Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The EU and the browser wars

From The Register, 19 Feb 2010:
Microsoft has unveiled its EU-mandated Web browser choice screen, and will start rolling it out next week.
The screen looks like this:

I'm no fan of Microsoft, mostly because I don't think their products are very good. Almost all of the desktops at my work run Linux, and almost all of the laptops are MacBook Pros. Like most of my colleagues, I've been using Firefox since the pre-1.0 days, and encouraging friends and family to do the same. We use lots of open source software, and contribute code back to the community.

But while many open source zealots will be celebrating this latest EU victory over Micro$oft, I'm staggered by the futility and the immorality of the imposition.

Windows users who care about web browsers are already using alternatives to Internet Explorer. Those who don't will be frustrated by this additional complexity — they want the internet to Just Work.

The EU ruling will do nothing to promote browser choice on Macs, iPhones, and iPads, where Safari is the default.

The upcoming range of netbooks running Google's Chrome OS won't even allow the use of alternative browsers.

But on the Windows desktop, Microsoft is being forced to advertise for its competitors — a victim of its own success.

How much taxpayers' money has been spent pursuing this vendetta? How many lawyers and lobbyists have been enriched by it?

One of my first posts on this blog was a review of a 1969 article by Karl Hess. He had this to say about monopolies:
To suppose that anyone needs government protection from the creation of monopolies is to accept two suppositions: that monopoly is the natural direction of unregulated enterprise, and that technology is static. Neither, of course, is true. The great concentrations of economic power, which are called monopolies today, did not grow despite government's antimonopolistic zeal. They grew, largely, because of government policies, such as those making it more profitable for small businesses to sell out to big companies rather than fight the tax code alone.
Despite the advantages that large companies enjoy in a corporate landscape laden with byzantine regulations, the story of the 21st century browser wars has beautifully illustrated Hess's point.

Without any help from the EU, Microsoft's share of the browser market fell from 96% to 63%. By building a superior product, promoted by word-of-mouth, Firefox accumulated a market share of 24%. It is a perfect example of how monopolies can be overcome without state intervention.

If the EU really wants healthy competition in the software market, it will leave it alone, resisting calls for US-style software patents.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Darius Guppy on a bigger fraud than his

Through The Cobden Centre I came across this article by Darius Guppy, which is well worth reading:
A lot of nonsense has been written and said about the world’s current economic woes - how the crash is the fault solely of the banks and how, by implication, Governments are blameless and in particular how it could all have been avoided and will indeed be made right by greater financial regulation, and so on.
These ‘experts’ will tell you that the present difficulties are simply the result of abuses and excesses in a system that is basically sound. In short, all that is required is for some faults to be corrected. But do not believe them. For the reality is that the problem is systemic and a little tinkering here or there will achieve nothing in the long term.

In fact, what is needed is a root and branch re-evaluation of that most curious of cultural inventions – money – how it is created, how it circulates within an economy and how it can best be used to serve the interests of the community itself.

The 'Robin Hood' Tax

James Tyler of The Cobden Centre on the Luvvie Tax (aka Tobin Tax; aka 'Robin Hood' Tax):
Yes, the financial world has grown out of all proportion to the real world

Yes, the rewards for participation in this job seem ludicrously high

Yes, bankers have been bailed out by tax payers and are now furiously spinning the wheels of casino capitalism faster than ever before.

Yes, we should do something about it.

But. Not this.


The problem with financial markets is that banks are allowed to actively participate in this trading game. It would be less problematic if banks used the markets merely to reduce their risks, but this is not what they do. They see markets as a lucrative opportunity to enhance their profits, and they seize it with both hands.

Why is this bad? Because they punt their customer’s demand deposits. They take the money set aside to pay your gas bill, multiply it up tenfold, then wade onto the casino floor. What allows them to do this with some level of (misplaced) confidence is the myriad of legislative favours, monopoly rights, tax payer protection and political pressure arrayed to support them.

I thoroughly recommend the whole article.

Friday, 19 February 2010

There is such a thing as compassion, but it is incompatible with compulsion

In the course of my day job, I came across the "HMRC IT Accessibility Standards Overview".

It's a 26 page document of common sense and technical best practice wrapped up in politically correct bureaucratese and threats about legal imperatives. It isn't available on the internet ("distribution will be via e-mail and uncontrolled").

The document begins by setting accessibility in the context of HMRC's "Diversity and Equality Policy", the aims of which are enumerated.
- Recognise that barriers may still exist in society and in the workplace that would hinder the progress of particular groups and to act positively to ensure that these are eliminated from all HMRC policies and processes.
The tone is set.
- Use the knowledge and skills of our diverse workforce to increase compliance and customer satisfaction and better understand the customers’ needs and viewpoint.
One of the most galling things about HMRC is their insistence on calling their victims 'customers'.

Customers are people who freely choose to exchange something they have for something they want. Taxpayers are people who are forced to surrender a portion of their earnings, under pain of imprisonment.
- Employ a diverse workforce that represents the community we serve, helping us to develop our policies and practices in ways that are appropriate to different customer groups.
If HMRC were a real business, with real customers, they would be driven to hire the best people for the job. Any 'diversity' that arose would be incidental, and incompetents would be underrepresented.

It is a strange sort of 'service' that HMRC do for 'the community', but if we are to be robbed, we should at least demand to be robbed as efficiently as possible.

Employing a workforce that "represents the community" should not come into it.
- Value our people as individuals who have a unique contribution to make to HMRC’s success. Use our differences in positive ways to promote an inclusive environment for our employees and customers.
If HRMC truly valued people as individuals, they wouldn't lump them into "particular groups" and obsess about 'barriers' and 'inclusion'. They would award jobs and promotions based on merit and merit alone.
- Be the public sector’s employer of choice, attracting and retaining the best from the widest pool of talent and developing our people to the level of their potential and inclination.
The public sector's employer of choice! Such ambition!
- Eliminate any unjustifiable discrimination against anyone for any reason, including race, ethnic origin, religion, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, working pattern, marital status, gender reassignment, disability or age. In Northern Ireland, to eliminate any unfair discrimination because of political opinion.
At this point you may be wondering what race, ethnic origin, religion, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, and gender reassignment have to do with IT Accessibility Standards.

You may also be wondering why discrimination based on "political opinion" is acceptable in England, Scotland, and Wales.

As for "working pattern", your guess is as good as mine. Of all the possible variations between individuals, this is the one that should most uncontroversially be open for discrimination by employers. Want to work from home? Want to work 2 days a week? Want to work from 6 to 2 or from 4 to midnight? Want to work only on those days that you're feeling physically and mentally tip-top? Fine: go out and find an employer who values your services enough to accommodate your working preferences. But if you can't find such an employer, or if your current employer proves "inflexible", don't cry discrimination! Nobody has a right to a job, much less a right to a job on their own terms.
-Monitor and evaluate our progress to ensure we are meeting our targets and legal responsibilities.
We can only speculate about what these targets may be.

On page 6, we are introduced to the The Disability Discrimination Act:
According to the Act, a disabled person is generally someone with a physical or mental impairment, which has a substantial adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal daily activities over a long period. It also covers people who have had such a disability in the past.
The DDA makes it illegal for employers and service providers to treat disabled people less favourably than they would treat people without impairment, for a reason related to their disability, when recruiting or employing individuals, or offering or providing goods, facilities or services, or (from December 2006) delivering public functions.
It is so natural for us to pity disabled people, to regard them as victims in need of protection, and unfortunates in need of support, that most people will read those two paragraphs without flinching. Even highly principled libertarians, who in other circumstances are quick to condemn "positive discrimination", stay strangely silent. I must truly be a cold-hearted bastard, because I find this staggering.

Here we have recognition of "a substantial adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal daily activities" coupled with a prohibition on "less favourable" treatment. It is one of the most baldly unmeritocratic statements I've ever seen.

Life is unfair. People are different. Some are "more able" than others.

The best we can hope for is that we will be judged not based on our race, ethnic origin, religion, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, gender reassignment, political opinion, or age, but instead on our ability. If I am intelligent, pragmatic, sociable, healthy, and industrious, I should be free to enjoy the fruits of my labour, and no-one should begrudge it. If I am stupid, distractible, antisocial, sick, or lazy, my ability to deliver value is impaired, and nobody should suggest that I deserve remuneration beyond my contribution.

If I can work, but only for 5 hours a day, I shouldn't expect to be paid for 7.5. If I can produce something useful, but slower than my colleagues, I shouldn't expect to be paid the same. If I can do a job, but only with the aid of special equipment, I shouldn't expect my employer to bear this cost. If I have special talents, which compensate for my disabilities, I will find employment without recourse to legal imperatives.

The requirements placed by the DDA on "service providers" are equally abhorrent. A shopkeeper should decide for himself whether to make his shop wheelchair accessible, according to his own economic calculations and personal sense of moral duty. Authors of software and websites should decide for themselves how much to cater for people with visual impairments, and those unable to operate a mouse. Accessibility may not cost the world, but nor is it free. I have no right to your products and services, any more than I have a right to demand from you a job.

But in Britain today, if your particular physical or mental impairment has a government-approved label, you are entitled to special treatment. A swollen public sector confuses charity with public service. An army of bureaucrats produce guidelines on what constitutes "reasonable" discrimination and "reasonable" steps towards accommodation. An army of lawyers will help you fight for your rights, and they're happy to settle out of court. It is wrong.

Yes, there is such a thing as compassion, but it is incompatible with compulsion.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

£8.6m on green propaganda

Climate change alarmists often invoke the Precautionary Principle: even if the science isn't completely settled, they say, we must act to prevent global warming because of the terrible harm that could come from inaction.

They seldom account for the harm that comes from action.

There are many possible harms, but one of the most odious is the use of taxpayer's money for green propaganda. The TaxPayers' Alliance has exposed how the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has burned through an £8.6 million Climate Challenge Fund "aimed to raise awareness about climate change and encourage certain attitudes and beliefs, such as 'climate change is the result of human behaviour'".

They have links to some of the original videos and games produced through the CCF. Disturbingly, much of the propaganda is aimed at children.

The Rite2no video (available in three parts on YouTube) follows a group of schoolchildren transported to 2020. If you're impatient to see what horrors await us in a decade's time, skip ahead to the 7 minute mark.

Beneath a red sky, down a heat-blurred corridor, the students come to a classroom where a teacher addresses sweltering children, their heads bowed from exhaustion:
"Many of you today have struggled through soaring temperatures and melting tarmacs ... Severe weather warnings are commonplace, our coastal areas are threatened daily by rising sea levels, learning to swim has become compulsory for every child, and sun glasses - which once used to be like a fashion accessory for the rich and famous - they're now a practical necessity for us all."

Dangerous brightening of the sun! Hurricane warnings! Vicious flying insects! I can only hope this film had real-world students roaring with incredulous laughter, but the thought of the wasted millions, the wasted class time, and the cynical government attempts to harness "pester power" should have taxpayers fuming.

The TaxPayers' Alliance have produced a video of their own, with highlights of the Climate Challenge Fund's handiwork:

Hat tip to Mark Wallace at The Devil's Kitchen.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Do it for the money

"So you think that money is the root of all evil?" said Francisco d'Anconia. "Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can't exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?
This is from Atlas Shrugged, written in 1957. Half a century later, the idea that monetary transactions are somehow impure still persists.

Jamie Whyte has exposed this brilliantly in a recent article for the Cobden Centre entitled "Do it for the money":

Last year two police women (WPCs) were discovered to have a reciprocal child-minding arrangement. It was initially declared unlawful. Child minders who receive payment for their services must be registered with Ofsted. And receiving payment is not restricted to receiving money...

Public outrage at the absurdity of preventing friends from looking after each other’s children caused Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, to intervene. He declared that reciprocal childminding was not a kind of payment after all. The WPCs congratulated him on this small victory for common sense.

Which just goes to show that the common sense of WPCs cannot be relied upon. For, despite Mr Balls’ great powers, he cannot by mere proclamation stop reciprocal childminding from being a kind of payment. His decision simply exempts this barter payment from the tax that Ofsted’s rules and registration fees impose on childminding when other forms of payment are used.

If one of those WPCs quit her police job but offered to continue minding her friend’s child for £50 a day, Ofsted’s requirements would reimpose themselves. The child may be cared for by the same person in the same place, but the introduction of money to the deal would bring with it the state’s administrative and financial burdens. Mr Balls’ “common sense” intervention thus encourages a barter economy in childcare.

This is a silly thing to do. Because money is a better method of payment than barter. While the WPCs barter, they can consume the value of the childminding work they do only in the form of childminding for themselves. This means that they will restrict the amount of childminding they supply to the amount they want to consume. If they paid each other in cash, this restriction would disappear.

I thoroughly recommend the whole article.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The end of the nuclear family?

A while back, James Bartholomew wrote an article in response to comments from Dr Katherine Rake, the new Chief Executive of the Family and Parenting Institute, about the decline of the nuclear family:
The essential flaw in her reasoning and recommendations is simple: mothers and fathers have powerful instinctive urges to look after their own children. The same urges can be seen in many animal species, especially ones which are closely related to ours. This powerful urge to help and protect is not normally felt to the same degree, by any other adults be they siblings, uncles, aunts or even, perhaps, grandparents. It is certainly not felt by unrelated government employees.
This rings true. The Telegraph article he links to highlights the scale of the changes:
  • "one in four children now live in a single-parent family, compared to only one in 14 in the early 1970s"
  • "Almost half of children are now born outside marriage, against only one in 10 a generation ago."
A bit of googling turned up Dr Rake's introductory speech. It doesn't contain any explosive left-wing propaganda, just subtle biases. One would hardly expect someone in her role to condemn "non-traditional" family arrangements, but she does seem to underestimate the benefits of the traditional family. And while we would expect her paramount concern to be the welfare of children, we find hints that she's more concerned about the role of women:
While mothers' employment is up, single mothers with children under five are the least likely to be working with employment rates 28 per cent lower than for mothers who live as part of a couple.
Is "mothers' employment" something we should worry about? And if so, which direction would we like to see it go?

It should be self-evident that, in general, children benefit from:
  • living in a stable, two-parent home
  • being cared for at a young age by a stay-at-home parent
  • growing up in a house where people work
There are various ways that this can be achieved. Fathers, as well as mothers, can choose to take care of the children rather than working. Parents can take turns at the stay-at-home role.

Only in rare cases will children suffer more under a two-parent arrangement than a single-parent one. In the majority of those cases, the parents should not have had children in the first place.

Rake notes, in passing, that the "teenage pregnancy rate is falling only slowly and teenagers from the most deprived areas have maternity rates 12 times that of the least deprived", but she does not speculate about the reasons for this, much less condemn the perverse government incentives that contribute to this phenomenon.

Bartholomew does not shy away from such questions:
The idea that other people are just as good as the natural parents is demonstrably untrue.

Despite this, I do not think governments should emphasise giving special privileges to married people. Taken too far, that is interfering with the freedom of people to live their own lives as they wish. But what the government should do first and foremost is remove the subsidies that take away the natural reasons for marriage - particularly the special benefits for single parents that sometimes make it more financially rewarding for a couple at benefit level to split up than to stay together. The government at present, far from favouring marriage, favours broken families. This should be stopped.
I agree unreservedly.

However, Bartholomew goes on to say he would like to see "tax allowances for those parents who look after their children":
Adults have tax allowances because they are understood to have basic costs to bear. The same applies to children and the parents who bear those basic costs should have the use of the child's tax allowance. It also would be reasonable for a couple to have transferable tax allowances so that one can work and the other can look after the children. In this way, the child is more likely to have a parent looking after him or her for more of the time.
This I cannot support. We need a simple tax regime, without endless allowances, which are invasive and expensive to administer. We should be especially wary of allowances that are liable to influence behaviour. When it comes to personal choices, like getting married and having children, the state has no business pushing people one way or the other. Moreover, it is unjust to shift the tax burden away from those who choose to have children, and suddenly find themselves with "basic costs to bear". Let grown-ups make their decisions, and live with them.

And reduce taxes overall, so that all citizens, with or without children, spend less time working for the state, and more time working for themselves.

Britain today: ’sloppy and sentimental’

There's a lot to dislike about Melanie Phillips. She is, as a friend aptly put it, a "vanilla right winger". She supports the War on Drugs, unquestioningly defends Israel, and attributes most social ills to a decline in church attendance. However, despite her prejudices, she occasionally gets things right. Her latest article on the sentimentality of modern Britain is spot on:
This general attitude has its roots in the therapy culture, which tells us that it is bad for the individual to repress emotion. That doctrine has now developed into the belief that anyone who fails to display emotion is a bad individual.

It has produced a culture in which genuine emotion, which is almost always private, is deemed not to exist, while inappropriate or vicarious emotion, or sentimentality, is mistaken for the real thing.

This has the pernicious effect not only of devaluing real feelings such as grief, but elevating histrionics such as self-pity and narcissism. Hence the obsession in our society with ’self-esteem’.

One result of exchanging the stiff upper lip for the trembling lower one is that people become less able to cope with the vicissitudes of life.

That is what the octogenarian Duchess of Devonshire was getting at when she recently branded Britain as ’sloppy and sentimental’. Her generation ‘made little of sorrow. . . it wasn’t the thing to bellyache’.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Living with Leviathan

Thanks to a recent article from the Cobden Centre, I discovered a promising book by David Smith entitled Living with Leviathan.

Here's an excerpt from the foreword by Philip Booth:
should we be so obsessed by the economic growth that would come from reduced government spending? What about ‘general well-being’ – a phrase so beloved by politicians at the moment? If we measure general well-being by what people want, rather than by what politicians think people want, then surely that would improve even more dramatically than national income if the size of government were reduced. People would have more choice in health and education – they would not simply have to put up with what they were given. The poor would have some hope of escaping the mediocre education they are served up on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Higher post-tax incomes would allow higher savings for old age and illness. Those who chose to do so, perhaps parents with children, could work fewer hours if individuals were not working over two days a week to pay their tax bills.

With rigorous and thorough economic analysis, encompassing both theory and empirical evidence, David Smith shows how damaging politicians’ addiction to spending other people’s money has been. Even when public spending comes at no cost to its ‘beneficiaries’ in terms of taxation it seems to damage its recipients. Much public spending for the people of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and northern England is financed by the taxpayers of southern England. But it still harms the economic welfare of those on whom the money is spent. High levels of benefits, relative to the cost of living, price the less skilled out of
work, reduce employment and give rise to a socially debilitating dependency culture.

Why do politicians ignore the compelling evidence? Why do they end up systematically destroying the economic welfare of the people they wish to govern? The answer lies in public choice economics. Politicians cannot achieve anything unless they are elected. The interest groups that want more government spending are stronger than those that want lower taxes. The current pattern of government spending creates ‘clients’ who gain from further expansion. David Smith believes that it is time for politicians to appeal to principles once again. If politicians who wish to cut the size of the state are then elected, they should put in place mechanisms to ensure that those who vote for profligacy bear the cost. One way this can be achieved is by giving more fiscal responsibility to lower tiers of government, but this has to be done in ways that ensure that representation and taxation are clearly linked.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Electoral reform in 2011?

This yesterday from Nick Robinson:
Senior ministers agreed today to propose an amendment to the Constitutional Renewal Bill to offer voters a referendum by the autumn of 2011 on scrapping Britain's "first past the post" system and replacing it with the "alternative vote" (AV) system. The cabinet is to be asked to approve the plan tomorrow, allowing Gordon Brown to unveil the idea in a speech he is delivering on political reform at lunchtime.
I'll post updates later today.

Initial thoughts:
  • The first past the post system condemns us to alternation between centrist, statist governments; I don't want to vote Conservative, but I feel I must in order to get rid of Labour. AV would be a step in the right direction; it would allow the strength of true alternatives to be felt.
  • True proportional representation is desirable at some level, probably for an elected upper house.
  • The Parliament Act remains problematic
  • On the other hand, the supremacy of the House of Commons is probably the only route to radical reduction in the size of government.
  • Currently, freedom-minded people can only get into this position of supreme power by deceiving the electorate (pretending to be more centrist than they are).
  • Any kind of democracy can degrade into tyranny of the subservient; if we ever achieve small government, we'll need to ensure it can't be swept away by a simple majority, lured by the pork barrel.
There are lots of alternative voting systems, of course, and they all have pros and cons. It'll be interesting to see what the blogosphere and the mainstream media make of this proposal.

EU: a choice of "in or out"

Through Dan Hannan's blog, I came across this proposal from Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich and Clacton:

"Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?" - that is the referendum question posed in my Private Members Bill published today, and which comes before the Commons at the end of this month.

Some say it can't be done. Read my Bill here. It could be achieved in the space of a single afternoon.

For a generation it's been left to the political elite and professional diplomats to decide our relations with Europe. Now it is time to give the people a direct say.

Rather than advocate reforms that never actually materialise, why not make it a choice between in or out?

After 30 years of supposed "influence", CAP lies unreformed. A corporatist market exists where we were promised a common market. Red tape and regulation stiffle free enterprise. External tariffs prevent free trade. Europe hasn't come our way - and never will. It's time for out.

Surely the only argument against such a referendum is fear of the outcome?

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Last Ditch: "time travel theft"

Another excellent post from Tom Paine at The Last Ditch:

Britain's Welfare State has been a Ponzi Scheme since the start. For all the prudent language of "national insurance" and "stamps", it was always to be paid for by succeeding generations. There is a famous picture of the first beneficiary waving his pension book. He had paid just one weekly national insurance "stamp", and got the greatest deal in pensions history, but there were tens of millions like him, if not on quite that scale.

When the 1946 Labour Government came to power on promises of "cradle to grave" welfare, it found the Treasury bare. Britain had just fought a global war against fascism. There were factories to rebuild, industries to reconstruct. So did they delay the scheme? No. They sent (tellingly) that charlatan Maynard Keynes as their emissary to the despised capitalists of the United States. He negotiated huge loans to fund it all. So the man waving that first pension book would live not on Socialist prudence, but Yankee dollars. His grandchildren would service that debt for him, all unknowing. Everyone who proudly said "I paid my stamp" when drawing their benefits was both deceiving and deceived.