Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Kettle logic on Fox News

Most Republican leaders, in their concern to defend the president from accusations of racist over his terming African nations and Haiti “shithole countries” and saying “get them out”, have resorted to one of two strategies:

  1. Fake news. He didn’t say it, and it’s outrageous to suggest that he did.
  2. Harsh but true. He did say it, and it shows how forthright and unconcerned he is with liberal pieties.

Neither is entirely satisfactory. It is natural, then, that a Fox News correspondent, in the spirit of Freud’s “kettle logic“, combines the two:

I think it’s either fake news or if it’s true, this is how the forgotten men and women in America talk at the bar.

The bar is the new locker room. It’s kind of weird, though, when the best defense for the president’s behaviour is, he’s talking in the formal setting of a negotiation with senators the way even average uneducated Americans would only talk in a private setting when somewhat inebriated.

Post-Brexit UK to maintain world-leading position as platitude exporter

From the Guardian:

I commented before about the strange role of clichés in British politics. Finding a use for the banalest of banalities counts in Westminster as the very essence of statesmanship. So now, the British position, after 18 months of intensive internal analysis of its policy and extensive diplomatic soundings on relations with Europe is — It takes two to tango.

Showing the cards

The UK government thinks it’s playing poker with the EU. And it thinks it’s particularly good at it. “We can’t show our cards” is their standard argument for why they refuse to formulate a coherent negotiating position. Most recently, it was the argument for why Brexit minister David Davies couldn’t share with Parliament the voluminous economic impact assessments that were guiding the Brexit planning, though when threatened with citation for contempt of Parliament he admitted that they didn’t exist. (Has any schoolchild ever tried that? “I did my homework, but it would be unwise for me to show my cards right now by letting you see it.”)

Two important points:

  1. If you publicly announce that your position would be fatally undermined were the other side to see your cards, then that fatally undermines your position. If you secretly have strong cards, then the only thing you could be afraid of would be that the other side will concede too quickly. Which, I feel comfortable asserting, does not seem to be a significant problem for Britain in these negotiations.
  2. There are no hidden cards in this game. Or, at least, very few. If we are going to persist in the poker analogy, the game is five-card stud, so four of the five cards are face up. And Britain has a 2, 3, 7, 9 (of different suits). And they’re betting big, despite the fact that all 27 other players at the table already know that their cards are shit. But they have a brilliant secret strategy, consisting entirely of keeping their brilliant strategy secret. And pretending that they don’t know that their cards are shit.

Why is Britain being expelled from the EU?

Chris Grey, Professor of Social Organisation at Royal Holloway University, writes a blog about Brexit. In his most recent post he finds a formulation that captures some of the baffling features of the Tory approach to Brexit:

Observing Brexiters’ behaviour now, the thing that strikes me most forcibly is that almost all the time they act and talk not as if Britain had chosen to leave the EU but exactly as if Britain was being expelled by the EU…

Brexiters bemoan the failure of remainers to ‘get behind’ Brexit but they themselves seem singularly lacking in any big, coherent, optimistic, strategic or even enjoyable vision of Brexit. Given that (as they constantly say) they won the vote and are now enacting their dream policy you might expect such a vision, and if it existed many of the current problems would fall away. They would happily be saying ‘sure, we will meet our pre-existing financial commitments, these are of little importance given the exciting new opportunities Brexit brings’.

The post is well worth reading in its entirety, and it is spot on, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t explain why the Tories — and, by proxy, the nation — would put itself in such a position.

As near as I can come to an explanation that makes sense is to think of it — since everyone is talking divorce — in terms of the psychology of an abusive relationship, the relationship in this case being colonialism. Britain has the habit of dominance, acquired over many centuries. It is very common in such a relationship for the abuser to push off the blame onto the partner. “I don’t want to hurt you, but you’ve forced me into it.” The thing is, that is usually the action of the one who feels himself powerful and in control, not the one who is going to be hurt. Britain has overestimated its power, the inferior Continentals — and even the Irish — are asserting themselves, and the British government is reduced to wheedling and whining that Europe is mean and spiteful.

The next step after self pity is frequently violence. I suggested back when the referendum result was announced that the British would be shocked to discover how much the rest of Europe resents them, and how little leverage Britain actually has, and that there was a reasonable chance that they would then turn their fury against the enemy within, the resident foreigners. Nothing that has happened since then has made me more sanguine.

Overt public blackmail?

Just when you thought you’d reached the bottom of the we’re-being-governed-by-toddlers-who-missed-a-nap slough of despond, they manage to surprise you again. This time, it’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer  Philip Hammond, who decided to punish the NHS (and, by proxy, the entire English public) for the brazenness of its chief, Simon Stevens. Stevens gave a speech two weeks ago, saying the NHS is on the verge of financial collapse, and since the one thing that’s clear about the result of the Brexit referendum is that the public likes the idea of giving £350 million a week more to the NHS, maybe the government should just go ahead and do that. Instead,

Philip Hammond backtracked on plans to give the NHS more money than it eventually got in the budget after reacting with “fury” to its boss Simon Stevens’s public demand for an extra £4bn next year.

Since I am always particularly intrigued by political semantics, I was struck by this line:

Hammond and Treasury officials felt that the NHS England chief executive’s move meant that the chancellor could not be seen to be acceding to what they saw as “overt public blackmail”

What I wonder is, is there such a thing as “overt public blackmail”? Blackmail is when you make secret demands, with the threat to publicly embarrass the target by revealing hidden information. It’s not even any kind of extortion, which would mean issuing threats to force someone into a desired course of action. The only threat Stevens made is that without more money the NHS faces collapse. Warning someone of the potential consequences of their actions is neither extortion nor blackmail. And saying, we agree with the analysis, but since we don’t want to look like we’re agreeing with you, we’re going to do the opposite, is something so stupid that I don’t think  there is a specific name for it. (Maybe the Piranha Brothers used that technique?)

Now, what would be blackmail? How about telling the head of an independent government agency in private talks that his agency and the whole population are being throttled for his presumptuous public speech, not needing to say explicitly that a deferential turn might prevent future punishment — well, I guess that’s extortion.

Maybe someone should give him a cookie?

Naked Brexit

Arlene Foster is sad! So sad 😦 Why is Arlene sad?

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, has accused the Irish government of hijacking the Brexit negotiations to promote a united Ireland… She said: “The Irish government are actually using the negotiations in Europe to put forward their views on what they believe the island of Ireland should look like in the future.”

The sacred Brexit negotiations are being misused to promote a nationalist cause! Outrageous!

This is Burroughs’s naked lunch, the “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”, is something Britain — a declining power treated with far more deference than its actual power warrants — should have tried to put off as long as possible. Now it’s Britain that’s on the end of the fork. And it’s their own fork. (more…)

The ultimate Brexit machine

Marvin Minsky famously proposed (and Claude Shannon built) what Shannon called the “ultimate machine”, a machine reduced down to its simplest logic, so that its only function, when turned on is to turn itself off. One version is portrayed here:

Brexit is like that machine, except with the variation that the switch is, by design, stuck in the on position. So that it has no purpose at all.

If you recall, Brexit was supposed to solve the problem of unemployment in Middle England: all those East Europeans swarming over the land, devouring jobs. Now we have this:

Home Office officials have privately admitted the department is having problems increasing its immigration staffing levels as part of its Brexit preparations and may have to recruit Polish and other eastern Europeans to help register the 3 million EU nationals in Britain.

So Brexit itself is already making more work than the British can handle without bringing in Eastern Europeans. So once we have Brexit we don’t need Brexit anymore. In fact, once we have Brexit we can’t afford Brexit.

Why can’t they get enough British workers for these excellent jobs registering Europeans?

The Home Office’s difficulties in “enticing staff to move to Sheffield” affect the hub that handles visa applications for work permits, student visas, premium services and family cases.

So they need to look farther afield, to find potential employees who have never heard of Sheffield.

But it’s not just about regional antipathies. It’s also about qualifications. It’s all those migrant farm workers taking jobs that local untrained British people could take. It’s like a Tory version of that Communist-agitator joke:

– After we drive out the East Europeans you will have jobs picking strawberries.

– But I don’t want to pick strawberries.

– ?????

Brexit has manifestly achieved parodic escape velocity.

The anarchist Trump

I just read Chris Hedges’s book The Wages of Rebellion, about the small sprouts of revolt against the omnipotent corporate state that are still popping up. I was struck by this quote from Jeremy Hammond, who was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for hacking into government computers to steal and release evidence of government crimes:

He said he did not support what he called a “dogmatic nonviolence doctrine” held by many in the Occupy movement, describing it as “needlessly limited and divisive.” He rejected the idea of protesters carrying out acts of civil disobedience that they know will lead to arrest. “The point,” he said, “is to carry out acts of resistance and not get caught.”

In this he has a soul-brother in the White House, famous for having mocked John McCain for his years in Vietnamese captivity:

He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.

Why people hate statisticians

Andrew Dilnot, former head of the UK Statistics Authority and current warden (no really!) of Nuffield College, gave a talk here last week, at our annual event honouring Florence Nightingale qua statistician. The ostensible title was “Numbers and Public policy: Why statistics really matter”, but the title should have been “Why people hate statisticians”. This was one of the most extreme versions I’ve ever seen of a speaker shopping trite (mostly right-wing) political talking points by dressing them up in statistics to make the dubious assertions seem irrefutable, and to make the trivially obvious look ingenious.

I don’t have the slides from the talk, but video of a similar talk is available here. He spent quite a bit of his talk trying to debunk the Occupy Movement’s slogan that inequality has been increasing. The 90:10 ratio bounced along near 3 for a while, then rose to 4 during the 1980s (the Thatcher years… who knew?!), and hasn’t moved much since. Case closed. Oh, but wait, what about other measures of inequality, you may ask. And since you might ask, he had to set up some straw men to knock down. He showed the same pattern for five other measures of inequality. Case really closed.

Except that these five were all measuring the same thing, more or less. The argument people like Piketty have been making is not that the 90th percentile has been doing so much better than the 10th percentile, but that increases in wealth have been concentrated in ever smaller fractions of the population. None of the measures he looked was designed capture that process. The Gini coefficient, which looks like it measures the whole distribution, because it is a population average is actually extremely insensitive to extreme concentration at the high end. Suppose the top 1% has 20% of the income. Changes of distribution within the top 1% cannot shift the Gini coefficient by more than about 3% of its current value. He also showed the 95:5 ratio, and low-and-behold, that kept rising through the 90s, then stopped. All consistent with the main critique of rising income inequality.

Since he’s obviously not stupid, and obviously understands economics much better than I do, it’s hard to avoid thinking that this was all smoke and mirrors, intended to lull people to sleep about rising inequality, under the cover of technocratic expertise. It’s a well-known trick: Ignore the strongest criticism of your point of view, and give lots of details about weak arguments. Mathematical details are best. “Just do the math” is a nice slogan. Sometimes simple (or complex) calculations can really shed light on a problem that looks to be inextricably bound up with political interests and ideologies. But sometimes not. And sometimes you just have to accept that a political economic argument needs to be melded with statistical reasoning, and you have to be open about the entirety of the argument. (more…)

Hate the sin, vote for the sinner

When the Republicans selected for the Senate race in Alabama a man so sanctimonious that he insisted on displaying a monument to the Ten Commandments at the state Supreme Court  — insisted to the point of losing his job as Chief Justice — it was almost to be expected that he had some pretty nasty dirt in his past. According to the Washington Post he molested a 14-year-old when he was a 32-year-old district attorney. This wasn’t one of those “met her in a bar and I thought she was 19” sort of things:

He struck up a conversation, Corfman and her mother say, and offered to watch the girl while her mother went inside for a child custody hearing.

“He said, ‘Oh, you don’t want her to go in there and hear all that. I’ll stay out here with her,’ ” says Corfman’s mother, Nancy Wells, 71. “I thought, how nice for him to want to take care of my little girl.”

Honestly, if this were a television show I’d almost accuse the writers at this point of being too stereotyped and predictable.

Of course, Alabama Republicans are shocked and appalled — NOT! There are the standard excuses: The news media are mean, they’re all Democrats and liars, it can’t be true because if it were we would have heard about it before. And then, for the particularly Evangelical among them, there is this, from Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler:

Even if you accept the Washington Post’s report as being completely true, it is much ado about very little… Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus… There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.

I admit, I get tripped up on the finer points of Christian theology, but wasn’t Mary a virgin?

Tag Cloud