Mayday, Mayday

Enoch Powell was right. All political careers end in failure. Or, to be precise,

“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

So what took the establishment so long to get it?

From today’s Guardian:

Rising inequality in Britain risks putting the country on the same path as the US to become one of the most unequal nations on earth, according to a Nobel-prize winning economist.

Sir Angus Deaton is leading a landmark review of inequality in the UK amid fears that the country is at a tipping point due to a decade of stagnant pay growth for British workers. The Institute for Fiscal Studies thinktank, which is working with Deaton on the study, said the British-born economist would “point to the risk of the UK following the US” which has extreme inequality levels in pay, wealth and health.

Speaking to the Guardian at the launch of the study, he said: “There’s a real question about whether democratic capitalism is working, when it’s only working for part of the population.

It’s only working for some people. This is a rich country, yet a significant proportion of its population (and, more importantly, their children) are living in poverty. (which, among other things, may help to explain the Brexit vote.)

Source

The technical is political. Now what?

Bruce Schneier has been valiantly going on about this for a while. Once upon a time, digital technology didn’t have many social, political or democratic ramifications. Those days are over. Universities, companies, software engineers and governments need to think about this — and tool up for it. Here’s an excerpt from one of Bruce’s recent posts on the subject:

Technology now permeates society in a way it didn’t just a couple of decades ago, and governments move too slowly to take this into account. That means technologists now are relevant to all sorts of areas that they had no traditional connection to: climate change, food safety, future of work, public health, bioengineering.

More generally, technologists need to understand the policy ramifications of their work. There’s a pervasive myth in Silicon Valley that technology is politically neutral. It’s not, and I hope most people reading this today knows that. We built a world where programmers felt they had an inherent right to code the world as they saw fit. We were allowed to do this because, until recently, it didn’t matter. Now, too many issues are being decided in an unregulated capitalist environment where significant social costs are too often not taken into account.

This is where the core issues of society lie. The defining political question of the 20th century was: “What should be governed by the state, and what should be governed by the market?” This defined the difference between East and West, and the difference between political parties within countries. The defining political question of the first half of the 21st century is: “How much of our lives should be governed by technology, and under what terms?” In the last century, economists drove public policy. In this century, it will be technologists.

The future is coming faster than our current set of policy tools can deal with. The only way to fix this is to develop a new set of policy tools with the help of technologists. We need to be in all aspects of public-interest work, from informing policy to creating tools all building the future. The world needs all of our help.

Yep.

What Trump doesn’t know

From Kara Swisher:

I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell the president, but someone has to: Social media is not the public square, not even a virtual one.

Not Facebook. Not Reddit. Not YouTube. And definitely not Twitter, where a few days after Facebook announced it was barring some extremist voices like Alex Jones, President Trump furiously tapped out: “I am continuing to monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms. This is the United States of America — and we have what’s known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH! We are monitoring and watching, closely!!”

He can monitor (yes, that’s definitely a creepy word) and watch all he wants, but it will not matter one bit. Because the First Amendment requires only that the government not make laws that restrict freedom of speech for its citizens…

Getting things into perspective

From Zeynep Tufecki:

We don’t have to be resigned to the status quo. Facebook is only 13 years old, Twitter 11, and even Google is but 19. At this moment in the evolution of the auto industry, there were still no seat belts, airbags, emission controls, or mandatory crumple zones. The rules and incentive structures underlying how attention and surveillance work on the internet need to change. But in fairness to Facebook and Google and Twitter, while there’s a lot they could do better, the public outcry demanding that they fix all these problems is fundamentally mistaken. There are few solutions to the problems of digital discourse that don’t involve huge trade-offs—and those are not choices for Mark Zuckerberg alone to make. These are deeply political decisions. In the 20th century, the US passed laws that outlawed lead in paint and gasoline, that defined how much privacy a landlord needs to give his tenants, and that determined how much a phone company can surveil its customers. We can decide how we want to handle digital surveillance, attention-channeling, harassment, data collection, and algorithmic decision­making. We just need to start the discussion. Now.

What the Huawei debacle demonstrates

Nice Guardian column by Larry Elliott in which he focusses on an interesting (and under-discussed) aspect of the Huawei controversy: why a country (the UK) that emerged from the second world war with a technological edge in computers and electronics should require the assistance of what is still classified as an emerging economy to construct a crucial piece of national infrastructure. It’s a sign, he argues, of how diminished Britain is as a manufacturing force that the only rivals to Huawei are not the great names of the past such as Marconi and Plessey, but Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson.

The Huawei affair should help to puncture a few myths. In the early years of China’s rapid industrialisation, the UK took comfort from the fact that it was only low-cost manufacturing that was migrating east. Developed countries like Britain, it was said, would do all the clever, high-end, profitable stuff, while the Chinese would have to be content with churning out cheap toys and clothes.

It seemed highly complacent to assume that China – a country which was making technological breakthroughs while Europe was stuck in the dark ages – would be content with being an assembly plant for western consumer goods, and so it has proved. China is now one of the world leaders in artificial intelligence and solar panels. When the government wanted to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, the Chinese got the contract.

A second myth that China has well and truly busted is that all will be well provided market forces are not hampered by state interference. China has had an industrial strategy over many decades, and has stuck to it, while during the same period Britain has seen the state’s role wane and manufacturing become an ever smaller part of the economy.

Britain’s mid-20th century edge in computing, jet engines and radar was a direct consequence of putting the economy on a war footing between 1939 and 1945. What’s more, the reason the UK retains a global presence in aerospace and pharmaceuticals is that companies have been able to rely on the state – in the form of the Ministry of Defence and the NHS – being an important customer.

Interestingly, Huawei is now trying to persuade the residents of Sawston — a village just down the road from me — that they should be relaxed about the company’s plans to build a new factory on its outskirts.

What really matters now

The Financial Times commentator, Martin Wolf, is a must-read columnist (for me, anyway). He’s a deeply serious and wise man. On Mayday, he had a really interesting (and sobering) column — “A politics of hope against a politics of fear” (Financial Times, May 1, 2019).

Starting from the undeniable fact that faith in liberal democracy is declining and that charismatic politicians are enticing people into giving them support, he addresses the question: how should liberal politicians respond? He suggests ten principles that should underpin their response.

  1. Leadership matters. Democratic politics is not about buying votes. Politicians have to persuade people — i.e. get ‘buy-in’.
  2. Competence matters. Most populists are good at campaigning but useless at governing.
  3. Citizenship matters. “A democracy is a community of citizens. The sense of what is owed to — and expected from — citizens is the foundation of successful democracies.
  4. Inclusion matters. In the US the Gini coefficient (which measures inequality of market incomes) is not particularly high, but inequality of disposable incomes is much higher. This is a policy choice, not an accident.
  5. Economic reform matters. As Paul Collier (in The Future of Capitalism) and Colin Mayer (in Prosperity) argue, we need reform of taxation and of the corporation if we are to create a society that is economically successful and more inclusive.
  6. The ‘local’ matters. “devolving decisions, while also giving communities the means to revitalise themselves, must be part of good new politics.”
  7. Public services matter — “even if people dislike paying the taxes needed to support them…. The libertarian idea of a minimal state that leaves all this to a free market is not only unworkable, but incompatible with democracy”.
  8. Managed globalisation and global cooperation also matter. “No country is an island. We depend on ideas, resources, people, goods and services from other countries. National sovereignty does matter. But it is not all that matters.”
  9. Looking ahead matters. “We live in a world of large long-term upheavals — notably climate change, artificial intelligence and the rise of Asia. Good governments must look at these changes and what these things might mean for their peoples. If democracies cannot do this kind of forward thinking, then they will fail.”
  10. Complexity matters. Mencken: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” Wolf: “A politics that rests on popular anger and despotic whim is bound to fail. The right response has to be a politics that bases hope on realism. That is the only sort of democratic politics worth doing.”

If you like distilled wisdom, this is it.

The paradox that is the EU

I’ve been sorting out my files and in the process came on the transcript of an interview that one of my heroes — Ralf Dahrendorf — gave to an Italian journalist, Antonio Polito in 2003. It was published in the Journal of Democracy, Volume 14, Number 4, October 2003, p. 103. (doi). The headline over the interview is “The Challenge of Democracy”. Here’s the section that brought me up short, because it gets right to the heart of the problem of the EU. Dahrendorf says:

You are bound to know the witty remark, now no longer new, that in looking at the conditions set for the candidate countries for enlargement, we can draw only one conclusion: Were the European Union itself to ask to become an EU member, it would not be accepted. For its structure does not fit the basic criteria of political democracy that the Union imposes for the accession of, say, Poland or Hungary or Slovenia. We are facing the historical absurdity of having created something partly for the purpose of strengthening democracy, but having created it in a way that is intrinsically not democratic.

And why is it not democratic? In part the answer lies in the very origins of the project. There is little doubt that when the European Economic Community—and still earlier the European Coal and Steel Community—was planned, democracy did not constitute the prime con- cern of those who designed and built the new construction. The central issue was instead the need to set up an efficient mechanism for making decisions. The result was a typically French solution: Two categories of interests had to be reconciled, the European interest on one side, and national ones on the other. So there was a need for two institutions: one to represent the European interest, charged with putting forward pro- posals, and the other to represent national interests, charged with reaching decisions. That was how the Commission and the Council were invented. Rather a brilliant idea, but certainly not democracy. Europe was designed in such a way that the European interest could find a locus for expression in the Commission, while decisions were ultimately made in terms of national interests, which in any case were prevalent; and this was guaranteed by the Council’s role. That is why, right from the start, the unanimity rule has always operated, and failure to reach unanimity still remains a trauma.

I would add that, in my view, the Assembly (as the European Parlia- ment used to be known), which initially was made up of representatives of the national parliaments, was nothing but an afterthought in the initial project. At bottom, it was not even necessary in the original structure, and for a long time that was the way it was treated.

That’s the strange paradox of the EU. It was, from the beginning a well-intentioned, elite project. Indeed, it had to be an elite project, because the populations of the original member states would never had agreed to it — had they been consulted. (This is the ‘democratic deficit’ that Jurgen Habermas lamented in The Lure of Technocracy). And of course the attempt to retrofit the EU with democratic institutions (like the European Parliament) was always going to be ineffective (though the Parliament has gradually acquired a degree of control over the Commission). But ultimately it the Council of Ministers that holds the power, and although its members are elected via their nation-states’ various electoral systems, democratic control is heavily diluted and indirect.