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Madsen Pirie

Madsen Pirie



Articles by Madsen Pirie

Reasons for optimism – housing

27 days ago

That anyone in the UK could be optimistic about the future of housing there would be remarkable if it were not in the process of change and with a high likelihood of more changes to come. The problem is that there isn’t enough of it, and that causes it to be unaffordable to large chunks of the population.The villain of the piece is the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which was ostensibly designed to protect green spaces around towns and cities. What it achieved in practice was never envisaged. It empowered home owners against would-be home-owners. It empowered incumbents against newcomers, residents against immigrants, the haves against the have-nots, and the old against the young. It enabled those who owned homes to restrict the building of new ones, and thus to raise the value of

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Reasons for optimism – Space

April 6, 2021

In 1956 the then Astronomer Royal, Sir Richard van der Riet Woolley, was widely quoted saying, “Space travel is utter bilge.” When the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched a year later, he was asked if he stood by his remarks and replied, “It depends what you mean by utter bilge.” I forgave Sir Richard when he taught me to play croquet three years later, but I’m not sure the space industry ever did.The conquest of space has enabled us to do things that were impossible or at least very difficult to do on Earth. Communication satellites that beamed television from fixed geostationary orbits were among the first big money-spinners. Although still classified to some degree, military reconnaissance satellites have given each side detailed information about the other, and have

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Reasons for optimism – population

March 30, 2021

Some commentators, famously including Sir David Attenborough, are pessimistic about the world’s population, especially about what they see as its likely future population, and think the planet is headed for a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich led the charge with his 1968 book, “The Population Bomb,” in which he predicted worldwide famines in the 1970s and 1980s because we’d be unable to grow enough food to feed the rising population. This is the argument by which Thomas Malthus predicted recurring world famines as food supply would necessarily fail to keep pace with rising numbers of mouths to feed. Paul Ehrlich in April 1970 predicted that: “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during

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Reasons for optimism – nanotechnology

March 22, 2021

Nanotechnology has already transformed many materials, and is in the process of tailor-making many more to our specifications. It is a reason to be optimistic that newly developed materials will be enabling us the achieve things thought impossible less than a generation ago.It is basically a technology that manages to manipulate the molecular structure of materials to alter their properties. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre, about 80,000 times thinner than a human hair. This is the scale on which atoms and the molecules they make are measured, and technology at this level involves controlling individual atoms and molecules. It has already enabled revolutionary applications. New forms of carbon have been developed, including nanotubes and nanopillars that are used to make solar

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Reasons for optimism – Ageing

March 15, 2021

While we can be optimistic that advances in medicine and healthcare could enable us to live longer, healthier lives, we eventually come up against the lifespan barrier that limits the number of years before the body’s deterioration with age finally ends its life. The indications are that many more people will live to pass the 100-year milestone, and some suggest that perhaps 120 years might supplant the traditional biblical “three score years and ten.” But some researchers are looking into ways that might delay, or even reverse, the ageing process to the extent that people might live for hundreds of years, not aged and relatively helpless years, but vigorous, youthful years.There are several approaches that show promise, including ones that have lengthened the lifespan and apparent

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Reasons for optimism – regulation

March 10, 2021

Given the tendency for regulation to increase remorselessly, especially in protectionist blocs, there seems at first glance to be little cause for optimism concerning its future. Regulation is used by some countries and trading blocs to raise non-tariff barriers to foreign imports. Where tariff barriers are not allowed under international agreements such as the WTO, use is sometimes made of regulation as the alternative. Goods are kept out because it is alleged they do not met the ‘safety’ standards required, or are produced with insufficient ‘consideration’ of the workers, the environment, or any animals engaged in their production. One ground for optimism is that there is a distinct trend for protectionist blocs to be superseded by genuine free trade areas, in which countries agree to

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Reasons for optimism – invention and innovation

March 8, 2021

Ten years ago, Tyler Cowan published “The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-hanging Fruit,” arguing that the US economy since the seventeenth century enjoyed free land, immigrant labor, and powerful new technologies, the “low-hanging fruit.” He argued that since 1970 the fruit tree became bare, and the easy access to growth gradually disappeared.His book became a best-seller and stimulated much debate, but events since its publication have combined to cast doubt on its central thesis. Uber and Airbnb had started before he wrote it, but had not by then revealed the massive economic effect they were to have by lowering the cost of travel and accommodation and bypassing the entrenched dominant city transport and accommodation systems.Similarly, the CRISPR gene-editing technology

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Reasons for optimism – trade

March 4, 2021

Free trade had a good run with first GATT and then WTO, and has brought a very large part of humankind unparalleled prosperity, enabling people in poorer countries to sell their labour and its products on the world market. But there has recently been a return to a degree of protectionism, and some observers predict that economic nationalism will come to dominate, meaning that trade will be much less free than it has been, and that the prosperity that it brought might prove transient.President Trump in the US renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement so that its replacement incorporated fairly onerous rules of origin and minimum wage requirements. Some critics have described it as “government managed trade policy,” and Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations said, “if a

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Reasons for optimism – wealth

March 1, 2021

Some commentators suppose that following the Financial Crisis of 2008 and the current worldwide pandemic that world output will never regain its previous levels, and that people in the future will have a lower standard of living than their predecessors did. Others allege that such increases in wealth as have happened have been concentrated in the hands of the super-rich, leaving poorer people worse off.Neither of these somewhat pessimistic views appear to be justified. Periodic shocks such as the Financial Crisis and the pandemic happen from time to time. They provide a shake-up and a reallocation of capital and resources. Some businesses go to the wall, but they free up space into which new business can move. The wealth-creating process picks up the slack, and new products and processes

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Reasons for optimism – health

February 24, 2021

Even if the anticipated advances are made in medicine, some question whether the outlook for people’s health should be on balance optimistic. Despite major medical advances in recent years, analysts point to obesity, smoking, unhealthy diets and lack of exercise as factors that have, for many, contributed to poorer health than progress in medicine might have suggested would come about.These factors are for most people lifestyle choices, and are susceptible to change if people decide to change their behaviour, or if technological developments make that behaviour less harmful to their health. Already there are grounds for optimism on smoking, in that it is the smoke, rather than the nicotine, that causes the associated illnesses. Tobacco smoking is diminishing in developed countries as less

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Reasons for optimism – medicine

February 22, 2021

With a pandemic putting much of the world into lockdowns or quarantine, it might seem counterfactual for anyone to be optimistic about the future of diseases and the medical responses to them. Modern travel gives diseases that mutate and cross the species barrier from animals to humans the ability to spread rapidly, but modern medicine increases the speed and range of our responses to them. The development and testing of several vaccines against the coronavirus achieved within a single year a process that has usually taken 5 – 10 years. Humankind will emerge from the pandemic far better equipped to deal with new diseases when they appear than it was before. It has coped with Ebola, SARS, H5N1 bird flu, and MERS camel flu, and AIDS is no longer the death sentence it once was.Of the diseases

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Reasons for optimism – education

February 18, 2021

The grounds for optimism concerning UK education at both school and university levels are based on the assumption that it will change. Critics have not been short of ammunition, pointing out that children from East Asian countries regularly score well ahead of their UK peer group in ‘hard’ subjects such as mathematics, physics and engineering. There has been concern that the measures which purport to show a higher percentage passing with higher grades are in fact measuring grade inflation, and that the subjects have been dumbed down to make high scores easier to attain. There is concern, too, that a typical UK university is no longer what Disraeli called “a place of light, liberty and learning,” but a place that will not tolerate the expression of views that might offend some people.

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Reasons for optimism – technological environmentalism

February 16, 2021

There are many differences between behavioural change environmentalism and technological environmentalism. The latter does not involve us all living more simply, becoming poorer, turning our back on progress, being prevented from doing the things we want to do, and living narrower lives, denied the opportunities to live more comfortable ones filled with new opportunities. Children might have fun camping out on the streets and claiming that extinction of the race is imminent because we have “destroyed their future,” but the reverse is true. The human race is not threatened with extinction, and their future has been saved, not destroyed. Pointing to the worst-case scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5,

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Reasons for optimism – energy

February 10, 2021

Until quite recently there was a fairly common view that energy would become scarce and more expensive in future. The talk was of “peak oil,” in the belief that not many reserve supplies were there in the ground to be exploited. This would allegedly have made it too expensive for oil companies to research and develop new sources of supply. The mistake was to think of the price of oil in terms of the supply of it, rather than looking at the demand. Even before the pandemic the development of energy alternatives was bearing on the price of oil. The development of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) led to large quantities of natural gas being commercially exploitable. This, together with US fracked oil, put limits on international oil price rises and led to the US becoming self-sufficient in

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Reasons for optimism – communications

February 8, 2021

Advances in communications technology will be no less transformative in the next few years than they have been in recent years. The future looks to be one of increased access, lower costs and more innovative hardware.The UK government’s commitment to the rollout nationally of fibre optic cable might well be overtaken by events. Fibre optic cable is expensive to lay to remote rural areas. Rival ways of providing wifi include projects such as Elon Musk’s Starlink, with thousands of low-orbit satellites making wifi ultimately available anywhere in the world, and promise to bring telecommunications and internet access to remote areas far more rapidly and cheaply than any land-based systems look likely to offer.The future is set to give the whole world the ability to communicate with any part

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Reasons for optimism – artificial intelligence

February 4, 2021

There are very few areas of human activity that will not be affected in major ways by artificial intelligence. AI was originally defined as anything done by a machine that would previously have needed human intelligence, but modern definitions include the notion of machines that can learn, adapt, improvise, and apply their knowledge to new situations.The key factor is the speed with which they can work, coupled with the range of knowledge they can draw upon to interpret new scenarios. Machines are good at automating routine, repetitive work. Even though many such tasks are performed by relatively unskilled labour, AI could even take over more skilled tasks such as the work done by solicitors in accessing the legal history of previous cases.Among the benefits AI will bring is the use of

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Johan Norberg and open societies

February 2, 2021

Johan Norberg’s latest book is entitled “Open – The Story of Human Progress” (Atlantic Books, London). It’s a very apt title because it makes the case that it is open societies that have led progress in history. This uses “open” in the Popperian sense to mean open to the movement of goods, ideas, and people.The book is an instant classic, a complex and wide-ranging series of insights into what has led some societies to succeed and some to fail. “Succeed” here means giving their citizens the chance to lead decent and improving lives. Trade, Norberg shows, has been a key factor. Merchants take back and forth not only goods but ideas and innovations that can be copied. Open, trading societies learn from each other, whereas societies that close their borders to foreign goods in order to

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Reasons for optimism – desalination

February 1, 2021

Technological advances make it highly likely that the world will soon have no shortage of water of potable quality in the places where it is needed. Although there have been disputes between countries over available supplies, the likelihood is that there will be enough for everyone. On the small scale much is being done to dig new wells and to adopt local water purification techniques that diminish the spread of water-borne diseases. The big advances, however, are being made in desalination. The world is not short of water; it covers seven-tenths of its surface. The problem is one of removing the salts from it to render is usable for drinking and for agriculture. The most promising developing technology uses seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO desalination) to push seawater through membranes

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The Left and the Zero Sum

January 29, 2021

When I published my logic book, “How to Win Every Argument,” I said that if fallacies were assigned to nations, the English would have the Argumentum ad Temperantiam, which falsely attributes superiority to a middle way in the absence of supporting argument or evidence. I remarked that if one group in a pub was arguing that two plus two equals four, while another group argued that it made six, an Englishman might conclude that the answer was probably about five. Moderation in all things, even accuracy.If fallacies were instead assigned across the political spectrum, the Left would have the Zero Sum Game fallacy. This is the fallacy that falsely supposes something to be limited in supply when in fact it is not. Some have dubbed it the Pizza Pie fallacy, because a pizza pie is limited in

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Reasons for optimism – cultured meats

January 27, 2021

Although the general public probably regards cultured (lab-grown) meats with some amusement, and perhaps disdain, it is a technological advance that promises to transform the agricultural industry of many countries. Cultured meats are made without killing or even harming animals. Muscle cells are taken from a biopsy of a living animal and grown in what is sometimes called a bioreactor by being fed and nurtured so they multiply. The muscle tissue they create is biologically identical to the meat that comes from a slaughtered animal, but is made in premises that have more in common with a factory than a farm. The first cultured burger was unveiled in 2013 by Dr Mark Post of Maastricht University. It had taken two years to produce, and cost $300,000 to achieve, and was partly funded by Sergey

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Reasons for optimism – autonomous vehicles

January 20, 2021

One of the technological developments that will transform the British, and much of the world’s, economy is the emergence of autonomous (self-driving) vehicles. It will make a huge and positive change in the way in which people and goods are transported by land, sea and air. It will be a positive development because it will be faster, safer and cheaper. The artificial intelligence that controls autonomous vehicles will not make the driver errors that are the major cause of road traffic deaths, currently about 1,750 per year in the UK, or the roughly 25,000 serious injuries sustained annually. Communication with other autonomous vehicles, will enable much of the current traffic congestion to be avoided. Journeys will be faster as well as safer. Marine transport will be similarly autonomous,

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Reasons for optimism – Gene-editing

January 18, 2021

Genetic modification has penetrated popular thinking by receiving much publicity, even though some of that has verged on hysteria. Meanwhile, a scientific breakthrough has been achieved that gives equal, if not greater, grounds for optimism. It is the discovery and manipulation of what are called clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, otherwise known as CRISPR. This differs from GM because it involves editing the genes within an organism, rather than introducing those from an alien species. What makes CRISPR gene editing so effective is its precision. Scientists can use it to locate a chosen sequence within the organism’s DNA, and then delete it or modify it by replacing unwanted sequences with desired ones. When fully developed, the technique will enable us to delete

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Reasons for optimism – Genetic Modification

January 13, 2021

One of the leaders in our ability to make the future world a brighter and better one for humanity is the ability to engage in genetic modification. By introducing genes from one organism into another, we can create new organisms that serve our purposes. Humans have done genetic modification for centuries. Our distant, and in some cases, recent, ancestors turned Brassica oleracea into cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale and the others. They turned wild wolves into domestic dogs. We have modified animals, vegetables and fruits to do what we want them to do.It used to be done, and still is, by selective breeding, but now we have a new option, that of selecting the qualities we want that one species has, and giving it to another by one of several scientific techniques that move genes across

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Reasons for optimism — Vaccines

January 11, 2021

For most people 2020 was a terrible year. The coronavirus pandemic, the excess deaths, and the economic shutdowns made it so. For some it made the future seem bleak, because the vast borrowing governments undertook to help alleviate the hardships caused by the containment has left a vast overhang of indebtedness that must somehow be addressed, and might constitute a burden that will hold back future generations.Yet for science 2020 was a good year. There were the SpaceX launches of their Falcon rockets and Dragon vehicles. There were major discoveries by archaeologists and paleontologists. Biochemical engineers created new enzymes that can break down plastic bottles within days. Other successful space launches included the Solar Orbiter and NASA’s new Perseverance Mars rover. China

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Assar Lindbeck

September 10, 2020

Assar Lindbeck, who died aged 90 at the end of August, was a distinguished Swedish economist who at one time chaired the committee that awards the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. He is thought to have influenced the award of the prize in 1968 to James Buchanan, the Public Choice economist. Lindbeck’s research included work on self-destructive welfare state dynamics, dealing with the moral hazard of state welfare that undermines work and responsibility and leads to dependence of the state.His was famous for his work on Swedish rent control, which he opposed for decades. The ASI has many times quoted his opinion that “In many cases rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city—except for bombing.” We have pointed out that it is in fact

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We’re missing cost benefit analysis in our COVID19 discussion

May 10, 2020

Cost-benefit analysis is a useful tool for working out what things to do. Most activities have costs, even if it’s only the time it takes to do them. We could have used that time to do something else. We ask if the gain we achieve is worth the time spent doing it. Some activities have risks, and we ask if the benefit derived from the activity justifies the level of risk involved in doing it.Some surprisingly mundane activities have measurable risk of serious injury or death, including going upstairs, taking a bath, or crossing a road. Some activities have more obviously higher risks to be weighed against the benefits. Mountaineers know that people are killed every year climbing mountains, but do it anyway for the thrill of performing a difficult and dangerous task, and the exhilaration of

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Nothing is ever as permanent as a temporary government scheme — this must not be true after COVID19

May 6, 2020

When the Eiffel Tower was erected in 1889, it was expected to last for 20 years. So far, it has lasted for 131 years and counting. The London Eye, opened in the year 2000, had planning permission for 5 years, and it’s still there. Temporary things sometimes last. Where in this world can you find something that does that, something that endures through the changing times and the swings of fortune? Look no further than a temporary government programme. Although established to deal with short-term emergencies, they develop a life of their own, one that struggles to survive into perpetuity.Nowhere is this more true than of temporary taxes. These are often levied by government to provide the funds for a short-term emergency, but they provide such a useful source of revenue that subsequent

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Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have everything? In the meantime, priorities matter

May 4, 2020

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have everything? If we had an infinite amount of money, we could apply it to solving all of our problems simultaneously. We could allocate resources to tackling pollution, AIDS, malaria, biodiversity, gender and racial inequality, transgender discrimination and lack of access to education. Even with that short list, we’d be less than ten percent of the way down the roster of things people want to be solved.Bjørn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus assembled 60 teams of economists, together with NGOs and acknowledged UN and private sector experts, to research the pressing problems for humankind that might be targeted. They identified a list of the 22 “core issues,” including those already mentioned, plus issues such as global warming, clean water, infant

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F A Hayek was in fact a Conservative

April 28, 2020

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication, by Chicago University Press, of F A Hayek’s “Constitution of Liberty.” It remains a classic defence of personal liberty as that which makes civilization and progress possible. Hayek says that the legitimate role of government is to protect that freedom by laws that apply to all, including itself. At the end of that book is an essay, “Appendix: Why I am Not a Conservative,” in which he asserts that he seeks liberty, rather than the preservation of any current state of society. If society is not liberal, he supports changing it to make it so, rather than opposing changes, which is what he takes Conservatism to stand for. He uses ‘liberal’ in the way people outside of America do, to mean supportive of freedom.Hayek was writing in the

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Khayyam and Revolutions

April 23, 2020

There’s one stanza in “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” by Edward Fitzgerald that resonates politically. It is this one:“Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspireTo grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,Would not we shatter it to bits — and thenRe-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!”Similar thoughts have occupied the minds of many revolutionaries from Robespierre onwards, and maybe even before. The drive for a better society starts with the destruction of the current one. Some people look at society with all its perceived imperfections and injustices, and want to do away with it, and replace it with a better society, one they can conceive of, that will lack those drawbacks and blemishes, and in which people will be able to lead fuller and more rewarding lives.Hayek criticized this

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