Friday, March 17, 2006

More riots in France

The new riots in France should not be considered another outburst of anger from a downtrodden group in French society in the mould of the car burnings we saw earlier this year. Graduates of the Sorbonne may face some difficulty finding work with a youth unemployment rate of 23% but as they are emerging from a top university it is far more likely that they will succeed than fail in finding employment. These demonstrations are more in the mould of the regular strikes by French public sector unions defending their interests; they are strikes in the defence of the status quo.

This is significant because if the earlier riots, in the banlieues where unemployment is 50%, constituted a powerful case for reform the new demontrations, and the public support for them, are indicative of the strength of the political forces opposed to such change. The simple reality is that most French people are employed and a large number of the unemployed are safely contained within the banlieues away from the sight of the middle classes. So long as those in work fear reforms which hurt their security of employment more than they do France's present steady stagnation change is unlikely.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

South Park vs. Scientology Round 2

It appears that after legal threats from Tom Cruise the South Park episode which so offended Mr. Hayes will not be shown in the UK or repeated in the US. There are even suggestions that this is due to his threatening to cancel publicity for Mission Impossible III with Viacom. This is an absolutely tragic violation of freedom of speech that seriously needs to be fought. Using the court system to harass those who speak out against their religion has been standard practice for the Scientologists for some time and South Park is a show uniquely placed to get past this thanks to its high ratings and experience with controversy.

Of course, the episode has already leaked onto the Internet and free speech will find a way but it is dissapointing that even a well known TV show cannot freely speak out against a group which is only differentiated from the other nutty cults by its funding. Exactly the same logic applies here as it did during the Danish cartoons crisis or after the cancellation of the play about a Sikh temple. Freedom of speech is the principle which guarantees accountability and accountability is a major part of what makes the West the success it is. Freedom of speech is a principle which we should defend to the hilt.


Cameron's article today on got a familiar reaction. Conservatives like winning and there was broad support but nervous questions about the statement that tax cuts will not be prioritised over economic stability. Reform responded to this when it was first announced with a standard, and clearly correct, line that a small state is not more unstable. However, there are two possible processes at work if a party states that they will not prioritise tax cuts over stability:

1) They are left wing and believe that private sector irrationality makes capitalism inherently unstable and in need of state sector stability.

2) They believe that should we come to possess a debt/GDP ratio radically higher than it is today (a severe fiscal crisis) then it would be sensible to prioritise austerity over ideologically driven tax cuts. While there are no policy implications now we need to let the public know that our ideology does not imply poor decision making in a crisis.

While the first paradigm is patently false I believe it is the second that the Conservatives are addressing and this is far less troubling. now points at this blog.

Buying your own name as a domain name when you are not famous can be a form of bet on your own success. There have been several corporate cases where substantial amounts have been paid for domains and private individuals have surely had to do the same on occasion. My MP has which is so much less satisfying than would be. Avoiding the confusion and disgrace which comes from having your name point at someone else's website becomes highly valuable if your name has meaning. That famous names can drive traffic to websites was the first mover advantage rationale behind firms like Amazon investing so much early on.

By buying the name now I incur a steady cost of £8.99 per year. At the moment I am not famous and this domain therefore has little value beyond a vague sense of satisfaction and control which I will treat as insignificant. Still, it takes ten years for me to become famous and by then I will have paid around £90. According to this shady looking website domains can go on sale for hundreds of thousands of dollars but with only the moderate success of a thousand pounds in value my domain name becomes a fine bet if I believe that I have a greater than one in nine chance of becoming famous. Of course there is an opportunity cost in tying up my capital in this way but it is unlikely to be a problem if my expectations of my own success are rational.

The reason why I can get a good deal in this case is an information assymettry. Domain registrars and shady individuals behind sites like "" know less about me than I do. For this reason they have to treat me in a similar manner to a random individual. The name of a random individual has a very low value as they will not bid for it and very few people become famous. I have an ability to differentiate between my promising self and random others that domain registrars do not.

Old problems in UK scientific education

The Financial Times today reports on the CBI's observation of further falls in the number of science graduates. The CBI is right to point out anomalies such as psychology being used to boost biology numbers. Psychology is methodologically more subjective than economics and both are different in nature to the natural sciences. Psychology is a fine subject for academic study but is a far more esoteric concern for industry.

The FT fails, in setting the context of the article, to note that this is a fall from a low base in the UK. There have been concerns about the quantity of scientific education in the UK since at least the beginning of this century and these concerns have generally been justified. While there are excellent centres of scientific study (such as Imperial College) there is not the same quantity of scientific education as elsewhere in Europe. This matters because scientific education is particularly important economically. Scientific education doesn't only increase the base of skills for high value sectors but also increases the ease with which firms can identify promising scientists, which is important if they are making a high value investment in them. Also, science departments are valuable as they often maintain links with industry and are at the centre of competitive industries. Early and important examples are the links between Ruttgers University and Merck and between the University of Delaware and Du Pont. These advantages are the reason Michael Porter pointed to high end research institutions as far more important to economic growth than mass university attendance.

Our current system of higher education funding is created with the goal in mind of creating lots of graduates. This goal is determined by class concerns (university implies entrance to the middle class) as much as anything. The economic rationale above suggests we could be better off targeting funding at the hard subjects which provide such solid returns to the nation.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

South Park vs. Scientology

Isaac Hayes, who has voiced Chef since the series' inception, has quit South Park. He has described how he cannot be associated with the attacks on religion he sees in the show. It appears, as is noted by the Reuters report, that the problem is more specific and related to the show's recent attack on Mr. Hayes' religion, Scientology.

The episode was brutal, featuring long sections describing the bizarre beliefs of Scientologists but the inclination of those who run the religion to sue those who publically question it rendered the religion a fine target for important satire. South Park is in its tenth series and Mr. Hayes has taken part in shows where entire episodes have been devoted to mocking Christians, Jews and Mormons. If there has ever been a show which can fairly use the defence of mocking all equally it is South Park. Being so selectively offended completely undermines the moral case Mr. Hayes attempts to deploy.