quit work at 54 - the diminishing marginal utility of income. I could earn more, but it wouldn't make my life appreciably better, so I stopped. More dramatically (I assure you) if Jeff Bezos lost half his wealth, or if his income halved, tomorrow his life would not be appreciably worse. The money in the hands of billionaires can't buy them more happiness and most of it is deployed in investments to try to make the world a better place for all of us. Do you pity George Soros for his massive income disparity with Jeff Bezos? No you don't because in practice it makes no difference to their welfare as human beings either way. A young questioner suggested that envy about income inequality was natural and that it caused real discomfort. Dr Whyte was too polite to tell him that was a choice. I was too polite to shout out that the problem would go away when his expensive degrees earned him some money.
The conference ended with a closing keynote from Dr Steve Davies of the IEA under the title "Dissecting Corbynomics" but he was in no way partisan. He was equally scathing about Theresa May's weak grasp of economics and said the next election would be (as I expressed it to Dambisa Moyo in my question) a contest between two economic idiocies. That was not particularly uplifting but it did ease me back into my usual world of the Pessimism Olympics.
If you have the chance to go next year, I recommend it. It's a great event, with serious speakers and listening to the young audience talking among themselves during the breaks will kill your pessimism about the future. That's good value for £100.