Theresa May’s foolish gamble

One of the hallmarks of a mature democracy is that the rights of minorities are respected. At the moment, the UK is not a mature democracy in that sense. The Brexit referendum vote was 52% for, 48% against: in raw numbers that’s 17,410,742 for and 16,141,241 against. But somehow the 48% became — like the Supreme Court judges who concluded that Article 50 could not be triggered without a vote in the (sovereign) parliament — “enemies of the people”. But what’s even more extraordinary is the way the 48% of us who voted for Remain have gone quiet.

Turnout on June 23, 2016 was 72.2% of a total electorate of 46,500,001, which is pretty good by British standards. But if you look at the raw numbers, what happened is that 37% of all the people eligible to vote favoured leaving the EU, while 34% opted to remain. Yet if one were to judge from the hysteria of the Brexiteers, it was as if 99.9% of the entire population were in favour of leaving the EU, and those who dissented were just a tiny band of ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people’.

The numbers suggest that anyone who takes parliamentary sovereignty seriously — and after all that is what “taking back control” is supposed to be about — should be in favour of having a parliamentary vote on the exit terms when they are finally agreed. The outcome of that vote may well be to accept the terms and depart. But there has to be a vote.

Back to the strange passivity of the remainders, though. One of them was Theresa May. She was known to be a Remainer, even if a half-hearted one. But she seemed to be transfixed by the result after she became Prime Minister, and was perhaps frightened by the hysterical abuse visited upon the Supreme Court by the Daily Mail and the tabloid press. She may also have been oppressed — as her predecessor was — by the xenophobic, anti-EU cohort in her own party. (After all, the only reason Cameron called the Referendum in the first place was that he thought he would win it and that that would get the xenophobes off his back. This has to be the greatest miscalculation in recent British history.)

So May immediately went into her hard-faced “Brexit means Brexit” mode at the September Tory party conference and adopted the hectoring, threatening tone that alienated the central players in the remaining countries of the EU. Interestingly, though, in her big TV interview with Jeremy Paxman — who consistently taunted her with the accusation that she — still — doesn’t think Brexit is a good idea, she continually dodged the issue. Instead she repeated again and again that her concern was now to ensure “a good deal” for the UK.

This chimes with my colleague David Runciman’s hunch about her character. He concluded, in reviewing a new biography of her, that she is essentially a dutiful, unimaginative character who takes her marching orders from others and gets on with it. “Now that May is prime minister, he wrote, two things

“two things are starkly apparent. First, her approach to Brexit is simply a continuation of the same pattern. She inherited Brexit. She will deliver it, unlike the supposed big thinkers – including Gove – who conjured it up in the first place. Unnervingly, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that her embrace of a hard Brexit, prioritising the control of immigration over membership of the single market, is her way of finally completing the task. As [her biographer] Prince puts it, ‘The challenge of controlling immigration [as home secretary] would become her most intractable problem and, by her own standard, the one she failed to overcome. In hindsight, the target she was set was probably always unachievable. Long after others had given up, she continued to strive to meet it. As prime minister, she still does.’ ‘I don’t know whose idea the original promise was,’ Michael Howard says of the ‘tens of thousands’ pledge, ‘but I rather doubt it was hers. Obviously we couldn’t get down to that level without leaving the EU. She did get the non-EU numbers down, not nearly far enough, but … she got them moving in the right direction. But we could never get them down to the tens of thousands while we stayed in the EU’.”

May’s lacklustre, frightened performance in the election campaign suggests that she continues in the same rut. The imaginative thing to have done would be to have wooed the 48% who voted for Remain; but this she resolutely declined to do. So she has backed a large chunk of the electorate into a corner. She has reminded them that the Tories are still “the nasty party” (her phrase from the post-1997 era. Remainers are therefore faced with two alternatives. They can vote for the Lib Dems, who look like they are heading for electoral disaster; or — holding their noses — they can vote for Labour, on the grounds that a Brexit negotiated by Corbyn & Co might be a bit softer.

What will probably happen then is that May will win with a majority not much bigger than the 17 seats she currently has. In which case she will be at the mercy of the Europhobic nutters in her own party, and be as tormented by them as John Major was during the Maastricht negotiations in 1992. It couldn’t happen to a nastier woman.

But back to the strange passivity of the 48%. In an interesting blog post, Anatole Kaletsky contrasts it with the atmosphere in the post-Trump US. Over there, he writes,

“the immediate response to policies that were logically incoherent, economically dishonest, and diplomatically impossible to implement was an upsurge of opposition and debate. The Democrats showed unprecedented unity in Congress, television comedians provided even more effective opposition, millions of progressive voters took to the streets, media outlets launched relentless investigations, and the American Civil Liberties Union received $24 million within 24 hours of the administration’s attempt to bar Muslims from entering the country.

Most important, US businesses started lobbying immediately to block any Trump policies that threatened their economic interests. As a top Senate staffer told the Milken conference, Walmart and other retailers “were extremely effective at educating our members” about the political costs of any new taxes on US imports. This removed Trump’s main protectionist threat and killed his hopes of financing big tax cuts with revenues from a “border adjustment” tax.

But, over here…

“Leaving the EU represents a much greater political and economic upheaval than anything proposed by the Trump administration, yet Brexit has become an immovable dogma, immune to challenge or questioning of any kind. In contrast to the aggressive business lobbying against Trump’s election promises, no major British companies have tried to protect their interests by campaigning to reverse the Brexit decision. None has even publicly pointed out that the referendum gave Prime Minister Theresa May no mandate to rule out membership of the European single market and customs union after Britain leaves the EU. Worse still, the taboo against questioning Brexit has not been justified by appeals to reason, economics, or national interest. Instead the “will of the people” has been invoked. This chilling phrase, along with its even more sinister counterpart, “enemies of the people,” has become a rhetorical staple in the US as well as Britain. But there is a crucial difference: In the US, such proto-fascist language is heard on the extremist fringes; in Britain, even mainstream media and parliamentary debates routinely refer to opponents of Brexit as anti-democratic schemers and unpatriotic saboteurs.”

It may have been, of course, that May’s strategy in calling the election that she swore initially was unnecessary and possibly destabilising, was to seek a landslide victory that would give her a big enough majority to see off the crazies in the Tory party. If that indeed was what she was up to, it’s beginning to look like a losing bet. We’ll know for sure next Friday.

Move fast and fix things

This morning’s Observer column:

‘Move fast and break things”, was the exhortation that Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg originally issued to his developers. It’s a typical hacker’s mantra: while the tools and features they developed for his platform might not be perfect, speed was the key aspiration, even if there were some screw-ups on the way.

In 2016, we began to realise that one of the things that might get broken in Mr Zuckerberg’s quest for speed is democracy. Facebook became one of the favourite platforms for disseminating “fake news” and was the tool of choice for micro-targeting voters with personalised political messages. It also became a live broadcasting medium for those engaging in bullying, rape, inflicting grievous bodily harm and, in one case, murder.

One way of thinking about the internet is that it holds up a mirror to human nature…

Read on

Watergate 2.0 looms

From the New Yorker:

There is now significant evidence that Trump has been trying to cover up something related to the F.B.I. investigation. We just don’t know what it is. In Watergate, Bernstein noted, “we knew there was a break-in and also that there was a massive campaign of political espionage and sabotage to undermine the political opposition.” But with Trump, he went on, it could be a range of offenses: “Is it specific acts of collusion? Is it his financial dealings with ethno-Russians and countries of the former Soviet empire or those of others around him? Is it about obstructing these investigations because they’ll reveal inappropriate contacts between the campaign and people acting in the interests of a hostile foreign power, perhaps including the President? We don’t know yet.”

The longer this goes on, the more it feels like Watergate.

Trump updates his Russian friends on the latest intelligence

Now this you couldn’t make up. (Actually, given Trump, you could).

President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said.

The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump’s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State…“This is code-word information,” said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, using terminology that refers to one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies. Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”

The long reach of Thomas Piketty

Interesting and thoughtful survey article by Marshall Steinbaum in the Boston Review on the strangely cool response of the economics profession to Piketty’s magnum opus, Capital in the Twenty First Century. Conclusion:

So where does that leave us, and specifically, where does it leave Capital in the Twenty-First Century, three years after its publication? It seems strange, perverse even, to say that its influence has been “quiet” when it has had great influence on public debate. But what this tour of the landscape of academic economics tells us is that, despite its hostile reception, Piketty’s influence, and that of this book in particular, continues to grow in the academic realm and is not likely to wither and die anytime soon—much as that might pain the harshest critics or the many more who have kept their distance.

For the latter, unfortunately, it is all too easy to keep looking the other way. It is increasingly possible to have a comfortable and rewarding life as a professional economist and never even consider the broad issue of inequality or the controversial explanations for and consequences of it that Piketty offers. Social norms used to require economists to at least take on broad public sentiment and to consider the issues of the day when setting their agendas, but the amount of money available for economics research and teaching has never been higher, no matter the esteem (or lack thereof) in which economists are held by the public. High officials in government, in corporate boardrooms, in courtrooms, and in university administrations, alumni bodies, and boards of trustees still want to hear what economists have to say (or at least to make a point of ostentatiously seeking out their advice and approval), and to have that approval validated in public.

All of which avoids the crucial question: are we actually doing or saying anything to make the economy serve the people who inhabit it? Economists could very easily spend their individual and collective lives avoiding that question as the economy crumbles around them, with Piketty’s book serving as little more than a cry in the wilderness. Right now, there is no assurance it won’t end that way, but by reading between the lines, my suspicion—and hope—is that Piketty is not one in a series of pop–social science fads. Rather, his work on inequality is an agenda-setting and generation-marking intellectual achievement, potentially as explosive (albeit with a longer fuse) in academia as it has been outside of it.

Vive la France! (For the time being)

This morning’s Observer column:

The two biggest lessons of 2016 were the discovery of how social media could be used for “voter suppression” and how the open web could be “weaponised” by the “alt-right” to pollute the public sphere. The conventional wisdom that Trump did not have a data operation was mistaken. He did have a “digital operations division” based in San Antonio with about 100 programmers, web developers, network engineers, data scientists, graphic artists, ad copywriters and media buyers. Their main approach seems to have involved using social media and other data to identify Democratic voters in swing states who were unenthusiastic about Clinton and to target them with messages likely to reduce the likelihood that they would vote for her. On other words, to engage in data-driven vote suppression.

The other insight of 2016 was provided by Jonathan Albright’s revelations of the extent of the far right’s online ecosystem and its ingenuity in exploiting YouTube and other legitimate sites to disseminate fake news and conspiracy theories. In doing this, the movement exploited both the business models of Google and Facebook, which depend on increasing “user engagement” (ie sharing, likes, links), and human psychology (which seems to find fake news more interesting and “shareable” than more sober, reliable information).

It is now surmised that the Brexit campaign in the UK may have been a dry run for these techniques and we know that they were deployed in France, presumably to increase the chances of a Le Pen victory…

Read on

The political impact of infrastructure spending

This is the Abstract for a fascinating paper, “Highway to Hitler” by Nico Voigtlaender and Hans-Joachim Voth (NBER Working Paper No. 20150, Issued in May 2014)

Democracy is not an absorbing state; transitions to autocratic rule have been frequent throughout history and often followed periods of instability under democratic rule. In this paper, we ask whether autocrats can win support among voters by showcasing their ability to restore order and to “get things done.” We analyze a famous case – the building of the highway network in Nazi Germany. Highway construction began shortly after Hitler became Chancellor, and was one of the regime’s signature projects. Using newly collected data, we show that highway construction was highly effective in boosting popular support, helping to entrench the Nazi dictatorship. These effects are unlikely to reflect direct economic benefits. Instead, highway construction signaled economic “competence” and an end to austerity, so that many Germans credited the Nazi regime for the economic recovery. In line with this interpretation, we show that support for the Nazis increased particularly strongly where highway construction coincided with greater radio availability – a major source of propaganda. The effect of highways was also significantly stronger in politically unstable states of the Weimar Republic. Our results suggest that infrastructure spending can win “hearts” for autocracy when “minds” are led to associate it with visible economic progress and an end to political instability.

Trump’s popularity ratings may improve.

And while we’re on the subject of Trump…

To some mental-health professionals, the debate over diagnoses and the Goldwater rule distracts from a larger point. “This issue is not whether Donald Trump is mentally ill but whether he’s dangerous,” James Gilligan, a professor of psychiatry at New York University, told attendees at a recent public meeting at Yale School of Medicine on the topic of Trump’s mental health. “He publicly boasts of violence and has threatened violence. He has urged followers to beat up protesters. He approves of torture. He has boasted of his ability to commit and get away with sexual assault,” Gilligan said.

Bruce Blair, a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security, at Princeton, told me that if Trump were an officer in the Air Force, with any connection to nuclear weapons, he would need to pass the Personnel Reliability Program, which includes thirty-seven questions about financial history, emotional volatility, and physical health. (Question No. 28: Do you often lose your temper?) “There’s no doubt in my mind that Trump would never pass muster,” Blair, who was a ballistic-missile launch-control officer in the Army, told me. “Any of us that had our hands anywhere near nuclear weapons had to pass the system. If you were having any arguments, or were in financial trouble, that was a problem. For all we know, Trump is on the brink of that, but the President is exempt from everything.”

From “How Trump Could Be Fired” in the New Yorker.

Now for the hard part

It’s great that Macron won. But it would be unwise to be complacent. If — as I suspect — we are at the beginning of a real seismic shift in our politics, mainly triggered by populist anger at the way the banks were bailed out in 2008 — then it will take more than the election of a technocratic centrist to stem the tide. As Roger Cohen puts it in today’s New York Times:

Now the hard part begins. For the first time in France, the far right took more than a third of the vote, a reflection of the anger in the country at lost jobs, failed immigrant integration and economic stagnation. Macron, who said he was aware of “the anger, the anxiety, the doubts” needs to address this social unease head-on by reviving a sense of possibility in France. Without change, Le Pen will continue to gain support.

Yep. Macron has, as of now, precisely zero MPs in parliament. This may change at the general election, but it would be extraordinary if a pop-up ‘movement’ (which is really what En Marché is) gained a majority in its first election. If he doesn’t succeed in making some significant changes which indicate that ruling elites have finally learned something from the neoliberal nightmare, then I’d bet on Le Pen making a better showing next time.