There’s an attack-dog commentator called Tim Worstall who writes columns for Forbes, the Adam Smith Institute, and a few others. He is a commodity trader and a former press officer for Britain’s extreme right wing anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP).
I’m going to say three things about him. 1. He’s poisonous, and an attention-seeker. 2. His rants against anyone he brands left-wing are, generally, clever-sounding rubbish. 3. there are some odd questions about him that need answering.
1. The poison.
Tim Worstall calls people things like ‘Cretin;’ ‘Cunt,’ (or “union cunt,” once, for a workers’ representative) as well as ‘Twat,’ the more puerile ‘Twatface,’ and thick as pig shit. He has used terms for women that include ‘bitch,’ ‘little bitch,’ ‘honey‘, and, it seems, ‘screaming harpies.’ Articles such as Women on Contraceptive Pill Should Pay $1,500 a year More Tax rub along with the Chinese-focused “Do all the Yellow Perils look the same?,” and a short piece on mainstream politicians entitled “Well, I agree that we should hang them all,” after a UKIP politician recommended that British voters are traitors and that mainstream politicians should be ‘hung from the neck until dead.’ (There’s lots of hanging, it seems: here, or here, just from the last few days.) He writes ‘Fuck Off’ in his headlines. He seems to loathe “idiot fucking bureaucrats” (who, again, should be hanged).
He would abolish the United Nations. He has called current concerns about inequality “a massive whingefest by those who look down upon their intellectual inferiors but find that they then get outbid by them them for the finer things in life.” He seems to be a big fan of mucky tax havens, and an opponent of corporate financial transparency.
Is all this stuff just being ironic: “hyperbolic rhetoric,” as he puts it, and in this last case quoting someone else? Just a bit of rough banter?
Make up your own mind. But when you read that last headline and consider that it comes from an influential figure in UKIP – which is regularly accused of being a party for racists – you could certainly be forgiven for finding it hellishly dodgy.
I could go on. There’s plenty out there for everyone.
2. The clever-sounding drivel
Now, the second part: the drivellous outpourings.
It’s hard to know where to begin with the idiocies, really. I’ll start by categorising them.
- The sneer / ad hominem attack. This is probably his most widely used tool. Cognitive psychologists, and increasingly lobbyists, know how easy it is to undermine and nullify good arguments simply by appealing to emotion (“thinking fast,” as Daniel Kahneman puts it, over “thinking slow,” or reason.) We should not underestimate this technique. You’ll find this in most of Worstall’s posts.
- The bogus theory as fact. Probably his next most important tool. Start with a clever-sounding Theory X, plucked from neoclassical economics (perhaps also embellished or misrepresented or made up), and ignore the fact that the theory was long ago demolished by years of experience, thought and evidence. Worstall favourites have attractive names too, like “Optimal Taxation Theory.” Then he will say “what we know from Theory X is . . . and then spin a whole, clever-sounding argument around it, to demonstrate that the author he’s attacking is a lefty idiot. Intelligent readers will start by thinking, ‘hey, this sounds reasonable!’ Then, a few moments later, comes the ‘hang on, wait a second!” moment. Garbage in, garbage out.
- The straw man. He will criticise what he wants his readers to think his victims said, not what they actually. All too common. He may ‘forget’ to link to the article by the person he’s attacking, making it less likely that readers will check.
- Pretending not to understand. When he understands all too well.
- Actually not understanding. (Some of this stuff is difficult!)
- The Fox News approach. Keep repeating a lie or an entirely unproven claim, until people take it as gospel. Corporate tax cuts will always make your economy grow, and so on. Wheel out a cherry-picked “independent” study or two, for good measure.
- The purely anti–social argument. Creating jobs is a cost, not a benefit, and so on.
- Trying to be clever by being “counterintuitive.” Neoclassical economics is very useful here. But don’t forget: if it sounds wrong, it probably is wrong.
- The strange obsession with Richard Murphy (“Ritchie”), a left-wing British blogger. Perhaps he’s incensed that Murphy has over six times as many Twitter followers. Who knows where this obsession comes from.
- Cognitive dissonance. Not often in the same piece, but you just need to join the dots. All over his writings.
- Cherry-picking the data. When the studies disagree, pick out the ones that suit you and declare them The Truth. Fair enough, we have all done it when trying to make a point, but he is a particularly enthusiastic player.
Try a few examples.
“Inequality increasing? BOLLOCKS!” (Sigh. Where to start?)
“Not taxing capital could reduce inequality.” (Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Will deal with this in another post.)
“Dodging taxes is not a cost to the economy.” (Sigh again. Let’s start by factoring in inequality, then the damage to democracy, then the distortion of markets, the costs of very long-term infrastructure losses . . .)
“Nations compete on tax, and that is a good thing.” This one is helpfully overturned by the quote he lifts from the article that he’s attacking. (In fact, on tax he doesn’t know his ass/arse from his elbow: I’ll get to that in another post.)
Some peculiar views about climate change. He likes it when ordinary taxpayers fork out to subsidise large multinational corporations through the tax system, but when it comes to renewable energy subsidies, his response is “fuck off matey.”
Humanitarian organisations should stop lobbying. “I become ever more disappointed with Oxfam. . . . the organisation itself has changed from being that well-meaning, thoroughly humanitarian organisation that doled out the food aid into just another lobbying group.” Stick to addressing the symptoms of poverty, but not the causes, eh?. Especially if we whiteys are heavily to blame.
And on and on, day after day.
Is Worstall a shill for corporate interests and the wealthiest members of society? Merely expressing self-interest? A willing fool? A misguided fool? A misanthrope? Or something else?
- Questions, questions.
He may be just another angry ranter. I really don’t know. But I’d like to know a couple of things.
Question 1: is someone paying him to write his stuff? If so, who?
From an interview with Worstall back in 2006.
Normblog: What would be your ideal choice of alternative profession or job?
Worstall: Over the past couple of years, since I started blogging, I’ve been changing my profession, from vaguely unsuccessful businessman to vaguely unsuccessful writer. I’m still astonished that people wish to pay me to tap on a keyboard and I think I’ve found my ideal alternative.
If he’s changed his whole profession towards being a ‘writer’ then he sure won’t make enough from the likes of Forbes. His 3,500-odd Twitter followers – rather feeble, given the attention-seeking headlines – suggest not much potential for advertising revenues. His book rankings place him currently in 2.7 millionth place on Amazon for his climate change book Chasing Rainbows, and he’s at 1.2 millionth place for his more recent 20 Economic Fallacies.
That ain’t how he keeps himself afloat. If there are people paying him to write his outpourings, who are they, what do they get out of it, and what form does this payment take?
Question 2: what about this comment?
I found this curious comment at the bottom of someone else’s blog, responding to a post asking where one should go to escape tax being levied by the then UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, whom this post describes as “that great grasping fat Scottish whore in 11 Downing Street.” The comment goes:
St Malo / Cherbourg / Calais is the way to go.
Your investments are placed in an offshore company. As you are not a citizen of France ( and not domiciled ) that company income attracts no tax, unlike a closed offshore company in the UK.
Yes, you pay French income tax on your worldwide income ( but lying is so much easier ), but this only includes what you take out of your investments, not whatever they are earning.
You can have 90 days a year in the UK, but days of arrival and departure do not count as one of those days. Early Eurostar into Waterloo, late out the next day and you haven’t spent any time in the Uk for tax purposes. And you deduct the fare from your French tax return as it is obviously a business expense.
Of course, now that you don’t need a residential permit to live in France, why declare anything ?
The bits in bold are obviously mine.
Is this our Worstie? If so, would he like to explain what he meant when he said “lying is so much easier” and “why declare anything?” If it was him, did he have tax evasion in mind when he wrote these words? If not, what exactly was he advising? If so, has he since changed his mind? If so, why? Etcetera.
- Is he “the head of the international scandium oligopoly?”
He seems to claim he is exactly that. His Low Hanging Fruit Company B.V. calls itself “the world’s only specialists in the scandium market.” (It’s possible he’s boasting: others vaguely in the market include Stanford Materials Co, Alfa Aesar, Atlantic Equipment Engineers (a division of Micron Metals Inc), Goodfellow Corp, Rhone-Poulenc Inc, GFS Chemicals Inc, All-Chemie Ltd, Cerac Inc, alongside Hydro, Alcoa and Pechiney).
He has warned others off this terrain: draw your conclusions from that article.
Either way, it seems he is – whether falsely boasting of being the head of a global oligopoly, or actually being one – comfortable with the idea of skimming excess profits from markets through concentration of market power. The general practice of extracting excess profits through oligopoly is one form of what is known as rent-seeking, and Worstall himself agrees with Adam Smith’s old wisdom that taxing rents of this kind is “a very good thing”. And yet, curiously, he is a vicious opponent of taxation of corporations, capital gains, and wealth in general. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?
I’m sure he has been careful not to break tax laws anywhere, but it’s also fair to speculate that the company’s tax affairs may also be – via offices in California, Russia and Portugal, with suppliers in China, Kazakhstan, Russia, the UK and the US, and customers in Germany, Austria, Japan, Thailand, South Africa, Taiwan, South Korea, the US and the UK – a complicated matter to grapple with. And is there a North Korea experience in there?
Update: he’s now written a post responding to this one. In it, he states :
“My references to being the head of the shadowy international scandium oligopoly are taken seriously.”
OK, so perhaps he was joking. Fine. Not that he’s offered a convincing rebuttal to anything else.
- Has he ever admitted error?
Look at this interview snippet, from that earlier interview:
Normblog: What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger?
Worstall: You will make mistakes and the correct response is just as Mother always told you. Admit it, apologize, make what amends are possible and promise not to do it again.
This is interesting, not least because he does at times enjoy goading enemies with the charge that they never admit their errors. I’ve been nosing around a bit and I must say I still haven’t found an answer to this question: when, exactly, has Tim Worstall publicly admitted error in anything?
- Should you get into an online debate with this character?
This isn’t really a curious question, but the answer is No. I’ve seen people trying to engage in reasonable discussions with him, and being rewarded with abuse, devious ploys, misrepresentation and word-twisting. I think the best advice paraphrases George Bernard Shaw:
“Never fight with a pig: you get dirty, and besides the pig will like it”
The pig here’s just a metaphor, of course. I wouldn’t even call Worstall a troll either: for one thing the yapping hyenas who follow him are often far worse, and – the one big strike in Worstall’s favour – he writes under his own name. In my opinion he’s a bully, but not a troll.
If he’s annoyed you, then a better route might be not to engage directly, but simply to make others aware of his foulness. Hopefully this blog will help with that process. It’s been fun putting it together, anyway. Do let me know of other nasties out there.
- Who am I? I’ll reveal my identity when I get around to it. Maybe someone’ll sniff me out. I don’t really care. For now, I’m too busy to be bothered with all the attack dog stuff that may come my way. I’ve only been attacked by him once or twice, as far as I can tell.
- If you’ve got this far, dear reader, then you may be interested enough to do me a favour and highlight more Worstall nasties in the comments below. And also, why not save the source material behind those links? Just in case any friends of his try to wipe them from the internet. I’ve already saved a few here.
Update, again: I see there are a fair few commenters who are huffing and puffing about the fact that I moderate comments. I haven’t looked at this post in a while, but I have now approved all those delightful comments. I think I need to find a way to switch off comment moderation. I am not very up to speed with how to do this, but I will see what I can do so you can display your pearls in real time, and hopefully keep your heart rates down.
Updated update: I think I’ve done it. let me know if comments don’t go straight up there.