On the road to nowhere

Once upon a time there was a little farmer who lived down a dead-end little country road – appallingly full of ruts and potholes. He’d inherited a little farm – too small to make a living, and worked for others for ten years, saving every penny, to buy another little farm, which he could only afford because it was also too small to make a living. He paid for it, and the land-transfer tax which they told him went to pay for ‘services’ – like roads, as that was really the only ‘service’ he got – and not much of that. The second farm didn’t adjoin – it was on a parallel equally rutted public road. To get from one to the other was a ten mile drive. He had to do that four times a day – but he could farm.

Now between the two farms was a third – a worthless, stony piece of land, which, if he crossed it made it a mere mile between the two fertile little farms. The owner refused to let him cross, but offered to sell, at a price way above the land’s worth.

The little farmer saved his pennies again, because 40 miles a day over those appalling council-maintained roads was killing him and his little vehicle, and bought it. He paid for it – and more land-transfer tax to pay for those ‘services’ like the roads, which made him buy it.

The next while he was happy – he could drive cross country, from one farm to the other. Things were better. It was still bumpy and slow, so he decided to bring his tractor across and make a track. So he started. It was just a rough track, but it was still a lot better than the council roads, and it was only a mile instead of 10.

So there he was… and the council (you know the people who got money to maintain the roads, from that and his annual ‘land tax’ or ‘rates’) call him up and say ‘You’re building a road. We drove past and saw. You haven’t got a road-permit.’

“It’s a track on my own land. I’m allowed to do that. The law says so.”

“It’s a road.”

“It’s farm track!” and this goes on for some time, back and forth. In the end the council official refuses to listen and demands the farmer get a road inspector – and threatens to confiscate his land otherwise. And threatens him with penalties for driving on an illegal road and building it. Now, the farmer is dead to rights. BUT a road inspector gets no money for inspecting farm tracks which don’t need permits or inspecting.

The farmer is scared of losing his land, and can’t afford lawyers and besides wouldn’t know where to start, and he doesn’t want bills and stress and uncertainty. So, gritting his teeth he agrees to the road inspector. It can’t be that bad, surely? The council official says no it won’t be. It’ll be quite cheap to make it legal. But he can’t use the road in the meanwhile.

The road inspector (who is not actually qualified to determine if it’s a farm track – his licence restricts him to public roads or toll roads for use by the public – but that doesn’t stop him or the council official) says well… it’ll become a road once you complete it according to regulations. No, it wasn’t a road, and they can’t penalize you for having built it and driven on it. It’ll be a toll road even if no but you uses it. But you either have to demolish it or build it, and you can’t just drive cross country. But don’t worry, it won’t be that bad.

Needless to say, it is worse. For the paperwork they insist on: the farmer needs a surveyor, so it can be properly surveyed. Then he needs an official soils test. Then he needs a certified road-designer, and the road must be built to the state standard- which is WAY better than the council-maintained roads. And he must have an environmental impact and a fire risk assessment. And then he can’t get his tractor and build it – as he has all the other roads on the farms and the farms he worked on to earn money… no he must hire a machine, a qualified operator, and certified road builder. By now the bill is higher than the cost of the farm, but the poor little bloke keeps being told he’ll lose it all unless he co-operates. He’s constantly threatened and abused by the council official- still driving 40 miles a day, stressed, tired and even poorer, but he has no choice.

Eventually, the road gets built. The council official gives him the usual buckets of shit about trivia that a highway in town would not have, let alone the council’s own roads, and makes him get things added and redone. The road inspector passes it, and gives him bill that makes his eyes water. The council charges him huge permit fees, fore and aft.

But he has a road between his two little farms. It’s his private road. It takes as long to drive as the track he pushed with the front-end loader bucket on his tractor. It cost as much again as another small farm.

And then along comes the council official. “We’ve come to assess the value of your land. Now, we see you have this road…”

“Yes,” says the farmer. “I have this road. You made me put it in. I have all the permits. It cost me a fortune, and you got paid a lot of money for causing nothing but a lot grief, and adding no value at all.”

“Well,” says council official, “It has improved the value of your property.”

“At my expense, at your insistence, in ways I neither needed nor wanted! Profiting you and the road inspector, and dozens of others you insisted I have, who added no value at all. The track I had was good enough and all I wanted, and it was better than your roads are then, let alone now.”

“So your land is now worth three times as much. Your annual land taxes will be tripling.”

Government and bureaucrats.

Here to help you.



Filed under government, government, Uncategorized

Quamdiu se bene gesserit

‘As long as he shall behave himself well`

It must have been a source of great amusement to Frank Herbert – or at least I hope so. This was a common Latin clause in the commissions given to various public officers – in particular judicial/executive ones who served at the will of the people.

It has sadly largely passed from use – because it is in fact fundamental for the consent of the the governed. That is is that IF the general populace are governed with their consent, those doing the governing have to have their conduct approved of by a vast majority of the governed. In theory this is primarily what constitutional states have constitutions to try to ensure. If this is not true – you make rules, and enforce them, but the vast majority does not support them, they logically they do not approve of the way you conduct your office, and it is not with their co-operation and consent that they obey, but by coercion -force to put it differently, and it is not with the consent of governed.

But what does it matter? governance is governance.” Well, think of it this way: if you can only rule -and have any of your rules obeyed, under threat of prosecution, then you have a situation where the authority exists (as it did for the larger part of human history – and still does in the animal kingdom) as far as the ruler can see – and only over what he can see. This works sort of if your demesne is very small. The minute it gets bigger than you can see you have to have subordinate authorities (who you can see – or at least intimidate – more on that in a moment) who once again rule what they can see, or they must have subordinate authorities etc… and so on. Basically it comes down to a cop on every shoulder, and cop on the shoulder of each cop and so on. The ratio of ‘police’ to productive people for them to police becomes such that productivity is sacrificed to constant monitoring (which is why electronic snitching is SO attractive to would-be dictators who do not have the consent of the governed.). People will disobey if they believe they can – and in practice they can.

The normal way of the governors who lack such consent is to resort to intimidation – which in turn rests on force and stealth (spying) so people think they MAY be being watched, and obey out of fear. It is more effective than a cop on every shoulder, but it’s still enormously resource-hungry, productivity-stifling and produces a very low trust society, with a reasonable probability of serious harm coming as retribution to the rulers and their lackeys if the populace see the opportunity. In terms of being a ‘good society in which to live’ it’s only good for the rulers and their lackeys and only if the populace doesn’t get the chance to pay them back in kind.

The consent of the governed society (and most Western societies are in a perpetual conflict between this and their rulers desire not to have to be in a qaumdu se bene gesserit situation, but in absolute power) on the other hand has rules imposed that most of the populace choose to abide by, voluntarily or with minimal persuasion – or they’d tell the rule-giver that he wasn’t behaving well, and must lose his position. These are high-trust societies. The more intimidation, the lower the trust. High trust societies benefit everyone in them – even the rule-giver who would rather be secure and rely on intimidation, than have to rule in a way that most of the society approves of or lose his position. It is fairly simple logic – far more of the society is directed at productive work, so the wealth and comfort of that society is better. Far less of the individuals in that society’s resources are directed at protecting themselves from the rest of the untrustworthy society. They can spend more time, money and effort being productive. The ruler who finds himself dismissed for not behaving well (within certain limits) has little to fear from losing that position. Ex-Prime Ministers or Presidents are generally not subject to the retribution they’d get in society where there is no consent of the governed.

The average politician – and judge, and policeman – of course, wants to have their cake and eat it. They want the power of authoritarian rule by intimidation, without the consequences of living in a low-trust society. Logic says that this cannot work and must damage the entire system, making it low-trust. This doesn’t seem to deter many of these folk from rationalizing that it doesn’t apply to them – because that idea suits them far better than having to do a good job so they have the consent of the governed. These rationalizations follow typically two courses (or both) 1)It’s for your good, we know better than you. 2)It’s the LAW. The law is magical and sacred and the letter of it trumps everything. I don’t have to conduct myself well in the eyes of the governed, because the LAW trumps their idea of what is good.

I’ve written at length about the first in a number of my books. It is an amusing conceit that I cannot buy into. There is little or no evidence of it being true, and the concept that some bureaucrat is a fit judge of what is good for any individual besides themselves (and even that is questionable) let alone societies is, you have to admit if you’ve met any, ridiculous. The latter is a core part of the plot of both THIS ROUGH MAGIC (where Benito breaks his legally imposed exile – a capital crime, to save the City-State of Venice – and particularly the welfare of the minuti populi. The judges find themselves caught on the horns of a dilemma – the letter of the law, or remembering that they hold their position quamdu se bene gesserit and getting lynched, along with any officers of the law who didn’t hastily lead the charge to string them up first) and in THE RATS THE BATS AND THE UGLY where the letter of the law is repeatedly used by those aiding and abetting the bureaucrats who are de facto selling their entire species into slavery for their own short term interests. Almost all of both rationalizations rest on ‘we know better than you what is good for you.’ In practice of course the law is neither magical nor sacred nor inviolate – or no-one would ever get shot in a gun-free zone.

Sigh. Look the entire purpose of a codified law is to enable equal justice in disparate cases – a fair outcome, with the written law helping to provide a reference so judge A does not lop off hands for theft of a loaf of bread and judge B merely makes the thief say sorry and give it back. That justice – in a consent of the governed society – needs MUST be what most of the governed can accept is fair and just. They don’t give a rats arse about the letter of law: they actually want the outcome to be what most of them accept as fair. Humans – like all social species – have a notion of what is ‘fair’. We’re actually – most of us – perfectly capable of seeing the benefit of laws and the enforcement of them, for things where the logic is sound and the consequences severe, and quite probable. For example, you would find few people who would regard a driving speed limit outside a school during the times when children are there or arriving and leaving (particularly with little kids attending) as illogical, the consequences of fast driving there could be very severe, and the chances of hitting a child with a car, high (high probability). It’s a law that has overwhelming consent of the governed, and really needs little enforcement. Anyone caught racing through the area might whine and rationalize (we humans do) but most people would see them as deserving some punishment.

Now apply that same speed-limit to a dead straight country road nowhere near a school. Most people would see that as illogical in the extreme, with no likelihood of consequences due to driving faster than that, but still at a safe speed (besides a fine from a revenue seeking town), and microscopically small probability of having anything go wrong (besides getting fined). The law is law. It can be enforced. It however has little consent of the governed, and if the locals knew that the cop totaled his vehicle and the speed-gun and was in hospital – would be ignored.

So what?” you say. Well, nothing exists in a vacuum (ok -except a lot of space objects. I mean a social vacuum). All things impact on others. The local town used the letter of the law as a revenue collection device, not because there was any justification, logic, consequence to it not being applied, or probability of that consequence. The cop arrests you under the color of the law, the local judge fines you under the same law. Both know perfectly well it’s illogical and is in no way something that most people would consider fair. But they have the LAW and force on their side so they do as they please… without joining the dots that the governed will extend the fact that in this case the law does not have their support (they probably don’t do it to locals, because they know this), and if it is true in this case, it may well be true in many others. That they have inserted doubt and disobedience where possible, and likely retribution, if and when possible, not just there, but for laws and authorities everywhere. The cop and the judge do not have to conduct themselves well in the eyes of the governed, so they don’t. It adds up, time after time. And lo, you’re on the slippery slope to a low-trust authoritarian society, with all the negatives that brings.

For a high trust society to thrive, the law and the authorities must be quamdiu se bene gesserit and exist with the overwhelming consent of the governed.


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To be sure it is Friday night.

‘give the kids a few Bob, After all sure it is Friday night. Ah, how could I tell her I was out of a job, from now on things were going to be tight’ -YESTERDAY’S MEN, CELTIC THUNDER

What was that thing about markets staying irrational longer than you can say solvent? Well, I’m no economist (and for that I don’t even do impressions. My advice on financial matters is officially worthless.) but as someone who really knows a little bit about fish, the state of the world looks like ‘interesting times’. That’s without any little details like war, or pestilence… maybe famine.

Anyway, the economic gurus have been telling us everything is sunshine, roses and unicorn-farts to power our new green cars. Which, um, I am finding a little hard to believe.

Personally, I believe we’re staring down the barrel of a hard recession, and possibly a new ‘great depression’. Too many things seem wildly out of kilter, and there are just too many things in what can only be called an entire bubble bath.

I live in Australia, so much of my perspective is skewed by this. Some of it may well make sense in other contexts. Australia’s economy is heavily dominated by raw materials, particularly iron ore export, coal and some agricultural produce a distant second and third. Australia once had its own manufacturing sector, making Australian products for Australians, and a little export, but really by us for us. Much of that is now dead. Our principal ‘in country’ business is selling houses to each other -at increasingly ludicrous prices. Much of that cost is ‘regulatory capture’ where government mandates mean a simple wooden frame house costs costs hundreds of thousands – at least half a million to build with all the regulations – whereas in terms of materials you could build precisely the same house for thirty thousand – the rest is creamed off by everything from suppliers (‘approved’ products) to tradesmen (licensed – it is very hard to do even simple jobs yourself without breaking the law, or paying extra levies) to a myriad of surveys – most of which add very little value and no one would pay a fraction of the price for, if it wasn’t for the law – but compliance puts hundreds of thousands on the cost for benefits in pennies, if any, and of a vast, intrusive very well-paid bureaucracy, which adds close to zero, or negative value, but they will tell you can’t live without – and prosecute you if you try.

At moment, with huge inflows from exporting commodities… we’re struggling to afford it. Most young ordinary working people in the major cities are priced out, and the WuFlu panics have seen that steadily spreading out to regional towns and rural Australia.

Our iron ore sales are in trouble because we really have one big customer, China. And China really has one big customer – the West, particularly the US. We’ve just been through the longest two weeks to flatten the curve in human history – and it shows no signs of abating, or of common sense in those in power – or anywhere else for that matter. Keeping the country afloat to keep on selling houses to each other – and keeping all the people -from suppliers to government parasites in funds has been vastly expensive. Governments being governments have paid for all this – particularly the bureaucrats salaries (where offices simply closed, they collected their paychecks and indeed nothing much changed (despite them being so vital that need to be well-paid) because none of it got done.)

But eventually all of that has to trickle through. There’s less commodity money coming in, and houses are so expensive that some people can just forget home-ownership. And of course, all that handout has been chasing less goods (inflation), both here and abroad… and when inflation hits the US or Europe or anywhere else that too comes back, because we don’t domestically produce much.

I’m of the opinion that we’re on the road to a lot of price inflation. Zimbabwe or Weimar? who knows? But certainly inflation in substantial figures… for essential goods – and accommodation. Now, the standard recipe for inflation is raising interest rates. You’ve spotted the flaw, have you? Because house selling is Australia’s main domestic business, and it’s very expensive and all most all mortgage funded… raising interest rates would be… interesting. Politically suicidal. They’ll rather allow rampant inflation – which targets the poor and prudent.

I suspect we’re in for a long, rocky period with government trying anything but the known effective methods – which would be raising those interest rates and massive deregulation – both of which would be hell on the housing market and the parasites/rent-seekers attached to it. I expect ‘infrastructure projects’, which cost way more than they stimulate and loads of ventures into socialist policies – and inflation of essentials running hot, jobs being less available, and wages stagnating.

And yes, a generation of ‘yesterday’s men’ – we don’t have that many factories (and those like the rest of us will suffer), but I expect a lot of those who have got very fat off the housing business to find themselves on a forced diet. I actually expect serious deflation – in the prices of things people don’t need, or simply can’t afford. (biflation – happens in fragile economies, where essential prices go up and non-essentials go down) Take the various government mandated documents – take the bushfire risk assessment. It’ll cost you a thousand dollars. Or $1400 if you live on my remote island. It’s a simple, non-situation flexible (so requiring no judgement, skill or common sense) tick the boxes, apply a very coarse formula process. You have to have various ‘credentials’ but a Gender Studies graduate would probably only find it marginally too challenging. Most of it is copy-paste. Four hours is putting it too generously. At the moment they have all the work they want because you have to have it (its value, to anyone with common sense, is negligible) They carry no liability – which if it was worthwhile and effective would be no problem. I expect, when the work dries up, they’ll first put their prices up at far higher than the rate of inflation – they had 20 days of work a month at $2000 a day or $40K a month…. they now have 5 days work and still want (and to pay their bills, need) $40K. (This follows precisely what traditional publishing did in the face of declining revenue – put up the price, cut payments to authors. Which made revenue decline further.) Then when this fails, they either go looking for the now scarce $25 an hour jobs they may have the skills for if they can find one, or cut their expenses to the bone, claim the dole, and take what little work they can get (they can take a few without losing the dole) at what the market will pay. There will be a handful of moderately expensive operators left, but they’ll actually provide something bespoke and problem solving, which will add some value.

My expectation for the rest of society tend more towards stagflation, with the cost of essentials rising and wages either not going up or not increasing at the pace of inflation. Some areas will be much worse than others: if you produce the essentials, you’ve got some chance. Historically we know job security (or a job at all, especially one that keeps up roughly with inflation in wages) will be precious. We’ll likely see a reversion to the historical norms of the great depression. Government (public service) jobs were precious. They were also moderately badly paid, but secure, with various perks. As things improved in the private sector, and wages there were better, the best (or those who could) left government service for harder work, higher risk but far better pay. So the public service boosted their pay rates ‘to retain talent’ – well, most of the bureaucrats who stayed had no talent, but it was very well paid, very secure, not hard work and loads of perks, and certainly at the bottom end paying way better than the private sector. That almost certainly will go. They’ll still have jobs. Far too many outside .gov won’t.

So: what comes for the rest of us? Who knows? Not me, that is for sure. I can say it probably won’t be good, because the politicians will be affecting it, and their drive is self-preservation and they’re not known for critical long-sighted behavior, or learning from history. I think the Australian govt. already very fond of playing nanny and micromanaging things they can’t do as well as the people they micromanage will try hard to inject cash into first home grants etc. to ‘boost’ the vast housing bubble. No, it won’t work. (I could explain why, but perhaps another post). They’ll prolong the recession/depression. Inflation will destroy savings, and government will find ways to loot the Australian ‘super’ retirement funds. It’s going to be grim. Some groups will escape the worst (fur coats and luxury cars still sold in the great Depression. Just not to you and I).

I’m not, frankly, sure what to do to minimize the impact. One has no idea how long it will last or even how bad it will be. I believe very bad, but then I’m a pessimist by preparation. The end results will have to be what they should have done in the first place: let the bad banks and propped up business fail, reduce the regulatory burden, Let the housing bubble pop to get prices back into affordable country (biflation – food prices and to some extent incomes go up, house prices don’t – or not at the same rate), get bureaucrats back to smaller numbers and far lower incomes (it would be nice if the rest of us did not have to suffer inflation to make this happen -but I can’t see that happening. It’ll just have to be the hard way – paper-pushers safe jobs wages not rising quite as fast as real inflation – because .gov will lie about that figure.)

My own steps: prevent myself being unable to service debt, and thus losing things to repossession – don’t owe on ‘hire purchase’. Buying non-perishable essentials that I use/need anyway – that in a pinch can be bartered or sold, or allow me to produce things that can be. Be as food and shelter self-sufficient as possible. I can’t afford to go particularly far, but I am doing my best.


Filed under Uncategorized

Under the weight of parasitism

We have many ‘isms’ out there. Capitalism, Socialism, Fascism, Communism, Feminism, Malapropism… for a start.

The problem with all of them – Ok, maybe not the last, is that no matter what they claim to be they usually suffer from parasitism. Some are in fact little more than parasitism dressed up in rationalization and excuses that sound good. Some may have even started with great ideals, worthy of at least consideration. But… well, the weight of parasites grows to a killing point, or at least a crippling one.

This of course is a core theme in quite a number of my books – not only about the problem but possible solutions to it, or at least how to make the best of it.

So: what is a parasite in this context? Well, a parasite produces nothing, and derives its entire living from the host, which produces something. Now, contrary to most views, parasites are not ONLY negative. At low levels, sometimes parasites do provide protection for example -sometimes from other parasites and sometimes from other problems. The host can, with very low levels actually be better off than the same critter without the low level of parasite. The key of course is the level, and just what positives they provide. The second point is all parasites do do ONE thing well – but not for the host – and that is increase in number.

Human societies always divide between the productive and the parasites. The producers and the rent-seekers, to put it another way. Rent-seeking behavior is best explained by the illustration of the river which the local farmers use to take their produce to market. The river exists. It flows through the land controlled by a local baron, or bandit chief (often the same thing, historically). He did not make the river, or do anything useful – but he put a chain across the river and charges the farmers a fee to cross it. He adds no value, he simply extracts rent, by virtue of killing anyone who doesn’t pay. He’s a pure rent-seeker, a worthless parasite. In the normal progression of things he will increase his fee until the farmers can barely survive. His judgement isn’t always good. The farmers quality of life and ability to invest in improving their farms will suffer. The baron and his retainers and dependents (even parasites haves parasites) will have their quality of life improve, although they produce nothing.

The Baron – let’s call him Biffo, has one thing to fear: that his position as rent collector will be usurped either by the farmers or another baron who wants to collect the rent instead. So he invents pretexts as to why his rent-seeking is perfectly justified. He’s defending the farmers from Baron Bigo who would charge more. Also he protect them from bandits (such as he himself once was).

In truth the biggest ‘risk’ he is protecting anyone from is another possibly worse bandit taking over. As I said parasites sometimes protect against other parasites – not because they are protecting the host, for the host’s benefit, but because they are protecting themselves, for their own. The host’s benefit is merely collateral to their self-interest, from their point of view (this is important). Here’s the thing: if banditry was easier and more successful Lord Biffo wouldn’t have bothered with the chain.

Of course Baron Biffo doesn’t do all of this on his own. No, he has a pack of lesser parasites, who, using Biffo as their arm, seek their own rent. Call them Sir Humphrey and his minions. Originally, they wound the windlass that raised or lowered the chain, but they found it easier to force the farmers to come and do the work. To Sir Humphrey it matters not who the current boss is: he just collects the rent, and makes any actual work the problem of the victims. Lord Biffo, Lord Bigo, or the revolutionary captain of the farmers who killed them both… Sir Humphrey and minions stay in their job. In a way, the problem is more about Sir Humphrey and minions, than the Baron. You can get rid of the Baron – usually by swapping him for another. Getting rid of Sir Humph and his pack is FAR harder.

The problem, in a nutshell, is the parasites operate under the context of ‘for your benefit’ – even if they are in fact the main problem (the baron was the bandit). And, short of an infinitely large space to get away, someone will always decide rent-seeking (for your own good) is actually easier and more profitable than working and producing for themselves. So if you’re a productive member of society: there will always be some kind of parasitic class claiming to be the government and taking as much of your production as they can.

The problem then becomes one of amelioration: limiting the parasites in number and power, possibly making them do something vaguely useful (the latter is, while desirable, still less important than just limiting the parasite load). It’s not merely a question of elections: that may change Biffo for Bigo, but does nothing to Sir Humphrey and his minion-nematodes. Biffo and Bigo are greedy but it’s the sheer bloodsucking volume of rest that weaken the host and make its life a misery until it dies. Biffo and Bigo can be restrained by the mere existence of a well-armed populace (something which I feel essential for any long term thriving state). Sir Humphrey and the bureaucrats just change masters, nothing else.

The key in this -and this was a part of STARDOGS and THE RATS, THE BATS AND THE UGLY – is that despite their claims they’re doing this for you, and protecting you from this that and the next – actually, their self-interest is the ONLY way to control, limit, and even channel their behavior into something not actively harmful, and maybe even useful. This, frankly. is easier in science fiction than reality.

Typically in reality, Baron Bigo may well promise to reduce the red tape. He may even manage to reduce some small part of it. It will have a positive effect – but while Sir Humphrey and minions are in place, it will come roaring back. I suspect the only way to actually deal with Sir Humphrey and his minions short of the guillotine, is somewhat science fiction to politics as usual anyway. We know they’re inefficient at best, and that the risk they’re protecting those who pay the rent from is often trivial. It IS important to get the risks stated at least – as well as the costs in attaining the protection. Take the TSA crotch-fondlers as an example. Hijacking joined being a privateer as a career of yesteryear at 9/11. A hijackers’s success rested on the possibility of survival IF you co-operated. How many people will believe their assurances now? Zero. The cornered rats will fight. Anyone who believes they’re going to die if they co-operate, won’t.

If nothing else, showing something that has a risk of millions to one, and yet costs the the productive a fortune… is going to make them have to look for other excuses. But they’ll find those. It’s what they’re good at. Often all they’re good at. However the right motivation – and yes, sf solution – is to tell Sir Humphrey that he’s got a certain budget to split between himself and his staff. The same budget regardless of how many staff, or what they claim to do. The problem of course is if the Sir Humph’s bottom layer of control actually DOES something useful – If there are 10 managers and office staff and one road-worker who actually does something – you know who is getting fired. So it also needs to be contingent on the job getting done.

All easier said than done. But the biggest step is realizing the enormous drag of parasitic rent-seekers on society. And calling them parasites is a start.


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A new serfdom

On money and negative interest rates.(you can read about this on WSJ at a fee, or Bloomberg,  or Zero Hedge (which I admittedly take with a pinch of salt) for free.)

Hmm. Harvard. As one of my friends (a world-class leader in his field, and not trained at Harvard) said dryly ‘You can tell a Harvard man – you just can’t tell them much.’ It has produced a large number of billionaires. This may have bearing on the rest of this. It also has an economics professor called Ken Rogoff. I’m sure it may well have valued academics whose work does not make me imagine an outcome of mobs, smoky torches and pitchforks…

Professor Rogoff believes that negative interest rates could be a good thing. He also believes that cash (as in physical money) per se is a bad thing. The former forces spending, so vital for the engine for economies, and the latter facilitates crime, money laundering, tax evasion, and even illegal emigrants.

I suspect he’s completely right… from the point of the billionaires, or at least the very wealthy and powerful. Probably from the point of view of government (who hate competition in the crime racket. That is after all the origin of several ruling houses, and I suspect most government, despite smoke and mirrors to contrary).

But what about as a general thing: for those unlikely to go to Harvard or be billionaires or even millionaires?

I would argue that for those outside that select group – this can be translated into one word: serfdom.

Let’s think about the negative interest rates, for example. Why, it would mobilize cash, make for immediate consumption. Isn’t that good? There is no point in saving as that money will be worth less, next year. And mysteriously, inflation will not go away… so it’ll be worth less, twice. Now I’ve argued before that inflation effectively robs savers for profligate borrowers, and that historical norm cycle of inflation followed by deflation worked both to encourage and build savings and then to encourage investment –as that could bring a better return than just holding onto that money. There was an almost seasonal quality to it, a sort of drawdown-refill-drawdown-refill-drawdown process – which worked in the longer term – even if it wasn’t much fun at times in short term (depending if you were a debtor or a saver). The world slowly got to be a better place to live in.

Negative rates – available to banks from the state, and paid to savers by the banks (not, naturally to borrowers, would indeed free a rush of savings – and make a rush of borrowings. Wonderful for stimulating the economy! Wonderful for banks – after all if the bank can borrow at -1% and lend at 5%, it’s no different to borrowing at 3% and lending at 9%. They profit on the margin, not the figure. Their figure is always positive.

But where is the refill? And what happens next year?

“But we haven’t had deflation for decades! Where was that refill? We’ve got fiat money and reserve banks and printing presses now.”

Indeed. Outside habit and obstinacy saving has not been encouraged for a long time. Fiat money printing (and the inflation this causes) have ruled instead. Yes, there have been investments that could leave you making a return after inflation. But generally speaking, the banks and the wealthy tried to limit that. But it was possible and wise to at least lose slowly while adding your savings, having security, and possibly the goods or services that you wanted at less cost than if you borrowed, and then spent years paying it off. As an indebted borrower, you are, de facto, a serf, in thrall to your lender, chained to that job (or another that pays well enough to match). You dare not lose it, or you could lose everything. It’s not a long step to the serf of the middle ages, who worked the land he did not own, lived in a miserable hut at his master’s will, who could not leave or even change jobs without his master’s permission – a master who took most of the proceeds of his labor and lived very well off it – a life of insecurity, working principally for someone, who, often as not merely inherited the position and invested precious little of that profit in making things better for the serf.

“Ah, but if you have a good credit record, you have security! You can borrow as much as you might need.”

Indeed. And you can give part of your income to the lender, and you will need to keep working. And the threat of bankruptcy, forfeiture and a poor credit record will keep you on the master’s estate. That part of your income that you will give to lender = cost of good or service + cost of the loan allowing for depreciating value of money + handsome profit for the lender. If you’d simply stuck dollars in the bank and got interest largely cancelled by inflation you’d have lost some to inflation, but the handsome profit for the lender would have been yours to spend – which as Joe Average makes money circulate more than Fred Banker 1%, and spends locally would have been better for the economy – if not Harvard graduate billionaires. And if you’re hurt or sick or unhappy at your job… well you don’t have to worry about paying it back, and remain trapped there.

At best negative interest rates cause a brief burst of consumption and investment, and thereafter mean that any consumption and infrastructure investment must carry parasitical rent seekers who add value but mean the consumer and infrastructure investment must carry their weight as well. And they have no practical choice but to (unless of course you enter this equation with a lot of money. In which case you produce a product, which you sell, and the consumer pays both you and the bank if that product is something they can’t afford in the very short term of accumulating money.

With negative interest rates, you’re better off putting dollars under your mattress. Enter part 2 of Rogoff’s equation – get rid of physical money. Neat, isn’t it?

“But you can’t be robbed!”

Really? Well, yes, people are robbed. You can work out the probability, and you can take measures to reduce the chances. Does that beat the utter certainty that some of cash will ‘vanish’ every day you keep it in the bank? It’s an equation a lot of people might like to reach their own decisions about – but if there is no cash, you won’t.

And have you worked out: if there is no cash, who will keep track of the numbers? Who will provide that little card hooked up to the computer system? Ah yes. Mister negative interest rates bank. Or failing that, perhaps the alternative scenario. Mr Negative interest rates and tax you government. While neither would protect you from robbery – not by themselves or others, neither have a record that says “This would be a good idea” – either for the economy or the individuals. The one thing I think we can guarantee is that it would not stop crime, or curb tax evasion. Oh yes, the government would extract more rent from Joe Average. But the rich and powerful don’t pay taxes now, and would, I assure you, not pay taxes then. But the serfs would. Much better for collecting from them. You can just take as much as you like from their accounts (the banks ALWAYS play ball with the bigger crooks, including governments).

One has to ask: what without the possibility that people would keep their cash under the mattress is there to keep either the banks – who usually work hand in hand with governments, or the governments – who usually work hand in hand with the banks, honest? Seriously, the very existence of cash is protective – just as an armed society is protective against despots.

As for the illegal immigrants… well. That depends on the serfdom conditions in their own countries – or even outright starvation. I don’t think a lack of cash to send home will stop ‘em. And, anyway, the people Professor Rogoff’s economics work for don’t care where the serfs that scrub their floors and manicure their lawns come from. They can be legal or illegal serfs.


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Dave Freer’s Mailing list

Given that I am to marketing what Godzilla is to wristwatch repair, I’m doing something incredibly foolish here. The one promise I can make is I am unlikely to bother you very often – but if you enjoy my books and stories, and would like to know when the next one is out, and bits of news about them – well please sigh… sign, yes I mean sign up. I will give away stories and books every now and again, announce specials and probably not waffle too much about how my piggies are growing.

If you would like to sign up, click here



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A new e-book is up!

The picture is a link –

Tom is a cat in trouble. The worst possible kind of trouble: he’s been turned into a human. Transformed by an irascible old magician in need of a famulus — a servant and an assistant, Tom is as good at being a servant as a cat ever is. The assistant part is more to Tom’s taste: he rather fancies impressing the girl cats and terrorizing the other toms by transforming himself into tiger. But the world of magic, a vanished and cursed princess, and haunted skull, and a demon in the chamber-pot, to say nothing of conspiring wizards and the wickedest witch in the west, all seem to be out to kill Tom. He is a cat coming to terms with being a boy, dealing with all this. He has a raven and a cheese as… sort of allies.
And of course there is the princess.
If you were looking for ‘War and Peace’ this is the wrong book for you. It’s a light-hearted and gently satirical fantasy, full of terrible puns and… cats.


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Power, Bullying and ‘isms’

It’s been a while since I wrote up one of my ‘Philosophy behind my stories’ posts to bore everyone rigid with. So if you have insomnia… help is at hand!

One of the current memes being aggressively pushed is: On attacking and demeaning someone of another race (usually white) “I can’t be racist, I am not white. Whites are in power and dominant and you have to be that to be racist.” or on attacking and demeaning someone of another sex or orientation (usually male, heterosexual) “I can’t be sexist, I am not male. Males are in power and dominant and you have to be that to be sexist.”

Oddly, I believe there is a fragment of rightness in what on the surface makes as much sense as a hedgehog full of LSD reciting the Koran backwards. In Latin. With a lisp.

Racism is quite simply and clearly prejudice (against or for) on the basis of race. Sexism is prejudice (against or for) on the basis of sex. Both rest on the mean group characteristics always trumping the individual’s characteristics. Think about it: it can’t actually work any other way. Obviously there are no ‘exclusions’ – the concept transcends current circumstances and passes quite cheerfully through cultures and history.

Of course, logic says (and this is the grain — a tiny one — of rightness in the bizarre meme) to translate that prejudice into discrimination which could hurt (or help – let’s not forget it works the other way too) the other person/s involved is that the individual expressing that racist/sexist prejudice needs to be in a position of power to do so.

But of course what is missing in the meme is that power is relative and localized. Coming back to my own work, I have a character in Crawlspace and Other Stories — Laggy — who was a Khorozhet slave, before being liberated by HAR Marines (and hereafter are certain spoilers. Proceed if you have read the space-set murder-mystery, or don’t care).

So: naturally a hero… well, certainly a hero by current sf-tropes. Slaves are by definition always wronged, always victims, always good (Jack Vance was the last author I can think of to not go with this trope. A brave and vastly under-rated and under-appreciated author.)

Let’s play this one through, logically. A slave is at the bottom of social pyramid. He has to be a victim…

Except of course he is not alone at the bottom of that pyramid. And among slaves there too is a hierarchy. Laggy, it turns out, was a trusty. A slave who exploited other slaves. When we take a close look slaves or prisoners… it turns out that, actually, this is quite common, and widely reported, except in modern fiction. There is also the interesting assumption that someone who has been enslaved was somehow always an innocent saint before the bad men (always in modern sf, by bad white men. Once again, history is not congruent with this version of the narrative. Enslavement and slave-keeping haven’t actually been limited to any one race or culture. It seems to have cropped up for a long long time – those bad white men were plainly in the pyramid building business.) came took them from their peaceful vegetarian matriarchal idyll and enslaved them. Let’s face it: innocent saints living in peaceful vegetarian matriarchy are probably very easy to capture and enslave. But of course, in reality such societies tend to die quite quickly unless protected by people who are none of the above, or extremely isolated with very high natural mortality. And even there: saints are thin on the ground. Slave takers didn’t care if you were a wife-beating child abuser who murdered his neighbor, or a saint. The former probably got away or possibly sold out the latter, but if a tribe or a village – or a stray individual got captured, the slavers didn’t do a thorough background check before issuing a ‘be a slave’ license (as in A MANKIND WITCH, where they enslaved someone they should have either ransomed or handed over for the dead-or-alive reward, and better dead). Slaves have to be a cross section of humanity too. Good, bad and mixed. Extreme conditions bring out the hidden best in some, and the worst in others… except in modern fiction.

Nor is the other standard trope: even if they were axe-murdering drug pushers when enslaved… when freed they’ve learned from the experience and become good people (TM) and would never ever exploit (or enslave) anyone else. It does happen — and that is at the root of our criminal justice system (I don’t think this ideal, but that’s a different discussion, different books). But if it worked that way all the time, there’d be no recidivism. That’s not true, and neither is the assumption that just because someone has been a victim, they will not victimize someone else. Sadly, that is not the case. It does happen that the former victim is determined not to do the same… But it is far from inevitable. And, because we are the center of own perceptions, it is quite plausible (and I suspect common) for someone to be be bullied… and at the same time to be bullying another. Or to join in bullying another to avoid being bullied. Or to have been bullied when small, growing and bullying others. And this is at the heart of CRAWLSPACE – Laggy is presumed innocent and good because he was a Khorozhet slave. In actual fact he’d murdered the man whose identity he’d assumed, been captured along with the other miners on the rock, and ended up as a trusty – by betraying some of them. He had seen opportunity with liberation – and kept the other (alien) slaves who had hidden during the attack, hidden after liberation, and still slaves. His slaves now, unaware that they’d been freed – a process he repeated with highly addictive drugs and the prostitutes at his bar. Note that the story does not portray ALL slaves as like Mr Laguna, or even most slaves. It is merely a hopefully plausible example of the variability and of the importance of relative power in any circumstance.

So what does this have to do with racism, sexism and the trope of “I can’t be… because I’m not a white male, and I have no power to be that in a society in which white males are dominant.” Well, it’s just power is a local or proximal thing, and, logically differs on the basis of the individuals (not groups) in the power relationship. So for example, you might (if you were a moonbat excusing your racist and/or sexist behavior) say White Men still dominate business and politics in Western society and therefore I can’t be. Or even more illogically ‘historically white men were dominant’… Well, let’s take traditional publishing. Historically white men were dominant. But that’s a shifting picture, which, with 74% women employed, and at least 70% in editorial… only 51% in management (and by the salary/age facts those men in management are old, and gradually fading from the picture. In ten years time it’ll be — conservatively — 85% female, and 70% female management.) Given an editor’s (or even someone in marketing) power over an author, it is perfectly accurate to say, despite history or the larger picture of society, the women in publishing would be well positioned to apply sexist prejudice against male authors. On the other hand male authors might be sexist about the editor, but he is in no position to discriminate against (or for) her as a result. The same is not true of the other side of the power equation. It’s not the situation in the wider society, it’s in that relationship. And the historically abused can be abusers. Sometimes they feel it is ‘payback’. Of course, it is never payback to the actual individual person/s who hurt them, but a payback to the ‘group’- which usually boils down another individual/s who may well not ever have inflicted any hurt on any of their group, and who may be in a very fragile personal position. Just because someone is a man, does not mean he is not also poor or suicidal or mentally unstable. When you treat individuals as individuals, that is obvious. When someone is a ‘group’ you can be wildly wrong.

Power determines who can bully who. And it is proximal power. Just as the kid who might come from an intelligent, well-off, socially and financially powerful family can still get the crap knocked out of him by a big kid whose single mother is on welfare and is slightly thicker than your average Hugo ‘Noah Ward’ voter (i.e. needing ‘breathe in, breathe out’ instructions to stop themselves dying of anoxia to the brain cell*) in the locker room, it’s a question who has power in that circumstance.

We’ve had a similar dose of insanity with sad/rabid puppies, with publishers, editors, powerful and successful authors with multiple awards shrieking loudly that the puppies and the nominees – who are none of the above – are bullying them. How, pray? Oh and despite all the evidence to the contrary, they’re sexists and misogynists (even the women) and white racists (even the not-white, or married to not white folk). And, besides the fact that it’s wildly inaccurate, what difference would it make? They have no power to apply prejudice. The inverse, of course is not true.

It has always struck me — as a guy who believes in judging individuals as individuals — how sometimes what is called ‘discrimination’ or sexism or racism is no such animal. Take the cop who hears a noise in an alley – he steps into it and sees a white woman and a black man wrestling desperately. He can only deal with one of them. It’s dim, he sees knife steel, but has no idea what’s happening. What does he do? By the current PC rules one way he’s a sexist, the other racist.

Maybe he should call for a safe space for them talk about it.

Or go for coffee and leave them to it, which is what I am going to do.

*if you think this is a bit harsh, you haven’t thought about the obvious ‘reply’ to this. Nor what good recruiting fodder it is for their foes.


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A little Bolg

A little snippet from the WIP, where a Bank – or its minion – has swindled two retired little old ladies out of their life savings. Unfortunately they are retired fertility goddesses, and have called on the services of the redoubtable PI Bolg to get their money back or at least release a large fly agaric maddened berserker with a double headed axe in the Bank…


Instead, armed with a little knowledge – always a dangerous thing, and without my Glock, or even a suitable double bladed axe — they have metal detectors — I went to the bank.

The woman at reception, when I got to the head of the queue, looked down on me. I’m used to that, at my height, even with the high heels and latex mask. None-the less, coming from a bank employee it could possibly have made me little more gruff than usual. “I want see a Mr Philip Dally. About an investment product.”

“Do you have an appointment?”
“Yes.” I have been given quite a lot, and never returned any. Royal ones too, and they’re supposed to last better. I was appointed holder of the royal trousers once, but only once.

She frowned at her screen. “I don’t have a record of it. What is your name please?”

“Dickson.” I’d been told there were a lot of them, and in a way we all are.

She shook her head. “Sorry. You can’t see Mr. Dally without an appointment.” She sounded very pleased about that.

“But my friend Mr. Jasmin” – I had the Vice President (Investments) name from the ever informative internet – “assured me he would see to it that I got an appointment.”

That plainly was a different matter entirely. “I’ll just see if he’s free, Mr Dickson.”

And indeed, he was. How surprising. I was escorted up to his office.

Given the timing – and the night before, he was drinking coffee and trying to look awake and enthusiastic. He failed at both. Poor fellow looked as if he could use a purge, so I helped him along in that direction. They scan you for firearms, but not rapid and violent laxatives. Fintan had needed elephant dung in a hurry at one stage of some of his experiments, and had run a little batch of this stuff up. It had almost destroyed the circus I’d been working at, at the time. I kept some for other people’s emergencies.

A little misdirection, a few minutes small talk about Mr. Jasmin and our acquaintanceship at the Country Club and wonders of hunting golfs together, a pastime that Dally seemed to envy, and the vast amounts of money coming out of my real-estate venture… and an expression of extreme distress suddenly delightfully enlivened his beautifully shaven and rather pallid face. It was a thing of joy that I was sorry not to record for my clients. It wasn’t quite as devastating as a berserker with an axe that Gersemi had wished for, although I had a feeling Dally’s underwear might not agree with me.

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Twisty Christmas Tales is free

for the 8th and 9th so get in quick


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