Machineries of freedom

Last night I was talking with some fellow anarchists about what kind of practical projects we should be exploring and promoting, to move beyond the usual grind of politics and ideology. There were lots of interesting suggestions of course and over time I would like to explore many of them on this blog. Here are some types of projects that I am currently involved with or seriously exploring:

  • Autonomous wireless mesh networks to complement/compete with/replace the government controlled Internet. I have been talking to people, going to conferences etc to explore this topic, with the goal of building a mesh network in Stockholm. The motivation is primarily to counter government restrictions on information exchange, by creating a parallel network which the state can not control or censor.
  • New technology for small scale production of food. One of the small startups in this space that I am watching closely is AutoMicroFarm. Some friends of mine are building similar setups of their own. Don't know much about energy production, but would love to hear from some solar power enthusiasts or something.
  • The interplay between government services and free software might offer some opportunities. I have personal experience of projects where the implementation of open data standards has made a substantial difference to the allocation of money and other resources. Wider implementation of free software might shift the balance of power in a favorable direction.
  • Setting up secure mail hosting services, systems for encrypted mailing lists etc. I run a full-stack mail server to help friends and acquaintances improve their security, use encryption etc (let me know if you are interested). I provide these services for free, but it could easily be turned into a small business if I wanted it to. Lots of people should be doing this, i.e. making money helping others to become more free and secure.
  • A while ago I collaborated with a friend to create a prediction market, something like a more up-to-date version of Intrade. The project was put on hold, but feels more relevant than ever now that Intrade has been forced by the US government to shut down. Prediction markets are powerful tools for crowd sourcing intel and we should use them.
  • I have created a piece of software called Digital Demokrati, which is a decision making system based on a fluid combination of direct and representative democracy. The general idea is to challenge the conventional idea of politicians representing the people by providing a superior mechanism of representation.

If you are interested in this kind of stuff, feel free to get in touch. I am especially interested in talking to people who have practical experience of building and maintaining wireless mesh networks.

The title of this post is a reference to The Machinery of Freedom by David Friedman, one of the classic works on anarcho-economy. If you have not read it, you should check it out.

How Sweden became rich

One of the central pieces of government propaganda in Sweden is the belief - embraced by almost everyone in Sweden - that conditions in this country were horrible until the Social Democrats came along and built the so-called welfare state. And of course, a lot of people around the world idolize this system and think of it as great success.

This is in fact an absurd inversion of what actually happened.

This recent essay by Johan Norberg digs deep into this interesting topic and describes when and how Sweden actually went from being a poor country to one of the richest. Highly recommended reading if you have some time on your hands and want to learn more about this particular corner of the world:

From the essay:

It was not socialist policies that turned Sweden into one of the world’s richest countries. When Sweden got rich, it had one of the most open and deregulated economies in the world, and taxes were lower than in the United States and most other western countries. The Social Democrats kept most of those policies intact until the 1970s, when they thought that those excellent foundations—unprecedented wealth, a strong work ethic, an educated work force, world-class exports industries, and a relatively honest bureaucracy—were so stable that the government could tax and spend and build a generous cradle-to-grave welfare state on them.

They couldn’t. At least not without costs. Because that welfare state began to erode the conditions that had made the model viable in the first place. And the fourth richest country became the 14th richest within three decades.

Bolagsskatten och Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman presenterar ett förslag på hur vi kan komma till rätta med ett samhällsproblem:

Fixing 'too-big-to-fail'

Den grundläggande tanken tycker jag är det mest intressanta - enkel men genialisk - beskatta företag baserat på deras omsättning istället för deras vinst. (Möjligen säger det något om min bristande politisk-ekonomiska allmänbildning att jag inte kände till denna idé sedan tidigare.)

Det finns vissa uppenbara problem med att beskatta vinster:

  • Framgångsrika företag bestraffas, mindre framgångsrika belönas.
  • Det är ofta enkelt att undvika formell vinst genom ändamålsenlig bokföring.

Eftersom det är mycket svårare att dölja omsättning än vinst blir det med en omsättningsskatt svårare att kringgå beskattning med kreativ bokföring. Incitamenten blir samtidigt mycket sundare - den som gör bra ifrån sig och genererar en stor vinst får återinvestera den och göra mer bra saker.

Givet att bolagsskatten 2011 drog in 110 miljarder och att näringslivet samma år hade en nettoomsättning på 7180 miljarder (siffror från, skulle bolagsskatten kunna ersättas av en generell omsättningsskatt på ca 1,5%.

Jag har räknat på skillnaden för mitt lilla företag, och för oss hade det definitivt varit mer gynnsamt.

Stallman förespråkar en mer radikal variant: Omsättningsskatten ska vara progressiv, så att procentsatsen ökar med företagets storlek. Tanken är att små företag får en konkurrensfördel (kanske helt skattebefriade) samtidigt som stora företag kan välja att minska sin skattebörda genom att dela upp sig i flera mindre företag. På flera fronter skapas incitament för näringslivet att vara mer decentraliserat och det blir svårare för stora företag att dominera både marknader och politiska processer.

Detta är en fråga som tvingar mig att fundera lite extra. Jag vet vilka mina värderingar är, men i det här fallet vet jag inte vart de leder mig. Det är i mina ögon en styggelse att staten över huvud taget lägger sig i hur företag organiserar sin verksamhet. Men å andra sidan är stora företag problematiska av ungefär samma skäl som stora stater är problematiska. Om det var möjligt att trappa ner det statliga stödet till stora företag, och gradvis se dem ersättas av många fler och mycket mindre företag - det vore en av de enskilt bästa samhällsutvecklingar jag över huvud taget kan tänka mig!

Jag tror inte att det är realistiskt att införa en skatt av den typ Stallman beskriver, med tanke på alla tunga intressenter som skulle motsätta sig det. Men om det var möjligt kanske det vore något så udda som en progressiv skatt jag kunde gilla.

Programmer scarcity and the tech megatrend

This is a re-post from Hacker News, some comments in response to an excellent little essay by David Heinemeier Hansson. This topic tends to come up now and then, so I put the comments here to have a handy reference.

I often think about how extraordinarily lucky I am to be living through this technological boom. Computation, automation and mass-communication will continue to transform human society even more for decades. High-end software development skills will become even more scarce. Immersing yourself in the boom by running a software shop with a bunch of good friends - the best of times!

The point about programming skills becoming more scarce is an important additional factor to why it is good to be in the software business:

We are still in a relatively early stage of the technological boom signified by things like electronics, computers, robotics and the internet. These technologies have changed life on Earth dramatically, but there is probably at least as much to come. In any case, for the next two or three decades, more and more aspects of life will be the object of automation, computation etc. So the demand for software development will continue to increase, and probably by a lot. Software will become an even greater part of the economy and continue to crowd out other types of business.

Only a small percentage of the population have the talent and inclination to become very good programmers, and children with these traits often do not get proper encouragement and guidance. So from the beginning, it is very hard for society to produce a large number of programmers. More importantly, the ratio of people who can become good programmers is probably more or less a constant, while the need for software development will grow much faster.

We might also be getting worse at producing programmers. For example, software is becoming more mature, hiding more and more of the internals. I started programming at age seven, in the eighties. In local stores I could buy glossy magazines with articles about programming, often with entire programs that I could copy into Basic etc. For sure, there is the Internet now, but what kind of programming culture for kids is there? I could pick my first computer apart and learn all about how it worked. Kids these days learn to use iPads before they learn to speak, but they never get to see what is inside. Who knows where this will lead? We already know that a lot of graybeards are retiring and they are often impossible to replace since the current generation of programmers is not nearly as hard-core.