Friday, August 19, 2016

Politics After Democracy

“How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings                         can cause or cure.” Samuel Johnson
What if the people voted to end democracy: would it be a democratic decision? We're witnessing a 'crisis of faith' in Ireland right now, and it'll probably get worse. It's a bigger story than 'the church in crisis' or 'the media in crisis', but it isn't getting the attention it deserves.

I've observed before that politics is sport for nerds, but the national interest in sport is looking a lot healthier. The latest Eurobarometer poll shows that Ireland is number six in the EU28 for our lack of interest in politics:


What's more, when we look at the results for Ireland in detail, we see that women, young people under 25, and the working class are the cohorts least interested in politics:


So what? The big 'So What?' is that there is growing evidence that younger generations in Europe and the United States are less and less enamoured with democracy, and aren't sure it's 'worth the effort' any more. A recent article by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk on The Democratic Disconnect drew on similar survey data and reached some very disturbing conclusions. Essentially they chart a strong growth in support for undemocratic political ideas (such as rule by the military) in many mature democracies, especially among the young.

They observe that:
Citizens of democracies are less and less content with their institutions; they are more and more willing to jettison institutions and norms that have traditionally been regarded as central components of democracy; and they are increasingly attracted to alternative regime forms. 
Far from showing that citizens have merely become more willing to criticize particular governments because their expectations of democracy have grown, this indicates a deep tension at the heart of contemporary politics: Even as democracy has come to be the only form of government widely viewed as legitimate, it has lost the trust of many citizens who no longer believe that democracy can deliver on their most pressing needs and preferences. The optimistic view that this decline in confidence merely represents a temporary downturn is no more than a pleasing assumption, based in part on a reluctance to call into question the vaunted stability of affluent democracies.
At the same time, 'politics is the new religion' in the sense that people are less and less tolerant of dissenting political ideas and choices in the same way previous generations were intolerant of dissenting religious preferences. What Michael Schulson calls The Moral Tribalism of Contemporary Politics.

Combine increasing scepticism about the efficacy of politics with a growing lack of interest in party politics and with a narrower and narrower definition of 'acceptable politics' and the stage is set for a very different type of politics. The type that doesn't see much point in people wasting time ticking boxes in booths every four years or so. There'll still be politics, of course, but there might not be democracy and I suspect a lot of people probably won't care...









Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Puppies Win

I do a lot of work in the newspaper/media research space, and I found John Oliver's recent tour-de-force on the state of modern journalism to be, well, depressingly accurate (but in a very funny sort of way):



Over 3 million views since it went up on You Tube yesterday, so it has obviously struck a chord with more than just me.

But not everyone agrees with Oliver's analysis. David Chavern from the NAA thinks that:
People want, need and consume more hard news than they ever have. The core demand for the product isn't decreasing at all, and based upon that we will find our way to the far shore where the industry is thriving and growing once again. 
Which does sound worryingly like the sort of corporate speak Oliver has a go at in the video.  Still, I hope Chavern is right. I just hope that the shore doesn't prove further away than is possible to reach...

Monday, July 25, 2016

Trumpenslide

The election is now between the borderline personality Mommy and the arch-narcissist Daddy for the hearts and minds of a public sore beset by the initial spasms of economic and cultural collapse. James Howard Kunstler

And Daddy's going to win. Just over three months out from polling day on 8th November and I reckon Trump is on his way to a landslide. The latest CNN poll shows him ahead, but more than that it shows he's got momentum. On just about every measure in the survey, Clinton's numbers are going the wrong way, Trump's are going the right way. 

We can also see the same polarisation evident before Brexit: men are leaning strongly Trump, women are leaning strongly Clinton, and it's the same story for whites vs blacks, older vs younger, poorer vs richer:


A standout statistic for me from the poll is the percent of US voters who think each candidate is "running for president for the good of the country, not for personal gain". The percent for Clinton? 44%. The percent for Trump? 52%. Trump's number is rising, Clinton's is falling.

Clinton will get a boost from the Democratic Convention this week (though Kunstler's not so sure). But unless Trump goes full Nazi then I think he has it in the bag.

Just a pity Enda didn't have that round of golf with Trump when he last offered to visit us. Oh well, maybe his successor will be more welcoming to President Trump.




Thursday, July 21, 2016

Our Nostalgic Future

I had the great pleasure of speaking again at the MacGill Summer School earlier this week. It's a wonderful event, quite unique in my experience, and well worth the trip to the Glenties if you ever feel the need for some intellectual stimulation in stunning surroundings. I spoke at the session on the Curse of Short-Term Thinking in Irish politics, text of my contribution below:


Nostalgic for the Future

The Nostalgia Gap

It’s always a pleasure to be back in Donegal, though as it happens I was here just two weeks ago on holiday a little further north in Dunfanaghy! My wife and I like hillwalking, and this time we discovered a new walk along the route of the old railway line between Creeslough and Falcarragh, skirting the shore of Lough Agher under the shadow of Muckish Mountain. A beautiful walk, like so many others in this county.

Of course, the people who built the Donegal railway network back in the 19th century probably weren’t thinking of hillwalkers at the time, nor indeed were the people who closed it in the early 20th century. Yet both took decisions that had long-term consequences, even if the decisions themselves were motivated by more short-term considerations. ‘twas ever thus, you might say.

But to be fair to those who closed the railways, it might have been asking too much to expect them to imagine and plan for a future in which walking has become Ireland’s favourite leisure time activity. Back then, walking was something to be avoided, which is why they built the roads and railways in the first place!

So perhaps we set the bar too high when we curse the short-termism of our politicians, investors, planners and other decision makers in Ireland. Or perhaps the ‘problem’ is less one of short-termism and instead one of imagination, or rather: the lack of it.

I want to suggest in this short paper that the only way to avoid the curse of short-termism is to change the way we think about the future. I would go further and suggest we can only do so by changing how we think about the past. Richard Kearney recently observed that:
History is more than what has taken place and cannot be changed; it equally involves potential futures still dormant in the past.
I like that idea of ‘potential futures’ waiting to be unearthed as we respond to the challenges of the present in preparation for the future. It suggests we don’t have to do it all on our own: our ancestors have our back!

But which ancestors? It struck me recently that one source of our collective short-termism is a lack of meaningful, purposeful connection to the past. And not just in Ireland. The American writer Yuval Levin thinks one reason for the growing polarisation and short-termism he sees in the United States is one of ‘conflicting nostalgias’. Those on the American left look back nostalgically to the era of Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s, while those on the right look back nostalgically to the era of Reagan and the 1980s. As a result there is no longer a shared sense of the past as a guide to the future.

Mind you, I think we have an even bigger problem here in Ireland. We don’t have ‘conflicting nostalgias’ in our political discourse, instead we don’t have any nostalgia for our past whatsoever! It seems to me that none of our political parties – unlike most parties in the rest of the developed world – claims any meaningful connection to ‘the best of our past’. So they/we are cut off from a history full of ‘potential futures’ that we could draw on to guide our decision-making today.

If we don’t know where we are coming from then we don’t know where we are going. So it’s no wonder we make decisions based on short term thinking and near term extrapolation. Our lack of nostalgia is holding us back from a better future.

The Five Ds

But we’re here to talk about the future, not the past. So what are the major issues facing our country in the coming decades? And can we find resources in our past to guide us in our long-term planning for the future? There are five issues or themes that keep recurring in our work at Amárach with Irish businesses and government agencies. I call them the ‘5 Ds’, for reasons that will become clear, and they are as follows.

Take the first of the 5Ds, namely debt. This is a pressing issue right now, and one that won’t be resolved in just a few years or even in the lifetime of a government or two. We currently have one of the highest levels of personal debt in Europe and that legacy of debt will shape consumer and business behaviour, as well as our domestic growth prospects, for decades to come. We are not unique in this regard: most of the developed world is witnessing unprecedented levels of private and public debt, with levels rising constantly since the onset of the economic crisis back in 2008.
Debt must be repaid – or forgiven – before debtors are free to redirect their spending from loan repayments to shopping, saving and investment. But more than half of Irish adults say that debt repayment is still their number one financial priority, suggesting that consumer spending – a key driver of the Irish domestic economy – will grow slowly and fitfully in the next 5-15 years until debt exposure is reduced. And who can blame them? Remember: debt is a fact, wealth is an opinion.

Nevertheless, our debt burden is being slowly reducing, so perhaps this is a problem that will resolve itself over time? Perhaps, but there is a complicating factor, namely our second ‘D’ – deflation. In the past, the recent past at that, inflation was a big driver of economic growth and rising standards of living. It wasn’t explained that way at the time, but inflation – within reason – is everyone’s friend: it allows businesses to grow their revenues through price increases, consumers to increase their incomes through pay increases, and it allows governments to increase their tax take on the back of higher business revenues and consumer incomes. But what happens when general prices remain flat or start falling, as is happening in many developed countries at the moment? It becomes difficult, if not impossible for businesses to raise prices – indeed price cuts become the norm – while pay increases remain low or maybe non-existent and zero-hour contracts are pervasive. Meanwhile governments are forced to look elsewhere for sources of taxation. Even worse, fixed debts have to repaid out of flat or even falling revenues or incomes, exacerbating the downward pressure of debt on economic growth.

But deflation, like debt, is an economic problem that can be fixed, though not easily as Japan and other economies are finding out. A complicating factor is our third D – demography. The ageing of Ireland’s population is one of the few, ‘certain’ forces shaping our future. As the numbers and share of the older population increases inexorably in the coming decades then even in the absence of debt and deflation the economic impact will be significant. While an ageing population will undoubtedly open up new opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs to develop new products and services, the macro-economic impact of an ageing population will nevertheless be negative. The simple reason is that older people spend less than younger people, and the things they buy are different to the things that traditionally drive economic activity. As a rule, the higher the share of 30 and 40-somethings in the population the more buoyant is consumer spending as they are the age groups most likely to form families, buy houses, additional cars, spend on education etc.

Okay, we can see demographic change coming, and the economic challenges of debt and deflation are here already, so should we simply leave it to the experts to resolve? Maybe not. Our fourth D is doubt. We doubt our leaders and politicians these days, and we doubt the media and the church. We doubt all the traditional sources of authority and leadership. Most of all we distrust the experts, and not just here in Ireland: just look at Brexit – a rebellion against the experts if ever there was one. This is real problem because in the absence of leaders whom we trust then making the case for long-term change will get harder rather than easier, even as it has never been more necessary to make the case convincingly and effectively.

Our final D – disruption – raises the ante even further in terms of responding to the challenges we face and providing the leadership that is necessary. We have already seen the disruptive effect of digital technologies on retailing and on our main streets. When was the last time you bought or rented a dvd? And we are only at the beginning, with some speculating that artificial intelligence via software and machines will replace a third or more of all jobs in the coming decades. While the net effect of digital disruption will likely be positive in the long run – more winners and losers, more creation than destruction – a net positive outcome isn’t inevitable, nor will everyone be a winner. Some will just be losers as disruption replaces their jobs and the businesses employing them disappear.

So there you have it: the 5 Ds of debt, deflation, demography, doubt and disruption, all forming an unprecedented set of long-term challenges for planners in Ireland and pretty well everywhere else for that matter.

The Promise of Long-Termism

There is an old Russian saying that a pessimist is a well-informed optimist, so my apologies if you are feeling a little gloomier than before I started talking! But I don’t think it’s a case of either/or: that you have to be an optimist or a pessimist. In fact, I am something of a short-run pessimist but a long-run optimist. Let me explain. The challenges posed by the 5Ds – and by other forces and trends I haven’t elaborated on today – are in a sense, problems of success. Debt and deflation are legacies of economic growth in the past, but we still have an economy that is several orders of magnitude bigger than at the time of the railway closures here in Donegal. Similarly our ageing population is testimony to our improving health and longevity. The levels of doubt and distrust in our society also reveal an independence of thinking by a much better educated population. And we have all benefited from the digital technologies we use to stay in touch with family and friends, to work more productively and to shop for more choice and convenience.

As problems of success go they all seem manageable, and also seem considerably less threatening than the problems our ancestors faced, whether 100 years ago in 1916 or those faced by more recent generations.

But this is not to underestimate the scale of the challenges we face. For one thing, it’s going to an awful lot more difficult for companies – especially indigenous Irish SMEs like mine – to generate profits in the face of disruption and deflation, never mind the downward pressures on consumer spending driven by debt and demography. Come to think of it, it won’t be a whole lot easier for larger, foreign-owned corporates to make profits either for that matter.

So why be optimistic about the promise of the long-term? I think that one of the greatest legacies of the 1916 centenary we have witnessed this year is the permission it gives us to discover a better future, dormant in our past.

We are no longer trapped in the present as a people, afraid of the past and of our history. If, through a type of ‘anticipatory nostalgia’, we can reconnect with our previous achievements as a nation and find a new, shared purpose that focuses our collective energies and decision making on a vision of the long-term wellbeing of our country and the people who live here, then we can overcome the short-term challenges we face without falling into the trap of short-termism.

I’d go further and suggest that we need to forge a new patriotism to overcome the doubt and distrust that threaten to pull us apart in the face of a ‘winner takes all’ economic future. A future in which the cake maybe isn’t getting bigger and so a larger slice for one means a smaller slice for others.

Some of the greatest achievements by the Irish people in the past one hundred years – in politics, business, sport and the arts – were driven by a gentle yet deeply held patriotism on the part of civil servants, politicians, business, religious and community leaders among others. We need to reconnect with that shared sense of patriotism, a sense of common purpose and of belonging, one that looks ahead as well as backwards. We need a shared sense of destiny. So let us be nostalgic for the times we faced great challenges and momentous decisions together, for the times we worked towards a better future for all.

We are all of us part of the same story, the same narrative connecting the Irish people past, present and future. The path ahead isn’t clear, nor is there only one way forward, no more than is there just one, inevitable future that awaits us. I am optimistic we have the resources and skills to shape our future, and I am optimistic we can forge a sense of purpose and patriotism for the decades ahead to create a country and communities in which all our citizens can flourish. We must start by imagining the long-term future we want to create.

And you should imagine it too.

Thank you.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Our Tribal Elite

We are experiencing on a massively universal scale a convulsive ingathering of people in their numberless grouping of kinds—tribal, racial, linguistic, religious, national. It is a great clustering into separatenesses that will, it is thought, improve, insure, or extend each group’s power or place, to keep it safe or safer from the power, threat, or hostility of others. This is obviously no new condition, only the latest and by far the most inclusive chapter of the old story in which after failing again to find how they can co-exist in sight of each other without tearing each other from limb to limb, Isaac and Ishmael clash and part in panic and retreat once more into their caves. Harold Isaacs, Idols of the Tribe
It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses. James Traub

Did Bob Geldof win the Brexit Referendum for Leave? His little antic on the Thames in the run up to the vote probably convinced a few hundred thousand Sun readers which side they were on. That's what happens when you're a member of the IYI elite (Taleb's label: Intellectual-Yet-Idiot). But as James Traub signals, the elite are beginning to realise that they belong to a tribe too, and maybe they should 'ingather' as well to protect themselves from those other, nasty tribes. Heck, even The Guardian is beginning to realise that 'elections are bad for democracy'. IYI indeed.

Of course this has all happened before. Harold Isaacs made the above observation back in 1975. My favourite Archdruid channels a different historian to explain what's going on, this time Arnold Toynbee:
Societies in decline, he pointed out, schism into two unequal parts: a dominant minority that monopolizes the political system and its payoffs, and an internal proletariat that carries most of the costs of the existing order of things and is denied access to most of its benefits. As the schism develops, the dominant minority loses track of the fundamental law of politics—the masses will only remain loyal to their leaders if the leaders remain loyal to them—and the internal proletariat responds by rejecting not only the dominant minority’s leadership but its values and ideals as well.
Toynbee famously once observed that 'civilizations die from suicide, not by murder'. It's a well established pattern apparently.

But probably the best analysis I have read recently about Brexit and all that is Damon Linker's superb analysis of how Brexit shattered progressives' dearest illusions. Here are a few choice quotes:
But what we've seen from a wide range of writers and analysts in the days since the Brexit vote is not necessarily worry. It is shock. Fury. Disgust. Despair. A faith has been shaken, illusions shattered, pieties punctured. This is what happens when a life-orienting system of belief gets smashed on the rocks of history. The name of that shattered system of belief? Progressivism.
And the it gets interesting:
The European Union may well be the purest and most ambitious experiment in progressivism ever attempted — a transnational economic and political entity founded entirely on the moral premises of humanitarian universalism, which is to say on the negation of particularistic attachments.  
...But what if progressivism isn't inevitable at all? What if people will always be inclined by nature to love their own — themselves, their families, their neighbors, members of their churches, their fellow citizens, their country — more than they love the placeless abstraction of "humanity"? In that case, the act of ignoring or even denigrating this love will have the effect of provoking its defensive wrath and ultimately making it stronger.
Please do read the whole thing.

As I said before, I think the biggest fallout from Brexit will be political not economic (the latter may even prove benign for the UK, though probably not for Ireland). But the political consequences could be very dire indeed if they amount to a 'coup d'etat' by Europe's IYI elite should they tire of the whole democracy thing. The retreat to the caves has begun.









Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Young, Male & Anti-Establishment

YouGov has released the results of their Brexit exit poll, weighted to the, ahem, actual result.

Not surprisingly, the generational divide by age stands out - which I noted previously and which led me to forecast a win for Leave at the start of June.

But a more surprising finding has also emerged from the exit poll: young British men were twice as likely to vote Leave as young British women, I've highlighted the results in red:


What's going on? Partly it is the often observed inclination for women to vote for the status quo more than men. That's not to say that women are more conservative than men, by the way. Whether the status quo is liberal/leftist/globalist (the current setting) or conservative/rightist/nationalist, women lean towards the status quo more than men, most of the time.

But I think there's more to it than that. I think young men in Britain, and elsewhere I suspect, have found themselves trapped in the glass cellar and have had enough. The fact that young men were twice as likely as young women to vote Leave is just one measure of their dissatisfaction (though the majority voted Remain it should be added).

Mike Carter's extraordinary article on the England that has been left behind paints a picture of the despair that many Britons, young and old, are experiencing in their daily lives. Just one line says it all:
What does it say about a town when even the charity shops are struggling?
The political party that channels the anti-establishment mood of so many young, British men will have an army of supporters and activists on its side. Better their dissatisfaction be channelled into democratic politics than the alternative...

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Forecasts Are Always Wrong

I always thought Brexit would create more political problems for Ireland and Europe than economic ones. All the forecasts of economic 'doom and gloom' that appear to accompany every change the Establishment disapproves of tend to turn out wrong.

Roger Bootle has noticed this as well and thinks Brexit will turn out to be the great escape:
I am afraid the consensus of economic experts has an extraordinary record of getting big practical issues horrendously wrong. The UK has just made a momentous decision that is bound to cause some dislocation. In 1931, the UK was forced off the Gold Standard. The economic establishment warned that this would be disastrous. Instead, it ushered in the fastest period of growth in our industrial history. In 1992 the establishment warned that we had to stay in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) or catastrophe would be unleashed. We were forced out and the economy blossomed. In the late 1990s we were warned by Uncle Tom Cobley and all that we must join the euro – or else. We didn’t – thank goodness – and we prospered. The weight of academic and establishment economists did not foresee “the death of inflation” or the financial crisis of 2008/9. A prolonged period of modesty from them would be appropriate.
That's not to say it will be an easy economic ride for Ireland - but what if Brexit turns out to be good not just for the British economy but for ours as well?

I think the reverse about the prospect of a President Trump, by the way. While the commentariat are focused on the politics (and the name calling), it's the economic impact of Trump in the White House that should concern us most. A President who wants to Make America Great Again will insist on all those 'tax shy' American companies we currently host on this fair island returning to their homeland - or else.

I'd suggest the next time Trump offers to visit us that our Taoiseach join him for a round of golf rather than indulging in leftist virtue signalling in the Dáil.  One forecast I am certain of: we'll need all the friends we can get in the turbulent years ahead.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Long Time Gone

Richard Fernandez channels the inevitable Titanic metaphor:
Countries don't usually walk out on a good thing without a reason just as passengers don't leave 50,000 ton ocean liners for wooden boats without motivation.
It has been fascinating to watch 'Remainers' (including their Irish counterparts) explain why more than 17 million Britons voted to leave the EU. Most of the explanations range from racism to educational attainment (or lack thereof) to old age (grandad's army) and back to racism again. Some have held their nose to lift the lid and look a little closer. Apparently the Leavers were motivated by nostalgia, nationalism and racism (but sure didn't we know that already?)

Yet as someone once said: the issue is never the issue. Brexit wasn't about immigration no more than the result of our recent general election was about water charges. What happened on 23rd June 2016 was that the bigger, more cohesive tribe won. All politics is tribal, repeat: ALL. The problem is - as I've noted before - not everyone realises they belong to a tribe: especially, it would seem, the Remainers.

The tribal bonds that matter most are those based on Identity. The Leavers focused on belonging, independence and cohesion. While the Remainers argued from the wrong end of the Persuasion Stack - promising the Great Euro Shopping Mall in the sky: which didn't cut it for some reason.

Europe has hit an iceberg, let's hope there are enough lifeboats.






Friday, June 24, 2016

TEOTWAWKI

As with most historic moments there's a tendency to view things as 'the end of the world as we know it'. But it isn't: the birds keep singing and the rain keeps raining.

But it's certainly the end of something - perhaps the end of globalisation as a political and not just economic force in human affairs for a generation or two. Certainly the forward march of the European Union has been halted. But again, it's too early to tell, as it is with most things Brexit-related right now.

One thing I expect future historians will wonder is why so many people were surprised by the outcome of yesterday's UK referendum?  The Pew Research Center recently published a poll showing attitudes towards the European Union from within and without the EU. I've extracted the data and summarised the trend (where data is available) between 2007 and 2016. Only one country has become more favourably disposed towards the EU in recent years: the United States of America. As for European countries? Not so much. I've ranked the results by 'net favourability' (% favourable minus % unfavourable), showing the country that is least favourably disposed first:


Attitudes towards the European Union
% Favourable % Unfavourable Net Favourable
2007 2016 2007 2016 2007 2016
Greece 27 71 -44
France 62 38 38 61 24 -23
UK 52 44 36 48 16 -4
Spain 80 47 15 49 65 -2
Germany 68 50 30 48 38 2
Netherlands 51 46 5
Sweden 59 54 37 44 22 10
Italy 78 58 13 39 65 19
Hungary 61 37 24
USA 47 53 22 27 25 26
Poland 83 72 11 22 72 50
Q. Please tell me if you have a very favorable, somwhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable opinion of the European Union?
Source: Pew Research Center


Not surprisingly, Greece is least favourably disposed towards the EU right now. But the big surprise is France - they are even less favourably disposed than the British (as I noted before). Nevertheless, the trend is quite stark: in every single EU country for which there is trend data the % unfavourably disposed towards the European Union has risen sharply in the past ten years.

There's no need to panic just yet, but there's no excuse for complacency either.




St. Crispin's Revenge

God bless the English, I didn't think they had it in them any more.

Today is a great day for patriots everywhere, though probably not so good for the markets. June 23rd 2016 will go down in history as England's Easter Monday 1916.

Mind you, Easter Tuesday, Wednesday etc didn't go so well in 1916. But what came afterwards was quite extraordinary.

St Crispin would be proud, and we needn't think ourselves accurs'd we were not there:





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