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.


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.

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.


”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?

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.

Extracting the moral signal from the populist noise

Apropos that earlier post, I was struck by this essay by danah boyd, and particularly by this passage:

If we don’t account for how people feel, we’re not going to achieve a more just world — we’re going to stoke the fires of a new cultural war as society becomes increasingly polarized.

The disconnect between statistical data and perception is astounding. I can’t help but shake my head when I listen to folks talk about how life is better today than it ever has been in history. They point to increased lifespan, new types of medicine, decline in infant mortality, and decline in poverty around the world. And they shake their heads in dismay about how people don’t seem to get it, don’t seem to get that today is better than yesterday. But perception isn’t about statistics. It’s about a feeling of security, a confidence in one’s ecosystem, a belief that through personal effort and God’s will, each day will be better than the last. That’s not where the vast majority of people are at right now. To the contrary, they’re feeling massively insecure, as though their world is very precarious.

I am deeply concerned that the people whose values and ideals I share are achieving solidarity through righteous rhetoric that also produces condescending and antagonistic norms. I don’t fully understand my discomfort, but I’m scared that what I’m seeing around me is making things worse.

There’s no technological fix for the mess we’re in

Amanda Hess has a thoughtful piece in the NYT about proposed tech fixes for the ‘filter bubble’ problem that has supposedly fractured democratic discourse in the US and elsewhere. She lists numerous well-meaning attempts — from browser plug-ins to iPhone apps — to use technology to help Internet users escape their personal bubbles.

It goes without saying that the motives behind these initiatives are good. (Ms Hess calls them “kumbaya vibes”.) The question is whether they really address the problem, which is rooted in human psychology — confirmation bias, homophily, etc.

The same social media networks that helped build the bubbles are now being framed as the solution, with just a few surface tweaks. On the internet, the “echo chambers” of old media — the ’90s buzzword for partisan talk radio shows and political paperbacks — have been amplified and automated. We no longer need to channel-surf to Fox News or MSNBC; unseen algorithms on Facebook learn to satisfy our existing preferences, so it doesn’t feel like we’re choosing an ideological filter at all.

But now, no entity is playing the filter bubble crisis more than Facebook itself. The company’s leader, Mark Zuckerberg, has published a manifesto of sorts, “Building Global Community,” which jockeys for Facebook to seize a central role in opening our minds by exposing us to new ideas.

Just last summer, the company was whistling a different tune. In a blog post called “Building a Better News Feed for You,” Facebook declared that the information it serves up is “subjective, personal, and unique — and defines the spirit of what we hope to achieve.” That all seemed harmless when the network was a site for reconnecting with old high school friends, but now Facebook is a major driver of news. (A Pew study from last year found that 62 percent of Americans get news on social media.) And as Mr. Trump rose, Facebook found itself assailed by critics blaming it for eroding the social fabric and contributing to the downfall of democracy. Facebook gave people what they wanted, they said, but not what they needed. So now it talks of building the “social infrastructure” for a “civically-engaged community.” Mr. Zuckerberg quoted Abraham Lincoln as inspiration for Facebook’s next phase.

Ms Hess also astutely points out that some of these ideas have partisan roots. The new tools for providing liberals with an insight into how other people think have a whiff of utilitarianism. The philosophy is that to win next time — and restore the old neoliberal order — we just need to know what the hoi-polloi are thinking. Which is a neat way of avoiding what really needs to happen, namely for ruling elites to hear the signal in the populist noise and accept the need to revise the way they think about politics and the world. As Carleigh Morgan, perceptively puts it, “exposure to new ideas and a commitment to listening are not the same”. Or, as Ms Hass puts it,

President Trump’s critics feel the practical need to break down these ideological cocoons, so they can win next time. Charlie Sykes, a former conservative radio talk show host who was blindsided by Mr. Trump’s win, now writes of the need to dismantle the “tribal bubble” of modern American politics, where citizens are informed through partisan media and bullied into submission by Twitter mobs. And Sam Altman, the president of the start-up incubator Y Combinator, recently set out from the liberal Silicon Valley and traveled across America to better understand the perspectives of Trump voters. His final question to them: “What would convince you not to vote for him again?”

It will be more difficult to entice Trump supporters to consider alternative perspectives, and not just because the president himself has declared the mainstream media the “opposition party.” As members of the winning team, Trump supporters have no urgent need to understand the other side.

Very good, thought-provoking piece. And repeat after me: there is no purely technological fix for the mess we’ve got ourselves into.

Should robots be taxed

This morning’s Observer column:

The problem with the future is that it’s unknowable. But of course that doesn’t stop us trying to second-guess it. At the moment, many people – and not just in the tech industry – are wondering about the impact of automation on employment. And not just blue-collar employment – the kind of jobs that were eliminated in the early phase of automating car production, for instance – but also the white-collar jobs that hitherto seemed secure…

Read on

At the end of the piece I mentioned (and applauded) Bill Gates’s suggestion that robots should be taxed — just as human workers are — to enable the social and human costs of automation to be mitigated. There’s a thoughtful Schumpeter column in this week’s Economist arguing that this might not be such a good idea.

“A robot is a capital investment”, writes the Schumpeter columnist,

like a blast furnace or a computer. Economists typically advise against taxing such things, which allow an economy to produce more. Taxation that deters investment is thought to make people poorer without raising much money. But Mr Gates seems to suggest that investment in robots is a little like investing in a coal-fired generator: it boosts economic output but also imposes a social cost, what economists call a negative externality. Perhaps rapid automation threatens to dislodge workers from old jobs faster than new sectors can absorb them. That could lead to socially costly long-term unemployment, and potentially to support for destructive government policy. A tax on robots that reduced those costs might well be worth implementing, just as a tax on harmful blast-furnace emissions can discourage pollution and leave society better off.

The biggest problem with the Gates proposal, he goes on, is not that automation is happening but that it is not happening quicker.

Mr Gates worries, understandably, about a looming era of automation in which machines take over driving or managing warehouses. Yet in an economy already awash with abundant, cheap labour, it may be that firms face too little pressure to invest in labour-saving technologies. Why refit a warehouse when people queue up to do the work at the minimum wage? Mr Gates’s proposal, by increasing the expense of robots relative to human labour, might further delay an already overdue productivity boom.

And even if automation speeds up, the share of income attributed to the machines might also decline quickly — or at any rate follow the historic trend.

A new working paper by Simcha Barkai, of the University of Chicago, concludes that, although the share of income flowing to workers has declined in recent decades, the share flowing to capital (ie, including robots) has shrunk faster. What has grown is the markup firms can charge over their production costs, >ie, their profits. Similarly, an NBER working paper published in January argues that the decline in the labour share is linked to the rise of “superstar firms”. A growing number of markets are “winner takes most”, in which the dominant firm earns hefty profits.

Large and growing profits are an indicator of market power. That power might stem from network effects (the value, in a networked world, of being on the same platform as everyone else), the superior productive cultures of leading firms, government protection, or something else. Waves of automation might necessitate sharing the wealth of superstar firms: through distributed share-ownership when they are public, or by taxing their profits when they are not. Robots are a convenient villain, but Mr Gates might reconsider his target; when firms enjoy unassailable market positions, workers and machines alike lose out.: the owners of robots have to be taxed so that the increases in productivity (and profits) that they enable is redistributed.

Thus by a roundabout route the Economist columnist reaches the right conclusion — although even then it’s a rather weaselly concession: waves of automation might necessitate sharing the wealth of superstar firms. Might??? Gates’s proposal may have been motivated by a shrewd conviction that, in this neoliberal world, redistributive taxation of that kind is never going to happen. Taxing robots like workers is, in contrast, something that even the dumbest government can organise.

LATER Yanis Varoufakis isn’t impressed by the Gates proposal.

Trump’s media strategy: “darkly brilliant”

Bret Stephens of the WSJ gave the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture this week at UCLA. It’s well worth reading in full, but this bit is really fine:

Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. Another way of making this point is to say that he’s trying to substitute news for propaganda, information for boosterism.

His objection to, say, the New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.

But again, that’s not all the president is doing.

Consider this recent exchange he had with Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly asks:

“Is there any validity to the criticism of you that you say things that you can’t back up factually, and as the President you say there are three million illegal aliens who voted and you don’t have the data to back that up, some people are going to say that it’s irresponsible for the President to say that?”

To which the president replies:

“Many people have come out and said I’m right.”

Now many people also say Jim Morrison faked his own death. Many people say Barack Obama was born in Kenya. “Many people say” is what’s known as an argumentum ad populum. If we were a nation of logicians, we would dismiss the argument as dumb.

We are not a nation of logicians.

I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant — if not in intention then certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument. [Emphasis added]

He isn’t telling O’Reilly that he’s got his facts wrong. He’s saying that, as far as he is concerned, facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter: That they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them — or, in his case, both.

This is brilliant. Really nails it.

Conservatism as performance art

From the NYT report of the abrupt fall of an alt-right provocateur:

Many on the right are pointing to the Yiannopoulos controversies as a symptom of a trend toward conservatism as performance art, placing less value on ideas like small government and self-reliance than it does on attitude, personality and provocation. While there are respected conservative thinkers on issues like tax reform, immigration and health care, they say, provocateurs like Mr. Yiannopoulos suck up most of the oxygen, becoming the public face of the movement and pushing more serious ideas to the sideline.

“You essentially have a world where there are no adults left, nobody exercising moral authority to say, ‘No, this does or does not meet our standards,’” said Matt Lewis, the conservative author of “Too Dumb to Fail,” which dissected how conservatives have abandoned ideas for outrage. “Everybody is just responding to perverse incentives to get more buzz.”

Mr. Lewis said he would bet that most conservatives had no idea where Mr. Yiannopoulos stood on taxes, abortion or any other issue that has traditionally been important to them. “The only thing we know about him is he’s vulgar, he’s a provocateur and he fights political correctness,” he said. “And I guess that’s what the definition is now for being a conservative.”