It’s astonishingly easy, it seems, for people who have the privilege of writing in national newspapers to be very, very wrong about very simple things. This is relatively easy to explain: when you’re writing for a newspaper, you’re not writing with the intention of being right, but rather to make the people reading that newspaper feel righteous about themselves. That’s how you keep getting commissioned to write articles for that newspaper: by helping it sell copies.

It’s a privilege all columnists should examine, because it can lead to them being wrong en masse. That’s happened here. To recap, Louise Mensch wrote an article complaining that British feminists spend their time analysing categories of privilege rather than getting out there and making strides for the sisterhood. It’s not surprising that Louise thought this, because she’s a Tory and many contemporary feminist battles over equal pay take place within unions, far away from her ken. However, given that even Cosmo is running a campaign for equal pay, her research may have been limited – or perhaps, given that she’s wealthy, she doesn’t even consider the enormous bulk of the female workforce receiving the same pay for the same work an issue at all. Indeed, her call for a ‘power feminism’ in which women empower themselves by making lots of money and achieving office sounds more like a girly Nietzschianism than something about securing equal rights. There’s a lot of analysis she needs to carry out on her own position before critiquing others.

Painfully, Laurie Penny responded by being nearly right, but as is so typical of the private-school-educated girl she failed to set her argument out properly. ‘Check your privilege’, the three little words that have given birth to far too many other enormous words, simply means to her ‘consider how your privilege affects what you have just said or done.’ This relatively simple phrase is far too easy to misinterpret, as Dan Hodges has taken great glee in doing, because unfortunately one has to talk about about domains and categories before something that is simple really makes any sense to anyone not versed in it. In claiming that it’s simple I’m exemplifying my privilege of having read stuff about this before. However, to start us off easily:

  • CYP only applies to a limited domain of questions. It does not, for example, mean that only a disabled albino can be right about the distance between the Earth and the Moon.
  • CYP does not preclude the possibility of every black person everywhere being wrong about the effects of racism.
  • CYP does not stop well-educated white middle class people being right about most things on account of their education.

It only really refers to the domain of opinion about how people experience things. I can claim that something’s not racist but my only experience of racism is being called a ‘Gyardee Angreszch’ (‘stupid English’) on the streets of Jaipur. That’s an indication both of my privilege and my pomposity. How I analyse and understand the experience of people being racist to someone else is through that framework, which I cannot avoid. Therefore, when someone claims that an act is racist and my initial reaction is to say that it’s not, I should check whether the framework through which I’m analysing that act is adequate. I might dismiss something as a minor sleight, but to someone who’s spent their entire life being told they’re stupid because they’re black, that minor sleight may be yet another reinforcement of a society that’s holding them down. In this instance, they would be right.

Of course, there will be lots of instances when that same framework will work against them. I’ve lost count of the number of tribunals friends and colleagues have been to when they’re trying to get rid of a useless member of staff who’s screamed racism as soon as a P45 was wafted in their direction. Just because society is racist doesn’t mean you’re not rubbish. What this implies is that ‘privilege’ is the wrong word: even if you’re less privileged, you should be aware of you’ve become predisposed to interpret society. I’d prefer ‘Check your framework’ but that’s much less catchy. It’s a useful intellectual discipline for everyone.

What this means is that the villain of this minor commentariat vignette is Laurie Penny. Dan Hodges we can forgive; he doesn’t understand what CYP means and wants the Left to win ultimate victory through the creation of a race of non-reflective Spartan super-campaigners. Louise Mensch we can forgive; she doesn’t understand what CYP means and just wants all women to become world-bestriding Dagny Taggarts. But Laurie Penny does understand what it means and despite that decided to (a) use it in a context ill suited to it (‘What is racist? is a CYP issue, ‘What is an effective way of combatting racism?’ is a much more empirical question once you’ve sorted the first one out) and (b) bemoan having to use it. Learning that you’re wrong is wonderful, because you learn something. Analysing your own position to make sure it’s correct is also wonderful, because it gives you intellectual integrity. Despite this, she used her position as a national commentator to complain about having to learn. That’s a privilege she wants to get sorted out pronto.

No, not the contemporary kerfuffle about whose prerogative beats whose, but rather a rather silly argument made about press regulation by those who should know better. The original impetus behind the Leveson Inquiry was that journalists had been discovered to be scurrilous bastards willing to do anything for a story, including spying on peoples’ private communications and paying coppers for juicy stories. The Public were naturally outraged about the lengths that these people were willing to go to to satisfy The Public’s lust for info-style news titillations, and demanded action through the locus of People’s Champion Hugh Grant. As a result, the XIIXVth inquiry of this Parliament was born, which made for tremendous copy.

When Lord Leveson reported that it would probably be a good idea to have some kind of statutory solution to curb the problem of journalists being dirty scumbags, some commentators stacked a donkey on top of a horse and a pony on top of that. Atop these bestial constructs, they made the following argument:

“What the journalists were doing was already illegal. We don’t need new laws, we just need to properly enforce the ones we have.”

If you have made this argument, you have missed the point by so much that in debating terms you’re standing on the Mid Atlantic Ridge. Here’s why.

Laws, to have any force in a moral argument, rely on assuming that the Rule of Law is in place and fully functional. The Rule of Law, like all human social constructs, is fundamentally fragile and liable to break as soon as someone sufficiently powerful figures out how to subvert it in their interests. It relies on a balance of power between different institutions in order to avert the possibility of someone becoming sufficiently powerful for that subversion to take place.

During this whole fandango, we’ve seen the amusing spectacle of centuries-old institutions pretending like they can be the guardians of something as fundamentally effervescent and chaotic as free speech.  In reaffirming their institutional mandate within Britain’s inchoate constitutional arrangements, they hope to distract from the fact that they’ve proven capable of subverting the rule of law by suborning other institutions (in this case, the police) to the point where they could acquire immunity to large-scale prosecution by the occasional tossing up of sacrificial lambs and arranging lovely lunches for people in a position to investigate them. What this implies is that the current state of the law is irrelevant to this issue: this is about power, and how much power any institution should have.To say that laws weren’t being enforced properly is to actively swerve out of the way of the point: they couldn’t be enforced properly because the very rule of law itself no longer applied. The very fact that Leveson was prompted by revelations in another newspaper is in itself telling; institutions should be kept in balance by other institutions, not by hoping that everyone just goes the decent thing. The rule of law does not function by hoping that everyone obeys it.

Changing institutional frameworks to prevent the press doing this again may require changes in the law, because Britain likes to have meta-laws that govern the application of other laws rather than an actual constitution. Laws about who gets what power and laws about what is forbidden to everyone are fundamentally different, and attempting to conflate them is why this argument is just wrong.

 

In an article that will bring succour to hard-pressed press officers everywhere, Zoe Williams has declared:

“Straight talking is one thing, but when you’re straight repeating work that has already been done, but sloppily, with less sophistication, drawing egregious conclusions, isn’t that a waste of time?”

Of course, she’s talking about policy advisers, not journalists, but exactly the same lesson applies. Any short-term investigation into a complex topic without spending a significant amount of time with the literature and the people who spend their lives digging into the subject will necessarily be superficial and has a high likelihood of coming out with conclusions only loosely related to the evidence to hand.

This is a not unreasonable summary of much journalism on complex topics, including, for example, the energy sector, the one with which I have the most familiarity. I distinctly recall a conversation with a very senior broadcast journalist in which he outlined the methodology by which he constructed his pieces: “I’ll spend about a day quickly reading everything I can about the subject, by the end of which I’ll be sufficiently expert on it to ask questions and come to conclusions I think the viewers will like. By the next day, I’ll have forgot all about it.”

No. It is impossible to become an expert in a day, but this is what journalism relies on: short-term investigations somehow translating into copy which is accurate and informative. This is not to say that journalists don’t get it right – in fact, they do so frequently, which does attest to many of them being at least passably clever – but that criticisms of policy advisers for facile investigations are somewhat hypocritical. Both the media and advisers play a role in shaping policy, and both have a responsibility to make their recommendations with as much rigour as possible. Neither side, right now, can justifiably criticise the other.

Monbiot’s Mistake

July 3, 2012

George Monbiot has today announced his discovery of economics. Well, that’s perhaps not precisely what he meant, but it’s certainly what this means:

“The constraints on oil supply over the past 10 years appear to have had more to do with money than geology. The low prices before 2003 had discouraged investors from developing difficult fields. The high prices of the past few years have changed that.”

You see, there’s no such thing as supply-and-demand as discrete quantities. What there is is ‘demand-at-a-price’ and ‘supply-at-a-price’. Until oil passed the $70/barrel price – and looked to remain there for the long term – there was no additional supply, because there was no demand for oil at $70/barrel. Now the market price is reaching over $100/barrel, there certainly is.

Monbiot is interpreting this to mean that peak oil, which he seems to conceive of as actually running out of the stuff, is not going to happen. However, this isn’t what peak oil actually is. Rather, ‘peak oil’ is a price of oil so high that other commodities fulfilling a similar role become cheaper by comparison. This includes, for example, renewable sources of electricity, hydrogen or electric cars, and non-oil based plastics and lubricants. In economics, these are known as ‘substitute goods’.

The increasing supply of oil from non-traditional sources spurred on by the high oil price is beginning to foster a market in substitute goods. For example, the US firm Metabolix has been in the business of producing plant-based plastics for several years now, and is the brainchild of ex-oil and pharmaceutical types. This stands outwith any Government subsidy programme, although I’m sure significant amounts of subsidy for corn in the US helped. We can expect this to continue as the price of oil rises.

As a result of this, there will not be one ‘peak’ for oil – there will be multiple plateaus and transitions in the price, as one substitute good replaces demand for oil from a particular sector. Eventually, our economy will no longer be dependent on it, as the price rises so high that we substitute it entirely. This will be long before it actually runs out; as has been said, the stone age did not end because we ran out of stones.

The above is not an argument against environmental activism, or leaving everything to the market – far from it. ‘Peak Oil’ will not come soon enough to prevent dangerous climate change, and so activism, both for subsidies for cleantech which bring forward the date at which they’re cheap enough to be a substitute good and against oil production fromthe likes of the tar sands, which increases the cost of gaining permits and so on, makes a difference. This fundamentally economic difference made by environmental activists may yet be the difference between dangerous climate change and climate change we can just about adapt to.

The Boring God

February 3, 2012

Today I stumbled across the blog of Shiraz Socialist, on which is a fascinating post about the mini-controversy surrounding Terry Eagleton’s review of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. The post is a review of de Botton’s response to Eagleton’s review, achieving a level of nested meta that Tarski would appreciate. It is well worth a read, and I urge you to do so.

However, there is one part of the post in which SS appears to make a mistake, and that I would like to discuss. It’s this:

Eagleton:

“For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.”:

SS:

“This is, in fact, no more and no less than the well-known (and ridiculous, banal) “ontological argument” of St Anselm: “Something than which nothing greater can be concieved”: he then argued that something that exists in reality must be greater than something that exists in the mind only; so God must exist outside as well as in the mind, for if he existed in the mind only and not in reality he would not be “something than which nothing greater can be conceived.” I’d call that a circular argument, not worth the time of day, if anyone asked me.”

Eagleton is here not using the ancient and decrepit ontological argument, rather a relatively more youthful transcendental argument. This is a form of argumentation named by Immanuel Kant, and the clue to Eagleton’s use of it is the very specific phrase ‘He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever’. A transcendental argument is not an ontological argument which relies upon definition, rather it is a consideration of what is required for something to be.

Kant starts out the Critique of Pure Reason with an example of this: we encounter the world as being three-dimensional and being subject to the passage of time, therefore the condition for the possibility of this is that we possess faculties which allow us to encounter the world through the categories of space and time. It is necessarily the case that we encounter the world through these categories, as we cannot conceive of another way of encountering the world. Try imagining the world without space or time if your brain hasn’t melted enough today.

Eagleton’s argument, therefore, is that God is defined as that which is necessary for anything to exist, the condition for the possibility of being. And this is a real problem for Eagleton, for such a definition is fundamentally uninteresting. It tells us precisely nothing about God, and allows for the possibility of God being practically anything – a set of physical laws, a non-sentient process of continuous creation from the void, the Big Bang itself and so on. You cannot derive the Judeo-Christian version of God from it, which is problematic for Eagleton because he explicitly claims that the Judeo-Christian God can only be understood in this way.

It’s pretty clear from this that Eagleton’s God is a long way removed from de Botton’s approved-opiate-of-the-people God, to the point where his God can have no relation with mankind whatsoever, on account of it being defined into tedium. It’s as close enough to atheism as makes no difference, and certainly precludes the vision of hell in which he seems to believe Christopher Hitchens is roasting.

I’ve been watching 10 o’clock Live over the past few weeks, to see if Lauren Laverne will ever be trusted to talk about the news without being pre-recorded, to see if Jimmy Carr will finally catch on to the fact that one-liners don’t really work for satire, to see if David Mitchell will finally accept that he’s not John Humphreys, and to see the hunted look in Charlie Brooker’s eyes as he realises that if he wasn’t on the show he’d be taking the piss out of it. Mr Brooker has discovered too late that the way in which the British Establishment crushes dissent is by absorbing dissenters within it, like an extremely well-mannered amoeba.

To be fair, it’s got marginally better in recent weeks. Last night’s show wasn’t too bad, and it did have an interesting illustration of a conflation that’s doing the rounds of left-wing thought, which I’d like to bring out.

Each show has a panel discussion on a major topic of the day, this week focusing on the deficit as a consequence of Saturday’s protests. On the panel were Tory columnist Danny Finklestein (who was comprehensively beaten), socialist gnome Laurie Penny and an economist whose name I immediately forgot. This was intentional – she ruined her credibility by claiming that we didn’t need to deal with the deficit immediately because our debt was short-term, unlike that of Greece. This is simply wrong – over half of gilts in issue have redemption dates in 2019 and beyond. It’s also wrong in relation to her point – if there are years left before we need to refinance our debt, current interest rates are less important than long-term interest rates, so we have a little more breathing room before we need to deal with the deficit. In contrast, if our debt was short-term, we’d need to deal with it immediately. The former was an argument made by the left immediately after the election, but seems to have fallen out of favour lately – which is a shame, as it’s actually a good argument for a slight delay to the cuts.

While we can probably ignore any substantive point made by the economist on the basis that she made such a basic error, there was an interesting interplay between at least one of her points and the points made by Gnomegirl. The economist said that there was no need to tackle the deficit in the short term, as a strong investment in infrastructure like that undertaken by China and the US would help kick-start growth. As I pointed out the other day, the amount of growth this strategy would require is infeasible without also taking deficit-reduction actions. However, the economist’s point was immediately followed by Gnomegirl talking about the need to maintain spending on social issues. And herein lies the conflation.

It’s become an article of faith on the left that ‘spending’ itself can be maintained to kick-start the economy, and that this argument covers spending on social goods. It doesn’t. The economist was right to say that investment in infrastructure can stimulate demand – but this doesn’t apply to all spending on social goods.

Money spent on, say, looking after the mentally ill or the elderly is not an investment, it’s a cost to the wider economy, and it’s a cost we pay because it’s the right thing to do. Looking after people with behavioural problems or on helping disabled people into work also has a cost – an opportunity cost, as the money could be used more productively elsewhere. Nevertheless, we spend that money because everyone deserves a good chance at making the best of themselves that they can.

However, this is why cuts always hit the most vulnerable in society first – because they represent the biggest cost to the wider economy. This is something that’s not often said, but is true – and efforts by those on the left to disassociate themselves from this by asking ‘Why?’ are made in bad faith, because they know it too. Unless you think social spending should be maintained until bankruptcy, you have to accept that there’s a point when it has to be curtailed so that money can be spent on more productive activities. Attempting to conflate investment with social spending is an attempt to run away from this truth, which is why it’s so popular. But no-one who does it can be taken seriously, which is why Ed Milliband’s presence at Saturday’s rally was such a strategic mistake.

If you want to use investment to kick-start the economy and grow our way out of the deficit, you’ll need to cut social spending to pay for it. Whichever approach you take, the most vulnerable are going to suffer. The pathetic left-wing approach of hanging on and hoping for another alternative is a recipe for ensuring that the vulnerable suffer more in the longer term. In the dreadful calculus of human misery, I know which option I’d rather take.

Global Warming is Bad News

February 17, 2011

I’m surprised that I even need to say this, but global warming is a bad thing that we don’t want to happen. This simple message appears to have been lost as a consequence of the rise of climate scepticism. And so, when we get further confirmation that a bad thing looks almost certain to happen, our response shouldn’t be to be ever so slightly smug that it looks like we were right about the bad thing happening. It certainly shouldn’t be:

“…we can say, with an even higher degree of confidence than before, that climate change makes extreme events more likely to happen.”

It should be:

“…we can say, with an even higher degree of despair than before, that climate change makes extreme events more likely to happen.”

I’ve been bashing Labour for quite a while, and so it’s time to pick on some of the stupidity coming from the Right. I don’t normally have a lot of time for Prince Charles, but his speech to the Low Carbon Prosperity Summit was bang-on. He argued that our long-term prosperity is threatened by a combination of rising temperatures and ecosystem degradation, and that decoupling economic growth from business-as-usual consumption was essential to maintain that prosperity into the future. In a particularly stirring section, he condemned climate sceptics in no uncertain terms:

“I wonder, will such people be held accountable at the end of the day for the absolute refusal to countenance a precautionary approach for this plays a most reckless game of roulette with the future inheritance of those who come after us?”

Of course, such forthright views almost instantly attracted the vitriol of right-wing jester James Delingpole and the at least internally consistent libertarian writings of Dan Hannan. Both of them have lambasted Charles for attempting to send us into a dark age of economic stagnation. Unfortunately, the text doesn’t really bear that out – they both appear to have seen this part of the speech:

“There is, surely, no way round the fact that we have to move away from our conventional economic model of growth, based, as it is, on the production and consumption of high-carbon intensity goods.

“We need to meet the challenge of decoupling economic growth from increased consumption in such a way that both the well-being of Nature’s ecology and our own economic needs do not suffer.”

and thought, “HE’S CONDEMNING CONSUMPTION! MUST STOP HIM!”

No. He’s condemning carbon-intensive consumption, which is different from, well, low-carbon consumption. The clue is his use of the word ‘decoupling’, which is used in economics to indicate the separation of production from increasing pressure on the environment. This is a relatively common position for environmentalists to take – that we can have the benefits of economic growth while safeguarding the natural world as long as we have an appropriate policy framework in place. It is, in fact, perfectly compatible with liberalism, as it typically requires additional payment for externalities. This can take the form of a carbon tax or subsidies for low-carbon electricity generation paid for by energy users.

Both Delingpole and Hannan appear to have convinced themselves that no-one arguing for environmental impact considerations with regard to economic activity can possibly be in favour of prosperity. This is quite a severe case of (a) stupidity and (b) setting up strawmen. It’s also dangerous – reducing the impact of the biosphere to sustain us will impact on our future prosperity, and so it needs to be a factor in our economic calculations. Both right-wingers appear to be advocating a rather naive version of libertarian economics that appears to deny the existence of any possible externality. On the other hand, at least Hannan is emphasising the importance of private property, so hopefully he’ll get around to campaigning against the planning system.

Addendum: Another spectacular example of right-wing stupidity at the Telegraph, where Ross Clark is arguing that since localism is hard we should stop doing it. What a brave man you are, Mr Clark.

An amusing symmetry

January 26, 2011

Hot on the heels of Telegraph ‘blogger’ James Delingpole’s meltdown on Horizon, the Telegraph has taken aim at another bugbear of the pro-science folk: the potential for an asteroid to smash into the Earth and extinguish almost all life. Apparently, we’re all getting our knickers in a twist over nothing, because such an asteroid would ‘create opportunities for life’. This is an argument right up there with ‘Carbon Dioxide is plant food’ in the MISSING THE FUCKING POINT scales.

I look forward to the future division of the debate into the pro-meteor defence and anti-meteor defence camps. You see, Government spending to prevent the extinction of all life remains Government spending, and libertarians just can’t have that. I wonder if the Koch Brothers will sponsor an anti-Nasa thinktank in the near future; heaven knows they’re already opposed to little things like satellite data.

Benedict Brogan of the Telegraph is convinced that the date of the Royal wedding is a gift to the AV campaign. Quite apart from the pathetic tabloidism inherent in trying to force any story at all through the prism of the forthcoming monarchical nuptials, this is so obviously stupid I find it difficult to believe that Mr Brogan is allowed to write in a grown-up newspaper.

The thing that will decide the AV referendum next year will be turnout. A low turnout means that we’re more likely to win, a high turnout means we’re more likely to lose. This is because people are much more likely to turn out to vote on AV alone if they understand the issues involved, and if they understand the issues involved, they’re much more likely to vote Yes. Much as I respect the effort put into the AV campaign, we are never going to have the opportunity to fully explain the workings of AV to a majority of the population in time for the election. Our best chance of success is if those who simply don’t know enough about the issue to be fully engaged stay at home – and a Royal Wedding makes it much more likely that this will happen. This is also why it’s been said that the higher turnout that will be a consequence of holding the referendum on the same day as local elections and elections to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament is bad news for the Yes campaign. It doesn’t work both ways – either a high turnout is good for us, or a low turnout is.