Monday, 25 March 2019

Stealing the initiative

In 2001, four American political scientists published a small book called Stealing the Initiative: How State Government Responds to Direct Democracy. It was a specialist title, dealing mostly with direct democratic "citizen's initiatives" (a kind of referendum) in the individual US states.  But it is a useful guide for understanding UK politics since 2016.

Their basic claim, stated in the introduction, is: "government actors must choose to comply with an initiative if it is to affect policy. ... We find that full compliance with initiatives is the exception, not the rule." Indeed, "[i]f... a legislative majority and the governor are united in their opposition to an initiative, then full compliance is extraordinarily unlikely – even if citizen support was high." They back this claim up with 11 case studies of California citizen's initiatives.

Another insight: "to ensure greater compliance with one's winning initiative, simply write a measure that is clearer in its instructions about implementation and enforcement...." But this might be hard: "an initiative's policy consequences may be difficult to anticipate, requiring government actors to retain discretion...." And, vagueness may help you win the election, since a too specific policy might present an easy target for opponents.

The other solution initiative proponents might have is "sanctions". "[Proponents] may also be able to mobilize voters... to withhold electoral... support from uncooperative elected officials".

We'll see!

Saturday, 9 March 2019

How to think about Brexit

As promised. First draft. 
What kind of decision?
As we shall see, the economic consequences of Brexit are hard to know. The political consequences are even harder. In the end Brexit is not economic or even political, but existential. Existential decisions, like the choice to get married or pursue a particular career, are not about means and ends. They are about who we are. Still, some economic and political considerations are relevant. 
I will simplify the issues into a set of binary questions. One answer favours Remain, the other Leave.
Bad arguments
First let’s clear away some weeds:
The EU preserves peace in Europe. NATO provides protection against Russia. The EU preserves peace by binding France and Germany together, preventing future conflict between them. This worked before Britain joined. It will keep working after we go.
The referendum campaign was dishonest. Worse than the average election?
The economics
Economic analyses predict large losses from Brexit. They need to include numerous effects. Trade will decrease due to tariffs and non-tariff barriers. Unfortunately, it is hard to estimate the effect of NTBs, and these are the most important for Britain, especially as it is a services economy. Immigration, firm productivity, the quality of managers, and policy changes are all possible channels. Many of these are hard to predict. Here is a randomly plucked example. The 2016 OECD paper The Economic Consequences of Brexit predicted that net migration would decrease by 50000 per year after Brexit. So far, net migration has held constant.
Work like this deserves a hearing, but involves a lot of informed guesswork, which can be wrong even over a short time horizon. (Sometimes the guesswork is hidden within complex economic models with many moving parts.) Experts are not immune to cognitive biases and motivated reasoning. Many short term predictions of disaster have not really materialized. 
Beyond this, some consequences are simply inestimable. What if the Eurozone breaks up? Does Brexit make it more likely? Does it insulate us from the fallout? These questions involve Knightian uncertainty: nobody knows what the chances are.
So, we must each make our own judgment. Britain’s economic performance has been successful over the past forty years. Why?
One perspective is "Hong Kong". We pushed strongly for economic freedom. As a result we grew rich. Our neighbours have been trying to copy these policies for twenty years. Germany did so in the 2000s. Italy and France have not yet succeeded. The EU bureaucracy threatens our advantage. Leaving will free us.
Another perspective is that the EEC, later EU, was a complement to Thatcherism. It gave our firms big markets to sell to. Later, it provided cheap skilled labour, making up for the failings of UK education. The EU bureaucracy itself is now basically converted to economic liberalism, while the UK has devolved into what the Economist calls a chumocracy. All political systems eventually gum themselves up. (This is Mançur Olson’s idea in The Rise and Decline of Nations.) Europe is newer and fresher.
Or you may, like Jeremy Corbyn, regret Thatcherism and look back fondly to the 1970s. If so, I cannot advise you.
Economic freedom…
Needs the right policies: remain.
Needs a big market: leave.
Banding together
The real reason that my well-known journalist supported the EU is that it enables European countries to stand together against big rivals like Russia, China, and the US. This makes sense.
In 2007, Iran arrested some British marines who had strayed into their waters. In the nineteenth century we would have sent a gunboat. We can no longer do that casually. Iran backed down when the EU threatened sanctions. There is strength in numbers.
The historical precedent that keeps me up at night is the fate of Italy in the Renaissance. Wealthy, culturally avant-garde, financially advanced, but politically divided, the Italian city-states were chewed up by their big neighbours France and Austria. Divide-and-rule is Putin’s strategy, so it would not be surprising if he supported the Leave campaign.
There is an opposite worry. Progress has always taken place in times of state competition: Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, Europe 1600-1900. This progress has always been resolved by unification. Now we are competing at the highest level – a few global power blocs, the world of Orwell’s 1984. Where can we go from here? Perhaps we can only preserve freedom by keeping our rulers divided and in competition. If so, then the EU needs to be kept honest by a lively rival on its border.
What threatens European freedom?
Outside powers: remain.
A European superstate: leave.
The practical bite of arguments about “sovereignty” is that leaving the EU lets us control migration. Staying in prevents that. Remainers never had an answer to this point.
It’s arguable that EU membership shifts immigration towards people that nationalists would prefer (white, European, Christian). Angela Merkel’s choice to unilaterally open borders in response to the 2016 refugee crisis killed that argument, by making it clear that European border policy could be decided in Germany. That Leave.EU billboard was maybe nasty, but it pinpointed the issue. Merkel’s decision probably lost the referendum.
The economic case for free migration is fairly clear. The cultural case against it depends on many intangibles. There’s evidence that heterogenous communities find it harder to work together to provide public goods and control politicians. On the other hand, maybe good enough institutions can successfully integrate people from all over Europe.
What matters most to economics and politics?
Institutions: remain.
Culture: leave.
Everyone in the original debate was clear that a vote to leave would be implemented. The EU has form in asking people twice when it doesn’t get the right answer.
Democracy came into Europe in the era of mass armies:
... it was the philosophers who first told stories to the people…. First up, may everyone know how to read the newspapers! It’s healthy! By God! And quick! No more illiterates! They’re not needed! Nothing but citizen-soldiers! Who vote! Who read! Who fight! Who march! Who blow kisses!.... And that was the send-off for the first battalions of the frenzied emancipated! The first of the voting, flag-waving sods that Dumouriez led off to get shot up in Flanders. 
As payback, the mobilized masses had to be given control. That era is past. It is not clear how the majority can enforce its will, when the rest of the system – the civil servants, political players, owners and managers of capital – is against it. Brexit is a test of strength.
Recent years have seen a decline in democracy, and even worries about its future in advanced Western democracies. These worries usually refer to Weimar Germany and other cases where demagogues have taken over. More likely, democracy will end not with a bang but a whimper. Walter Walter Bagehot said that political systems contained two parts. The dignified part looks good, while the efficient part is where policy is really decided. We may be moving towards a system where democracy and parliament are the dignified part, enacting the people’s will on trivial matters, while real decisions take place elsewhere. A second referendum would be a step towards that.
Who are we?
I have been puzzled to see young people marching and waving European flags. How do they think about the fact that they are marching to overturn a democratic decision? Perhaps they tell themselves that the referendum was stolen because the ignorant masses were duped.
Two visions are at war. One is of national democracy. The other is a post-democratic liberal arena. This goes beyond economic efficiency. The democratic vision goes back to the political struggles of the nineteenth century. It is part of us.
But it may be passing. In 1837, Thomas Carlyle thought it would last
Two centuries; hardly less; before Democracy go through its due, most baleful, stages of Quackocracy; and a pestilential World be burnt up, and have begun to grow green and young again.
Democracy fails in predictable ways. Voters have little incentive to study the issues deeply. Politicians may ignore the long term in favour of the here and now. Delegation to bureaucrats might help with that. So might federalism. The world’s longest-lasting democracy is a federation of states, with many powers reserved to the members. This preserves the freedom of people and capital to move away from inefficient local governments. 
The counter-argument is that a democracy requires a nation, with a sense of shared interest and a common future. Free mobility erodes that: as the economist Albert Hirschman said, the availability of exit can atrophy the art of voice.
Who are we?
Post-national liberals? Remain.
National democrats? Leave.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Inside the incompletely-baked establishment conspiracy to foil Brexit

I got invited to a mini conference in Oxford, run by an important German research institution. Speakers included a historian who often writes on Europe in the newspapers. I am protecting myself with this thin layer of anonymity so as to bite the hand that feeds me.
The first day was International Relations theory, genus: high patrician. The ratio of verbiage to assertion was high.  One speaker talked a lot about the global. When adjectives are used as nouns, the wise man starts organizing his email. Another verbal tic is plurals on everything. Academics love plurals because they help divide up the grant money. Sure enough, soon someone suggested “contestations of the scripts of liberalisms”, as an improvement on “contestation of the liberal script”.

At dinner the conversation got more concrete. Everyone was talking about… oh, guess. As background, think panelled oak, candlelight, glasses of red and white; young academics, dressed to impress in jackets, quiffs and trousers; older chaps with accents and mannerisms from a world I thought long vanished. A former ambassador type person got on his hind legs. He started his speech with a quotation. “No man is an island, entire of itself.” I think it’s by Stormzy.

So then the historian-who-often-writes got up and corrected his quotation for him.

Basically, imagine a parody of the British establishment conspiring, produced by Russia Today.
Later the historian himself made a speech. Just a few details remain (the wine was good):
  • 13,000 letters* have gone in to Corbyn, persuading him to move.
  • “Write to all the MPs you know”.
  • During the campaign, Europeans will have to “love bomb” the UK – even though we’ve been very silly.
  • He thinks the Brexiteers will use the slogan “tell them again”. He wants a good counter-slogan, maybe “you didn’t vote to be poor”.
  • And having a narrative will be key. (Grammar of political persuasion: they spread fake news; you spin; we have a narrative.) The ambassador suggested “it’s like buying a house, you don’t sign off until you’ve done the survey”. I said I wasn’t sure how relatable that would be in Grimsby. He stared crossly at his drink.
  • Tony Blair is on board, but nobody’s going to listen to his arguments. The best figurehead, he thought, would be John Major.
As people ask at the end of conferences, what have we learned?
  1. There really is an Establishment;
  2. They really do want to thwart the people’s will;
  3. They’re clueless.
The third point is important. Somewhere inside, left over from childhood,  I must have been holding the belief that there is someone in charge who know’s what best. This dinner killed that for me. These guys are the ultimate insiders… yet, they have no more expertise or wisdom on the topic than, say, the Big Issue seller who told me the day after the referendum that capital-T They would “never let it happen”. (“I think you’ll find they will,” I replied, strong in my democratic faith.)
The arguments I heard were entirely conventional. These being polisci people, they were mainly of the preserve-the-peace-in-Europe variety. The mournful consensus was that this argument was hard to convey to a generation that grew up with the blessings of peace.

Or maybe it is just not very compelling. What is the story which convincingly takes us from Britain exiting the EU to war in Europe? Does Germany invade France again? But those guys are staying in the EU, right?
There was no sense of the risks from the point of view of democracy. The historian suggested having a three-pronged referendum: no deal, May’s deal, stay in. I pointed out that three-option votes are shady from a democratic perspective – they split the opposition and induce strategic voting. Someone said, “I don’t see why we can’t use the Single Transferable Vote”.
Sounds optimal.
Hearing Tony Blair’s name took me back to 2003. I read in his memoirs about why he supported the Iraq war. It was an argument about needing to keep the Western alliance together. It was too subtle for the masses, but he saw! He could see further than anyone else! So he supported Bush, and we went to war, and now we know how that worked out for the Western alliance.
These guys think the same way. They think they’re the shepherds. They need to recall the flock from the error of its ways.
I haven’t said anything about the substantive issues of Brexit. I will try to do so soon. Preview: they’re huge, long-run, unfathomable. But political scientists talk about the authority heuristic, which is a fancy way of saying that voters follow the judgment of experts they trust. We all need and use that heuristic, in this murky world. We’d all like to find someone to trust.
These people want to fill those shoes. But they can’t be trusted, because they don't know any more than the rest of us poor fools.
* Letters, yes.

Update: tweaked style, jokes, slightly more polite. I forgot to mention the very kind lady who paid my hotel bill when I couldn't because the *☠️😖* admin haven't reimbursed me for last month's workshop yet. Or that the next night saw me eating Mickey D's in Westfield Stratford City, waiting for my bus home, for the same reason. Ah, the contrasts that make life such a story.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

On racism

I wrote a blog post on the concept of race, and I promised to write another one on racism. Here it is, long overdue.

Racism is easier to recognize in the flesh than to define. We know it when we see it, but its boundaries are hard to draw. Today it seems to be one of society’s master concepts – partly because it is so contested. On the one hand, we have the Guardian talking about microaggressions and unconscious bias. On the other hand, serious people are writing books defending white ethnic identity, and asking how much to concede to the popular backlash against immigration. Perhaps thinking about the concept of racism can throw light on this process.

The idea of racism is woven from three different strands:

A.    The history of colonialism, the encounter of white Europeans with other peoples, the ideas they developed about them; the development of European empires and the influence of Darwinism. In this aspect racism is white people’s superiority complex.
B.    Racism can simply mean the belief that races are different – usually, biologically different – in some non-trivial way.
C.    Racism can be defined by a set of attitudes and behaviours which range from hatred, aggression and genocide, through prejudice and discrimination, down to simply having different mental associations about different races, perhaps without conscious thought.

The power of the racism concept lay in putting these three things together. It developed after the Second World War. The Nazis came out of a background of A; explicitly held B; and implemented C in its most evil form, by targeting minorities for murder. Racism was a shorthand for the whole complex. Intellectuals in the US recognized that all of A-C extended beyond Nazi Germany; they found a home, too, in America, especially in the segregated South. This background strengthened the emerging civil rights movement in the 1960s. Since then, as the rest of the world has got richer relative to Europe, America, and other countries of mostly white people; and as immigration to those countries has made them more diverse; anti-racism has continued to be the left wing’s  strongest moral suit, as well as a guarantee of being on the right side of history.

A, B and C do not always go together. My post on race argued that B and C are separate issues. A and C are separate, too. Hutus murdering Tutsis, violence against Zimbabwean immigrants in South African townships, or the Burmese assault on the Rohingya make it clear that non-white people can murder outgroups with as much enthusisasm as white people. You can rescue the association if you say that by definition, only whites can be racist. Some people have tried to make this argument. But it is just implausible. What the Burmese army has done to the Rohingya looks like a duck and quacks like a duck (and after her Nobel Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi drinks milkshake like a duck). If we don’t call it racism, we will just need to invent a new word for evil behaviour to ethnic outgroups.

For that matter, there need not be a link between A and B. In some sense, clearly, race is a concept which develops in 19th century European science and thought. But the broader idea of differentiating and categorizing people based on their tribe or where they come from may simply be part of human mental furniture. The Ancient Greeks called outsiders barbaroi – barbarians – supposedly meaning people who, since they couldn’t speak Greek, simply bleated nonsense like sheep. (Of course, really, the Greeks understood perfectly well that other languages existed.) Many human groups simply refer to themselves as “people”.

As time moves on, and the eras of first European, then American global dominance fade and recede, the spotlight is focusing more on C. Correspondingly, antiracism will become less about dismantling entrenched power structures, because so many of them have indeed been dismantled. Instead, antiracism will focus on individual behaviours and attitudes, on C – and it will become more top-down. (You can avoid this conclusion, so long as capitalism continues to exist, if you argue that capitalism itself is the ultimate power structure and is also inherently racist. I don’t find that plausible, and it will become less plausible as many non-European nations get rich.) The confusion between A and C lets people in authority think of themselves as freedom fighters, whilst in fact they are regulating and monitoring the behaviour of less powerful others.

Indeed this is happening. A cornerstone of modern racism is the idea of unconscious bias, motivated by a powerful psychological experiment called the Implicit Association Test or IAT. You can take this test at The IAT uses reaction times to measure how strongly we associate different concepts. This is a test you can’t fool just because you want to sound, or even be, non-racist. It has been a huge hit, generating reams of controversy, an industry promising to improve your unconscious bias, and several competing metaanalyses. It has even entered Artificial Intelligence as a yardstick for judging how computers can learn certain kinds of prejudice. Today, psychology provides a dominant interpretation of racism, as it does for so many other concepts.

A second strand of thought looks at how we talk and think about outgroups. The keyword is “the Other”, which has now been verbed: people think of outsiders as Other, and they “other” them in the ways they talk about them.

Through these spectacles, racism is mundane and pervasive. Everyone does it a little bit.
And it is within ourselves: as George Orwell says, it is a noxious plant that we must diligently weed out from our minds.

This is a powerful, intuitive perspective. Haven’t we all felt afraid of outsiders? Don’t we all try to quell or overcome our prejudices? But it depends crucially on the claim that these mundane behaviours are indeed related to more serious forms of prejudice – say, discriminating against job applicants.

For the IAT, there is some evidence that this may be true, but not really enough to be persuasive. At best, the jury is still out on whether “everyday” implicit bias links to the important differences in outcomes that we see between ethnic groups.

Similarly, while we know that hate speech can help propel genocide – for example, hate radio helped do so in Rwanda – we cannot be so sure about the effect of everyday ways that people talk about other ethnic groups. Indeed, the very idea of “othering” has unclear boundaries. Does it include using the word “they” to describe an outgroup?

If these kinds of pervasive behaviour are not actually linked to real discrimination, then I foresee a problem in describing them as racism.

We all have two sides in us. One side wants to seek out and experience new things. Another side prefers what is safe and familiar. Different people have these sides to different degrees; they are captured by Openness, one of the Big Five dimensions of human personality. These two sides may even be rooted in biology – in how animals resolve the conflict between approach and avoidance, for example. In a big, multicultural society, openness is good to have: it correlates with intelligence and income, for example.

But we all also have the other side; we want to stick with what we know. And this too has a positive aspect: it coincides with what we appreciate more deeply. It is the sense of home. Familiar environments are not just emotionally satisfying. They also enable deeper communication. It is wrong to think that because somebody is from my own culture, I have nothing to learn from them. In fact, shared culture enables deeper communication. At the most basic level, we need some shared language to communicate at all. Beyond that, shared cultural reference points act as a shorthand. I spend much of my time speaking global English – “Globish” – with academic colleagues from all over the world. But when I talk to somebody who shares elements of my own culture – the English middle class – I can communicate in a different way. Calling a politician’s wife Lady Macbeth, for instance, carries a set of implications that would take paragraphs to spell out explicitly.

In fact, these two sides are complementary. Openness lets us appreciate and learn from other people’s languages, customs and cultures. Those languages and customs are different from our own, because they developed separately, over many centuries, among people who preferentially interacted with others like themselves.

It is not a good idea to lump the human preference for familiarity and safety, with the inhuman extremes of race hatred. We all have that tendency. Some have it more than others. Those who have it more tend to do less well in modern society; to stay near home and family rather than moving to opportunity. They are the “somewheres”, in David Goodhart’s phrase. Modern anti-racist discourse, with its very broad definition of its object, risks treating these people as primitive beings who are unable to appreciate diversity, or worse still, as incipient fascists. That is unjust. It is also politically unwise, because it is may push people into the arms of genuine racists – who at least, from their point of view, show them some respect.

Next, a post about sexism... hopefully within the year.

Friday, 8 June 2018

I read Rachel Cusk's Outline trilogy

In three days. I got the first book three days ago and read it that evening, ordered the second one and read it the next day, ordered the third, got it two days later and read it that evening. (Thanks, Amazon Prime. I had to buy the hardback, but I couldn't wait.)
It is very serious art, and unabashedly highbrow. I don’t follow the literary world, but I have a vague sense that there has been a backlash against high-faluting “literature” and in favour of genres and what would have previously been thought middlebrow. These books do not partake in that. There is very little plot, no dramatic events, just one conversation after another. And almost all the conversations are extremely intense: self-aware people dissecting their lives and relationships with the expertise of a sushi chef and the passion of a flagellant.
Reading it is unnerving. The narrator – Faye, a female author doing the rounds of writing courses and literary festivals – talks to other people, or listens to their monologues. They talk about the deepest things in their lives. Other characters are pinned down like butterflies, sketched in a few strokes of extreme skill. Everything is implicit. Neither Faye nor the author – it's in the first person, so the distinction perhaps does not matter – often expresses an opinion.
 But, like Tom Cruise’s pick-up guru in Magnolia, Faye is “quietly judging you”. Family, and divorce, are pervasive in the conversations; everyone has behaved badly, but few want to admit it. Children, even when they are annoying or burdensome, come across as sinned against, not sinning. Freedom is weighed against commitment and it almost always comes out worse, or at least as a let-down; people are at their wickedest and stupidest when they exercise power thoughtlessly. As a child of divorce, I liked the books very much. But I was also troubled and provoked by them, because the narrator, and I guess the author, is a feminist, in some sense, which I am not. (There is plenty of mansplaining, and some atrocious behaviour by entitled guys; and sometimes that feeling of a conversational elephant-trap being laid as a man is allowed to talk himself into a corner.)
In Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, there is a chapter after the Great War when the cast reassembles, and the author suggests almost playfully that the values they hold should not really be taken seriously; as if the great comedy of the Victorian age, and its literature, can no longer be played straight. Reading Outline felt as if I was rewinding through that historical moment.
Nineteenth-century literature was explicitly judgmental. Dickens and Thackeray, for all their subtleties and play, saw wickedness and called it; and showed it in its harshest colours. And then that earnestness quite quickly vanished. Why?
A superficial answer is the rule of craft that says show, don’t tell. I think a deeper answer is that after the Edwardians, moral judgment got mixed up with aesthetic judgment, judgment of taste; and English judgments of taste, since (I guess?) the eighteenth century, have been made in silence and in code. You couldn’t say that someone was explicitly inferior; but you could imply it to those in the know, with a raised eyebrow.
One danger of this is passive-aggressiveness. I talked to somebody about On Chesil Beach and she asked if I had noticed that the heroine had been sexually abused. And I have heard about literature classes being told the same thing. “Did you spot that? Well done – you are aesthetically and morally sensitive – alive to other people’s hidden sufferings.” But if I was supposed to spot it, why didn’t Ian McEwan make sure I did? What is this, a cryptic crossword?
And in fact, where Faye does speak up and give her own opinions, she seems both warmer and braver. She lays it on the line.
About her we learn very little. She starts the trilogy after her own divorce, and has remarried by the third book. Occasionally her children call. These conversations are very different from the others. There’s less indirect narration, and more ordinariness. These, along with the narrator’s own talk, are the warmest parts of the book. It’s as if she and the reader can suddenly breathe out.
At the very end, the narrator is bathing in the sea when a man comes to the water’s edge and pisses in it. She watches his “merry, cruel face… and I waited for him to stop.” It’s a scene out of myth – the sighing breast of the sea, and the grinning Satyr. But I don’t know whether Rachel Cusk thinks of it really as myth, or as a piece of history, which could be brought to an end somehow.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The House of Government and the relative nobility of communism

Robert Conquest, the poet and deeply anti-communist historian of the Soviet Union, thought that fascism was worse than communism. Asked why, he replied just "I feel it to be so". Perhaps the feeling is that communism was a noble cause that went wrong, whereas fascism never had anything noble about it. Anyway, reading The House of Government made me question that idea.

It is a huge, brilliant book about the inhabitants of one house in Moscow – a purpose-built creation designed to house the elite of the new regime, and inhabited by the Old Bolsheviks, who had made the revolution and fought the civil war against the Whites. The Old Bolsheviks certainly have something of the nobility of an old-time religion: they start the book under Tsarism, holding secret meetings by gaslight, or exiled to Siberia. And the book itself takes the communism-religion analogy very seriously, drawing comparisons from early Christianity, early Puritanism, and the Great Disappointment of the US Millerite sect.

But before admiring devotion to a cause, we need to know the cause's nature. An especial wickedness of communism, which it shared with fascism, was that it deliberately endorsed and encouraged hatred and cruelty against the enemy. For example, here is a passage from The Iron Flood, a civil war novel, in which the heroes take a Cossack town:

Note that this is not an underground or marginal text. It was a set text in schools until the end of the Soviet period. It is not atypical either. In the civil war, merciless killing of men, women and children was endorsed in reality as well as novels. To be merciless and brutal, since mercilessness and brutality were necessary, was a mark of moral strength and hardness. Stalin meant "man of steel". The Bolsheviks were the first people to favour the tough-looking leather jacket.

The catalyst for this evil was surely the brutality of the conflict, but it must also have had roots in Karl Marx's crisp analysis of conventional morality. Bourgeois morality was part of the bourgeois economic system: talk of human rights or humanist values was claptrap when most of humanity was enslaved. The only morality was to do whatever furthered the revolution. Then again, perhaps communism was simply of its time. The same worship of strength can be found in Kipling, say; expressed more subtly, in Nietzsche; later, in fascism. The result, in any case, was that Bolshevist communism became a death cult.

Some of the behaviour patterns are still with us. The bilious twitter monkeys of the extreme Left, for whom abuse and hatred are both tactics and habits, are more or less conscious followers of this Bolshevik tradition. Luckily, as of today they remain safely confined to the zoo.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Vague theories: a defence

Most scientists believe that vagueness is bad in a scientific theory. In fact, if it’s vague, it cannot really be a theory at all. At the hard end of the social sciences, economists insist that theories should be formalized in the crisp language of mathematics. Even in softer-edged disciplines, which often get accused of vagueness and waffle, very few people defend vagueness explicitly. Instead, they use arguments about the meaning-ladenness of human action, or the holistic interconnectedness of the social world, to argue that social science should aim for understanding rather than explanation. But understanding is still meant to be clear.

Actually, mathematics is not enough to avoid vagueness, as Paul Romer has pointed out in a controversial article on “mathiness” in the theory of economic growth. Mathiness is a word coined on the analogy of the Daily Show’s “truthiness”: when something “feels true in your gut” rather than actually being true. Mathy economic theories have a valid mathematical argument in their model, but the connections between the maths and reality are vague or ill-defined:
McGrattan and Prescott (2010) establish loose links between a word with no meaning and new mathematical results.
Boldrin and Levine (2008) make broad verbal claims that are disconnected from any formal analysis.
This suggests a puzzle. If the words and verbal claims in a theory must be connected via tight links to a formal analysis and mathematical results, why aren’t they part of the mathematics themselves? If economists build models because ordinary language is imprecise, then why is any ordinary language allowed?

Having sown these seeds of doubt, I will present three examples, and a bonus fourth, of theories that are vague but useful. I am not arguing that vagueness is a theoretical virtue. Instead, it is a disadvantage that must be traded off against competing values, such as relevance. Also, perhaps, the tradeoff approaches infinity as vagueness goes to zero: a perfectly defined theory would be a theorem in pure mathematics, with no relationship to the world; insofar as it connects to the world, it has to be a bit vague.

Theory 1: watch out for that truck!


This is a very simple theory. Its usefulness, if you are about to step into the road, should be obvious. But it is vague, because a key term is not precisely defined. What exactly is a truck? When does a van become a truck? Even people from Texas aren’t sure.

Van? Truck? Vruck?

Theory 2: Western societies are threatened by Islamic terrorism


This theory could be true or false. It is perfectly legitimate to argue that terrorism’s threat to the West is manufactured, or hyped, by the warmongers in power. But the theory is at least worth arguing over. After the Twin Towers attack, Western societies needed to decide what to do, which involved making judgments about this theory. Yet the theory is clearly vague. There is no clear uncontested definition of terrorism, or of “Islamic” terror. (Is it Islamic terror when a small-time drug dealer or mentally unstable loser decides to ram a van into some people, after posting some Islamic-tinged rants on Facebook?) Or of “threat”. Or of “societies”. Or of “Western”. A lot of the debate about this theory consists in making terms more precise. But you have to start somewhere.

Theory 3: fluxions


Modern science, with its mathematical basis, was kickstarted by the enormous prestige of Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. Under that theory lay his advanced mathematics, in particular his development of the mathematical derivative – he famously fought Leibniz over priority on the topic.

The derivative can be loosely defined as the slope of a function. Awkwardly, its precise definition was not clarified until 150 years after Newton wrote. In particular, the idea of a slope at a point involves the idea of a “limit”, which was finally explained by Bolzano and Weierstrass in the 19th century.

For the first half of its history, Newton’s theory, the key theory underpinning the development of modern science, was vague, meaning not that it had an uncertain real world referent à  la “truck”, but that we could not even explain clearly what a key term meant. Newton recognized this explicitly and was uncomfortable enough to write a book about it.

Bonus Theory 4: the truth shall set you free


This is a saying attributed to Jesus. The actual quote, from John 8:32 in the King James Version, is: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

The theory is frankly obscure. But it would be hard to say that it has not been influential. It may be that with respect to it, we are in the position of eighteenth-century mathematicians with respect to the calculus. It is a theory that seems important, but we cannot explain why.

I'll finish by quoting Edmund Burke's catchily-named A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. The argument in this remark seems superficial, but I think a deeper point is lurking there.
But let it be considered that hardly anything can strike the mind with its greatness, which does not make some sort of approach towards infinity; which nothing can do whilst we are able to perceive its bounds; but to see an object distinctly, and to perceive its bounds, is one and the same thing. A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.