Caesar’s view of politics

From Christian Meier’s 1982 biography of Caesar:

“Caesar was insensitive to political institutions and the complex ways in which they operate. . . . Since his year as consul, if not before, Caesar had been unable to see Rome’s institutions as autonomous entities. . . . He could see them only as instruments in the interplay of forces. His cold gaze passed through everything that Roman society still believed in, lived by, valued and defended. He had no feeling for the power of institutions . . . , but only for what he found useful or troublesome about them. . . . In Caesar’s eye’s no one existed but himself and his opponents. It was all an interpersonal game. . . . The scene was cleared of any suprapersonal elements. Or if any were left, they were merely props behind which one could take cover or with which one could fight.”

Remind you of anyone?
HT to Eric Schliesser

Testosterone rules OK!

Hmmm… Interesting column by David Brooks about why Steve Bannon, Trump’s ideological counsellor who has a big influence on his speeches, has apparently zero impact on the policies (such as they are) that have emerged from the White House.

Why is Bannonism being abandoned? One possibility is that there just aren’t enough Trumpians in the world to staff an administration, so Trump and Bannon have filled their apparatus with old guard Republicans who continue to go about their jobs in old guard pseudo-libertarian ways.

The second possibility, raised by Rich Lowry in Politico, is that the Republican sweep of 2016 was won on separate tracks. Trump won on populism, but congressional Republicans won on the standard cut-government script. The congressional Republicans are better prepared, and so their plans are crowding out anything Bannon might have contemplated.

The third possibility is that Donald Trump doesn’t really care about domestic policy; he mostly cares about testosterone.

He wants to cut any part of government that may seem soft and nurturing, like poverty programs. He wants to cut any program that might seem emotional and airy-fairy, like the National Endowment for the Arts. He wants to cut any program that might seem smart and nerdy, like the National Institutes of Health.

But he wants to increase funding for every program that seems manly, hard, muscular and ripped, like the military and armed antiterrorism programs.

Indeed, the Trump budget looks less like a political philosophy and more like a sexual fantasy. It lavishes attention on every aspect of hard power and slashes away at anything that isn’t.

The Trump health care and budget plans will be harsh on the poor, which we expected. But they’ll also be harsh on the working class, which we didn’t.

The big question — as Brooks says — is what happens when the people who voted for Trump realise the extent to which they have been betrayed?

Timothy Snyder: post-truth is pre-fascism

Sobering interview with the Yale historian who has recently published On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. The interview was conducted by Steven Rosenfeld (SR in the transcript). Two segments in particular stand out.

First:

We think about democracy, and that’s the word that Americans love to use, democracy, and that’s how we characterize our system. But if democracy just means going to vote, it’s pretty meaningless. Russia has democracy in that sense. Most authoritarian regimes have democracy in that sense. Nazi Germany had democracy in that sense, even after the system had fundamentally changed.

Democracy only has substance if there’s the rule of law. That is, if people believe that the votes are going to be counted and they are counted. If they believe that there’s a judiciary out there that will make sense of things if there’s some challenge. If there isn’t rule of law, people will be afraid to vote the way they want to vote. They’ll vote for their own safety as opposed to their convictions. So the thing we call democracy depends on the rule of law. And the things we call the rule of law depends upon trust. Law functions 99 percent of the time automatically. It functions because we think it’s out there. And that, in turn, depends on the sense of truth. So there’s a mechanism here. You can get right to heart of the matter if you can convince people that there is no truth. Which is why the stuff that we characterize as post-modern and might dismiss is actually really, really essential.

The second thing about “post-truth is pre-fascism” is I’m trying to get people’s attention, because that is actually how fascism works. Fascism says, disregard the evidence of your senses, disregard observation, embolden deeds that can’t be proven, don’t have faith in God but have faith in leaders, take part in collective myth of an organic national unity and so forth. Fascism was precisely about setting the whole Enlightenment aside and then selling what sort of myths emerged. Now those [national] myths are pretty unpredictable, and contingent on different nations and different leaders and so on, but to just set facts aside is actually the fastest catalyst. So that part concerns me a lot.

And then this:

SR: I want to change the topic slightly. You cite many examples from Germany in 1933, the year Hitler consolidated power. So what did ordinary Germans miss that’s relevant for ordinary Americans now? I know some of this is the blurring of facts. But when I have talked to Holocaust survivors, they often say, nobody ever thought things would be that bad, or nobody thought the Germans would go as far as they did.

TS: The German Jews then, and people now, don’t understand how quick their neighbors will change; don’t understand how quickly society can change. They don’t understand the fact that a life that’s been predictable for a long time, doesn’t mean that it will be predictable tomorrow. And people like to think that their experience is exceptional. German Jews might have thought, “Well, there were pogroms [ethnic cleansing] in Russia, but surely nothing like that could happen here.” That’s what many German Jews thought. So one issue is people need to realize how quickly things can change.

The second thing that German Jews were not aware of, or Germans were not aware of, was how new media can quickly change conversations. In that way, it’s not exactly the same, but radio at that time often ended up being a channel for propaganda. There are parallels with the internet now, where there were hopes that it would be [primarily] enlightening. But in fact, it turns out that with presidential tweets, or with bots, or isolated habits of viewing, it isn’t necessarily enlightening. It’s the opposite. A lot of us were blindsided by the internet in much the same way that people could be blindsided by radio in the 1930s.

But here’s the other view. The one that we have that German Jews didn’t have in 1933 is we have their experience. That’s the premise of the whole book; the premise is that the 20th century showed us what can happen, and there’s lots of wonderful scholarship by German historians and others, which breaks down what can happen and how. And so, one of the first things that we should be doing is taking advantage of the one opportunity that we really have that they didn’t, which is to learn from that history. And that’s the premise of the book.

On the sociology of the last five minutes…

… or what Adam Gopnik calls “presentism” in his review article on books by Pankaj Misha, Joel Mokyr and Yuval Noah Harari.

Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it. If the West has broken down the Berlin Wall and McDonald’s opens in St. Petersburg, then history is over and Thomas Friedman is content. If, by a margin so small that in a voice vote you would have no idea who won, Brexit happens; or if, by a trick of an antique electoral system designed to give country people more power than city people, a Donald Trump is elected, then pluralist constitutional democracy is finished. The liberal millennium was upon us as the year 2000 dawned; fifteen years later, the autocratic apocalypse is at hand. Thomas Friedman is concerned.

You would think that people who think for a living would pause and reflect that whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place; a baby who is crying now will stop crying sooner or later. Exhaustion, or a change of mood, or a passing sound, or a bright light, something, always happens next. But for the parents the wait can feel the same as forever, and for many pundits, too, now is the only time worth knowing, for now is when the baby is crying and now is when they’re selling your books.

And so the death-of-liberalism tomes and eulogies are having their day, with the publishers who bet on apocalypse rubbing their hands with pleasure and the ones who gambled on more of the same weeping like, well, babies.

Characteristically good piece by one of the New Yorker‘s best writers. He’s not overly impressed by Mishra or Harari, and prefers Mokyr’s less grandiose interest in people who make and do things as the real movers of history.

Is Snapchat the canary in the post-literate mine?

This morning’s Observer column:

To the average grownup [Snapchat] seems weird. And it is. Just when we’d got used to the idea that digital technology never forgets – that there’s no way of being sure that the embarrassing photograph you posted to Facebook five years ago will not stay on some server somewhere for ever – here’s a digital service that runs completely counter to that. And of course Snapchat’s wild popularity must owe something to the ephemerality of its messages.

But some perceptive observers are beginning to think that there’s more to it than that. One clue can be found in something that Evan Spiegel, the chief executive of Snap, recently said to a reporter. “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day,” he said. “What they don’t realise is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.” Another clue is hiding in plain sight in the name of the app: “snap” (the term introduced by Kodak for the act of taking a photograph) plus “chat” (which has connotations of oral conversation). So, in some strange way, is Snapchat beginning to assume the qualities of an oral medium?

Read on

The problem with ‘facts’

Tim Harford has a terrific article in the current issue of the Financial Times magazine about the current ‘post-truth’ hoo-hah. He starts in an unusual place — the way the tobacco industry reacted to the research in the early 1950s that smoking caused lung cancer. Summary: the ‘facts’ didn’t carry the day — or at any rate took an awful long time to have a major impact.

“The facts about smoking — indisputable facts, from unquestionable sources — did not carry the day. The indisputable facts were disputed. The unquestionable sources were questioned. Facts, it turns out, are important, but facts are not enough to win this kind of argument.”

The piece leans heavily on the work of the Stanford historian Robert Proctor who studied the tobacco case closely and coined the term ‘agnotology’ — the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced. Proctor’s book (a collection of essays edited by him and Linda Schiebinger) is Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance

The instinctive response of those of us who care about the truth, says Harford, is “to double down on the facts”. Hence all the recent initiatives. But,

“will this sudden focus on facts actually lead to a more informed electorate, better decisions, a renewed respect for the truth? The history of tobacco suggests not. The link between cigarettes and cancer was supported by the world’s leading medical scientists and, in 1964, the US Surgeon General himself. The story was covered by well-trained journalists committed to the values of objectivity. Yet the tobacco industry lobbyists ran rings around them.”

How? By deploying several tactics:

  1. Appear to engage with the issue, promising high-quality research into the question, but (of course) not delivering.
  2. Complicate the question and sow doubt: lung cancer might have lots of causes.
  3. Undermine serious research and expertise. Autopsy reports were merely anecdotal, epidemiological research was merely statistical, animal studies were irrelevant to human physiology.
  4. Normalisation: the cancer story was old news. Couldn’t journalists find something interesting to write about?

So can we see these tactics returning in our contemporary politics? Answer: yes. Harford cites a famous 1969 internal memo from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company which contains the phrase: “doubt is our product”. Because “doubt is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means for establishing a controversy”.

He adds:

“Doubt is usually not hard to produce, and facts alone aren’t enough to dispel it. We should have learnt this lesson already; now we’re going to have to learn it all over again.”

So what’s wrong with the strategy of fighting lies with facts? Harford sees three.

  1. “A simple untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts simply by being easier to understand and remember.” e.g. the £350m for the NHS used by the Leave campaign in the Referendum debate. “When doubt prevails, people will often end up believing whatever sticks in the mind… Once we’ve hears an untrue claim, people can’t simply unhear it.” So the lie-and-rebuttal strategy won’t work There are even studies showing that “repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick”.

  2. Facts tend to be boring. This is one reason why fake news and untruths stick in the mind — they seem interesting or striking. (And we know from the Buzzfeed study that they were more shared in the 2016 campaign.) So “in the war of ideas, boredom and distraction are powerful weapons”. This is why (as Gary King and his colleagues found) the famous Chinese “50c army” don’t get into arguments of any kind. The strategic objective of the regimes to distract and redirect public attention”. Trump understood this intuitively. Harford claims that the tobacco industry also understood the value of distraction — so they funded interesting research in areas not at all related to lung cancer (like the work that won Stanley Prusiner a Nobel prize). Much more interesting than boring old stuff on lung cancer.

  3. The truth can feel threatening if accepting it means that you have to rethink your own behaviour.

So it’s a depressing picture. Facts are toothless, boring and dull — and they can provoke a defensive reaction in the people who most need to hear them.

Is there a solution?

Harford cites a study exploring the role of scientific curiosity (rather than scientific literacy). What the researchers found, Harford reports, is that “while politically motivated reasoning trumps scientific knowledge” it appears to be negated by scientific curiosity. Scientifically literate people are more likely to be polarised in their answers to politically-charged scientific questions. But scientifically curious people were not.

So…

”We journalists and policy wonks can’t force anyone to pay attention to the facts. We have to find a way to make people want to seek them out. Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning bit it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find boring or confusing.”

So what we need, Harford thinks,

“is a Carl Sagan or David Attenborough of social science — somebody who can create a sense of wonder and fascination… at the workings of our own civilisation: health, migration, finance, education and diplomacy”.

Someone like Tim Harford, for example?

Snapchat: now you see it, now you don’t

Lovely Reuters piece by Rob Cox. Sample:

Investors have effectively just done what no self-respecting person ever should: wear sweatpants in public. With Snap’s $3.4 billion initial public offering they have simply given up giving a damn. They handed their money over to an immature company and in the process abrogated their rights to fair treatment, good governance and reasonable valuations.1 If the $24 billion self-styled “camera company” run by a 26-year-old fails to achieve its ambitions, shareholders have only their capitulated selves to blame.

Snap founder Evan Spiegel’s disappearing-message application has many things going for it. One of these attributes – its virtual inaccessibility by anyone over the age of 30 – may have helped its IPO. Few seasoned portfolio managers wagering on the maker of rainbow-vomit photo filters will have properly vetted the product, though they will have perhaps gauged its popularity by monitoring their children’s mobile-data usage.

Still, there is a bull case to be made for Snap, which is why the sale of its securities (calling them shares would be a crime against the Old English etymology of the word) was 10 times oversubscribed and Morgan Stanley priced them above the range at $17 apiece. Snap has 158 million users, who check into the app, like, 18 times a day. It grew revenue almost sevenfold in 2016 to $405 million. Snap’s backers hail it as the third pole to one day challenge Facebook and Alphabet in dominating the internet.

Later, reality dawned on the market and the price slumped.


  1. The shares on offer do not carry voting rights. 

Getting a handle on ‘fake news’ and the ‘post-truth’ stuff

I’m temperamentally suspicious of the “fake news” and “post-truth” discourse, for various reasons: it’s short on really hard evidence and detailed analysis; it attributes too much to non-mainstream media; it has an implicit nostalgia for a non-existent ‘truthful’ past; and it downplays the reasons why so many people in the UK and the US were willing to administer such a counterproductive (and perhaps self-defeating kick) to the (neo)liberal democratic system which has got us into this mess.

So it’s good to see more cautious, scholarly analyses emerging. Like this study by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, Hal Roberts, and Ethan Zuckerman.

Our own study of over 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015 and Election Day shows that a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world. This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.

While concerns about political and media polarization online are longstanding, our study suggests that polarization was asymmetric. Pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets, which continued to be the most prominent outlets across the public sphere, alongside more left-oriented online sites. But pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets that have developed recently, many of them only since the 2008 election season.

Attacks on the integrity and professionalism of opposing media were also a central theme of right-wing media. Rather than “fake news” in the sense of wholly fabricated falsities, many of the most-shared stories can more accurately be understood as disinformation: the purposeful construction of true or partly true bits of information into a message that is, at its core, misleading. Over the course of the election, this turned the right-wing media system into an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenged it. The prevalence of such material has created an environment in which the President can tell supporters about events in Sweden that never happened, or a presidential advisor can reference a non-existent “Bowling Green massacre.”

Thee’s also a really interesting NBER paper by Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow on “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election. The Abstract summarises it thus:

We present new evidence on the role of false stories circulated on social media prior to the 2016 US presidential election. Drawing on audience data, archives of fact-checking websites, and results from a new online survey, we find: (i) social media was an important but not dominant source of news in the run-up to the election, with 14 percent of Americans calling social media their “most important” source of election news; (ii) of the known false news stories that appeared in the three months before the election, those favoring Trump were shared a total of 30 million times on Facebook, while those favoring Clinton were shared eight million times; (iii) the average American saw and remembered 0.92 pro-Trump fake news stories and 0.23 pro-Clinton fake news stories, with just over half of those who recalled seeing fake news stories believing them; (iv) for fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake article would need to have had the same persuasive effect as 36 television campaign ads.