what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Academics who produce the goods

In the 2 posts I did after the 23 June Brexit result, I tried to give a sense of how subsequent events were covered by some of the UK, European and American “writers” I respect (whether in The Guardian, LRB, Eurozine, der Spiegel or New York Review of Books).
A strong theme which emerged in their comments was the extent to which balanced analysis has been replaced (in both the tabloids and social media) by shrill partisanship and the careless treatment of “facts”……. Everything these days is “relative” – there is always a different perspective – the world is too confusing - so it’s not worth listening to “the experts”……

Exactly how this translated into electoral behaviour is powerfully shown at page 15 of a fascinating presentation made at the LSE by a Professor only a week after the result - After the EU Referendum – what next for Britain and the EU?
Bear in mind that some 90% of the public advice given (by economists and global think-tanks) on the economic aspects warned of the very tangible damaging effect which Brexit would have on British investment, shares and employment. “Project Fear” was a term which had been skilfully used by the Scottish nationalists during the 2013-14 Scottish referendum to try to belittle the arguments of those who argued for Scotland to remain in the UK. And this was the term which was duly trundled into use this year to make light of the dangers of withdrawing from the EU.

The difference, however, is that a huge 42% of those polled in the last few weeks of the 2014 Scottish referendum campaign considered that they would be “worse off” in an independent Scotland (3 other options were given - "better off", "no difference" and "don't know"). 
In June of this year – despite several official estimates which put a very tangible figure of several thousand pounds as the annual cost per earner of Brexit – exactly half that number (21%) gave that judgement about British withdrawal from Europe. 
By contrast almost half (45%) of those polled in early June this year for the UK referendum considered it would make “no difference” to them economically (compared with only 22% of the Scots 2 years ago)

In other words, “Project Fear” worked in 2014 but totally failed in 2016
Are the Scots more gullible (we did after all vote strongly for remain)? Can the same trick not work twice? More probable is Hix's more nuanced argument about the new social divide between the "precariat" and professionals - life is so bad for so many people that threats of it getting worse have lost meaning......they just want to kick out......  

Simon Hix’s presentation can be viewed on Youtube – and I really would recommend that you follow both the video and the power-point presentations since he gives the best analysis I have yet seen of the reasons for people voting the way they did - as well as an excellent assessment of what happens now. 

It clearly helped that he was part of a multi-disciplinary team of academics who travelled around the country talking to ordinary people about the issue...it's clear that he learned a lot from the exercise. And (despite his own views - he is after all a Professor of European politics) he is emphatic that "Brexit means Brexit" 

Academics get a bad name for talking down to us in abstruse language but the same research website The UK in a changing Europe has several excellent articles eg this one written in the aftermath of the vote by the indefatigable Richard Rose

And one more positive example of what academics are capable of if they turn their minds sufficiently to the real world is this 13 page memo published today by 2 British academics “Getting out Quick and Playing the Long Game 
A ‘three step’ Brexit solution, including an ambitious transitional arrangement, is key to meeting the aspirations of the British people and reaching a mutually beneficial long-term relationship with the EU. This would see the UK leave the EU towards the end of 2018 and enter a transitional arrangement, possibly lasting until 2024, which would offer the time and space needed to more coolly and calmly negotiate a long-term agreement. The outcome of the EU referendum laid down the general parameters required for such a transitional agreement:
1. Parliamentary sovereignty should be restored. All EU law would be transposed into British law and a ‘Petitions Committee’, comprising a variety of representatives, should be empowered to hold hearings on whether an EU law should be repealed or amended on the basis of a petition from a certain threshold of British citizens or companies. The UK should no longer be subject to the formal force of the EU Court of Justice’s judgments.
 2. Crucially, this committee should involve not only the ‘usual suspects’ from stakeholder society – though devolved administrations, local government and key interests should be involved. It should also reach out to groups that are not usually involved in exercises such as this but who turned out in force to vote in the referendum.
 3. A joint UK-EU commission could assess whether countermeasures were appropriate if judgments or interpretations by British regulatory bodies departed from EU law. These countermeasures could have consequences for UK exporters’ access to EU markets.
 4. Free movement of EU citizens cannot carry on in its current form. A compromise would be only to grant residence to those who have an offer of a full time job and a new income threshold for those seeking to bring their families to the UK, as is the case for UK nationals seeking to bring in a non-EU spouse.
 5. The UK should no longer formally contribute to the EU budget. The UK’s net contributions could be replaced by direct UK bilateral support to the poorer EU member states.
 6. Scotland and possibly Northern Ireland will need a closer relationship with the EU than other parts of the UK. This could involve keeping EU law in place in Scotland, including free movement of person, in return for participation in the work of the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER) in Brussels.
 The hurdles to such a transitional agreement should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, it could appeal to EU partners since it secures a quick Brexit and allows a high degree of economic predictability while negotiating a longer-term deal. Within the UK, such an arrangement would allow the broadest possible participation in the process of untangling the UK from EU law and responsiveness to unpopular EU laws, whilst securing an orderly exit.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Sleep of Reason produces Monsters

Global events have struck me dumb…Brexit did not so much surprise as shock me – into a deep depression. But it’s not so much the result per se as the new tone of global politics of which this is simply one expression – any pretence at reason has been surrendered to the exercise of brute power and stirring of visceral hatreds as evident in Trump’s victory and events in Turkey, Nice and Munich…..let alone Baghdad and Kabul

They’ve apparently been talking in the US for some 5-6 years about “post-truth politics” but it was an important recent article argues that technology is at the root of the new drift 
It was hardly the first time that politicians had failed to deliver what they promised, but it might have been the first time they admitted on the morning after victory that the promises had been false all along.
This was the first major vote in the era of post-truth politics: the listless remain campaign attempted to fight fantasy with facts, but quickly found that the currency of fact had been badly debased.The remain side’s worrying facts and worried experts were dismissed as “Project Fear” – and quickly neutralised by opposing “facts”: if 99 experts said the economy would crash and one disagreed, the BBC told us that each side had a different view of the situation. (This is a disastrous mistake that ends up obscuring truth, and echoes how some report climate change.)
Michael Gove declared that “people in this country have had enough of experts” on Sky News. He also compared 10 Nobel prize-winning economists who signed an anti-Brexit letter to Nazi scientists loyal to Hitler. It can become very difficult for anyone to tell the difference between facts that are true and 'facts' that are not…
For months, the Eurosceptic press trumpeted every dubious claim and rubbished every expert warning, filling the front pages with too many confected anti-migrant headlines to count – many of them later quietly corrected in very small print. On the same day Nigel Farage unveiled his inflammatory “Breaking Point” poster, and Labour MP Jo Cox, who had campaigned tirelessly for refugees, was shot dead, the cover of the Daily Mail featured a picture of migrants in the back of a lorry entering the UK, with the headline “We are from Europe – let us in!” The next day, the Mail and the Sun, which also carried the story, were forced to admit that the stowaways were actually from Iraq and Kuwait.

 A few days after the vote, Arron Banks, Ukip’s largest donor and the main funder of the Leave.EU campaign, told the Guardian that his side knew all along that facts would not win the day. “It was taking an American-style media approach,” said Banks. “What they said early on was ‘Facts don’t work’, and that’s it. The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”
 Twenty-five years after the first website went online, it is clear that we are living through a period of dizzying transition. For 500 years after Gutenberg, the dominant form of information was the printed page: knowledge was primarily delivered in a fixed format, one that encouraged readers to believe in stable and settled truths.Now, we are caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces: between truth and falsehood, fact and rumour; between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated; between the open platform of the web as its architects envisioned it and the gated enclosures of Facebook and other social networks; between an informed public and a misguided mob.

What is common to these struggles – and what makes their resolution an urgent matter – is that they all involve the diminishing status of truth. This does not mean that there are no truths. It simply means, as this year has made very clear, that we cannot agree on what those truths are, and when there is no consensus about the truth and no way to achieve it, chaos soon follows.
Increasingly, what counts as a fact is merely a view that someone feels to be true – and technology has made it very easy for these “facts” to circulate with a speed and reach that was unimaginable in the Gutenberg era (or even a decade ago). ……
There are usually several conflicting truths on any given subject, but in the era of the printing press, words on a page nailed things down, whether they turned out to be true or not. The information felt like the truth, at least until the next day brought another update or a correction, and we all shared a common set of facts. 
This settled “truth” was usually handed down from above: an established truth, often fixed in place by an establishment. This arrangement was not without flaws: too much of the press often exhibited a bias towards the status quo and a deference to authority, and it was prohibitively difficult for ordinary people to challenge the power of the press.
Now, people distrust much of what is presented as fact – particularly if the facts in question are uncomfortable, or out of sync with their own views – and while some of that distrust is misplaced, some of it is not.

update; I now see that there was talk in Britain even in June of "post-truth politics" - and that I must have borrowed my title for this post from a post on 23 June by Chris Grey