Posts by Jock

From Zero to Life in 28 Days

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There’s a mechanism for implementing some legislation, for example, for adding extra substances to the schedules of the Misuse of Drugs Act that define what severity of punishment may be meted out by the government and its agents for their possession or trade, called an “Order in Council”. It needs no consultation, in effect, other than, in the case of the MDA, only to have consulted its pet, semi-independent at best, Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. 

The Council concerned is the Privy Council: sort of, technically, the highest body in the government, the link between the monarch and her government. Even the Prime Minister’s Cabinet is technically a sub-committee of the Privy Council. The “chair” of the Privy Council is the Lord President of Council, who happens, at the moment, to be Nick Clegg.

They are known in part for their arcane mechanisms, helping to shroud much of what government does in obfuscation and mystery. One example is that meetings (of, I believe, a quorum of three, out of hundreds of members, government ministers and former ministers, opposition senior figures, for life) take place standing up. It’s always said this is to keep discussion to a minimum, but a plausible explanation I suppose given the quasi-religious nature of such centres of power, might be to represent that they are in the presence of the monarch or some such. For all I know, as with other aspects of the mumbo-jumbo of state they may well conduct their business in Norman French for all I know.

They are able to do this as each piece of primary legislation usually contains some administrative, secondary mechanism to amend itself in certain ways, that limit consultation and debate, due process in other words, perhaps effectively “outsourcing” the discussion to a quasi-independent body such as the statutorily required Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The effect is that a mere administrative process involving, in the final decision, a tiny number of people utterly reliant on the chain of advice with no room for debate can turn something from a non-crime to one that could land a trader in some substances a life sentence in a month’s time, effectively, as near as they can make it, in secret. In a “representative democracy”.

Let that sink in for a second: three people, inexperts, consulting only those paid to tell them what government wants to hear, can decide, effectively in secret, with little notice and no debate, can turn an activity currently legal into something for which the maximum term of  imprisonment is life with 28 calendar days notice.

That is happening right now. On 10th December an Order in Council was approved that adds certain psychoactive substances to various schedules of the travesty of justice and common sense that is the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The council had in its programme to investigate the use and abuse of what are properly called "Novel Pharmaceutical Substances" but more commonly referred to as "Legal Highs", some of which would previously have been called "Research Chemicals". They investigated one particular class of NPS called tryptamines (pdf), and, because they are often regarded as potential substitutes for each other, several compounds that are similar to LSD.

AlcoholVsLSDHarmsScaleNow, if you believe anything the Schedules to the Misuse of Drugs Act might indicate, LSD is one of the most harmful substances ever discovered and not only needs to be in the category for which citizens are punished the harshest, with up to life imprisonment for trafficking offenses, but which have no legitimate therapeutic uses and so even research into their potential benefits is either banned or extremely difficult.

This of course is complete nonsense. LSD has a reputation because of a classic moral panic that happened in the USA in the late sixties and early seventies, and related not just to the hippy movement but also to the panic that young Americans, sent halfway around the world to shoot Vietnamese and be shot by them, and to inflict terrible murder and suffer awful casualties themselves, were using it to try and forget their unenviable situation. A panic, moreover, whipped up by the government of the oh so moral Richard "Trickie Dickie: Nixon!

At the time, however, it had also seen investigation for psychiatric treatment, including as a depression treatment, in psychological interventions to increase well being and to explore traumatic experiences, as a nootropic - an aid to concentration, focus, study and so on, and had been tested by the CIA for all sorts of psy-ops purposes.

But for all this scaremongering about the dangers of LSD, the much cited, peer reviewed, Lancet published research on comparing the relative harms of different illicit and legal psychoactive substances by David Nutt, Leslie King and Lawrence Philips concluded that when all the possible harms of different substances are taken into account, alcohol is the most harmful substance commonly used, with a score of 72/100, whilst LSD is the 18th of twenty studied, with a score of less than ten per cent that of alcohol at 7/100.

Many continue to believe in the many suggested benefits of LSD, and that, especially as a daily dose, usually well below the level at which you may feel “high”, so called microdosing, has enormous physical, mental (including nootropic), psychological and spiritual benefits. LSD’s original discoverer, Albert Hofman, when in the 90s, and his 90s, and still microdosing himself every day, apparently, saw the burgeoning of ADHD diagnoses in children and expressed dismay that they were being fed amphetamine type treatments like Ritalin, saying that they would be much better on microdoses of his LSD. Sure, at higher doses it gives a great “high”, very similar to LSD itself, one that promotes meditation and introspection, self-analysis and a deep sense of connectedness with others and the outside world, and it’s just, often, just damned fun too.

With LSD illegal, investigation of these purported beneficial qualities can make use of some very similar substitutes, such as the LSZ, AL-LAD, Eth-LAD and PRO-LAD compounds included in the new Order. Not only have these proven not to be dangerous compared with far more common legal substances, but there is significant evidence that they may have these many potential therapeutic uses.  So the ACMD have reviewed any available literature (it should be noted that they have not done any primary research themselves on them). Included on that short list is their own report from just fifteen years ago that did examine the potential harms of these four chemicals and concluded, explicitly, that there was no reason to control them. 

So what could have happened in those fifteen years for them to make a complete volte face and now make them class A? Have hundreds of teenage rave goers been killed by the stuff? Has it even figured as a significant market, as indicated by their own referrals database? Not at all. Its deadlines comes from being a chemical relation of an already banned substance, LSD. And in the mere possibility that if they ban the simple tryptamines they were actually investigating, these substances might become popular as alternatives. 

One has to ask, with a harm level so low compared with the legal alcohol, and perhaps even among the tryptamines they were investigating, what would be the problem with a relatively less harmful substance becoming a substitute? Except, perhaps, if it becomes too popular, so good is it that it would likely put much of the alcohol pushing industry out of business.

But here’s what gets me: they had looked at these substances previously. They had concluded then that, though they were very similar to LSD, the did not need to be controlled. You would have thought that a sensible, rigorous scientific method would suggest in such a case that you should also, as a result, examine the evidence for banning LSD as well. If its near analogs are not worthy of controlling, why is it itself still on the list? But no, the default is to restrict people, to criminalize them, rather than to look at whether existing sanctions are proportionate. It's as if nobody wants to question the system at all, or to undermine previous classifications highlighted by inconsistencies.

Nobody asked people who use these substances, or people who have studied and advocate them for medically supervised therapeutic use, or even for less “scientific” uses such as meditation and spiritual practice. But there we go, the Advisory Council makes a volte face on an earlier decision, with no apparent justification whatsoever in terms of harm or prevalence, making anyone who continues to practice the microdosing they swear by as a health giving daily pep-up, or those who take psycho-active doses to enhance meditation, alter perception and so on, a criminal from January 6th 2015, and those who supply them potentially liable to a life sentence.


Nick Clegg is Lord President of Council. I wonder if he jumped straight from overseeing this piece of bansturbatory nonsense pass into law to be interviewed for Russell Brand’s “End the War on Drugs” documentary where he offered platitudes about changing the way we deal with drugs. The very least you could do, Nick, is to have a moratorium on creating further criminals until sorting out how our views need to change. Lynne Featherstone is I think the Minister responsible for this change, having taken over from Norman Baker when he resigned days after having finally won what had been described as a battle within the Home Office to get a report on how our prohibitionist drugs policies and heavy punishments available did not affect the prevalence of use and abuse. How does not consulting people fit with your liberal values?

Government Drugs Chaos: The MDA is ineffective, dangerous and a breach of human rights

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I suppose it's quite natural that some of the lines of "intellectual enquiry" I've been pursuing myself since graduating are ones that came up in my degree, and especially the last year, when most "in depth" work was done. One of those is something I covered this time last year, in my module on the Political Sociology of Crime and Disorder, where for my (self-chosen) essay "Drug Control, the Harm Principle and Limits to Legitimate State Intervention" I read some work by Rutgers University philosophy of law professor Douglas Husak about how we should really frame the drugs-war debate in terms of justice rather than in trading anecdotes about the characteristics of one type of substance or another and of the possible consequences of legalization which simply cannot be predicted.

Little highlights this more starkly than the Home Office research paper "Drugs: International Comparators" which set the scene for the parliamentary debate secured by Julian Huppert, Caroline Lucas and Bob Ainsworth in the Commons on 30th October. It was an interesting angle from which to raise the hot potato that is drugs policy in a place in which populism and not a little amnesia is more likely to win an argument than rational, evidence driven debate. In a way it was quite an innocuous report. It makes no radical recommendations: indeed none at all. It simply reviews the approaches to drugs policy in several different country and, as it is interpreted anyway, concludes that Britain's criminalize and punish type of regime does no better at reducing use or harm to the individual user or to society than some other less moralizing prohibitionist approaches.

But in doing so, and in parliament's acknowledgement of the report, it seems to me that it confirms that the present system of drugs laws in this country are in fact a breach of our international obligations on human rights. That the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 is no longer, if it  ever was, compatible with UK constitutional law, and should be struck down in its entirely until a better regime can be implemented. Other, existing laws can be used to address actual harm done as a consequence of the legal production, distribution and use and yes, nobody's denying, some abuse, of psychoactive substances, or to fulfill international treaty obligations in respect of cross-border trade until new treaties can be negotiated.

Article 29 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, amongst other things, that

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

...and similar provisions are tacked onto each of the individual rights in the European Convention on Human Rights which, of course, also has the force of British law.

As Husak argues, and human rights conventions seem to support, punishing people, and restricting their rights and freedoms, is one of the worst things a state can do to its citizens and there ought therefore be a very sound grounding in justice for doing so. If even the Home Office acknowledges that our criminalize and punish drugs "control" regime is no better at "meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society" than others less punitive it seems to me to fail this fundamental test enshrined in all the human rights declarations to which we are signatories.

This is, of course, even before considering more detailed breaches of rights, perhaps based on religious belief or arguments about a right to manage one's own medical care and wellbeing, or whether the prohibitionist regime actually makes for worse "morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society", not to mention harm, which I think all pro-reform organisations would suggest.

Whether the aims of public policy - to reduce and eliminate the non medically supervised use of a rather arbitrary set of substances - are themselves capable of meeting those just requirements is for a subsequent debate, let alone how to achieve them if so in a way that is consistent with respect for the rights and freedoms not just of users of whatever choice of substance, but for the rights and freedoms of those who are affected by others' use because of the consequences of the prohibition type approach, often currently the victims of drug related crime.

As an approach to the debate on drugs law reform, it seems to me that, as Husak says, it shifts the onus of the argument onto those who defend the prohibition based regime to explain how this approach is just, and away from fundamentally unanswerable questions about and predictions of the consequences of reform. It avoids conflicting campaigning for one substance over another, for instance, or about different methods of achieving reform. The rights issue trumps them all. Husak suggests that perhaps the best argument for decriminalizing drugs is that no good argument exists for criminalizing them.

So you might think this revelation might lead to a change of strategy. Not a bit of it. On the very same day, another report recommended extending the war on drugs to declare everything illegal unless it was explicitly listed as legal: something I'd suggest overturns centuries of English law convention. "Conservatives" eh? You got to love them dontcha?

Jock’s Jottings?

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So, for a while now I have been posting quite infrequently. I've been tending to use things like Facebook and Twitter for quick rants at events and discussions. And since my degree, during which most of my blog posts were researched, more or less polished pieces of academic work, I've somehow been trying to emulate that standard. Jolly good practice some of you may say. But actually, without the academic deadlines, many things that could have made half decent op-ed type blog posts have withered, half written and never satisfying my high bar to posting.

But I do want somewhere to collect my thoughts, discoveries and notes and have the odd rant, and I never really got into any of the link sharing sites or whatever. So from now on, partly in a bid to prevent my now terminally bored two readers from leaving completely by posting more frequently, and partly for my own use later if I want to work up any of these posts into something bigger, more formal or better researched, I might just post up here various jottings alongside the less frequest "op-ed" or "essay" type pieces I want to write.

Sometimes they may be notes for something I do want to work up later, sometimes half formed arguments or comments on some story I've picked up or something I've been reading, sometimes just ejaculations of frustration at something going on in the world or my life! And all with an aim of keeping me writing, of feeling that I've done something and not just left things unfinished. Either way, if they entertain or inform anyone else, all to the good, but they're really just my way of keeping things together and trying to encourage me to keep writing.

Amongst the subjects I've been getting exercised about, or getting into studying in more depth, and which will probably feature more often are land and rights, particularly looking at how a sort of a Land Value Tax equivalent might occur in a stateless society; drugs focusing on rights based arguments for legalization instead of the usual harm and consequences angle that hampers debate currently; thinking more about financing education following on from my dissertation and because an exciting project has come up that I will probably mention nearer the time; and getting my Oxfordshire Community Land Trust project to develop six affordable homes in Oxford up and built.

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The Wolfson Prize 2014: Garden Cities – one I made earlier

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URBED Wolfson Oxford IllustrationDon't you just love it when someone comes up with an idea you had, more or less, ages ago, and gets a prize for it when they do it.  Grrr!  Well, I am pleased to say that one of my ideas this year has won the Policy Exchange think tank's Wolfson Economic Prize which called for ideas about "garden cities".

The winning submission, but David Rudlin and others of URBED, is based on the idea of doubling the size of existing cities by weaving linked "garden suburbs" into their original topology. One of the examples they use, based on Oxford, is shown in the accompanying illustration.

Long terms readers of this blog may remember, however, that as long as six years ago there was a report from the Centre for Cities that suggested that places like Oxford and Cambridge, with global knowledge economy reach, ought to be allowed to expand to perhaps up to a million households before their agglomeration benefits would be exhausted. And that back then, in August 2008, for a bit of fun, I superimposed J H Crawford's "Car Free Cities" topology of urban extensions onto Oxford to get a city of a million population.

Quite similar, in principle, I hope you'll agree:

Who won Magna Carta?

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Magna Carta imageJudging by the reverence in which it is held, most people who are vaguely aware of Magna Carta's place in British, and beyond's, history think of it as some kind of a founding document of liberties of individuals against despotic monarchs and governments. It is somehow at the core of our constitution, and Englishmen abroad go all misty eyed at how much it has contributed to world jurisprudence, rights and democracy, fair play, the laws of cricket and medieval re-enactment societies.

If we acknowledge any controversy, it is probably that we realise it was a victory for a specific class of well connected nobles, but we spin a yarn about them being somehow representative of the struggle for freedoms for all ruddy-cheeked Englishmen. If we know a little bit more about it, we probably understand that it was something to do with property as well - that the king-government couldn't arbitrarily seize property without due process and so on.

But I've just started reading Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership by Andro Linklater. The basic outline of the first couple of chapters, to where I have got so far, is that land enclosures fundamentally changed the rules of property. A shift from a complex network of mutual obligations in which, in theory at least, everyone in the social pyramid got a just share of resources on which at least to eek out a basic living, to an exclusive ownership system, in the process of which many were thrown off the land and made to be dependent on labouring for the new ownership class.

Ownership wasn't, in other words, unconditional and part of one's obligation near the top of the pyramid was to see to it that resources were available equitably to those below you. But some of these higher level landowners saw that they could be wealthier if they controlled all their land, particularly converting it to sheep farming, so where in the open field system a farm could support dozens of families, pasture monoculture needed fewer hands to care for it and higher profits for the landowner. So they came up with ingenious ruses, today we would probably call them tax evasion schemes, to get rid of tenants and serfs, to claim rights to common land and shared fields.

And this is where Linklater has sprung a new line on me, quite often the king would push back against this. After all, the king is ultimately responsible for the welfare of his subjects, and in the feudal model his obligations extend to everyone. And there was a constant tit-for-tat battle of royal legislation trying to close loopholes providing protection for tenants against arbitrary eviction and harassment by landlords on the one hand, and nobles finding new ways of enclosing land.

The game of brinksmanship played out between the barons and crown that culminated in our glorious foundational constitutional document of liberties and freedoms of loyal Englishmen, signed in the mud there in Surrey, on a spot now revered as the start of the democratic and civil rights of free peoples everywhere, was, he implies, really the king protecting the peasant classes against the landed aristocracy that wanted nothing less than to overturn the mutual obligations of traditional land holding, and eventually leave most of the rest of the population dependent on subsistence wage labour.

So, who really won Magna Carta? The politically connected, and, when united, powerful, elites intent on enriching themselves and ditching their obligations to the welfare of their social subordinates? Or the working masses, the real stout-hearted Englishmen, yeomen and tenant farmers, who faced destitution if successfully evicted?

Does it mark the beginnings of our civil and political liberties? On the contrary, it marks the start of the enslavement of most of the citizens, who have never since down to today had any real rights to the means of subsistence, or access to somewhere simply to sleep let alone support ones self. In a very real sense, Magna Carta could be much more appropriately viewed as the founding document of our political and housing crisis: the start of the shift away from land as the source of social obligation (i.e. taxes in the modern world), to one of landed and landless, politically connected and unconnected.

And, lest you think this is a medieval problem that democracy has later managed to control, that land distribution is much more equal now that so many of us can buy our homes and so on, still, today, 70% of our country's landmass is owned by 0.3% of the population. Whilst those of us who cram in around centres of political and economic connectedness, in our big cities, pay exorbitant rates for a postage stamp of space sucked in by a system based on, and in many ways continuing even today through unjust expropriation by an elite, and the importance of capturing the political means to further sectional interests. At its most basic, we have never had restored the right to be able to claim a place on which to live and support ones self.

Is our national romance with Magna Carta so ill placed?

[I'll be interested to see if Linklater share the view I've seen somewhere before that the seventeenth century civil wars were also a case of king defending lower classes from enclosure demands of the gentry in parliament.]

Scottish Secession and Liberalism

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I haven’t got much involved in discussion about the Scottish independence referendum. My opinion doesn’t fit, as usual, with either “side” in this battle to see which group of elite farm overseers get to control the human livestock that is Scotland’s huddled masses. Instinctively I want to side with those who want to secede from their government. Any government. 

On the one hand, I’m with Ludwig von Mises when he writes, in Liberalism, that…

“The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.”

But I’m also with him when he says a few pages later that…

“The situation of having to belong to a state to which one does not wish to belong is no less onerous if it is the result of an election than if one must endure it as the consequence of a military conquest.”

If the result on Thursday is close, then whichever way the result goes, nearly half of Scotland will be living in a state they neither chose nor want. There’s lots of talk about “healing” divisions afterwards going on now, but, short of emigration (if they’re not in favour of iScot), what are those on the losing side to do about it (especially if they are pro-iScot). Grin and bear it? In a polity they don’t agree with? That is the result of “democracy” folks - like it or lump it.

But what also gets me is that this is not some Misesian reach for real independence and freedom. It is a tussle between two groups of people who have made it their lives’ business to interfere with other peoples’ lives over who gets to do the most interfering. One clue is in who is doing the work behind the scenes. I laid my eyes on a document purporting to be a “draft constitution” for an independent Scotland. It begins by saying that sovereignty in Scotland rests with the people, then continues, apparently without “the people” being so much as involved, to write up how they think a new Scotland should be governed.

And, as Albert Jay Nock said of the protestant Reformation and the British Civil Wars, what appears to be on offer is as close to the existing arrangements as possible under a different territorial banner. At best a rearranging of institutions, but still, whatever the draft constitution says of popular sovereignty, still a Westphalian style nation state maintaining the barbaric fiction that the territorial monopoly of violence is necessary for social co-operation. All they are doing is seeking to transfer that monopoly of force from one elite group to another. The mere fact that they want to be within the same structures of supra-national power, such as the EU, will ensure that of course.

We are told, apparently, that so many details will be worked out after the referendum. It seems unclear just what Scots are voting for - more of the same with different figureheads, or some genuine revolutionary change in the nature of state and citizen. Let’s put it this way, if there are politicians in charge, it’ll most likely be the former. Such vulgar nationalism is no way to found a unified community, if that’s what they mean to achieve.

The BBC helpfully a few weeks ago showed a documentary series about the Stewart dynasty - presumably timed as a history lesson in how the United Kingdom came about. One thing struck me particularly, however: I’ve always said that Scotland should have its say because its people didn’t have a say 300 odd years ago when we “merged”. Apparently that’s not strictly true. Through the Covenanters after the civil wars, apparently ninety per cent of Scots did have a say and signed the covenant, which called more firmly for a restoration of the joint Scottish-English monarchy under Charles II than any English movement other than the elite royalist cabal. 

That, of course, is no reason why one can’t change one’s mind after a few hundred years. But I see no inspirational revolutionary tracts, as in the American colonies in the 18th century or even the work of the 17th century Covenanters, discussing the basis on which governments should be formed, or dissolved, or seceded from. There seems little, to me, on which to base a new Scotland, and I for one couldn’t vote for such uncertainty, even if I want, desperately, to see smaller states, self-determination and liberty for as many as possible.

If there were a solid set of proposals for some pretty fundamental issues, like governance and economic/monetary arrangements, and they genuinely did place the sovereignty of the people first in a bottom up structure, that would be a different issue. But for now, for all I want to see the break up of large states, they have not made their case, as far as I am concerned. Which is okay really - since even though I'm an ethnic Scot living in another part of the same country that they want to cut in two I don't have a say.

First rule of customer service – it’s only when you need it most we’ll cut you off!

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I'm having one of those moments when "customer service" takes on a whole new and sinister meaning. A service I have been signed up to since, in internet terms at least, "time immemorial", been paying for regularly for at least six years, though admittedly have used little, has frozen me out of my account just as I started to need to use it more.

Skype has gone through, I think, three owners, since I signed up with them. As best I can fathom from what emails I have managed to find, I had an account at least before 2008, started paying for a SkypeIn number (useful for people, like me, who can't have their own landline number) in 2008 also, and have had it ever since, paying month-in-month-out ever since and using it very little it has to be said. The occasional OCLT board meeting type of thing. But heck, I even had one of those ridiculous "3 SkypePhone" things for a while, and invested in a home phone that was supposed to let me use the Skype account right alongside my landline.

But now, moving flat into what is quite an effective Faraday Cage, I've had occasion more to use it - the WiFi signal is far better than my cell signal, and I don't yet have a landlline installed. So I've actually started using it. Actually consuming some of the SkypeCredit I've been paying for and wasting for so many years. And wham! On Saturday evening, I get a message about "Unauthorized activity on your Skype Account" that has resulted in the account being frozen and could I go through a form filling exercise to verify who I am to unblock it.

Fair enough thought I, I'm all for stopping scams and maintaining internet security, so I happily start completing what seems like a very long form, only to discover that my long term loyalty is now a hindrance. They want to know what email address I used when I signed up, for instance. Not what's attached to the account now, and has been for many years. They need the month and year the account was created - I was an early adopter. I Can't. Remember. Ditto which credit card, if any, I used, or whether, as I do now, use a payment processor to collect payments.

Then I have to name five of my "Skype Contacts". Well I can't say I remember any of their usernames. I don't use Skype much that way - Skype-to-Skype. But no, it appears perhaps that if I am sad enough to have fewer than 5 memorable Skype buddies, I can't get back in. Or something.

Things change. We sometimes even forget when. I'm kind of surprised to see in my emails from Skype I must have signed up as "Jonathan". That alone tells me it was a really long time ago. It's a very long time since I would have signed up for anything using my, still technically legal, full first name. Unless perhaps there was some kind of link to a legal or financial database needed - you know, your name has to match what's on the electoral roll or the credit scoring system or whatever. I know I've gone through at least three different email providers in that time too. It's something of a miracle I've still got emails going back to 2008. My domain name was snaffled in about 2010 so yes, the email I use now on my Skype account isn't the same as when I created the account, but I can show them receipts to both addresses. Yes, I may have used a credit card for something before I started direct debit style payments, but if so, no, I can't give them the card number: it's two card renewals later! 

I try to explain my predicament in the form and the little message box at the bottom. I get an email explaining that they "understand your Skype Account is important to you" and could I go and complete another form. Well it's actually the same form, but this time they seem to think I have requested an email change. This could of course be the cause of their concern about "Unauthorized activity" and, though they'll never confirm or deny it, fair play to them if so, because the one thing I can say is that I didn't request any such change any time recently that I can recall. I try to send them a PDF of various significant emails in my time as a Skype subscriber, going back six years, but their email server rebuffs my attempt in every known file format.

Well, I could do what they say - I haven't really used the account much. Setting up a new account is easy enough. But I also have this nifty SkypeIn number. This gives me an Oxford based number of my own, independent of my university land line provider for instance. Again, easy to replace, you would think, but it was chosen, for a reason, a connection that makes it easier for me to remember the number and quote it to people. And it's been in my email signature and on business cards and the like for all these years. I've been paying for it for many years, so I would want it transferred to any new account. But the same problem applies: they can't transfer something from my existing account if they can't verify me as owner of that account.

I do, I really do, appreciate their concern for my online security. But it seems an odd coincidence that just as people start to use my SkypeIn number and just as I start making calls out from Skype, "unusual activity" causes my account to be suspended. That is when you want "Customer Service" to swing into action. To help find a way of reconnecting you to your account. To enable a human behind an internet form make a decision based on what must appear common sense if not algorithmically accurate. And if not, at least a route to some kind of appeal mechanism. But no, every correspondence begins "I know that your account is important for you. Do not worry, let me help you with your concern" and goes on to exmplain why they cannot help me with my concern.

So, having been happy with what I have used of Skype over these many years I've never looked at any alternatives. But maybe now's a good time to do so if I'm having to create a whole new account and so on. Are there any? Specifically it would help if they had a facility like the SkypeIn number, and that calling out to real life landline or mobile phones is possible and not overly expensive.

Georgist/Anarchist PhD Advice Bleg

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Some of you will know that I recently (aged 47) completed my first degree - I decided when I left school that if Oxford wouldn't have me I'd not bother with university and went into the city so only just got round to it after 15 years working here at my university!

Anyway, I got a first class honours (and, though comparisons are not exact, about a 3.8 GPA according to the way we are calculating it here), and I'm thinking of trying to enrol for a PhD - possibly in January with an aim to register a thesis title next September.

My undergraduate dissertation was about finding a more mutual, social investment mechanism for financing postgraduate studies (which is here if you're interested - But in reality, since I think it's much the bigger problem, I want to do something about land, housing finance and community governance.

So, I wondered if anyone had any thoughts about what was *missing* from the Georgist, geo-mutualist, geo-anarchist type scholarly literature that might be a useful area to focus on for something PhD length. It's most likely to be on the "politics" side of "political economy" (my degree was Economics and Politics) but if something comes up for which economic statistical analyses would be needed I can always take the stats modules I didn't do at undergrad level, but could likely cope anyway.

Anything spring to mind that a PhD might be able to fill a gap in?

The ultimate aim is really to get into full time academe, teaching and researching in some aspect of political-economy. But if there's a glaring gap in the literature which filling might help make change more likely, that would really fire me up I think!

Creative Incentives Without Intellectual Property Protection

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[It's been a while since I've written anything, which is not for the want of subjects to write about - Israel, Ukraine, Surveillance Laws, and I've been thinking about my community land trust project a lot too. Anyway, tonight I got into a discussion about intellectual property, and more specifically about copyright and patents. I do not support either, but my interlocutor was someone connected with the creative arts and so copyright of artistic works was the focus, and specifically how I must be an evil philistine because I thought creatives should not have special protection for their work. So what follows started off as an attempt to explain my position better...and turned out somewhat longer, so here it is as a blog post]:

Look, I get it. I really do. Artistes want to be able to make a living from what they do, and so they should. And nor do I support or encourage fraud, or theft (both breaches of any type of property rights I can conceive of), nor plagiarism and passing off (which are also ethically wrong and already professional suicide with or without copyright).

But I have problems with the idea of “intellectual property” rights, meaning here particularly copyright, but similar arguments apply to patents (though to a much lesser extent Trademarks). 

For a start, in order to protect one alleged property right, say the particular order of words that makes something “your” novel, intellectual property rights infringe another right, my right to do what I want with my property, specifically my copy of “your” novel (but by extension other items of my property - perhaps the tools I might use to copy some of your work were I so inclined). And the contract that may easily be argued to have been entered into by seller and buyer the first time round seems to lose a little weight if, for example, I simply find a copy of the book someone left on a park bench. Even less so if the cover and any mention of your name is missing from it.

Then there’s the issue of time - if something were “real” property, the right would be perpetual at least whilst there was a rights holder (or heirs and assigns) to claim the rights and property over which they wanted to claim their rights. But both patents and copyrights have time limits, and those time limits change (almost always upward, which if you think about it is a little odd, especially in the case of patents - where actually the salience of new knowledge is always falling, so you would expect the trade off between development time and protected time to be falling). This artificial time-limit alone proves the previous paragraph’s argument - since it is a politically conferred set of rights if at all, it *must* by definition serve to alter the balance between competing rights claims.

There are also difficulties about what is not included amongst copyrightable or patentable “creations”, many people create (or discover) things that obviously or by quirk of the law cannot be protected, or whose output is not ultimately monetised by them - people drawing a salary for producing artistic or technological works that are then protected by and for the employer’s interests, academics, salaried screenwriters etc.

So much for (some of) the philosophical/legal arguments against IP, but I would also argue that the actual effect of them is to stifle creativity, rather than incentivise it. Yes, a small number of artists can become relatively wealthy (and an even smaller number eye-wateringly so), but with the way in which IP favours ever larger rights holders, I argue it concentrates our spending on arts on the relatively few such artists who get picked up and promoted by the biggest media conglomerates, leaving relatively less discretionary arts spending available for discovering new artists. 

All the while this process has been destructive of culture, diluting, homogenising it through mass production and promotion (this is not meant to be snobby - it’s just saying “there are thousands of brilliant bands out there but because of the way IP works all the effort is focussed on One Direction and these thousands of poor buggers never get out of the Saturday night pub circuit as a result”). Whilst under the Statute of Anne it was motivated by concern that authors were not being paid by printers, publishers and distributers, often IP law has become the way in which rights are traded away from the creators in favour of the middle men (I think here of this heartbreaking telephone call between Buddy Holly and his agent)

So my case against IP is the same as that of classical liberals, and, generally, the working class, such as existed, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries - that it is artificial, impinges on others’ rights, and actually works against creators in favour of middle-men/rent-seekers. I’m on the side of the vast bulk of creatives who are not earning enough from their efforts to support themselves, because of the system, not despite it!

Are there alternatives? I think there are. You just need to be equally “creative” about how you finance and conduct a creative project. In ways that other businesses have to. 

I don’t know why people scoff at the idea of patronage funded arts: academics’ research output is funded by patronage (they have a job); fine artists often work on commission; jobbing musicians are privately hired; public works of art funded by tax. Let’s face it, even the highest rewarded of the minstrelati seem to love the opportunity to play privately for the great and the gilded. 

Similarly there’s nothing to scoff about crowd-funding. It’s been done, successfully. It’s a disruptive technology. I have contributed to two books, a film and a website, and in other creative output I contribute regularly to three think tanks along with hundreds of other small donors enabling them to pay contributors, not to mention a couple of off-line music recordings by local artists. A crowd-funded novel even made it onto the Booker prize long list this year. Same applies to self- or co-operative publishing, and other disruptive publishing mechanisms. Hasn’t Stephen King even done something crowd-funded? New technology makes it easier to develop networks of followers prepared to pay or otherwise collaborate for exclusivity or other benefits - from the consumer perspective, we can all be more direct patrons of the arts.

If such exclusivity or financial and technical innovation is not your bag or for whatever reason you may be dependent on mass distributed culture, on copying and distributing your work to a wide audience, introduces the risk that it will be distributed by others in such a way that you get no benefit from it. Economically this may get precious close to being a “public good” - one where me owning or using something (a copy) does not diminish the ability of others to own the same thing (another copy) and where it’s difficult to make people pay for it (because it can be endlessly copied). This makes it difficult for a would be producer to recoup the costs of production and therefore reduces his incentive to produce it.  And a public good is often argued to be a justification for government action, to “correct” a “market failure". In this case, the government action is copyright and patent law to prevent a public good situation by preventing endless copying - non-scarce goods have no value.

As any other business, one that doesn’t rely on rent, will tell you, there are other competitive advantages you can exploit to minimise the risk that someone else will nab your product before you make enough to cover its production (which is all we’re doing here - incentivising production, not making billionaires). If your chief worry is about copying, then being first to market with something is a huge advantage. As is being able to demonstrate your connection with the creator - you gain a reputation for publishing the originals, with the author, staging the first, directed/performed/read by the playwright/choreographer/composer/author herself and people will pay for that. 

To guard against passing off, well we already have large scale plagiarism detectors, so protecting your property by subscribing to a database that can instantly identify you as the author/performer of something no matter who tried to pass it off as them might become the norm. It would already be a career killer now to be caught passing off someone else’s work, such a mechanism could make it much easier to detect and expose.

But actually this isn’t about how to protect the interests of the super-star creative artist, but about increasing diversity in art and innovation by spreading the reward better, by examining whether there is economic rent being accrued somewhere that doesn’t really deserve it and either getting them out of the system entirely, as with, say, disruptive self-publishing mechanisms, or making their return better reflect the value they add if any. Technology has its place here too - the switch toward electronic mechanisms of publishing and printing helps to reveal just who is adding what and whose services might be dispensed with, for example.

Even if the middle-men managed to survive this upheaval, they would likely have to work harder for their money. First to market is an advantage you get once with each product. It might last a long time, and you can eek it out with different editions, performances and so on. At some point without copyright you risk losing the “long tail” business as people care less about whether they are buying the “original” or someone else’s reprint/reproduction. So your business tends more toward discovering constant streams of new talent, with whom you can be first to market, rather than milking copyright for a few well rewarded chosen creatives.

These suggestions are of course not exhaustive. Others have suggested that copyright could be effectively replicated anyway by carefully worded contracts, so why have it enforced by specific legislation rather than just breach of contract, for instance? These are just a few suggested means of making money out of creativity without impinging on the property rights of others. 

If the intellectual property system worked as people think it does, to ensure there is incentive for artists to create and innovators to invent and to see to it that the market efficiently and equitably allocates the returns to the various parties bringing something to market, there might be some point in it. But not only, I suggest, does it do neither, it contributes to the homogenisation of culture on the one hand, stifles technological innovation on the other, and creates an enormous distortion between carefully nurtured super-stars and their various hangers on at the one end and struggling creatives at the other. A situation that in my experience more usually reflects brand marketability than it reflects artistic merit!

Oxford Green Belt and Land Use Planning: Inefficient, Inequitable, Indefensible.

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From the point of view of hypertension prevention I ought not to have, but for some crazy reason that currently eludes me, I found myself last evening at an event, a “panel discussion”, about the case for a “Green Belt Review” for Oxford. The panel was one councillor from beleaguered, hemmed in city council, one from the only one of the rural districts to have asked for some relaxation of the Green Belt, one senior planning consultant with a firm whose clients include some significant landowners around the city, the director of the local land preservation trust, and to set the scene a city council officer with some facts and figures on slides.

The audience was largely what you would broadly call land use professionals - many planning consultants and planning officers (it was organised by a group called the Thames Valley Young Planners’ Network), a smattering of land agents, a few developers, a few councillors, maybe a couple of civic groups and for some reason, me. I had gone along ostensibly down as Oxfordshire Community Land Trust, but obviously with wider interest from the perspective of land values, and being generally opposed to “Stalinist land use planning” as a councillor colleague used to describe it. 

The council statistician chappy kicked off with some background data showing that Oxford has the worst affordability crisis in the UK, ahead of London, Brighton and Cambridge. Rents account for well over 50% of median household incomes. And with house prices nearly 15 times those same median earnings very few people will be able to afford something with last night’s 4.5 times earnings Bankster of England imposed sledgehammer.  But most telling of all is that given this is a meeting about how planning might solve our problems, it was remarkable that nobody really addressed the fact that “planning” had failed to plan for a recent increase in population and is still trying to catch up from, effectively, the Morris Motors boom years from 1930 to 1970! 

It was also notable that much of the increase in the last two decades has been down to the success of the universities in a globally expanding market. This is a market the Centre for Cities reported a number of years ago ought to mean Oxford should grow to about a million households to take greatest advantage from its global knowledge economy reach. This is also a demographic less likely to be able to settle for the “country towns” strategy of trying to force large scale development in the county out to beyond the outer Green Belt boundary.

The failure of planning to date was highlighted also by the recently completed Strategic Housing Market Assessment which had doubled the amount of housing plots that had to be planned from now till 2031 compared with the Regional Spatial Strategy only completed a few years previously. How could planning have got things so wrong, or perhaps just so different, in four years? They, like many others enamoured of state planning, don’t seem to understand the knowledge problem highlighted so effectively by Hayek in “The Use of Knowledge in Society”.

This ineffectiveness is coupled with inefficiency and is readily apparent when you see how much effort goes into rent-seeking in the planning process. As mentioned, the speaker from the large international planning consultancy firm represents landowners that are set to gain tens of millions of pounds, just for succeeding in persuading the planning authorities to change their land from agricultural to residential use like those in the Vale of White Horse area a couple of months back.

But none of the speakers, not even the Labour councillor speaking up in favour of more building, put their finger on the inequity of it all. Yes, housing “affordability” was mentioned many times, usually with the “solution” that more subsidised housing needs to get built - subsidised by us as taxpayers, not landowners as landowners, who are the main beneficiaries of this protectionism. But even if that does happen it will barely scratch the surface of housing costs for people who fall outside the range of household incomes such subsidy is established to help. Do they not see the fundamental injustice of this? That a planner can with a stroke of a pen make a landowner immensely wealthy, and still turn round and demand you and I subsidise housing for the poorest even as we cannot afford housing for ourselves.

What they have presided over in Oxford for decades now is the shoveling of vast amounts of wealth from the poorest and least well connected to the wealthiest. This itself should be reason enough to abolish the entire edifice, councils and all, for abject failure to prevent this happening to the poorest of who they “represent”. I don’t want these mealy mouthed councillors “trying” any more. Their failure is stark, undemocratic and has exacerbated a near feudal structure to Oxford’s population - of ever more tenants dependent on the wealthy for their housing.

The system is indefensible. Not one person in the room mentioned, in all the talk of the history of Green Belts, that the idea emerged in the same political process as the Attlee government’s imposition of the Planning System which was intended to be accompanied by a Development Land Tax, to capture the increase in land values when permissions are granted for public benefit. Right now we have the antithesis of this - a system that restricts development, starving the multitude, whilst privatising the gains from rent-seeking. When the head of the preservation trust says "we need to preserve...." she seems to have no clue how difficult her sort of preservation makes it for many people just to preserve a decent quality of life and housing. Who is this "we" such people "represent"? Certainly not me. Not the thousands priced out of this part of the country.

Overall, I was left disappointed that nobody there seemed to appreciate these concerns, or at least to voice them.  There was little appetite for open discussion from the floor in any case, so it's difficult to know whether dissenting voices, like mine, were there, but silent, but I’d bet my house (hah!) that if there were much debate, it would have been more of the same - this is the system "we" have and "we" must play the game for the greatest benefit of our clients, none of whom are the dispossessed and overcharged, but the landowners of dubious title, and their desire to profit from this human suffering.

Land use planning, it seems to me, breaches at least two articles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: article 17 for property owners, prevented from doing what they want with their own property, and article 25 for the landless, unable to afford adequate housing even, in many cases, where they make a positive economic contribution that makes this city and its surroundings desirable, internationally. Last night took no steps toward mending those breaches. As Fred Harrison said recently at the ALTER conference here in Oxford, it is a primary example of how our entire political system is built on and perpetuates, for all the pro-people rhetoric from some, a culture of "cheating" from the wholesale looting of our country in feudal times to a neo-feudalism that is an affront to democracy.