Thursday, June 30, 2016

Free trade, expanding prosperity and technology dynamism are good things: but not everyone wins all the time.

The following things are very much good things: free trade, technological dynamism and expanding global prosperity. Free trade because it gives more people to sell to and buy from, to engage in gains from trade with. Technological dynamism because it allows more and more people to live longer and (in some very basic senses) freer and more prosperous lives. Expanding global prosperity, because it means living millions upon millions of people out of the grinding constraints of poverty.

But none of these good things happen without costs. Free trade expands some industries in some places and retards or destroys them in others. Technological dynamism creates new industries and devastates some existing ones. Expanding global prosperity effectively expands the global labour market (even without movement of people) and puts pressure on labour incomes in already prosperous societies--particularly at the bottom end of the skill level.

It is not enough to point to the good these things do, if that provides an excuse to ignore the costs they also create. It is true that their benefits are so great that it is easily possible to compensate losers and still make everyone materially better off. But that it is easily possible does not mean that it is actually being done.

Which where the need for attentive social policy comes in. Attentive in a range of senses: attentive to who is losing, how and why. Attentive to concerns of people disoriented by change. Attentive to how policy can make things better for those who are on the losing any of economic and technological change. Attentive to how existing policies may be getting in the way of doing that, or even exacerbating the negative effects of such changes.

Added to these waves of change has been social changes, particularly the Emancipation Sequence. This has been going on in the West for over two centuries now, but with considerable acceleration in recent decades. This adds to the disorientation, particularly through loss of previous assumptions and presumptions. Such changes take time to absorb and are not helped by folk on the side of such changes being vicious winners: that is, not showing some charity and accepting a reasonable transition period but instead insisting on full public endorsement of every possible aspect of changes by everyone while being extremely intolerant of any lingering commitment to previous patterns, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition and belief such may be.

Migrating disorientation
Part of the accelerating social change has been a broadening of migration patterns into Western countries. In some places, notably Australia and Canada, such migration has been generally well-managed and led to remarkably little social angst, despite high rates of migration. In the US less so. In Europe, immigration has generally been managed quite poorly.

Well-managed migration is diverse in its origins, involves high level of border control, and does not adversely shift the labour/capital balance (mainly by importing people with relatively high level of human capital). It also involves making the case and in terms that resonate widely with voters. Moral hectoring is not making the case, it is self-indulgent posturing in place of the effort of persuading.

Poorly managed migration involves a lack of border control (giving many people the feeling of having no say over something with the capacity to profoundly change their society), imports large lumps from particular sources (making the resident culture less obviously dominant and more challenged) of people with lower human capital (shifting the economic balance to capital and away from labour, putting more stress on labour markets and welfare systems) and fails to make the case that resonates broadly with voters. How migration is, or is not, managed makes a huge difference.

Poison and block
But if migration is turned into a Virtue signal where one has to be "for migration" to be Virtuous, then the problems are exacerbated. The complexities are flattened out--by failing to differentiate between attitudes to legal and illegal immigration; deprecating considering costs from migration; refusing to consider that different sources and selection criteria make a difference, that migrants are not, in fact, interchangeable and undifferentiated. Rather than a public debate, one ends up with a public shouting match between an undifferentiated acceptance deemed Virtuous and any concern over any aspect being Vicious (and subject to the rhetoric of denunciation: racist, nativist, xenophobic, etc). Using, as I noted in my previous post, the shouting of bigot! as a weapon of bigotry (opinion-bigotry, but still bigotry). Worse, it encourages a tendency towards poor policy by inhibiting attention to social costs and concerns.

One can see this nicely illustrated by George Soros being dismissive of voices of opposition before the Brexit vote. He, at least, is being wise after the fact about the effect of mismanaged migration. Many are so attached to their markers of Virtue that they continue to shriek after the fact: Bourbons of Virtue, who forget nothing and learn nothing--"correcting" others, not themselves.

Connected to this, supporting multiculturalism has become a particularly strong Virtue signal. But the reality is that multiculturalism is a social and policy experiment, which may not work. Nor is it remotely a morally compulsory policy for every society.

The problem with using policies as Virtue signals is not only does that poison debate, it also blocks consideration of facts deemed to be Virtue-awkward (or even Virtue-hostile). This is both potentially disastrous in terms of social outcomes (facts do not go away merely by being deemed wrong to mention) and helps further poison public debate, since ignoring facts on the ground inevitably becomes a process of ignoring, or even demonising, those concerned by said facts.

Stripping away social ballast
What also doesn't help is systematic attacks on common identities. A sense of national and cultural belonging can provide a sense of stability and even control: such things as, in the words of a recent post on the post-Brexit problems of the British Labour Party:
tradition, a respect for settled ways of life, a sense of place and belonging, a desire for home and rootedness, the continuity of relationships at work and in one’s neighbourhood.
provide a ballast against the disorienting effects of change. Attacking such identities as irretrievably stained with past sins (but somehow not attached to past achievements) attempts to knock away a comforting and stabilising part of social order, increasing the costs of social change--particularly their disorienting effect.

Creating unfortunate opportunities
Attentive policy flows out of listening politics. A political Party relies on balancing three things--rhetoric used, policies delivered and attention to voter concerns. The US Republican Party has got itself into The Donald mess because (at least at a federal level) it failed to pay sufficient attention to actual voter concerns while failing to match rhetoric to actions and actions to rhetoric.

But the Republican Party was also operating within a wider political and policy debate dynamic: part of the problem may well have been that its cosmopolitan operatives were inhibited from seeing how things seemed to its more traditionalist voters. As economist Luigi Zingales notes, if trust has been lost, the trick is not to blame those who no longer trust you (that just exacerbates the problem), but to work to rebuilt trust.

Which requires paying attention. Using policy positions as Virtue-markers blocks bothering to pay attention to--both the listening and attending to awkward facts. The result is an increase in political and policy dysfunction and, in particular, an increase in the numbers of angry and resentful voters. Who will inevitably start looking for folk willing to pay attention and who do not sneer at, or demonise, their concerns. Given enough economic and social stress, that gives an opportunity for people who, in more normal times, with sufficiently broadly attentive politics, would not get their chance.

Once such political entrepreneurs begin to get traction, it is further gist to the Virtue-demonising mill. And so the cycle builds with another spiral of Virtue-signalling and Vicious-demonising.

Once the spiral is underway, it is easy to point to the political entrepreneurs of angry and resentful politics and say "the problem is those dreadful people".  No, the problem is the refusal to pay attention by those whose proper role that is. Blaming others is so much easier than entertaining the problem that folk like oneself, folk with the beliefs which are so obviously Virtuous, are actually seriously problematic grit in the mechanisms of social adaptation via status-mongering and pseudo-comprehending contempt for those with different experiences and concerns.

Congenial framing as pseudo-comprehension
I say pseudo-comprehending because part of the game of Virtue is imposing a framing on folk and opinions which builds in dismissal of the opinion Other. It creates a crippled epistemology (pdf) which blocks attention and engagement with those outside the magic circle of the Virtuous. The illusion of knowing (and which deploying the rhetoric of denunciation expresses) blocks the capacity to genuinely see, let alone pay attention to: that's how systems of bigotry work.

But framings provide comfort: they are our go-to ways of making sense of the world. The illusion of knowing is a very comforting illusion, particularly if it flatters one's self-esteem. A British journalist's mordant tweet:
Notice we in the press went from: "OMG we never saw this coming!!" right into "We're experts on why they voted this way & what it means."?
provides an illustration of the easy go-to comfort of our framings.

As journalist Damon Linker has noted, the contradiction of the secular faith of Progressivism--that history has a particular direction, which the Virtuous know and are leading their cognitive inferiors into--has taken a major knock, hence the outrage of frustrated faith. But it is a really bad idea to turn politics into your substitute religion, given how antipathetic dogmatic faith can be to the give and take of persuasion and reasoned debate. Just as it is not good to lose sight of how one's sense of identity and attendant social experiences can be very different than other people's: and if you are attached to your identity, why wouldn't other people be attached to theirs?

Not everyone is a winner from the waves of globalisation and social change.  Refusing to pay attention to those who are not--demonising them for being, in effect, those disproportionately bearing the material and psychic costs of change--in itself, increases the costs to them and to the wider society. At little less smug moral self-satisfaction, and bit more open-minded attention, would go a long way to make things better.

But that would require giving up the psychic benefits of the aforementioned self-satisfaction, and its attendant sneering contempt for fellow citizens, in exchange for rather more moral humility and paying attention: thereby being better citizens and better participants in the wider society. Which requires breaking through considerable epistemic barriers and giving up considerable psychic benefits. Even incurring some social costs as one departs from (and so chips away at) the collective game of smug self-satisfaction.

And, as the song says, breaking up is hard to do.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Monday, June 27, 2016

Yelling "bigot!" as a tool of bigotry

A recent study concluded that Party and ideological animus in the US was significantly stronger than (pdf) racial animus in the US.

To put that another way, opinion-bigotry is stronger than racial bigotry in the contemporary US.

This is not all that surprising. While bigotry can extend in any direction socially (upward, downwards, laterally), the most powerful bigotry is typically the bigotry of the most powerful. Particularly, those who dominate the commanding heights of ideas and opinion.

In the US (as in other Western countries) those commanding heights (media, academe, IT, entertainment) have become increasingly dominated by a fairly narrow range of opinion. Opinion that delights in seeing itself as the embodiment of morality--particularly of understandingcompassion and inclusion--and contrary views as being ignorant, exclusory and offensive: in other words, as deeply bigoted.

A key point to remember is that bigotry is everywhere and always a moral claim: it is a claim about the (lack) of moral standing for others. Far from moral fervour being an insulation against bigotry, it is often precisely moral concern that fuels bigotry.

By this understanding-compassionate-inclusive framing of themselves and the contrary ignorant-exclusory-offensive framing of those who disagree, the accusation of bigotry has become itself an instrument of bigotry. The expanding rhetoric of denunciation (racist!, misogynist!, xenophobe!, homophobe!, Islamophobe! etc) has been wielded as a weapon to separate the Virtuous from the Vicious. And to block public debate-as-conversation and replace it with abusive self-involved collective monologues.

In the name of understanding, compassion and inclusion, there has been an ever-expanding war against "hate speech". A deeply hypocritical war at so many levels (and pernicious in so many ways), but none more so than that using the rhetoric of denunciation is, itself, clearly hate speech when it is wielded against those who are not in fact racists, or misogynist, etc. Whether because that is simply a false characterisation of people's views or a false generalisation from the views of some to the views of a larger category of people.

Tied in with this has become the notion of privilege, particularly white privilege. A central claim of such Virtuous identity politics is that white people should think of themselves as primarily white people: specifically, as belonging to an identity that is both privileged and stained with past oppressions and present inequalities. Now, if one is one of the Virtuous, and keeps up with Virtue's moving moral goal posts, latest language taboos and ritual obeisances, one can functionally evade the moral burden of one's whiteness.

Those who fail to do all this, of course, have the entire privileged oppressor identity dropped on them.

Since this is very much a game for the educated middle class, members of the working class are not likely to jump through the various hoops, leaving them with the burden of identity as white privilege oppressors.

Oh look!, an excuse for the educated middle class to sneer at working class folk as vulgar moral barbarians, we've never seen that before. (Sarcasm and irony alert.) Hence the return of virtue signalling, which was so very powerful in the Victorian era; the contemporary version being used by much the same sort of folk against, well, much the same sort of folk: but with whiteness as moral negative rather than moral positive.

Which leaves the white working class with so much of the blame for, well, just about anything, but very little actual social power. (Which, of course, makes them such splendid targets for status-mongering contempt.)

So, we have the white working class as bigoted privileged oppressors yet have remarkably little say and who, moreover, at clearly not entitled to any say if it involves disagreeing with their Moral Betters.  Any doubt about that, and that those moral betters typically regard the white working class with deep contempt, has been stripped away by the Virtuous outrage over the win for Brexit in the UK Referendum--especially the demands that referendum result be immediately overturned. (Though the online petition calling for same had some prank element to it.)

The rhetoric of denunciation is very attractive because it broadcasts moral concern, moral superiority and moral contempt all in one go. It is also utterly destructive of any breadth in public debate and useful engagement with those outside the Virtuous magic circle. But self-righteous sanctimony has such obvious and enduring appeal, and is such a powerful mechanism for collective epistemic blockage (pdf), that it is not likely to go away any time soon.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit and EU failure

The 52%-48% win for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum has already been framed many ways, but what should be an obvious one (though for many it will not be) is how much of a failure for the EU this represents.

In June 1975, a deeply divided Labour Government held a referendum on the UK's membership (then 2 years old) in the European Community (EC) as it then was (known colloquially as "the Common Market"). The then recently installed Conservative Opposition Leader, Margaret Thatcher, campaigned strongly for the UK's membership. The UK electorate voted decisively for membership, 67% to 33% with a 65% voter turnout.

In June 2016, a deeply divided Conservative Government holds a referendum on the UK's membership of what is now the European Union, the UK now having been a member of its various incarnations for 43 years.  The recently installed Labour Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, campaigns (perhaps somewhat tepidly) for the UK's continued membership. The UK electorate votes narrowly for leaving, 52% to 48% with a 72% turnout.

If one ignores the sort of special pleading which, for example, suggests the 1975 UK electorate was terribly wise and the 2016 UK electorate deeply stupid, then 41 years of further experience of the EU had shifted the opinion of the British electorate by 19 percentage points against the EU. That is a considerable shift in opinion.

The EU of 2016 does, and aspires to do, far more than the EC of 1975 did: clearly, more is, in fact, less; at least in terms of inspiring popular support and confidence--quite a lot less. Though that large shift in opinion will be treated as a failure of the electorate, not of the glorious European project, by many of the Great and Good who supported EU membership. Which, of course, will be an indicator of precisely why that shift in opinion has taken place. Significant majorities in provincial England and Wales has discerned that the European Project has become deeply intertwined with a deep contempt for folk like them and they have given the finger in return.

It is worth remembering that many of the same Great and Good who took the UK's continued membership of the EU as the only proper policy were the same folk who thought it desperately important that the UK join the Euro. They were wrong on that: they will be wrong on this, and for the same reasons.

It is true that the narrowness of the result, and that Northern Ireland and Scotland voted strongly to stay in the EU, could presage problems ahead for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That immigrants seem to have voted strongly for Remain is perhaps another point of pressure. If, however, after a likely somewhat rocky transition period, the UK actually prospers, particularly relative to the EU, then the divisions will likely fade.

An outcome I am reasonably confident will occur. The reason for my confidence in this is quite simple: the UK has voted to improve the accountability of its institutions. The democratic deficit of the EU has given it a much less accountable governing structure which will continue to produce policies which reflect that lower accountability. Particularly as the EU tries to do too much with too little commonality between its societies and economies.

The Euro has been a serial disaster because it is emblematic of all these problems -- too little accountability, trying to do too much across insufficient commonality. Even just in economic terms, as Paul Krugman's rather nice paper The Revenge of the Optimal Currency Area (pdf) points out. Nor is Britain the only EU country where popular approval of the EU is problematic.

Whatever political calculations may have been involved, David Cameron PM is to be congratulated for giving the British people a clear say on such an important issue. It is regrettable that it has also ended his Premiership, but given that the Tory electorate voted so very strongly for Brexit, and given the contestable intricacies involved in negotiating Britain's leaving of the EU, and the difficulties of the transition, it is understandable that he has decided he is not the person who should be leading either Britain or the Conservative Party through what is to come.

We live in a time of elite echo chambers and a plethora of techniques for discounting (indeed, treating with contempt) the concerns and language of ordinary folk. So it is unlikely that many who really should will see how much a failure and condemnation of what the EU has become this result is. But that is precisely what it is.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Donald is not a fascist; but the accusation itself brings dangers

Further to my previous post, the centrality of the ennobling effects of struggle and violence to fascism is demonstrated by its history, structures and rhetoric, but a particularly nice example of the latter is given in The Doctrine of Fascism, by Benito Mussolini and philosopher Giovanni Gentile:
Fascism does not, generally speaking, believe in the possibility or utility of perpetual peace. It therefore discards pacifism as a cloak for cowardly supine renunciation in contradistinction to self-sacrifice. War alone keys up all human energies to their maximum tension and sets the seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it. All other tests are substitutes which never place a man face to face with himself before the alternative of life or death. Therefore all doctrines which postulate peace at all costs are incompatible with Fascism.
Whatever the The Donald is pushing, it is not that. The "The Donald as crypto/proto/actual fascist" is resorting to the rhetoric of denunciation: as such, it is a congenial substitute for understanding, and even more, a substitute for seriously grappling with, the phenomenon of The Donald (even just at a rhetorical level) and the support he has been able to generate.

The Hobbesian trap
But a deeper problem with misdiagnosing The Donald as fascism redux than getting the phenomenon wrong is that "The Donald is fascism now!" raises the political stakes in a dangerous way. It is already being used to justify violence against Trump rallies and supporters. (Bernie Sanders has made a particularly forthright denunciation of that violence.)

This is a dangerous upward (or, if you like, downward) spiral. But it is just the next step in a longer term pattern. The problem with virtue signalling via one's moral positions (or, more accurately, moralised positions) is that if one signals virtue by holding that X, then one must signal vice if one holds not X. Demonising those who disagree is a natural consequence of such virtue signalling.

For being honest about those who disagree gets in the way of the ludicrous demonising (in order to self-elevate one's moral splendour) of what are, taking a longer term and more global view, often quite minor differences in outlook. The demands of moral status seeking regularly get in the way of the demands of accuracy and understanding. The Donald is just providing a more intense example.

Political correctness is often justified as "speaking for the underprivileged". The fact that its adherents have generated increasing opinion conformity in the milieus they dominate (including entire industries) and have had great success in narrowing the range of acceptable opinion in the public space demonstrates how much it is an expression of power and dominance, not any sort of "under-privilege". As with the (by now, ludicrously false) pretence of expanding civility, the claim to speak for the under-privileged has long since become far more status-seeking justification than reality; a secular religion-substitute piety.

Of course, like the rhetoric of denunciation (sexist, racist, homophobe, islamophobe, etc), such justifications become a great way of not dealing with problems and of blinding their adherents to how oppressive others can find their shrieking intolerance. It is part of their relentless "othering" of those who fail to conform to their moral, intellectual and language taboos which is also, as these things so often are, a pattern of self-blinding. Thus, the rhetoric of denunciation that the Virtuous are so addicted to is never, of course, hate speech, for "hate speech" is only ever done by Bad People and clearly the Virtuous are, by definition, the Good People. Even though they regularly used terms which imply or state that their opponents are, in fact, hateful. The accusation of "hate speech" has become another vehicle for delegitimising dissent, and another sign of the addiction to the rhetoric of denunciation.

Interwar analogies
Moreover, the accusation of fascism now! has implications regarding causality one doubts those so eager to bandy it around have considered (or are even aware of). Some are currently invoking the rise of Adolf Hitler to power in Germany via electoral success as some sort of analogy to The Donald. Econblogger Scott Sumner commented:
... don’t make the “to know all is to forgive all” mistake. We could sit down and discuss all the reasons why millions of Germans voted for Hitler, and perhaps we could figure it all out. But that doesn’t excuse their votes in a moral sense.
Yet it is still a good question–what caused that to seem a sensible choice to lots of voters? Why were so many votes up for grabs in that way?

In fact, the interwar examples provide fairly clear key factors: how bad was economic stress?, how threatening did the local Left seem? basically sorts interwar Europe into those countries which experienced power-seizing Fascist/Nazi/Authoritarian Right outbreaks and those which did not.

The economic stress issue is fairly straightforward--if sufficiently severe, economic stress tends to undermine existing politicians and their political Parties while making outsiders look much more worth considering as vehicles for making things better. There was considerable economic stress immediately after World War I (when Mussolini achieved power) and during the 1930s (when Hitler and Franco did).

Spain had a much less severe 1930s economic experience that Weimar Germany; but it also took a civil war for Franco to achieve power. 

The issue of how threatening the local Left seemed is a bit more complicated. A large Leninist Party (1920s) or Stalinist Party (1930s) was obviously threatening--particularly if conventional politics was looking unsuccessful and ineffectual. There was very little for any voter with any religious attachment or property which was not threatened by a Leninist or Stalinist takeover--not life, property, religion, family, freedom.

Italy, Spain and Germany all had significant Leninist or Stalinist Parties at the time of the Fascist/Nazi/Authoritarian Right seizure of power. That the democratic republic in Spain had only been recently established, and the failure to suppress political violence (including the mainstream Catholic Opposition leader being assassinated), added to the sense of threat and uncertainty.

But how the mainstream centre-left was behaving was also important. In particular, how they seemed to rural voters, as rural voters provided break-through mass support for Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. Basically, in the countries with Fascist/Authoritarian Right/Nazi breakouts, the mainstream left largely ignored rural voters while doing little to allay suspicions that they were (also) in favour of rural collectivisation--i.e. stripping peasant farmers of their property. Which made rural voters ripe for recruitment and/or mobilisation by Mussolini, Franco and Hitler.

So, countries without large Leninist or Stalinist Parties did not have major Fascist/Authoritarian Right/Nazi breakouts in the interwar period. (One can exclude examples of normal political instability, such as royalist seizures of power in relatively new states.)

Where Leninist or Stalinist Parties were more than minor affairs, countries which also had mainstream centre-left Parties who did not seem property-threatening to rural voters, also did not generate equivalents of the Fascists or Nazis--except as fringe movements--or Authoritarian Right military seizures of power.

If you want to invoke interwar analogies, they may not lead where folk like. Are there any disaffected groups among current voters? is a good question to ask. How threatening to various political and other trends seem? is another one. It is remarkable how little people who are often fond of the term reactionary genuinely consider re-actions.

Though the analogies also remind us how much The Donald is not a fascist, as Mussolini and Hitler adopted Leninist modes of total politics for their national and race-greatness projects. Something The Donald has not remotely done.

Weaponising rebound
The Donald is, in many ways, a creation of the weaponising of morality and civility, the addiction to the rhetoric of denunciation. Going even further down that spiral is not going to make things better. (Particularly as there is no reason to suppose that anti-Trump folk are going to have a permanent monopoly of violence.) Trashing basic social protections because "oppressors have no rights", "error has no rights" is a disastrous assault on what also protects those arrogant budding totalitarians who are riding their sense of moral entitlement and superiority to a wider social disaster.

[The post has been edited to increase clarity without changing content.][Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]