Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

On the benefits of expertise

Zephyr Teachout makes an interesting case for populism at the Nation (cheers to Steve for the link). Her point is that modren western democracies are becoming increasingly reliant on "expertise" at the expense of popular input. I agree with her on some stuff, but I'm not sure about all the spleen she vents at experts (blindingly obvious full disclosure: I am a Ph.D student and thus hope one day to become an "expert" myself).

First off, she does identify quite a serious problem. "Serious" news outlets have been using the word "populist" a lot this election cycle, and it's not usually a term of approbation. But is democracy not meant to be about listening to the populace?If we've got to the stage where we use the term to mean both "catering to majority opinion" and "likely to be idiotic", what exactly does this say about the US (and UK) political system?

The thing is, on concrete examples, there are a lot of populist measures that look just that. The sad fact is that people will often demand stupid things of their governments. This leads the article into some pretty convoluted reasoning early on:

Not only are policy decisions measured against expert opinion, but the practice of politics is measured against expert opinion, so that (just to pick a random article--there are too many) a Reuters article about Obama's recent (disappointing) gestures away from diplomatically engaging Iran ended with a Rutgers professor approving of Obama's "correction", because it "makes sense politically" is "better for him to make that course correction now than later in the campaign." In the Reuters article you see two troubling trends in political reporting perfectly fused--tactics over content, experts over citizens.

Now it's fair to say that the news cycle focuses too much on tactics instead of content, but the fact is that Obama seems to be making a fairly "populist" move there. There are any number of pointy-headed experts who think that attempting negotiations with Iran might have some beneficial results, but he's tacking away from them and moving towards popular opinion.

I s'pose that might be unfair, since the article goes on to make the point that it's the lack of civic engagement that the writer (man or woman, by the way? Upadate: solved. Zephyr Teachout is female. Thankyou Wikipedia) has a beef with:

Skocpol, Toqueville, and Verba suggest something important for understanding populism, and for rebutting the anti-populists and expert-lovers. People are not necessarily engaged, they are not born as naturally great citizens--and they will not vote intelligently because Rock the Vote tells them its cool--but they can be, if we collectively choose to have a society in which politics is normal, in which the skills of understanding, debating and advocacy are learned in other ways.
So rattling the sabre at Iran probably qualifies as "pandering," rather than "true responsiveness": the sort of thing that will please the ideological voters who've been turned off to politics proper, but not something that would wash with a civicly engaged populace. It is, of course, an article of faith that a population with an interest in politics would reach a sane conclusion on Iran, but I'm enough of an optimist to agree that that's possible. But it seems to me that for that to happen in any sort of informed way, you're going to need a nuclear inspector or two.

While no-one is likely to quibble with the idea that more civic engagement is a good thing, but I don't think that means that expertise is bad. Suppose we get more people taking civic action about, say, climate change: presumably we aren't then going to fire all the climatologists because their "expertise" is a block on the democratic process. The same thing, I hope, goes for geneticists and all those other fancy "experts" on evolution. What about doctors? Even in the really social things, like law and economics, presumably a little bit of specialisation does help on some issues.

I think essentially the writer's confusing cause and effect. Yes, there's a lack of civic engagement, and yes, this means that a lot of politics ends up being for sale, and that includes a lot of the "experts" needed to run government. But that's not so much an over-abundance of "experts" as a lack of them. The truth is that the two processes are actually complementary: any sort of civic engagement worth wanting is going to be guided by some sort of expertise. That's pretty much right there in the definition of "reasoned debate."

This is not to say of course, that we should just trust whatever someone says because they're meant to be an expert, or that we shouldn't subject the procedures through which people get to become experts to a good deal of political scrutiny. But railing on expertise is not the solution.

Can we have Thom Yorke knighted?

From the Guardian:

It may have seemed like an unusual artistic union: Prince covering Radiohead's angst-ridden classic Creep. But when fans, including Radiohead, flocked to YouTube for a glimpse of the Purple One's unique rendition of the song, they found the video, recorded by a fan at a music festival in California, had been taken down at the behest of Prince's litigious record label.

Radiohead's Thom Yorke said he was told of the performance by text message and thought it "hilarious". But when he was informed he could not see the song, for which his band owns the copyright, he was baffled.

"Really? He's blocked it?" Yorke was reported to have said. "Surely we should block it. Hang on a moment ... well tell him to unblock it, it's our song."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Road Rage

For all our talk about being the birthplace of modern parliamentary democracy, the liberal tradition, etc. etc., we really don't seem to be that fussed about civil liberties in Britain. We can be the most surveyed nation on the planet (probably) and all that worries anyone is that we're not linking the cameras sufficiently to the ASBO system. But as soon as someone wants to start surveying cars, everyone turns into fucking Braveheart, whining on about the dreadful threat to our traditional British love of freedom.

So it's not surprising that the only thing we ever take serious "industrial action" over any more is rising fuel prices. Which, if you're going to pick one issue to get shirty with the government over, seems to me a particularly fucking stupid one. Yes, we have a high fuel tax, but I really can't see the harm. In case you missed it, people, fuel is going to be getting more expensive whether or not the government taxes it. Cut the tax now and diesel will probably find it's way back to £1.20 a litre anyway. A "competitive economy" in the future is going to be one that can do more with less fuel, and the way to achieve that is not to start slashing prices at the pumps.

So here's a suggestion. How about the government starts ring-fencing its new found fuel-tax profits, and uses them to subsidise mass transit, R&D for alternative energy, and other fuel efficiency measures, while setting some aside to re-skill people in the affected industries?

Because, one way or another, we're going to have to get used to expensive fuel, and that is an honest-to-God plan for doing it. Cutting fuel tax and waiting for prices to rise again is just a way of prolonging the inevitable.

Political economics

Slate has a good article on how financial markets try to factor in the results of presidential elections. Long story short: it's a waste of time. In part this is a globalisation story: the economic effects of a change in government are small potatoes compared to factors like the rise of China and soaring commodity prices. But an interesting detail is that analysts also get it wrong on the small details as well. In particular:

Political market calls are conceived in sin, since most are based on the false premise that the stock market prefers Republicans to Democrats. According to Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at Standard & Poor's Equity Research, between 1945 and 2007 the S&P 500 rose 10.7 percent annually when Democrats occupied the White House, compared with a 7.6 percent annual increase under Republicans. Those who, fearing higher taxes, sold stocks after Bill Clinton's inaugural missed out on a great rally. And those who, anticipating lower taxes, plunged into the market in January 2001 entered what has been a lost decade for U.S. stocks; since 2000, the markets of countries like Brazil and China have lapped their American cousins.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The politics of spiteful nationalism

Usually I'm not really a great fan of Jeffrey Goldberg, but his stuff on Israel of late has been interesting. Here's a good example from the NYT, focusing on the fundamental disconnect between the perceptions of ordinary Israelis, and some of the states more :

These Jewish leaders, who live in Chicago and New York and behind the gates of Boca Raton country clubs, loathe the idea that Mr. Olmert, or a prime minister yet elected, might one day cede the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to the latent state of Palestine. These are neighborhoods — places like Sur Baher, Beit Hanina and Abu Dis — that the Conference of Presidents could not find with a forked stick and Ari Ben Canaan as a guide. And yet many Jewish leaders believe that an Israeli compromise on the boundaries of greater Jerusalem — or on nearly any other point of disagreement — is an axiomatic invitation to catastrophe.

One leader, Joshua Katzen, of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, told me, “I think that Israelis don’t have the big view of global jihad that American Jews do, because Israelis are caught up in their daily emergencies.” When I asked him how his Israeli friends responded to this, he answered: “They say, ‘When your son has to fight, you can have an opinion.’ But I tell them that it is precisely because your son has to fight that you have a harder time seeing the larger picture.”

This certainly fits with my own, rather limited perception of Israel, which is a country in which a reasonable (if somewhat paranoid) majority, who'd like a two-state solution if they thought it was possible, is essentially being sacrificed to the whims of the vocal minority of religious lunatics determined to expand their settlements until they coincide exactly with those suggested in the Torah. The trouble is that, obviously, that the vocal minority does a much better job of marketing a romantic, religious vision of what a "homeland" should look like. "A "global vision" of Jews fulfilling their destiny and fighting some hazily defined menace is always much more appealing than just thinking of a bunch of folks trying to find a way to minimise their "day-to-day emergencies" and get along.

Uncritically adopting the really fundamentalist and unsavory aspects of the national politics of the "motherland" is a really easy way to prove your Jewish/Irish/whatever credentials. You don't need to know any of the details of the debate - just buy into a few fundamentalist polemics and, Hey Presto, you instantly get to feel like part of whichever movement tickles your fancy. Usually this sort of ethno-nationalism on the cheap can seem reasonably harmless. We've all met Irish-Americans in times past whose idea of respecting their cultural roots seemed to consist of being unspeakably rude to any English folk they met. All this meant was that I had trouble getting served in Irish bars when I went to New York (unless, of course, they had actual Irish people working there). The trouble starts when they delude themselves into thinking that they actually do know what's going on, and, in an attempt to put their money where their mouths are, start donating it to the IRA.

Anyway, the point is that Israeli politics in the US is like that times 1000. With regards to US policy towards Israel, this is all profoundly unhelpful. US presidential hopefuls have to genuflect to this cartoon-version of what a sensible Israel policy would look like, and this stops them from pushing the sort of sensible compromises that would actually help Israel in the long-run.*

*Matthew Yglesias, however, suggests a possible glimmer of hope in the form of J-street, a new US Jewish lobbying organization devoted less to crazy ideological wars and more to sensible policy proposals. Lets hope.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Sabotaging Hope and Destroying Unity

The Nation's Betsy Reed illustrates, in a long but worthwhile read, how the Clinton campaign has sewn division amongst the Democratic base by bringing race into play during the primaries in an increasingly-desperate attempt to make Hilary appear the more electable nominee, while at the same time taking the all-too-predictable cheap shots from the right because of her gender.

Should McCain and the GOP take the White House again in November, despite the appalling mismanagement, corruption and outright criminality of the last eight years of George W. Bush's administration, it may be that they will have had the groundwork laid by the Clinton campaign to thank for it. As the saying goes, "With friends like this..."

THIS JUST IN: an editorial in today's New York Times seems to agree.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Fascists Undermine U.S. Democratic Primaries

If further proof was ever required that the most rabid hardcore Republicans in the US have no respect for democracy or its values, one need only look to Rush Limbaugh's so-called 'Operation Chaos' for the latest example of the right's electoral sabotage of the democratic process.

The next time an American conservative commentator accuses anyone from the political center leftwards of acting in a "divisive" or even treasonous manner, consider who really is threatening the republic by openly stoking discord amongst society at a time of grave national peril and then bragging about it over the national airwaves.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The author of 'The Lexus and the Olive Tree'...

... finally appears to get it. But will Americans accept the truth or will the next President who tries to do something akin to levelling with the people merely go the same way in office as the last one who tried that?

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

America must never forget...

For those who'd forgotten, here's a reminder of the really important reason for making sure John McCain never becomes president.

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