Levitt, supposedly the most talented economist of my generation, exemplifies all that is wrong with the discipline: academically, he specialises in clever answers to questions that can be answered because there happens to be data, rather than in trying to develop answers to important questions. This is how economics ended up spending its talent on looking at such pressing questions as the correlation between given names and educational success while the banks were left alone to blow-apart society.
And here we have what happens when this style of economics does tackle an important question --- climate change. Like almost everyone else in the world, I have no idea about the science of climate change and I take the consensus on trust, on authority, and on my understanding of how science and policy works. If the science were wrong but had gone this far without being shown up, my understanding of society and the institutions of knowledge would have to be completely modified.
Dubner and Levitt, it seems, are similarly ignorant, but decide to harvest what contrarian positions they can. There are real pleasures to contrarianism: it offers the hope of disturbing the smug assurance of the clericy. But it does not come for free: if you get caught, as Dubner and Levitt seem to have been, your authority is trashed and the clericy's reinforced.In this case, this is all to the good.
How do you get a consensus? Bring together 250 pros of disagreement into a single place to talk about the marginilisation of dissent. CarnegieUK (with oD as media sponsor) organised the event to explore the role of civil society in encouraging (or not) a culture of openness and principled dissent. The podcast is available here.
Malcolm Carroll, expert and practitioner of non-violent direct action,
started the event off with a description of the way that private
companies with private police forces armed with civil injunctions can
stop decent people from making their voices heard.
Although dissent is made harder by this sort of social injunctivitis,
Malcolm is convinced that shaping public opinion---shallow,
manipulable, fickle---is a fool's errand; that institutional
engagement can very easily provide only an illusion of power and
change; and that peaceful direct action can change the terms of
debate, as is needed to confront the big questions of environment and
Fran Bennett, thinker and doer in the realm of poverty, inequality and
exclusion, was not so gloomy about institutional engagement. The case
for the abolition of poverty is marginalised, says Fran, because
everyday poverty is depressing and does not fit media narratives;
because the public sees the causes of poverty as being personal (and
moral), not structural, and because governments, who ought to lead on
the issue, instead follow public opinion. (Fran pointed out that when
James Purnell was still responsible for childhood poverty, he took
pride in extolling the government's bravery in making progress on the
issue despite its unpopularity; why, asked Fran, should this be a
matter of macho pride rather than a matter of shame that they had done nothing to change public perceptions of the issue?)
Thought for the Day, the homily slot on the BBC's main morning news radio program, used to play the really useful role of getting me out of bed when I was a university student. I had worked out that if I set the radio alarm to go off at quarter to eight and placed it out of my reach, then come 0750 I would be forced out of bed to turn the radio off.
I gradually became more used to it; it stopped working as a morning call to action, and slowly I began to enjoy it, although usually with remnants of the aversion to being preached to that has abated only slowly. There are occasionally some really thoughtful thoughts ---Mona Sidiqqi, for example, stands out. And sometimes, even when the thoughts are aggravating, they have pushed me to record a counter-thought (like here, on Catastrophes, or here on Exodus versus Odyssey).
This morning's thought by Dr Giles Fraser was particularly good --- maybe it struck me so because it resonates with what feels like a big thought that has been stalking me for a while about sameness and difference.
Fraser uses Jonathan Freedland's view that we have now seen the "human face of Iran", and, specifically, that the last 3 weeks of protest have developed in the West "a strong affinity" to Iranians in the streets to ask a big question about our common humaity. Does this "human face" do its work of transforming out attitudes because it emphasises the humanity that we commonly share (apparently Freedland's view)? or because it recognises the profound difference that unites us (Emanuel Levinas' view)? and does this foundational difference matter?
The thought that has been stalking me is that the distinction really does matter because within it lies a guide to how liberalism, in some of its recent incarnations, became so anti-pluralist. "Let the market solve it" is attractive if what we all share is the kind of thin nature assumed by modern economists; "let the tanks impose regime change, democracy and rule of law" is attractive if political value and social selves are given, invariant, and waiting only for an opportunity to be expressed.
More convincing, practically and philosophically, is that difference is irreducible and the starting point of our social selves. This makes the basic human impulse for politics that of hospitality rather than sympathy. If we base morality and politics in sympathy, then we will always be looking at ways of thowing away what really makes others others.We will think that conflict can be dissolved by easy universalism rather than real and respectful accommodation.
I look forward to more on this during the conversation this evening between Susan Richards and Anatol Lieven around Susan's emergent recent history of ordinary Russians. It is the quality of difference, not sameness, that seems to permeate the extracts we have here on the site.
Chris Giles and Simon Briscoe in the FT have a beautifully produced flash-data feature describing the state of the UK economy. Their basic message would not have sounded out of place in 1980: the state has become too large; taxpayers are unwilling to fund it; public spending will have to give.
But their message is too crude for their graphics. We now understand better than we have for 50 years what the "mixed economy" really is: it is a mixture of centralised and decentralised decision-making processes with all the fundamental parameters of markets relying on explicit or implicit social choices. The financial sector has effectively been socialised in "capitalism" ever since the lender of last resort interventions of central banks became the norm (1825); technology has been set by the social choices of the strength of patent protection; basic R&D occurs mostly in non-market institutions; entertainment economics has been underpinned by access to scarce broadcast media, content-related law, and copyright; land-use and house prices have been determined by planning politics; agriculture has been socialised ... The list goes on.
The truth of the mixed economy is not that it is a little bit pure capitalism and a little bit pure socialism. It is that the significant, parameter-setting choices are all made socially and varying usage is made of decentralised decision procedures thereafter.
The Association of Train Operating Companies tells us that there is a case for re-opening 40 stations and 14 lines that were closed after the Beeching report of 1967. A moment for environmentally concerned rail-lovers to rejoice, surely? After all, rail is, according to David MacKay's numbers, by far the most efficient form of fast land transport:
Actually, he has a full electric train as being about as energy efficient as walking. Only cycling beats the energy efficiency---at about a tenth of the speed.
"Today" featured an item today about whether we should know the salaries of top BBC radio presenters (as if queued by Anthony's reply to my post about their lazy journalism yesterday). The National Audit Office had asked for the information, but had not been able to sign the confidentiality agreement that the BBC needed to have in order to protect its contract with employees. That sounds like a plausible excuse --- if I were embarrassed by the amount I had been able to negotiate for myself, and even more if I thought that it might reduce my credibility in my job, I would certainly negotiate a clause in my contract making the pay confidential.
The real question --- and one which Humphreys avoided in his faux-probing of Jeremy Peat, Trustee of the BBC --- is whether the BBC should sign such contracts. Morning radio shows are today's equivalent of a church service---they prepare millions of minds for the day ahead; they are the daily cult that makes up our culture. It is crucial that the priests of the cult be exemplary. This was the great discovery of the 10th century West European movement of monastic reform: you can only claim authority if you are seen to be beyond reproach. In the 10th century, this meant re-establishing the chastity of the monks (... yes ... they had given it up; poverty had to be re-established later as a sign of authority---the fabulous wealth of the monasteries was not at that time anticipated).But if the Church was going to legitimate the rule of monarchs as representatives of Christ on earth, they had better come across as credible authorities on the subject.
I don't want chaste or poor priest/presenters on my morning radio. But what the monastic reformers got right is that whatever the standard of legitimacy it is that you champion, those in ritualistic charge of the system must adhere to it. Journalism lives under the standard of transparency and accountability, and it cannot afford to itself be opaque. It will lose its ability to probe if it is.
There was a fascinating demonstration of this in the morning interview: Edward Leigh, the MP who is chair of the select committe that was looking into BBC Radio's performance, turned the tables on Humphreys as I have nver heard before. Listen to the clip: at minute 1:48, after the usual priest-to-victim grilling, Leigh says: "the taxpayer pays a polltax for the BBC, and has a right to know. How much do you earn, John?" Humphreys is stumped. He doesn't want to break rank, he stumbles, he blames the men in suits. The high sacrificer has turned sacrificial victim. At minute 1:48, the logic of accountability---one that MPs have been thinking a bit about these days---is confronted to the logic of the Corporation's interest. Not only is accountability the clear winner, John Humphreys clearly knows it. When he asks for a justification from his trustee, Jeremy Peat answers that "the BBC is not like any other public body. It is established by Royal Charter."
Well ... the aura of monarchy may not extend so far these days as to keep the BBC closed. What I really look forward to is not so much knowing the salaries --- though I expect that will reduce the bill to taxpayers, not increase it --- I look forward to having transparency in the news-making, and in particular to reducing the power of public relations in our public realm.
Jane O'Grady's very interesting piece on the mind/body problem has stirred quite a controversy. AlDaily picked it up, which always brings a good readership. This brought it to the attention of the American libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez who writes that he couldn't be bothered to write an answer to the actual article, and therefore decided to write a general objection to people who try to make important questions and debates accessible.This brought a Slashdot posting where most of the comments objected to Sanchez's extraordinary show of elitism.
I tried to comment on Sanchez's blog, but he did not post my comment. So here it is, although it should have belonged to the thread on this article:
"Julian, You've obviously done a bit of philosophy yourself, and yet you claim in this piece to talk for those who haven't and - slightly condescendingly - on how hard it must be for them to understand...
The piece is littered with links to source -- and not just to Wikipedia articles, as your lazy link does. If someone's interest is piqued, there is much to guide an investigation better than a Google search.
I would consider this article a publishing success if just one person went into it thinking the naturalistic program is unproblematic and was prompted to click through to the Wittgenstein or Kripke sources to discover the surprising difficulties it contains.
Education comes out of a particular and dynamic relationship to knowledge and you seem to be advocating that only the end-state of balance should be communicated on important and difficult topics. I must say I find your elitism troubling for a libertarian.
When Michale Buerk went onto the Today program today to announce this evening's Moral Maze about the crisis of trust and authority, he signed off with a little insider joke: "It's not just MP's, it's judges, churches, doctors ... who is left that people can trust? Just journalists and broadcasters..." There was a satisfied chortle from Humphreys. Not the laugh of the joshing that Today encourages when it is Melvyn Bragg making a joke about Humphreys' age. No. It was the embarrassed chortle of someone who is trying to hide the satisfaction of believing this was true but should not be said too loud. "We know "Today" is a rock of truth and trustworthiness" whispered the chortle.
And yet, just a few minutes before, we had had someone from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers talking about combined heat and power - the practice of taking waste heat from power stations to heat houses and supply hot water. Innocent enough, it seems. And trustworthy. Yet there was no probing questioning. A small amount of research would have revealed David MacKay's fascinating argument for heat pumps and against combined heat an power.
So was this piece just lazy journalism? No doubt a Public Relations company approached Today with a ready-made story that didn't seem as if it would cause too much of a fuss and filled the difficult slot of 0650-0653 when politicians have gone to ground. But do we want to be paying a license fee to maintain a Public Relations channel open for whatever lobby group happens to strike the audience equivalent of a small win on the national lottery? Who was behind the story? Where were the engineering firms that supply combined heat and power plant? And how many stories, like this one, are lazy and questionable plugs?
The wind of mis-trust is blowing hard, and the national treasures on the BBC should not confidently chortle as they think of themselves as the rocks in the system while all other sources of confidence fall away.
We will soon, I hope, be asking the BBC to tell us how stories have come to them. We will want to know whether we would believe a story less if we understood its provenance. And we will be shocked to discover how much news that is presented as trustworthy becomes questionable when examined closely. And, in so far as we become more responsible for our own judgements, that will be a good thing.
Tom Loosemore at the 4IP/Polis, #recasting event last night talked about the deep rules of the internet (those summarised beautifully by Zittrain - distributed, minimalist, messy, collaborative, adaptable ...) and argued that these deep rules give the net certain characteristics---good samaritanism, openness, etc. And he didn't like it when I called him a technological determinist.
I think this is about a disagreement with what we mean by technological determinism. I meant that you can't infer much---and certainly not much that's obvious---about the wide social impacts of any process from an examination of the internal organisation of that process. My example was this - imagine a meeting 3 million years ago in the Rift valley where humans get together around a carcass to discuss language and the revolution it will bring. Someone plausibly steps up and says: "this language stuff is great: it's decentralised, open, participative, messy, collaborative, adaptible... and we will become all those things because of its influence". Well ... plausible, but language turns out to be able to run totalitarianism as easily as it runs democracy. Our recent piece on Facebook in Iran suggests that the regime there may be intelligently opening itself for highly non-democratic ends. Cuba's recent liberalisation of email amongst university students could be a similarly totalitarian use of the web. Evgeny Morozov has been chronicling - some of it for us here at oD - the totalitarian uses of the web.
I think Tom thought I meant by technological determinist that "the technology is so powerful it will sweep all before it, so we don't have to worry about the politics." I agree Tom's talk was not that -- it was indeed highly Zittrainian in asking for the preservation through political processes of the spirit of the web. I agree we should bring the anti-trust authorities to bear on search monopoly at Google.
I meant it in a much more methodological sense -- attempts to understand our history as we are living it cannot think only - or mainly - about technology as a deep cause; and attempts to be a part of that history need to think about meanings, interests, histories that are only peripherally about technology.
Technological determinists will otherwise end up influencing only - well - the history of technology.
John Humphrys on Radio4's Today program interviewed Patrizio Nissirio (from Italian news agency Ansa) and Sebastian Berger (from German newspaper Rheinischer Merkur) to ask if the MPs' scandal had damaged the reputation of the "mother of parliaments". The plea in his voice was to say: "tell us that we're bad, but still much better than you lot", which, of course, is a way of proving how good the system is. Rather like the fringe anabaptists who had to commit terrible sins to prove that they knew they had been saved. One felt the palpable relief in the studio when Berger, the German journalist, said the abuses were "peanuts". Point proven.
But this fails to understand the nature of the MPs expenses scandal, which, in the UK context, really is a crime against legitmacy. Political crimes --- crimes against legitimacy --- are always relative to what provides the legitimacy of a political order. The esteem in which the UK parliament is held in Europe is because it is seen as being founded on honor, trust, a devotion to public service and gentlemanly behaviour.
To design a political system on that basis is unthinkable in France, Germany or Italy which take much more seriously David Hume's dictum that: " in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest. By this interest we must govern him, and, by means of it, make him, notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition, co-operate to public good."
Hume is not saying that everyone actually is governed by private interest in public life, but that the system of checks on those who have power should take a very pessimistic view of what power does to people---as Helena Kennedy asked during the Convention on Modern Liberty, "what is it in the water at the Home Office?". Indeed, the suggestion is that only by being properly pessimistic about the way power can be abused can we hope to create the sort of public sphere that is not dominated by private interest.
But the "mother of parliaments" was meant to be different. It was supposed to be able to perform that quasi-divine trick of being "self-regulated". The gentlemanly magic of honor was meant to be a better way than the Humean---a sort of ideal to which others might aspire and which Britain had uniquely "mothered".
This is the reason that hypocrisy is a political crime in Britain---more than anywhere else, the legitimacy of the political system is prefaced on trust, and hypocrisy is the demonstration that it is missing. So what is a crime against legitimacy in Britain need not be one in Germany or Italy. And this is also why Flippergate is a real crisis: it shows that the basis of legitmacy no longer holds. This is what turns it into a system crisis, not the BBC temptation to see just a series of corruptions so small that they can comfort us that they prove we have the best system.
This week's editor
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50