In which I agree with Willy Hutton

Britain\’s challenges require a wholly different mindset. The country has to rebuild itself economically and socially. It has to develop a good, long-termist capitalism with innovation, investment and engaging the people at its heart. But that in turn requires preconditions.

Indeed it does.

it needs a web of supporting institutions, regulations and processes, ranging from effective competition policy…..

Yup, that\’ll do it.

The rest of the prescription is Willy\’s usual, clever people like Willy (but only the clever people who agree with Willy, in fact, agreeing with Willy is the definition of clever) should be able to tell everyone what to do. But here, in these snippets, he\’s right.

The State does have a job to do in a capitalist/free market society. And no, it\’s not the promotion of capitalism, that can take care of itself very well indeed. It\’s the making sure that the capitalism part doesn\’t overwhelm the market part. For that is what curbs capitalism: the competition that markets bring.

Think of the workers\’ wages for example. Marx warned us that monopoly capitalism, if the capitalists collaborated on wages, would lead to wages inevitably being screwed down. But as Marx also pointed out, as long as there is competition between capitalists for access to that labour then as the profits that can be made from labour rise thus wages will rise: as the capitalists compete with each other for access to those profits to be made by employing labour.

The job of government then is to ensure no collaboration between the capitalists, to ensure a free market for labour.

Take another of his points for example:

to access to university that is based on merit rather than family wealth;

OK, we\’re going through a period of technological change at the moment, one concentrating on information and its dissemination. One that is arguably as large as the printing press itself all those centuries ago. Of course, I refer to the internet.

Yet our university educations are based, still (as Brad DeLong likes to point out) the pre-printing press system.

Books then, when they had to be hand scribed, were so valuable that a student could not possibly afford them. So they would gather together and listen to one, precious, copy being read to them. This is the origin of the lecture.

We still organise our universities this way. Hundreds gather in a hall to hear someone talk at them, essentially giving a precis of what is available in better form in £30 units of books, now becoming available in £0 units on the web.

Yes, sure, the sex and the booze of being 18 and all together is great fun but university as a method of learning technical matters is still two technological revolutions behind the times.

We are seeing people who get this though. The University of London external degree for example. It\’s under £4,500 to get an economics degree these days. This is the same degree you get if you go to the London School of Economics. It\’s a U of London degree. Your course is even administered, designed, by that same London School of Economics.

It\’s £4,500 for the whole degree by the way, not per year (actually, the econ degree seems to be cheaper, £3,500 before books).

That the U of London system is a state system doesn\’t matter in the slightest. It\’s competition all the same.

And if anyone was serious about trying to increase the amount of technical knowledge there is around, you know, well trained (rather than well pissed and well laid) peeps, then wouldn\’t they be tumpeting this new technological possibility at the top pf their lungs?

Ah, yes, sorry, forgot: Willy\’s just become Warden of an Oxbridge College, hasn\’t he? Part of the old establishment that needs to be disrupted rather than one impartially considering the future.

18 thoughts on “In which I agree with Willy Hutton”

  1. Tim, please.

    Ricardo got it wrong. His theory is redundant, superseded and dead. His theory, and every variation upon it (e.g. Marx) which postulates one class taking over the market, are just… wrong. Even a monopoly capitalist can’t “screw down wages”. See Menger. It’s a broken theory. There isn’t any Iron Law. Please stop.

  2. Tim

    Right about Universities.

    Wrong about the “function” of govt. The govt does not stop cartels–it is what helps ’em stay in business, enforced by the states thugs. While cutting itself in for a large piece of the action.

    The system we have now is corporate socialism .

    Take the energy companies. Mostly created by “privatisation” (the word is a key marker for corporate socialism ) they are not a free market and no one can join them unless you assemble billions of pounds and jump thro’ all manner of bureaucratic hoops. In return for their high profits they are more or less happy to take some flack for their state pals.

    A good example is the green taxes (all taxes impoverish but these are designed for that purpose). They have tried to help the state to slide these by the public. That has not worked but so far the companies have been taking the flack. Over the last few days the Daily Fail has now cottoned to the fact that the plastic faced green freak of Downing st is the main culprit and hopefully more and more people will get the idea.

  3. The function of most degrees is to provide people with a piece of paper that says they’re a hard-working person. Only in areas like engineering, medicine, sciences, comp sci, or law does the thing being taught actually matter (and when people talk about the ROI of a degree, it’s these subjects that give the biggest returns).

    The problem is that at one time, getting a degree (even in 18th century French Poetry) marked you out as one of the elite, a bright, hard-working person. When it gets extended to 30-40% of the population, it’s degraded as a measure.

  4. Well yes Tim(s). It was saying pretty much this that got me banned at Samizdata, because they’ve all got doesn’t-matter-what-you-studied-degrees over there and they’re a bit touchy about it.

    Which is why I’ve also been arguing for some time that we’re never going to get liberty back if we leave it to the middle+ class to arrange it. Far too many vested interests.

  5. I’m also always a bit sceptical that there is such a thing as a “sci” of “comp” and whether anybody needs degrees in it.

  6. Ian B,

    I’m also always a bit sceptical that there is such a thing as a “sci” of “comp” and whether anybody needs degrees in it.

    Yes. It isn’t really a “sci”. It’s mostly applied physics to computing.

    Does anyone need degrees in it? My answer would be yes. The thing with doing a degree in comp sci is that it takes you right down to the bare bones of computing: how the fetch-execute cycle works, how compilers work, how database indexing works, how disk indexing works.

    This then means that as you encounter new implementations (from Mainframe to PC to web to handhelds), that underlying your knowledge is a deeper understanding of how it all works. Personally, I never did a degree, but I did do a BTEC and I’m glad because I’ve got more insight in the inner workings of the technology as a result.

    This is why I object to what the education sector refers to as ICT. They’re teaching kids how to use Word and Powerpoint, which is like teaching kids woodwork by handing them an Ikea kit and instructions.

  7. how the fetch-execute cycle works, how compilers work, how database indexing works, how disk indexing works.

    Well that’s my problem, because I did all that with a ZX81, some tattered copies of Your Computer, and regular trips to the local library to pore over Programming The Z80 by Rodney Zaks. You can’t get started in assembler without understanding the instruction cycle.

    I even indepenedtly invented Double Buffering, something very close to Lempel-Ziv compression and File Allocation Tables[1]. On me 1k ZX81. I was amazed to later discover not that other people thought of them, being obvious and all, but that they were patented and shit like that.

    I mean, it’s just a machine you learn to operate. Does this really need a degree, or just some RTFM and a bit of peer-to-peer knowledge sharing? Does one really need 3 years closeted in the Halls Of Academe, or a web connection?

    There is this really powerful dogma in the West, increasing in intensity, that you can’t learn a thing unless somebody else has formally taught you it. I simply disagree. A formal institution is useful if you need expensive kit like a particle accelerator or a big fuck off telescope, or something. But if you can read it in a book… why go somewhere else to have the book read to you?

    [1] This was a blue sky project that remained as theory at the time in the hope of acquiring more advanced kit later, needless to say.

  8. There is this really powerful dogma in the West, increasing in intensity, that you can’t learn a thing unless somebody else has formally taught you it. I simply disagree.

    I’m not saying I agree with that dogma, and personally I have gone beyond my own BTEC learning (and do most of my learning via articles on the net now).

    But there are two benefits of doing things as a course. Firstly, lecturing can be beneficial as a student can tap into the experience of a lecturer. In my case, my course had a 20 to 1 ratio, so easily done (does this happen in these 200+ lecture theatres).

    But the other thing is getting that piece of paper, showing that you have a reasonable accomplishment. In the case of computing, this actually kinda works because of the problem that companies won’t hire people without experience, and don’t want to spend a fortune training people, for them just to leave 12 months afterwards.

    I’d like to think we could come up with something better, like people being hired based on their own freelance projects and this occassionally happens, but it isn’t that common.

    But it’s probably the case that working in a company for 2 years for free as a programmer is probably more financially valuable than a degree (if it were legal).

  9. Is not the purpose of a degree to show total strangers that you have been taught a certain range of information.
    There are masses of people = how else would a beaurocrat get to tick the right box about you. And boxes are important.

  10. Compsci isn’t about learning different algorithms, it’s about learning how to formulate and analyze them. You can call it applied maths, or science, but there’s a discipline there. As is obvious when one has to wade through the ignorant excrement pooed in over web projects by the self-taught-and-now-I’m-an-expert script kiddies that infect ICT.

  11. For avoidance of doubt, Zaks wrote an excellent book, and it was an excellent guide to the shoddy hack of a CPU known as the Z-80.

  12. Ian B: if you’d studied computer science, you wouldn’t have needed to invent double buffering or file allocation tables. You’d have known about them already and could have invented something less obvious instead. The chief purpose of formal education rather than the auto-didactic approach is to prevent everyone from constantly reinventing the wheel.

    And yes, the Z-80 was a piece of crap. The 6502 was quite a bit better. The 6800 had probably the cleanest ISA of all the 8-bit CPUs.

  13. Ah, the Mac vs PC of its day. Users of the underpowered little toy microcontroller the 6502 were always sniping at the power and elegance of the Z80 out of sheer envy. Brings it all back, yes it does.

    if you’d studied computer science, you wouldn’t have needed to invent double buffering or file allocation tables.

    I was 15. If I’d waited dutifully in line to be “given” an education formally I’d have had to wait 3 years to even start, wouldn’t I? So I wouldn’t have invented anything.

    University has become an instutional expectation, rather than a specifically useful process. If you’re bright, it is said, you must go to university. Youngsters expect another three or more years of extended childhood. I’m sure it’s fun. But is it efficient?

    As pointed out, the sciences need equipment to use you probably won’t have yourself. But many of the subjects studied these days are just information. Read a book. Is there a “science” of computing? I don’t think there is one; it’s one of those pretend prefixed sciences like social science or domestic science. RTFM.

    You can even learn it on a 6502, at a push, if you can’t afford a proper microprocessor.

  14. I’ve never been able to learn maths independently by reading a book, I need the discipline of assignments due and exams to make myself actually do the hard mental work. I’m deeply impressed by those who can do that to themselves.

    And I have reason to think that I’m not the only one.

  15. Years of the brain-deadening process of formal schooling on the Prussian model probably did that to you. We’re all institutionalised, effectively, after more than a century of it. Hardly anyone can do anything these days unless they’ve “been on a course”.

  16. It is somewhat absurd to take lots of young people from different parts of the country, send them 300 miles away to live in often sub standard accomodation then have them do most of their work on a computer anyway. Unless that is, your purpose is to gather them together for simply social purposes and transfer middle class disposable income from Surry to Leeds (and employ lots of “academics” in unemployment blackspots)

    But this is also surely this is the key point on the latest “elitism” nonsense: a degree can be obtained for £1500 a year or £9000 a year ( or indeed £18000 at AC Grayling’s new place) This is no more elitist than choosing to spend £4000 to fly BA first class to New York versus £400 at the back of the very same plane.

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