Category: Uncategorized

If statistical reason collapsed, it was a while back

Will Davies writes about immigration, politics, and what he calls the “collapse of statistical reason”:

The macro-economic case for immigration – that it is a net positive for both public finances and economic growth – was integral to New Labour’s tacit, occasionally explicit, support for high levels of immigration. This was a broadly neoliberal type of justification, submerging rights-based arguments within the logic of open markets, as the European Commission has done as well. This was accompanied by a sense of economic realism, that employers would not countenance any drastic political interventions in international labour markets.

What is now better understood, however, is that appeals to statistics or to some apparent economic reality (such as ‘globalisation’) have the opposite of the desired political effect. It is not simply that they do not persuade those who are skeptical of immigration’s benefits; they can result in increased antipathy. Focus groups carried out by British Future show that when presented with evidence for macro-economic benefits, people will often respond that the statistics are biased, that they are based on inadequate knowledge of who has really entered the country, and that these numbers are being used to justify the political ambitions of policy elites. Such data incites quasi-conspiracy theories, that the government is concealing the truth, sometimes leading respondents to become even more paranoid about immigration. By contrast, qualitative forms of evidence – photographs and anecdotes of ‘successful’ integration of immigrants – are met with a far more positive response.

I am not sure he is right. I cannot remember many New Labour ministers ever making such a case, for a start. I do, however, remember a lot of them climbing onto the bully pulpit to complain that nobody was talking about immigration and to boast about how tough on asylum seekers they were being. For people who thought they weren’t allowed to, they sure did it a lot. They frequently also argued, quite specifically, that it was wrong to talk about the economy and statistical aggregates instead of personal, qualitative stories about people’s neighbourhoods. In terms of method, they were famously keen on qualitative focus groups as a means of perceiving the public. This Twitter thread refers.

This also reminded me of the following quote from How Labor Scholars Missed the Trump Revolt:

Our civic life has become a doughnut, with empty calories surrounding a hollow center where questions of class, occupation, pay, and power might once have been debated and expressed. We had become a nation with little legitimate space to express either the external or the internal conflicts of economic inequality — and that is a dangerous and volatile place for any republic to find itself.

And Tom Powdrill:

However, one of the big blunders the Third Way type ‘modernisers’ (they don’t seem modern anymore, do they?) was to assume that because people spent less time thinking about their workplace identity, and more about other aspects, that the workplace didn’t matter any more. In addition, it was too uncritical of the idea that we think like consumers about all kinds of things (public services, politics) and that therefore it was smart to relate to the public in a consumer-provider relationship and encourage this more generally.

Now a major, declared goal of policy in the Blair years was precisely to fill the doughnut with something – as long as it wasn’t jam, or anything else appropriately red in colour. Various different fillings were tried.

The Home Office’s entries in this Great British Policy Bakeoff didn’t change much from Jack Straw to David Blunkett to Charles Clarke to John Reid to Jacqui Smith. In fact, it has changed very little from Michael Howard’s tenure in the 1990s to Theresa May’s in the 2010s. The proposed filling would consist of what we might call macro-security – police powers, bulk surveillance, border control. Government would perform concern for public demands by doing stuff with the police apparatus. (Perhaps the blue in Blue Labour is the dark serge of the uniform.)

An alternative flavour concentrated on what we might call micro-security. This eventually got an institutional anchorage in the Department for Communities and Local Government, but in fact it was a team effort between bits of the No.10 policy apparatus, the Treasury, the Department for Education, and the housing policy world. The iconic figure here is Hazel Blears, and the key concern was a sort of neighbourhood politics reduced to its more censorious elements. (You were very much not encouraged to concern yourself with, say, public housing.) Civic life was to be rebuilt through a succession of respectability-policing projects, from the bottom up.

You’ll observe that both flavours have a distinct savour of authority. Also, neither of them worked, either in the sense of providing political cover for a wider liberal agenda or in that they were a better alternative to statistics, either as a means of perceiving the world or as a means of persuading others. In fact, the quantitative turn in left-wing practice came later, in reaction to a British Labour or US Democratic habit of being obsessed with focus-group gurus like Frank Luntz.

Meanwhile, this starts to sound positively nostalgic:

The sense that centralized experts will ‘deliver’ outcomes to a population, who will experience those outcomes in a subjective, consumerist fashion

Worry a little bit more about Korea but not that much

It’s time for another 2007 Revival! carrier watch post.

It looks like the forward-based carrier, Reagan, is fully ready. Nimitz is committed to the Middle East. Bush is eight thousand miles away, in UK home waters. Truman, Lincoln, and Vinson are in early phases of training. Eisenhower, Washington, and Stennis are in bits in the dry dock. Roosevelt has done her COMPTUEX work-up. Technically she needs to do the JTFEX with the other ships in the task force, but in a pinch that could happen en route.

The time frame to get to the other side of the Pacific is about two weeks assuming they don’t bother doing anything clever on the way. The US has quite a few airfields in the western Pacific, but North Korea just promised to drop rockets all round the biggest, so you can probably see the value of the carriers here. Conclusion: if Roosevelt, aka the Big Stick and wouldn’t the Donald love that, gets her skates on, it’s time to worry.

Work post.

Hijacking the blog for work purposes. I know quite a few readers here develop software or design things in a freelance, startup, or small business context. What is it that telecoms operators/ISPs, both fixed and mobile, aren’t offering you at the moment? What are they selling you that you don’t want? Leave your thoughts in comments – use a pseud if you want but give some idea of context.

Results so far: Moar bandwidth. Direct peering with major CDNs and clouds. Data allowances on a per-account basis (so you can share them among multiple devices). Better IPv6 support. Pro-active outage notification. Better status reporting. Nobody wants any add-on services. Better (native/dualstack) IPv6 again. Lower latency. Lower extra-European roaming rates.

Venezuela: it’s not just for Christmas

As the news fromm Venezuela has become progressively worse – and let’s be clear, it’s still getting worse from this absolutely terrible baseline – there’s been some arguing around the Internet about politicians, like Jeremy Corbyn, who were very supportive of Hugo Chavez’s government there.

My beef here is that someone like Jean-Luc Mélenchon went into this year’s French presidential election offering to quit NATO and replace it with a Bolivarian Alliance between France, Cuba, and Venezuela. Meanwhile, the people most affected are abandoning the cities in favour of subsistence gold panning in a malarial swamp. They don’t need somebody’s geopolitical fantasy; more like emergency humanitarian aid.

I get the impression that JLM wasn’t paying very much attention to the news when he came up with that idea, and evidently not for quite a while. Rather, he was singing his heart out for the lads. The country doesn’t matter, the people even less so, what counts is pissing off the right people. If you weren’t at all interested in actual human Venezuelans, but rather just attracted by the opportunity to romanticise the mythos of Latin American revolution, or to pick a fight, well, this is the kind of output I’d expect.

JLM’s Napoleonic scheme is an extreme example, but I think it’s telling. It’s also one that comes from outside Labour Party politics. It’s not just JC who’s being an idiot about this.

The Godfather, Trump, and Putin

Peter Pomerantsev goes to Mongolia and meets the president, an all-purpose post-Soviet entrepreneur turned politician. Specifically, an all-purpose post-Soviet entrepreneur and martial arts champ who named his company after The Godfather.

This isn’t just eccentric; in Codes of the Underworld, Diego Gambetta has a fascinating chapter on the role movies played in the making of the post-Soviet gangster. Coming out of the Soviet era, people thrown into this baffling future were in search of ways to convince others and themselves of their new roles. The Soviet Union had a criminal subculture of its own, that grew in its camps and prisons, but it wasn’t very useful when you had to deal with people who didn’t move in that world, although it was a useful source of legitimacy with those who did. It was also very local and supremely anti-aspirational. The vision of the mafioso according to Mario Puzo and Scorsese, though, was something they could buy into that everyone recognised, all over the world.

Gambetta points out that the tropes Puzo and Coppola stylised for their own purposes were developed for good reasons – they were ways of doing business in a world without trust – and adopting them was useful both because they were a kind of brand, and because they worked in their own way. The economic need to be recognised as a gangster drove the cultural phenomenon, but the cultural tropes also changed the economic process of production or rather predation.

The Mongolian president is especially interesting because his original business was importing movies. In fact, he spent prize money he won as an athlete on a good, Panasonic VHS machine and worked out how to hook it to a Soviet TV and some unspecified speakers (maybe like the Hungarian ones my dad’s still got?). Then he set up as a touring cinema. He mostly showed toons and Jackie Chan, but he obviously also bathed in mafia movies because that’s what he called his business.

We can see a strategy here. He had to physically cart the gear around, and although it was easy to record TV onto video, replicating VHS cassettes without specialist equipment was quite slow. He needed to choose wisely. So he chose either the sugar hit of Disney toons and kung fu, or else great juicy slabs of New Hollywood classicism. Both worked because, well, they’re great at what they do. There’s no room here for low-value bulk; for that you need media abundance. Which brings us to Donald Trump.

As Sarah Kendzior points out, he’s been fascinated with the USSR and Russia since at least 1984 and they with him. Well before the end of the USSR, Trump was invited over to Moscow to pitch a plan to build a hotel – maybe rather like the one the East Germans did in Berlin around the same time? – and the relationship never really ended. Now look at it.

Very unlike the Mongolian president’s filmgoers, or the Solntsev brothers down by the airport motorway, the de-Sovietising elite that discovered Trump had access to American TV. They monitored it, after all. Military leaders like Sergei Akhromeyev noticed Silicon Valley – they called it the scientific-technical revolution – and nobody was going to fall in love with Detroit automakers in the 1980s. Is it too much to suggest that this media filter and its founder effect sold the criminal world on The Godfather, and the future rulers on Trump, as their idea of us?

Nobody Needs Privacy Except Me And My Mistress

Jeremy Paxman spent a whole career interrogating and humiliating politicians over mistakes they made and very definitely over supposed transgressions in their private lives (eh). The BBC – that’s us, in other words – paid him a prince’s ransom for it. The TV programmes he worked on reported in detail on the phone-hacking scandal and, time and again, on incidents where the police or the intelligence services overstepped their authority. There’s a decent chance he was personally targeted by one or other of the tabloids at some point in his career – he was a celebrity in London and therefore by definition a target. He told the Leveson inquiry that Piers Morgan personally told him how to hack voicemail accounts.

Yet, here he is denying that anyone needs privacy.

“Personally I am prejudiced on this question on security and privacy, what is it you are all doing that you are so concerned about? Do you think anyone is really interested in your sex lives? They are not! I can’t understand this.”

This is pukey enough. Morgan wanted to intercept Sven-Goran Eriksson’s phone calls, illegally, precisely in order to spy on his sex life. And it’s not as if he, Paxman, hasn’t had plenty to hide himself (one, two). But it gets worse. Paxman’s talk at InfoSec Europe was titled Governments, Businesses & Other Scoundrels: Why Trust Anyone?, a title that projects the I’m-tough-and-cynical-a-proper-grownup act we paid him so much for. But here’s what he had to say:

“I am prepared to trust the security forces. I think they by and large do a brilliant job. And I think they are kept under reasonable supervision. And I think when people who know about these things tell us, suppliers of communication mechanisms ought to be more responsible, I am rather inclined to take their side.”

Trust no-one, then, except spies. Question the powerful, unless they actually are. That’s some cask-strength establishment cynicism right there. You might consider voting against this today.

The pre-history of the Friedman unit

Those of us who blogged through the Iraq War will of course remember the Friedman unit, a measurement of time defined as how long it will take until things are OK in Iraq, conventionally equal to six months, named for Thomas “Airmiles” Friedman of the New York Times. But I didn’t realise the unit has a prior history. Not until I read Waugh in Abyssinia, that is.

OK so; this is the book Evelyn Waugh wrote about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, that would become the source for his novel Scoop!. It’s a very strange book. Waugh divides it into three parts, and there’s no reason not to tackle it in the same way. The first third is a potted history of imperialism in the Horn of Africa, startlingly radical (he basically adopts a Hobson/Lenin economic-determinist explanation) and very critical of the British (mostly for hypocrisy). His account of the complicated way in which Ethiopia was both a target of imperialism and an expansionist empire itself, and his insistence on the transformative importance of the League of Nations’ international recognition of the country, is great.

The second contains Waugh’s narrative of his travels and the war. This is basically why the book is still read – it’s classic impressionistic travel writing, with good jokes about reporters prefiguring Scoop, fine prose, and a subtle account of a pre-modern society trying to be modern.

What he’s going on about here is one of the key forms of the state in the 20th century – the development dictatorship. Waugh is very good on the conflicts inherent in this, the contract-hunting chancers and weirdos drawn to it, and the ambivalence of the whole project. Ambivalence about modernity is the core theme of his work, and development dictatorship gave him enormous scope to, ah, develop it. One of the key things you have to grasp about him is that although his self-presentation in his old age was as someone who’d been a deep reactionary all along, his books aren’t often like that. He plays up the old git shtick, and then leaps on a train de luxe to the front line. The contradiction is where the art gets in, and why the journey to Ethiopia inspired him.

The third section, though, is completely weird. Waugh went back to Ethiopia after the Italians occupied it, and at this point his scepticism seems to have completely failed him. He kicks off mocking journalists in Djibouti who tell him the war isn’t over and guerrillas are everywhere, warms up by insulting British MPs who make the mistake of caring what happened to the Ethiopians, and travels up the line to Addis Ababa. On the way he observes that every bridge, tunnel, and choke point is heavily guarded by tired, nervous Italian soldiers. No matter.

He goes to see the Italian governor, who has installed himself in the emperor’s palace, surrounded by the few sticks of dictator chic the looters didn’t steal or torch. Six months, they agree. He bashes “liberals” some more. Guerrillas break into the city centre in company size, exactly as the guy he was shitposting says, and he gets shot at. Six months, he says, and everything will be OK. Not just the unit size, or the security situation, but the characteristic architecture and interior design of the Friedman unit has been defined. He has another dig at a British MP for believing that the Ethiopian resistance government still exists. They’ll be put in the bag, in six months. Rather as the Americans never did get Saddam’s appointed deputy, the Italians never did catch it.

He completely falls head over heels in love with the Italian contractors who are building a new road as a counterinsurgency project (it’s going to be done in six months), and announces that the Ethiopians never bothered to build any roads, forgetting that he already praised one of theirs a hundred and fifty pages back. It’s a header right into the deep end of the trahison des clercs.

And we probably better talk about the racism. At this period of his career Waugh has a weird habit where he’s quite capable of being respectful of foreigners’ institutions, character, or appearance…and then he throws in a massive, jarring insult. It’s never integral to his point, but rather chucked in as a style statement, a sort of sprezzatura of turds. This always makes him sound weirdly American, because the style he adopts and the choice of epithets come from there. Rather than the kind of patronising imperial condescension you expect, you get a shot of the Klan, of burning crosses on suburban lawns, corpses towed behind Ford V-8s. Tellingly, he kids himself the Italian conquerors are like…the pioneers of the American West.

The point would be made to him in due course. By the time he came to write the Sword of Honour trilogy, he’s cut it out. It took the second world war to do that. But what interests me is that he didn’t start off writing like that. He got it from somewhere, but where?

Quick campaign post

This Chris Cook piece about campaigning strategy is good. Here’s something I noticed which he doesn’t call out specifically. The party leaders’ activities by ITV region are actually very similar. Going by Chris’s table, Theresa May has made 23 visits and Jeremy Corbyn 22. Both leaders have concentrated their operations on two regions, Greater London and the West Midlands. May visited Central 5 times, as did Corbyn. She appeared in London 5 times, while Corbyn did so 6 times. In total, Corbyn’s visits to these two regions represent half his total, while May’s represent 44% of hers. The distinction should not be treated as particularly important, as it’s accounted for by precisely two visits. I would cautiously support Cook’s contention that he’s trying to get on the regional news as often as possible with an enthusiastic turnout of activists by going to seats where there is a good membership base. This at least turns his meetings to some use. Alternatively he actually expects the Labour share of the vote to be up on last time – look at the concentration of visits around a 5% swing. That would be…brave?