A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 24 April 2017

Should the UK #SpendTheSix?

EDIT 2017/10/07: A claim made in this essay has been subsequently found to be untrue - specifically, that the British Empire routinely spent 7% of GDP on the military even during peace. I do not think this affects the general thrust of the argument, but it was remiss of me to make the claim without checking it at the time - and I apologise for this - and would be even more remiss of me were I to let it go uncorrected.

Sabisky's campaign for the UK to #SpendTheSix - that is, to spend 6% of our GDP on the military - gained some mainstream coverage today when he presented a short film defending it for the Daily Politics show on BBC2. I've tweeted a few times about it before, generally positively, so I feel I should express my misgivings too. Hence this post, setting out in brief what I see as the best case for #SpendTheSix, and why it might be problematic.

Isn't this proposal utterly ridiculous?
It's bold and eccentric, but I don't think it's ridiculous. True, 6% is more than any other developed nation, in most cases by a long way - most European countries spend under 2%, the mighty US military consumes only 3.3% of the world's largest economy. Even Israel, threatened on several sides, spends only 5.4% of GDP on the military (although in less peaceful decades gone by, the figures was considerably higher).

But by historical standards, it's not at all unprecedented. Typical practice during the days of the old Empire, as best we can tell, was to spend around 7% of GDP on the military. True, back then Britain was exercising global influence if not dominance, whereas we can now hope to be at best a second-rate power. But the point is hopefully made: 6%, while high by peacetime standards, is not utterly ridiculous from a historical perspective.

What does this have to do with defending the United Kingdom and its interests?
I'll be honest: not a great deal. The UK faces no imminent danger of invasion by any foreign power, and protection of UK business abroad is a service to big business whose cost there is no particularly good reason for passing on to the taxpayer. Terrorism is a salient threat to the UK, but not a very dangerous one, representing a trifling number of domestic deaths each year. (Moreover, the stated aim of Jihadism in Europe is to separate European powers from the US, so it is at least plausible that a more isolationist UK would not suffer Islamic terrorism at all).

If you see the purpose of Her Majesty's Government as being the promotion of British interests, you should probably favour lower defence spending. I do not hold such a view however, being rather more cosmopolitan in my moral perspective.

So why should we #SpendTheSix?
There are two plausible reasons in favour. First, liberalism is an ideal worth fighting to defend and indeed spread. Forcing countries to be more peaceful and liberal is not oppressing them, as anti-colonial activists would claim: rather, it is preventing local elites from oppressing their fellow countrymen. Compelling Egypt by force to adopt liberalism would be no more an attack on Egyptian freedom and self-determination than preventing Serbians from killing Bosnians and Albanians (or at least trying to do so, and not very hard) was an attack on Yugoslavian freedom and self-determination.

Second, one can appeal to the importance of collective self-defence between the countries of NATO. Estonia and Latvia in particular are threatened by Russian expansionist nationalism, and our current best estimates are that, even with the NATO forces currently stationed in these countries, they would be overrun within a mere 36 hours. These countries cannot defend themselves, so it is our duty to aid them - which requires a larger defense budget.

Two other points fold into this. Firstly, the EU in general is very poorly equipped to handle a Russia that goes properly on the warpath: the only significant EU militaries are those of the UK and France. (On paper, the German army is numerically very large; however it is - and has been for many years - poorly funded, poorly supported among the public, and known for drunkenness more than competence). Given that the UK is currently in dire need of both goodwill and bargaining chips with the rest of the EU, pledging towards the military defence of the Balkan states is a genuine way in which UK interests may be served through higher military spending.

Secondly, if Russia actually does go on the warpath, we will very likely be spending rather more than 6% of GDP on the military. During WWI, UK defence spending peaked at around 47% of GDP; during WWII, it at one point exceeded 50%. I doubt we would go so high again, but it would not be at all astonishing to see perhaps 15-20% of GDP going to the fighting of a major war. Putin starting a war in the Balkans is unlikely, but genuinely possible, and it will be easier to mobilise properly if we already have a large and well-established military program.

Then what's the problem?
If, several centuries ago, you had asked me to make the case for Britain colonising various parts of the world, the argument I would have made would not be so very different from the arguments above. I would have stressed the need to spread liberalism, common law, and individual self-ownership across the world - in contrast to Napoleonic civil law, Chinese absolutism, and a whole host of tribal despotisms. This is not a modus tollens of the argument: the British Empire remains, among non-Britons, underrated. (Among Brits, it is of course vastly overrated).

But it should give us pause that despite the existence of people making such arguments - John Stuart Mill, Rudyard Kipling, arguably John Locke - the actual considerations which motivated it were self-interested, and practice reflected this. Cecil Rhodes talked a fine talk about how we were spreading civilisation and governing other peoples for their own good, and I daresay he believed it - the Rhodes Scholarship and his advocacy of the Cape to Cairo Railway are both pretty consistent with such a view - but do we really think that, in his heart of hearts, he passed the Glen Grey Act (which displaced numerous black farmers) or escalated the Second Boer War because he honestly thought it would be good for the natives? I don't think so.

Similarly, we can point to numerous figures back home, from a range of periods including the last decades of the Empire, who advocated deliberate maintenance of colonial poverty in order to enrich Britain. Britain does not bear sole responsibility for the continuation of grinding poverty in India - Gandhi and Nehru bear as much blame, if not more - but British imperialism in India is certainly nothing to be proud of.

Similarly, one can defend British militarism on universalistic grounds of the promotion of liberal democracy and peace and freedom and all that, and it's not that the argument is wrong. It's that in practice, there is a severe danger of providing intellectual cover for people who have thoroughly despicable goals in mind. Mill's defence of colonising barbarous peoples wasn't wrong, morally speaking, but it was deeply naive about the way in which colonialism was practiced.

This is not at all a knockdown argument. Firstly we are (I think?) more moral than we were 150 years ago, so one would expect a British military publicly justified by universalistic values to stick more closely to those values than did the military of the old Empire. Second, while the British Empire was in many ways an awful thing, it is far from clear that the world was left worse off for it: apart from the places which clearly benefited from it (e.g. Hong Kong), the years 1815-1914 were by historical standards remarkably peaceful. But one should not advocate such policies without at least some unease.

Also, why specifically six per cent?
No idea. Ask Sabisky.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Christiano's Renewed Defence of Democracy; or, Rule By The People For The People, Except Without The People

These are interesting times at CEU, but that did not prevent a public lecture by the famous political philosopher Thomas Christiano from going ahead. Christiano is perhaps the world's leading democratic theorist, having put more sustained thought and brainpower than anyone else alive into the defence of this ideal. His talk was specifically responding to a series of critiques made in recent years by Bryan Caplan, Jason Brennan, and Ilya Somin, all of whom argue that democracy is undermined by the poor quality of voters.

Christiano began by briefly setting out a key claim, difficult to dispute, that on a variety of metrics - economic growth, protection of human rights, avoidance of war - democratic nations have tended to enjoy greater success than alternative regimes. This is something that our social scientific theories ought to be able to explain.

He followed this by introducing Caplan's theory of the "rational irrationality" of voters. This theory emerged as a response to the "rational choice" theory of voting behaviour, which held that voters behave in their own interest - that is, voting for the parties and policies which stand to benefit them, as individuals, to the greatest extent. Caplan noted that this assumes voters already know which parties and policies best serve their interests, and pointed out that due to the vanishingly small chance that one's vote could ever change the outcome of a national election, the expected benefit of voting wisely could never exceed or even equal the costs of acquiring such knowledge. Indeed, from a rational choice standpoint, it is difficult to explain why one even takes the ten minutes to walk or drive to and from the polling station. So we have a morass of deeply uninformed voters, who are in no way suited to the task of choosing a government and its priorities. Caplan's argument is borne out by multiple surveys which find the average member of the public to be comically ignorant of fairly basic facts of day-to-day politics. If one cannot name the chancellor of the exchequer, what hope does one have when trying to assess complicated macroeconomic theories which do not even command agreement among experts?

Next, Christiano discussed Brennan's argument for how ideology corrupts our political judgements. Brennan provides three models of individual voters: "Hobbits", "Hooligans", and "Vulcans". Hobbits correspond largely to Caplan's picture of people with no clue of even the most trivial facts of politics; Hooligans are arguably worse, possessing some degree of political knowledge but also being highly ideological and more interested in ensuring the victory of their team than in seeking the best outcome overall. Vulcans, by comparison, consider all available evidence in a relatively impartial way, and contribute honest and valuable information to democratic decisions. A democracy of Vulcans might very well be a good system, Brennan says - but the world in which we live is one in which most people are hobbits, the overwhelming majority of the rest are hooligans, and Vulcans - if they even exist - are a microscopic minority. This is all backed up with social science to demonstrate that most people are as Brennan claims them to be. So while it might be nice to live in a world of Vulcans, Brennan says, that fact is that we do not - and our institutions ought to reflect this, in a way that universal democracy simply does not.

From here, Christiano said, Brennan, Caplan, and Somin - libertarians all - conclude that we ought to adopt alternative systems, with Brennan and Caplan suggesting the rule of experts and Somin suggesting a sharp reduction in the role the government is allowed to play in our lives. In particular, all three advocate a greater role for markets in decision-making.

I don't think this is really a fair characterisation of their positions. In fact, I would say it is an outright misrepresentation of Brennan's position. It is unfair on several counts:
-By "epistocracy" Brennan doesn't mean confining politics to the elites with no-one else able to break in. Rather, he has in mind tests of political knowledge, which one would be required to pass in order to vote.
-More fundamentally, Brennan does not actually advocate epistocracy! Rather, he suggests that it is a potentially-viable alternative to democracy, and that our institutions should not be built on the assumption that all citizens will behave as Vulcans. This is an understandable mistake, given Brennan's other writings; on the other hand, both he and Caplan are avowed anarcho-capitalists, so the only sense in which they can possibly be seen as supporting epistocracy is as an improvement over what we have rather than as an end goal.
-While they indeed believe that markets should play a greater role in our society, and believe (in line with the evidence showing that both social and economic liberalism correlate positively with both intelligence and with being politically informed) that the effects of a higher-quality voting population would be to give markets such a role, this is not (at least for Brennan) a core claim. The argument is that better voters would give a better set of political institutions, without any claims about what those institutions would necessarily be except as illustrations of how our current institutions are ludicrously sub-optimal.

Christiano then boils the debate to the following argument:

(1) Voters are subject to rational irrationality, ideology, and other such biases.
(2) If voters are subject to rational irrationality, ideology, and other such biases, then democracy will fail to work well.
(3) Democracy will not work well.

This, then, is the anti-democratic theorists' view in its simplest form, as a simple modus ponens. But, as he said at the beginning, the conclusion is false! Therefore, since the argument is valid, we know that something must be awry with at least one of the premises. Christiano suggests that Brennan et al overplay the evidence for (1), but does not wish to challenge it too much. The problem, he suggests, is therefore with the assumption that these various biases preclude voters from making good choices about who to vote for.

How can this be? To point towards a solution, Christiano attempts to turn his opponents own arguments against their views, by suggesting that the same problems which they attribute to democratic choice apply in the same way to ordinary decisions made within markets. There is then a dilemma for the anti-democratic theorists: either they admit that markets are just as flawed and so democracy may nevertheless be the best system we can get, or we identify some mechanisms by which individual ignorance can be translated into rational decisions.

There is undoubtedly some small truth to this. I have no idea how to repair a car, but this lack of knowledge on my part does not prevent me from hiring a mechanic - that is to say, from outsourcing the relevant expertise. I do not have the time to form opinions on an especially wide range of books, but I can outsource this to people whose comparative advantage lies in quickly reading and accurately assessing the merits of books.

So, Christiano suggests, such sources of information exist for politics. Moreover, they are often available at little or no cost, and include the following:
-newspapers and television
-political parties.
-friends and colleagues.
-many educated people need to understand political events for their work, and so understanding it for voting purposes comes at no marginal cost
-labour unions

One worry he admitted to this is that these institutions for informing people need "warning lights" for when they are failing to accurately transmit information. When one goes to a mechanic, it is usually quite clear whether the mechanic genuinely has their claimed skills, due to the success condition in which your car starts moving again (or passes its MOT, or whatever). It is not clear exactly what these are intended to be with regard to politics - The Guardian criticises Theresa May but as a left-wing paper they would say that, wouldn't they? And if one takes the criticism seriously, then without becoming something of an expert oneself, how can one establish whether or not the criticism is accurate?

One possibility, which I'm reading into him though not, I think, unreasonably, is for there to be legal requirements of neutrality or truthfulness applying to political broadcasters, as exist in the UK and Canada but not, infamously, the USA. The big worry with this, as Christiano notes, is that in principle democracy is rule by the people made on their own terms. Is it not contrary to this spirit to compel certain terms of discourse upon them?

OK, so that's Christiano's perspective, presented in what I think is a fairly reasonable and sympathetic way. I have a fair few criticisms, and will work up form smallest to largest.

First, his admittedly-only-a-hypothesis about the role of unions seems highly dubious. He suggested that the decline of unions made working-class populations vulnerable to demagoguery and so is responsible for the current malaise of "the US, the UK and France." But this just seems empirically ridiculous: first, demagoguery was just as potent a force in the days when union bosses would trip into Number Ten for beer and sandwiches. Second, Thatcher gutted the unions in the 80s: why did it then take more than thirty years for demagogues to come along for the working class vote? And finally, France suffering from not enough unions? Are you joking, or are you merely unaware that their transport systems are routinely shut down by disgruntled farmers, taxi-drivers, or whoever else is the angry industry of the day?

Second, I think Christiano overestimates the extent to which even intellectually demanding jobs require one to know about politics, and the extent to which such knowledge represents a very thin and impoverished of the infinitely complex reality. As an example: my dad works in estate and property management for the University of Birmingham, and had a great grievance with the EU that whenever he wished to outsource some work, anti-corruption legislation originating in Brussels required him - as an employee of an organisation recieving significant EU funding - to put it out to tender (including, of course, an expensive advert in a Brussels-based EU-approved journal) and placed certain restrictions upon who he could hire. As a result of this, such outsourcing decisions became vastly slower and vastly more expensive, since in the absence of such regulations he would simply have called up a handful of small local firms, asked for quotes, and gone with the cheapest who he thought could actually deliver at the price they gave. (Of course, the regulations require that he hire the cheapest firm, with the result than from time to time they will not manage to keep to the agreed price, and it is rare that this situation does not end up costing the university further money).

My dad has a deep knowledge of one particular aspect of the way the EU affects Britain. Does this equate to a knowledge, or even a reasonable idea, of what the EU is like as a whole? Of course not. (Incidentally, my dad was turned off by xenophobic messaging of the Leave campaign during the last few days before the referendum, and ended up abstaining; since the referendum, he has been quite enthusiastic about its result).

Third, and moving on to more serious criticisms: Christiano appears to go straight from the uncontroversial claim that democracy correlates with various desirable outcomes to the highly dubious claim that democracy works well, i.e. that it is causally responsible for these outcomes. I've seen a plausible case that democracies can enjoy lower borrowing costs, but otherwise this seems entirely to get the causal direction the wrong way round: countries liberalise economically, this creates a growing middle class, and so a demand for democracy. The economic success of the Asian Tigers is not to be explained in terms of their (anaemic) democracy but in terms of their liberal economic institutions. (And before one tries to argue that they have failed to respect human rights, (1) be careful you're not assuming your conclusion by taking democracy to be a human right, and (2) economic growth is highly underrated as a means to securing people's vital rights to food and shelter).

Fourth, Christiano seems to me to ignore, in an utterly irresponsible way, the quality of information being received. To quote him almost word-for-word: "In the US, I find that I agree with the values of the Democrat party... and this means that they can act as a way to distill complicated information to me." If I had not heard this from his own mouth, I would have assumed anyone attributing these words to him to be creating a strawman. Yet on the grounds that they share his goal of helping the poor more explicitly than their opponents, he is apparently willing on precious little further authority to commit to controversial views on a wide range of topics - the optimal minimum wage, the optimal response to global warming, the optimal level of US involvement in the Middle East...

Fifth, and to the extent that it succeeds most damningly, how different is what Christiano proposes from that which he opposes? If all were to vote the party line, we would have an esoteric epistocracy in which the relevant measure of knowledge would be "Are you a party leader?" It will not be this extreme, of course, with hopefully a range of alternative media sources. But insofar as his vision of democracy is parties telling voters what to think, and the voters consequently choosing parties to implement their policies - why not cut out the middleman, and let the social elites get on with ruling the country untrammelled by the inconvenience of needing to face election? (This, I should note, is the criticism in which I have least confidence).

Perhaps an argument could be made that voters don't really need the knowledge that Brennan thinks they do. More information is not always good, after all.  Apart from this, there are plausible cases for democracy which do not rely at all upon claims about its ability to make decisions. But Christiano's case for this is thoroughly unconvincing, to the point where I was inclined to wonder if his claims to know little of day-to-day politics were not, in fact, just modesty.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

No More Heroes

The name of Stephen Jay Gould is still widely cited as an authority on a wide variety of topics. In particular his book The Mismeasure of Man is currently fashionable as an antidote to Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein's The Bell Curve. I'm certain that I've heard him cited by an Oxford academic, and think though am less certain that I've heard him cited by one of my professors at CEU.

The problem is that, politically useful though his ideas may be, they range between the trivial, the utterly false, and the downright fraudulent. The most academically-weighty refutation of his claims is that of Arthur Jensen; the most sharply worded description of his crimes is Eliezer Yudkowsky's. Also, from the comments on that post:

  • He formed a reading group specifically to criticise E. O. Wilson's book, and published these criticisms; despite Wilson being 30 seconds' walk from where this group was held, he was never invited to come along to hear and respond to their counterarguments.
  • He fudged a historical dataset to support his conclusions in The Mismeasure of Man, then accused Samuel Morton, the long-dead creator of the dataset, of having himself manipulated the data. Reanalysis proved Morton innocent and Gould guilty.
Among those who know what they're talking about, he exists only as a punchbag (and, to be fair, the source of a couple of nice terms). But few among the wider population are aware that Gould was a fraud, and so he goes on, year after year, as the People's Expert on Intelligence.

Economics is understood by a larger proportion of the population than evolutionary biology, so John Kenneth Galbraith is no longer celebrated in the way that Gould is. In these days, after Friedman's great victories in the intellectual debates of the 60s and 70s, it is perhaps hard to imagine how economists were perceived in the 1950s. But back then, they were seen not as unhinged free marketeers (not that that's a fair description now, or even that it was for anything more than a short period in the 80s) but as some of the leading technocrats pulling us toward socialism. At their head were Paul Samuelson (who, since I'm not only mentioning him alongside Galbraith but also linking to a key error, I should clarify was a genuinely great academic who contributed crucial concepts to our understanding of economics, engaged seriously and honestly with those he disagreed with at a deep level, etc) and Galbraith. Although Galbraith fell out of what was regarded as economics, and is now read primarily by his son and by sociologists, the fact remains that as late as 2000 he was able to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom. (It's true that he didn't commit any academic crimes in the way that Gould did; his crimes were rather more mundane, like endorsing policies that killed millions of Indians, no biggie really).

These two men dominated the public discourse of their time, were widely respected, and have yet to receive the pissing-over that they both thoroughly deserve. This raises the question: who are today's Goulds?

One person who I unfortunately can't find now is an academic "researching" obesity, who served as a White House advisor, and was observed to have multiple "surveys" in which despite different numbers of letters being sent out, and some offering rewards for response and others not, there would always be the exact same number of responses.

An academic who is currently overrated, but nevertheless genuinely very good and worth reading, is Daniel Kahneman.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Parellels Between the Great Transformations?

Two of the greatest transitions in human history were the Neolithic Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The Neolithic Revolution was the move from hunting and gathering naturally-occurring crops to agriculture, and paved the way for numerous other changes to society. For example, once one was committed to a particular area of land, it became worthwhile to build dwellings, and so we advanced from nomadic tribes to settled villages.

One curious feature of the Neolithic Revolution, however, is that despite paving the way for great human advancements it was probably a severely negative experience for the people who lived through it. Compared to hunter-gatherers, farmers were shorter, weaker, more-disease-prone, harder-worked, and shorter-lived. This raises something of a puzzle: given that becoming a farmer would make your life worse, and in a one-on-one fight any hunter-gatherer would have a large advantage over a farmer, why would anyone become a farmer?

The answer is that while the Neolithic transition was awful at the individual level, it was enormously powerful at the group level. An agricultural society could extract vastly more food from any given area of land than could a tribe of hunter-gatherers, allowing it to support a substantially larger population. Furthermore, a sedentary group could increase its population towards capacity much faster than a nomadic group, since mothers were now able to concurrently raise multiple young children in a way that was impossible when reliant only upon human milk and when young children had to be carried everywhere.

The Industrial Revolution of the late-18th and 19th centuries is better documented than the Neolithic Revolution, but still we know rather less than we would like. One ongoing debate among historians is why precisely it happened in England in the late 18th century, and why it didn't happen in previous civilisations to approach similar levels of technology (such as China and the Netherlands). I wish to very tentatively suggest that dynamics similar to those of the Neolithic Revolution were in play.

Did people's lives improve or get worse during the English Industrial Revolution? It's hard to say, and it's very easy to underestimate how poor living conditions were for most of agricultural history. But our best estimates are that while they did in time improve, the early decades of the industrial revolution involved little to no improvement in wages. It is true that overall life expectancy was improving, but expectancy appears to have been rather higher in the countryside than in the new urban centres, where not only was disease able to spread like never before but there were introduced a host of new unhealthy occupations (factory work, coal mining). Moreover, there was a trend of increasing life expectancy prior to the industrial revolution, so credit for greater longevity is more probably due to the agricultural revolution than the industrial revolution.

So why did people go along with this? My suggestion is that in most cases, they didn't. This is why previous civilisations which could have industrialised did not: no-one wanted the work it involved, and few people were desperate enough to take it on. England was the first society to be in a position to industrialise and to have social circumstances - presumably the Enclosures - which compelled people to take on industrial work.

I don't think the group-selection mechanic which helped explain the spread of the Neolithic Revolution will do much work here, however. More plausibly, other countries came to industrialise after England had already gone through the horrendous early decades and industrial productivity had begun to skyrocket. If one was living on the proverbial $1 per day as an agricultural labourer, one might quite reasonably refuse industrial work that paid $400/year (the average British wage in 1860) but leap at the chance to do similar work for $800/year (the average British wage a century later).