Waylaid Dialectic

April 18, 2017

Unequal Democracy (a review)

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:06 am

Unequal Democracy by Larry Bartels

My interpretation of his arguments is as follows: economic inequality in the United States has increased a lot in recent decades and the economic lot of the typical citizen has not improved much. Although Americans are not great at estimating the extent of inequality, most do not want high levels of it, and many think the issue has become worse.

There’s a clear albeit partial cure to the problem of economic inequality: inequality has risen less, or fallen, under Democrat presidents than under Republicans.

This begs the question: if Americans aren’t that keen on inequality, why aren’t they voting for the Democrats a lot more. Bartells argues that this is not because poorer Americans are becoming more conservative, but rather that the swing voters who decide elections often base their votes on economic performance (growth) in the year prior to the election. This happens even though presidents can take little justified claim for overall economic performance. Republicans have happened to be lucky, or cunning in their choice of governors of the federal reserve, because in many elections they have benefited from good economic performance in the year prior to elections when they’re holding power.

Bartels dismisses arguments along the lines of the poor are becoming more socially conservative, although I do not think he is wholly convincing in doing so. No can I totally buy the economic performance in election year argument. I was left wondering about issues of differential turnout amongst different economic groups. I was also left wondering about the importance of collective entities (unions and churches in particular) in shaping peoples views and motivating them to vote, and feeling this area needs more research.

However, there is more and it is fascinating: using the estate tax Bartels shows that most voters are not good utilitarians or even just that good at voting in their own interest on some policies that would help reduce inequality. On the other hand in areas like the minimum wage voters’ views are more progressive. Something akin to a fairness preference appears to shape voters’ views in these areas a lot more than views about optimal outcomes (either for themselves or more broadly for society).

Economic inequality comes coupled with political inequality too. Controlling for party, politicians’ votes in congress or the senate are much more likely to accord with the preferences of their wealthier constituents than their poorer constituents. I’m still wondering whether controlling for party is appropriate in the aggregate regressions but there’s more. Disaggregating by party, the absence of influence of the poor is most true for Republicans but it is also somewhat true for the Democrats.

Left-wing commentators have taken this to be a very bad thing. I can see why. However, it is possible that — if inequality tends to fall under Democrats, and if voters’ economic preferences are not wholly rational — in some areas the Democrats may be ignoring the views of poorer voters for their own good. I need to think about this more.

Also, worth noting is that Democrats’ votes in Congress or the Senate do tend to accord with the views of the second tercile of voters. In responding to Bartels’ critique of What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank argues that the bottom tercile of the income distribution may not be the ‘working class’. They may for example, be retirees, or young (see page 4 of Franks’ response). So it seems possible that if the Democrats are ignoring the views of a certain group it may not be simply the working poor. Or it might be, I need to think more about it and consider Bartels’ data more.

Even with this caveat, there seem some clear takeaways: the Democrats are somewhat better on economic inequality, most voters don’t like economic inequality, most voters’ preferences about economic policy seem more shaped by traits like the fairness preference than reasoned utilitarian calculus. The left should think about this when they think about the economic policies they campaign loudly on.

April 13, 2017

Good news for (most) of Australia’s aid NGOs

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:36 am

We’ve updated the Aid Tracker. It now has information on NGO donations until the end of the 2014/15 financial year. (This is the most recent year for which there are data. You can find our updated charts at the bottom of this page on the Aid Tracker).[1] There’s good news for Australia’s aid NGOs–or most of them at least. Read more on the Devpolicy blog here.

April 12, 2017

Want to sell aid to the Australian public? Look to values, not national interests

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:16 am

If recent speeches are anything to go by, politicians believe the best way to sell aid to Australians is to convince them it aids Australia too. It’s an understandable belief, but is it actually, empirically, correct? Read more here.

PNG Election Results Database

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:15 am

I recently launched the Papua New Guinea Election Results Database in Port Moresby. The database contains all available election results for all general elections held in Papua New Guinea since 1972. The database is our attempt to preserve Papua New Guinea’s electoral record and to share it with researchers, as well as people from Papua New Guinea who want to know more about the electoral history of their constituency, region, or country. Read more about it here.

February 13, 2017

The gender woes of Australian NGOs

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:40 pm

Australian aid NGOs have a male leadership problem. The problem isn’t that there are men running NGOs–there’s nothing wrong with this. The problem is that a disproportionately high number of Australian NGOs have men at the helm. And, worse, my analysis suggests this isn’t because of a shortage of capable women.

Read more on the Devpolicy blog here.

December 7, 2016

Charter Schools

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:08 pm

I’ve always wondered whether charter schools worked, but have also been suspicious of the claims from people on either side of the debate. This website is a huge help. Short answer, of course, ‘it depends’.

December 2, 2016

Newcomb’s problem

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:35 pm

The Guardian and John Quiggin offer takes on Newcomb’s problem.

I couldn’t resist.

1. If the problem’s purely financial to you, then you should take box B only (setting aside the fact that windfall gains often don’t end up being gains at all). Surely the diminishing marginal utility of the prize money is such that you’d hardly notice the extra $1000 you could have won?

2. If the problem’s really the issue of free will, then you should build some sort of device that generates a decision for you on the basis of the actions of one of those sub-atomic particles which behaves, to the best of our knowledge, purely randomly. You should do this because, if you beat  the immortal predictor, you can relish in the fact that you quite probably don’t live in a deterministic universe. On the other hand, if you lose you can tell yourself that she just got lucky (50% chance), and that it’s still possible the universe isn’t deterministic.

November 22, 2016

Trade doesn’t kill people; change does

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:27 am

An interesting NBER working paper by Justin Pierce and Peter Schott.

The abstract:

We investigate the impact of a large economic shock on mortality. We find that counties more exposed to a plausibly exogenous trade liberalization exhibit higher rates of suicide and related causes of death, concentrated among whites, especially white males. These trends are consistent with our finding that more-exposed counties experience relative declines in manufacturing employment, a sector in which whites and males are disproportionately employed. We also examine other causes of death that might be related to labor market disruption and find both positive and negative relationships. More-exposed counties, for example, exhibit lower rates of fatal heart attacks.

The standard defence of trade runs something along the lines of: sure there will be losers from trade liberalisation but there will also be winners and the winners can compensate the losers.

The first problem with this is simple political economy: often the winners don’t want to compensate the losers. And the winners (they won after all) usually have more political power.

The second problem is that the sort of compensation that is most easily enacted, unemployment benefits, while essential, probably does not compensate that well for losing the psychological benefits of work.

The third problem is that while people might re-skill and then move elsewhere to find work, this is actually a whole heap harder to do for most people than you would think.

This doesn’t mean we should not trade internationally. But if you are going to be honest in your assessments of the pros and cons of international trade agreements and the change they bring, you need to take into account the fact that, often, change in the form of losing your job is a much more painful and uncertain process than it’s assumed to be in economic models.

[update: Tim Duy]

November 10, 2016

Trumping the polls

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:47 pm

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the US election results. What will happen now? Trump frightens me. I didn’t love Clinton’s liberal interventionist approach to foreign policy. But if Trump is as impulsive as he appears to be, and if he truly holds the beliefs he professes to hold (and also isn’t a quick learner), we will soon be living in a much more dangerous planet.

Alienating Muslims won’t help win the war on terror (you too France). Acting irrationally around China brings mushroom clouds closer. Denying climate change ruins future generations’ lives.

Beyond the big stuff, as someone who uses polling data, I’m pondering how the polls and their various aggregators got it more or less wrong (more or less because they simply predicted the chances of a Trump victory were low, which is not the same as saying he wouldn’t win).

And so for future reference: Nate Silver one, two, three; Natalie Johnson, John Sides.

[Update: Gelman, Gelman, Gelman]

First, national polls weren’t that wrong: they probably overestimated Clinton by a couple of percentage points (on average). And their prediction that she would win the popular vote will likely be borne out.

Second, even state level polls weren’t, on average insanely wrong: they were out by (guestimate) 3-5%. When you look at the binary: Clinton predicted to win, but she loses, that’s very wrong. When you look at a continuous variable – predicted vote share vs actual it’s wrong, crucially wrong if this is your business, but not that wrong.

Still wrong needs explaining.

I don’t think it was social desirability bias (people being ashamed to admit they were going to vote for Trump). One of the posts above links to attempts to test for this, which appeared to show it wasn’t an issue. And Trump voters struck me as loud and proud, and unafraid to admit it to pollsters (and remember in many instances you’re just admitting it to a computer). But perhaps those Hispanics or women who voted for Trump were more reluctant to admit it (even to themselves?).

I do think it could be that Trump voters were simply more likely–or the portion of them who were frustrated and alienated–to hang up on pollsters.

I also think the final FBI headlines in the paper (all you needed was the reminder of why you weren’t so hot on her; so the subsequent exoneration may not have done much) may have, rather than shifting Clinton voters to Trump, simply depressed turnout amongst tepid Clinton supporters.

Indeed, one thing that complicates polling is that you have to not only figure out who people support, but also which people actually turn out and vote. I want to learn if the latter was more wrong than the former. Though I’m not sure how you do this.

On the turnout points above — one of the links above links to something about exit polls getting it wrong too. If this is the case it can’t have been turnout and is more likely social desirability bias or aversion to being polled.

These are just guesses: I’m interested to see how they will be borne out by subsequent analysis.

A final thought: at least some of what is to come (particularly midterm elections) will depend on how many people voted for Trump because they liked him (remember his unfavourably ratings were low) and how many voted for him as a kind of protest vote. The second category of voter may peel away from him quite quickly. Likewise, white working class voters might peel away quick enough when his economic policies (if he follows through on them) start hurting them. Although things might also just get ugly as he then does other stuff to keep them in his camp.


October 12, 2016

Aid Evaluations

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:26 am

It is aid’s lot to be a strange amalgam of certainty and doubt. Certainty in the claims splashed across the websites of aid donors, in the brochures of NGOs, and in the speeches of politicians. Doubt in the minds of actual aid workers. It’s not that aid doesn’t work (sometimes it does, remarkably well), it’s that too often, for any individual aid activity, too little will be known about how well it worked and why. With absolute disasters and spectacular successes the answers are clear enough. But a lot of aid work lies between these extremes. And not knowing means not learning, and not improving.

There’s an obvious solution to all this: evaluation. Read the rest of this post here at the Devpolicy Blog.

September 2, 2016


Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 2:23 pm

I was in a seminar today when I had a moment of illumination.

One of the speakers delivered one of those stock standard new public management catchphrases “value for money”.

As I half listened I realised my views about aid are the complete opposite. I am a ‘money for value’ man. Don’t waste money obviously. But I think that if you want aid that works you have to spend money on tedious things. Enough staff. Expensive evaluations. Good research on context. You have to spend money if you want to give money away (well).

September 1, 2016

Does government funding silence Australian NGOs?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:24 am

Should NGOs take money from the government? It’s one of those long-debated questions of development. There’s an obvious argument in favour: the money can be put to good use. And yet the counter argument is clear enough too: take money from the state and you give it leverage over you. If you do or say things it doesn’t like, it can cut your funding. At times you may directly be told what you can do or say. In other instances your own preemptive second-guessing may have the same effect. Or at least that’s the theory. But what about in practice?

The data we gathered as part of the NGO internet use content analysis we wrote about in our last blog offers us a test of this theory in the Australian case. [Read the rest of this post on the Devpolicy blog here.]

August 25, 2016

What do Australian NGOs use the internet for?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:24 am

Since aid NGOs first set up basic webpages in the late 1990s, the internet has become increasingly important for them as they project their brands and messages to the world. Given this, it’s surprising how little research there is on how NGOs make use of the internet. Our recent Devpolicy discussion paper is an attempt to fill this gap. The paper reports on our content analysis of the websites and social media feeds of Australian aid and development NGOs. We undertook our analysis to learn the extent to which aid NGOs used their web presence for the following ends: soliciting donations, encouraging people to take action, and raising awareness of development issues. [Read the rest of this post here at Devpolicy.]

A new point seven

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:22 am

Once, in happier times, 0.7% was the cornerstone of aid advocacy. It was the target that aid’s supporters extolled their politicians to meet. Zero point seven per cent of gross national income (GNI) given as official development assistance (ODA). Australia never got there, but it promised to come close, with a bipartisan commitment to giving 0.5% of GNI as ODA.

That was then though, and now, in the age of the aid cut, 0.5% is gone and 0.7% is a pipe dream. It shouldn’t be. As the United Kingdom has shown, aid is such a small slice of government spending that the point seven target could be met easily, even in a time of deficits. For the time being though, it’s out of the question. There’s no public enthusiasm. Other than the Greens, there’s no political enthusiasm. And, while there is excellent work being done by the Campaign for Australian Aid, for now it is defensive work, pushing against further aid cuts, rather than pushing for major increases.

As I sat at the ‘Creating a healthy domestic environment for aid’ workshop that the Development Policy Centre held earlier this year (the workshop report is here [pdf]) I mused about what would be required to change aid’s fortunes in Australia. My answer, of course, was “lots of things” (and as the workshop report shows, important work is already being done). But as my mind bounced back and forth between different bright ideas, one constraint kept coming back: money. Campaigning takes lots of it. Advocacy isn’t cheap either. Money. Private sector lobbyists have oodles of the stuff.

And so, in this aid-unfriendly age, I want to offer a new point seven target for Australian aid supporters. This being that Australian aid NGOs should give 0.7% of the revenue they receive from private donations to fund a collective effort to persuade the Australian public and their elected representatives that Australia should give more, and better, ODA.

[Read the rest of this blog here at Devpolicy] (you’ll find my new 0.7 target would bring a remarkable amount of money for campaigners).

August 1, 2016

The best laid plans of NZ aid budgets

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 5:06 pm

Recently Jo and I blogged about issues with aid spending in New Zealand. We were pleasantly replied when MFAT responded with a very good blog post. Our response is now up on the Devpolicy Blog.


July 21, 2016


Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:29 am

From a new paper in Perspectives on Politics. I’ve highlighted the important stuff in bold. It beggars belief that this could be possible in an ostensible democratic nation:

In the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, many American private-sector employers now have the legal right to recruit their workers into politics and to fire or discipline employees who refuse to participate. How many firms and workers are engaged in this kind of political recruitment and why? And how have the opportunities for the political recruitment of workers by their employers changed over time? Drawing on national surveys of top corporate managers and workers, as well as a review of the legal literature, I provide initial answers to these questions and illustrate the implications of employer political recruitment for a range of substantive and normative issues in American politics. My findings invite further research and discussion about this feature of the American workplace and its effects on politics and policy.


June 20, 2016

A problem with Effective Altruism

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:08 am

If you’ve ever thought carefully about international development you will be tormented by shoulds. Should the Australian government really give aid rather than focus on domestic poverty? Should I donate more money personally? And if so, what sort of NGO should I give to?

The good news is that William MacAskill is here to help. MacAskill is an associate professor in philosophy at the University of Oxford, and in Doing Good Better he wants to teach you to be an Effective Altruist.

Read the rest here at the Devpolicy blog.

June 6, 2016


Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:41 pm

This strikes me as a mind boggling development success. I’m scratching my head wondering why it’s not something more loudly broadcast.

A handy two para summary (as part of a more generally excellent blog post by Rachel Glennerster):

In the early 2000s a debate raged about whether to charge for ITNs. Advocates of free distribution said small costs could reduce access by the poor. Those arguing for charging cited anecdotes of bednets being used as wedding veils or fishing nets but neither side had much evidence. The RCTs on price and use were quickly taken up by advocates of free mass distribution and the opposition faded.

Coverage of ITNs in sub-Saharan Africa (the region with the highest burden of malaria) has improved dramatically with the vast majority of coverage accounted for by free mass distribution (43 out of 47 countries had mass free programs). As the great maps from Giving What We Can illustrate, malaria cases have fallen dramatically. A recent article in Nature estimates that 2/3 to 3/4 of the decline in malaria cases between 2000 and 2015 can be attributed to increased net coverage: 450 million cases of malaria and 4 million deaths averted from ITN distribution. That’s anything but small.

June 2, 2016

The astounding increase in New Zealand aid, and other woes

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:11 am

When is a 12 per cent increase not, actually, a 12 per cent increase? When it is to the New Zealand aid budget, sadly. In Australia there would be scenes of jubilation within the aid community if the aid budget went up by 12 percent. In New Zealand things aren’t that simple. This chart shows why.

Read the rest on the Devpolicy Blog.

Are New Zealanders nicer when it comes to aid?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:10 am

Just how unique are Australians’ attitudes to aid? We know Australians approve of government aid, yet when push came to deficit shove most preferred aid cuts over alternatives, although their enthusiasm for further cuts has mellowed somewhat. We also know most Australians want their government aid given for altruistic ends.

We have good data on all of this, but what we haven’t had is a sense of how unique Australians are in their views — until now. We’ve just started analysing the responses to questions we placed in a New Zealand public opinion survey (n=1124) that allows us some comparisons.

Read the rest on the Devpolicy Blog.

April 30, 2016

Puzzles of modernity

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 3:23 pm

12:25pm: I sit at my desk with my beaten up Samsung Laptop. Using Stata I run an ordered logistic regression on my computer. n = just over 1000. About 5 independent variables. I wait 4 seconds. I get results. Results that, back in the days of calculators and notepads, I would have spent weeks or months to calculate, if I could calculate them at all.

12:30pm: I decide to open a PDF in Adobe Reader. Back in the days before PDFs it might have taken me 10 seconds to find its paper equivalent in my office drawer. 10 seconds after double clicking on the file I’m still waiting for it to fully open.


March 3, 2016

Wood’s paradox

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 6:54 am

I spent my youth surfing. I now wish I had devoted more of it to learning economics.

However, had I devoted more of my youth to economics I would now wish I’d just gone surfing.

March 1, 2016

Development neologisms: saccharin ‎stats

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:13 am

Saccharin stats: sweet looking numbers often found in the PR of multilaterals and NGOs. Numbers which don’t bear up to much scrutiny.

Example: “Thanks to our work 300 million people have been treated.” “With your help we have sent over 20,000 children to school in Somewhere province.”

Musing: A speciality of the aid world, numbers either based on outputs rather than outcomes (vials of treatment procured, rather than actual people cured). And which conveniently ignore the counter-factual (were treatment rates going up before organisation X arrived). Numbers which also don’t ask too many questions about the quality of the data they came from (very nice the government of Distant-land said they spent your money on treatment, but did they? Really?).

To be fair to aid, sweet is what Joe Public and Jim Politician want, initially at least (outside the borders of the World of Aid, people like simple tales), and getting real data costs a lot. The risk is, I think, people stop believing eventually. One of the main problems of Saccharin the sweetener is that too much leaves a bitter after-taste.

February 22, 2016

Numbers, norms or Englishmen: what changes Australians’ opinions about aid?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:32 am

When the Australian government cut aid last year, Australians didn’t exactly race to the barricades. In fact, many actually seemed quite happy. When we commissioned a survey question about the 2015–16 aid cuts, the majority of respondents supported them.

Since then, we’ve started studying what, if anything, might change Australians’ views about aid. There’s an obvious practical reason for this: helping campaigners. Yet the work is intellectually interesting too–a chance to learn more about what shapes humans’ (intermittent) impulse to aid distant strangers. [Read the rest here on the Devpolicy Blog]

February 16, 2016

Calorie labelling

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:07 am

Intriguing. Research suggesting calorie labelling helps with weight reduction, albeit mostly on overweight people (i.e. the people you want it to work on). As someone who never reads the labels, I would have been sceptical. Great to know I’m (quite probably) wrong.

February 3, 2016

A link to save…

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:50 am

the political methologist blog on high quality graphics

Making High-Resolution Graphics for Academic Publishing

Solving other people’s problems

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:31 am

There are a number of problems with this Medium hit. (“The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems”)

1. The magnitude of the issue — sure it’s like, totally, unhip to naively want to help people. But how significant are the problems it causes? In the scheme of things (Syria, climate change, Ted Cruz…)? Really?

2. The counter factual — people caring about other people in dopey ways may be cringe-worthy, and ineffectual. But it still comes from one of the better, and fragile, sides of human nature (contrast, the couldn’t give a shit and hate that most people express towards Syrian refugees). I’m no ethicist but in the scheme of things, being a dope seems less bad than being bad or simply not caring.

3. The change process — if tut tutting on the internet achieves anything I suspect it’s most likely to stop people caring, than making them more practical.

4. Selecting on the dependent variable — Play Pump is a disaster, but it’s not the only case of people naively going to a developing country thinking they had the solution. I once went to a talk by a New Zealand midwife who’d gone to Vietnam and advised midwives there on the correct procedure for complicated births (my simplification), and saved many, many lives as a result. Quite probably Play Pump is a more representative case, but I wouldn’t draw too many conclusions from one side of the ledger alone.

5. Ignoring the evidence — Tom’s shoes. Sounds awful on the surface. But the best available evidence does not suggest the idea has had particularly bad impacts.

6. Orders of magnitude — The blog castigates people for wanting to solve problems overseas rather than in the United States (a proxy for the developed source country in general). But what’s wrong with this? The (cruelly low) US poverty line is somewhere in the vicinity of $12-16 PPP per day. Many (in the poorest countries, most) people in the developing world live off less than $2.50 PPP per day (these figures are consumption, not income so include subsistence income). The need is greater elsewhere. And this, unless you think, the moral worth of non-American lives is less than that of Americans, is pretty good reason to try and help where the need is greatest. It is true that you may be more effective helping at home, although my guess is that if you’re a white middle class kid in the US the problems of the ghetto are going to be every bit as foreign and complex for you as the problems of Mali. This shouldn’t stop you from doing important things in the US (or New Zealand, or Australia), especially casting your vote for the right political party. But it does mean that there’s no automatic case for prioritising helping at home over helping abroad. (To be fair this point is recognised in the piece, but to my read it’s recognised then ignored.)

The blog does make some good points. In particular:

“But don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity.

Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous. Go because you want to do something difficult.

Don’t go because you want to talk. Go because you want to listen.”

Here I agree, both with the specifics and the important point about complexity. Development is complex. But that is true on the donor side too. Few people participate with perfect motives. But is hip scold-blogging going to solve much?



January 4, 2016

NGO ads

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:41 pm

A common pastime in the more self-righteous parts of the development chattersphere is tut-tutting about the way poor people are portrayed in NGO ads. It’s nice to feel holier than someone else. But, if you want to help, it is better to think about why things are the way they are, and what the alternatives are. From the New Yorker:

[W]hen we become swept up in powerful narrative, our reason often falls by the wayside. Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University and the director of its Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, studies the power of story in our daily interactions with friends, strangers, books, television, and other media. Repeatedly, he has found that nothing makes us receptive, emotionally and behaviorally, quite like narrative flow.

In one study, Zak and his colleagues asked people to watch a video in which a father talks about his child. “Ben’s dying,” the father tells the camera as it pans to a carefree two-year-old boy in the background. He goes on to say that Ben has a brain tumor that, in a matter of months, will end his life. The father says that he has resolved to stay strong, for the sake of his family, as painful as the coming weeks will be. The camera fades to black. Watching the film prompted about half of the viewers donate money to a cancer charity.

Zak didn’t just ask people to watch “Ben’s Story,” as he calls it. He had them watch it together, while his team monitored their neural activity, specifically the levels of certain hormones released from the brain into the blood. For the most part, the people who watched the video released oxytocin, a hormone that has been associated with empathy, bonding, and sensitivity to social cues. Those who released the hormone also reliably donated to charity, even though there was no pressure to do so.

Next, Zak switched the story around. Now Ben and his dad were at the zoo. Ben was bald. His dad called him “Miracle Boy.” But there was no real story arc, mention of cancer, or discussion of death. The people who watched Ben now drifted away from the story. Their arousal signs fell. They donated little or no money. They also felt less happy and empathetic than those who had seen the original story.

There’s no evidence NGOs are able to change this aspect of human nature. So the question is: do you really think the world would be a better place if they didn’t use the most effective advertising available?

January 1, 2016

Utopia? Bust?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:32 am

Utopia or Bust is eloquent. I share Benjamin Kunkel’s despair with the world we live in. There has been some social improvement in some places, and a lot of technological progress. But we ought to be able to do much better than we do. We ought to live in a fairer world that parcels out the fruits of our technologies in ways that raises most people’s well-being to levels a lot higher than they are today. We ought to end discrimination. The trouble with Utopia or Bust is it provides no cause to believe we can. Instead there are Marxist literary critics (yawn), the contradictions of David Harvey, the confusions of Slavoj Žižek, and so on.

Meanwhile, history and theory give us very good cause to believe there are no utopias to be had. Look at those dreamed up to date:

(Setting aside racist lunacy that is clearly evil) the main right wing utopian doctrine is libertarianism, where the state is a ‘night watchman’ (or in some variants—which could only seem plausible after smoking something—non-existent, replaced by competing security firms). The state provides for private property rights, protects against invasion and does nothing else. Taxes are low, bludgers are gone, economic growth is spectacular. What’s not to like? A lot. There is no evidence that the main driver of economic growth is incentives born of low taxes. In reality much of the technological change that drives growth has come from government investment. And the individual genius that brings new ideas comes from being well and well-educated. Nothing suggests a libertarian utopia will maximise these attributes, except for a fortunate few. Being well and well-educated have non-instrumental worth too: they are part of the good life. And history has shown that some pubic provision is needed to extend such welfare to most people in a society. Then there’s the issue of the environment. How does a libertarian government take care of common pool resources? On the basis of my limited exposure, most libertarians simply deny the issues exist, although I’ve also heard of the idea of issuing private property rights for every known common pool resource, including the air we breathe. Can you imagine the bureaucracy? Ah freedom! The final hurdle for libertarianism is that could never be democratic—have a look at election results, libertarian parties never perform well, presumably because most voters sensibly like at least some of what their governments do. So if libertarianism were ever to come about it would be by imposition. Imposed freedom. Moving along…

Libertarianism’s distant relative (not on speaking terms) on the left is anarchism. Which, strictly speaking, means the absence of the state, and the absence of private property rights. Anarchist collective action is based around cooperation, anarchist production around non-excusive title to resources. (I say strictly speaking because quite often anarchism is defined by what it is against—i.e. ‘the state, when the state is unjust’ rather than what it’s for. Seeing as this blog is about alternatives, I will ignore such antagonistic definitions.) The big problem with anarchism (as defined) is that we aren’t a cooperative enough species to be able to engage in large scale collective action without some coercion and rules—in other words a state. One alternative would be a world of villages and bands. A world free of states! But it also wouldn’t be a utopia. It would, plus some legacy technologies from the bygone age of states, be most of human history. It would be bereft of the specialisation that trade allows. It wouldn’t be free of predation between groups. It’s also likely there would be coercion within groups too. We aren’t that nice a creature. Perhaps aware of all this, many anarchists spend more time decrying the evils of the state than they do talking about how their alternative would work. They’re right that many states are abysmal and even the best are far from perfect. But far from perfect is a lot better than a return to life in villages or hunter-gatherer bands.

Communism barely needs a mention any more. Nevertheless (with respect to how it actually existed, rather than Marx’s effectively anarchist end-stage): a state which is almost entirely the government brings with it a big risk of the over-concentration of power (Stalin, Mao, etc.) Perhaps this could be offset by coupling communism with robust democratic institutions. But communism usually has very strong internal opponents meaning it’s not clear that this could actually, practically, happen, prior to these opponents being crushed. And history suggests once states acquire a taste for crushing, it takes a long time for them to lose it. Radially remaking a society would also require more than one electoral term, so I would imagine that any genuinely communist government would be very tempted to do away with elections. Even if communism could deal with issues of power, there remains the problem of the inefficiencies of a state-planned economy. States aren’t able to aggregate information as adroitly as markets do. One option would be to couple communism (a very muscular state, collectively owned means of productions) with markets. I concede I don’t know how well this worked out for Tito (although I’m guessing not that well on the basis of the fact his vision, not to mention Yugoslavia, no longer exists), but on the basis of the present I think the most likely outcome of a muscular state and markets, would be accompanying concentrations of wealth—and, ultimately the end of popular control of the means of production. Something that looks a lot like today’s China, which is better than Mao’s China, but hardly a workers’ paradise.

This ought to be the point where I start clucking happily about social democracy as the best option we’ve found. But that’s hard to do too. Be it 1970s style muscular social democracy, or today’s third way, social democracy has never been able to muster quite enough tax revenue to provide social services that are as good as they could be, and its social safety net is always threadbare. It works quite well for the voting middle class, but not nearly as well for those on the periphery. It is also not that democratic. Economic inequality brings political inequality. And human failings to do with the way we see ‘others’ often see voters distracted by non-issues (from the perspective of their own welfare) such as refugees, rather than real issues (inequality, climate change). There are things we don’t talk about but should (raising taxes to provide for good health care into the future). There are things we talk far too much about but needn’t (should gays be allowed to get married; of course they should; it astounds me that opposition to this basic right exists). The only real defence of social democracy that it is (to paraphrase Paul Krugman, paraphrasing Churchill) the least worst system we’ve come up with.

For now, least-worst is a tolerable place. As Steven Radelet, Charles Kenny, and Steven Pinker show in recent books, in part because of the gifts technology has brought, in part because of genuine social change associated with the near miraculous, but frighteningly fragile, expansion of humans’ spheres of concern, and in part because of our ability to muddle through, life for most of the people on our planet is better than it has ever been.

Yet the big questions remain. Will this continue? (Only good luck prevented the cold war from becoming a nuclear war. We aren’t doing enough to prevent climate change The world’s sole superpower is a mess.) And can’t we do better? Make our countries more caring, our democracies more deliberative, our power more diluted?

And, if we can, how?

If there’s a left wing book that seriously, and non-dogmatically, asks that question, I would be a very eager reader.

December 14, 2015


Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 1:40 pm

Ian MacKaye, from the United States in the midst of the Iraq War, hitting the patriotism nail on the head:

And patriotism is a loathsome quality. Because to be a patriot means you have to support the kind of ugliness and violence that is being encouraged all over the world at this moment. Please count me an unpatriot forever.


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