Monday, November 30, 2015

Mimetic Jihad

Those who protest against “Western ethnocentrism” imagine themselves to owe nothing to the West, since after all they rage furiously against it. But in fact, theirs is the most Western perspective of all, more Western than their adversaries. Not only is the revolt against ethnocentrism an invention of the West, it cannot be found outside the West. …Western culture is quite obviously ethnocentric. But it is no more ethnocentric than any other, even if its ethnocentrism has been more cruelly effective on account of its power. René Girard
The late René Girard - he passed away earlier this month - was one of the most original thinkers of the past one hundred years. I believe his work will eventually prove more important than the works of Freud, Nietzsche or Marx combined. And not just because he was right and they were wrong.

Girard's groundbreaking insight - that humans are 'mimetic', i.e.: that our desires come from observing what others want, with the result that human culture ultimately degenerates into violent competition for the things desired until a sacrificial scapegoat is found to 'take the blame' and so peace is restored (for a while) - has profound implications for our understanding of modern humanity and the worsening problem of collective violence.

But he went further: he argued that Christianity represented a 'structural break' in human history because, for the first time, the scapegoat - Jesus Christ - was innocent, and seen to be such. Now to our 21st century ears this might sound obvious: but Girard points out that every other culture (and many since) have always assumed the 'guilt' of the scapegoat. Indeed, he saw most religions as a solution to the problem of mimetic violence as they were built around a cult(ure) of sacrifice to preserve the peace. Christianity 'revealed' the falsity of the scapegoat mechanism, throwing us back on a previously unknown solution to humanity's mimetic compulsion to escalating violence: turning the other cheek and desiring the one thing everyone can have without constraint on the other, i.e.: the love of God. It worked, at least for a while.

The power of any theory - be it psychoanalysis, dialectical materialism or mimetic theory - is found in its predictive power. On this basis, Girard's theory stands head and shoulders above what passes for most contemporary analysis of our global situation. He sees the violence of Islamic Jihadism as a regression to a type of mimetic rivalry that threatens to drag us back to pre-Christian ways of competition and conflict.

Nor is the post-Christian West immune from mimetic rivalry and escalating violence. Girard saw the rejection of the West's Christian heritage (in a desperate attempt to stand outside of history, culture and heritage so as not to be ethnocentric) as a precursor to a greater level of collective violence than even our pre-Christian ancestors could have imagined. Nothing short of apocalypse in an age of Total War.

As more and more Western powers queue up to bomb Syria and rid the world of The Taliban al-Qaeda ISIS, we once again we find ourselves trapped in a world of mimetic desire and the search for scapegoats. It won't end well. It never did, and it never will. 

By the way, you can download and listen to a marvellous, five-part interview with René Girard by David Cayley - called The Scapegoat: René Girard's Anthropology of Violence and Religion - on iTunes here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Longing & Belonging

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Milan Kundera
I was on a guided tour of Freemasons' Hall in Molesworth Street Dublin recently. It prompted a conversation about how organisations like the Freemasons can survive and even thrive in the 21st century (they get 20-30 membership applications a month apparently, so still growing).

At one level (perhaps more than one) Freemasonry is something of an anachronism these days: male only (though there is a separate Ladies Freemason Lodge); theist (though not necessarily Christian); and, well, secretive (though they do have a website). Of course, one man's anachronism may be another man's recipe for long-term survival: which is perhaps why so many of those institutions and organisations that are still around after hundreds, even thousands of years are not exactly PC in their values or practices. Churches, monarchies and lodges among them.

But I think there's more to it than whose allowed in, and who isn't (though that's a big part, and I'll come back to it later). The essence of long-lasting organisations is that they practice rituals that bind and remind its members of its purpose and beliefs. Sarah Perry points out the need for ritual even in our 'post-rational' age, choosing the arcane but still 'necessary' rituals of our courts and legal system to make her point. She goes on to notes that:
In fact, practice generally precedes belief. Ritual is more powerful than arguments and facts.
And if you don't believe me then guess what, science says it's true: the most important ritual we can do everyday to ensure our wellbeing and success is, well, any ritual, just so long as you practice at least one.

Those countries, churches and lodges that insist on the learning and practice of rituals - collectively and in private - are the ones that forge the bonds that survive the test of time. Nor do they have to be particularly 'secret' rituals - as Rupert Sheldrake points out in a delightful podcast on Choral Evensong, there's a reason why 'chant' is found in 'enchantment': singing together is surely the greatest ritual we can practice together in forging the bonds of belonging. Christmas carols anyone?

Of course, a desire to belong can be channelled the wrong way, like any, otherwise healthy desire. Take Scientology, for example. As the brilliant documentary Going Clear reveals, ritual practices can be used and abused in the service of deeply dysfunctional and plain evil organisations. Nor is organised brutality confined to cults (or churches on occasions): even some of Silicon valley companies have become synonymous with abusive rituals and routines that create toxic workplaces.

But if the price of avoiding the mis-use of ritual and belonging is a life of solitary autonomy, drifting from one novelty to the next, then it is clearly too high a price to pay for the growing numbers suffering from depression, loneliness and suicidal thoughts. John Milbank has penned a delightful essay on why nostalgia is preferable to modern, consumerist ennui:
At first variety reduces boredom, but in the long term it can induce it because it reduces the effort of response you have to make in the face of any experience. 
In fact, sustained attention to detail and creative use of what you're given is a far greater salve against boredom than the mere passive sampling of a large menu of consumer delights. 
And:
For where less is offered, then the more the power to be fascinated by small differences and unfolding depths is cultivated. So the Count of Monte Cristo evaded boredom in his bare cell by gradually exploring all its hidden possibilities for communication, subterfuge and escape. 
For just this reason we have to wonder whether premodern peoples might even have been less bored than us, because greater monotony incited more active attention - to the changing seasons and the annual variations upon their changes, for instance - and a paucity of resources led to greater imaginative involvement with the use of words, music, human movement and ability to shape natural materials.
Again this points to why people long to belong to institutions and organisations that practice rituals connecting the past to the present to the future. It lifts us up from the drudgery of 'what's on the telly' and 'what time will I finish work'? Of course, we don't need to join a church or apply for membership of a club to experience some of the more uplifting aspects of belonging. Most of us are born into a very unique and exclusive club - our own family - which gives us plenty of clues and cues to what it means to belong. As Chesterton once wrote, we discover more variety and humanity in our own homes than in our ventures into the wider world:
The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.
Here's my advice for any church or club suffering from a decline in membership and waning support from those who still belong (Catholic Church please note): make it hard(er) to become a member, require members to publicly signal their membership (fish on Fridays?) and insist on the shared expression of beliefs and belonging (back to 'enchantment').

But back to the Freemasons. What has helped them endure (in the absence of any 'Dan Brown-esque' conspiracy theories)? I think part of it is the price of entry, and no I don't mean the monthly membership fee. I mean the work would-be members have to put into being validated as potential membership material before final approval as a member (which can take up to a year). There's little incentive or reason to join something if there are no actual costs of entry (in terms of time, money or energy): in that case anyone can join but if 'everyone' is a member then there's really no such thing as 'membership'. The same is true of entire nations: one of the reasons for Denmark's remarkable cultural and social cohesion is its practice of hygge, gently lampooned by the way in Michael Booth's delightful book The Almost Nearly Perfect People. Here in Ireland we have our annual commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising - it's going to matter a great deal more than most people expect next year.

The opening quotation and image above are from a fascinating article by Rod Dreher on the important task of institutions and organisations - and their members - to preserve the memories that will sustain this and future generations: He notes:
When a society really wants to remember something as a society — e.g., mythical, religious, or historic stories that tell a people who they are and what they must do — it invents commemorative ceremonies around those stories. It is not enough to tell a particular story; the story has to be “a cult enacted.” That is, the story must convey a metaphysical truth, and thus has to be granted sacred status as an event that is taken out of the past and in some mystical way re-presented in the present. This is, of course, what the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and the Catholic Mass do. Rites are ways that societies maintain a living connection with their past, and enter mystically into it. 
We must practice in order to believe, so pass around the hymn sheets...







Friday, October 2, 2015

Behavioural Humility

Some thoughts I shared at the 2nd Irish Behavioural Science & Policy Network meet-up earlier this week on prospects for behavioural economics and science:


Good evening everyone. My advice to practitioners of behavioural science these days is that you need to be ‘Humble and Ambitious’ – humble about what you know but ambitious about what you can do.

First some reasons for humility:

1. Science doesn’t happen until it happens twice

Take the Reproducibility Project published in August. The project examined 100 prominent psychology research papers and made an exhaustive effort to independently reproduce their findings. What they found was that almost two-thirds of the results they tested didn’t quite hold up. In a few cases, the reproduced experiments gave an opposite result, showing either no effect or an effect in the other direction from the original study. More commonly, the reproduced results were simply smaller than those claimed in the original study, often so small as to not be statistically significant. How sure are we this stuff works? There is no corpus of Behavioural Laws yet - it's still early days and practitioners should admit as much.

2. We are all Bourgeois Gentlemen

There is a famous line in Moliere’s play The Bourgeois Gentleman where the character Monsieur Jourdain discovers ‘I've been speaking prose all my life and I didn't even know it!’ I’ve had similar reactions from marketing managers and advertisers when I tell them that new thinking in economics says people are irrational and often motivated by emotional and subconscious needs, or: ‘I’ve been a behavioural scientist all my life and I didn’t even know it!’ Some disciplines are ahead of others in this respect and the challenge to behavioural scientists is to go beyond the 'we knew that already' reaction they often get.

3. 100 years of psychotherapy and the world is getting worse!

That was the title of a book by James Hillman published in 1992 (so 123 years of psychotherapy...). Sometimes new tools end up over-promising and under-delivering provoking a backlash among users. It’s even worse – to quote Henry David Thoreau: ‘Our inventions are want to be pretty toys, which distract us from serious things. They are an improved means to an unimproved end.’ Behavioural scientists need to be careful they don’t end up as pretty toys, soon discarded in favour of newer ones.

Now for the ambitious stuff:

4. The Age of Ageing

We are culturally, economically and politically (and even personally!) in denial about the ageing of populations in the developed world (and soon the developing world). Ours is a civilisation gripped by Hyperbolic Discounting – we urgently need to create the language, tools and incentives to change our behaviours to help us place more value on the future than we do at present. The pensions and insurance industries will be eternally grateful to behavioural science if you can pull it off!

5. The Leisure-Life Balance

Forget the work-life balance: soon a third or more of us won’t have any work to do anyway thanks to the robots and artificial intelligence (if you believe the forecasts!)  The philosophers have been thinking about this long before behavioural economists, here’s Aristotle: ‘The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end.’ There will be a growing need to equip us to make the right choices, decisions and investments to live a leisurely life well, and behavioural science should be at the forefront of this task.

6. Forget Happiness

Finally, and more controversially, I’d like to see behavioural scientists paying less attention to happiness rather than more. People can tell you if they are happy (we’ve been tracking it for over 6 years), but they can’t really tell you why they are happy. Nor is it simply about pleasure – Aristotle thought that that was for ‘cattle’ – rather real happiness is something we perceive across a lifetime in terms of fulfillment, contentment, meaning and belonging. And an absence of pain ideally. So ignore calls to measure Gross National Happiness, it will be even less revealing (and relevant) than the existing measure of Gross National Product (conceived as it was during the Great Depression). Instead (and you might want to edge closer to the door here!) we should take a leaf out of Nietzsche’s book: he observed that the two emotions/feelings/experiences we want to last forever are Joy and Love. Now there’s an interesting research task: the economics of love or the maximisation of joy!

So be humble and be ambitious – and go make a real difference in a world that needs all the help it can get.

THANK YOU

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Europe's Principal-Agent Problem

Thanks to qualified majority voting (QMV), the EU's member states won't have a choice in relation to the number of refugees they accept at the behest of the European Commission. Some might see this as a necessary response to a crisis, others might see it as part of a plan:
But in Europe right now, there is a bigger problem than border control, and that is the cynical weakening of national borders, and of the popular sovereignty within those national borders, by an EU oligarchy not remotely interested in freedom and autonomy but rather determined to water down democracy itself in the name of allowing small cliques to set quotas, write regulations and determine national destinies. Here is the great tragedy of the refugee crisis: it’s being used to dilute democracy further. 
And that's from someone who supports open borders. If anything the EU's response to the refugee crisis highlights an even bigger problem, namely the growing disconnection between Europe's leaders and its voters. It's the Principal-Agent Problem of democracy: often it's in the Agent's interest (i.e.: the politicians) to sell out the Principal (i.e.: the electorate). Peggy Noonan describes it quite starkly:
Decision-makers fear things like harsh words from the writers of editorials; normal human beings fear things like street crime. Decision-makers have the luxury of seeing life in the abstract. Normal people feel the implications of their decisions in the particular. 
The decision-makers feel disdain for the anxieties of normal people, and ascribe them to small-minded bigotries, often religious and racial, and ignorant antagonisms. But normal people prize order because they can’t buy their way out of disorder. 
People in gated communities of the mind, who glide by in Ubers, have bought their way out and are safe. Not to mention those in government-maintained mansions who glide by in SUVs followed by security details. Rulers can afford to see national-security threats as an abstraction—yes, yes, we must better integrate our new populations. But the unprotected, the vulnerable, have a right and a reason to worry.
Even The Guardian is beginning to notice that it's the working class who get hit hardest by in a refugee crisis of the kind we are experiencing.

The Principal-Agent Problem arises from asymmetric information: in other words, the people acting on our behalf know more than we do. This has moved Scott Adams to point out that asymmetric information is even worse in politics than in finance:
And if you believe you can make intelligent decisions on politics based on inaccurate information and lies, why aren’t you already rich from doing the same thing with stocks? 
I’m a big fan of voting (when other people do it, not me) because it gives people a sense of ownership in the process. So please vote. But don’t confuse that with being psychic.
Right now the greatest information asymmetry relates to what's going on in the Middle East, especially in Syria. The news editors don't know what's happening, not even the border guards. Though the fact that we're witnessing the 'sudden' the decision of Syrian refugees already in safe havens in Turkey for several years to migrate to Europe does suggest that some people know what's going on.

Then again, I've always subscribed to the cock-up theory of history than to the conspiracy theory. People just aren't that clever, nor consequences all that easy to control. Indeed, if there's any truth in the view that people are getting dumber (or 'cumulative mutation damage of the genome' if you prefer), then things may be worse than we (can begin to) think - take it away Bruce:
However, for the past fifty years and increasingly, we have been getting a taste of something different; and most nations and large organizations are now being run by - not the least impaired people - but energetic incoherent semi-lunatics; because in a mass media democracy, that is what the more-seriously-crazed majority seem to want. 
Democracy as a system for choosing government has never made much sense; mass democracy in a mass media addicted world makes even less sense; democracy in a lunatic asylum is... crazy.
Principal-Agent Psychosis - now there's a Problem.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Party's Over

I was a student at the LSE when Michael Foot penned 'the longest suicide note in history' in the 1983 General Election. I thought Labour's manifesto was just what the UK needed; though I've mellowed a little since. Still, as they used to say at the LSE, if you're not a socialist before the age of 25 you haven't got a heart; if you're still a socialist after 25 you haven't got a head.

So is Jeremy Corbyn's election as Labour's new leader a big deal? Yes and no. It's a big deal for the future of the British Labour Party - they don't have one - but it's not a big deal for the British. Most media outlets employ political correspondents whose job it is to tell us every day how important politics - especially party politics - is to our lives and the future. But it isn't. For starters, more people are members of book groups than political parties: only 1 in 50 Irish voters is a party member, the EU average is 2 in 50. To put it in perspective, the Catholic Church in Ireland - battered and all as it has been in recent years - can still count on more than ten times as much active engagement from the Irish people as all the Irish political parties put together.

Yes we get to choose the political parties we want, the religion we grow up in not so much. But that's only every 4 years or so, and even then most of us end up governed by a party or parties we didn't vote for (just like 63% of the UK electorate last May).

Corbyn's election doesn't matter because political parties no longer matter. Certainly Corbyn's victory is a blow to the 'spin-meisters' that now dominate contemporary politics in Western Europe. Even Peter Hitchens admires Corbyn's refreshing authenticity compared to the 'plastic politics' that Tony Blair perfected (and David Cameron has ably adopted). But with the Overton Window shifting relentlessly leftward - in Ireland as elsewhere - then it's hard to see what a Labour Party led by Corbyn is going to campaign for that isn't already a nascent (or full blooded) element of other parties' manifestos. Sure, Corbyn may be more avowedly Marxist than your regular left-of-centre politician, but even if 'a communist is a socialist in a hurry' it's rare to hear anyone or anything labelled as 'extreme left' or 'far left' these days. Remember, we nationalised the main banks in Ireland here a few years ago, so today's 'loony left' platform can easily become tomorrow's 'we have no alternative' emergency legislation.

Also remember that socialism in its various guises killed more than 200 million people in the past 100 years in the process of creating a collectivist 'Paradise on Earth'. Perhaps the demise of the political party as a genuine force in European politics is a small price to pay if it avoids any more experiments in 'humanity improvement'?



Sunday, September 6, 2015

Crisis & Consequences

“We seek not to become just, but to justify ourselves.”     J. Budziszewski 
At the start of the summer David Cameron predicted that the refugee crisis at Calais would last all summer. I thought he was being optimistic, I suspect he knows it himself now. The crisis of refugees/economic migrants/asylum seekers is shaping up to be the defining issue for Europe in the 21st century, never mind the summer of 2015. Given that prognosis, it is all the more worrying how few - if any - politicians are debating and planning for a crisis that will unfold over decades and not mere months.

Such a plan would deal with the following:

1. What is the cause or causes of the crisis?
2. What can be done to end the crisis?
3. What should be done with the refugees and migrants already on the way?
4. What will happen to the refugees/migrants/asylum seekers when the crisis is over?

I don't have answers to all the questions, but I have some thoughts as set out below.

Question 1 is a hard one because it requires facing some 'uncomfortable', long-term realities. First of all, some European nations - the UK and France, but others too - have played a key role in bringing about the crisis by participating in American-led interventions in the Middle East and North Africa. For the best part of two decades they have played a 'Great Game' version of 'Whack-a-Mole'. Anti-Western despots in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria? Whack. Islamist terrorists rising up from the rubble of the former despots? Whack. Exporting terrorism to European cities? Whack. Mass displacement of populations as Western powers play off one side against the other? Whack. And on and on it goes.

Then there's Africa where high population growth combined with weak economic growth means that some 200 million young Africans will be looking for work over the next twenty years. The crisis at Calais won't be over this summer, next summer or the one after that. Meanwhile some 3,000 criminal gangs are profiting from people smuggling activities, a number set to grow as demand grows in turn.

Which brings us to the hardest one, Question 2: what can be done to end the crisis? Peace in the Middle East would be a start: but that seems even less likely now that The Great Game has reverted to a struggle between the Great Powers, i.e.: the United States and Russia. As a result, migration has been 'weaponised' as a proxy for direct conflict which means the refugee crisis will get worse before it gets better. More might be done to encourage Syria's wealthy neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait to increase the number of refugees they have offered to take from their current level of absolute zero. And of course economic migrants from Africa will keep coming so long as economic opportunities are scarce at home - so the opening up of trade relations, foreign investment and technology transfers with Africa will help, but not any time soon.

Building fences won't end the crisis on their own either: people will simply go around them, so the problem will be displaced from one European country to another. Replicating Australia's Operation Sovereign Borders campaign (whereby the Australian navy rescues illegal immigrants at sea but transfers them to locations outside Australia) would probably work, but only in the short run given the growing scale of future migration. Nevertheless, the number of illegal immigrants dying on the way to Australia has fallen from thousands to practically zero since the policy was put into practice: as a result Australians have not witnessed the horror of a young child like Aylan Kurdi washed up on their shores. It is unlikely, however, that all EU nations will agree to such a policy and so Irish navy ships will continue to rescue African migrants and deposit them on Italian soil.

But without a credible answer to Question 2 then Europe is on the fast track to an explosive combination of weakening economic prospects (in case you hadn't noticed), rising number of unassimilated immigrants (at a rapidly rising cost), and growing dissent among those Europeans already being left behind by unemployment and inequality (including 4.6 million unemployed youth).  As Ross Douthat sees it:
The countries that have opened the door widest are places like Germany and Sweden, which are motivated by a different theory of moral obligation: A utilitarian universalism, which holds that the world’s wealthy nations have an obligation to accept refugees, period, regardless of whether their own governments bear any responsibility for the crisis that produced them. 
This theory has the advantage of eliminating any messy haggling over who bears responsibility for what. When tragedy strikes, everybody above a certain level of G.D.P. just has to open the gates. (Or, perhaps, to have them open permanently.) 
But it has the disadvantage of being completely unworkable over the long run, as Europe is beginning to discover. The utilitarian theory is blind to the realities of culture, the challenges of assimilation, the dangers and inevitability of backlash. It takes what is a deep, long-term issue for European society — one way or another, over the next century the continent will have to absorb large numbers of new arrivals, from Africa especially — and brings things to a crisis point right now. And then it tries to evade that crisis by treating dissent as illegitimate, which only works until it doesn’t: One day you have a pro-immigration “consensus,” and the next a party with fascist roots is leading Sweden’s polls.
Which is probably why everyone is fixated on Question 3: what should be done with the refugees and migrants already on the way? As the MEP Daniel Hannan recently observed, Germany has effectively 'thrown the doors open' by its recent announcements, and the result is that Europe's immigration policy has effectively been sub-contracted to the people smugglers themselves. That doesn't bode well: incentives matter and if the message going out to the Middle East and Africa is that you 'everyone's welcome' then 'everyone' who wants to will come. I predict a boom for the human trafficking 'business' in the coming months and years. And worse, I predict more Aylan Kurdis as well unfortunately.

By the way, Ireland has sub-contracted its immigration policy to the UK thanks to our non-membership of the Schengen area. Given the non-existent border between our two countries then whatever the UK decides in terms of its immigration policy (including a resolution to the crisis in Calais) then it effectively becomes our policy too.

All of this means that debates about how many refugees Ireland, Germany or anywhere else should take are short-sighted at best. Some 35,000 people migrated to Ireland in the year to April 2015 from 'the rest of the world' (i.e.: from outside the EU, USA, Canada and Australia using the CSO definition) and somehow we coped. So the question isn't whether Ireland should take 2,000, 5,000 or 20,000 refugees this year, rather the question is: how many will we take next year and the year after that and the year after that and so on for years and possibly decades to come? The honest answer is: I don't know. But no politician is honest enough to even ask the question in the first place. As Douthat observes, Europe has unwittingly brought to a crisis a simmering issue that would otherwise have unfolded over decades. No wonder everyone is avoiding the hard questions.

All this is happening at a time when economic prospects - and taxpayer resources - are already quite weak in Europe (outside of Germany that is). Should recession return to Europe (and let's face, it hasn't been a great recovery since the last recession) then European politicians will be faced with much harsher trade-offs than at present. Germany will spend €10 billion on refugees this year alone. They can afford to, for now. Still, this is another reason why Ireland and Europe needs a plan: no matter how generous individual people are in welcoming refugees, it will be taxpayers in general who will fund their needs in the long-run.

And so on to Question 4: what will happen to the refugees/migrants/asylum seekers when the crisis is over? The answer based on past waves of migration is that they stay, have children and assimilate to varying degrees (or not sometimes). Every migrant or refugee is motivated by the same thing: to enjoy a better, safer life for themselves and their families than if they stayed in their home country. And often that's exactly what they get, so why would they go back?

The other side of generously welcoming economic migrants (as opposed to refugees from war and famine) is that their home countries end up losing some of their most talented people (as we have in Ireland down through the centuries). Today, Africa's Catholic bishops are appealing to their young people to "not allow false trappings of wealth lure you to move out of your Countries in search of non-existent jobs in Europe and America". Yet another 'unforeseen consequence' of Europe 'opening the doors' is that it may well worsen the situation in Africa that caused the migration in the first place.

So back to the plan: what can Ireland feasibly do to prevent the crisis of refugees from the Middle East and of economic migrants from Africa? I don't know, and I'm not sure anyone else does either. And that's what worries me: too many people - in the media, in politics and in the military - are seeking to 'justify themselves' rather than 'become just'.

Our little 'island behind an island' won't shelter us from the crises and consequences ahead.























Thursday, July 30, 2015

Labour's Lost Love

Apparently the Labour Party plans on winning the next election with the support of Ashbourne Annie. Good luck with that. While I'm sure there's more than a few voters out there who would appreciate help with their childcare costs, it's hard to see it being a big vote winner for Labour. And if it does looks like one then expect it to figure in more than a few manifestos.

But Labour's decline in Ireland has little to do with childcare costs or the Ashbourne Annies of this world. It goes a lot deeper than that. Recent analyses of Labour's performance in the UK shed some light on the decline. The problem for Labour in Ireland as in the UK is that it has lost its soul. Here's Luke Bretherton on the topic:
But if any meaningful language and vision of change is to emerge within the Labour Party, it needs to develop a way of talking about love and sin. To do this it needs to focus more on organizing and less on policy and procedure. It needs to be more populist and less progressive. To romance the electorate it must learn again to speak in the idioms of ordinary people. Rather than impose on them brittle schemes of social engineering, it needs to draw on the traditions and customary practices of the people it wants to represent in order to discover ways of forging a common life - a life that cares for the heart and soul, not just the market and the state. 
Admittedly that's not the sort of insight you'll get from a focus group in Ashbourne, or anywhere else for that matter. Modern political parties - on the left and on the right - are entirely managerialist in nature and simply offer to be better bureaucrats than the opposition. No wonder people are disengaged from politics.

Ironically, the left, including Labour, is a victim of its own success. The left replaced the politics of class identity and solidarity with the politics of cultural Marxism. The result was the destruction of much of the social capital and networks that had existed outside of the state and the market and had sustained the historical labour movement in the past. As Bruce Charlton observes:
What we have seen instead has been the near complete destruction of civil society in the West - and the process has bee all but un-remarked and un-noted as a general phenomenon. Almost all forms of human association have been brought under control of the state, most are irrelevant, participation in civil society is very low and feeble, many churches, professions social hobby groups been severely weakened or become extinct. 
Funnily enough, some on the left are beginning to notice that they've taken a wrong turn. John Milbank argues that Labour needs to differentiate between being 'market friendly' vs 'business friendly', recognising that the market economy - with its crafts and guilds which gave rise to the labour movement - predates the capitalist economy. While Chris Dillow thinks Labour needs to lose the blinkered view that only the State or the Market can solve all our problems: again, there are lots of social and economic alternatives that could restore the civil society that used to exist.

Indeed, such a project of restoration might unleash youthful energies that go far beyond the humdrum of politics. The always quotable Camille Paglia has this to say about today's young:
We have a whole generation of young people who are clinging to politics and to politicized visions of sexuality for their belief system.  They see nothing but politics, but politics is tiny.  Politics applies only to society. There is a huge metaphysical realm out there that involves the eternal principles of life and death. The great tragic texts, including the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, no longer have the central status they once had in education, because we have steadily moved away from the heritage of western civilization. 
It might be a hard sell to Ashbourne Annie, but it might just strike a chord with a lot of people who used to support Labour, until they realised that Labour no longer supported them.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Jarrow II

Next year sees the 80th anniversary of the Jarrow March at the height of the Great Depression in England in the 1930s.  Some 200 men marched over 26 days from Jarrow to London in October 1936, to draw attention to the devastating impact of economic collapse on their town and community and to seek support from the British Government. It was a complete failure.

But after World War II, many attributed the new spirit of social reform to the memory of Jarrow and other protests like it that galvanised the country to never again allow such suffering in its midst.

I have a suggestion for the Greeks: pick 200 (or maybe '300' would be more appropriate?) to march (or lead a motorcade) from Athens to Berlin, taking in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic along the way: a distance of some 2,900 kilometres.  Calling on the support of political parties and communities in the countries they pass through who in turn are opposed to 'perpetual austerity' in order to forge a new consciousness across the European Union about what is happening and what needs to be done.

It might take longer than the march from Jarrow to London, but the fruits might come sooner too.




Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Where is Martin Luther when you need him?

The ugly just got uglier - via The Automatic Earth:
The structure of the EU itself guarantees that Germany will always come out on top. But they can only stay on top by being lenient and above all fair, by letting the other countries share some of the loot. 
To know how this works, watch Marlon Brando, as Don Corleone, talk to the heads of the five families in the Godfather. You need to know what to do to, as he puts it, “keep the peace”. He’s accepted as the top leader precisely because the other capos understand he knows how. 
The Germans have shown that they don’t know this. And therefore, here comes a prediction, it’ll be all downhill from here for them. Germany’s period of -relative- economic strength effectively ended this weekend. The flaws in its economy will now be exposed, and the cracks will begin to show. If you want to be the godfather, the very first requirement is you need to be seen as fair. Or you will have no trust. And without trust you have nothing. It is not difficult. 
Germany will never get a deal like the EU has been for them, again. It was the best deal ever. And now they blew it, and they have no-one to blame but themselves. And really, the Godfather metaphor is a very apt one, in more ways than one. Schäuble could never be the capo di tutti capi, no-one would ever trust him in that role. Because he’s not a fair man. But he still tries to play the role. Big mistake. 
The people here in Greece are being forced to pay for years for something they were never a part of, and that they never profited from. The profits all went to a corrupt elite. And if there’s one thing Don Corleone could tell you, it’s that that’s a bad business model. Because it leads to war, to people being killed, to unrest, and all of that is bad for business.
Though in fairness to Wolfgang Schäuble he did actually make the Greeks an offer they could have accepted, according to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard:
In an odd way, the only European politician who was really offering Greece a way out of the impasse was Wolfgang Schauble, the German finance minister, even if his offer was made in a graceless fashion, almost in the form of diktat. 
His plan for a five-year velvet withdrawal from EMU – a euphemism, since he really meant Grexit – with Paris Club debt relief, humanitarian help, and a package of growth measures, might allow Greece to regain competitiveness under the drachma in an orderly way. 
Such a formula would imply intervention by the ECB to stabilise the drachma, preventing an overshoot and dangerous downward spiral. It would certainly have been better than the atrocious document that Mr Tsipras must now take back to Athens.
It may be too late for Tsipras to go back and ask him for more details, but the chances are the Greeks may well refuse the Don's offer anyway.

I mentioned before that Europe needs a second Reformation.  Rather than seeking a better Don Corleone (a dubious ambition to say the least) we would be better seeking a second Martin Luther, willing to speak truth to power almost 500 years after the last one. Though it's unlikely he'll be a German this time round...




Thursday, July 9, 2015

Democaplypse Now

The only distinction that democracies reward is a high degree of conformity. Ambrose Bierce
Steve Keen thinks we are all turning Japanese, or as he puts it more starkly:
We are now in an era of permanent debt-deflation, countered only by government deficits…
The 'We' by the way is most of the developed democracies in the world. In the presence of crushing levels of personal debt - and absent high enough inflation to reduce their share of nominal GDP - then we're up 'Greek Creek'. Even The Economist has started channelling Steve:
So if inflation has been hard to achieve and default looks like a risky option, then stagnation (or near-stagnation) ends up being the outcome. That has been the case in Japan, where sluggish economic growth has been the norm since its asset bubble burst in the early 1990s. But stagnation only postpones the problem. Japan has faced less pressure than most, since it owes money mainly to its own citizens—it does not have to worry about foreign creditors. Yet even Japan has tired of the situation: Abenomics was designed to get the country out of the trap by generating more growth and inflation.
Greece is but a leading indicator of what the rest of Europe will have to face. With one of Europe's fastest ageing populations coupled with unaffordable pension commitments then more debt (private or public) is the last thing the country needs to escape its euro-denominated chains.  

An orderly exit from the euro is Greece's 'least worst' option right now. And if they have any sense they'll introduce the Drachma as a parallel currency before the exit is complete. By the way, we should do the same in Ireland as part of our own Anti-Fragile strategy. Always good to have options.

As usual, Nigel Farage isn't afraid to speak truth to power:









Saturday, July 4, 2015

Morality Tales

The unfolding Greek drama provides a teachable moment, via Interfluidity:
Among creditors, a big catchphrase now is “moral hazard”. We cannot be too kind to Greece, we cannot forgive their debt with few string attached, because what kind of precedent would that set? If bad borrowers, other sovereigns, got the idea that they can overborrow without consequence, if Spanish and Portuguese populists perceive perhaps a better deal is on offer, they might demand that. They might continue to borrow and expect forgiveness, and where would it end except for the bankruptcy of the good Europeans who actually produce and save? 
The nerve. The fucking nerve. Lenders, having been made nearly whole on their ill-conceived, profit-motivated punts, now fear that if anybody is nice to somebody who doesn’t deserve it, where will it end? I’d resort to that cliché about chutspa, the kid who murders his parents then seeks leniency ‘cuz he’s an orphan. But it’s really too cute for the occasion. 
For the record, my sophisticated hard-working elite European interlocutors, the term moral hazard traditionally applies to creditors. It describes the hazard to the real economy that might result if investors fail to discriminate between valuable and not-so-valuable projects when they allocate society’s scarce resources as proxied by money claims. Lending to a corrupt, clientelist Greek state that squanders resources on activities unlikely to yield growth from which the debt could be serviced? That is precisely, exactly, what the term “moral hazard” exists to discourage. You did that. Yes, the Greek state was an unworthy and sometimes unscrupulous debtor. Newsflash: The world is full of unworthy and unscrupulous entities willing to take your money and call the transaction a “loan”. It always will be. That is why responsibility for, and the consequences of, extending credit badly must fall upon creditors, not debtors. There is one morality tale that says the debtor must repay, or she has sinned and must be punished. There is another morality tale that says the creditor must invest wisely, or she has stewarded resources poorly and must be punished. We get to choose which morality tale we most use to make sense of the world. We do, and surely should, use both to some degree. 
Read the whole thing.

With the FT reporting that, come Monday, Greek banks may 'bail in' their customers via a haircut of 30% of deposits over €8,000 (because all the larger depositors removed their money weeks and months ago), then the teachable moment will drive its lesson home good and hard.



Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Wrong Vision

"What discords will drive Europe into that artificial unity—only dry or drying sticks can be tied into a bundle—which is the decadence of every civilisation?" A VisionWilliam Butler Yeats
The bundle of sticks Yeats was referring to back in 1937 was of course the fasces, an ancient symbol that subsequently gave us the word fascism, then on the rise in Europe. Today, Europe's decadence - and Greece's tragic demise - is now tied up in another artificial union that is sure to fall apart.

Greece - and the rest of the European Union - should have spent the past five years helping Greece depart the euro. Instead, the artificial unity has been preserved at all costs, and to Ireland's shame we have been playing the part of Germany's loyal Rottweiler in the negotiations, ignoring Germany's own history of debt forgiveness.

The Greeks are far from blameless in this sorry saga: after all, they still manage to spend 2.2% of GDP on defence, far above the EU average and enough to pay for much of the pension and other spending they are now obliged to cut. Though it may be the price of keeping the Colonels happy.

Someone - a Greek as it happens - once said that there is no such place as Greece. The Greek mindset is in a sense 'pre-nationalist': more focused on regional, party and tribal loyalties. Hence the general antipathy to paying taxes. A bit like Ireland until at least the 1980s come to think of it.

But Greece - and the rest of Europe - deserves better than this shoddy treatment of a people whose ancestors gave us much of what makes us Europeans. There's only one thing a bundle of dry sticks is good for, as Yeats witnessed only a few short years after penning his prophetic words.



HT The Archdruid Report for the Yeats quote - I hadn't come across it before.






Monday, June 15, 2015

The Happiness of Science

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. Robert Jastrow

I hope it's not a leading indicator (of the inverse kind) but there seem to be an awful lot of articles about the science of happiness recently. Whether it's 'well-being', 'happiness', 'quality of life', or 'life satisfaction' it appears that scientists are determined to come with a definitive formula for happiness at the level of individuals and even entire countries. I wish them well.

Social scientists have led the quest, though an awful lot of what they add involves slightly suspect analyses based on correlations between existing data series that were never designed to measure well-being or happiness in the first place. Case in point: Boston Consulting Group's Sustainable Economic Development Assessment or SEDA. Well-being is linked to an amalgam of indicators and sub-indicators under the headings of economics, sustainability and investment. Like a great many similar composite measures the choice of indicators seems to be partly a matter of what is readily available (and reasonably up-to-date) overlaid with a narrative about why a particular combination of indicators and themes best explains (or even predicts) a variable such as well-being or satisfaction. This despite the fact that many of the composite indicators are highly correlated with one another and don't really add an awful lot by way of explanation once the impact of, say, GDP per capita is taken into account.

The World Happiness Report does go further, using Gallup poll data from 156 countries (including answers to the Cantrill Ladder question which asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0, then to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale). The report then uses regression analysis to establish what explains the differences between countries in their Cantrill Ladder averages, finding that it's a function of variables such as GDP per capita, life expectancy, and answers to other poll questions about social support, corruption etc. Ireland ranks 18th, by the way, well below Israel in 11th place - go figure.

More recently, a major study on quality of life in Europe - based entirely on surveys - showed that variation in overall life satisfaction across Europe can be explained by a range of factors, including subjective perceptions of finances, environment, health etc. Only problem is all the subjective perceptions are highly correlated. A simple regression analysis of the average data for all the countries in the survey shows that subjective satisfaction with accommodation 'explains' more than 80% of the variation in life satisfaction, ignoring all other factors. Correlations again.

But leave it to the medical profession to get to the heart of the matter: according to the Mayo Clinic science tells us that purpose, gratitude, living in the moment and being with loved ones is the true source of happiness. Who knew? And yet, and yet... I can't help feeling that much of what passes for the science of happiness is unhappy science. If nearly half the scientific literature may simply be untrue (and that's according to The Lancet), then we need to take happiness findings with a large dose of skeptical salt. Even Daniel Kahneman, the grandfather of happiness research, thinks that 'a train wreck is looming' for the behavioural sciences never mind the 'hard' sciences because of shoddy research methods.

But it goes beyond research methods and mundane correlations. There's a worrying ideological slant to much of the research. Jonathan Haidt - himself a self-described liberal - thinks that academia's liberal bias is killing social science. Take some of the studies referred to above. The World Happiness Report doesn't mention religion once as an influence on happiness (though the word pops up twice in the title of referenced articles). The EU report on quality of life doesn't mention religion at all (despite long expositions on the meaning of life), though in fairness the word 'spirituality' does appear once in a footnote. The EU report does, however, have lots to say about GPG - or Gender Pay Gap. Which is odd because, despite numerous references to the evil of GPG (and the even more remarkable failure of entrepreneurial business people to set up 'women only' businesses to take advantage of the apparent gap), it doesn't explain why it adversely affects quality of life and life satisfaction in Europe (possibly because the same report tells us that women have a slightly higher life satisfaction than men?)

In fact there is considerable evidence for the hypothesis that religious people are happier on average than non-religious people, and it appears to have something to do with, well, religion. But that doesn't fit the 'liberal frame' and so is completely ignored. Which is a pity really, as it would make for a better science of happiness, and even for more happy scientists wishing to avoid the disappointment Robert Jastrow anticipated.



Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Establishment Won

One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny. 
Bertrand Russell

Sometimes history is just 'one damned thing after another', and sometimes something historic happens. Last week's referendum result on same-sex marriage certainly falls into the latter category. While it's a little early to tell precisely just how historic the result was - from the vantage point of one week later - I think we can begin to discern some interesting consequences.

History is written by the victors, and even at this early stage the story of what happened is taking on a discernible, even predictable narrative. As with most rights-based political campaigns - from Civil Rights in the United States to ending Apartheid in South Africa, and even to divorce and abortion here in Ireland - the Narrative usually follows an arc from hostile, even violent rejection by the Establishment to ultimate triumph by a group of passionate and brave idealists in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It's an appealing narrative because, much of the time, it's actually true.

Which brings us back to last Friday's referendum. It would appear from the re-telling that the Yes campaign began facing seemingly insurmountable odds, with little in the way of support (beyond the entire political system, the mass media, both the multinational and public sectors and a few dollars more) while taking on the combined might of the Iona Institute and, er, John Waters. It was a close run thing, but the Yes campaign finally prevailed and the Establishment lost.

Except that the Establishment won. The purpose of all politics is power - for good or ill - and if we apply the 'power test' to last week's referendum then we can safely say that the result strengthened the Establishment rather than weakened it. Yes, but 'who' is the Establishment you are asking? Let's say who it isn't first. It isn't the Catholic Church, though they were certainly once part of the Establishment. But the Narrative demands a Loser and obviously it suits many to portray the Catholic Church as the biggest loser last week. Even a lot of Catholics (both inside and outside Ireland) think that. However, anyone who thinks the Catholic Church is still part of the Establishment in Ireland must have recently arrived in a time capsule from the 1970s: things have changed a bit since then.

The Establishment in Ireland today comprises - in no particular order - the main political parties, state organisations (national and local), representative bodies, the Gardai, large corporations, various supra-national institutions such as the EU, the Social Partners etc.  In a word, all those calling for a Yes vote in the referendum. The Establishment won: congratulations.

Brendan O'Neill - once again - has a particularly interesting perspective on how the politics of same-sex marriage actually strengthens the state:
What we have here is not the politics of autonomy, but the politics of identity. Where the politics of autonomy was about ejecting the state from gay people’s lives — whether it was Stonewall rioters kicking the cops out of their bars or Peter Tatchell demanding the dismantling of all laws forbidding homosexual acts — the politics of identity calls upon the state to intervene in gay people’s lives, and offer them its recognition, its approval. For much of the past 50 years, radical gay-rights activism was in essence about saying ‘We do not need the approval of the state to live how we choose’; now, in the explicit words of The Politics of Same-Sex Marriage, it’s about seeking ‘the sanction of the state for our intimate relationships’. The rise of gay marriage over the past 10 years speaks, profoundly, to the diminution of the culture of autonomy, and its replacement by a far more nervous, insecure cultural outlook that continually requires lifestyle validation from external bodies. And the state is only too happy to play this authoritative role of approver of lifestyles, as evidenced in Enda Kenny’s patronising (yet widely celebrated) comment about Irish gays finally having their ‘fragile and deeply personal hopes realised’.
As a small aside, the Establishment also 'won' the other referendum too: no point letting inexperienced youths get hold of the Presidency (power again), better to leave these things to their elders and betters don't you think?

They say about referenda, and not just in Ireland, that often voters 'answer the wrong question'. So when the No side won the first Lisbon referendum, the explanation was they were answering the question 'Is the Government doing a good job' rather than 'should the Treaty of Lisbon be ratified?' We got the answer 'right' second time round of course. But sometimes people also say Yes to a different question than the one they're being asked. A lot of people voted Yes last week to the question 'Would Ireland be a better place if we didn't discriminate against gay people the way they were often cruelly discriminated against in the past'? Naturally most people answered Yes; so would I to such a question. But that wasn't the question.

The remarkable thing in hindsight is that the No campaign got 38% of the vote: 734,300 in total. All the opinion polls prior to the vote - and I mean ALL - were wrong about the size of the No share. Not just out by a bit, but out by more than double the error in the recent UK election polling debacle. So while there has been understandable speculation about the newly awakened political activism of the young generation, I'm not so sure. What nobody seems to be pointing out is that they went and did what the Establishment was urging them to do by voting Yes. I thought the young were supposed to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, not do its bidding? And then there was the result of that other referendum: so much for a newly awakened generation of political activists seizing the reigns of power.

That nearly 4 in 10 voted against the Establishment is quite remarkable and in most democracies would be seen by one opposition party or another as a golden opportunity to rally a significant number of voters to an alternative platform. But not in Ireland apparently, even (or especially) if you are Fianna Fáil. There's Renua of course (strap-line: 'The Same, Only Nicer'), then again, maybe not.

But back to history and its making. What is truly historic about the times we live in is the speed with which Irish culture and social values are changing. Some of it is about virtue signalling, but the speed and nature of change goes much further. The introduction of same-sex marriage won't change much on its own. As I said about the introduction of civil partnerships nearly six years ago, the number of gay couples availing of their new-won rights will be trivially small in the scheme of things (both numerically and as a share of all marriages/civil partnerships). Though I don't doubt its importance to the happiness of those gay couples who will avail of marriage.

Rather it is the wider impact of change that matters in the long run. Ireland is progressing rapidly (perhaps more than others) from what Charles Taylor describes as a 'Secular 2' society (the modern concept of the secular as 'areligious') to a 'Secular 3' society (a post-modern age which sees an explosive 'supernova' of contested beliefs: religious, irreligious and anti-religious).  As James KA Smith describes it, the secular is haunted. Ireland is no exception.

In a way, last week's referendum result marked the moment Ireland became 'just like everywhere else': apparently no longer weighed down by a heritage of sexual, religious and cultural repression. Witnessing the celebrations of the Yes campaign, James Matthew Wilson wrote about the Irish:
But, finally, they take joy in becoming what, it seems, they were always meant to become. An unexceptional country floating somewhere in the waters off a continent that has long since entered into cultural decline, demographic winter, and the petty and perpetual discontents that come free of charge to every people that lives for nothing much in particular.
I'm not so gloomy, but I see some of what he portends. Though there is a more immediate problem: we may be losing the shared vocabulary of political discourse necessary to sustain a healthy democracy (secular or otherwise). Assuming we can find any politicians willing to join in the discourse. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, surveying the same contested political landscape in the United States, notes that:
The biggest problem we face as a culture isn’t gay marriage or global warming. It’s not abortion funding or the federal debt. These are vital issues, clearly. But the deeper problem, the one that’s crippling us, is that we use words like justice, rights, freedom and dignity without any commonly shared meaning to their content. 
We speak the same language, but the words don’t mean the same thing. Our public discourse never gets down to what’s true and what isn’t, because it can’t. Our most important debates boil out to who can deploy the best words in the best way to get power.
Back to politics and power again. The Establishment always wins.


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...


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