Sunday, January 30, 2005

Food photo and recipe of the week

Blood orange and pink grapefruit salad, liquorice creme chantilly

Segment the oranges and grapefruit.
Make a syrup from the zest and juice, with a little sugar.
Boil some dried liquorice in sugar syrup for 5 minutes and leave to infuse. Blitz the liquorice with just enough of the syrup to make a thick paste. Mix this into the whipped cream.

This is a refreshing dessert, ideal to follow a rich meal - the fruitiness of the liquorice worked very well with the salad. You could make a liquorice sauce for the salad but the cream mellows and improves the flavour of the liquorice.

The beginning of the end for State education in the UK?

The Sunday Telegraph (no link) reports that the University of Chicago is to open a department in London this summer to allow students to earn a Masters from the university's business school. In one sense it might be seen as just another MBA course.

However, if it is the beginning of a trend for the internationalisation of education, it will hopefully shake-up the UK system. With UK universities caught between a fee cap and artificially rising student numbers, it would be no surprise to see students being drawn toward the higher quality education offered by US universities, and with their huge endowments, they would be able to offer bursaries far in excess of those available in the UK currently.

Prof Oswald of Warwick University, a luke warm market advocate at the best of times welcomes the move: It is a very logical development which we will see a great deal of in the next decade. Just as computers and cars are exported, so will university education.

Italian Mafia

According to an article in The Business, the Italian Mafia's turnover has doubled in the last 2 years, from E43bn in 2002 to an estimated E100bn last year.

Once you see past the irresponsible glamorisation of the Mafia in much popular culture, you see what a burden it is on society.
In his interesting observational book on Italy, Charles Richards quotes the Italian judge, Falcone, who paid with his life for his attempts to rid Italy of the Mafia menace:

The Mafia is not a social service that operates for the benefit of all, but rather an exclusive association which acts against society as a whole for the sole benefit of its members.

Evidence of this can be found in the Godfather films when no act of generosity by the Mafia is complete without the recipient being burdened with a "promise" to repay the favour. Modern States act in a similar way, with taxes being raised to provide services contingent on adhering to a legal framework. This is perhaps the key difference between the Mafia and the State, and a powerful argument against those who condone the Mafia on account of its ability to fill gaps left by the State.

The advantage a State has is its relative stability, viz. the Mafia. You might not like the level of taxation, but you can be fairly sure how much you will be paying annually. This certainty is diluted under Mafia rule because individuals have far more discretionary power.

Economic freedom

John Blundell, Director General of the IEA, discusses the latest Index of Economic Freedom in The Business and finishes with this strong claim:

So, I submit, capitalism - the consequence of freedom of contract and freedom to trade - is a triumphant force that ennobles its participants. I am making no new claim. Adam Smith taught us all we needed to know in his magisterial the Wealth of Nations. What this fascinating book allows us to see is just how subtle yet simple is the recipe for happiness. Domestic mercantilism is more dangerous than international terrorism.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Ayn Rand Centenary - 1

Given that 2005 is the centenary of Ayn Rand's birth, it seems appropriate to have some Randian influenced stuff. February 2 is the official day and it is obviously not a public holiday.
Like it or not, and I tend toward the former, Rand has been and continues to be hugely influential, although most people seem to experience only transitory Randian periods in their intellectual development.

The first is this picture of Prado Dam in the US which Rand no doubt would have appreciated as a representation of man's mastery over nature.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The ivory tower

Following the reaction of Prof Hopkins to Larry Summers' "sexist" remarks, Will Wilkinson has coined a new verb that has an attractive ring to it:

pull a Hopkins intr. v.

1. to become faint or nauseated upon hearing a statement contrary to one's ideology or dogma.
2. to leave the room, usually dramatically, because of such faintness or nausea.
3. to feign such faintness or nausea as part of a ploy to establish or reinforce a social convention about the limits of acceptable discourse.
e.g.: "I pulled a Hopkins when I heard Bob say that, even though it has never worked, communism is 'a good idea.'"

Historical source:

"I just couldn't breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill. I would've either blacked out or thrown up." - Professor Nancy Hopkins, in response to Harvard President Larry Summer's conjecture that women are scarce in certain mathematical disciplines because of genetic differences between the sexes.

The best reaction to the debacle comes from Prof Steven Pinker who has written perhaps the definitive book on human nature to date:
Look, the truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is “offensive” even to consider it? People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don’t get the concept of a university or free inquiry.


Prof William Coleman appears to have started a column at the Social Affairs Unit blog with the theme of Anti-Economics. I was very impressed with a talk he gave at the IEA a while ago and I am looking forward to more from the column:

Consider the society that in 1870 had:
• the largest population of any Western country;
• the largest and densest academic system of any country; and
• had over the preceding 40 years made distinguished contributions to economic theory (including marginal utility theory, marginal productivity theory, and the first supply and demand schedules ever drawn).

That country is Germany. But despite the strength of its heritage in economics, from the time of the formation of German Empire in 1870, economics (as it is ordinarily understood) died. It was replaced by the German Historical School of Economics (GHS), led by Gustav von Schmoller, who could claim after a period of time that the appointment of any "Smithian" in the German University system was impossible.

Repudiating all theory, the Historical School dedicated itself to eliminating "Smithianismus" and "Manchesterismus", and providing rationalisations for the cartelisation of industry and the establishment of protection. They were keen advocates of "social welfare" programmes to preserve cohesion of the new state. They also eagerly lent themselves to the collection of colonies in Africa and the Pacific, and the construction of a massive naval fleet. Giving something to everyone, German lecture theatres were flooded with students keen to absorb the economic wisdom of the Historical School of the day.

The hostility of the Historical School to theory amounted to a program of intellectual disarmament. Did Germany suffer? Not immediately. Between 1871 and 1910 real GDP per head grew a more than respectable 73 percent. (Protectionists should note that Germany did not grow as much as Sweden. With a distinctly less protectionist policy, Sweden experienced a real GDP growth per head of 117 percent over the same period.) But economics – like medicine or dentistry – proves its value best, not in the easy times, but the difficult ones. The GHS amounted to a piece of intellectual disarmament, and this had two catastrophic consequences after 1914. The German hyperinflation of 1922-23 is directly attributable to the precepts of Historical School that had "proved" the falsehood of what we call "monetarism". The ineffectiveness of German economists in dealing with the Great Depression is also attributable in part to the intellectual impoverishment of the Historical School. The most effective responses to the Depression, recall, came from the centre of mainstream economics, in Cambridge.

Germany paid for its anti-economics in material terms. And perhaps it paid in other terms. For the costs of damaging the credit of economics will never be purely material. Economics is built on premises that have a far wider remit than the simply material. These premises include; the oneness of human kind; the value of rationality, utility, freedom; the strong likelihood that each person is the best judge of their interest. Damage these premises, throw them away, or cover them with doubt and derision, and it is not just a lower GDP that is in prospect. Anti-economics may yet be as dangerous as the guillotine.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Food photo and recipe of the week

Braised pig's trotter 'Pierre Koffmann'

The recipe is too long to repeat but it basically involves the following:
boned, braised trotters stuffed with chicken mousse and poached, pommes puree, and a veal jus with mushrooms.

In his unique style, Marco Pierre White said the following about this dish: This is my favourite dish. If it had been a painting it would hang in the Tate. It's simple and earthy, but it's also elegant and intelligent. You can't take it any further. It's a complete meal. It's not a recipe for talking about; it's a meal to be eaten.

I was a little underwhelmed by the dish, to be honest. It is probably the richest dish I have eaten, and you can feel and taste the gelatine coating your mouth, but the flavour is a little too subtle for me. That said, it is a classic dish and well worth preparing at least once.

Unintended consequences of affirmative action

This story in The Times illustrates the pitfalls of affirmative action.

Mr Dube, who has no birth certificate but thinks that he is 42, is a blatant example of a new South African business practice called “fronting”.
This involves white-owned companies promoting one of their former black employees, often from a lowly position, to director level. Then the person fronts the company, enabling it to portray itself as a black firm and receive favourable treatment when government tenders are handed out.
Under controversial Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) legislation, adopted in 2003 to try to speed up the slow pace of change in South Africa, companies who employ people termed the “previously disadvantaged” can expect favourable treatment. Another recent case of fronting involved a white businesswoman’s maid and her daughter who were made co-directors of her construction company.

Thomas Sowell's Affirmative Action is an excellent analysis of the failings of affirmative action.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Michelin guide 2005

The 2005 Michelin Guide is out. Details from the Evening Standard and Squaremeal.

World's oldest pupil facing expulsion

The Telegraph has a surreal story about an 84 year old pupil in Kenya who is facing expulsion.

He was popular with pupils and teachers and was made a prefect. But when he began his second year this month, some parents protested. Mr Maruge was a "smart Alec" prone to histrionics, one said.
"Our children don't concentrate," the parent said. "They are too busy wondering what he is going to do next. He tries to dominate the class."
Mrs Obinchu says the accusations are "poppycock" but parents counter that Mr. Maruge - who was top of his class last year - has become a teacher's pet and have questioned his grades.
A parents' delegation went to the mayor's office yesterday demanding his expulsion and the removal of the headmistress.
"If I am expelled I will surely die," said Mr Maruge.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Food on sunday

The latest edition of the Observer Food Monthly is out, and quite frankly, it's crap. There is a half decent article on Ramsay in America amongst a load of rubbish on food and fashion which they have done before.
The quality of OFM has in my opinion declined steadily in the last 12 - 18 months.

The Sunday Telegraph has the second in a three part series of recipes by Tom Aikens which are innovative and interesting (no link) and an article on Marco Pierre White's move into pre-packaged food.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Right Nation

I have finally finished the impressive The Right Nation: Why America is Different.
Those with a deep understanding of American political and electoral history will perhaps gain the most from it, and I thought the attempt to be even-handed throughout suffered when the subjects at hand were not amenable to such treatment.

It really is a heavy weight book and will remain valuable for years to come.

The quote that sums up 400 odd pages of why America is different (or why conservativism is so strong in America) is apparently an old Ellis Island motto (p. 330):

The cowards never came, and the weak died on the way.

This goes a long way to explaining why America is so successful, and the failure to understand the demographic truths contained in this phrase explain much of the world's failure to understand America.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Food photo of the week

From the website of the restaurant Morgan M in NW London.

Recipe of the week

Red grapefruit souffle, almond ice cream

From London Eating, who got it from Morgan Meunier, I think.

Technological progress

Whilst recarpeting my room I found some old newspapers from 1999 and the PC World advertisments illustrate the speed of technological development.

In 1999, £1000 would have bought me the following:
Compaq - Intel Celeron 466mhz, 128mb ram, 8 gb hd, 5x dvd-rom, 17 inch monitor.

In 2005, the same amount of money gets me:
Compaq - Pentium 4 530, 512mb ram, 160 gb hd, 16x dvd-rom + ram, 17inch flat monitor.

Not bad. So generally, for less money I can do more on my computer. For me, this is the essence of technological development, and makes a mockery of Diamond's claim below that we don't need such development. This type of development frees up resources to be used elsewhere more effectively.

Jared Diamond

Diamond's new book has been well reviewed and criticised elsewhere but a couple of points caught my attention from his Times article.

Even if the human populations of the Third World did not exist, it would be impossible for the First World alone to maintain its present course, because it is not in a steady state but is depleting its own resources as well as those imported from the Third World

It isn't clear from the article how Diamond defines steady state. At the start of the 20th century lots of people thought we would by now have run out of oil, and some eccentrics still predict similarly. Yet the amount of oil left does not decrease in proportion with the amount used. This is a big clue to the fact that resources are not fixed, but are instead a function of social and technological development. We are of course depleting our resources on the one hand, but on the other we are diversifying them and increasing their size through economic and technological development.

Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them. The future is up for grabs, lying in our own hands. We don’t need new technologies to solve our problems; while new technologies can make some contribution, for the most part we “just” need the political will to apply solutions already available. Of course, that’s a big “just”. But many societies did find the necessary political will in the past

This sort of argument seems seriously flawed on two levels.

1. What is the “we” in this case? Where is this global democracy acting with one voice. You only have to look at one country, the US, to see that there is no “we”, but instead an “us” and “them” mentality. It is also questionable how many societies found the political will in the past. Which countries decided collectively to get richer and cleaner. I can’t think of one. For the most part, countries got rich and improved living conditions through a subtle blend of relatively stable political regimes, urbanisation and economic and technological development. They didn’t sit around and vote the same process into existence. The problem of converting individual preference into public good has been “solved” (in Diamond’s language) by effective property rights institutions - Don Boudreaux rightly calls Diamond’s analysis here ‘adolescent’ because Diamond seems unaware of the lessons of the Tragedy of the Commons.

2. Why don’t we need new technologies to solve our problems? To give an example, if we gave this argument 25 years ago when the average car engine was much less efficient, would it have been valid to say that we don’t need to innovate technologically to make engines cleaner, we just need to have a vote? Presumably Diamond has looked at global inequalities and solved the problem by transferring resources from the rich to the poor. But even if you ignore the practical problems of such an undertaking, it is unhinged from reality. It might equalise wealth for a very short time but countries and individuals will begin to diverge again as a function of aptitude, political environment, luck, etc... which would necessitate further redistribution ad infinitum.

Diamond seems to have a strange, a-historical view of the world whereby there are only a fixed number of problems waiting to be solved collectively and democratically once and for all, and then we live happily ever after.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Restaurant review

Ma Cuisine - Kew, West London

Other reviews here, here, here.
This is the third of John McClements’ restaurants in the area. He has the well received Michelin starred McClements and another Ma Cuisine bistro.

Lunch for 2 = £35, with Evian water, and a glass of wine.

I had Toulouse sausages to start, followed by a selection of charcuterie and a vanilla creme brulee. The sausages were meaty but not too dry, and the creme brulee was perfect, if a little large! The charcuterie was excellent: petit salad with cornichons, a slice of salami, prosciutto type ham, a ham terrine, a duck, pork and foie gras terrine, and a slice of foie gras ballotine. The ham terrine (set with a clear jelly) was flavoursome and moist, and the richness of the foie gras provided for a filling meal. Unfortunately the plastic wrap used to cook and set the ballotine was left on, for which they didn’t charge for the coffee (average Lavazza espresso) and one dessert.

From the set menu (£14.50 3 courses) Mum had ham terrine (same as for the assiette charcuterie, served with a reduced balsamic vinegar sauce and petit salad), coq au vin (with potato dauphinoise and green beans in butter), and pear tart. The coq au vin was good, if a little dry in places, and the potato and beans excellent. The hot pear tart tasted only faintly of pears.

Overall, good value for money, very good food, slightly let down by lax service (a bit slow, missing serviettes, messed up orders). The decor is also a bit rough in places but this ought not detract from the food. I think the kitchen is on pretty much the same level as the nearby Glasshouse which charges twice as much for more elaborate food (my review here).

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Conservative strategy for the next election

Michael Howard seems to have outlined the Tory strategy:

From the Telegraph:
Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, has promised to govern Britain for the "forgotten majority" which he claimed had been let down by Tony Blair's Government...
And he said voters faced "a clear choice" at the next election:
"A Conservative Government that gives power to people - or ever greater centralisation under Mr Blair.
"A Conservative Government that will get a grip on crime, immigration and disorder - or an ever-growing rights culture under Mr Blair.
"A Conservative Government that offers value for money and lower taxes - or more waste and higher taxes under Mr Blair.
"A Conservative Government that will reduce the number of politicians and bring powers back from the European Union - or more regionalisation, more politicians and more powers to Brussels under Mr Blair."

The soundbite that particularly struck me was:
The decline of responsibility and the proliferation of so-called 'human rights' have left us in a moral quagmire, unable to get a grip on rising crime and disorder.
This is a good starting idea for a book or essay, but I am not sure it is simple enough to win votes.
Firstly, the proliferation of human rights has increased the resources of some groups at the expense of society as a whole, so Howard's argument is not going to be popular with these groups.
Secondly, he will also find it hard to link abstract jurisprudence to the ordinary voter's concerns, and if he manages to do so, it might be in such a way that it engenders inter-cultural / racial tension.
Finally, modern human rights of the UN variety are very much in fashion in the media. Most superficial political discussion operates from the assumption that these "rights" are untouchable - that everyone has a "right" to a job, decent living, happiness....etc - without any mention of the responsibilities necessitated by such "rights", if there is any link to responsibility at all. Howard will need a massive effort to change this trend, and as it seems to operate on a timescale longer than 4/5 year electoral cycles, I think he would be better off focusing on Europe, tax, law and order, and schools.

Indian private schooling

The FT has a brief article on the success of private schools in India:

But in their rapidly proliferating numbers, India's slum private schools are ushering in a social revolution that is largely beneath the radar of the country's policymaking elites. It is a silent revolution that conveys two important messages. First, India's poorest classes want their children to be educated - and they are setting aside money to pay for it; and second, they want their children to be educated in English.

The article then says: Few studies exist on the growth of private slum or village schools elsewhere in India. But anecdotal evidence suggests that Hyderabad is not untypical.

This is a bit surprising considering all the work James Tooley (and EG West) have done on precisely this issue. In fact, the FT article discusses the same issues as Tooley has documented extensively, such as pervasive state school teacher absenteeism and the bribes paid by private schools to get round heavy handed regulation. Tooley's research has clear laissez-faire implications, and has been published mainly by free-market institutions, so perhaps this is why the FT has "missed" it.

Operation Gourmet

Terence Conran, one of the main players in the London restaurant scene, is potentially facing a tax bill of millions of pounds after an Inland Revenue investigation ('Operation Gourmet') into staff tips. Tips (troncs) left by customers are not subject to national insurance, so restaurants who have used this money to top up wages are being "asked" to pay the tax.
Pied-a-terre, for example, was fined £187000.
(Telegraph, Caterer).

Saturday, January 01, 2005

How to get to the top - the nice way

“What’s clear to me now is, screw the alpha male stuff,” says Robert Sapolsky, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University, after a lifetime of studying baboons in the wild. “Go for an alternative strategy. Go for the social affiliation, build relationships with females, and don’t waste your time trying to figure out how to be the most adept, socially cagey, male-male competitor. Amazingly enough, that’s not what pays off in that system. It turns out that females have a hell of a lot of control over who they’re mating with and, irrationally enough, they like to mate with guys that are nice to them!” (The Times)

The story also has a quote from Paul Zak - I got into neuro + behavioural economics after hearing him talk at an IHS workshop in 2003. Fascinating stuff.