A desire for “conformity and obedience” as a result of COVID-19 could boost authoritarianism in the wake of the pandemic

Interesting research findings from an international project conducted by psychologists in Cambridge and elsewhere. The Abstract reads:

What are the socio-political consequences of infectious diseases? Humans have evolved to avoid disease and infection, resulting in a set of psychological mechanisms that promote disease-avoidance, referred to as the behavioral immune system (BIS). One manifestation of the BIS is the cautious avoidance of unfamiliar, foreign, or potentially contaminating stimuli. Specifically, when disease infection risk is salient or prevalent, authoritarian attitudes can emerge that seek to avoid and reject foreign outgroups while favoring homogenous, familiar ingroups. In the largest study conducted on the topic to date (N > 240,000), elevated regional levels of infectious pathogens were related to more authoritarian attitudes on three geographical levels: across U.S. metropolitan regions, U.S. states, and cross-culturally across 47 countries. The link between pathogen prevalence and authoritarian psychological dispositions predicted conservative voting behavior in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and more authoritarian governance and state laws, in which one group of people imposes asymmetrical laws on others in a hierarchical structure. Furthermore, cross-cultural analysis illustrated that the relationship between infectious diseases and authoritarianism was pronounced for infectious diseases that can be acquired from other humans (nonzoonotic), and does not generalize to other infectious diseases that can only be acquired from non-human species (zoonotic diseases). At a time of heightened awareness of infectious diseases, the current findings are important reminders that public health and ecology can have ramifications for socio-political attitudes by shaping how citizens vote and are governed.

The study, claimed to be the largest yet to investigate links between pathogen prevalence and ideology, reveals a strong connection between infection rates and strains of authoritarianism in public attitudes, political leadership and lawmaking. The article is an open-access one but a useful TL;DR summary is available. Here’s an excerpt from it:

While data used for the study predates COVID-19, University of Cambridge psychologists say that greater public desire for “conformity and obedience” as a result of the pandemic could ultimately see liberal politics suffer at the ballot box. The findings are published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology.

Researchers used infectious disease data from the United States of America in the 1990s and 2000s and responses to a psychological survey taken by over 206,000 people in the USA during 2017 and 2018. They found that the more infectious US cities and states went on to have more authoritarian-leaning citizens.

The US findings were replicated at an international level using survey data from over 51,000 people across 47 different countries, comparing responses with national-level disease rates.

The most authoritarian US states had rates of infectious diseases – from HIV to measles – around four times higher than the least authoritarian states, while for the most authoritarian nations it was three times higher than the least.

This was after scientists accounted for a range of other socioeconomic factors that influence ideology, including religious beliefs and inequalities in wealth and education. They also found that higher regional infection rates in the USA corresponded to more votes for Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential Election.

Moreover, in both nations and US states, higher rates of infectious disease correlated with more ‘vertical’ laws – those that disproportionately affect certain groups, such as abortion control or extreme penalties for certain crimes. This was not the case with ‘horizontal’ laws that affect everyone equally.

It’s the authoritarian personality stuff all over again. Sigh.

This week’s election results

Mostly predictable, I’d say. The Tories got some kind of ‘vaccination boost’. The voters aren’t much interested — yet — in the corruption, sleaze and incompetence of the government. And anyone who owns assets — which mostly means houses — has done just fine out of the pandemic. (Coincidentally, Hartlepool — where Labour lost a seat they’d held for generations — has a lot of owner-occupiers.) And then there was the fact that a Tory government — a Tory government! — has been paying furlough wages and spending public money like drunken Marxists.

So one wonders what are the implications for Labour? The results reminded me of what happened to the Democrats in the US after the Obama ‘Hope’-boost ran out of steam. Keir Starmer’s frank admission — that “Labour has lost the confidence of working people” — made me think of Listen Liberal, Thomas Frank’s sobering book about how the Democrats lost their way in the US. Here we are, he wrote (in 2016),

“eight years post-Hope. Growth that doesn’t grow; prosperity that doesn’t prosper. The country, we now understand, is simply no longer arranged in such a way as to make its citizens economically secure.”

I think that’s broadly the case for large swathes of the UK. If so, it’s difficult just now to see what kind of party Labour needs to become if it’s to find new audiences and revived electoral support.

Last week the FT ran a feature about the so-called ‘Red Wall’ of Labour seats that fell to Johnson in the last general election . The headline was: “Labour’s lost heartlands. Can it win them back?”

“No it can’t”, wrote an online commenter.

“Lovely people, but conservative (with a small c), despite traditionally voting Labour. I simply can’t see how Labour can be a modern, progressive party of the sort you find in most Northern European countries and serve the red wall at the same time.”

Me neither.

Later: Good piece in the Observer by Professor Robert Ford which reminded me that I had forgotten about the ‘Brexit effect’.

“Under Starmer”, Ford writes,

the party has sought to move on from Brexit. This, it seems, is not yet something English voters are willing to do. In seat after seat in Leave-voting parts of England, the Conservatives surged and Labour slumped. Leave voters, it seems, remain keen to reward the prime minister who “got Brexit done”.

Ford thinks that the results indicate significant changes under way in British politics. First of all,

traditional class-politics patterns are being turned upside down by a realignment around divides by age, education and – most of all – Brexit choices. On every available measure of socioeconomic conditions, the Conservatives prospered most in the most deprived places and Labour did best in the most prosperous areas. This inversion of class politics has already been evident for several years but it has continued, and perhaps intensified, in the first post-Brexit local elections.

Secondly, the post-Brexit education divide has intensified.

There were major swings to the Conservatives in the wards with the highest shares of voters with few or no formal qualifications, while there were modest swings to Labour in the wards with the largest concentrations of university graduates. There was less evidence of the generational divide seen in the last two general elections and Labour’s traditional advantage in more ethnically diverse areas was more muted than usual.

And here’s the sting in the tail that rang that bell about the US Democrats:

In 2021, as in 2019, Labour’s core electorate was graduates, well-off professionals and Remainers.

In other words, the people whose counterparts in the US voted for Hilary Clinton.


The backstory of an insurgent

Matt Stoller has a thought-provoking post about the Trump supporter who was shot while trying to break into the Speaker’s Chamber in the Capitol building on January 6. Her name is Ashli Babbitt and she was the subject of a New York Times profile, on which Stoller drew.

According to the New York Times, Babbitt was a 35 year-old woman from California who spent 14 years serving in the U.S. Air Force, deploying to both Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. government sent Babbitt abroad eight times, and though not every time was in a combat zone, such repeated deployments into violent areas tend to cause brain damage.

After her time at war, Babbitt had a modest propensity for violence, threatening a rival love interest by rear ending her with a car in 2016. She married, and bought a small business with her husband, a pool supply company called Fowlers Pool Service and Supply. There she ran into commercial problems common to small businesses these days.

She borrowed money at an extortionate rate (169%), then defaulted, but sued on the grounds that her lender had cheated her with too high of an interest rate. She lost, as “courts have held that such arrangements don’t amount to loans and are not bound by usury laws.” At which point she became more into politics through social media, and then was sucked into the QAnon conspiracy-theory-cum-cult.

So, says Stoller,

here’s the profile of a rioter, a working class person who went overseas eight times in military service, including two combat zones, who then tried her hand at a small business where financial predators and monopolists lurked. She then fell in with conspiratorial social media, and turned into a violent rioter who, like most of the rioters, thought she was defending America by overturning an election.

It’s easy to mock this kind of thinking, to see rioters as losers or racists. And no doubt there’s a strain of deep-seated racial animus that is with us and always will be, but I think ascribing all of it to such an explanation is too simple. Racist or no, Babbitt really was at one point a patriotic American, serving in the military for over half her adult life. More broadly, she’s far from alone in expressing rage at the status quo. There have protests against the existing social order for almost a decade, starting with the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and then Black Lives Matter in 2014 and accelerating into protests and riots earlier this year. I’ve written about the relationship between unrest and corporate power in the context of those protests, a sense of alienation that normal political channels, that politics itself is not a realistic path for addressing social problems.

Babbitt, he argues,

was both an adult making dangerous political choices, and a product of our policy regime, having been a soldier in a violent unnecessary war and trying to make her way a society that enables predators to make money through financial chicanery and addictive products. She chose poorly, but she also had few choices to make, one of which was getting on social media and being lured into joining a violent and paranoid cult of personality.

As everyone and his dog has realised by now, the shambolic insurgency on January 6 has been a long-time building. It was the culmination of a decade-long process of alienation, inequality, white supremacy and right-wing and neo-fascist resurgence. But it leaves the US with an almost existential problem.

There are, Stoller thinks, only two paths in a representative democracy which has a large group of its citizens who live in a cult-like artificial world of misinformation, and many more who rightly or wrongly don’t trust any political institution.

One is to try to strip these people of representation and political power; that is the guiding idea behind removing Trump, as well as a whole host of conservatives, off of Silicon Valley platforms that have become essential to modern society.

The trouble is that “removing these people is a choice to not have a society, to pretend that we can put these people into a closet somewhere and ignore them.”

It’s not going to work.

The alternative Stoller sees is less dramatic.

We can take on the legal framework behind social media so these products aren’t addictive and radicalizing. As I’ve written, there are legal immunities and policy choices that allow Facebook to profit in especially toxic ways through compiling detailed user profiles and targeting them with ads. If we change how social media companies make money, we can change how these services operate to make them socially beneficial instead of engines of radicalization.

Yep. The business model is the key to this. If it’s not brought under control then the game’s up. So there is an urgent connection between antitrust and other forms of regulation and the future of the US as a functioning democracy. Trump may or may not be finished, but the line of elected Republican presidential-hopefuls who lined up in the Senate and House to try to overturn the election shows that the supply-line of prospective autocrats is flowing nicely.

Monday 9 November, 2020


Quote of the Day

”To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle.”

  • George Orwell

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Pete Seeger – This Land is Your Land

Link

Just right for today. Thanks to Janet Cobb for suggesting it.


Long read of the Day

The town that went feral Wonderful review essay by Patrick Blanchfield on A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (and Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. Raises the question of how often it happens that a review is almost better than the book — thought in this case the book seems pretty good too. The resulting enjoyment is an emergent property of the book+review system.

Thanks to Alina Utrata for alerting me to it.


Joe Biden and me

Yesterday’s post about the fact that Joe Biden’s ancestors came from Ballina, the town where I was born, prompted a flow of satirical comments in the WhatsApp channel of my extended family across the Irish Sea. The one I enjoyed most was this:


Trump may be leaving the White House, but he will always be with us. Alas.

Anne Applebaum explains:

While you watch Donald Trump’s presidency stagger to its ugly end, always keep in mind how it began: Trump entered the political world on the back of the “birther” conspiracy theory, a movement whose importance was massively underestimated at the time. Aside from its racist undertones, think about what a belief in birtherism really implied. If you doubted that Barack Obama was born in the United States—and about a third of Americans did, including 72 percent of registered Republicans—then that meant you also believed that Obama was an illegitimate president. That meant, in other words, you believed that everyone—the entire American political, judicial, and media establishment, including the White House and Congress, the federal courts and the FBI, all of them—was complicit in a gigantic plot to swindle the public into accepting this false commander in chief. A third of Americans had so little faith in American democracy, broadly defined, they were willing to think that Obama’s entire presidency was a fraud.

That third of Americans went on to become Trump’s base. Over four years, they continued to applaud him, no matter what he did, not because they necessarily believed everything he said, but often because they didn’t believe anything at all. If everything is a scam, who cares if the president is a serial liar? If all American politicians are corrupt, then so what if the president is too? If everyone has always broken the rules, then why can’t he do that too?

Applebaum’s argument is that while Trump’s current behaviour may seem pathetic or oathologically erratic, it is in fact part of a longer-term strategy:

Even if Trump is forced to make a grudging concession speech, even if Biden is sworn in as president on January 20, even if the Trump family is forced to pack its Louis Vuitton suitcases and flee to Mar-a-Lago, it is in Trump’s interest, and a part of the Republican Party’s interest, to maintain the fiction that the election was stolen. That’s because the same base, the base that distrusts American democracy, could still be extremely useful to Trump, as well as to the Republican Party, in years to come.

Certainly these voters can be used to discredit and demean Biden’s presidency. Just as Trump once helped convince millions of Americans that Obama was illegitimate, so he will now seek to convince Americans that Biden is illegitimate…

Sorry to make you choke on your muesli, but there might be something in this.


On the first news of a possible vaccine, what happens?

First, Pfizer makes the announcement. Then,

Zoom shares fall like a stone.


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • Zoom lied to users about end-to-end encryption for years, FTC says. Democrats blast FTC/Zoom settlement because users won’t get compensation.Link

  • Biden has a plan for tackling Covid-19. Link. Trouble is, he doesn’t yet have any authority to act.

  • Danny Kuo’s Staircase. How to build storage vertically. Clever and functional. Link


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Saturday 24 October, 2020

Waiting for… who?

Venice, 2017.


Quote of the Day

”Calamities are of two kinds. Misfortunes to ourselves and good fortune to others”

  • Ambrose Bierce

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

David Lindley & Ry Cooder – Old Coot From Tennessee

Link

Well, I did warn you about these two.


Fukuyama: Liberalism and its discontents

Long read of the day. From American Purpose.

Characteristically lucid and informative essay by Francis Fukuyama on the historical background to some of our current problems.

The “democracy” under attack today is a shorthand for liberal democracy, and what is really under greatest threat is the liberal component of this pair. The democracy part refers to the accountability of those who hold political power through mechanisms like free and fair multiparty elections under universal adult franchise. The liberal part, by contrast, refers primarily to a rule of law that constrains the power of government and requires that even the most powerful actors in the system operate under the same general rules as ordinary citizens. Liberal democracies, in other words, have a constitutional system of checks and balances that limits the power of elected leaders.

Democracy itself is being challenged by authoritarian states like Russia and China that manipulate or dispense with free and fair elections. But the more insidious threat arises from populists within existing liberal democracies who are using the legitimacy they gain through their electoral mandates to challenge or undermine liberal institutions…

He goes on to argue that the contemporary attack on liberalism goes much deeper than the ambitions of a handful of populist politicians, and that they would not be as successful as they have been were they not riding a wave of discontent with some of the underlying characteristics of liberal societies.

To understand this, he says, we need to look at the historical origins of liberalism, its evolution over the decades, and its limitations as a governing doctrine.

And therein lies a master-class… Worth reading all the way through.

I’ve always admired Fukuyama’s writing. I was a bit puzzled by his book on Identity which came out a couple of years ago. But in this essay he seems back on form.

(Another thing I like about him is that he’s a keen photographer!


When the Worst Man in the World Writes a Masterpiece

This is an enjoyable essay by Alvaro de Menard about an enduring puzzle: how did a vain, shallow, lecherous nobody called James Boswell come to write the greatest biography in the English language?

de Menard begins by painting a succinct pen-portrait of the biographer:

He was a perpetual drunk, a degenerate gambler, a sex addict, whoremonger, exhibitionist, and rapist. He gave his wife an STD he caught from a prostitute.

Selfish, servile and self-indulgent, lazy and lecherous, vain, proud, obsessed with his aristocratic status, yet with no sense of propriety whatsoever, he frequently fantasized about the feudal affection of serfs for their lords. He loved to watch executions and was a proud supporter of slavery.

Boswell combined his terrible behavior with a complete lack of shame, faithfully reporting every transgression, every moronic ejaculation, every faux pas. The first time he visited London he went to see a play and, as he happily tells us himself, he “entertained the audience prodigiously by imitating the lowing of a cow.”

By all accounts, including his own, he was an idiot. On a tour of Europe, his tutor said to him: “of young men who have studied I have never found one who had so few ideas as you.”

As a lawyer he was a perpetual failure, especially when he couldn’t get Johnson to write his arguments for him. As a politician he didn’t even get the chance to be a failure despite decades of trying.

His correspondence with Johnson mostly consists of Boswell whining pathetically and Johnson telling him to get his shit together.

He commissioned a portrait from his friend Joshua Reynolds and stiffed him on the payment. His descendants hid the portrait in the attic because they were ashamed of being related to him.

Having read the first volume of Boswell’s own diary, which covers his arrival in London and his first years in the capital, that seems plausible. And yet, such an undoubted creep produces this single great work.

de Menard quotes the opinions of Macaulay — who thought that the ‘Life’ succeeded because of Boswell’s vices (he never hears a confidence that he would not betray) — and Thomas Carlyle (who thought the biography the greatest work of the 18th century) en route to an interesting conclusion. “The story of Boswell,” he writes,

is basically the plot of Amadeus, with the role of Salieri being played by Macaulay, by Carlyle, by me, and—perhaps even by yourself, dear reader. The line between admiration, envy, and resentment is thin, and crossing it is easier when the subject is a scoundrel. But if Bozzy could set aside resentment for genuine reverence, perhaps there is hope for us all. And yet…it would be an error to see in Boswell the Platonic Form of Mankind.

Shaffer and Forman’s film portrays Mozart as vulgar, arrogant, a womanizer, bad with money—but, like Bozzy, still somehow quite likable. In one of the best scenes of the film, we see Mozart transform the screeches of his mother-in-law into the Queen of the Night Aria; thus Boswell transformed his embarrassments into literary gold. He may be vulgar, but his productions are not. He may be vulgar, but he is not ordinary.

Lovely stuff.


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • Obituary of publisher Tom Maschler “No stranger to self-doubt,” but a great publisher also. Maybe the two were connected. Link
  •  Facebook Seeks Shutdown of NYU Research Project Into Political Ad Targeting Apparently research into what they’re doing violates their terms and conditions. Link
  •  Why this presidential election is special — democracy is on the ballot — not just Trump and Biden – Vox Link
  • Mask-wearing and ‘freedom’ (contd.) Paul Krugman weighs in: “Liberty doesn’t mean freedom to infect other people.”

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Saturday 3 October, 2020

One of our cats. Interesting thing is that when I first looked at it I thought it must have been taken with one of my high-end cameras. But in fact it was taken with the little Sony RX100M4. It’s a pretty good advertisement for that device.


Quote of the day

“If you think technology can solve your problems, then you don’t understand technology and you don’t understand your problems”.

  • Mariana Mazzucato

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Deep River Blues – Tommy Emmanuel

Link

Just the song for a rainy morning. You may need to skip the ad at the beginning.


Thirty glorious years

Long read of the day.

TL;DR Postwar prosperity depended on a truce between capitalist growth and democratic fairness. Is it possible to get it back?

I love long-sweep essays, and this one by Jonathan Hopkin fits that bill. Here’s how it opens:

With the end of the Second World War, the economies of western Europe and North America began a period of spectacular growth. Between 1950 and 1973 GDP doubled or more. This prosperity was broadly shared, with consistent growth in living standards for rich and poor alike and the emergence of a broad middle class. The French call it les trente glorieuses – the 30 glorious years – while the Italians describe it as il miracolo economico. The story of how this golden age of shared economic growth came to be has almost been forgotten, despite it being less than a century ago. There has never been a more urgent time to remind ourselves.

How did western countries, in one quarter of the 20th century, manage to increase both equality and economic efficiency? Why did this virtuous combination ultimately fall apart by the end of the century? The answer lies in the awkward relationship between democracy and capitalism, the former founded on equal political rights, the latter tending to accentuate differences between citizens based on talent, luck or inherited advantage. Democracy has the potential to curb capitalism’s inherent tendency to generate inequality. This very inequality can undermine the ability of democratic institutions to ensure that the economy works for the majority.

The rise and fall of democratic capitalism in the postwar era is one of the most important events in modern history…

My hunch is that in the long view of history, the the kind of democracy that emerged from the wreckage of WW2 in the period 1946 to 1971, and then began its long decay from then to the present, may come to be seen as a kind of blip. It was a by-product of the global shock of a global war, and it lasted until the economic ideas that informed it and the impact of the war on successive generations began to run out of steam.

Hopkin’s argument is that the war “cut capitalism down to size” and gave a decisive push to establish a new form of economic system in which political demands took primacy. As a result, the postwar era established a new form of ‘managed’ or ‘democratic’ capitalism that delivered a more equal distribution of income and wealth.

Democratic capitalism redressed the balance between the brutal inequalities of early industrial capitalism and the need for social consent to secure political stability. It rested on three broad pillars: a redistributive welfare state that provided economic security while narrowing income gaps between rich and poor, corporatist dialogue between employers and the labour force, and highly regulated capital markets. Aspects of this form of capitalism sometimes existed in nondemocratic societies too. But as a basic set of socioeconomic institutions it was most associated with the democratic form of government in which competitive elections and representative political parties incorporated citizen demands into policymaking.

All that began to change in the 1970s, when a combination of high inflation, faltering growth and industrial disputes over wages ushered in an era of social and political turbulence that brought a revival of liberal market ideology in the shape of the neoliberalism that seized the imagination of politicians and governing elites throughout the West. But, says Hopkin,

The promise of the neoliberal era to unleash the power of individual incentives to spread prosperity has not been fulfilled. Average growth rates across the advanced capitalist systems failed to match those of the postwar boom years. Since the 1970s, an increasingly unequal income distribution has meant that, for many, living standards failed to improve by much at all in subsequent decades. In the 1970s, strikes, demonstrations, riots and even terrorism expressed social tensions. By the 1990s, a resentful apathy, reflected in falling voter turnout and disengagement with formal party politics, signalled mass frustrations. The neoliberal revolution succeeded not only in shifting policy, but in fundamentally undermining the institutional preconditions of democratic capitalism. Governments progressively delegated important policy decisions to non-elected bodies, some of them supranational. Meanwhile, anti-union legislation and the declining bargaining power resulting from offshoring and heightened global competition took a heavy toll on worker rights.

Which is how we got to where we are now.

Long read, but worth it.


Trump and the virus

All of a sudden people are apparently rushing to pray for Trump as he battles with Covid. Pardon me if I sit this one out. My fear is that it will be a replay of the Boris Johnson story. You may recall that Johson damn nearly died from the virus, but was saved by the NHS and then wrapped himself in the NHS flag afterwards to ride a wave of feeble-minded public sympathy over his self-induced ordeal — brought about largely by his inability to take the virus seriously in the early days. Just like Trump.

In the meantime, it’s heartening to see how Photoshop remains the staple tool of satirists, as in this picture retrieved from my irreverent WhatsApp feed:

But there are some really interesting aspects of what has happened.

Michael Kruse has a fascinating article in Politico.com about it.

Here’s the bit that caught my eye:

“Weakness,” Tony Schwartz, co-author of The Art of the Deal, once told me, “is Trump’s greatest fear by far.”

Weakness, however, inhabits the absolute center of the most primal aspects of the long-arc engine of Trump. He knows, in the most deep-seated way, of the utter unavoidability of human vulnerability—anybody’s, everybody’s and, of course, his own. And yet Trump resolutely followed the mandate his father modeled to squelch any such concession. Fundamentally disparate but inextricably linked, these are two of the most essential and major motivators of Trump’s lifelong pattern of behavior. Now, with the news that Trump has tested positive for the virus that’s killed more than a million people worldwide, all of this has come to a perilous head.

The wee-hours shock wave of his diagnosis has exposed the fragility of his bravado. The man who’s trumpeted his genes and his blood and his virility while deriding his foes for low energy is now stricken and sequestered, cut off from the adoring supporters who stoke not just his political prospects but his needy psyche. He is 74 and obese, and already was facing a pending public reckoning—and the fear of being seen as anything other than strong in the end is precisely what has made him so weak.

His lengthy record of germophobia, encapsulated by his well-documented hatred of shaking hands, often has been considered merely a bullet point on his list of idiosyncrasies. But in fact it reflects his latent knowledge of the power of infection to wreak quick and terrible consequences. “Shaking hands, you catch colds, you catch the flu,” he said in 1999. “And who knows what else?” he said in 2004. “You don’t want to be a liability,” he said, getting perhaps unwittingly closer to the crux, in 2013. “You don’t want to become somebody’s patient.” Trump, according to Jack O’Donnell, a former Trump casino executive in Atlantic City, was “preoccupied by a fear of communicable disease.”

There’s a delicious sense of chickens coming home to roost about all this.


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Monday 7 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The world is not black and white. More like black and grey.”

  • Graham Greene

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Teach Your Children

Link

I’ve always loved this song.


Michael Sandel on the dark sides of meritocracy

On Sunday, the Observer carried a remarkable interview by Julian Coman with the Harvard political philosopher Micheal Sandel based on The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, his forthcoming critique of the doctrine of meritocracy that has been a cornerstone of both right and centre-left politics for several generations.

The Tyranny of Merit, says Coman,

is Sandel’s response to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. For figures such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, it will make challenging reading. By championing an “age of merit” as the solution to the challenges of globalisation, inequality and deindustrialisation, the Democratic party and its European equivalents, Sandel argues, hung the western working-class and its values out to dry – with disastrous consequences for the common good.

Sandel says that ‘the rhetoric of rising’ touted by centre-left figures became

an article of faith, a seemingly uncontroversial trope. We will make a truly level playing field, it was said by the centre-left, so that everyone has an equal chance. And if we do, and so far as we do, then those who rise by dint of effort, talent, hard work will deserve their place, will have earned it.”

The whole idea of a meritocracy, in that sense, was pernicious, first of all because there never was a level playing field (as anyone who has sat on a Harvard or Oxbridge admission panel can testify), but also because only one kind of ‘merit’ was valued and valorised: academic success and the credentials that came with it. The message to every occupant of this non-level playing field, however, was: “better yourself or bear the responsibility for your own failure”.

In the end, is it any surprise that the ‘deplorables’ (to use Hilary Clinton’s vicious term) took their votes elsewhere. “The populist backlash of recent years”, says Sandel, “has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit, as it has been experienced by those who feel humiliated by meritocracy and by this entire political project.”

Great interview. I’ve ordered the book. It’s out on Thursday, I think.


How to fool an “AI” tutor: keyword mashing

Lovely story from The Verge*:

On Monday, Dana Simmons came downstairs to find her 12-year-old son, Lazare, in tears. He’d completed the first assignment for his seventh-grade history class on Edgenuity, an online platform for virtual learning. He’d received a 50 out of 100. That wasn’t on a practice test — it was his real grade.

“He was like, I’m gonna have to get a 100 on all the rest of this to make up for this,” said Simmons in a phone interview with The Verge. “He was totally dejected.”

At first, Simmons tried to console her son. “I was like well, you know, some teachers grade really harshly at the beginning,” said Simmons, who is a history professor herself. Then, Lazare clarified that he’d received his grade less than a second after submitting his answers. A teacher couldn’t have read his response in that time, Simmons knew — her son was being graded by an algorithm.

Simmons watched Lazare complete more assignments. She looked at the correct answers, which Edgenuity revealed at the end. She surmised that Edgenuity’s AI was scanning for specific keywords that it expected to see in students’ answers. And she decided to game it.

Now, for every short-answer question, Lazare writes two long sentences followed by a disjointed list of keywords — anything that seems relevant to the question. “The questions are things like… ‘What was the advantage of Constantinople’s location for the power of the Byzantine empire,’” Simmons says. “So you go through, okay, what are the possible keywords that are associated with this? Wealth, caravan, ship, India, China, Middle East, he just threw all of those words in.”

Before we know it, people will be using this trick to compose blogs. HT to Charles Arthur for spotting it.


The end of democracy as we’ve known it

Like many people, I’ve been brooding on what’s happening. Some thoughts, in no particular order;

  1. It’s very disconcerting and disturbing to have to confront the possibility that the system which has shaped our collective lives for so long may be running out of steam. What has hitherto been unthinkable suddenly seems thinkable, or even possible.

  2. As my colleague David Runciman pointed out in his terrific book, How Democracy Ends, democracy (or at any rate the versions of it that we have experienced) will eventually come to an end, if only for the reason that nothing lasts forever. (Just ask the Romans, or the Ottomans, or indeed the British.) In other writings, David has pointed out that American democracy is now middle-aged and he used the metaphor of the daft or dangerous things that middle-aged men do when they start to realise the fact of their own mortality — like buying a powerful motorbike. In that sense, Trump could be seen as American democracy’s motorbike.

  3. But men buy motorbikes in the knowledge that if they do come off there will be an ambulance service and an A&E Unit in a local hospital to rescue them from their fate. And there’s an insurance company that will pay for the damage to the bike or to other people’s lives or property.

  4. So the US electorate may have felt safe in taking a punt on Trump, on the grounds that if it turned out badly, well, then, the system would take care of them. In a way, that was also the thinking of my many liberal American friends who told me that, while Trump would be terrible, “we are a Republic of Laws” and the Constitution, the separation of powers and the court system would keep him under control and limit the damage, pending restoration of normalcy.

  5. What American electors didn’t know (although they might have guessed) is that this particular metaphorical motorbike had the intention — and the capacity — to eliminate ambulances, A&E units and insurance services. Trump’s evisceration of the capacity of the federal government is a thing to behold — as Michael Lewis memorably chronicled in his book The Fifth Risk. Likewise his capture of the Senate (and, initially, the House), his stacking of the Supreme Court and his raft of lesser judicial appointments.

  6. In his book, Runciman also made the point that democracy won’t fail backwards, but forwards. Looking back to Weimar Germany, for example, is a waste of time. The failure, when it comes, will take unexpected forms. One of the things we learned early from Trump (and, later, from Boris Johnson) is how norms and conventions play a key role in maintaining the democracy we have become used to.

  7. For example: the idea that it’s unacceptable for a holder of high office to use the office as a way of enriching himself and his family and associates; the convention that if you lose an election you accept the verdict of the electorate rather than declaring it rigged; the norm that you don’t use the machinery of the Deep State as a way of settling personal or political scores; the convention that you do not ally with foreign adversaries in order to buttress your domestic position; and so on. (Analogous norms in the UK are ideas like: that you don’t prorogue Parliament simply to curtail debate; that ministers take responsibility for mistakes and incompetence or corrupt behaviour and resign; that you provide government spokespersons to responsible media organisations to enable them to provide ‘balanced’ coverage of public issues; that you do not give large contracts to favoured companies run by cronies; and so on.) What we are seeing, in these two supposedly mature democracies, is their versions of democracy being hollowed out by the flouting of hitherto respected conventions and norms. And there seem to be no legal ways of preventing this.

  8. Adherents of the notion that democracy will fail backwards often identify the failure to hold free elections as the mechanism by which the collapse into authoritarianism (or worse) happens. The opposite seems to be becoming the case. Free, or relatively free, elections will continue to be the norm. But political polarisation, extremism, control of mainstream media and exploitation of social media will ensure that authoritarian candidates come out on top or — if they do not — that the legitimacy of the elections will be questioned. Orban in Hungary and Erdogan in Turkey are the paradigmatic examples of autocrats who have been freely elected by ‘the people’. And even if their majorities are relatively small, they rule as though they had received 99.9 per cent of the vote.

  9. Consequently, a better litmus test for the existence of democracy in the future will not be whether free elections are routinely held, but whether peaceful transfers of power happen. Interestingly, this is one of the questions now beginning to trouble those American friends of mine who were so sanguine about the restraining power of democratic institutions in the pre-Trump era.

  10. And none of this thinking involves exploring an equally important question, namely what’s so great about the kind of democracy under which we have apparently being living so contentedly. (See the earlier post about Michael Sandel’s new book.)


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Wednesday 26 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“In the short-run, the stock market is a voting machine; in the long-run, it’s a weighing machine.”

  • Warren Buffett, whose 250 million Apple shares currently weigh about $118B.

(A single Apple share purchased at the 1980 IPO price – $22 – would be worth $27,859 today.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach: Cello Suite No 1 in D played on the guitar by John Feeley (19 minutes)

Link


What is it about Uber and Chinese students?

A friend who lives in Cambridge and uses Uber reports a common theme in his current conversations with drivers. When he asks them the standard “how’s business?” question the common refrain is “terrible”. And the reason? There are no Chinese students around at the moment. It seems that they are the biggest users of the service when they’re in residence. They even use Uber to take them to lectures (this in a town where everything is within easy walking distance.)

Why is this, I wonder? Could it be that they have more money than sense? Or that they don’t like walking or cycling? Or that they feel vulnerable on the street? Weird.


Fixing capitalism

Quartz has a series of articles on this general theme. It’s a mixed bag, but some of them — for example the one about regulating Amazon like a railroad — is interesting.


e-Scooters: drowning not waving

Sifted story

Hundreds of e-scooters are picked up from waters around European cities every year. In Stockholm, the lake cleaning organisation Rena Mälaren has picked up 355 in total in the last couple of years. In Paris another organisation, Guppy, has picked up 235 over seven excursions.

Each e-scooter is worth a few hundred euros and the newer models have a predicted lifespan of three to five years. Apart from lost earnings, every time one is lobbed into a canal or river it also damages the scooter operator’s relationship with the local authorities.

But one scooter startup has come up with a new plan to tackle the problem: a drowning button.

Voi, the Stockholm-based scooter operator, is in the process of unveiling a new scooter with features such as indicators. It is also likely to have a feature which is the scooter equivalent of an SOS signal.

“That is the plan. We just have to work out the functionality,” says Kristina Hunter Nilsson, communication manager at Voi. She hopes the feature could also be retrofitted to Voi’s older scooters too. “Some of these things are software-driven which means that we can add it to the older models as well. And it is in everyone’s interest that we have that.

When an electric scooter ends up in the water it loses its connectivity and is therefore difficult to find. The drowning feature will alert Voi when a scooter ends up underwater and the hope is that, in many cases, it can then be rescued before too much damage has been done.

But exactly how long a scooter survives underwater is something that Hunter Nilsson cannot say for sure. “That really depends on a lot of things and I wouldn’t want to give you an exact number of days,” she says.

What have these people been smoking?


The US is facing the possibility of an illegitimate election

David Litt (author of Democracy In One Book Or Less) writing in The Atlantic:

“A sitting president trying to undermine the postal service so he might win an election is not something that happens in rich, developed democracies,” says University College London’s Brian Klaas, the co-author of How to Rig an Election. “It’s the kind of thing that happens in post-Soviet countries, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.” In the language of political science, President Donald Trump is hoping to take America from “self-enforcing democracy”—a system of government in which leaders allow fair elections and accept the results—to “competitive authoritarianism,” in which rulers allow elections, but those elections are neither fair nor free.

The good news, or at least the 2020 version of good news, is that Americans can protect the integrity of their elections without appealing to the better angels of Trump’s nature. Would-be autocrats are unlikely to be persuaded, but they can be deterred. By making it far less likely that stealing an election would work—and far more likely that those who try to would face consequences for their actions—the United States can preserve democracy this year and beyond.

Defending American democracy starts with taking advantage of one of its greatest existing strengths: its decentralized nature. Each state, territory, and district administers its own local contests with near-total independence. The federal government sets certain rules for federal elections; that authority falls to Congress, not the White House. This makes it hard for the president to undermine an election’s integrity, and easier for local officials to uphold it. Already, some states are adding secure drop boxes for ballots, recruiting additional election staff, and finding room in their budgets to ensure that the casting and collection of ballots runs as smoothly as possible during the pandemic. The less chaos that takes place on November 3, the fewer excuses the president will have to interfere with vote counting.

Even in places—including some swing states—where officials are all too happy to help the president undermine the democratic process, individual Americans can do a great deal to protect the integrity of the election…

The most astonishing thing is that such a piece doesn’t seem outrageous in a serious magazine nowadays. It’s a measure of how serious the risks to democracy even in mature states are becoming.


Stefan Collini on the enigma of Frank Kermode

Lovely essay by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books on a critic we were both fortunate enough to have known. Sample:

So when and how, I wondered, not for the first time, did the ‘Frank Kermode’ we admired come into being, il capo di tutti capi in the world of reviewing and criticism for more than half a century? During another of my trudges along the forgotten caravan routes of criticism (now undertaken electronically, thanks to lockdown), I chanced upon, in the online archive of the Listener, a review by John Gross of Frank’s Puzzles and Epiphanies: Essays and Reviews 1958-61, published in 1962. The very existence of such a collection of reviews – and the brazen proclamation of its origin in such a brief period – itself suggested the dramatic transformation which must have overtaken Frank’s career by this point. Gross, then a 27-year-old up-and-coming reviewer-academic who was later to write The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters and to become editor of the Times Literary Supplement, had evidently been attending to Frank’s presence on the literary scene for some time. He noted that the contents of the book were all products of a three-year period, and then went on: ‘Reading them as they appeared, one became aware of Professor Kermode as the most interesting reviewer to emerge for a long time.’ The reviews had been published in a variety of periodicals, including the Listener, Partisan Review and the London Magazine, but the majority were from either the Spectator or Encounter. So when had all that started to happen, when did the smart London weeklies and monthlies begin to commission reviews from the little-known young lecturer who, recruited by Gordon, had moved to the University of Reading in 1949?


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Saturday 15 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

  • Bertrand Russell

Musical alternative to the morning’s news

Jessye Norman: Mozart – Le Nozze di Figaro, ‘Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro’

Link


The significance of the Twitter hack

Damn! This great piece by Bruce Schneier was published on July 18 and I missed it. Growl.

Still, better late than never…

Twitter was hacked this week. Not a few people’s Twitter accounts, but all of Twitter. Someone compromised the entire Twitter network, probably by stealing the log-in credentials of one of Twitter’s system administrators. Those are the people trusted to ensure that Twitter functions smoothly.

The hacker used that access to send tweets from a variety of popular and trusted accounts, including those of Joe Biden, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk, as part of a mundane scam—stealing bitcoin—but it’s easy to envision more nefarious scenarios. Imagine a government using this sort of attack against another government, coordinating a series of fake tweets from hundreds of politicians and other public figures the day before a major election, to affect the outcome. Or to escalate an international dispute. Done well, it would be devastating.

en passant, the US is heading for an election that will not be decided on the day, but after a period (of unknown duration) while postal votes are being counted (and maybe argued over). Another Twitter hack on the lines just suggested could be catastrophic.

So here’s the nub of it:

Internet communications platforms—such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—are crucial in today’s society. They’re how we communicate with one another. They’re how our elected leaders communicate with us. They are essential infrastructure. Yet they are run by for-profit companies with little government oversight. This is simply no longer sustainable. Twitter and companies like it are essential to our national dialogue, to our economy, and to our democracy. We need to start treating them that way, and that means both requiring them to do a better job on security and breaking them up.


Google’s Advertising Platform Is Blocking Articles About Racism

This is both shocking — and unsurprising:

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, the Atlantic decided to recirculate King’s famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which the magazine had run in its August 1963 issue and republished, in print and online, in 2018. Several hours later, the publication’s staff noticed that Google’s Ad Exchange platform, which serves many of the ads on the Atlantic’s website, had “demonetized” the page containing the letter under its “dangerous or derogatory content” policy. In other words: As part of its efforts to protect advertisers from offensive internet content with which they would not want their products to be associated, Ad Exchange had locked out one of the most important texts of the civil rights movement.

Google controls more than 30 percent of the digital ads market. A big chunk of that business happens through Ad Exchange, a marketplace for buying and selling advertising space across the web. According to its publisher policies, Google does not monetize, or allow advertising on, “dangerous or derogatory content” that disparages people on the basis of a characteristic that is associated with systemic discrimination—race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. As the policy outlines, this might look like “promoting hate groups” or “encouraging others to believe that a person or group is inhuman.” Because of the scale of Google’s ad-serving business, however, it can’t enforce this policy on the front lines by hand, so instead the company uses an algorithm that, in part, scans for offensive keywords in articles. But the system doesn’t always take context into consideration. Several mainstream publishers, including Slate, have had articles demonetized under this policy when covering race and LGBTQ issues.

Automated ‘moderation’ is context-blind, in other words. It’s just another confirmation that these companies can’t fulfil their moral and ethical obligations at the scale on which they operate, given the business models on which they depend.


US Postal Service warns 46 states their voters could be disenfranchised by delayed mail-in ballots

This is paywalled on the Washington Post site, but here is the gist:

Anticipating an avalanche of absentee ballots, the U.S. Postal Service recently sent detailed letters to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted — adding another layer of uncertainty ahead of the high-stakes presidential contest.

The letters sketch a grim possibility for the tens of millions of Americans eligible for a mail-in ballot this fall: Even if people follow all of their state’s election rules, the pace of Postal Service delivery may disqualify their votes.

The Postal Service’s warnings of potential disenfranchisement came as the agency undergoes a sweeping organizational and policy overhaul amid dire financial conditions. Cost-cutting moves have already delayed mail delivery by as much as a week in some places, and a new decision to decommission 10 percent of the Postal Service’s sorting machines sparked widespread concern the slowdowns will only worsen. Rank-and-file postal workers say the move is ill-timed and could sharply diminish the speedy processing of flat mail, including letters and ballots.

My immediate thought was that this is linked to the appointment of a Trump stooge as the Postmaster-General. But apparently it pre-dates his appointment:

The ballot warnings, issued at the end of July from Thomas J. Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the Postal Service, and obtained through a records request by The Washington Post, were planned before the appointment of Louis DeJoy, a former logistics executive and ally of President Trump, as postmaster general in early summer. They go beyond the traditional coordination between the Postal Service and election officials, drafted as fears surrounding the coronavirus pandemic triggered an unprecedented and sudden shift to mail-in voting.

Everywhere one looks, norms and conventions that we took for granted in liberal democracies are wilting or being undermined. The chances of the US having an uncontested election result diminish by the day.


Summer books #4

Analogia: The Entangled Destinies of Nature, Human Beings and Machines by George Dyson, Allen Lane, 2020.

I’m exactly half-way through this extraordinary book, and I still don’t know where it’s headed. But it’s an infuriatingly compelling read. George Dyson is an extraordinary member of an extraordinary family — the son of the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson and mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, the brother of technology analyst Esther Dyson, and the grandson of the British composer Sir George Dyson. He has led an amazing life as a roving explorer, craftsman and public intellectual. Having being brought up in Princeton, where his father was an academic in the Institute for Advanced Study, he dropped out of a couple of universities before heading for the West Coast of Canada. From 1972 to 1975, he lived in a tree-house at a height of 30 metres that he built from salvaged materials on the shore of Burrard Inlet in British Columbia. He became a Canadian citizen and spent 20 years in that part of the world designing kayaks, researching historic voyages and native peoples, and exploring the Inside Passage.

In recent decades he’s become interested in the history of computing and the direction of travel of our increasingly digitized world. Everything he’s written on these subjects interweaves his own personal history with polymathic knowledge of all kinds of subjects and speculations on what it all means for the future. This, his latest book, follows the same pattern. Where he’s heading, I suspect, is towards the conclusion that, in the end, the digital will run out of steam, and we’ll discover that analog computing (which after all is what goes on in our brains) will have the last laugh. As someone who started on analog computers before moving to digital devices I’m intrigued to see if that hunch is correct. But there’s another 150 pages to go and anything may happen: you never can tell with the Dysons. After all, George’s father devoted a couple of years of his life to a US-funded project to build a huge spaceship powered by nuclear explosions and was mightily pissed off when the US instead opted for Werner von Braun and his primitive, chemical-fuelled, rockets.


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Wednesday 12 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”

  • Abraham Maslow (he of the famous ‘hierarchy of needs’)

Reminds me of Geoffrey Vickers, the wisest man I ever knew. In a conversation towards the end of his long life he said to me, “The hardest thing in life is to know what to want; most people never figure it out, so they wind up pretending that they wanted what they could get”.


Musical alternative to this morning’s news

Ringo Starr, Robbie Robertson and a host of other musicians in a terrific Internet-wide performance of ‘The Weight’

If this isn’t an alternative to the news, then I don’t know what is. Fans of the movie Easy Rider will doubtless remember the tune.

Link


Sharpies, Covid and re-opening schools

Astonishing post in McSweeney’s by a teacher in the US.

I’m thinking about one Sharpie pen in particular. It’s black, medium thickness. And it stays in the blue emergency bag that I keep on the filing cabinet closest to my classroom door. Our school’s emergency bags are remarkably sparse. No band-aids, no first aid materials. We have one flashlight, one sign with my name to help my students find our class if they get separated during a mass exodus, one copy of my class rosters, and one Sharpie marker. Why a marker? Someone asked that very question at a staff meeting. The nurse explained, in a completely emotionless tone, that the Sharpie was so we could identify students and write their names on their bodies in the event of an incident.

She was vague, but we all knew exactly what she was saying. You have a marker in case someone armed with a military-style assault rifle strolls onto campus and starts murdering your co-workers and students. When the shooting stops, we need you to walk through the carnage of your classroom, checking for signs of life. And where there is none, take out that marker and write the name of that precious child, that beautiful life snuffed out too early. She didn’t tell us where we were supposed to write the name — on an arm? A leg? But nobody asked any more questions. We shuffled out of the library silently.

That Sharpie tells me everything I need to know about teaching through COVID. We could have poured resources into prevention. We could’ve spent all summer enforcing mask use and social distancing. We could’ve sacrificed small pleasures for the greater good. We could’ve kept this from happening. But instead, we’re blindly barreling toward reopening even though we know teachers and students will die. We’re going to treat COVID the same way we treat school shootings. An unfortunate but unavoidable cost to doing business. There will be some new morbid addition to the emergency bag. Some simple tool made macabre by the expectation for its use. And like we always do, we will ask our teachers to stand in the doorways and use our bodies as human shields. And if we make it out alive, we’ll be the ones tasked with walking through the wreckage and counting the bodies.


How Covid is hollowing out ‘unsustainable’ Manhattan

Interesting (but not surprising) NYT piece.

[Image credit: New York Times]

For four months, the Victoria’s Secret flagship store at Herald Square in Manhattan has been closed and not paying its $937,000 monthly rent. “It will be years before retail has even a chance of returning to New York City in its pre-Covid form,” the retailer’s parent company recently told its landlord in a legal document.

Wow! A million bucks a month in rent! How much lingerie do you have to sell to justify that?

(Full disclosure: I’ve never been in a Victoria’s Secret store, so I don’t know what her secret was/is. Clearly I should have got out more when I still could.)


Democracy for losers

Long read of the Day.

Remarkable essay by Jan-Werner Müller which puts Trump’s pre-emptive strikes against the legitimacy of the forthcoming election in context.

The TL;DR summary is: since populist politians represent “the people” they cannot, by definition, be the losers in an election. So if, in fact, they lose, then the election must be rigged.

The most interesting part of the essay is his exploration of the fact that democracy only works if the losers accept that they’ve lost. And of course this is also its great weakness, if there are parties around who refuse the accept the possibility that the people might have chosen others than them.

Worth reading in full. Müller’s book on populism is very good, btw.


Summer reading #2

Zachary Carter’s life of Keynes is the best biography I’ve read in years. Admittedly, this may be a reflection of the fact that I’ve been fascinated by Keynes for a very long time. I learned a lot about the man that I should have known but didn’t, and it gave me the context I lacked when I first embarked, many years ago, on Keynes’s General Theory.

In fact — as a wise and scholarly friend of mine observed — it’s really two biographies, because Keynes dies about half way through: the first is a biography of the man; the second is a biography of Keynesianism, the economic (and democratic) philosophy that he inspired. Both ‘books’ matter, and the second really helps one to understand how the world we inhabit today was shaped.

One of the things I was grateful to the lockdown for was that it gave me the time — and the excuse — to read this terrific work.


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