Friday, 26 May 2017

The law is too complicated for lawyers

Do you ever think that it is hard to know what you are and aren't allowed to do? Well, even a whole bunch of lawyers can't manage it. This just  popped into my inbox:

Full story here, if you are interested.

(PS. Yes, this is an EU law. No, it probably won't change on Brexit.)

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Violence against Britain

The horrible news of the bombing in Manchester makes me (and many people other people) ask "why?" I mean: why do they do it? And what do they hope to achieve?

Friday, 19 May 2017

The Economist on Labour

The Economist is no fan of May Toryism: she has the opposite of the magazine's socially-liberal, economically-conservative leanings. But it is finding little to like in Labour either, and enjoying itself rather more in doing so. Here are three examples.

1. On the manifesto: "Kaufman recalled that one of the left-wingers in 1983 wanted to get a policy on puppy-farming into the [1983] manifesto, but this was too much detail even for Tony Benn. But there it is, on page 94 of “For the Many, not the Few” [i.e., the 2017 Labour manifesto] —the pledge to “prohibit the third-party sale of puppies.” At least Mr Corbyn’s Labour party will go down fighting for what they believe in." Not interested in puppies? Well, "on page 89 Labour pledges to expand the role of the Grocers Code Adjudicator, while on page 112 the party promises to “protect the right to a nomadic way of life”. All, again, in no particular order. The vital Benedict Cumberbatch/Eddie Redmayne issue, of there being too many toffs in the theatre, appears on page 92." (Actually, it's a good example of Labour's policies being more popular than its leadership. I would like to protect the right to a nomadic way of life too, and they are onto something with the upper-middle classes colonising the arts. But really!)

2. "Labour is not so much an organised political party as a blood-soaked battleground between two warring factions: the far-left faction, led by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, and including acolytes such as Dianne Abbot and Emily Thornberry, and “moderate” Labour. “Moderate” Labour [includes] Yvette Cooper, the moderate wing’s current leader and wife of Gordon Brown’s right-hand man, Ed Balls, Stephen Kinnock, the son of the party’s former leader, Neil Kinnock and Hillary Benn, the son of the left’s former champion, Tony Benn ... [Moderates were hoping that] Yvette Cooper [...] would lead the party and the likes of Mr Kinnock and Mr Benn would act as able lieutenants." (From here.) It was unnecessary to point out that the alternative to the far-left is a group of people who are related, by blood or marriage, to other former Labour politicians. But you can see why they made the point.

3. Last but not least, this headline on a story about Labour's economic programme: "Old McDonnell has a plan. He eyes IOUs".

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Things to read

1. "Conservatives are wrong about everything, except predicting their own place in the culture," says Frederik de Boer here. If you read his piece (and you should) you will see that what he really means to say is that conservatives are right about the facts, but wrong about morality. But they are not just right about facts, but right about facts to do with human nature, and they are more honest in talking about reality as well. Hmm. De Boer is an interesting and fair-minded man of the Left, but (rather like Scott Alexander) his ability to see the qualities of the Right suggests that there is hope for him yet.

2. Meanwhile and also in America, "On average, workers born in 1942 earned as much or more over their careers than workers born in any year since". What about women? "Women have done much better than men. More women have entered the labor force and taken on more prestigious and remunerative careers." That's good, right? "Still, women are making less than men over their working years, and women’s rising earnings have not made up for the decline in men’s incomes for the population as a whole. ... As more women entered the labor force, median household incomes rose even as incomes of individual workers of a given age stagnated, with families using extra workers to bring home more money. But that climb ended in 1999, and since then, median household incomes have fallen, according to the census." More details here. People born in 1999 are just starting to go to university. For their whole life, median household incomes have been declining. And then they meet the people de Boer is talking about. Something has gone wrong.

3. This. It's about Clayton Christensen. It's well worth your time even if (especially if?) you have no idea who he is.

4. French opinion polls were way off. Don't look out for 'shy' Tories or what have you - look out for 'reluctant' ones. Macron had lots of reluctant support. Le Pen was a pretty good example of what they didn't want to vote for. British polls (for what they are worth) may be telling us that Corbyn is our Le Pen: generative of loud support from the few, and widespread but lukewarm opposition from the many.

5. "When asked by a journalist which language he spoke at home, Prince Philip, who is of German-Danish-Russian descent and the nephew of King Constantine I of Greece, replied “What do you mean, ‘at home’?” Born ninety years ago on a kitchen table in Corfu ..." More here, including: "In Paris, Philip lived with his aunt, Princess Marie Bonaparte, a disciple of Freudian psychoanalysis who would soon become France’s leading sexologist. At this point he attended a kindergarten in Jules Verne’s former house, where he was mocked for the brevity of his name. “Of Greece”, he would awkwardly reply when asked what came after “Philip”."

6. On Rod Dreher and Andrew Sullivan on reaction. Andrew Sullivan is becoming interesting again.

7. Did you ever watch "Girls"?

8. You can eat a horse, but you can't eat a robot. Can you eat people?

9. Behavioural economics scepticism.

10. The "mean girls" of philosophy are very very mean.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Bigger fish than Brexit

I will, in due course, explain how and why the EU has been so quick and firm on a hard Brexit. In the meantime, if you have been following the FT series of articles I linked to in my previous post, you will not have been surprised by the news on the radio yesterday morning, based on what the Frankfurter Allgemeine says here (and see the Telegraph here), about Juncker, Merkel and May. It is more of the same. The EU has its ways and it is not prepared to be flexible for the UK's benefit. You may recall the last time the UK had a negotiation with the UK: David Cameron was laughed at for his baseless optimism and didn't get very far. Expect more of the same.

But on to the bigger fish. I have not forgotten that this blog is also your go-to guide to predictions of the forthcoming apocalypse for Western liberalism.

One straw in that ill wind is the current French Presidential election. Ross Douthat (who is utterly sane) asks why one should not vote for Le Pen ("the case for #NeverLePen seems weaker in important ways than the case for #NeverTrump"), and so does Noah Millman.

In any event, apres Macron, le deluge: "Macron will have to (in the quite short span of five years) fundamentally reform heretofore unreformable French society, and do so without any sort of parliamentary majority. Add in the tragic reality that France will probably endure another major terrorist attack or so per year over the next five years, and the far more likely political risk outcome is that, by the end of his term, Macron will not have significantly lifted France’s economic growth numbers, or made the French feel more safe. // That is what Le Pen and the FN are betting on, and frankly, it seems the most likely outcome. She has always been playing for the next French election, not this one." It's hard to see the flaw in that analysis. You know the plot of Soumission? Well ...

And so to bigger things. Europe is committing suicide and we are about to see the fall of the global elite, or perhaps even enter the Age of War and Revolution.

Britain is more fortunate than its neighbours in having Brexit to worry about. As I have said before, the battle of Brexit (what it means? should we really be doing it?) is a battle fought between supporters of Western liberalism. Theresa May and Tony Blair, David Cameron and Boris Johnson - the UK appears constitutionally unable to produce anyone more radical than Jeremy Corbyn or Nigel Farage, neither of whom is at all scary. Look at our General Election: the two main parties fussing about VAT and police numbers. It's the good old days all over again. Compare that with Trump and Le Pen. The fact that it is ultimately a waste of time for the British commentariat to fight the Brexit wars (because we'll get what we're given) is by the by: every day spent arguing that the Single Market is the be-all and end-all of British political life is a day in which liberalism gets a further chance to show that it can resolve the problems of mass population movements and lack of widely-shared economic growth that are otherwise liable to kill it. At the very least, if Britain is still arguing about VAT rates when a big country tries an alternative to liberalism, we will get the chance to see whether the alternative is any better.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Why a Hard Brexit?

You have probably seen things like this piece, from Jonathan Freedland. He starts by asking why it was that the Brexit referendum result did not result in some sort of euro-fudge rather than a real Brexit. Then he asks, "How did May, who campaigned, albeit in lukewarm fashion, for the Remain side in last summer’s referendum, end up pushing for such a hard-core version of Leave?". Having asked those questions, he continues, "Any explanation has to begin with the parlous state of the official opposition to the Conservatives now in power."

That is British self-regard at its highest.  Let's forget about Jeremy Corbyn for once. This sequence of articles from the FT makes it clear that it was the EU that decided on hard Brexit even before the Conservative Party had even decided who was to replace David Cameron:

"... it did not matter who won that leadership election, and what they thought Brexit meant. Senior figures in the EU had quickly adopted a position that they have stuck to since. Brexit was final, there would be no renegotiation, there would be no negotiation without notification, the exit would be “orderly”, the prescribed process was to be followed tightly, full access to the single market required acceptance of the four freedoms, and the EU27 would act in unison. And all this had been stated precisely and openly. [...]  The EU had already formed a view on what Brexit was going to be like for the UK, regardless of what any British government would want. In essence, if not in detail, the basis of Brexit had been set, and Theresa May was not yet even prime minister."

The EU (atypically quickly) decided that the deal on offer was all-or-nothing, i.e. 'hard' Brexit or no Brexit. That was the choice facing May. Even if she had wanted the softest or all possible Brexits, it was not on the table. The referendum result said Brexit; the EU said that meant hard Brexit; and the only question for May was whether to accept the democratically expressed will of the British people or not. She did not choose hard Brexit - it chose her.

Let me put it another way. If you are or were Remainer you are probably sympathetic to the argument that in any negotiation between the UK and the EU it is the EU, as the bigger and more powerful party, that holds the trump cards, and that the UK will just have to take whatever it is that the EU has to offer. Well, take that as an indication that the EU is only offering a hard Brexit.

An interesting question is how and why the EU has been able to - and has decided to - act so quickly and firmly in this matter, when it typically acts more slowly and with much greater room for compromise. Views differ. I may offer mine on another occasion.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

French politics and society

You should read this and this.

Why should you trust me on this? Well, this is what I was doing just before Bastille Day last year:

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Private property involves the threat of violence

This guy says so, by reference to that story about a man forcibly taken out of his seat on a flight.

Of course, he is right.

But by the same token taxes are sums of money extracted under threat of violence.  The threat of violence is what lies at the root of state power. There is nothing specifically capitalist about this. Capitalism is the system that puts the state's coercive and violent power in the service of private property. Communism puts the state's coercive and violent power in the service of state-owned (or, if you insist, communally-owned) property. Even if we abolish property of any kind, so long as the state remains, with its monopoly of the legitimate use of violence, whatever ideological system governs the polity is ultimately underpinned by the threat of violence.

The headline is 'Capitalism is Violence'. Yup, but by the same reasoning, even in late capitalist societies, so are all kinds of other things that the writer presumably approves of, such not discriminating on grounds of race, not abusing children and not polluting the environment. If there's a law about it then ultimately there is the power of the state, with all its police, prisons and guns,  to back it up. 'Environmentalism is Violence too'.

Monday, 17 April 2017

I can probably predict what you think about immigration

The Economist tells us that "every 1% increase in the ratio of immigrants to natives in the working-age population leads to a 0.5% fall in wages for the lowest 10% of earners (and a similar rise for the top 10%)".

It is of course ridiculous to say that people believe only what suits their self-interest. But you should not be surprised to see well-off people welcoming immigrants and poorer people resisting them.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

You learn something new every day

If I've given you a quotation then you don't need to click on the link. But if you want to know more then the links are potentially interesting.

1. ... about how awful things are in Venezuela - "over the past year around three-quarters of Venezuelans have lost weight, averaging 8.7kg per person, because of a scarcity of food. No war, foreign or civil, is to blame for this catastrophe. Venezuela did this to itself."

2. ... about that time when Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld ran a universal basic income experiment for Nixon.

3. ... about Norwegian female special forces.

4. ... about panic attacks - "Panic attacks decrease markedly during pregnancy, and disappear entirely during childbirth. This last is really remarkable. People get panic attacks at any conceivable time. When they’re driving, when they’re walking, when they’re tired, when they’re asleep. Just not, apparently, when they’re giving birth. Childbirth is one of the scariest things you can imagine, your body’s getting all sorts of painful sensations it’s never felt before, and it’s a very dangerous period in terms of increased mortality risk. But in terms of panic attack, it’s one of the rare times when you are truly and completely protected." On the other hand, "you’re about a hundred times more likely to develop a new case of panic disorder during the postpartum period than usual."

5. ... about US healthcare - "simply normalising for violent and accidental death puts the USA right to the top of the life expectancy rankings". (So this maybe there is a Peltzman effect - introducing seatbelts allows people to drive in more dangerous ways - at work here: Americans have great healthcare so they take more chances with their diet and guns? Lots of guns in Switzerland too, the second most expensive country for healthcare. The best form of gun control might be making healthcare worse?)

6. ... about why the American alt-right loves the NHS.

7. ... about the historical depth of Polish-British relations - "suffice to say that Canute the Great’s mother Świętosława was Mieszko I’s daughter". Suffice it indeed.

8. ... about Argentine missiles - "Argentina was almost the first country to develop a small, supersonic cruise missile. Way back in 1960." One thing that struck me was that the the plan - from a German with, shall we say, a war history - would have involved using a lot of British hardware.

9. ... about trying to get oneself declared alive in Uttar Pradesh - "As he walked out that day three decades ago, Lal Bihari was already thinking about how to become alive again. But it would take him 17 years, during which time he would kidnap his cousin; add the title of mritak (dead man) to his name; get thrown out of the UP legislative Assembly; contest elections against two prime ministers; demand widow’s pension for his wife; and start an association of dead people. After he finally came ‘alive’ again, he continued exposing this land-grab practice. Says Panchu, a 75-year-old in Adampur village, Azamgarh, “My own son had killed me off. If it had not been for Lal Bihari, I would still be dead.”"

10. ... and about Warren Hastings. This link is really quite something. It is an informative piece telling you what the trial of Warren Hastings was all about. And it is written by an Indian. "The Hastings impeachment was an act of imperial soul- searching unparalleled in history; and no one who wades through its voluminous archives can fail to be impressed. For seven years, British MPs and lords examined and debated in the most minute detail almost every document that had crossed the desk of their Indian Governor- General. Many were inspired by hostility to the East India Company, but there was also genuine concern for the human rights of Indians." Beat that for fair-mindedness! Hastings seems to have been not all bad by modern standards, and he was wrongly accused of things that are bad by modern standards because those things were also bad by the standards of the day. It's a great reminder of that wonderfully exciting period in British political history at the end of the 18th century that gave us, among other exciting intellectual experiments, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith and America. 

Thursday, 6 April 2017

A good news story

Here is the story of Mel Nebhrajani. She has an Asian immigrant background. She started out as a Chancery barrister and is now in the Government Legal Service. The link is to an interview about BAME lawyers, diversity, under-represented groups etc etc. "Heard it all before", you might think, "minority woman starts out in the unwelcoming private sector and is only welcomed in the public sector". But no - this is a very different story. Read more below.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Questions to which you will want to know the answer

1. Can we blame Ed Miliband for everything? I mean, Trump, Brexit, all that stuff? (Clue: yes.)

3. What do people who own slaves think about slavery? ("I came across a slaveholder who was surviving with help from a bonded labourer and loans from the Grameen Bank, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning microfinance organisation dedicated to extending loans to the world’s poor.")

4. How does Utah achieve the social mobility of Denmark? (More interesting than it sounds.)

5. Has food taken the place of music?

Answers at the links.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Some things to look at and think about

1. More people live in the small red area than in the all blue areas on this map put together (from here):

An Extreme Comparison of Population Density

2. British comedy needs to escape the shackles of Ricky Gervais. This article is well worth a couple of minutes of your time, not least for seeing Nigel Farage turn up in a Harry Enfield sketch.

3. Real life, shot to look like a beautiful 'how to' Youtube video.

Things to read and think about

1. Let's start with politics. David Runciman: "It is often said of democratic politics that the question voters ask of any leader is: ‘Do I like this person?’ But it seems more likely that the question at the back of their minds is: ‘Would this person like me?’"  Runciman also tells us this: "All the women in May’s current cabinet, barring the leader of the Lords, Baroness Evans, were helped to enter Parliament by May’s organisation, [Women2Win]." (Runciman's article is a review of a book about Theresa May. Runciman knows David Cameron from school, and makes it somewhat about Cameron too. The contrast is interesting and he writes it very fairly. But I would love to see a similar article written by someone who was at school with May.)

2. For those of you who care about such things, reasons not to worry about all that Brexit stuff that people still keep going on about:

(A) There was no wave of hate accompanying Brexit. You didn't spot it in real life. That's because it didn't happen. In fact "the UK public actually became more positive towards EU immigration between November 2015 and November 2016, the period covering the campaign, vote and supposedly hate-filled aftermath". Note also that "the UK’s positivity towards non-EU immigration is significantly higher than the EU average." People just don't like the EU. If you think that normal British people are unable to distinguish EU citizens from the EU, consider whether you are able to distinguish between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

(B) And there's not going to be a problem with a Brexit deal either. Deals will get done. Maybe this will be one of them.

3. Now let's slow down and chillax more generally.

(A) There are good reasons to slow down. Drugs can make you better at chess and it seem that they do so not (as you would have thought) by speeding you up, but by slowing you down.

(B) Resist the Internet!, says Ross Douthat calmly and sensibly. But he's not alone. You may recall David Gelernter saying it in one of my links not long ago, and here is Scott Adams too: "My observation is that smartphones have made half of all adults mentally ill. I mean that literally, not figuratively. The business model of phones is addiction, not value. And they addict you at the expense of the things humans need in their lives to be happy and healthy."

(C) Are you reading stuff? Stop! "Let’s say you pick up a copy of Jude the Obscure, become obsessed with Victorian fiction and somehow manage to make your way through all 200-odd books generally considered part of that canon. Moretti would say: So what? As many as 60,000 other novels were published in 19th-century England—to mention nothing of other times and places. You might know your George Eliot from your George Meredith, but you won’t have learned anything meaningful about literature, because your sample size is absurdly small. Since no feasible amount of reading can fix that, what’s called for is a change not in scale but in strategy. To understand literature, Moretti argues, we must stop reading books." But you should read that link and perhaps worry a little.

(D) You're not surfing the web or reading, so what should you do? Voltaire had it right: we must cultivate our garden. Perhaps because everything is going to be fine, or perhaps because the (or at least a) world is going to end.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Ten links for you

1. The Vatican's Latinist: "I saw him for an hour in Rome in 1985 and that one hour completely changed my life." And many other people's lives too, it seems.

2. The Fox's Prophecy. And pretty prophetic it is too. "Taught wisdom by disaster, // England shall learn to know // That trade is not the only gain // Heaven gives to man below": there's Brexit and Indyref2 in one stanza from 1871.

3. Computer games vs the Game of Life. "In May 2016 he finished his graduate-school training in business law. A few months later, he decided he didn’t want to work in law after all; he wanted to play video games. ... During his studies, he could only spare a couple of hours each day for his habit. Now he can slip into his video-game worlds for five or six hours at a time. A law career would have meant more money. Yet it would also have meant much more time spent at law." Trade-offs, you see.

4. Semper sic tyrannis? "If, however, it turns out that the intelligence agencies have indeed been actively collaborating with the White House in working against opposition politicians, the whole tale assumes a particularly dangerous aspect as there is no real mechanism in place to prevent that from occurring again. The tool that Obama has placed in Trump’s hands might just as easily be used against the Democrats in 2020."

5. "One precious thing about ordinary readers is that sometimes they develop feelings for the characters. This is something critics never discuss. Which is a shame. The Anglo-Saxon critics do good plot summaries but they don’t talk about the characters either. Readers, however, do it uninhibitedly." Houellebecq. In my view, it is nearly always worth reading interviews with boxers or Michel Houellebecq.

6. "I don’t understand why we look down on people who vote against their own interests. ... putting the good of the country ahead of your own pocketbook? I salute you, my noble friend, and wish you had a less idiotic idea of what’s good for the country." That's from this chap, here.

7. A couple of links about the capitalist world we live in: why are the French so miserable? and how to save capitalism,

8. Malcolm Gladwell on leaks. There's quite a few things going on in this piece to do with the changing of the generations, game theory, technology and the law and more besides.

9. What Robert Kelly himself has to say about that BBC interview.

10. Last but not least, a funny and new (well, newly-published) story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Trump and Clinton gender reversal

This is the story. Not quite as medically invasive as it sounds: re-enacting the debates with a male actor playing Clinton and a female actor playing Trump. Everyone expected a female Trump to be unbearable - but it turns out s/he's a really appealing character, whereas a male Clinton is even more unlikeable.

It's an interesting example of upending one's expectations. I would also say it's a pretty good rebuke to the idea that people don't take to strong women in politics. A certain confident, forthright style seems to go down well, as least in debates. As if Margaret Thatcher's performances at the dispatch box did not already prove that.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Three interesting things to read

Here are three interesting pieces that I recommend you read.

First, this crazy story about a 752 pound emerald. The film would be easy to cast: Danny DeVito and Joe Pesci would have big parts, and maybe John Malkovich could be the Mormon.

Second, here is "polymath" David Gelernter. Worth reading all the way through. He says lots of different things and can't be summarised. Here are some examples.

"Take any civilization, ask for its artistic masterpieces; today, they are almost guaranteed to be valuable all over the world. There’s almost nothing less subjective than the sense of beauty." Hmm. I instantly search for counter-examples. But isn't the lack of counter-examples striking?

"I've written & argued in Germany that (for example) computers & social nets ought to be treated like bars or strip joints: not acceptable for children. (At least we ought to consider treating them that way.) I don't like the idea of legal restrictions. But I might urge that we get computers out of schools until our children are able to read & write half decently—at least as decently as they used to during the middle two-thirds of the 20th Century."

"Rear your children to be atheists or agnostics—fine. But turning them loose on the world with no concept of right and wrong is unacceptable. You might well say that Jewish and Christian ethical teaching managed to accomplish remarkably little; but if you believe that, and propose to teach your children even less than the bare bones that proved (you say) so inadequate, then your irresponsibility is obvious. Choose the ethical code you like, but choose something and make sure they know it."

An intelligent provocateur, perhaps?

Third, here is Brendan Simms with something interesting to say about Brexit. Unlike Gelernter, he has a single thesis which is capable of summary. His idea is that England has been responsible to a large part for the creation of modern Europe, and that the UK was created by England as part of that project. Leaving aside the England/UK bit, here's the core of the thesis:

"The continental order is largely a product of British and latterly Anglo-American attempts to create a balance of power that would prevent the emergence of a hostile hegemon (first Spain, then France and then Germany), while being at the same time robust enough to ward off external predators (first the Turks, then Russia and then the Soviet Union). The resulting “goldilocks” problem, in which the continentals were either too strong or too weak, has been one of the central axes of European history in the past half-millennium.

After the Second World War, the Americans, some visionary continentals and even some Britons (such as Winston Churchill) realised that the only way to cook porridge at exactly the right temperature was to establish a full democratic political union, with or without the UK. Such a United States of Europe could look after itself without endangering its neighbours and both embed and mobilise Germany for the common good. For various reasons, most of them to do with the incompetence and divisions of the continental Europeans, full union was never achieved; and while it remains the only answer to the European Question, its realisation seems further away today than ever.

The UK played and plays a unique role in the system. It is not in any meaningful sense “equal” to the other states of the “club” that it is leaving. Over the past three centuries – from the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, through the 18th-century European balance of power, the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, the Versailles Treaty of 1919, to the 1945 settlement and beyond – Britain has been central to the European order, far more than any other power. This remains true today, because the EU depends entirely on Nato, of which Britain is the dominant European member, for its security.

Though France likes to think of itself as a military superpower and boasts that it will be the only EU state with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council after Brexit, the reality is that it is a far inferior power in the European system. Its sovereignty was restored, perhaps unwisely, by the Anglo-Americans in 1944-45, and is now strongly qualified by how France controls neither its own currency nor its own borders, and while it could theoretically restore its sovereignty, this cannot be done without simultaneously establishing that of Germany, which is the one thing that French participation in the European enterprise was designed to prevent.

The EU may be a club and it can make whatever rules it likes, but it should never forget that the Anglo-Americans own the freehold of the property on which the club is built. Brussels and the continental capitals are at best leaseholders, and in many cases just tenants of this order. Put another way, the UK is not just another European “space” to be ordered, but one of the principal ordering powers of the continent.

It's an interesting sideways take on the world (worth reading in full for thoughts on the UK, the EU, Trump and more) but I wouldn't subscribe to it. Even with American help, the UK can't cook the porridge itself.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

This metropolitan elite business

What are we really talking about?

This is from Hugo Rifkind (in the Times and in the Australian):

"London, at its most reflexively liberal, is often populated by people who have chosen to come from somewhere else. Often those choices will have come with rewards (the sort of career that lets you pop over to Miami, for example) but urbanites also tend to be painfully aware of the sacrifices, too. Or, to put that another way, it’s pretty damn galling to be regarded as an “aloof elite” by somebody with a bigger garden than you. This is not, I think, about mutual incomprehension. I keep reading, as though it were some neat, rhetorical liberal “gotcha”, that the areas most hostile to immigration are the areas with the least of it. “The fools!” the subtext seems to be. “They have no idea!” Don’t they, though? Maybe they do, and just don’t like it, which is why they not only vote against immigration but also choose to live somewhere where it doesn’t really happen. That’s certainly true in Miami, where “white flight” has seen the English-speaking population streaming into northern suburbs for a generation. Closer to home, London’s soaring population has masked the departure of hundreds of thousands of “white British” into the suburbs, which now vote as the cities do not.

Every city has pockets like this, and they are growing, just as every city is increasingly surrounded by people who don’t want to live that way at all. These are different lives with different political priorities. With a metropolitan life, for example, the green belt is somebody else’s, and spiralling fuel prices largely happen to other people. By contrast, city-dweller political priorities such as pollution or minority integration doubtless look false and virtue-signally when viewed from a nice bit of Berkshire. Only that’s not how they feel when I join the hordes on my morning walk down the hill into Finsbury Park."

Rifkind is far from being an idiot. He's got some good points. But isn't this the bigger picture?

(1) Rifkind is the son of a Cabinet Minister, privately educated, went to Cambridge, lives in London, writes for the Times, the Spectator etc etc. I fully accept that he is not one of the people who in fact run the country. I fully accept that there are many state-school educated, non-Oxbridge people with no famous relations who have more power than him. But galling or not, he is, as a matter of fact, a member of an elite section of society. 

(2) That thing about the garden. Seriously? It's just like FE Smith or Lord Curzon or whoever it was (I can't find the quotation now) saying that he does not know why people are snobbish about terraced house since he had lived all his life in a terraced house. £1m, to take a figure almost at random, buys a much smaller garden a short walk from Finsbury Park station than it does a few stops down the line. It's up to Rifkind whether he wants his £1m to buy a small amount of vibrant zone 2 property or a larger amount of leafy zone 6 property.  Houses in Mayfair and Belgravia have pretty small back gardens too, but that doesn't mean that the people who live in them are the downcast powerless.

(3) Which leads me onto my central point, namely Rifkind's insight that maybe the suburban British do know what it is like in multicultural central London. Let me put it this way: where does Rifkind think those people work? Yes, there are schools and hospitals and shops and business parks outside London. But huge swathes of the population of London's suburbs - and beyond - travel into London every day to work in the midst of the pollution and all the rest of it. Even if they don't work there now, they probably once did. The suburbs, the dormitory villages and the commutable towns of southeast England are full of people who know London pretty well but choose not to live there.

But the opposite is not true. The people of Cockfosters pass through Finsbury Park on their way to work. But the Rifkinds have no need ever to go to Cockfosters. Or Purley. Or Basildon. Or - well, you get the picture. Rifkind himself, to his credit, has previously spotted this ("... do I really have a clue about South Hampshire? Or even take the London metropolitan area, which is 14 whole million people strong. If I’m honest, I do know it is not all like Finsbury Park, with its halal takeaways and shops selling hair extensions. Nor is it all like the posh bits I’ll pass through sometimes on the way to visit ex-London friends, full of hedges and cricket matches and Tudor pubs. A lot of it must be somewhere in between.[...] Maybe they’re the people you see in the audience on Top Gear. I’ve always wondered who they were.") This asymmetry is, I think, the real motivation for the 'aloof metropolitan elite' gibe that Rifkind evidently feels so keenly. The people of Cockfosters know all about Rifkind, where he went to university, where he took the children for half-term (Disneyland Florida, since you ask), how he voted in the Brexit referendum and so on. They know how he thinks. They know this he openly and honestly tells us, in the Times, in the Spectator and in the Australian. And the people of Cockfosters know these facts - or essentially similar ones - about many other similarly influential people, for similarly reasons. But perhaps those influential people have no knowledge of similar facts about the people of Cockfosters.

Rifkind is right. It is not mutual incomprehension. It is asymmetric comprehension. We can all accept that Rifkind is painfully aware of the amount of garden space he has sacrificed to live where he lives. But does he think that the people who live further down the line from Finsbury Park are not also painfully aware of the sacrifices they have made, the commuting, the distance, the need to drive their children to school? To put it another way, it's pretty damn galling to be regarded as a troglodyte Top Gear fan by someone who doesn't spend 2 hours a day on the Piccadilly Line. 

Monday, 27 February 2017

La La Land - by David Lynch (UPDATED - and by Slavoj Žižek)

In honour of the Oscars, here is the trailer for La La Land as if directed by David Lynch. The Los Angeles setting makes this reasonably convincing, and it draws out a hidden sense of menace from the (almost) Best Picture that I had not noticed while seeing it.

UPDATE: and here is Slavoj Žižek's Leninist reading of the film (also recommended, although not necessarily for this bit: "We stumble here upon a problem passed over by Alain Badiou in his theory of Event. If the same subject is addressed by multiple Events, which of them should be given priority? Say, how should an artist decide if he cannot bring together his love life (building a life together with his/her partner) and his dedication to art? We should reject the very terms of this choice.")

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Magna Carta Myth

Robert Tombs puts it this way:

"For me the problem was to understand the difference between cultural attitudes in Britain and the continental countries to the idea of being led towards European union. What I called a Magna Carta myth is the idea that in Britain it is the people who decide, and the politicians have to acquiesce. Whereas in France, Italy, Germany and some other countries, there has often been a sense that a vanguard of politicians or intellectuals have decided on the country’s future, and the mass of the population has sooner or later followed. It’s a certain conception of history; one gets it very clearly in Italy with the Risorgimento, and to some extent with France, when you think of how important Napoleon or the French Revolution − the Jacobin dictatorship − has been in creating the modern state. I think of this as a ‘vanguard myth’: ordinary people don’t know and can’t decide what the destiny of the country is, and they have to be led. I don’t think that’s the way people in Britain imagine politics. I was talking about myth: how people, deep down, see political legitimacy.

It is rooted in our political culture that it is right that the people should take these decisions. Of course, not everyone agrees with that; there are plenty of people who said the whole idea of a referendum was bad. But it’s interesting now that very few politicians contest the result. ‘The people have spoken …’ is a phrase that has a lot of weight in British political logic; it might not necessarily be the same in all countries, if what the people have said is thought to be stupid or impossible, or against the course of history.
" (Emphasis added.)

There's definitely something to it. Here is Lord Finkelstein, i.e. a member of an unelected part of our Parliament (and a Remainer), on Brexit.

"There’s a Jewish story of a man who goes over a precipice and, tumbling into the ravine, manages to grab hold of a solitary branch. As he swings there, slowly losing his grip, he shouts: ‘Oh Lord, is there anyone up there? What should I do?’ And a voice comes out of the heavens. ‘Son, let go of the branch. Let go of the branch.’

The man swings a moment more, staring into the unknown as he ponders the advice. Then he shouts: ‘Is there anyone else up there?’

We’ve asked the question. We’ve had the answer. There isn’t anyone else up there. We have to let go of the branch. Brexit means Brexit.

Vox populi, vox Dei - in Britain at least.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Good reads (but you'll have to take my word for it) [UPDATED]

Just that - a list of good stuff to look at. Despite what it sounds like.

1. Scott Alexander on cost disease. Ok, I grant that that does not sound at all interesting. But it is. Honest.

2. Alistair's Adversaria. This guy says a lot of interesting things and has lots of interesting links. Give him a go.

3. How politics works: how Sadiq Khan's amazing announcements could have been Zac Goldsmith's.

4. Ollie the bobcat and the Washington Bubble.

5. A long Dominic Cummings post about how Brexit happened. "Why is almost all political analysis and discussion so depressing and fruitless? I think much has to do with the delusions of better educated people. It is easier to spread memes in SW1, N1, and among Guardian readers than in Easington Colliery." It would be worth testing that kind of thesis. Political innovations come in the good (universal suffrage, abolition of slavery, privatisation) and the bad (fascism, communism, Jeremy Corbynism). Presumably all of them start off more strongly amongst the well-educated than amongst the less well-educated - not knowing stuff like that is part of what we mean by less well-educated. But are the less well-educated better at spotting when the Emperor has no clothes on? Anecdotes of 20th century British political history are pretty supportive of that thesis (not a lot of fascist or communist MPs), but maybe that's just because the 20th century came up with a lot of really bad political innovations.

6. In praise of the analogue: "one of the earliest noble causes of the digerati was the One Laptop Per Child global initiative, led by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, a Garibaldi of the Internet age. The OLPC crew raised stupendous amounts of money and created machines that could run on solar power or could be cranked by hand, and they distributed them to poor children around the developing world, but alas, according to Sax, “academic studies demonstrated no gain in academic achievement.” Last year, in fact, the OECD reported that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”"

7. Cockfosters (photos).

8. Obituary of JSG Boggs.

9. A wonderful hatchet job.

[UPDATE] 10. A second-wave feminist's critical take on trans-activism: "Mount Holyoke, a women’s college, decided not to produce a play about women and their vaginas because some audience members who identify as women—but don’t have vaginas—would feel excluded." For a not unconnected bonus, here is a pretty forthright chap who says that children are being taught lies. He makes a similar point along the way: "These people [advocates for multiple gender identities and laws to protect them] claim that identity is a social construct, but even though that’s their fundamental philosophical claim, and they’ve built it into the law, they don’t abide by those principles. Instead, they go right to subjectivity. They say that your identity is nothing more than your subjective feeling of what you are. Well, that’s also a staggeringly impoverished idea of what constitutes identity. It’s like the claim of an egocentric two-year old, and I mean that technically."

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

"For the West, “what is” has become increasingly difficult to disentangle from “what ought to be.”"

So says Viktor Orban here. He continues: "By contrast, our [i.e East Central Europeans'] perception of the real remains as sharp and cold as common sense. We have learned that the real is that which refuses to disappear even if we have stopped believing in it."

That's the best bit of his piece. But it's often worth reading people in their own words to see what their own concerns are - and to see where their popularity comes from. Who would vote for X?, you ask yourself. The answer is always: someone a bit like you. Listen to X and you'll start to see why.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

What's going to happen with Trump?

With my stunning betting successes behind me (well, two out of three ain't bad), you are no doubt gagging to know what I predict for the future of the Trump presidency. Well, my view is that it's too early to tell. But here are three people with much more interesting views - and you should read them all.

First, here is Ross Douthat on how populism stumbles, not least by triggering "an unusual level of solidarity among elites, who feel moved to resist on a scale that they wouldn’t if similar policies were pursued by normal political actors". Tyler Cowen mostly agrees with him.

Second, by contrast, here is David Frum on how Trump could build an autocracy, in the Turkey/Hungary sense at least. It is what the magazine would no doubt describe as an 'important' piece, but do not let that put you off as it's well worth a read.

Douthat and Frum are both literate, humane intelligent writers. Their theses are both worth your consideration.

On the other hand, here is Scott Adams, who really did predict the Trump presidency (strikingly unlike Douthat), setting out where Trump will end up on immigration and how you can spot it happening.

I would say that you pays your money and you makes your choice, but that's the wonder of modern international capitalism - it provides so much, of such high quality, entirely for free.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Democracy, eh?

That's from Parliament's petition page.

Laughter, lies and the War

1. Economists should try to make us laugh ...

2. ... after all, "Laughter is the ultimate psychosomatic symptom", says an interesting article here.

3. Why Trump's people lie.

4. Why do we keep mentioning the War? In summary: in England we love to talk about "the War", i.e. that entertaining/depressing/glorious construct we see in war films, 'Allo 'Allo, Fawlty Towers and so on. It's an endlessly charming little topic, full of dastardly Nazis (aka "Germans"), plucky "Brits" and a host of other entertaining characters who go by names such as "French", "Americans" and so on. Unfortunately, we use a set of very similar words to describe a real historical event and real people who live in real countries. That means that sometimes people get confused about whether we're talking about the sort of "German" who might say "vor you, Tommy, ze vor is ofer" or the real sort of German who might say "we would welcome a constructive negotiation about economic policy". You can see how people might get offended. Probably best to be more careful.

5. Don't let's forget the real War either. E.g., Eichmann, very interestingly discussed here (which includes this: "when a Nazi named “Baron von Killinger” is horrified by your brutality, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate whether you may have crossed a line").

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

That Brexit case (2)

The Court's own summary of the judgment is here. I told you so here.

My "probably" was a good indication that it would not be all one way, although I should confess that I only correctly guessed one of the dissenters.

Monday, 23 January 2017

A new Trump reader

1. Why a philosopher voted for Trump.

2. Resistance to Trump? Or just opposition? Why Trump is in great shape for 2020 (a tweetstorm) and advice for the Loyal Opposition to Trump.

3. Trump might be right; you might be wrong.

4. The media cannot think properly about Trump, but FiveThirtyEight might be able to.

5. What the King of Hawaii can teach us about Trump.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Why villains are British

... explained (to some extent) here, also telling us that Americans like a Brummie accent.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Friday, 13 January 2017

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Miscellaneous links

1. The moving sofa problem, familiar from Douglas Adams and given a mathematical formulation.

2. A good and fair interview with the intellectual Trump supporter Publius Decius Mus. "Before he began to speak, he held out an iPhone showing a picture of his family: if he was unmasked, he said, his family would suffer, because he works for a company that might not want to be connected to an apostle of Trumpism. // It is not necessarily absurd for Decius to suggest that he might suffer a fate like that which befell Brendan Eich, who resigned under pressure from Mozilla Corporation, the tech company he co-founded, after he was discovered to have donated to an anti-same-sex-marriage initiative." That is great fairmindedness from the author and the New Yorker.

3. New Zealand:"I lack space to eulogize Wellington, where the national library appears to surpass any analogous institution Australia can show, even if the airport houses mankind’s only known ceiling-suspended statue of Gollum."

4. The great Greggs robbery: "The 34-year-old also stole hot drinks sachets from an NHS Trust". Greggs and the NHS - has the man no shame?

5. How and why to use stereotypes in Bayesian reasoning (but please also consider why not).

6. Have you come across the phrase "evangelicalism’s subaltern counterpublics" before? If not, you might be interested in this piece on the collapse of American mainstream Protestantism.

7. Fake news?

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

What to expect from Brexit

Some thoughts prompted by the departure of Sir Ivan Rogers.

Here is a quick description of the circumstances that would lead to the best outcome from the Brexit negotiations: on the UK side, a political and diplomatic elite who have intellectually and emotionally bought into the case for Brexit and who have been preparing for it for years, all the brightest and best having spent years hoping and wishing for Brexit to happen and making detailed, together with a broader cultural and media elite who fervently wish for the negotiations to go well and who are prepared to lend a hand by producing the right kind of mood music and cheerleading to encourage the waverers and strengthen the resolve of the negotiators, and a populace beneath that wholly united behind Brexit, and cheerfully prepared to pay any price to make it happen; that combined with a European counterparty motivated only by magnanimity, one which has decided that the EU and the UK should be the best of friends, that the negotiations should create no bad blood but, on the contrary, that the terms of divorce should be so generous that the British might come to think that the EU is not so bad after all and truly is a beacon of sweetness and light in a dark world otherwise consumed with pettiness and rancour; and all of that combined with a profound and unspoken belief on both sides that restrictions on trade, whether on imports or on exports, are always and everywhere restrictions on the wealth and happiness of mankind.

Such a concatenation of circumstances is not wholly unrealistic. Something not a million miles from that must have lain behind the processes by which various dominions became independent from the UK. But it is clearly not the circumstances we are in.

If you start with that description of the first-best scenario then you can create a variety of second-best scenarios in which one or other element (a united populace, a generous EU) is missing. We are in none of those second-best scenarios either. We are some kinds of third best scenario in which we have some elements of the political and media elite, and a fair chunk of the populace, happy with Brexit. Given that background, if the terms of divorce are half-way acceptable then that would be a great achievement for our negotiators. The least we can do is to wish them the best of British.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Who were the baddies?

This is an interesting article about American Independence. It seems that in order to convince the American colonists, who were "the least taxed, most socially mobile, highest landowning, arguably most prosperous people in the western world", that they were so hideously oppressed by George III that they needed to fight a war about it, the leaders of the independence movement played on fears of the British supporting Native Americans, blacks and so on and other such dastardly deeds. I was perhaps unfairly reminded of this Mitchell and Webb sketch, the one in which two Nazi soldiers start to wonder if they are the baddies. At the very least, I think the modern British are pretty willing to see themselves as the baddies in any (non-WWII) historical war, and it's nice to see another point of view.

But is there any way of knowing what would have happened to Native Americans, blacks and so on if the Americans had lost the war? If there had been another rich north American colony that remained under British rule and gained its independence peacefully then I suppose we could carry out a comparison ...

Friday, 6 January 2017

Derek Parfit RIP

Forget all the sad deaths of 2016, 2017 has already seen the death of Derek Parfit.

The Times' obituary here is a good place to find out why you should care about Parfit. (He cared about you, but I don't think he would consider that a sufficient reason for you to care about him.) This is the New Yorker's profile of him. It is a tour de force, certainly, but it left me with not quite a bad taste but a funny taste in my mouth. One can imagine Bernard Williams laughing out loud at it.

If you have not read Reasons and Persons then you are missing - I was going to say "a treat", but that would be quite wrong - an intellectual feast.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

No Irexit! Or, how Cameron could have won the Brexit vote?

Or do I mean, no Ireleave?

This chap has an interesting take on what Ireland's attitude to the Brexit negotiations should be. He makes the good point that Ireland's interest in the matter is not the same as the rest of the EU's, and it should not just rely on a common approach. He makes two other interesting points.

First, an observation on how federalism works.

"I worry about the man who is negotiating for us: Monsieur Barnier. He has form. For example, in 2006, when he was an EU Commissioner, he wrote a report for the EU parliament that advocated scrapping countries’ consulates in other countries.

Under his federalist vision, the Irish consulate in Spain would be scrapped – so that if an Irish lad got a battering from the Guardia Civil, for example, there would be no Irish consulate to listen to his case and help him out. He also advocated in this report to close down all (Irish and other) consulates in non-EU countries and replace these with one EU consulate.

This is deep federalism, so much so that I noticed reading these reports that the word “country” is never mentioned. Countries are never referred to as countries, but as “member states”. It appears that even the mention of the word country by the EU Commission undermines the long-term federalist project.

Second, he has an idea for a strategy for EU membership for Ireland.

"This column has argued for some time now that we stay in the EU, but draw the line at the present EU. We shouldn’t embrace any further integrationist stuff nor sign up to any further federalist projects. This means doing precisely the opposite of the Brits. Rather than following the British out of the EU, we should vow never to leave it. The EU can’t kick us out. There is no mechanism. We should simply opt out of Mr Barnier’s plans. This means we have full access to the EU, but we don’t need nor want to go any further – not because of some cultural aversion, but because it’s not in our interest."

This, I think, is consistent with David Cameron's views (remember the opt-out on 'ever closer union'?) but a more bolshily-attractive way of putting that case. Instead of going to Brussels and crawling back with a pathetic re-negotiation, he could have said something like this: this is how our relationship with the EU is going to be from now on - no, no, no! to further integration of any kind; it stops now and it stops here; and if those Brussels bureaucrats don't like that then tough - what can they do? kick us out? It would have looked much stronger - avoiding the optics of having to beg Angela Merkel for scraps from her table - and it would have undermined the 'Take Back Control' message by being an overt act of being in control. The renegotiation conceded that the EU had the power; but simply making a declaration (no matter how empty it is in formal terms) would have done the opposite.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Happy New Year!

I was wondering on what note to start 2017 before coming across this, i.e. Jeremy Clarke in the Spectator on leaving beautiful France for the dubious pleasures of trains from Gatwick. Strikes just the right tone.