Conspiracy is breathing at the same time: let’s all take a deep breath.

A knave by any other name…

One of the worst things you can be called nowadays is a ‘conspiracy theorist’. It is right up there with ‘anti-vaxxer’, ‘COVID denier’ and ‘Trumper’ as a dysphemism with the weight of mainstream, neo-liberal social condemnation behind it. Very few of those who wield it as a ball-and-chain in the melee of internet comment battles ever stop to consider what the two words in the compound actually mean.

To ‘conspire’ is for two or more parties to agree in secret a course of negative action. ‘Theory’ is a much abused word in common parlance. As Brett Weinstein has been at pains to point out over at the Darkhorse Podcast, in the scientific sense a ‘theory’ is a well-substantiated explanation of a phenomenon, which fits together laws, hypothesis and observational data.

A Wuhan conspiracy? Or just people breathing at the same time?

So when those advancing the Lab Leak Hypothesis concerning the origins of COVID were branded conspiracy theorists, the branders were unwittingly using doublespeak. Because in fact no collective secret agreement was needed to conceal the mistake that is hypothesised to have occured at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in late 2019 – a simple denial on the part of those involved will suffice, combined with an unwillingness to allow any meaningful investigation. Nor does the hypothesis in any way hinge on leading virologists like Peter Daszak from EcoHealth Alliance sitting in a smoky back room with President Xi and Tony Fauci. He might simply pursue naked self-interest in aligning himself with the statements of the Chinese Communist Party. And likewise, the media who skillfully ignored the leads that were publicly available last year needn’t have been party to any conspiracy; their distaste for Donald Trump was enough for them to shy away. Since no one has a positive motive to admit the truth, there is little need to assume they would agree to withhold or suppress it.

Nor is the hypothesis necessarily worthy of earning the title ‘theory’, as it lacks the weight of rigorous testing to which hypotheses should be subjected.

Are so! Am not! Are so! AM NOT! ARE SO!…

But none of that matters, because the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has assumed a meaning distinct from the sum of its parts. It now merely infers, ‘a statement or line of reasoning that is out of step with orthodox views, and which is therefore worthy of public derision, and association with which should cause a loss of credibility for its proponents, advocates or even elucidators.

Like its siblings in the medical and political spheres, the conspiracy theory label does much damage to our ability to understand and find positive solutions to important problems. Those unjustly branded with this label are shoved further away from the centre, making consensus more difficult. And the fact-free, lebel-heavy nature of such accusations is at best lazy, at worst feeds a cycle of ad hominom attacks and ego battles. Reason emerges as the big loser.

Content warning: this section has been fact-checked by Facebook’s independent shareholders and found to pose risks to Facebook’s share value

All this is a preamble to address an example of just such a ‘conspiracy theory’; one which has received surprisingly little air time, even among those whose natural scepticism earns them the collective designation ‘tin foil hat brigade’.

I am referring to the role Big Tech has played in steering the political discourse. Anyone paying attention cannot be ignorant of the considerable power these tech monopolies now have over virtually every aspect of our lives. Many on the neo-liberal centre left didn’t blink when, in the wake of  controversial election results in January, Jack Dorsey used his editorial control of Twitter to silence the democratically elected leader of the Free World. They barely raised an eyebrow when, shortly thereafter, Jeff Bezos used his control of servers to shut down Parler, effectively silencing half the political voices in the US. Because, well, Orange Man Bad.

Yet they ought to have been concerned. You don’t need to be an exceptional scholar of the history of tyranny to appreciate that when that kind of power exists, it will not exclusively be used against your political foes. And so there was somewhat more of a collective gasp when, a little later, Facebook acted to effectively shut down the virtual lives of millions of Australians, when that country dared try and enforce the intellectual property of its free press.

But few have wondered about the role Big Tech is so evidently playing in this ongoing pandemic response. No one seems to ask how it is that, barely 16 months ago, no country in the world would have considered lockdowns as any legitimate pandemic response, yet the media and social media were virtually unanimous in supporting these measures. No one wonders why Alex Berenson’s pamphlets which make this very point and others were banned from Amazon, saved only by a personal intervention on the part of Elon Musk. No one queries how numerous YouTubers, from Iver Cummins to Freddie Sayers to TalkRadio have faced content removel, shadow banning and demonitisation, all for the crime of daring to engage in public debate on the most important and unprecedented policy change of the Century, and at a time when it was literally illegal for us to have such discussions in person.

Q: Qui bono? A: Page, Gates, Zuckerschmuck, Dorsey, Bezos…especially Bezos

This lack of questioning is all the more surprising when you consider the obvious motives these companies have in promoting as much panic and overreaction to COVID as possible. By closing coffee shops, people take to Twitter and Facebook to stay in touch, with Google running everywhere in the background. For this they need computers, sold to them by Gates. And by shuttering physical stores, more people shop on Amazon, and Bezos pulls ahead of Musk in the race to be the world’s billioniest billionaire.

But don’t take my word for it. Just look at what happened to the share value of all these publicly traded companies in the wake of the pandemic. Without exception, they profited massively. And likewise, as things have threatened to return to normal, share values begin settling down again. Then suddenly: second wave, third wave, UK variant, South African variant, Indian variant, limited natural immunity, vaccinate yet wear masks forever…

Of course, this is a crazy ‘conspiracy theory’. But my point is that no conspiracy is actually needed. In fact, given these publicly traded companies have no legal duty to tell ‘truth’, yet do have a fiduciary duty to maximise shareholder value, you could easily argue it would be illegal for them to not downplay content that tends to reduce lockdowns and encourage people back into the physical world. Evil? Perhaps. But that’s business. And with business decisions increasingly being taken by AI, it’s not even clear that an unscrupulous human being is required to achieve that outcome. Skynet could be doing it all on its own.

When all is said and done, very little is being said and nothing is being done

What is most worrying is the relative lack of meaningful post mortem. On any of it. By which I mean: On face masks. On lockdowns. On border closures. On the media’s role. On Big Tech’s role, and how policy decisions are arrived at. On the role of Big Pharma. On the origins of the virus. On the role of the WHO. On the role of Anthony Fauci and other ‘medical and scientific experts’, and how consensus is reached within their hierarchies. On the side effects of mRNA vaccines. On why large-scale clinical trials were not ordered in April 2020, (or October 2020, January 2021…or even today) on ivermectin, given its safety and the clear evidence it might be an effective, if not ‘pandemic ending’ treatment.

At this stage, these questions are becoming increasinly academic in nature. But it is nevertheless important that we answer them, and make a concerted effort to address the weaknesses that have allowed a relatively mild pandemic to do so much damage to our societies, our economies and our well-being.

But there is still time to ask the right questions

As a start, I would suggest we need to consider the harms of informational monopolies in terms that go beyond classical market failure (consumer prices) and take into account societal harm and harm to our democracies. We need to take a hard look at how our institutions – academia and the medical establishment – perform in light of funding, hierarchy and the process of peer review. We need to look at how media voices create and sustain particular narratives, including the role of corporate control and ownership in mainstream media channels.

Oh, and we need to consider how the Chinese Communist Party is using its high degree of centralised power to achieve favourable political and market outcomes outside its own borders.

Facemasks in Brussels: A Textbook Example of Bad Regulation

If you abstract from the very real impact these dystopian restictions have on our lives, there is a certain academic pleasure to be had in analysing just how bad the policymaking around COVID has been.

My favourite example of this is without a doubt the decision by the Brussels region to make facemasks mandatory in outdoor public places, with a hefty fine for non-compliance. I’m sure Brussels isn’t alone in this measure, but as I limit my exposure to the news and as travel is not allowed, I can’t comment on how this might be administered in other places.

But the Brussels face mask law manages to break every one of my principles of good policymaking. Here goes:

A good law should be

  1. Effective in achieving its stated aim (if enforced). We know, from multiple sources, that there is no scientific evidence supporting the use of face masks in the community setting. Randomised control trials on influenza-like illnesses have shown, for decades, that they either do nothing, or do next to nothing, to slow infections. Where they have been proven effective is in hospital settings, when used by trained professionals, in conjuction with other hygiene measures.
  2. Proportionate to the aim. Formally, proportionality means it should be the least burdensome way of achieving a stated goal. But as stated above, there is no evidence that the measure can achieve its stated aim, it cannot be said that the measure is proportionate to this aim. Indeed, much of the ‘wisdom’ behind the face mask rule seems to repose on the fact that, while it has no measurable benefits, it is also not really that onerous a requirement to impose (I question this – see below).
  3.  Transparent and clear in its application. The rule as written makes exceptions for anyone who is a jogger or is in the act of drinking or eating. There are less clear, but de facto just as real, exceptions for smokers. But what is a jogger? If I am kitted out for a jog, but decide to only walk, am I in breach of the law? What if I stop for a short breather? Should I put on my mask? What if I am walking very briskly or even running, but not wearing the requisite sporty outfit? Does the face mask rule come with a description of what is the appropriate sort of attire which permits one to be outside without strapping a piece of cloth to one’s face? What if one has an unlit cigarette dangling from one’s lips, which one leaves there for several kilometres? What if one’s juice bottle is nearly empty and one holds it, nursing the last few drops as one strolls from Berchem-St Agathe to Fort Jaco?
  4. Fair. Good laws do not have a disproportionate impact on the poorest citizens. But this one clearly does: If you have the good fortune to live in a large house with a garden, you can enjoy time outside with the sun on your face. But if you live in a little apartment, you will be denied this pleasure for months at a time.
  5.  Enforceable in a consistent manner. There is no way to enforce such a measure, even if clear criteria for its application could be assured. Simply put, there are too many people in the city and too few police to enforce this rule. Consistent enforceability is really important. Without it enforcement becomes a sort of lottery. This is very toxic for both the community and the enforcers themselves. Having unenforcable rules languishing on the books creates an environment in which the citizenry grows wary of police contact, generally unsure whether or not they might get called out for a breach of some half-forgotten law. On the opposite side, there is the risk that enforcement becomes arbitrary, giving to the enforcer the discretion to punish at will. To be clear, this is not something a well regulated state should tolerate: Police enjoy a monopoly on physical force with very clear strings attached; they must exercise that power with a minimum of personal discretion. Anything else opens the door to discrimination and abuse of power.
  6. Free of unintended consequences. The list of unintended consequences from forcing an entire population to cover its face in public is very long indeed. First is the loss of public discourse and social interaction, leading to psychological distress and isolation. Then there are the costs for hearing impaired people who rely on lip reading to participate in public life. Then there is the risk of criminal activity from criminals being allowed to walk about freely in disguise. Then there are the (albeit evidence-free) claims of adverse health effects from mask usage. Then there is the financial cost, the environmental burden, and the list goes on.
  7. Measureable in its impacts. For any law, it should be possible to perform a review, to assess using objective benchmarks whether or not the above criteria were indeed met. But for the facemask rule, there are no such criteria. How can we know if, in the absence of the measure, things would have been worse? This is why measures should be piloted first, tested to see if they work. It happens that tests were done in the Netherlands, and on the basis of them, the Dutch took the decsion not to implement outdoor facemask rules. Could the Brussels authorities not have learned from the example of their Dutch neighbours, and refrained from muzzling the entire population?

Nineties-stalgia: why the Golden Decade is due for a comeback

From Dust cover til Red Dawn

Those of us old enough to remember life in the 1980s will no doubt recall the very real fear of thermonuclear annihilation. We tried to make light of it at the time, with movies like Rocky IV or off-the-cuff black humour – how it was better to be close to ground zero than to suffer the slow, cancerous demise occasioned by a nuclear winter. Still, it haunted us at night. As children, we awoke in cold war sweats, to stare out our bedroom windows and watch imaginary mushroom clouds dominating the night sky.

But as the 80s drew to a close, the fear ended too. David Hasselhoff stood on the Berlin Wall wearing piano keys. And as every non-German marvelled at the fact that Knight Rider could kinda sing, the conflict and angst that defined two generations crumbled into legend. The mighty Soviet Union was reduced to an alcoholic Russian joke, in the person of Boris Yeltsin.

Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Thus were born the 1990s. A decade when any remaining questions the world had asked about Western dominance seemed to be answered. The slow progression of liberal values looked inevitable. Sure the Third World was still a mess, but give us a bit of time and we’d sort that out too. Bob Geldof was, after all, recording a second version of Band Aid, and after U2’s musical death in a custom-graffittied Trabant, Bono was soon to reveal himself at Emmaus.

Image result for dawsons creek
Only a decade with the confidence of the 1990s could have given us something as deliciously bad as Dawson’s Creek.

And so slipped by the Golden Decade. Our thoughts turned to home affairs perhaps, with only a distracting glance in Dan Rather’s direction, to see if the glove fitted on OJ’s hand, or if the cigar fitted into Monika Lewinsky’s … version of events. The news had become a light distraction, a welcome interruption from the humdrum of our civilisation’s happy ending.

As you undermine our security, we undermine yours

And with a whiff of not-too-genuine concern about the Y2K bug, we set about partying like it’s 1999. But the Golden Decade had a little more to give. Which is why we failed to brace for impact when, 20 months later, it all came crashing down in a heap of dust and debris, and a new shadow swept over the West – the spectre of Islamic terrorism. Like the current crisis, the reality of terrorist threats was nothing near as deadly as our overreaction to it – in this sense the terrorists succeeded in every goal they had. With a couple of box cutters, they got us to submit to any and all kinds of security checks, extraordinary rendition or the waging of reckless, endless war on petty despots and the civilians they oppressed. The enduring impact of 9/11 was not the bullets of Kalishnikov-wielding theocrats, but the subtle abandonment of our liberal values; the precedent that when our fear is great enough, we will throw away everything we pretended to hold dear.

Rohan, my lord, is ready to fall

After this traumatic early childhood, the Millenium’s awakening into teenagerdom was little better. There was no single drama that defined the crappiness of the 2010s, rather we were caught in an emotional pinser movement by three slow-moving threats: Immigration, Climate Angst and the inequality which followed the Great Recession. What belief we might once have had in our own civilisation was just about thoroughly beaten down, and as any casual glimpse at the Netflix catalogue will reveal, by mid-decade we could hardly imagine any kind of fiction that didn’t sport the adjective ‘dystopian’. We valued our democracies as little as we valued our data, all to be given away for trinkets in the clouds. We were ready for something like Donald Trump’s tweets. Oh and we got them. We got Rachel Maddow in ‘literal’ [sic.] hysterics over imagined Russian collusion. We got slick, Youtube-ready comedians dispensing sanatised, corporatist Identity Politics by the sound bite. And we kept giving away our privacy to enjoy more of the show.

This background helps us make sense of the madness that is 2020 – how a seemingly mighty tree can topple with only a slight gust of wind, once its core has been allowed to rot away for twenty years. How three hundred years of enlightment principles could be uprooted in a single storm.

Rediscovering the lost decade

And it’s also why, looking back on them now, the 1990s seem so damn appealing. It’s why Nineties-stalgia is the way to go. I defy anyone to tune in to the first few seasons of Friends and not find themselves longing for a time when music sucked but we still had public payphones. Your job might have been a joke, you might have been broke, but if you were young in the 1990s, Western Civilisation was there for you.

Even better than Friends is Dawson’s Creek. Not actually ‘better’. The scripting is at times painfully bad, the accoustic underscores are suburban coffee-shop cringeworthy and the teenagers are, even by the standards of the Golden Decade, implausibly articulate and self-confident. But it is the most perfect encapsulation of the optimism that came to those who grew up in the long Indian summer of a victorious empire.

One that did not yet see its downfall coming.

The Great Barrington Declaration

I am reprinting this on my blog:

As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists we have grave concerns about the damaging physical, and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies and recommend an approach we call Focused Protection. 

Coming from both the left and right, and around the world, we have devoted our careers to protecting people. Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice. 

Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.

Fortunately, our understanding of the virus is growing. We know that vulnerability to death from COVID-19 is more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young. Indeed, for children, COVID-19 is less dangerous than many other harms, including influenza. 

As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all – including the vulnerable – falls. We know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity – i.e.  the point at which the rate of new infections is stable – and that this can be assisted by (but is not dependent upon) a vaccine. Our goal should therefore be to minimize mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity. 

The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection. 

Adopting measures to protect the vulnerable should be the central aim of public health responses to COVID-19. By way of example, nursing homes should use staff with acquired immunity and perform frequent PCR testing of other staff and all visitors. Staff rotation should be minimized. Retired people living at home should have groceries and other essentials delivered to their home. When possible, they should meet family members outside rather than inside. A comprehensive and detailed list of measures, including approaches to multi-generational households, can be implemented, and is well within the scope and capability of public health professionals. 

Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold. Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.

Great Barrington, Massachusetts, 4th October 2020

To sign the declaration, follow this link (will be live later today):
www.GBdeclaration.org

Lockdown madness goes on, even as science shows COVID isn’t that deadly

There is a growing body of evidence which suggests that the coronavirus related disease COVID-19, is not nearly as deadly as is being widely reported in the media and as is believed by the public.
Here is one of many serologic studies which uses the best scientific evidence available to demonstrate this fact:
“Fear of Covid-19 is based on its high estimated case fatality rate — 2% to 4% of people with confirmed Covid-19 have died, according to the World Health Organization and others,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “So if 100 million Americans ultimately get the disease, two million to four million could die. We believe that estimate is deeply flawed. The true fatality rate is the portion of those infected who die, not the deaths from identified positive cases.”
This study was performed by researchers are Stanford University, and follows a similar study, which found similar results, performed by Bonn University. It also follows the data gathered early on from the cruise ships, which provided near-laboratory like conditions for seeing the spread of the virus on a population crammed together under contagion-inducing conditions. Please understand that this is not right-wing propoganda, these are not fringe institutions. They are among the best scientists in the field, and the message is clear:
Coronavirus SARS-Cov-2, and the COVID-19 disease it causes, kill only about 0.5% of its victims. The clear majority (over 80%) of the deaths are among the very old, and the vast majority among those who are over 65 and have preexisting conditions (93%). While of course their passing is tragic, a disease that kills someone who is very close to their natural life expectancy is very different to one that cuts down healthy people in their prime.
What is more, the Lockdowns that have been put in place have no proven impact on the spread of this disease.
What the lockdowns certainly do cause is a massive contraction in economic activity. On this point, there seems to be some confusion on what such a contraction means. This isn’t a case of ‘the banks losing money’, rather it means there are fewer goods and services in the economy – an estimated reduction in 10% for the current year in most countries. Concretely, this will certainly mean an increase in poverty by at least 10% – fewer resources to fund schools and hospitals. Many, many more people will die from this that could possibly be the case from the virus itself.
In addition, the lockdowns represent an unprecedented curtailment of our civil liberties. Governments everywhere have overstepped their constitutional limits, locking their citizens in their houses and literally surpressing public debate. The only public forums available for discussion are online businesses, who have a direct economic incentive to keep the non-virtual economy closed for as long as possible. Not surprising therefore, that those who oppose lockdowns are being shadow-banned or blocked on Facebook and Twitter (e.g. Brazil’s democratically elected president).
Those of you who know me know that I am a measured, reasonable person. I have been educated in economics at a leading university and have worked number-crunching for public institutions for many, many years. In that context, I write policy documents that by their nature avoid hyperbole and sensationalist conclusions. But before I go, I just want to leave you with the following graph, to help you understand that not everyone is losing out, and that the very companies that are winning in this crisis are the ones who have the most control over how we understand this crisis:
covid amazon stock price

The ‘political centre’ isn’t collapsing so much as reforming

Turning and turning in a widening gyre

A conventional narrative among political commentators of our day has been one of increasing polarisation and a collapsing ‘middle’. In economics, leading international think-tanks like the OECD are writing reports with catchy titles like “Under Pressure: The Squeezed Middle Class“. In the media, pundits are falling over each other to predict the demise of the political centre.

And while the centre may indeed be under threat, there is little-to-no evidence of increased political polarisation. Across Europe, an unprecedented number of ‘grand coalitions’ have arisen in recent years, bringing traditionally opposed centre-right and centre-left parties into government together. While very recently there has been some weakening, the bigger picture is how remarkably stable this arrangement has proven. Meanwhile across the Pond, despite what social media outrage would have you believe, the extent of bipartisanship has been on a steady rise for almost a decade – spanning both Obama II and the Trump Administration. This should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention to how the American political system really works. The donor class tends to stick its fingers into both the Republican and the Democrat pies, in more or less equal measure. Party bickering is a useful tool to deflect public attention away from the real issues, but when it starts to impede on the business of the State, the interests are quick to take notice.

The worst lack all conviction

Yet there is a divide opening up, of another kind. I see it as the increasing disparity between the interests of the political class and those of the people they are supposed to serve . In this sense the ‘middle’ is, and has always been, a careful compromise between the public interest and the interests of those who represent the public. The fact that vested interests and lobbyists choose to buy favour among the political class is nothing new. It is how business gets done. What has changed is the extent to which those vested interests deviate from the public interest. As globalisation and increasing human population ratchet up the scale and reach of public policymaking, the stakes go up. The decisions of our day – on how to regulate corporations that are bigger than countries, on how to handle the migration of millions, on how to deal with climate change – are bigger than anything we have faced before. This means public policy matters more, and the size of the ‘middle’, the gap between the people and its representatives, is growing.

In America, the Democrats have traditionally positioned themselves closer to this space, but at least since the Obama Administration it has become piercingly clear to anyone watching that establishment Democrats have moved far, far away from the interests of ordinary people. The two-party system prevents them from experiencing an out-in-out decline, simply because there are no voting alternatives. Yet the fracturing witnessed among the base during the 2016 Presidential campaign had the same political effect. Since 2004, the percentage of Americans identifying as politically independent has been on a steady rise, and now outnumbers either Democrats or Republicans.

Sanders and Gabbard
Far from being on the fringes, candidates like Sanders and Gabbard are rank centrists, if the ‘centre’ means being closer to what most people actually want.

In Europe, the near universal decline of ‘centre’-left social democrat parties – once the parties of the masses – tells a similar tale of elites leaving their bases behind. The ‘centre’-right too has drifted away from its base; in Germany most notably through the policies of open immigration which the CDU Chancellor Merkel pursued in the teeth of public opposition.

Other issues foster latent resentment, such as the ever-expanding grasp of monopolies under the guise of intellectual property rights. Voters might not know exactly how political elites have allowed corporatists to privatise public ideas, but they can sense it. It feeds into a wider sense of social malaise.

But where the Establishment has abandoned the middle most evidently is in American military foreign policy. The consensus among ordinary Americans against funding rogue regimes like Saudi Arabia and getting stuck in endless, pointless regime-change wars like Afghanistan and Syria is as overwhelming as it is obvious. What is not as obvious is how political representatives fail to take any action: A bipartisan bill sponsored by Rand Paul to curb Presidential power in this respect and withdraw from Afghanistan has languished in the Senate since April. Why? Surely it is because the political elites are captured by a vested interest, this time the military industrial complex.

While the best are full of passionate intensity

In the face of this drift, the ‘collapse of the middle’ is the death of the convenant these traditional Establishment parties had with the public they only ever uneasily served. But others are moving quickly to fill the space, and the Establishment is quick to brand them with the now-tired dysphemism ‘populist’. Trump is commonly thought of as being in the vanguard of this new kind of populist. But in truth, he is only the loudest and most showmanlike of its outriders. In Eastern Europe, where the Establishment was less … established, populist leaders responded to the drift more quickly.

And on the political left, the wrangling over the 2020 Democratic party nomination shows this new divide quite clearly. On one side, the Establishment candidates, led by Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, and … it would seem, Elizabeth Warren. They are backed by big donors but get only a lukewarm reception from the public. Against them the three anti-establishment candidates – the ‘populists’ if you will – of Bernie Sanders (with his vastly popular Medicare for All plan), Tulsi Gabbard (with her vastly popular End Regime-Change War platform) and Andrew Yang (with his vastly popular Universal Basic Income plan). They fight an almost endless battle against media smears and unfavourable coverage, relying on the internet for publicity and on small political donations from actual grassroots supporters for cold, hard cash. Since in this light, it’s wholly unsurprising that they are the candidates Trump voters are most likely to support if they decide to switch. After all, they are fellow ‘centrists’.

One does not have to look very long at history to guess which side will eventually come out on top. The Establishment, as it veers towards the extremes, will crack and fade and a new political middle will reform. It’s already happening. The pundits on television just don’t know it yet.

The Social Triangle: A new model for political economy

Divided we tweet

It seems that the public debate is divisive as never before. Left versus right. Social Justice Warriors (whatever they are) versus the alt-right (whatever that is). Admittedly, this impression may simply be a result of our unhealthy addiction to social media, which through its Algorithms of Hate and its cloak of anonymity tends to radicalise latent tendencies. It drives us into tunnels with those who share our vision, while at the same time shielding us from the consequences of our push-button outrage.

Nonetheless, I would contend that the fabric of culture is indeed in the process of tearing. The seams of our civilisation – things like basic human dignity, kindness, respect, humanity and tradition – now seem incapable of holding us together against the pressure of our outrage. The space for reasoned debate seems to shrink with every passing tweet.

A change is as good as the rest

The trouble is that the two sides are not even consistent in their own viewpoints. In the United States, the Democrats – formally defenders of the economically disadvantaged – have somehow come to represent an uneasy alliance between middle- and upperclass privileged ‘Coastals’ and traditional urban ethnic minorities, while the Republicans draw support from the equally awkward bedfellows of the superrich and the underclass of rusting, undereducated, mostly white ‘Heartlanders’. Neither side consistently upholds the values of the left (i.e. a larger state, more redistribution, protection of workers rights) or the right (more free market, less regulation, lower taxes and a smaller state). Members of a group which formally advocated liberal values such as free speech now rally behind brutal authoritarian slogans like “punch a Nazi”, failing to appreciate the irony of their own intolerance.

In Europe, mainstream social democrats increasingly resemble historical anachronisms, while the (Christian democrat) centre-right, desperate to hold on to a collapsing middle, is being overtaken by populists. The CDU in Germany has through the open borders refugee politics of Angela Merkel betrayed many of its own base, while the centre-left’s failure to check the consequences of rising inequality and globalisation constitutes an equal betrayal in the eyes of the old working class faithful. In Britain, the single-issue of Brexit has torn apart both the Conservatives and Labour. In its place, it has forged an unlikely anti-EU alliance between post-industrial working class northerners and well-off village conservationists in the affluent Home Counties which surround the (anti-Brexit) London metropolis. Only yesterday, Italy joined in the fun by voting in populists and extremists and booting out the moderate centre-left. But nothing illustrates the collapse of the old left-right dichotomy as forcefully as the 2017 French presidential election, which saw Emmanuel Macron’s virgin movement sweep aside both the PS and the Gaullists in his ascent to the Elysée throne, although the real victor was Madame l’Absention, followed closely by Madame Le Pen.

New times call for new political structures

The problem is, the model of the old left-right divide has always been missing something important. It was only ever the particular circumstances created by industrialisation which allowed for this one-dimensional approach to work as a good approximation. The left-right split also had the added advantage of convenience, in that the institutions of representative democracy work best when competition for political power is limited to a few, slightly differentiated brands. Being able to position two, three or four parties on a single spectrum reduced the task of political choice to something the masses could participate in without much active engagement or intelligence. The accidental balance created by industrialisation permitted us to overlook the fact that the model we were using to think about society was fundamentally flawed. As the world evolves, that balance is increasingly disturbed. We need to develop a new framework. As the world becomes more complex, so too much our political framework.

But how to adapt the model? Ideas abound; a popular version adds another ‘ecology’ dimension to the old left-right divide. However, in practice, environmentalism is less a coherent ideology and more a loosely grouped set of specific policy challenges. Once you break it down, the solutions to environmental problems can be tackled by taking a position on the conventional left-right spectrum. For instance, if you’re a left-winger, pollution taxes which internalise the externality seem like a good idea; if you’re a right-winger, you might like tradable pollution permits which achieve the same result. Nor does the environment feature particularly strongly in the ideological divide that is tearing the Western world apart at present.

The Social Triangle

I propose instead a The Social Trianglemodel which takes into account the dimension I feel has been missing. As the diagramme illustrates, we can see society as consisting of three dimensions, the two which are conventionally understood in existing political analysis (the State and the market) and a third, that of community. Community can be understood as the voluntary organisation of people in groups without a specific transactional motivation (which is the market) and without the element of compulsion/threat of violence (which is the state). I argue that the absence of this dimension has, up to now, remained unobserved because we have in essence taken the role of community for granted. It is only as communities collapse – i.e. as society begins to drift ‘downwards’ towards the bottom side of the triangle – that we notice its absence. It is marked by a tendency towards the unholy alliance between the state and the market, in the form of corporatism.

Bowling alone

When looked at this way, society can be properly understood to be positioned somewhere within the above triangle. Societies that are more communistic can be placed within the red area of the triangle; those that are more anarchistic within the black area; and those that are more corporatist within the blue area. An ideally functioning society, like a three-legged table, balances all three dimensions and ends up somewhere in the green centre. Of course, in today’s world, we are observing a collapse of community – a massive drop-off in religious subscriptions, fewer bowling clubs, the death of the Boy Scouts, etc. and so we have drifted downwards, further towards corporatism. In such a world, the negative effects of the free market become more apparent as, for instance, the lack of community leads to an erosion of business ethics. But equally, a lack of community (for instance in the form of charities) heightens reliance on state-provided forms of welfare, revealing the innate corruption and incompetence of the state’s bureaucracy. Supporters of Donald Trump scream at supporters of Hillary Clinton and vice versa, but in the end, they are both suffering from the same affliction; a lack of community. The rise of populism is not a cry for more or less free market, nor is it a cry for a bigger or smaller role of the state. It is a cry for more community.

Which leads to the next question: What is leading to the erosion of community and how can we reverse this? That is perhaps the subject of another blogpost.

 

 

In defence of free speech

United we chat; divided we shout at each other

I promised myself I would not write a post about the Charlottesville riots, the near universal condemnation of Donald Trump’s nuanced position and the taking down of Confederate-era statues. Yet a recent conversation has forced my figurative hand onto the keyboard. I’ll keep my promise nonetheless, by writing instead a post about free speech, and avoiding the specific reference to the recent events in Virginia.

In the conversation, I was accused of being a “white supremacist apologist”, a charge which I found hurtful not for its substance – which missed wide of the mark – but because I care deeply about the person who made it. It revealed to me on a personal level just how fraught are the fault lines that are emerging in this increasingly divided world, and the dangers they present for what I believe to be the finest part of Western culture – intellectual liberty.

Tearing down statues of people you don't like is easy and has a long tradition among intolerant groups. Building statues of people you like is much harder.
Tearing down statues of people you don’t like is easy. It also has a long tradition among intolerant groups. Building statues of people you like is much harder.

Tell me what I want to hear, or STFU

They say in war, truth is the first casualty. I think the first casualty is probably free speech. Wartime demands adherence to dogma. And for dogma to take hold, there must first be a climate in which dissent is not peacefully tolerated. Once dogma has control, it can structure the narrative in whatever way suits the agenda of those in power.

Against this it is often argued that free speech needs its limits. Indeed, the debate has been had in many forms and in many places. It’s not hard to put up a straw man which would appear to demonstrate that, after all, free speech must have its bounds: Shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre; slander; incitement to violence.

Yet in the current climate, it is the principle of free speech that is at stake, not the precise definition of its ultimate boundaries. Guaranteeing the right to free speech, by definition, means accepting a person’s right to say things – not only with which you disagree – but which you find utterly morally repugnant. Just as you cannot make peace with anyone except your enemies, you cannot acknowledge the right to dissent from anyone except those with whom you disagree.

Free speech – just grist in the Mill?

The principle of free speech comes to us from the Enlightenment, refined and perfected by the great liberal philosophers John Stuart Mill and Wilhelm von Humboldt.  In a nutshell, it’s predicated on a belief that truth is something we arrive at through reason, and that reason is a faculty which humans innately possess. It follows from this basic principle that allowing the vile and deceitful to speak freely is not, after all, dangerous. This is because no argument of theirs, if weak and untrue, presents much of a danger, provided its opponents are also at liberty to proffer the (strong and true) counterargument. Like the edit wars of a popular Wiki page, those who spot Elvis pumping gas on the outskirts of Reno will eventually be overruled through an iterative process of argumentation. The truth will ultimately prevail, or at least that which prevails has the best chance of being true.

Those who would resist free speech in the name of an ideology tacitly acknowledge the weakness of their own dogma. They fear dissent either because they do not believe in the fundamental truth of their dogma, because they do not trust in the innate capacity for reason of their fellow man, or else (and this is perhaps the worst alternative) they do not believe at all in the concept of objective truth; leaving only the moral logic of ‘might makes right’.

The Age of Befuddlement is upon us

It saddens me that I should have to write a post like this. I would prefer to think that in the Western World – a place where mass education and universal literacy have existed for many decades – the principles of liberty and free speech would be universally accepted. To witness the barbaric hoards of left-wing dogmatists (I shall not call them ‘liberals’ for fear of making Mill turn in his grave) doxing, rioting and intimidating their opponents is not only saddening because of how self-defeating it is in terms of fighting racism, but also because it reveals their contempt for the greatest principle we have: Freedom of expression.

An honest debate on gender equality? Men are dying for it!

A gap by Any Other Name…

The official website for statistics of the European Union is called Eurostat. If you visit their website, and I highly suggest you do, you will find among the many interesting databases one for the Gender Pay Gap, which measures the difference in average gross hourly earnings between men and women for all European countries (and a few other places too). The message you’re supposed to get from this is that men get paid more than women for doing the same work.

This measure is more than just a statistic, it is a political construct. Despite the fact that it doesn’t really mean what people think it means, the GPG is much quoted in the media, by feminists and even by mainstream politicians. It helps that it has become a sort of catch-phrase, earning its very own capital letters. Because we all know that when a concept becomes capitalised, it Must Be True. And so misread, the Gap sparks outrage, even to the point of politicians passing rather draconian rules to try and level the playing field.

Don’t let reality get in the way of a good story

However, when you start to take a closer look at the Gender Pay Gap in its crude and unadjusted form, for instance by taking into account differences in risk-taking, career choices and hours worked, the difference in pay falls dramatically. And then there’s the fact that the measure tells us nothing about household income distribution. True, men often opt for longer hours (at higher pay) than women because they have wives back home to take care of the kids, but these same men are bound by custom and by the law to share their extra earnings with their families. The value of interhousehold transfers far exceeds the earnings gap, and you can see this by looking at this handy spousal maintenance calculator, which tells us that when it comes to the divorce, a man in the UK earning £40,000 a year will be due to pay his wife, if she earns £30,000 a year, £5,000/year in maintenance. That difference wipes away the benefits he might be getting from the Gap in one fell swoop.

Another way of seeing this is by looking at differences in net disposable household income by gender (which pools household income, and takes into account the value of taxes, and transfers received from the government – in this way we can compare, say, a single female householder to her married male colleague who has two kids to support). This gap is much smaller than the GPG would suggest, and among younger households it is almost zero.

But don’t take my word for the fact that the Gap is meaningless. Consider the view of one group who rarely consider any ideology beyond the Almighty Dollar: Capitalists. Here we see that market researchers are not fooled by the policy bias. They know that women make up 85% of all consumers. Sure, a lot of this is spent on stuff for the family, but even for the pure luxury good market – leisure activities, fancy clothes, dining out, perfumes and chocolate – the gender bias is evident: Men earn the money, but women spend it.

Older women are more likely to suffer poverty than older men...because the men are already dead.
Feminists love to point out that older women are more likely to suffer poverty than older men. They rarely mention it’s because their male counterparts are already dead.

Mind the Gap

Yet that somehow doesn’t slow the narrative, nor dampen the outrage. The feminist policy lobby argues that even when you control for hours worked, career choices and risks taken, a Gender Pay Gap remains (admittedly then much smaller) . And this, they exclaim, is pure discrimination, and must be stomped out by all means necessary.

If you were to suggest the remaining gap can be explained by men – high on testosterone – being simply better at competing in high-value, high-stress work environments, you would be branded a male chauvinist pig. Fearful of this kind of branding, I’ll not dare to suggest such a thing myself.

Check your privilege, and then man the hell up!

Yet weirdly, testosterone is exactly the explanation which is tossed about whenever it comes time to discuss a far more pressing, far clearer gender discrepancy – the gap in mortality between women and men. Here, it is the very risk-taking which leads to higher rates of occupational accidents, which in turn kill off men at a faster rate than women. In other words, if a man takes risks and dies for it, he has only his toxic masculinity to blame. If he takes risks and gets paid more for it: INJUSTICE!

The Gender Mortality Gap is, as far as I can tell, a phrase coined by me. Normally I’m proud of being able to claim credit for stuff, but in this case I find it alarming that the most obvious, most enduring gender injustice on the planet needs a third-rate occasional blogger like me to invent its catch-phrase. No entry in Eurostat. No Barack Obama waxing lyrical about giving our men back their lives, from behind the Presidential pulpit. Just a guy with a receding hairline and a WordPress site.

Only the men die young

Yet the GMG is real. Though Eurostat doesn’t have a special table for it like for the Gender Pay Gap, but you can still go to their website and calculate the difference in average life expectancy for women and men: For the EU as a whole, the GMG for newborns is 5.4 years, though it varies from 3.3 in the Netherlands to 4.8 in Germany; 6.3 in France; and as high as 10.5 in Lithuania (the US is close to this higher number too). And unlike the figures for hourly pay, which don’t take into account self-employment or black market earnings, statistics on death are among the most reliable we have. There is no trickery here: If you’ve had the misfortune to be born with a penis, you’re probably going to die 5 years younger than your twin sister.

So while the policy world is busy imagining ways to force the free market to pay women more, nobody is asking about what policies are needed to help men live longer. Fortunately there is a clear answer: Spend more money on public health, preventative and curative healthcare for men. The imperative to do so is all the more striking when we consider the fact that men, as the majority taxpayers in countries that publicly fund universal health systems, don’t even get an equal share of the treatments they are shelling out for. The statistics are scant, but the OECD reckons that €1.12 is spent on women’s healthcare for every Euro spent on men’s (this excludes the cost of reproductive treatments such as maternity, pre- and post-natal care).

 

 

Things aren’t so bad … so let’s not make them worse

The People think they want change

Ok, there is a lot of anger out there. Some are angry because they fear the ‘other’ taking away what they have; others are angry because they want more redistribution and fairness. Some blame benefit-scrounging immigrants, others blame the global elites. But while the grumbles might be diverse, there is a common sense that the system is somehow ‘broken’ in a way it wasn’t before. Whether it means Trump, Brexit or someone like Bernie Sanders, a large number of people who previously would have been moderates now want – or at very least expect – to see fundamental change to the societies and political systems they consider have failed. Alarmingly, they seem prepared to topple long-established systems and political traditions in order to see this change happen.

And maybe they’re right. Who knows? The consequences of disruptive change are hard to predict in the short run, and ultimately may take a very long time to play out fully. When Nixon visited Beijing in 1972, he asked the witty and influential Chinese mandarin Zhou Enlai his opinion on what impact the 1789 French Revolution had had on history, to which Enlai is said to have replied that it was “too early to say”.

Nature red in tooth and claw

But it seems to me the risks are very much on the downside. To paraphrase John Lennon, if disruptive change means destruction, you can count me out . Our system may not be perfect, but it is a hell of a lot better than nothing. To see how, consider what things would be like in the complete absence of society. Imagine an invisible hand picked any one of us up from his current desk, couch, bed, airplane seat … and carried him out of his man-made environment and place him, naked, in a

Without us around, Nature would reclaim cities within a few hundred years. Romantic? Or just plain brutal?
Without civilisation, Nature would reclaim cities within a few hundred years. Romantic? Or brutal and hostile?

theoretical primeval forest where other humans simply did not exist. This is the total absence of society. How well would he fare? He might last a week before getting eaten. A summer, perhaps, if he is particularly crafty and in good health. But come winter, he would freeze, starve or get eaten by wolves. The first major injury or illness would likely finish him off. And even if, by some miracle, he managed to carve out a niche (most likely literally) for himself, would his quality of life be even a fraction of what it is now? I remember an excellent article written by Alan Weisman in Discover Magazine back in 2005 which explored the world without humans. It was a romantic vision, full of evocative prose of species flourishing and cities crumbling. The descriptions made it clear a little bit of the author’s heart longed for such a thing to take place. Yet where is Mr Weisman now? Living in one of the few remaining wildernesses in Alaska or Russia which closely approximate his vision? I’m guessing not. Especially as he was sending pre-apocalyptic tweets as recently as 2014.

Creature comforts are better than creatures

This thought exercise is designed to remind us of just what a good job society does at shielding us from what is, in reality, a hostile physical environment. Such a good job, in fact, that we forget we are being shielded. Unlike the current political system, Nature isn’t just guilty of neglecting our interests and selling us a bit of Fake News. Nature actively wants us to die. It wants to dispatch predators to eat us, it wants to release diseases to sicken us, or else simply deny us food and watch us starve. The system, far from being broken, does an absolutely remarkable job of taming Nature and providing us with far more than what we could have on our own. What’s more, it is better at doing this now, than at any point in human history.

If we allow this system to be torn down, perhaps a better one will rise from the ashes and we will achieve some kind of Utopia. But that seems like a bad bet, given what we know from history and observing the physical world around us. Disruptive change is more likely to give Nature the opening she has been seeking for centuries. She might rub her hands in glee while we starve in our billions. Animals or bacteria could so easily overwhelm us, and in the ensuring mayhem we would likely turn on each other. Then, somewhere in the mud and mess, those among the living who were old enough to remember would regret that they so cheaply threw away a system they thought was broken, but in reality was only a little bit flawed.