Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 10 December 2016

The public analyst in crazy times

My eldest granddaughter about a year ago went through that stage where she was always asking why. Now her favourite question is ‘what’s happening’. I thought of this when listening to this talk by Paul Krugman, titled ‘public discourse in a time of crazy’. Paul asks how should people who deal with facts and rational argument cope with a post-Trump world where those running the show appear to attach no positive value to either. [1]

While he says himself he is still adjusting to this new world, Paul suggests in this lecture that there are three paths which should be avoided. He calls them appeasement, emulation and quietism. The last is actually a real word, I discovered, and it means a “calm acceptance of things as they are without attempts to resist or change them”, a kind of retreat. I suspect it is the only one of the three that could tempt Paul himself.

It seems to me that appeasement is a good way to describe what has been happening to the UK’s parliamentary Labour party for perhaps a decade. First we had austerity, which began to be appeased in an apparently mild way while Darling was Chancellor, became stronger with ‘too much, too fast’, and ended up with some arguing after 2015 that austerity was the way forward. We are now seeing the same with immigration. What starts as the innocent ‘recognising people’s anxieties’ has now become ‘well at least Brexit allows us to control immigration’.

Appeasement is wrong for many reasons, not least because it is a terrible political strategy. If you no longer appear to champion anyone’s cause, but instead just become the ‘lite’ party (Brexit-lite, immigration-lite), you stop getting votes. Partly because people can vote for the 'real thing' (non-lite), and partly because you are not credible. This has got nothing to do with moving too far to the left or right, or Corbyn’s original [2] election: just look at Andy Burnham.

Emulation is to attempt to outdo Trump or Brexit in their own world of meaningless phrases and downright lies. But that is not a world that Paul Krugman (or myself) could live in. The scientific method is too deep in our bones to make this possible. We are not about the write posts which have the subtitle “a response to justified criticism’.

How does any of this relate to my granddaughter? The reason is that I think the premise for Paul’s talk is not real. There is no puzzle about what people like him should do now. We do what we have always done: ask what is happening and why. We put forward plans for what should happen once these dark times are over, plans that come from good explanations of the what and the why. When Paul talks about Appeasement and Emulation, he is really talking about what opposition politicians and their advisers should not do.

What people who analyse the evidence and ideas lose when Trump becomes President is any sense that we are participating in a conversation, a public discourse, that includes people who have power. Even those politicians who are in opposition cannot really listen because they will have their hands full limiting damage. Or in the UK case, they are too busy fighting each other.

2016 has not seen a sudden transition to this world, but more the blocking out of the remaining lights that pierced this post-truth darkness. We have effectively had a Republican Congress at constant war with a Democrat White House since 2011, and that Republican Congress increasingly under the control of the Tea Party and Fox News. The UK and Eurozone have been dominated by completely unnecessary austerity since 2010. As I used to say about austerity around 2012 or 2013, we had won the intellectual debate but the world went on as if we had lost.

I was thinking along these lines after talking to the Treasury Select Committee on Tuesday. I wrote a post just before I went, on why the OBR was perhaps being too optimistic about Brexit. Yet when I offered to explain the reasons for this to the Committee, no one seemed to want to hear. Politicians want to make the most of Brexit, when in reality all they can do is limit the damage. Politicians want to recognise people’s anxieties about immigration, when really they have to tell people that they are wrong: not about their grievances, but their belief that this has much to do with immigration.

We can, and should, continue to rage against the dying of the light. What is difficult, in this time of crazy, is being able to put that rage aside, and engage in a form of quietism, a retreat from the here and now of political discourse. Not a retreat into any kind of acceptance of where we now are, but instead into asking what and why, and from the answers to those questions to planning for the time when facts get back into fashion. But more than that. Using the answers to the what and why to prevent us lapsing back into our current post-truth world.

[1] Of course politics has always been driven by ideology as well as evidence, but there is a critical difference between wanting to find evidence to back your ideology, and not caring about evidence at all. We seem to have moved from the former to the latter in recent years. This is related to Frankfurt’s concept of political bullshit.

[2] I say ‘original’ here deliberately of course. Whatever his motives, Owen Smith did see why it was important to champion the anti-Brexit cause.


  1. I am not sure any of Prof Krugman's options, or indeed yours, really address the fundamental post-truth challenge.
    What language can we use to talk to people who have asserted their intent to no longer listen to our language? They, having concluded (been persuaded) science and experts have failed, have gone looking for alternatives. How will taking science, knowledge, facts, and wisdom be heard, far less persuade?

    This could hardly have happened at a worse time, arguably in all of human history. Just as we are within sight of a post-work world, where the only source of money to live will become capital to invest, those without capital have been persuaded to give near absolute power to capital. That it would be smarter to use democracy to vote to retain democracy is to miss the point that democracy has already been bought and sold. Or indeed that it will sooner or later become apparent to the voters that the alternative is not any better. That of course need not lead to a recanting of their conversion to populism and a return to science and facts. More likely, there will be a herd like jump to the next snake oil salesmen, with a plausible story of a better future.

    The few remaining enlightenment thinkers do however have an opportunity to jump a generation of thinking. The current alt-right is still reactionary in a rapidly progressing technological world. As long as technology is making money, it will be allowed to progress, leading to the near total elimination of employed work, or any equivalent, by robots and AI. Quickly the AI will replicate and eliminate the designers. Only the owners will be left, and the AI may even work out how to own the capital itself.

    The post-work world will need radical new political and economic models. These models will evolve. They can evolve haphazardly from the end game of the 18-21st century industrial model, or they can evolve from fundamental thinking about the needs of the human condition post-work.
    That creates an opportunity to speak of threat and opportunity, if a vision of how life could be for coming generations, for our grandchildren.
    "What's happening" now and soon will determine whether we descend into a dystopia, or whether we can realise the potential of humanity.
    It's that big.
    We need to start creating a vision of a fair human existence, and start working out how to get from here to there.
    That vision will give us the language to start talking to those voters who have given up on the establishment. There is a better way out there, going forward (not back to coal and heavy manufacturing).
    But it will require a generational recalibration of what it means to be a man or a woman, how we value ourselves, and each other, how we find meaning in our work-free lives.
    Science, facts and knowledge can become the alt-alt-right. But we have to become the outsiders, think like insurgents.

    1. "This could hardly have happened at a worse time, arguably in all of human history. Just as we are within sight of a post-work world"
      Well, there you are then.
      You're either striving to build an ever increasing mountain of beans for an ever shrinking number of asset owners, or you're toast. fancy building a pyramid?
      any other questions?

    2. Or you could just reduce the retirement age back to what it was :-)

  2. I read for the first time this article by Ben Moshinsky Oct. 30, 2016 at business insider that:

    "Leave beat Remain by a close 51.9% to 48.1% in the official result of the June referendum...but when the referendum vote is applied to traditional parliamentary constituencies, rather than the total percentages used to calculate the vote, only around 39% of constituency seats voted to Remain, according to data from the University of East Anglia and analysts at Nomura."

    Clinton looks like she will win the popular vote by around 2.5 million at the 2016 US election, whatever the Russians were up to.

    What is in evidence here are two electoral systems that are unfit for democratic purpose, before you even reach for quality of debate.

    That was why I was thinking of Tebbit's "I grew up in the 30s with an unemployed father. He didn't riot; he got on his bike and looked for work and he kept looking 'til he found it" made in a speech to the Conservative Party Conference 15 October, 1981.

    In fact, the Trump and Tebbit side of the argument is the side of those who have not got on their bikes and looked for work, they have gone to the ballot box in huge numbers seemingly to protest against the change from manufacturing to service sector jobs.

    But then you look at the age profile of these voters, and for Brexit the switch from Remain to Leave is the late 40s. Perhaps some of these people are those who feel if they are fired they will not find it easy to get another job?

    So in the US they have sought protection from the billionaire businessman, and in the UK they have sought to remove the competition of Europeans.

    And it will not work.

    1. Biggest concern about democracy of (this and all previous) referendum should be that such a huge decision should be taken on a simple majority of those who turn out.
      And half sensible members or sports club would require a substantial majority to change it's constitution.
      If one purpose of a referendum of to show that the will of the people is for change, and then to unite the people behind the result/change, then there should surely be at minimum a 2:1 majority in favour?

  3. "As I used to say about austerity around 2012 or 2013, we had won the intellectual debate but the world went on as if we had lost."

    Not "as if" - you really lost because of the bad quality of your arguments.

  4. RA: So you’re not surprised that Greenspan and Ayn Rand were good mates and actually that she talked to him about sociology. You’re not surprised about that?

    MH: When I worked on Wall Street for Chase Manhattan, he was brought into a study I was doing on the oil industry. Chase was very worried that just his presence on the study would discredit it, because he was notorious for saying whatever a client asked him to say. He was a lobbyist already in 1966 when this occurred. So I was given the job of firing Alan Greenspan from the study, and removing it, because they said “He’s such a little bastard, we don’t want him to come after us. You’re a little guy, you’re in your 20s, he doesn’t even know who you are. So give them the information that we know he faked the figures, we know where he faked.”

    I was given the job of finding where he faked them from and writing it all up in the small print. So when Greenspan finally left the Federal Reserve, the BBC had on its screen for that day, “After me, the deluge.” with Michael Hudson because they asked me what do I thought of it. He left the economy knowing he was jumping ship, just like investors are jumping ship today from the economy that they’ve driven into debt deflation.

  5. It's fine to rage but it's also important to tell the truth as we latte drinking elites see it. After all, we academics spend our life studying a problem we know stuff. This madness in public life will fail and do so badly. What I most fear is we 'elite' give up on democracy and on our fellow citizens. I campaigned against Tories, Brexit going door to door. Yet I sit at grad dinner and at senate with colleagues who openly despair of democracy but do nothing. I also hear open contempt for right wing voters yet adulation for the bearded one (Fiedel). Votes go wrong, but if we stay sane, defend voting, listen to people, campaign and most of all 'love the sinner whilst pointing out the sin' things will right themselves. The real danger is we on the left centre resort to the same tactics. You and I tangled over this before. We are different and must be seen to be.

  6. I watched much of the Treasury Select Committee evidence from Tuesday, online, and was struck by two things - how much of the questioning and the framing of the agenda etc was actually almost a charicature of many of the issues you highlight as media macro; and the total absence of a gallery of interested parties (unless of course onlookers were forbidden).

  7. To be honest I just see exasperated assertions from you about the benefits of free movement of labour. It would be so much more convincing if you either gave compelling arguments or gave links to them. I'd like to see a point by point rebuttal of Kate Hoey

    “British workers (and this must include settled immigrants and sons of immigrants) won’t do the jobs… so we have to get immigrants to do it.”

    By which they mean new immigrants, cheap immigrants. And the bit they leave out is… for the low wages offered. They won’t do the jobs for the low wages offered. This is the crux of the EU intentions on labour.

    Just as the Victorians tried to make trade unionism immoral, so the present middle classes brand any worker who complains of non-union or cheap labour.

    It was immoral to protect your wages in Victorian times, it is immoral now. Morality often coincides with middle class economic interests.

    The EU supports the low-wage economy, and tries to create it where it didn’t already exist, for example in Sweden where it prosecuted the unions, and sequestrated their funds (as the Tories did to the miners) when they tried to get union rates for migrant workers."

  8. The other thing about elected officials that needed to be pointed out to me by my wife, is that they aren't interested in or concerned about the long term at all. They aren't motivated by the idea that they are stewards, working to preserve and improve their locality/state/country over the long term, it's all about what is going on right now.

    Whereas I am constantly disappointed by politics and governance because for the most part the long term is avoided. While I am not an economist, I do understand the basics.

    My joke is that at the local scale, politics is about doing everything in your power to approve and ensconce policies and practice to avoid or mitigate the reality of economics. E.g., "parking." If you want to deal with parking, f*ing charge for it. That sends the clearest signals about cost. If it's high, some people will be motivated to make other choices towards sustainable mobility. If it's low or nonexistent, then more people will have cars and want to park them then there is available space.

  9. Corbyn's second election wasn't about Brexit - even when Smith's "second referendum" proposal was making the news, the main reaction from the Corbyn camp was simply that it was a daft move politically. The dismaying lurch into God-knows-where came after that.

    Burnham seems to be working on the basis that UKIP will be running an "if you want a Pole for a neighbour..." campaign in places like Manchester, and that they could win that way. I can only imagine that he's had his own Gillian Duffy conversation, and concluded - unlike Gordon Brown - that this is the voice of the good honest Labour-voting working class, and that it would be wrong for him to oppose what they're saying. If that is the way that leading Labour politicians think these days, I just thank the Lord that we've never had a referendum on capital punishment.

    As for Corbyn, I can only assume that the major news outlets are operating a soft news blackout on anything coming out of the leader's office, on the basis that "Corbyn is fighting for his political life" is news but "Corbyn says X about Y" isn't. The alternative - that there isn't anything much coming out of the leader's office - is too awful to contemplate.

  10. Asking '5 whys' is a recognised analytical tool. Your eldest granddaughter is doing well.
    The hard part is applying it to your own reasoning. It can uncover some uncomfortable truths.

  11. The immigrant issue in the UK is well critiqued here.
    'The impact of acquiring EU status on the labour market outcomes of East European migrants in the UK: Evidence from a quasi-natural experiment' Dr Martin Ruhs COMPAS
    What I got from this was all the politicians squawking about immigration is a cover for a "hyper-flexible" labour market that has little or no policing and enough work-rounds to allow people to enter the UK labour market and get welfare benefits without full EU employment rights.

    We must not accept double speak to assuages the masses but all punishes them. We must all as PG points out get caught appeasing, emulations or being quiet. No we must keep shouting quietly.

  12. "..economics is NOT a science":



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