Politics recap January 2020

Julian Assange is in prison in the UK being tried for extradition to the US on espionage charges. Sweden has dropped its case. But you’re not going to defend Assange, are you, because you learned that “Assange is a rapist”. And who would defend one of them against the all-seeing and benevolent forces of the state? If you think this way, dare I suggest that you’ve been had.

Brexit is happening at the end of this month and nothing will change. No truck queues down south, no shortage of medicines, no mass exodus of business. If Boris Johnson had any sense he would at that point declare victory and extend or go slow with the transition period for as long as possible. It seems the Tories want to press ahead, and I can only assume it’s because some part of British business values deregulation more than the single market. Either way, Brexit is a slow-burn, unwise choice, inconvenient to people like me. It’s not and was never going to be a disaster.

Scottish independence is back in the news, but I don’t think it’s happening. As said Brexit will pass uneventfully and the opportunity to use it politically likewise. I don’t think a referendum would turn out very different than last time, given the uncertainty of exiting both the EU and the UK, having to re-enter the EU and adopting the Euro. I could be persuaded to vote for it but only for cynical immigration reasons. I’d vote for it with my heart if Scotland were to abolish the monarchy and become like Ireland with blue post boxes.

Trump, despite being a pig of a man, has turned out a pretty good president. Being an outsider he recognizes that the time of America offering “protection” around the world, in both senses, is over. Since the 50s the dogma was that spreading capitalism would benefit the US foremost as well as lifting all boats. Now that’s no longer the case and the US needs to adjust to being one of several developed powers, as well as get out of the protection business. For all the alarm in the press, Trump is making the post-superpower transition as peacefully as anyone could have hoped. War in Iran, which many in Washington are thirsty for, keeps failing to materialise. It’s hard to get full facts about Syria, but it’s possible Trump may have killed fewer people than any president since Carter and, although I don’t like him, utilitarian arguments count.

In all likelihood, Trump will get re-elected. Especially if Sanders and Warren fight each other while the press and the middle-class do all they can to nominate a centrist. I think US society is rapidly approaching the point of being beyond repair, and it’s because the so-called progressive elite refuses to check its privilege and accept socialist policies. Beyond repair means the role of the state disintegrates, beyond security, and the US becomes a libertarian -topia. What kind depends on your point of view.

Climate may have been saved in 2019, mainly thanks to Greta Thundberg. We should build the young woman a statue. For the first time there’s wide realization that something has to change, even in the US, and people are vaguely aware that might mean changing their personal habits. Eating less meat and driving less, for example. Maybe accepting the the Earth has seasons and not trying to negate them with air conditioning. Technological change is happening everywhere except the US, where they’re waiting for the prophet Elon Musk. Saving the climate means Bangladesh will be uninhabitable due to floods, and the Arabian peninsula due to heat, but hey we get to survive as a species.

I don’t know much about China, but I’m a more hopeful observer than most. I see them as a threat economically, because they don’t play by the rules and I don’t see them as an evil empire politically. Comparison with the Soviet Union is inept. The Chinese regime, as far as I can tell, prioritises material welfare above all else and that goal is the source of its authoritarianism. I wouldn’t like to live in China, but I think it’s much more benign than a regime based around a strongman or an ideology. The more Chinese society feels economically secure, the more freedom is likely to emerge.

Europe I think is poorly and is unlikely to get a reprieve until 2021 when Merkel, Europe’s most destructive leader since WW2, leaves office. West Europeans need to reflect on the relatively undramatic departure of Britain, discontent and inequality within the block, as well as repairing its relationship with Russia. If the Germans are willing to compromise, Europe could move forward to a federal structure with shared debt, banking, tax and welfare arrangements across the continent. But if the new chancellor continues to block these reforms it’ll be endless crisis management and containment as it is now.

As for me, I intend to get my stupendously named permit “Indefinite Leave to Remain” and figure out what hoops we need to jump through to let my son migrate to Scotland. I think in the long run that means citizenship, and if that could come somehow without a queen I’d have done it already.

UK election 2019 – why the left lost

The left was roundly defeated in Britain’s general election, the one that was supposed to settle the matter of Brexit. The first lesson is clear: Labour should have supported a soft Norway-style Brexit from the beginning. Having a vision for Brexit, and a better one than the Tories, would allow the left to gain the upper hand in the process and hopefully press a better outcome. Instead, a loud middle class refused to accept the result of the referendum and pursued various fantasies: an insulting second referendum, parliamentary obstruction, independent Scotland, and the like. Turns out, Brexit was the people’s mandate for whatever good or bad reasons. The middle class has been out of touch throughout the process and now finally lost.

As an aside, the reasons the middle class has been cheerleading for Europe are not particularly inspiring. Scotland sees the EU as an ally and a better master than England, and if events unfold in that direction Scotland may be disappointed. London is full of ambitious professionals for whom Europe is their oyster. These are selfish reasons that small-town England can’t identify with. If the story was that the EU is a bastion of democracy or inclusivity or the welfare state that would be something to believe in, but the EU has some time ago stopped being for these things. 

Second, the parties of the left should have formed alliances to win seats in the first past the post system. Elections are not opinion polls. They’re procedures to appoint candidates to positions. The right understands this, but on the left we have to thank the LibDems and the Greens for wasting people’s votes. The LibDems actively undermined Labour with their “anyone but Corbyn” campaign, all to facilitate a Tory win. I think the Greens are well-meaning idealists, but also damaging. If you add up the Labour, LibDem, Green, and SNP votes they’d be a majority. I’d like to check seat-by-seat what difference vote splitting made, but remarkably the UK doesn’t publish detailed election data until months later.

The narrative that Labour should have adopted an unambiguous remain stance doesn’t match the facts. Labour lost seats in traditional labour strongholds who voted Leave, while the LibDems and outspoken Remain politicians outside of Scotland did poorly. We can assume that among Labour’s 10 million vote share was a substantial fraction who wanted Leave but just couldn’t bring themselves to vote Tory. If Labour had taken the advice of Guardian columnists to turn Leave into Remain it would have been obliterated. In short Britain voted wrong today but not in the sense that some of us don’t like the outcome. Those who voted Conservative did it right by their choice. The left voted wrong because it doesn’t know how to use the electoral system to achieve collective decisions.

Third, the shift to the left was necessary but should have been done a different way. In the current media climate of sharp messages and limited attention the left ought to focus on 1-2 rallying policies and a unifying vision. Towards the end of the campaign Labour got it right with the message “save our NHS”, but in the run-up it seemed that they were promising more free stuff every week. That comes across as fake or clientelistic, not least in deprived areas where people voted Brexit out of conviction. A left alliance should have run with a clearer platform like “public health, public education, and no time for racism or prejudice of any sort” like the SNP’s successful messaging in Scotland.

The threat of economic intervention spooked people too. It’s necessary to make housing affordable, health and education once again free, and transport a public good. But how to turn these principles into policies in the era of hyper-capitalism? It’s a longer discussion but I think the left needs to focus less on redistribution or protecting things of the past, more on preventing rises of inequality, more investing in the long-term future. Instead of threatening landlords, tax touristification and AirBnB. Nationalizing rail isn’t a terrible idea but it may be more relevant today to electrify road transport and make it free. Scrap universal credit and tuition fees so people don’t start in debt. Offer education and quality of life, instead of undercut wages, as an attraction to businesses.

The last lesson is that the politics of outrage is a losing strategy. The trouble with declaring that things like Brexit or Trump are “unacceptable” is that they get accepted and then you have no leg to stand on. Time and again the left was sure that voters couldn’t possibly support a clown or a bigot, but it didn’t seem to stop them. The right understands, even celebrates, that real people have flaws and accepts them as leaders. Meanwhile the left is busy calling each other out for being behind on LGBT rights, or whatever is the identity issue of the day. The sad fact is elites don’t care. They care about the larger gender, race, and class divisions which affect the economic pie, and they oppress minorities as a form of hostage taking to exhaust and divide us. Don’t play that game. Fight for equal pay and minority rights will automatically follow.

The left will continue to lose elections until it faces up to electoral results it doesn’t like and offers a better alternative. As for the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, I think he did as well as one could expect and that wasn’t good enough. Corbyn was head and shoulders above others in character and ethos, despite the slander against him, but he didn’t command attention or convince the electorate. I’m guessing the magic that Corbyn didn’t have is the backing of his party. Voters sensed he wasn’t in command of his organization and went for the strongman elsewhere. Too bad. We did not deserve Jeremy Corbyn I guess.

Also, turnout was unremarkable. Slightly lower than the last election. So much for this being a last chance to stop Brexit, avert catastrophe, etc. Clearly despite what you and I might think lots of people simply didn’t care. That must be a good thing, because by definition non-voters are easy to please. If you don’t vote it means you’re content with either outcome.


Dear America

Dear America,

Trump is the least of your problems. Sure, he’s a playground bully, petty mafia, or a dirty old man. Take your pick. But he’s not the cause of your troubles. Nor is it the Russians.

Trump didn’t bring fascism to America. That honour belongs to George W. Bush, when you had vindictive war, torture, and indefinite detention. But you were gripped in atavistic fear of 911 so you didn’t notice. The heroes who tried to keep you honest with yourselves in this period are still fugitives in fear of their lives.

You got Trump because you allowed the Republican party to rig districts and buy elections. A few intellectuals made a passionate case to stop this but were ignored. You got Trump because the Democrats, supposedly the good guys, refused to put forward a people’s candidate. Voters looked at the options for who would screw them and went for the more visceral. You’re doing this again.

Your economy doesn’t work. Things are expensive, basics are unaffordable. The middle class lives a life of 24/7 self marketing, fearful or taking vacations and falling behind, or spending too long in a job. Competition doesn’t work. The innovative tech startups of thirty years ago are now monopolies, suppressing or absorbing everyone else. Like half a century ago, you idolize people who go to space but your day to day is an assault of brands and consumerism.

You have a healthcare system that doesn’t work. Your schools don’t work. Transport  doesn’t work, and no Uber is not a reasonable way to provide it. Work doesn’t work, for most people. The gig economy only makes sense because of rampant class divisions. You have no welfare system, and use the army to absorb otherwise bereft young people. Like the Romans.

As a nation “you’re not racist but…” Nobody is foolish enough to claim superiority for whites, but you treat African-Americans as non people. Police is an occupying force. Because you have so many non-people people you can’t conceive of any kind of sharing or collective solutions to problems. Not with them! For fear of the other you curse yourselves to live without public goods.

People pack guns and shoot children in schools, or just each other, and this is somehow normal. The price to pay, apparently, for freedom. Freedom from some imagined socialism or uprising that will never come. Or some supposed existential threat. The existential threat to life on Earth is you and your survivalism. You live in festering, unjustified fear and think yourselves ready to start a revolution, which you don’t do.

Anyway, see you soon!


UK election 2019

The election is under way and the UK press is moving earth and water to make sure Labour doesn’t win. That’s predictable. Outside of the Guardian, the press is owned by about three billionaires. Their agenda is 1. That there’s a real “risk” of Labour winning, and 2. That a Labour government would be bad for wealthy interests. I think this level of reaction validates Labour’s policies.

We have a focus on Corbyn, with the ridiculous accusation he’s an anti-Semite. This is either character slander targeted so it’s taboo to defend against; or it’s a statement that Corbyn, unlike previous US/UK leadership, is opposed to Israel’s ethnic cleansing actions in the Middle East. I think it’s the correct moral stance to oppose these actions, and if that makes you an anti-Semite then words have no meaning. There’s no evidence that Corbyn is racist in any way.

Then you have the tactic of vagueness. Johnson is portrayed as strong, clear, and direct. The headlines paint Corbyn as vague, faltering, or lacking a certain something that it takes to be Prime Minister. Notice the disparity of information here. Our side clear, other side bad for vague reasons that we’re not going to talk about. It’s the same tactic whereby the press erased London Mayor Ken Livingstone and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, two very capable leaders who dealt with difficult issues (like the 2008 financial crisis) in an exemplary way. But according to the press they were bad. Why? They were bad, dunno, they just didn’t have it. Not credible options. Look elsewhere.

The attack on people suggests that the policies are correct. The Tories are peddling Brexit as an issue of principle, because otherwise who would vote for less public services and privatising the NHS? Labour is calling for socialist reforms in the spirit of Atlee’s post-war government, which pretty much everyone in Britain views positively. Labour’s position is we’ve swung so far to the right that bringing back some of that socialist agenda is what we need. I agree. Even if Labour achieve 10% of their programme, which is about realistic, I think it’ll be a good thing. I say this as a privileged person who works in tech, never needs public services, and buys posh food from the farmer’s market.

You could quibble with the implementation of Labour’s policies. For example there’s an idea to force private landlords to accept bids by the tenants to buy the flat (disclosure: I’m a tenant, I considered making a bid already and decided against it). There’s a reasonable argument that such policies might take flats off the rental market or have other unintended consequences. Fair, but places like Germany manage to put a damper on the property market and their society is the better for it. The real threat to affordable housing is price speculation and AirBnB, which no-one seems to complain about.

Then there’s Brexit. I live in Scotland, and the answer to everything is independence. Never mind that the cause of Brexit, the condition that made is possible, is by and large social deprivation in England. The English are overcome by a Thatcherite psychosis, so the story goes, and it’s all “Me, me, me, my house, my career, my aspirations of upward mobility”. Are people thinking of London and the south coastal towns inhabited by stockbrokers? Because I don’t think Yorkshire is like that. If the problem is an angry and left-behind England surely the right thing is to fix it, as Labour intends to do, not to create private solutions and more borders. 

In terms of predictions, I think a Labour-SNP government is likely. By likely I mean in the 50% rather than the 25% bracket, I can’t make precise predictions. Whether it happens is largely down to the intentions of the so-called liberal left. If this group wants a return to social democracy then we’ll have one, and if liberals focus on identity issues or hair splitting EU stances then we won’t. I worry the liberal class is too in love with personal vanity, iPhones, Uber, Deliveroo, and other solipsistic utopias to bring out any social conscience. Yes, I think devices and consumerism matter. They isolate people. Steve Jobs was a villain. I should be the last person to be telling you this.

If the Tories win and Brexit concludes, first I think it’ll be mildly bad – about as bad as Cameron’s austerity. Then we’ll have more problems. I think Scottish independence is also likely but not a given, again in the 50% bracket. Independent Scotland applying to the EU with a border in Berwick I think will be bad for Scotland, and very bad for England. It’ll make everyone’s prospects smaller. Also Scotland won’t remain a rebellious province with a one-party socialist agenda. A conservative faction will form and soon we’ll have a microcosm of the same class divisions that we see in the south.

This amount of political strife and isolation is emotionally exhausting. Back in the day we had socially liberal ideas and our incomes were very far from established. It was easy to find issues to be on the right side of, LGBT for instance. I’m sorry to say these issues are free. They have no cost. Gender, race, and class equality has costs, achieving it is a real inconvenience for the elite. Our present politics tends to ignore large divisions and focus on smaller groups, whether to take the virtuous side or to scapegoat. I think this shift of attention from the broad to the narrow is a shift to the right. Even if you’re on the good side, like a company supporting Pride for genuine reasons, identity politics is too convenient for the establishment.

At least I feel that politics is emotionally isolating and exhausting. I’m too old to calibrate my opinions for the approval of anyone else, not that I ever did. I take in new information and my opinions change, of course, but now I feel I can express them like an old curmudgeonly person. “Curmudgeonly…” I like that word.

More than a % tax

There’s a video going around where Bill Gates refuses to say he’ll vote for Warren over Trump. The implication is that billionaires are greedy. I think that’s too simple a take.
If Warren says to Gates: You own $100 Billion in assets so pay $50 Billion in cash, that’s a very destructive way to deal with inequality.
If she says: You spent $50 million on a private jet so pay $100 million tax (a 67% rate) that’s much more reasonable.
If she makes a plan where listed companies as they grow are forced to deposit a portion of their shares in a public wealth fund, say 40%, that’s also worth discussing.
It’s urgent to climb own from the insane levels of inequality in modern capitalism, but to do so requires better tools than scaling up a % tax. I think separating the power to consume (CEO pay, personal wealth) from the power to direct firms and investment is a key component. If you do this right, the better companies and billionaires will be on your side.
The Left needs to put out articulate policies, which recently they do, and the media has to cover them. Right now there’s media bias casting the Left’s economic plans as vague or unrealistic. I wonder if Gates will visit Warren so she can personally explain her plan.

Nine bad ways of thinking

Logic is the screwdriver of thought. It’s good for solving precise problems, of which there’s more lately, but human thinking through the centuries has developed a much wider set of tools.

Accordingly, here’s some common ways to think poorly. These are not logical fallacies, but broader ways of getting things wrong.

False shortcuts
A shortcut is when you have a large problem to solve, like evaluate many possibilities or consider many factors, and as you try to abstract it in your head you think “X has to have that relationship to Y so the answer can’t be over there”. For example you think two ways are equivalent, or one choice is no better than the other, so there’s no point exploring some part of the space. Well, when you get that abstraction wrong it’s a false shortcut and you make mistakes. Happens to me all the time.

Category arguments
Arguing that X is a Y, or questioning whether X is a real Y, is almost never a helpful philosophical method. There are well meaning situations when we’re trying to be inclusive, but more often than not it’s an attempt to exclude someone for not being a “real” member of a group. It also carries the suspicion of frame shifting. What is it about Y (the frame) that you want to pin on X (the individual) and is that helpful? Could you deal with the question at hand universally, or individually?

Baseline calibration
Making choices is hard. We’re used to ranking alternatives among each other, but do we consider how much difference the choice makes overall? When we scale the options with baseline importance, the difference may be tiny. Like this thing is better than that thing, but how much difference is a thing going to make to my life or my happiness? People make this mistake with money and buy things that are too cheap or too expensive. It’s also in business, politics, and everywhere.

Learnt constraints
A corollary to the false shortcut is when you have a real constraint, such as X isn’t practical, or person Y would never have it, and that used to be true but the constraint isn’t there any more; because you changed, the times changed, or something else. A learnt constraint is the miserable condition when you’ve excluded some possibilities without noticing the constraint isn’t actually there. It holds back people, and it’s also why innovation is difficult.

Taking people at face value
To take people at face value is to process what they say and not why they say it. For example “how is Claire?” means I want information about Claire but also signals that I care about her, or I may be trying to show that I’m a caring person, or feeling unease about something that happened with Claire in the past. Here it’s obvious that there’s a social subtext, but all speech carries subtext all the time. The proper way to parse statement S is to think “Person X is telling me S, and what may be going on in X’s brain to say that?”. Men are especially clumsy with subtext and women better at detecting it. I hope AI is female.

Apparently you’re supposed to take people at face value to avoid the ad hominem attack. That’s nonsense. Ad hominem is to say the witness is a slut. Face value is to ignore that the witness has material interests. An example where the question is irrelevant is to say the lawyer is defending the accused because they’re the lawyer. Of course in trusted situations we can take people at face value, but not all the time.

Toxic topics
One of the worst way to have moral arguments is to bring up examples that make people altogether uncomfortable or unwilling to defend a side. Think of the children, the Nazis, the latest atrocity. That’s obviously prone to manipulation. It also produces a toxic debate between thick-skinned people as those with higher levels of empathy, and often the victims, are driven out. To deal with these issues create a safe space, take good time, focus on patterns rather than specifics, and frequently affirm shared principles.

Wanting to be right
A great way to be wrong is to care about being right, in other words to be emotionally invested in the ideas you already have. You’re likely to think deeply to yourself, avoid sharing or exposing your true beliefs, and seek confirming evidence and like-minded people. In fact being wrong has almost the same symptoms as being intelligent, and there’s no shortage of smart but misguided people. The mistake is valuing thought over experiment.

The right way to be right is to test your ideas by convincing others, applying in practice, or comparing expectations with facts. Drop the ideas that don’t work, that’s the hard part. Then take in some new ideas, combine, and repeat. Intelligence is an evolutionary process, not a mathematical one. The price of being right is you have to face being wrong often, and you have no choice over what you’re right about.

Classical thinking
A less common error is to try to grasp the objective truth about some matter that’s inaccessible. Is this person guilty or good? What transpired behind closed doors? What’s in X’s mind? Well, you don’t know. It’s like quantum mechanics. You can’t probe the truth and all you can do is maintain your knowledge in a superposition of states consistent with the evidence. Person X could be trustworthy or not. The error is not to get a wrong outcome, it’s to think classically that they are one way. Western fiction is classical and Asian cultures understand superposition, it seems.

The unitary intelligence
People don’t interact with the world and with others rationally. We interact, first, emotionally: Do I like this person, these ideas, this situation? When we perceive a new thing we ask all the ideas in our head what they think of it. If our ideas mostly approve, we admit the new information or new argument. Otherwise we exclude it. If our existing ideas rebel, we exclude it violently. Wanting to value facts, question assumptions, or entertain something new are also ideas we might have. They play a big part in what we admit.

We’re not a unitary intelligence, we’re a forum of ideas. The reason your arguments with religious people don’t work is you present ideas that they (their other ideas) don’t like and they don’t carry the ideas of openness or objectivity as strongly as you do. Or they carry only openness and get seduced by quack theories. Once you see people as a forum of ideas it affects discourse and also ethics. Do you write off people or try to get their better ideas to prevail?


European conceptions

“The EU has brought peace to Europe”

The theory here is that rival Capitalism causes war, and that’s true but no longer relevant. Moral revulsion and nuclear weapons made a repeat of WW2 unpalatable, while rapidly advancing technology and the politics of the Cold War aligned all of Capitalism into one block. It’s more accurate to say that the EU was an adaptation to peace and technology than that it was a political nudge to stop the French and Germans from fighting. Yes the EU is an architecture for peace, but it’s more a consequence than a cause.

Also as an aside, the EUs anti-war credentials are disappointing. We’ve had war in Europe, in Yugoslavia and Ukraine, and the EUs misguided diplomacy did more to hasten these than to stop them. The EU did nothing to discourage American interventions that destroyed Iraq, Libya, and Syria and only dealt with the migration “problem” as if it was a natural disaster. Now that Capitalism is splitting into rival camps, a result of failing to accept Russia and China as equals, the EU is once again introspective and silent.

“The EU creates shared prosperity”

In many ways an open, peaceful, high technology environment can’t fail to do that, so we have to judge how the EU’s achieves better or worse outcomes than plain economics. Up until the 90s, Europe’s strong welfare states and “four freedoms” scored pretty well. It looked like the EU was set to emulate the Nordic ideal at a larger scale.

But since Maastricht the EU went neoliberal and focused on competition, inside societies and between regions. The Eurozone was set up as a structure that generates winners and losers. It’s a zone with free trade, a fixed gold-like currency, and no shared taxation or welfare systems. This benefits export economies that accumulate all the money, and punishes weker deficit regions that end up gradually stripped of their assets.

There are secondary effects too. A shared currency allows the winners to accumulate bigger surpluses and the losers bigger deficits than they could otherwise. The Euro is sort of guaranteed, but not entirely, leaving just enough risk to cause capital flight from poor to rich areas, and there’s a brain drain in the same direction. Although the rules don’t say “money shall flow from the periphery to the industrial core” the rules ensure that this happens.

“The EU safeguards democracy”

In the early days the EU was a strong modernizing force, especially for peripheral states like Ireland, Spain, or Greece that were struggling to reform their democratic institutions, civil, and family law. There’s a strong sense among their populations of never going back.

However look at the EU now: France has a severe exclusion problem and every few years all the other parties have to ally to prevent a fascist becoming president. Hungary and Poland have nationalist authoritarian leaders. Austria has a far right leader every other term. Italy has far right populist splinter groups. Greece had to choose between the neo-nazis and the idealistic far left, and thankfully we chose well. In Germany and Sweden the elites claim to be in control but hatred simmers underneath. The Brexit faction in the UK is a mere nuisance by comparison.

Nationalism and fascism aren’t like an infectious disease of bad ideology that you cure with an antibiotic of truth. They’re more like an unhealthy diet of inequality, austerity, and lack of prospects subdued by the liquor of a tabloid press. As long as the EU follows a neoliberal path of increasing inequality and “managing” dissent the forces of hatred will persist.

I’m fed up of hearing the liberal middle class, people like me, cry that politics is turning to the right, that the working class is seduced by hateful demagogues, or that people dared to vote Brexit, while that same middle class can’t stomach the left of Corbyn, Podemos, or Varoufakis (or Sanders, Warren, Ocasio-Cortez) claiming that they’re unelectable or too dangerous or indeed “populists” themselves. Well the writing’s on the wall. The longer the middle class clings to a vision of privileged centrism that collapsed in 2008, the more we’ll be handing victories to the merchants of chaos.