Telephone and Bank privacy

Another point about all this: it’s raised to my attention something I was familiar with but which never really sank in before.

There was a huge fuss over warrantless wiretaps. The law in the US is to tap a US phone, the government needs a warrant. For a time there was a program of not doing it, and it was discovered by the press and caused a huge scandal. The recent arguments have been over whether the telephone company that illegally assisted in the tapping should be prosecuted or given immunity.

But investigators didn’t need a warrant to find out about Spitzer’s transfers to QAT. They didn’t need even to ask. His bank, like all banks in the US and the UK, was legally obliged to report anything suspicious to the authorities. Every employee has to be reminded every year of the sort of things they are supposed to be wary of, and reminded that they personally are criminally at fault if they have suspicions and fail to report them to the organisation’s appointed “Money Laundering Reporting Officer”.

It is as if AT&T, now being sued for wrongfully intercepting its customers’ conversations on behalf of the government, were in fact legally obliged to listen in to all its customers’ calls, evaluate them, and notify the authorities of anything suspicious.

But somehow that’s never received the public attention that phone-tapping gets.

The thing about privacy safeguards is that people don’t really care about them particularly on their merits. They have symbolic importance because they have been the subject of controversy in the past. That is why your right to the presumption of innocence vanishes as soon as you sit down in a car, and why your right to privacy disappears when you enter a bank branch. The authorities use the new powers to go around the safeguards, and then finally start to flout them when they are so used to working around them that they can’t believe anyone still takes them seriously any more.

An unusually honest politician

I’ve reconsidered on Spitzer. As I said, he’s done nothing that should be illegal. The motivation for criticism against him is that he prosecuted people for various victimless crimes, including prostitution, and is therefore a hypocrite. That turns on whether his role as a prosecutor should have been to follow the law, his conscience, or the will of the electorate – the old question of representative government. I no longer strive to strive towards such things, so the case for me is a question of corruption rather than hypocrisy.

But what’s the accusation here? This is a politician with considerable power, who it seems has been paying for sex with his own money. He didn’t put some bit of fluff on the payroll, funnel contracts to her, lean on some quango to put her down as a consultant, or pay her out of some slush fund extracted in the course of ordinary corruption. He went to an ATM and drew $4300 from his personal bank account. If that’s not indicative of an unusually honest politician, what the hell is?

There can’t be any doubt about it, since that’s how he got caught. If he had paid for sex with taxpayers’ money, like so many of his peers, he would probably have got away with it. That’s not a paradox: governments spend so much money, and get so little in return, that bonus services are easy to hide.


Yes, it’s funny that Spitzer was caught paying prostitutes.

But it’s funnier that he was grassed up by his bank for large unexplained transactions. That would have been an interesting one for the MLRO. (I wonder if Spitzer had the sense to bank with an institution he hadn’t hit for hundreds of millions of dollars?)

And, of course, the FBI followed up because it looked like some kind of evasion of campaign finance laws. What a tangle of nasty illiberal laws he got caught up in. You can’t even pass a few grand for an evening’s company in a hotel without involving a whole bunch of compliance officers and federal agents. All those laws should be repealed tomorrow.

Still, couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. It’s the service providers (who are actually facing charges) who I have sympathy for. Hopefully they’ll end up with their own TV show or something. 2010 update – the TV show fell through, she had to settle for a newspaper column

Suspicious of Suspicions

Last week’s Economist has a piece bashing ethanol as biofuel.

No problem with that; it seems very unlikely that biofuels can produce enough fuel to make a detectable impact on fossil fuel consumption without causing huge impact on food production. The arguments are familiar.

But this piece concentrates on another issue: “A typical ethanol factory producing 50m gallons of biofuels a year needs about 500 gallons of water a minute… All this is putting a heavy burden on aquifers in some corn-growing areas.”

Yeah, another reason, see? Government programmes, blah, picking winners, blah, public choice theory, blah blah blah, I’m right as usual.

Wait a sec. Gallons per minute? How many minutes are there in a year? Hmm, about half a million. So the processing for a gallon of ethanol uses 5 gallons of water.

Is the Economist really trying to tell me that using 5 gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol is a big deal? I mean, you get 3 molecules of water back when you burn a molecule of ethanol, anyway. How much water does it take to grow the damned stuff in the first place?

Being right isn’t enough, one needs also to be selective in the arguments one employs. Stuff like this actually makes me suspicious as to why biofuel is being attached. Is it just for the good reasons, with this bad reason being picked up by accident, or is there something else to it? Come to think of it, didn’t I read somewhere that the “Indonesian deforestation due to palm oil biofuel cultivation” story was rubbish too? Maybe that’s another bad argument.

The Economist’s source is the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, “a non-profit, tax-exempt organization, with the mission of fostering sustainable rural communities and regions”. They sound a little dodgy, but I’d expect their bias if anything to be pro-Ethanol rather than anti. They seem to have a small-farmer slant; maybe they’re worried about biofuel production bidding up resources (like water) used by their constituency.

Now this is odd. Their recent publication on the issue is Biofuels and Global Water Challenges. But that is, as the title suggests, concerned with global biofuel production, notably in the developing world. The “Achilles heel” quote in the Economist is quoted in this, but originates in a 2006 report by the same organisation, Water Use by Ethanol Plants: Potential Challenges. The “Global Challenges” report estimates the crop water requirement for producing a gallon of ethanol in Iowa to be about 1100 gallons – which would make the demands of processing about half a percent of the total. “Compared to feedstock production, water use in corn-based ethanol plants itself is negligible”.

The Economist article also refers to a court case over the building of an Ethanol plant in Missouri. In that case also, it is the use of water in growing the corn that is causing the most concern:

“Frankly, not so much worried about this plant using 1.5 million gallons of water a day, even though we live in a semi-arid area,” said Lowell Brakey, spokesman for a group of Wright residents who filed a lawsuit over the new plant and lost. “We’re worried about the corn.”

So what is this article up to? Is it just sloppy reporting? Is it plugging a product? (it refers to “Delta-T Corp, a Virginia company which has designed a system that does not discharge any waste water”). More here.

Beats me. I think there’s another source to this article which I haven’t found. If someone could isolate where the “gallons per minute” figure is coming from, that might be the key: it seems to have been expressed in that way to make it seem like a lot of water without putting it in context.


I haven’t yet commented on the spectacle of numerous Members of Parliament being caught with their hand in the till.

I didn’t see it as an immediately pressing issue; the money would be taken from us anyway, because they can, and if they didn’t steal it they’d only squander it on public services. Why should some worthless Capacity Building Officer or PFI salesman get the money rather than the Speaker of the House or a Tory MP’s children?

It’s not even unfair. Nobody is excluded from political power by birth. Anyone with the sheer determination and single-mindedness to dedicate their entire lives to the soul-destroying business of working politics, can, with only a little luck, achieve lucrative office. A modicum of intelligence or charisma can help, but are clearly not essential: it’s just a long hard slog of inane meetings with morons, and overriding your own idiotic beliefs at every opportunity with whatever different idiotic opinions will advance your career. No worthwhile human being would take the job on for the prospect of a million a year, so there’s little reason to worry even about pulling people away from productive work.

On the other hand, so long as the politicians’ avarice and dishonesty is sufficiently publicised, it will have immense practical benefit. So many people in this country labour under the illusion that government exists to serve the people. Dispelling this will draw attention away from what government purportedly does for us, and onto what government does to us. Democracy or not, the people have some influence over government by virtue of their capacity for civil disobedience, riot, and assassination, but this influence is currently misdirected towards what the government does with its ill-gotten gains, rather than to what it takes and what it does to secure itself.

So corruption: I’m in favour of it, and I want to hear all about it.

I didn’t always think this way about MPs, but when my MEP, one of the only elected representatives I have ever voted for, attracted some controversy, I was immediately delighted – the notion that EU funds could end up in any better place than his private bank account never occurred to me.

See also this old Theodore Dalrymple article, suggesting that Italy’s murderously corrupt governments have been generally for their country than our relatively honest ones. (via Brian Micklethwait)

Who Rules?

Mencius is taking a week off and has invited requests. The area I would like to see clarified is the analysis of how western democratic governments actually make decisions. Is the political show of parties and elections a fake, or do politicians really control policy? It often appears that the question of who really has power is answered differently according to the needs of the argument Mencius is making. Events which favour the Democratic Party demonstrate the all-powerful nature of the Universalist church, while victories by the Republican party are mere smoke and mirrors.

My thinking is that elected politicians have some freedom of policy within a “window” defined by what MM calls the “permanent government” : the bureaucracy, the unremovable congressional incumbents and the media. The day-to-day business of politics is therefore not “fake”: it actually drives policy in the short term. And because particular events at particular times can have long-term effects, electoral politics has long-term significance.

However, the predictable long-term trends of politics have nothing much to do with elections and elected office-holders. They are best described as the movement of the window of policy within which politicians can move, and are controlled by other forces: what MM calls the “Hexagon”.

Take an example from the UK – the market liberalisation of the first Thatcher government. Thatcher wanted these, and Callaghan didn’t, and so they happened after Thatcher was elected Prime Minister in place of Callaghan in 1979. That is politics working as normal people imagine.

However, the Heath government came to power in 1970 intending many of the same reforms. It was not permitted to carry them out. The unions opposed the reforms just as they did in the 1980s, but the elected government was not permitted to crush them as Thatcher later did. By 1980 the permanent government had come to accept the necessity of reform, and moved the window to allow it. The reforms happened in 1979-83 instead of 1976-1979 because of electoral politics, but they happened in 1979-83 instead of 1970-73 because of the change in the policies of the permanent government.

There is therefore only some truth in the conventional view of politics. That truth is magnified in popular perception by a unanimous rewriting of the past. Ted Heath, having failed to implement the Selsdon programme, became its opponent, and it is now generally assumed that the only reason the reforms happened in 1979 was electoral politics. More recently in the US it is now widely assumed that Al Gore would not have invaded Iraq, despite the fact that in 2000, as far as military action overseas was a left-right issue, the left was in favour and the right against, not to mention what came after.

On top of the real party political issues, then, issues that are not decided as the result of elections are later treated by history as if they were. when the permanent government’s policies are unsuccessful – such as the preservation of the economic-policy status quo of 1970s Britain, which was imposed on Heath against his will, or the invasion of Iraq, they are blamed on the politicians, who are generally slow to deny that the policies actually carried bout by “their” governments were really their policies (not wanting to look ridiculous).

Indeed, even the most intransigent of extremist, the most unlikely ever to change their mind on a subject, can be turned from one side to the other by the simple expedient of electing them to office and to the duty of defending the policies that they have opposed all their lives but cannot change. This is not hyperbole.

In that way, political questions that are determined by the permanent government become party political issues: the politicians in office defend the policies that they were forced to carry out, and the politicians in opposition have to attack the policies in order to remain relevant. It is almost beyond doubt that if the butterfly ballots of Florida had gone the other way in 2000, the Democratic party would now be the party of the Iraq War and the Republican party would be divided on whether to support or oppose it. Of course, it is quite possible that the course of the occupation may have been different in that case, but that is beyond what I can guess.
2014: dead link updated to

Democratic Legitimacy

I said before that I think democracy is a trick, but a necessary trick: a free prosperous people will attempt to overthrow the government unless they think they control it.

I don’t think they really can control it, because the class interests of politicians are so much in conflict with those of productive people that they overwhelm other distinctions. They only situation in which a government can genuinely act in the interest of a class wider than just politicians is when there is a larger class of relatively powerless people – slaves or peasants – who would be a threat to a divided ruling class. That is the characteristic of democracies before the twentieth century.

Any stable government must therefore either fool the people into thinking they have control, or else deny them the freedom and prosperity which makes them capable of temporarily taking over.

The point of democracy’s illusion of control is not to make people think the government is good (there are limits even to illusion), but to make people think it is legitimate. Legitimacy buys government the tacit support of the indifferent, and makes it very difficult to overthrow.

If the population were both informed and rational, they would reject the concept of legitimacy, but would tolerate government unless it were sufficiently bad as to be worth paying the (very high) cost of a revolution, just to replace it with another government that would be no more legitimate, but possibly less bad.

What I am afraid of, therefore, is not that people will become informed. I am afraid that people will correctly reject the legitimacy of democratic government, while incorrectly hanging on to the concept that government should be legitimate. That is the stage that would produce a fruitless and hugely destructive search for a genuinely legitimate government.

Government is not the servant of the people. It would be nice if it were, but it would be nice if internal combustion engines ran on water. Any theories about what government should do to best serve the people, whether good or bad, are of no more relevance to the real world than are strategies for playing video games. In the real world, governments are gangs of thieves, and cannot be anything else.

This line of thinking is as usual influenced very strongly by Unqualified Reservations, but I like to think I was beginning to head in this direction already.

Folk Probability

It is a commonplace that most people are bad at probability. It would be useful to know what sort of errors they make.

Errors which have been observed:

  • People tend to be excessively averse to risks with very small probability – e.g. Mobile Phone Masts (and most other media “health scares”).
  • People tend to be insufficiently averse to risks which are not likely but are quite significant – e.g. falls in house prices, road accidents.
  • People tend to be overly attracted to tiny probabilities of benefits – e.g. one-in-ten-million chances of lottery wins.

These are all explained by the theory that folk probability is not quantitative, but consists of five categories:

  • Practically Impossible
  • Unlikely
  • Unpredictable
  • Likely
  • Practically Certain

The risks that are being overestimated are those that are towards the far end of “Unlikely”, while the risks being underestimated are towards the near end: in Folk Probability they are equivalent. In the popular mind, being involved in a train crash or a car crash have the same probability “unlikely”, even if there is a factor of 100 between the real probabilities.

An argument about lottery tickets between two folk probabilitists would address not expected returns (in the mathematical sense), but whether the chance of a big win should be counted as “Practically Impossible” or as “Unlikely”. The advertising for the (UK) national lottery is aimed squarely at that question (it could be you).

The consequences of these probability errors are severe, both for their perpetrators and for the rest of us. I will visit one particular consequence in a later essay.

What can be done about it? One solution would be to teach mathematics effectively in schools. But since that lies itself somewhere near the boundary between the unlikely and the practically impossible, let’s put it aside for the moment. The best quick fix I can think of is to massively liberalise gambling law. Probability theory originated in a study of gambling games, after all. One of Epstein’s most telling points is that people who struggle to achieve the simplest qualifications are able to master complex skills that they need for what they want to do – such as driving a car. A population of poker players would have a much more realistic idea of quantitative probabilities than we see today.


In an old article, I looked at self-defence in Britain.

I came to the conclusion that the law of self-defence is good and is normally applied well. There is a very widespread but false view that those defending themselves are likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

I was catching up on Samizdata today, and came across the case of Tony Singh, who had “committed the crime of fighting back”, in “another of those man facing prosecution for defending himself stories”.

He had fatally wounded a man who attacked him with a knife. He had been arrested and released on bail.

Fortunately for me, I was two weeks behind on Samizdata. I had not heard of the story, but I immediately predicted that a quick search would show that he had not been charged. Indeed it did, three days after the Samizdata story, which was followed by all the usual comments about the imminent end of civilisation due to the state denying any self-defence.

Now, I’m sure it was very stressful for Mr Singh to be arrested for killing someone. But realistically, anyone can claim to have killed in self-defence, and the police do have to investigate when someone ends up with a knife in their chest. But in actual cases of self-defence, there is almost zero probability of a prosecution.

The false idea that we do not have, de jure and de facto, a solid right of self defence in this country is discouraging people from exercising it, and potentially putting extra stress and pain on those who do exercise it and then believe they might be prosecuted.

People should not be moaning about prosecutions which do not in fact happen, they need to be shouting from the rooftops that we do in fact have the right to fight back.

Once that truth is established in the popular mind, we can then approach the real problem, which is that while we are allowed to defend ourselves, we are not allowed to own or carry weapons for the purpose. That should be where the battle of ideas should be taking place.