Thoughtcrime in Britain

A 19-year old man was arrested yesterday for the supposed crime of burning a Remembrance Poppy and posting a picture of the incident on Facebook.

A teenager arrested on Remembrance Sunday on suspicion of posting a picture of a burning poppy on Facebook is being questioned by police.

The 19-year-old was held after the image of a poppy being set ablaze by a lighter was reportedly posted online with the caption: “How about that you squadey cunts”.

Police said the man, from Canterbury, Kent, was detained on suspicion of an offence under the Malicious Communications Act after officers were contacted at about 4pm on Sunday.

This is simply dangerous, absurd and Orwellian.

It is just the latest in a succession of police actions against individuals deemed to have caused offence: mocking a collapsed footballer on Twitter; hoping that British service personnel would “die and go to hell”wearing a T-shirt that celebrated the death of two police officers; making sick jokes on Facebook about a missing child. Each time the police have arrested people for nothing more than expressing an unpopular, outrageous or offensive opinion.

Britain is setting a precedent for trampling all over free speech in the interest of enforcing public morality. Mussolini would be proud.

The point of free speech is not to protect popular speech. It is to protect us from becoming a society where the expression of unpopular, offensive and distasteful ideas is criminalised. That is the surest guard against totalitarian tendencies.

This new incident is particularly bizarre. Children are taught in school that Britain fought the Second World War to defeat fascism. They are taught that the deaths of British soldiers commemorated on Remembrance Sunday were for the cause of freedom, to defeat fascism, to defeat totalitarianism. And now we arrest people merely for making offensive comments and burning symbols?

Are we turning into the thing that we once fought? 

What has happened to free speech?

What has happened to Britain?

Are Cameron’s Economic Policies Working?

Britain has returned to growth:

But compared even to the USA — which has huge problems of its own — Britain is still mired in the depths of a depression:

An Olympic bounce does not constitute a recovery. As I noted in March, Britain is under-performing the United States — in GDP and in unemployment. Although Cameron and Osborne keep claiming that they are deficit hawks who want to cut the government deficit, the debt keeps climbing.

Defenders of Cameron’s policies might claim that we are going through a necessary structural adjustment, and that lowered GDP and elevated unemployment is necessary for a time. I agree that a structural adjustment was necessary after the financial crisis of 2008, but I see little evidence of such a thing. The over-leveraged and corrupt financial sector is still dominated by the same large players as it was before. True, many unsustainable high street firms have gone out of business, but the most unsustainable firms that had  to be bailed out — the banks and financial firms who have caused the financial crisis — have avoided liquidation. The real story here is not a structural adjustment but the slow bleeding out of the welfare state via deep and reaching cuts.

Britain has become welfare-dependent. Britain’s welfare expenditure is now over 25% of its total GDP. Multi-billion pound cuts in that figure are going to (and have) hurt GDP.

I believe countries are better with small governments and a larger private sector. The private sector consists of many, many individuals acting out their subjective economic preferences. This dynamic is largely experimental; businesses come and go, survive, thrive and die based upon their ability to stay liquid and retain a market, and this competition for demand forces innovation. The government sector is centrally directed. Governments do not have to behave like a business, they do not have to innovate or compete, as they have the power to tax and compel. (The exception to this is when governments become overrun by the representatives of private industries and corporations, who then leverage the machinations of the state to benefit corporations. When this occurs and markets become rigged in the favour of certain well-connected competitors, it matters little whether we call such industries “private sector” or “public sector”).

So I am sympathetic to the idea that Britain ought to have a smaller welfare state, and fewer transfer payments than it presently does. But the current and historical data shows very clearly that now is not the time to make such an adjustment. The time to reduce the size of the welfare state is when the economy is booming. This is the time that there is work for welfare claimants to go to. Cutting into a depressed economy might create a strong incentive for the jobless to work, but if there is little or no job creation for the jobless to go to, then what use are cuts? To reduce government deficits? If that’s the case, then why are British government deficits rising even though spending is being reduced? (The answer, of course, is falling tax revenues).

An alternative policy that would reduce unemployment and raise GDP without increasing the size of government is to force bailed-out banks sitting on huge hoards of cash to offer loans to the jobless to start their own private businesses. The money would be transferred to those who could be out working and creating wealth, but who cannot get credit through conventional channels, unlike the too-big-to-fail megabanks who are flush with credit but refuse to increase lending to the wider public. Even if the majority of these businesses were to fail, this would ensure a large boost in spending and incomes in the short run, and the few new businesses that succeed would provide employment and tax revenues for years to come. Once there is a real recovery and solid growth in GDP and in unemployment, then the government can act to decrease its size and slash its debt. Indeed, with growing tax revenues it is probable we would find that the deficit would end up decreasing itself.

Anything the Government Gives You, the Government Can Take Away

From the Guardian:

A majority of doctors support measures to deny treatment to smokers and the obese, according to a survey that has sparked a row over the NHS‘s growing use of “lifestyle rationing”.

Some 54% of doctors who took part said the NHS should have the right to withhold non-emergency treatment from patients who do not lose weight or stop smoking. Some medics believe unhealthy behaviour can make procedures less likely to work, and that the service is not obliged to devote scarce resources to them.

And that’s the trouble with services and institutions run from the taxpayer’s purse, administered by centralists and bureaucrats. It becomes a carrot or a stick for interventionists to intervene in your life. Its delivery depends on your compliance with the diktats and whims of the democracy, or of bureaucrats. Your standard of living becomes a bargaining chip. Don’t conform? You might be deemed unworthy of hospital treatment.

It seems innocuous to promise all manner of services in exchange for taxes. Citizens may welcome the convenience, the lower overheads, the economies of scale. They may welcome a freebie, and the chance to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labour. They may feel entitled to it.

Many words have been spent on the problems of dependency; that rather than working for an honest living, the poor may be sucked into a vortex of entitlement, to such an extent that they lose the desire to produce. A tax-sucking multi-generational underclass can develop. Individuals can live entirely workless lives, enjoying a semi-comfortable existence on the teat of the taxpayer, enjoying the fruits — financial handouts, free education, free healthcare, a free home — of social engineers who believe that every problem under the sun can be remedied by government largesse and throwing money at problems. And who can blame them? Humans have sought out free lunches for as long as there have been humans.

Welfare dependency is generally assumed to be viewed negatively in the corridors of power. After all, broad welfare programs mean greater spending, and that very often means great debt. And why would a government want to be in debt? Surely governments would prefer it if more of the population was working and productive and paying taxes?

But it is easier to promote behaviour desired by the state when a population lives on state handouts. And for states that might want to influence the behaviour of their citizens — their resource consumption, their carbon footprint, their moral and ethical beliefs, or their attitude toward the state — this could be an attractive proposition. It might cost a lot to run a welfare system, but it brings a lot of power to influence citizens.

And increasingly throughout the Western world, citizens are becoming dependent on the state for their standard of living. In the UK, 92% of people are dependent on the socialist NHS for healthcare. 46 million Americans receive food stamps. That gives states a lot of leverage to influence behaviour. First it may be used in a (relatively sensible) attempt to curtail smoking and obesity. Beyond that, the sky is the limit. Perhaps doctors or bureaucrats may someday suggest withholding treatment or dole money from those who exceed their personal carbon or meat consumption quota? A tyrant could even withhold welfare from those who do not pledge their undying allegiance or military service to a regime or ideology (it happened many times last century). An underclass of rough and hungry welfare recipients is a fertile recruiting ground for military and paramilitary organisations (like the TSA).

With the wide expansion of welfare comes a lot of power, and the potential for the abuse of power. Citizens looking for a free lunch or an easier world should be careful what they wish for. Welfare recipients take note: you depend on government for your standard of living, you open yourself up to losing your liberty.

The Disaster of Youth Unemployment

This is a demographic disaster.

From the Guardian:

Unemployment among Europe‘s young people has soared by 50% since the financial crisis of 2008. It is rising faster than overall jobless rates, and almost half of young people in work across the EU do not have permanent jobs, according to the European commission.

There are 5.5 million 15- to 24-year-olds without a job in the EU, a rate of 22.4%, up from 15% in early 2008. But the overall figures mask huge national and regional disparities. While half of young people in Spain and Greece are out of work, in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands it is only one in 10. In a further six EU countries, youth unemployment is around 30%. Of those in work, 44% are on temporary contracts.

The same phenomenon exists in the United States:

And why is this such a staggering  problem?

Firstly, the psychological impact: a whole lot of young people have never become integrated with the workforce. Many will become angry and disillusioned, and more likely to riot and rob than they are to seek productive employment. There is a significant amount of evidence for this:

Thornberry and Christensen (1984) find evidence that a cycle develops whereby involvement in crime reduces subsequent employment prospects which then raises the likelihood of participating in crime. Fougere (2006) find that increases in youth unemployment causes increases in burglaries, thefts and drug offences. Hansen and Machin (2002) find a statistically significant negative relationship between the number of offences reported by the police over a two year period for property and vehicle crime and the proportion of workers paid beneath the minimum before its introduction. Hence, there are more crime reductions in areas that initially, had more low-wage workers. Carmichael and Ward (2001) found in Great Britain that youth unemployment and adult unemployment are both significantly and positively related to burglary, theft, fraud and forgery and total crime rates.

Additionally unemployment is correlated with higher rates of suicide and mental illnesses like depression. And of course, the longer the unemployment, the rustier workers become, and the more skills they lose. Frighteningly, the numbers of long-term unemployed are rising:


Second, the economic impact: people sitting at home doing nothing don’t contribute productivity to society. In a society faced with falling or stagnant productivity, that is frustrating; there are lots of people sitting there who could be contributing to a real organic recovery, but they are not, because nobody is hiring, and (perhaps more importantly) barriers to entry and the welfare trap are crowding out the young, and preventing the unemployed from becoming self-employed. It also means higher welfare costs:


That leads to higher deficits, and greater government debt.

So it is not just a demographic disaster; it is also a fiscal one.

Britain’s Orwellian Nightmare?

As a British citizen, I find Britain’s recent authoritarian creep to be deeply unsettling. First we greatly diluted our ancient rights of habaeas corpus. Then we created the world’s largest video surveillance network (which of course was completely powerless to prevent last summer’s riots).

Now we have started locking people up for comments on Twitter.

From Brendan O’Neill:

If you thought it was only authoritarian states like China or Iran that imprisoned pesky bloggers and tweeters, think again.

This week, Britain became a fully paid-up member of that clique of illiberal intolerant, tweeter-harassing states.

On Tuesday, at Swansea Magistrates Court in Wales, Liam Stacey, a student, was imprisoned for 56 days for writing offensive tweets.

Fifty-six days. Two months. In an actual jail. For tweeting. It needs to be spelt out like that in order to show how shocking it is that in the 21st century, in a nation that gave us such great warriors for freedom as The Levellers and John Stuart Mill, a young man has now been banged up for expressing his thoughts.

Stacey’s thoughts were far from pleasant ones. In fact they were offensive and repugnant.

On March 17, Fabrice Muamba, a 23-year-old black football player for Bolton Wanderers, collapsed with cardiac arrest during a match against Tottenham Hotspurs. Many people were shocked, and before long a #PrayforMuamba hashtag took off on Twitter.

But Stacey, who claimed he was drunk at the time, didn’t fancy praying for Muamba, and so instead he tweeted:

“LOL. Fuck Muamba. He’s dead.”

(Muamba did not die, though he remains critically ill in a London hospital.)

56 days in prison? For expressing a distasteful opinion? Frankly, I find the notion of convicting someone of such an offense more offensive than Stacey’s words.

Most recently, Parliament is enacting a law to allow for the monitoring and recording — in real time — of all online activity (presumably including my work) by GCHQ.

From the BBC:

The Home Office has said laws allowing the monitoring all emails, texts and web use in the UK will be brought in “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.

Home Secretary Theresa May says “ordinary people” will have nothing to fear- but there is opposition to the idea from all sides of the House of Commons.

All of this is troubling. Throwing people in jail for expressing unpopular opinions? That seems un-British, and seems to not tally with the idea that we should live and let live. I don’t have a problem with criminalising speech that is an incitement to imminent violence (e.g. “kill that man”). But criminalising opinion? Not only is that paternalistic, that’s a sticky slope to thought crime. And why is that a problem? In a society where we are not free to express any opinion we like — even deeply unpopular ones — innovation is surely stifled. Innovators and freethinkers are forced to think tricky questions (“will I be jailed for expressing this opinion?”) before they publicise their ideas.

And why would GCHQ need to monitor the entire internet? If they need to gather evidence to prevent imminent criminality, why not get a warrant, and monitor a suspect? The fact that they are writing a law that acts as a warrant on all of us suggests that contrary to the Home Office’s statements, we are now all suspects.

Britain has a rather unique legal and political system. Nothing is really set in stone other than the supremacy of the sovereign — in other words, the Queen. Right now, sovereignty has been delegated to Parliament, and the Queen retains only a ceremonial role. But because the Parliament is sovereign, it is free to pass any law it wishes. No rights are absolute, no system is set in stone. There is no first amendment guarantee to free speech. And even though Britain is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, that piece of legislation is phrased so that governments can curtail rights for the “greater good”.

Some legal flexibility can be good. British society has been remarkably free and remarkably stable, certainly in contrast to many other nations. But let’s be honest: authoritarianism can blight any nation. We shouldn’t be complacent to that threat.

And the overarching and striking problem with this authoritarian creep is mostly that it is a waste of money. As I wrote last week terrorism and civil disorder and the expression of unpopular opinions (and all of the things that this authoritarianism is supposed to quell) is of minimal threat to the West (and of course the expression of unpopular opinions is largely beneficial). More people are killed by being crushed by furniture than by terrorism. While trillions are spent on homeland security and the “liberation” of foreign lands, domestic infrastructure is neglected, and businesses and workers lose out as they pay in taxes for the expenses of large authoritarian interventionist government. CCTV has little effect on crime.

And certainly, the social effects of authoritarian creep may be huge. How many legitimate criticisms of the government will go unpublished due to fear of censorship or monitoring? How many people will spend time in jail — and face life with a criminal record — just for expressing an opinion? How many innocent people will spend time in jail as a result of monitoring mistakes or misinterpretations? How many good businesses and ideas will not receive funding due to productive capital being redirected to the government coffers to pay for authoritarian interventionism? How many people will waste their productivity working as government snoops when instead they could be deploying their minds and skills in creating valuable products and services that would improve our economy?

But above all, what would George Orwell think? Big brother is watching and recording us all. Every time we go online, we display our thoughts, our interests, our desires, our curiosities, our sexual preferences, our politics. All of these things are recorded by the state — a state which seems to have no problem with locking people up for expressing unpopular opinions.

Orwell understood that that was a peril to everything — our homes, our lives, our rights, our society, our economy and the very fabric of our existence.

Chart of the Decade

This chart tells millions of stories. I’m trying to get my head around its implications.

That’s right: since 1984 (surely an appropriate year) while the elderly have grown their wealth in nominal terms, the young are much worse off both in inflation-adjusted terms, as well as nominal terms (pretty hard to believe given that the money supply has expanded eightfold in the intervening years). So why are the elderly doing over fifty times better than the young when they were only doing ten times better before?

Are young people a stupefied generation coddled by parents and government, addicted to welfare, junk food, drugs and reality TV?

To some extent, but are they any less fiscally and morally responsible than the marijuana-smoking, free-love-embracing, national-debt-accruing baby boom generation? That’s a matter of opinion, but my answer is probably not. Baby boomers hate Ron Paul, while the under-35s seem to love him.

Is it due to government policies that favour the elderly and screw the young?

America is suffering from excessive consumer debt:

Net worth is calculated by subtracting debt from assets. The biggest debt for most people is a mortgage. So having more mortgage debt or less mortgage debt tends to be a pretty good determinant of net worth. (And no — unlike in the United Kingdom and Australia which have a severe problem with housing affordability — housing in the USA is still cheap today priced in wages)

The elderly have very often already paid off their mortgages — no doubt helped by the 1980s and 1990s where both stock prices and house prices grew rapidly. And why did rise so rapidly?

Some say that it came on the back of excessive expansion of the money supply beyond the economy’s productive capacity. But that doesn’t seem quite true:

The money supply grew in tandem with industrial production. This was no bubble, but organic growth (albeit as I have shown before on the back of cheap Chinese goods and cheap Arab energy).

My hypothesis is that the present situation is a product of government expansion.

Here’s government expenditure as a proportion of GDP:

Government spending in democracies very often tends to constitute a transfer of wealth from non-voters to voters (as well as groups that can’t afford lobbyists to groups that can afford lobbyists — perhaps that is one reason why corporate profits are soaring while youth unemployment remains elevated, and why Wall Street banks get bailed out, but delinquent small businesses do not).

Here’s the voter turnout by age in the 2004-2008 Presidential elections:

Older people vote in droves. Politicians want their votes and therefore promise them more free stuff — medicare, medicaid, services — and they vote for whoever offers them the most.

The biggest issue though, is this:

Keynesians may say that this reflects a government’s failure to create jobs for young people. They claim that the problem is that there is not enough money circulating in the economy, and that government can “raise demand” by pumping out more cash. But there is plenty of money in the economy; so much money that Apple have built up a $90 billion cash pile. So much that China has built up a $3 trillion cash pile. So much that banks are holding $1.6 trillion in excess reserves below fractional lending requirements.

More likely is the reality that overregulation and barriers to entry are preventing the unemployed from picking up the slack in the jobs market. As John Stossel reveals in a recent documentary film,  in New York City it costs $1 million to get a licence to drive a taxi. Anyone who wishes to operate a food cart, or run a lemonade stand has to traverse reams of bureaucracy, acquire health and safety certificates, and often pay huge fees  to receive the “necessary” accreditation. While some barriers to entry are necessary (e.g. in medicine), in other fields it is just an unnecessary restraint on useful economic activity. In many American cities it is now illegal even to feed the homeless without government certification and approval. Citizens who defy these regulations face fines, arrest, and even imprisonment.

In a recent article, the Economist noted:

Two forces make American laws too complex. One is hubris. Many lawmakers seem to believe that they can lay down rules to govern every eventuality. Examples range from the merely annoying (eg, a proposed code for nurseries in Colorado that specifies how many crayons each box must contain) to the delusional (eg, the conceit of Dodd-Frank that you can anticipate and ban every nasty trick financiers will dream up in the future). Far from preventing abuses, complexity creates loopholes that the shrewd can abuse with impunity.

The other force that makes American laws complex is lobbying. The government’s drive to micromanage so many activities creates a huge incentive for interest groups to push for special favours. When a bill is hundreds of pages long, it is not hard for congressmen to slip in clauses that benefit their chums and campaign donors. The health-care bill included tons of favours for the pushy. Congress’s last, failed attempt to regulate greenhouse gases was even worse.

Complexity costs money. Sarbanes-Oxley, a law aimed at preventing Enron-style frauds, has made it so difficult to list shares on an American stockmarket that firms increasingly look elsewhere or stay private. America’s share of initial public offerings fell from 67% in 2002 (when Sarbox passed) to 16% last year, despite some benign tweaks to the law. A study for the Small Business Administration, a government body, found that regulations in general add $10,585 in costs per employee. It’s a wonder the jobless rate isn’t even higher than it is.

The truth may be that the inability of the unemployed to become self-employed is the force that is squeezing the jobless most. Certainly, job migration overseas has changed America, but why should it mean continued elevated unemployment? There is enough money to keep the economy flowing so long as there are opportunities for people to make themselves useful in a way that pays. With the crushing burden of overregulation and the problem of barriers to entry, these opportunities are often restricted to large corporations.

These issues of youth unemployment and growing inequality between the generations are critically important. Unemployed and poor swathes of youth have a habit of creating volatility in response to restricted economic opportunity.

Britain Isn’t Working

George Osborne claims that spending cuts will produce a recovery.

From the Guardian:

The main test of a budget at this time is what it does for the recovery and growth of the British economy. George Osborne has repeatedly made clear that he wants to be judged by this test. He believes that deficit reduction is a growth policy which will be vindicated by its results. Growth has been postponed but, he insists, it is about to happen. So is he right?

It doesn’t look like it:

UK GDP has ground to a halt, while the United States has ticked slightly upward.

Now here’s unemployment:


Looks painful.

But at least we’re paying off the debt right? Nope:


Readers are of course advised to ignore the nonsensical future projections — particularly those for the United States — and focus instead on the fact that the UK is still amassing debt in spite of austerity.

So what the hell are we doing? Unemployment is ticking up, GDP is stagnant, and debt is still rising? Is this policy supposed to be working? Does the Cameron government not understand that cutting government outlays during a recession to pay down debt leads to falling tax receipts, which leads to bigger deficits (exactly what has happened!)?

The truth is — as Keynes noted — that the time for austerity at the treasury is the boom, not the bust. The only exception to this is if you can give back enough money to the taxpayer in tax breaks to offset the deleterious effects of spending cuts (as Ron Paul recommends), which itself is a form of spending. That way, government outlays remain roughly the same.

Cutting government waste is always a good idea; but using the savings to pay down debt (which very often in the modern world means sending the money overseas) during a recession seems like a very bad one. And it should be noted that the Cameron government isn’t even really cutting back much on what I consider to be waste. Britain spent billions effecting regime change in Libya.