The universe, the standard model tells us, began with rapid inflation. The university as well, or at least, the modern exam-centered university.
With UK universities being upbraided by the Office for Students (OfS), the official regulator of the UK higher education sector, for handing out too many first-class degrees, I am reminded of this wonderful passage unearthed by Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, from the report of Harvard’s 1894 Committee on Raising the Standard:
The Committee believes… that by defining anew the Grades A, B, C, D, and E, and by sending the definitions to every instructor, the Faculty may do something to keep up the standard of the higher grades. It believes that in the present practice Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily — Grade A for work of no very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity.
Noting that letter grades were first introduced at Harvard in 1886, Lewis summarises the situation thus:
It took only eight years for the first official report that an A was no longer worth what it had been and that the grading system needed reform.
Last week I suggested that it could very well be that a second Brexit referendum would stumble into Arrow’s paradox, with Remain preferred to soft Brexit, soft Brexit preferred to no deal, and No Deal preferred to Remain. I wasn’t expecting rapid confirmation, but here it is, from a poll of about 1000 British adults:
Several months ago I suggested that no one could ultimately support soft Brexit, because the soft Brexit strategy — something like EFTA, formally outside of the EU, but still in a customs union and/or the single market, still recognising most rights of EU citizens in the UK — is, to use a bit of economics game-theory jargon, Pareto dominated by staying in the EU. Even if the damage wrought by a no-deal Brexit would be vastly better worse by a negotiated surrender, if you look at it category by category — rights of UK citizens, disruption to markets, business flight, reputation, civil peace, diplomatic influence, sovereignty over market regulations — staying in the EU would be even better. There’s nothing you can point to and say, this is what we got for our trouble (which is why Theresa May was at such pains to bash immigrants when announcing her deal). We’ll always have Parisians.
Apparently, some other leading Brexiters are noticing their Pareto trap. Earlier in the week Dominic Raab resigned in protest that the deal (that he was responsible for negotiating himself!) was worse than staying in the EU. Today it’s Shanker Singham, leading trade adviser to the Leave campaign, who says “From a trade policy perspective this is a worse situation than being in the EU.” (Much of the Guardian article explains how this leading intellectual light of the Leave campaign has a mostly fake CV.)
The effect will be zero. The Brexit dead-enders only need to keep Parliament in turmoil and run out the clock, until their glorious Thelma & Louise consummation. I’m sure Jacob Rees-Mogg has shorted the pound, and the FTSE, so he’ll be fine.Would that count as insider trading?
On moving to the UK almost a dozen years ago I quickly noticed that the one thing that unites the political establishment, left and right, is that they don’t like foreigners. Or rather, maybe better phrased, they may personally like and even admire some foreigners, but they recognise that such exotic tastes are not for everyone, and that disliking foreigners is a valuable national pastime, deserving of their official support.
And so, after claiming through the Brexit campaign that it was all about national sovereignty and repatriating billions of pounds for the NHS, and having spent the better part of two years diplomatically digging a grave for the national future, the Tories strike on bedrock: We have betrayed national sovereignty and destroyed the national economy, but it’s all worth it because we still get to kick out the foreigners. Or, in the prime minister’s words:
“Getting back full control of our borders is an issue of great importance to the British people,” she will say, adding that EU citizens will no longer be able to “jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi”.
I’m willing to go out on a limb here and suggest that the subset of British — or, given their current fragile mental state, I should perhaps call them Brittle — voters who voted Leave with the thought uppermost in their minds of improving the prospects for Indians to migrate to the UK was… less than a majority. But even more striking, EU citizens who moved to the UK over the past 40 years, following the same agreements that allowed Brittle people to seek work and better lives anywhere on the Continent, are retrospectively branded as “queue jumpers”, the most rebarbative class in the English moral order. Theresa May is summoning her countrymen and -women to defend a fantasy queue.
In the 1990s the German media teemed with entreaties to tear down the Mauer im Kopf, the “mental wall” (a phrase of the author Peter Schneider that actually long preceded the fall of the physical wall in Berlin), as a necessary prelude to a stable national identity, and a democratic and prosperous future. Maybe the Brittles need to dissolve their fantasy queues, to break up the Schlange im Kopf, before they can start building a new nation on the rubble they are making of their past.
The discussion over a possible second Brexit referendum has foundered on the shoals of complexity: If the public were only offered May’s deal or no deal, that wouldn’t be any kind of meaningful choice (and it’s absurd to imagine that a Parliament that wouldn’t approve May’s deal on its own would be willing to vote for the fate of Brexit to be decided by the public on those terms. So you’re left with needing an unconventional referendum with at least three options: No deal, May’s deal, No Brexit (plus possible additional alternatives, like, request more time to negotiate the Better Deal™).
A three-choice (or more) referendum strikes many people as crazy. There are reasonable concerns. Some members of the public will inevitably find it confusing, however it is formulated and adjudicated. And the impossibility of aggregating opinions consistent with basic principles of fairness, not even to say in a canonical way, is a foundational theorem of social-choice theory (due to Kenneth Arrow).
Suppose we followed the popular transferable vote procedure: People rank the options, and we look only at the first choices. Whichever option gets the smallest number of first-choice votes is dropped, and we proceed with the remaining options, until one option has a first-choice majority. The classic paradoxical situation is all too likely in this setting. Suppose the population consists of
25% hardened brexiteers. They prefer a no-deal Brexit, but the last thing they want is to be blamed for May’s deal, which leaves the UK taking orders from Brussels with no say in them. If they can’t have their clean break from Brussels, they’d rather go back to the status quo ante and moan about how their beautiful Brexit was betrayed.
35% principled democrats. They’re nervous about the consequences of Brexit, so they’d prefer May’s soft deal, whatever it’s problems. But if they can’t have that, they think the original referendum needs to be respected, so their second choice is no deal Brexit.
40% squishy europhiles. They want no Brexit, barring that they’d prefer the May deal. No-deal Brexit for them is the worst.
The result will be that no deal drops out, and we’re left with 65% favouring no Brexit. But if the PDs anticipated this, they could have ranked no deal first, producing a result that they would have preferred.
So, that seems like a problem with a three-choice referendum. But here’s a proposal that would be even worse: We combine choices 2 and 3 into a single choice, which we simply call “Leave”. Then those who wants to abandon the European project entirely will be voting for the same option as those who are concerned about the EU being dominated by moneyed interests, and they’ll jointly win the referendum and then have to fight among themselves after the fact, leaving them with the outcome — no-deal Brexit — that the smallest minority preferred.
Unfortunately, that’s the referendum we actually had.
I cited this joke in the context of Brexit before:
A rabbi announces in synagogue, at the end of Yom Kippur, that he despairs at the burning need for wealth to be shared more equally. He will depart for the next year to travel through the world, speaking to all manner of people, ultimately to persuade the rich to share with the poor. On the following Yom Kippur he returns, takes his place at the head of the congregation without a word, and leads the service. At the end of the day congregants gather around him. “Rabbi, have you accomplished your goal? Will the rich now share with the poor?” And he says, “Halfway. The poor are willing to accept.”
And it’s returned, because we again have these headlines:
Except the backing of the “cabinet” means the backing of those who didn’t resign because they wouldn’t back the agreement. Including the Northern Ireland Secretary (!) and the Brexit Secretary (!!) who was tasked with negotiating the thing. So, except for all the members most relevant to the deal (oh, yes, the Foreign Secretary already resigned over Brexit a few months ago), Theresa May has managed to get her handpicked cabinet to accept the negotiated agreement. All that remains is the other half of the task, which is to get it through Parliament, which only requires that she corral votes from her coalition partner, who see the backstop on Northern Ireland as a fundamental betrayal, and sufficient members of the opposition parties, because why wouldn’t they sign up to take responsibility for an agreement that everyone will blame for everything that goes wrong, even if nothing goes wrong, rather than forcing new elections?
A continuing series (previous entries here, here, and here) about the kind of table-thumping simple-minded blather that you sometimes hear about public policy. It depends on drawing out very superficial aspects of the problem, and waving away the core difficulties with some appeal to optimism or courage or something. With reference to a Monty Python sketch, I call this approach How to Do It (HTDI).
Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond has described Boris Johnson’s policy-analysis process, which is pure HTDI:
When the pair discussed a ‘Canada’ style trade deal, ‘Boris sits there and at the end of it he says ‘yeah but, er, there must be a way, I mean, if you just, if you, erm, come on, we can do it Phil, we can do it. I know we can get there.’ ‘And that’s it!’ exclaimed the Chancellor, mimicking the Old Etonian.
The big story in all. the UK press is about the humiliation experienced by Theresa May –and by extension the entire British nation — from being ambushed by unanimous criticism of her “Chequers plan”.
It’s unusual to have an ambush that has been so comprehensively announced in advance. Fortunately, to help unravel it we happen to have a transcript of the top secret radio communications that preceded this ambush:
UK: Maybot here. We’re coming through the Chequers Pass.
EU: Don’t come this way. We have a big force, 27 strong, blocking the way. We can’t let you pass through here.
UK: No, we have to go through here. If we turn back our own rearguard will shoot us.
EU: We don’t want to attack you, but the Chequers Pass leads into dangerous territory. We can’t let anyone through.
UK: Maybot, approaching Chequers Pass.
EU: There are multiple other passes. Please take one of them.
When the onus is on some party in a negotiation, the point is to say which of several possible parties really needs to make a move. People have been pushing the onus back and forth in the Brexit negotiation:
But now Theresa May has announced at an EU summit that
the onus is now on all of us to get this deal done.
While I grant that her claim seems orthographically undeniable — onus = on us — I wonder what the prime minister could possibly be talking about. There literally are only two parties to the Brexit negotiation, the UK and the EU, so who else could the onus be on? Or is “us” her fellow heads of government in Salzburg, who have the responsibility to take the decision out of the hands of the bumbling bureaucrats of Brussels?
Isaac Asimov, in a side-remark in his Treasury of Humor, mentioned a conversation in which a participant expressed outrage at a politician blathering about “American goals”. “His specialty is jails, not goals,” and then seeming to expect some laughter. It was only on reflection that Asimov realised that the speaker, who was British, had spelled it gaols in his mind.
I was reminded of this by this Guardian headline:
Labour has shifted focus from bingo to quinoa, say swing voters
The words bingo and quinoa look vaguely similar on the page, but they’re not pronounced anything alike. Unlike Asimov’s example, this wordplay is in writing, so spelling is important. My feeling is that wordplay has to be fundamentally sound-based, so this just doesn’t work for me. Maybe the Guardian editors believe in visual wordplay.
Alternatively, maybe they don’t know how quinoa is pronounced.