The Internet is like a million-page a second photocopier (or is that a series of tubes)

Not long ago, I read Daniel Ellsberg’s[1] autobiography, Secrets, and also watched the film, The Most Dangerous Man in America. A striking feature of the book was that Ellsberg’s biggest problem in leaking the Pentagon Papers was the logistical difficulty of making 20 or so copies of a 7000 page cache of documents. It took him and a couple of helpers several months, IIRC. 

Now of course, such a task is easy, as demonstrated by Ellsberg’s successor (allegedly Bradley Manning) who supplied vast quantities of classified documents to Wikileaks. On the other hand, if Ellsberg had been 20 or so years earlier, he wouldn’t even have been able to make a single copy. [2]

The blackout yesterday as a protest against SOPA and PIPA reflects a simple fact about the Internet – it is, in essence a way of making and distributing vast numbers of copies of documents of all kinds.

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Last week I got an urgent request from the Fin for a quick-turnaround piece on the latest plan to save the car industry. I got it done within a few hours, and planned to post it here. Alas, I was as slow in doing this as I had been fast in writing the original piece (over the fold)

In the meantime, Sinclair Davidson at Catallaxy took exception to my observation that the mining industry’s nearly-free access to minerals under both private and public land was a bigger subsidy than anything the motor vehicle industry got. In support of the miners, he quoted Mitch Hooke of the Mining Council as saying

He said the proposed new tax would hit the mining industry with such a sledgehammer that it would destroy value, deter investment, reduce growth, and affect every mum and dad who has shares of equity or provides goods.

Of course, if you deleted “tax” and put in “tariff cut”, that’s exactly the same as what the representative of every industry demanding continued tariffs or subsidies has said.

What’s striking about this is the tribalism involved. As I demonstrate in the article, as far as economic efficiency is concerned, the effects of current levels of assistance to the car industry are third-order. Yet the political/cultural right denounces the car industry, while defending rent-seekers like Hooke.

This is part of a more general phenomenon on the right that I will post more on later. It’s taken for granted on the cultural right that some technologies and industries (nuclear power, oil, finance) are good and others (wind energy, electric cars, Hollywood) are evil – essentially a mirror image of what they think we on the left think. For people who are supposed to believe in the free market, this is a big problem.

Argument stuck in second gear

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My bet with Bryan Caplan – update


Back in 2009, I made a bet with Bryan Caplan that the average unemployment rate in the EU-15 over the following 10 years would be no more than 1.5 percentage points above that in the US. Before talking about the bet itself, I’d like to note that while we disagree about a lot of things, Bryan and I both take a strong stand against war, with a limited exception for self-defence. As Bryan says here, that takes a lot of sting out of the possibility of a losing bet for either of us – agreement on war and peace is more important than disagreement about labor markets in my view. 

Now, on to the bet.

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Truth, truthiness and balance

Arthur Brisbane, Public Opinion editor for the NY Times, has copped a well deserved shellacking for a column in which he asked whether reporters should act as ‘truth vigilantes’ in relation to statements made by public figures.

Having observed the silliness of asking whether newspapers should (aspire to) tell the truth, the obvious question is: How should they telll it. Here are a some suggestions

1. Its unreasonable to expect reporters to take the burden from scratch in refuting zombie lies. Newspapers, including the NYT, should include a set of factual conclusions, regularly updated, in their style manuals. The most relevant current example is that of global warming. As with the current account deficit (routinely glossed as ‘the broadest measure of the balance of payments’) the NYT should formulate a standard set of words, such as “a conclusion endorsed by every major scientific organization in the world’) to be used whenever the views of Repubs on the issue are mentioned. Similarly, any reference to claims about ‘Climategate’ should include the words ‘a conspiracy theory refuted by a number of inquiries in the US and UK’. Rinse and repeat wrt evolution, the Ryan budget plan etc


2. If the approach suggested above, it will rapidly become apparent that Republicans lie all of the time about everything, whereas Democrats only lie some of the time about some things. A serious paper of record would acknowledge this, noting the partial exceptions like Jon Huntsman. That is, if the NYT were reallly serious about truth, it would gloss every statement by a Repub as (X, a member of the Republican Party claimed Y. Extensive studies by the NYT have shown that most statements by members of the Republican party are false. In this case …)


3. This is a sad state of affairs, just as its sad that Americans won’t have a chance to vote for a serious  Presidential candidate who opposes indefinite detention of innocent people. But that is the situation and organizations like the NYT have limited choices – they can either publish lies or be ‘truth vigilantes’.

Posted via email from John’s posterous

Unions: outdated or needed more than ever?

Writing in today’s Fin[1], Paul Gollan argues that unions are outmoded and that workers would be better off bargaining directly with their employers. Since it’s paywalled, I’ll quote the passage to which I want to respond

Recent examples of industrial conflicts involving the use of the good faith bargaining provisions demonstrate the difficulty of trying to establish workplace engagement in advancing business and employee objectives under the current Fair Work Act. The recent industrial disputes at Qantas, Cochlear, on the waterfront and at Rio Tinto’s Bell Bay aluminium plant and BHP Billiton’s Queensland coalmines, have reinforced this impression, not only for big business but also for many Australians.

Given the seriousness of these disputes, unions and the Gillard Labor government will need to re-examine their position on workplace reform. Importantly, it seems that unions have failed to understand the difference between unions servicing their members and the broader concept of unionism.

Unionism encapsulated a common ethos of solidarity around a cause that all members could understand and relate to under a working-class banner. While years ago unions were enmeshed in this working-class culture, this is not the case in many workplaces today. They are now seen by workers as some distant, third-party organisation external from the workplace.

There may well be examples where Gollan’s claims are true, but I find it pretty hard to swallow the ones he cites. Does he really think that the employees of firms that haved locked their workers out, like Qantas, Rio Tinto and Patricks, or that have repeatedly ignored pro-union votes like Cochlear, are desperate to negotiate one-to-one with their bosses? Clearly, these firms want to get rid of unions for precisely the same reasons as the workers want to keep them, because they are an obstacle to measures that would raise profits at the expense of the workers.

I find the spurious concern for workers expressed in pieces like this even more annoying than the openly pro-boss position of, say, the Institute of Public Affairs.

fn1. One of the consequences of the separation between editorial and market functions that is part of the newspaper ethos is that, even though I’ve been a contributor to the Fin for nearly 20 years, I’ve never been given access to their online version. I had a fairly good deal for the print version, so I was never willing to pay the exorbitant price they asked. But my deal has run out, and the Fin’s prices have been cut, so now, I can at least copy and paste for fair comment purposes.

Ancient laws

An article on the Fairfax website[1] refers to habeas corpus as an ancient legal action from 17th century England. That’s technically true, but shouldn’t the article point out that the crime for which the person in question was convicted (soliciting to murder) and the legal procedures under which he was convicted are even more ancient?

Habeas corpus may be old, and have a Latin name, but it’s still central to common law, and needs to be defended against those who would destroy it in the name of the War on Terror.

fn1. For some reason, it appears under “WA Today”. I did a little digging and the subject of the story is a property developer who once owned a Scottish island with a title attached (not a barony, I’m pretty sure).