Thursday, May 21, 2015

Virtue Signalling

Ireland's referendum to redefine marriage is nearly over. The campaign will - I suspect - be pored over for years to come in relation to social change advocacy and resistance to same.

But I think it will also be remembered for the extraordinary way in which the campaign became a platform - albeit for the Yes side - to very publicly signal one's voting intentions, secret ballot be damned. So a lot of 'Tá' badges and stickers, 'Níl' badges not so much. Kim would certainly approve.

I recently came across a name for this, it's called Virtue Signalling and has been used to describe the surprise outcome of the recent UK election and the emergence (if that's the right word) of the 'Shy Tory' voter. According to James Bartholomew, virtue signalling is all about using what you say and how you say it to indicate to others that you are 'kind, decent and virtuous', and those with whom you disagree are the very opposite.

So in the UK, attacking the Daily Mail, Nigel Farrage and the Conservatives is all about signalling that you are nice because they are nasty. Bartholomew laments:
There was a time when Britain had a form of Christianity in which pride was considered a sin. Maybe that is part of why some of us find all this virtue signalling obnoxious. It’s just showing off. For some of us it is both ridiculous and irritating that people who say that they hate Ukip actually believe they are being more virtuous than others who visit the sick, give money to charity or are kind to someone lonely. But the widespread way in which people now proudly boast suggests there is no shame, no reflection. And because of this lack of awareness, it is more common. Twitter lends itself very well to virtue signalling, since it is much easier to express anger and scorn in 140 characters than to make a reasoned argument. Russell Brand is perhaps the ultimate incarnation of modern virtue signalling. He is bursting with anger and outrage. My goodness he must be good!
Robin Hanson, who has practically made a blogging career out of writing about signaling (the American spelling), recently defined signaling/signalling thus:
More generally I call a message “signaling” if it has these features: 
It is not sent mainly via the literal meanings of words said.
It is not easily or soon verifiable.
It is mainly about the senders’ personal features, perhaps via association with groups.
It is about sender “quality” dimensions where more is better, so senders want others to believe quality is as high as possible, while others want to assess more accurately. Such qualities are not just unitary, but can include degrees of loyalty to particular allies. 
Cheap talk cannot send a message like this; one cannot just say such a thing, one must show it. And since it cannot be verified, one must show it indirectly, via how such features make one more willing or able to do something. And since willingness and ability track costs, these are “costly” signals.
This is one reason why celebrities - from Colin Farrell to Russell Brand - are now feted for their opinions on everything from same sex marriage to global warming, it signals group association and encourages others to do the same.

But there is a darker side to all this, experienced in every totalitarian country. Frank Furedi observes (also in the context of the recent UK election) that the opposite of virtue signalling - the spiral of silence - has been with us since long before twitter and Facebook:
The pressure to conform and the fear of social isolation can lead to what the German social scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann identified in 1974 as a ‘spiral of silence’. According to this theory, people’s assessment of the opinions held by the majority influences and modifies the way they express their own views. Some individuals feel anxious about expressing sentiments that differ from the consensus outlook, as expressed in the political and media realm, and it is thought that, ‘prompted by a “fear of social isolation”’, some are ‘less likely to express their own viewpoint when they believe their opinions and ideas are in the minority’. Typically, the fear of negative social sanctions influences the way people express attitudes about numerous morally charged ‘threats’, such as foreigners, crime or terrorism.
Coming back to the referendum, Brendan O'Neill thinks the 'spiral of silence' in Ireland has become something of a vortex. As he sees it:
Irish opponents of gay marriage aren’t only encouraged to feel shy — they’re encouraged to feel shame... Heaven help anyone who says No to this flinging open of marriage to same-sex couples. For the extent to which Ireland’s political and media elites have lined up behind gay marriage ahead of the referendum is nothing short of breathtaking. I’ve racked my brains, and I can’t think of any other political issue in Europe in recent times on which the consensus has been so suffocating, and so hostile to dissent. 
There’s a profound irony here: Ireland’s political class calls for a Yes vote to prove that Ireland has moved on from its intolerant religious past, and yet some of that old intolerance is being rehabilitated by the very people backing gay marriage. They shush dissent and demonise their opponents as effectively as any priest used to do, only in the name of Gays rather than God. Backing gay marriage has become, in Irish Independent columnist, Eilis O’Hanlon’s words, a way for influential people to ‘identify [themselves] as members of an enlightened elite’, ‘kindly metropolitan liberals versus nasty Catholic conservatives’. This referendum is now only ostensibly about gay marriage: more fundamentally it has become a means for a new, PC, post-traditionalist elite to distinguish itself from the allegedly hateful and gruff inhabitants of Ireland’s more rural, old-fashioned communities.
Signalling again. But with an added viciousness that lands us in an Orwellian world in which - as Edward Feser explains - those who disagree with the new orthodoxy are no longer tolerated... in the name of tolerance!

Where it goes from here is anyone's guess. It does also depend on the outcome, of course.  Fianna Fáil (the gift that keeps on giving... to Fine Gael) have missed their last opportunity to secure and expand their core constituency in Ireland which would have followed if they had taken a pragmatic, perfectly reasonable (in the eyes of many) stand against redefining marriage (for any number of reasons: 'it's too soon', 'let's wait and see' etc etc). But they didn't, and the rest - including Fianna Fáil - is history. Needless to say, that's the very expensive version of signalling, and best avoided if possible.

So back to the outcome: do exercise your dearly won democratic right to vote, whichever way you intend voting. Go vote even if the privacy of the voting booth affords no signalling value - after all, there are more important things in a democracy that hopes to remain one.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Cashing Out

Despite our improving fortunes here in Ireland (and they are improving), a lot of commentators I read on trends elsewhere seem increasingly gloomier. Dan Ariely thinks American consumers are so psychologically fragile that even a minor shock could trigger a major panic. While Tyler Cowen thinks the Great Stagnation is morphing into a Great Reset meaning things will never return to 'normal'.

Add to that a growing number of stories about controls on holding and using cash (most recently in France), surcharges on cash withdrawals in Greece, still looming debt problems (including our own), as well as negative interest rates and you begin to wonder just how real is the recovery?

Plainly there is more at play than just a very slow recovery after a very harsh recession. Whether you think that globalisation has gone into reverse, or that the EU experiment has run its course and is now exhausted (or on the brink of something much worse), it does seem that new ideas are required.

Fortunately there are plenty out there: from using bitcoin to launch a new Greek currency to Croatia cancelling the debts of its poorest citizens. Bernard Lietaer has long championed the benefits of currency diversity (mono-currency unions are dangerously vulnerable, just like mono culture agriculture). He believes that the problems we face will demand the (re)introduction of alternative and complementary currencies similar in scale and diversity to those that emerged in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

Of course, the Central Banks and the Tax Authorities weren't too keen on the idea back then; they won't be much keener in the years ahead. But they - and we - may have no choice given the challenges that lie ahead, whatever the near term prospects for Ireland.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Strange Hate

I watched Dr. Strangelove the other night. It was - and is - a remarkable movie, combining apocalyptic humour with and end-of-the-world lesson in game theory. I remember reading in a Stanley Kubrick biography (he was producer and director) that at times Kubrick had to lay on the floor behind the camera biting his hand so he couldn't be heard laughing at Peter Sellers' portrayal of Dr. Strangelove himself. I can understand why.

But perhaps the most chilling performance is that of General Jack D. Ripper by Sterling Hayden (pictured above). The audience, along with Peter Sellers (this time as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake - he also plays the President of the United States by the way) watches in horror as it dawns that General Ripper is stark, staring, barking mad. It's a singular portrayal of the Cold War doctrine of M.A.D. (Mutual Assured Destruction) if ever there was one.

I used to think the Cold War ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR. Now I'm not so sure. There's a superb two part interview with historian Stephen Cohen over at Salon that got me thinking about recent events in Ukraine and whether we are witnessing the Cold War 'by other means'.  Cohen notes:
As I’ve said for more than a year, we’re in a new Cold War. We’ve been in one, indeed, for more than a decade. My view [for some time] was that the United States either had not ended the previous Cold War, though Moscow had, or had renewed it in Washington. The Russians simply hadn’t engaged it until recently because it wasn’t affecting them so directly. 
What’s happened in Ukraine clearly has plunged us not only into a new or renewed—let historians decide that—Cold War, but one that is probably going to be more dangerous than the preceding one for two or three reasons. The epicenter is not in Berlin this time but in Ukraine, on Russia’s borders, within its own civilization: That’s dangerous. Over the 40-year history of the old Cold War, rules of behavior and recognition of red lines, in addition to the red hotline, were worked out. Now there are no rules. We see this every day—no rules on either side.
Cohen also laments how the West now treats Putin, quoting Henry Kissinger on the same issue:
The demonization of Putin is not a policy. It’s an alibi for not having a policy.
In Cohen's view, Washington is deliberately or otherwise mis-reading what is happening in Russia and the crucial role Putin has played in stabilising a potentially catastrophic situation. Lucio Carraciolo describes Russia as a Democratorship - an outcome of its distinctive history, culture and circumstances, and a reason why the West doesn't 'get' Russia. It's not to say that its inevitable. As Cohen explains, things could very easily have gone in a different direction under Gorbachev and then Yeltsin. They still could under Putin or his successor.

And that's what's scary fifty one years after the release of Dr. Strangelove. The West still easily descends into a 'Strange Hate', projecting its own anxieties and prejudices onto a Russia that is always changing... and always the same. Perhaps we're the ones that haven't changed? We may not obsess about bodily fluids like General Ripper, but we still obsess about the things that make us different rather than the same.

We can't - we mustn't - go back to the Cold War, no more than we can go back to the USSR. Even Putin realises it, noting that:
Anyone who doesn’t regret the end of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who thinks you can recreate the Soviet Union has no head. 
POSTSCRIPT: on the other hand, maybe it's too late?

Friday, May 8, 2015

The People Have Spoken

The UK General Election turned out more entertaining - or a least more surprising - than I had expected. One good thing about the UK's First Past The Post electoral system is that it often results in significant changes in the composition of parliament after each election. Hence the entertainment.

The bad thing is that it gives the majority of people a Government they didn't vote for. Take this analysis from the BBC:

UKIP got as many votes (3.9 million) as the SNP, Lib Dems and DUP combined: the latter got a combined 72 seats, UKIP got 1.  The Tories got 37% of the vote but will now form a 'majority' government.

My own trade - opinion pollsters - were the other big losers in the UK Election. Lots of soul-searching to follow I suspect. Maybe it is that - as Chris Dillow observes quoting Scott Sumner - there's no such thing as 'public opinion'. Just lots of private opinions that don't lend themselves to neat generalisations that are public.  Or maybe it was a commentariat too busy projecting its own world view onto the data to see what was really happening. Shy Tories and all that.

Ireland has its own Shy Tories of course - they used to vote Fianna Fáil - but they haven't gone away you know. Unlike Michelle Gildernew's vote in my dear old Fermanagh & South Tyrone...

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Kim Jong-un Calls for a Yes Vote

In yet another remarkable intervention in Ireland's referendum campaign, the leader of North Korea - Kim Jong-un - has called for a Yes vote on May 22nd. From the Korean Central News Agency announcment earlier today:
Pyongyang, May 2nd 2015: Fraternal May Day greetings to the people of Ireland from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In his May Day speech to the Supreme People's Assembly, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un called on the people of Ireland to vote Yes in the forthcoming referendum. "We enjoy a level of equality in our People's Democratic Republic that the people of Ireland can only dream off in their Republic, but a Yes vote on May 22nd will surely bring Ireland closer to the glorious future that awaits it" he predicted.  
Kim Jong-un expressed admiration as well as support for the strong and unrelenting campaign being waged by brave Irish comrades in Labour, Sinn Fein, the Anti Austerity Alliance, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Renua to secure a Yes vote. Furthermore, the Supreme Leader called on comrades in Pyongyang to learn from the Yes campaign in Ireland in order that there should be greater certainty about the outcome next time the Democratic People's Republic voted unanimously to approve the wisdom of their Supreme Leader. 
Kim Jong-un reminded the People's Assembly that a Yes vote would help Ireland to finally lose its pariah status among the nations of the world, and should therefore inspire North Korea and her people in these difficult times. A Yes vote, he added, would lead to better trade relations between our two Republics, new investment opportunities, job creation, better harvests, and even to a reduction in CO2 emissions.  
Finally the Supreme Leader finished his speech by noting that - as the World's youngest leader - he could not in fact be elected Supreme Leader in Ireland because he's only 32 years of age. He concluded: "This is yet another example of the inequality endured by the long-suffering Irish people, and yet another reason to vote Yes on May 22nd".
Wow, I have to say, that's an intellectual slam dunk if ever there was one. Good for you Kim Jong-un, and I for one look forward to your interventions in future referenda and elections in our unequal little Republic.

But let's face it, he has a point: our Constitution blatantly enshrines age-based apartheid denying young people like Kim Jong-un the chance to lead our country, something that should cause every Irish man and women to hang his or her head in shame. I mean think about it: can you imagine companies like twitter, Google, Facebook and airbnb setting up shop in a country that blatantly denies basic democratic rights to their core audience of 18-35 year olds, maintaining a level of inequality and injustice not seen since the dark days of, well, Apartheid?

Oh, wait, they're already here... shurely shome mishtake?

Monday, April 27, 2015

Better Than Before

My company has been tracking the mood and emotions of Irish adults every month since April 2009 - six years ago this month.  The latest Economic Recovery Index report is out:

The information on reported happiness, sadness etc shows an obvious correlation with general economic sentiment, though our emotional state appears to have a strong seasonal influence as well. They're also vulnerable to the occasional shock too, of course, such as when the IMF came calling at the end of 2010.

Still, good to see things improving - albeit the Index goes from 0 to 100 and we're still only at 40...

The historical data set covering April 2009 to April 2015 is here fyi.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Wrong Side of the Future

The Pew Research Centre has published projections for the major world religions to 2050 and - surprisingly for the people 'on the right side of history' - atheists appear to be on the wrong side of the future:

Of course, it's all a matter of definition - and relativities. But because people with no religion are located mainly in countries and regions with declining populations then a certain Darwinian inevitability follows. The future belongs to those who show up and - other things equal - religious people have more babies than non-religious people. Even Darwin himself foresaw such a scenario (though he was a little less circumspect about the implications):
Thus the reckless, degraded, and often vicious members of society, tend to increase at a quicker rate than the provident and generally virtuous members. Or as Mr. Greg puts the case: "The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits: the frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scot, stern in his morality, spiritual in his faith, sagacious and disciplined in his intelligence, passes his best years in struggle and in celibacy, marries late, and leaves few behind him. Given a land originally peopled by a thousand Saxons and a thousand Celts—and in a dozen generations five-sixths of the population would be Celts, but five-sixths of the property, of the power, of the intellect, would belong to the one-sixth of Saxons that remained. In the eternal 'struggle for existence,' it would be the inferior and less favoured race that had prevailed—and prevailed by virtue not of its good qualities but of its faults."  Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
There is a fascinating interview with Tim Shah over at RN who criticises the whole 'God Is Dead' narrative of the New Atheists (and some rather old, rather dead ones as well for that matter).  The rise of ISIS is a brutal reminder that religious belief (however distorted) still shapes world events for good or ill. An influence that looks set to increase rather than decrease in the decades ahead.

Demography may be destiny but it is not inevitability (even Darwin saw some inevitable checks on rabbit-multiplying Irishmen: like scarce resources). Nor is religious identity necessarily an inevitable influence on belief let alone behaviour.  One of the best reports on the state of religion in the world today is the Religion Monitor by the Bertelsmann Foundation. It drills into the 'spiritual but not religious' meme, as well as the influence of religion on people's daily lives, families, politics and much more besides. There are as many if not more 'cultural religious' than 'believing/practicing religious' in numerous parts of the world. While more people in the future may self-identify as belonging to a particular religious group, their behaviours may be indistinguishable from the diminishing band of non-religious in their midst.

I think this is especially relevant to Ireland as we move rapidly towards the orthodox, Western model of secular progressivism.  Sure, we still like our Communions and Confirmations, but I would hazard a guess that we will follow the UK path in relation to religious belief, absent any major cultural differences (long story short: there aren't any anymore).

Crucially, the Pew projections indicate that Islam will be the fastest growing religion in the foreseeable future - which suggests that religion will be more important, not less important to the course of the future.  Already, large minorities of people in non-Islamic countries view Islam as incompatible with the Western World:

How such perceptions will change - or harden - in the decades ahead will make sure that religion will remain central to the course of history and of the future.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Old Anew

The Irish Times invited me to contribute a 'new proclamation', along with a few others, which was published last weekend.  Mine was a slightly edited (for word count reasons) version of the one I wrote in my book back in 2010.

It was a nice touch on the part of the Time's designers to recreate it in 'ye olde parchment' style:

I was pleasantly surprised that my own version had stood the test of time (all 5 years!) since I wrote it.  Needless to say, it won't stand the test of time as well as the original (which I reckon is still the best - and most relevant - version going).

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tectonic Change

This I didn't know:
In 1933, on the Japanese island of Izu Oshima, a twenty-one-year-old student named Kiyoko Matsumoto jumped into the volcano of Mount Mihara from an observation point overlooking the molten lava. Her death became a media sensation across Japan as newspapers reprinted her poignant suicide note and turned her into an overnight celebrity. Nine hundred forty-four people subsequently jumped into the volcano’s crater in 1933 alone. In the years that followed, thousands more made the one-way trip to the volcano, including, every year, dozens of suicide-pact couples who plunged into the lava together. The Tokyo Bay Steamship Company set up a daily line to the island’s volcano rim, which became known as “Suicide Point,” to ferry victims and spectators: Some passengers bought one-way tickets to the destination, while others traveled there round-trip to watch people jump. This suicide epidemic ended only after officials made it a criminal offense to purchase a one-way ticket to the island and placed a barrier at the observation point.
From a powerful essay on assisted suicide and euthanasia by Aaron Kheriaty.   The point is that ideas are contagious, and that bad ones often spread faster than good ones, until they are stopped.  The recent Irish Times finding that 54% of adults agree there are circumstances where they would help a family member to die reveals the extent of one particularly bad idea.  Though younger adults are much more in favour than older adults for some reason.

Xavier le Pichon - who knows something about volcanos as he developed the theory of tectonic plates - has a different take: he thinks we need to welcome suffering as a sign of our humanity, and to see human fragility - like nature's - as something positive.

In the meantime, the rough beast that is the 'culture of death' keeps slouching forward.  It even has its own soundtrack:

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Some people think all religions are the same; typically people who don't believe in any religion themselves.  I'm beginning to think the same about politics; all political parties are the same.  After all, politics is about securing power for the purpose of creating a better life for those who support you.  Communists think life will be better without rich people, and fascists think life will be better without communists.  But they - and liberals, socialists and conservatives in between - earnestly think that life will be better for others when they achieve power.  Sort-of-all-the-same: perhaps I'm having a crisis of (political) faith?

Which brings us to RENUA (they seem keen on the capitals by the way, judging by their website). Given that nowadays the Overton Window in Irish politics ranges all the way from slightly left-of-centre to extreme-left-of-centre then it's obvious that what Ireland needs right now is... another left-of-centre political party.  Not, of course, that you will have gathered that from the chorus of disapproval that greeted the launch of RENUA last week.  No, instead we're warned that RENUA is in the business of bashing the public sector and - you might want cover the children's eyes here - is nothing more than re-heated Progressive Democrats. The horror.

I don't read it that way. Their Vision & Core Beliefs could grace the manifesto of any mainstream Irish political party, with statements ranging from:

There is no greater moral and political issue than securing the future of children.
We believe in creating the conditions that allow arts and culture to flourish.

One definition of a platitude is that stating its opposite sounds ridiculous rather than contrarian.  I hear a lot of platitudes.  Not so much Newspeak as Nuaspeak.

But in fairness I don't think that's the fault of RENUA.  Politics in Western democracies has become remarkably narrow and sterile.  The same set of left-of-centre beliefs are now orthodoxy in not just all the political parties but also in the media, academia and the wider commentariat. Witness the hysterical reaction to Nigel Farage in the UK. He refuses to comply with the new orthodoxy and they hate him for it. Partly it's the Krauthammer Effect (conservatives think liberals are stupid, but liberals think conservatives are evil), and partly it's because - for the left - politics is their religion and government is their god.  Death to the infidels and all that.  Come to think of it, maybe there's no difference between religion and politics, never mind between different religions and different parties?

Still, I can't help feeling that RENUA has missed a trick.  The whole idea of dissent in politics (and religion, for that matter) is to signal to other potential defectors (and Lucinda is, don't forget, a 'defector') that there are lots of people just like you who are unhappy with the status quo and who deserve to be in power rather than the incumbents. This requires a rallying cry which signals that those in power are insufficiently [fill in the blank here] and that if you gain power then you will resolve to undo/do better whatever [fill in the blank] is at stake.

Blogger Spandrell puts it, rather bluntly, thus:
More likely than not, some members of the ruling coalition are not very loyal. They’d rather defect. But they can’t backstab the coalition just like that. You don’t do that; it looks bad. Your comrades will go against you. There are costs to defection.
Unless you’re not the only defector. You need a way to signal your intention to defect, so that other disloyal fucks such as yourself (and they’re bound to be others) can join up, thus reducing the likely costs of defection. The way to signal your intention to defect is to come up with a good excuse. A good excuse to be disloyal becomes a rallying point through which other defectors can coordinate and cover their asses so that the ruling coalition doesn’t punish them.  
... At any rate, the whole point of the above is to signal your disaffection from the status quo. The precise content of your signal is irrelevant. It is completely dependent on the particular ideological ecology of your culture. But the underlying mechanism is the same. You want power, and you signal your intent in the optimal way to minimize the chances of official punishment, and make it easy for others to join your banner.
The problem is, I don't see what the big [fill in the blank] rallying cry is for RENUA. And 'transparency' won't do it - too easy for others to steal. No, they should either have gone far more left than any of the mainstream incumbents - though it's a pretty crowded pitch, as noted earlier - or a little more right (mindful of the Window): a very empty pitch.

In the end, it would take a Frank Underwood to lead yet another left-of-centre political party to power in a political landscape that's full of them. But Lucinda Creighton is no Frank Underwood, and I mean that as a compliment.

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