Thursday, 1 December 2016


You'll recall that Jeremy Corbyn's eulogy to Fidel Castro talked about his contribution to ending apartheid. Of course, Fidel didn't send his troops to South Africa but rather to Mozambique and Angola. The official story was that these troops were there for advising and training the local troops that faced opposition from nasty "right wing" insurgents. This - filched from Tim Newman's blog - is what those troops were like:
Among the dead were two very young Cuban conscripts, some of the tens of thousands of troops sent by Fidel Castro to prop up the brutal pro-Communist regime in Angola. They were probably well under 20 years old. They hadn’t even finished growing; they still had that gangling, slightly disjointed look of late adolescence. Both looked as if they didn’t yet need to shave every day. They never would, now. Their AK-47’s were still half-slung. They hadn’t even managed to raise them to a firing position before the RPD bullets found them.

A grizzled NCO looked down at them, and an odd look came over his face. He spat to one side, very expressively, and murmured, “Just one more. That’s all I ask. Just one more.”

I looked at him, and my eyebrows rose. He caught my expression, and nodded. “I want the bastard who sends kids like this over here to die.”
The cause of antiyanquismo required not only that Fidel destroy the hopes and futures of the Cuban population but that this population could be used to promote this childish creed everywhere. It's for this reason that a part of me wishes it were the Castro brothers dead in that Angolan field not two blameless young Cuban lads.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Wrong, stupid and unsustainable - old people and the funding of care

Much of the discussion following the Autumn Statement concerned Brexit and the forecasts. Plus of course the prediction from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that we're not going to see "real incomes" rise until after 2021 (or something along those lines). I don't plan on making any comments about these forecasts except to say, as Chris Snowden at the IEA points out, even the much-heralded and 'independent' IFS isn't infallible when making predictions.

Instead let's talk about old people. The Local Government Association made great play of there being no mention - or extra money - for social care. It seems to me that, as Jeremy Warner observes, nearly all of the financial challenges facing government can be traced back to the inconvenient fact that us Baby Boomers (who have all the assets, or so we're told) are going to live a long time yet.

There are two reasons why people living a lot longer is a problem for government. The first of these is the impact on revenue budgets of looking after older people. Not just the very expensive end-of-life care but also the everyday costs of catering for people with declining mobility, poorer eyesight, incipient deafness and a collection of chronic but manageable health conditions.

The second is that, while we are busy not dying, the wealth we've accumulated stays safely tucked up in housing and other assets. And because we're living longer the circulation of that wealth within society is slowed down. It might be true that the explosion of home ownership post-WWII (culminating in Margaret Thatcher's brilliant right-to-buy legislation) represented the biggest transfer of wealth away from the elite in our history but right now us Boomers are sitting pretty atop all that wealth.

The proportion of the population that is over-65 is set to grow further. The ONS predicts (I know forecasts, pah) something like this:

This increase (and the corresponding stagnation in the numbers of young people) completely alters the balance of our demography. From a position where 'youth culture' dominates we are moving gradually to a sort of gerontocracy where the needs, expectations and preferences of the old vastly outweigh those of the young. It's notable that, after a time when political leaders seemed to get younger (Major, Blair, Cameron, Clinton), we now have a slew of older leaders. The two main UK political parities are led by a 60 year old and a 67 year old. Over in the USA the presidential election was fought out between a 69 year old and a 70 year old - with the 70 year old winning. If the current indications are right, France will get a 63 year old as President and Germany will keep its over-60 Chancellor.

It's also interesting to note that the question of age (as opposed to the matter of health) is never raised. When Ronald Reagan was elected his age was seen as a problem, yet no-one (so far as I can see) is challenging Trump on the basis that he ought to be getting comfy in the armchair with slippers and a pipe. This change just reflects the fact that there are millions of fit, healthy, active and involved folk in this age category. When your Dad is walking Munroes at 75 or your Mum riding at 81 then no-one's fussed about a Prime Minister who is 60 or a President of 70.

The difficulty is that our public finances (and to a considerable degree our economy) start with the assumption that people retire in their 60s and die in their 70s. When the NHS was founded its planners believed that the costs would diminish (OK they were batty) rather than increase as universal access improved overall population health. What we've seen instead is that, as health has improved, people have lived longer with the result that more and more of NHS resource gets directed to the health of old people. Today around 75% of NHS spending goes on the over-65s.

We can add the pressures on social care to these numbers - adult social care used to be an important but relative minor element in local government spending. Today it represents perhaps a third of spending with this proportion set to rise (under the current model at least) as the numbers of frail elderly increase in line with the numbers of people over 80. The current arrangement where local government contracting dominates the market for care provision results in downward pressures on costs that are simply unsustainable given rises in minimum wages and expectations in terms of service quality.

The third major element creating pressures in the simple fact of the old age pension (made more problematic by the so-called 'triple lock'). Of the current welfare budget over 40% goes on paying old age pensions and once we add in other payments such as mobility allowances, carer allowances, free TV licences and fuel discounts, nearly half of the money we spend on welfare goes to those receiving an old age pension. By way of comparison, just 1% of that welfare budget is spent on unemployment benefit.

In a world where there are fewer people working to pay the taxes to provide these benefits, it's pretty hard to see how such public largess - in health, care and benefits - can be sustained. Something has to give especially when it is clear that wealth is increasingly retained by the older generation, primarily in the form of those housing assets obtained during the great home ownership boom from the 1960s to the 1990s.

I don't believe that the answer to all this is the sort of anti-Boomer rhetoric of the Resolution Foundation where the fact of those assets (and the fortune of the increases in those assets' value) is seen as some sort of selfishness on the part of people aged over-55. Nor do I think that the answer lies in inventing a new tax so as to carry on with the market-fixing methods that result too often in expensive and poor quality social care. What is needed is an apology, some honesty and a better market.

First the apology. Aneurin Bevin lied to you and every subsequent government regardless of its political stripe has repeated and compounded that lie. National Insurance, for all the trappings of an insurance scheme, is just an income tax. So when people say, "I'm entitled, I paid my stamp all those years" they are merely repeating Bevin's lie. The government should stand up and apologise for this lie.

Next some honesty. People aren't stupid and can deal with facts so perhaps we should give them some. Starting with the one where we say that we can't go on with above inflation increases to the NHS, to social care and in old age pensions. That means we've either less money for other things that matter like policing, defence, firemen, roads and schools, or else your sons and daughters (the one's you're helping out because they struggle to buy the school uniform) will have to pay higher taxes. So old people with lots of money tied up with high value property assets need to start thinking about how they use those assets to provide the care and health support they'll need as they get older and more frail. This means no more "family house" nonsense and no more assumption that the Council will pay so you can leave those housing assets to your children.

And the market. Markets are very good at providing the things that people want. This isn't about ownership it's about how prices are set. Right now the UK's health and care system is (see above) unsustainable. Getting wealthy people to realise they are responsible for their own life is a start but, if we do this, we've got to have a market where they can purchase the care and health support they need.

None of this is about Boomers being selfish. After all part of the problem is that the Boomers' kids are anticipating the glorious day when that South London semi turns into £750,000 cash and some don't want any rapacious care homes, stair lift companies or walk-in shower fitters spoiling the prospect of this lovely lolly. A few weeks ago I was told by a housing officer how equity release schemes to improve home warmth were often blocked by families who saw this as eating into the inheritable asset. It's shocking but true that people will leave granny cold with no handrail on the front steps so as to keep ten or twenty grand on the inheritable value of granny's house.

At the core of all this is changing our presumption that care is some sort of absolute entitlement rather than something that's a matter of personal responsibility. When I sit in Bradford's Health & Wellbeing Board meetings is hear about the idea of 'self-care' - essentially people taking responsibility for their own health. Often this is little different from good old nannying fussbucketry -don't smoke, change your diet, cut out the booze, do more exercise - but it has within it the idea that we are, as individuals with agency, responsible for our own lives. And this means paying for stuff. The long term implication of self-care for an informed public taking decisions that reduce health harms and, recognising that some support in inevitable at some point, being prepared to pay others to help deliver that self-care.

In a nation obsessed with the idea of a "free" National Health Service, it's going to prove difficult to deliver the changes to our attitude to health necessary if longevity isn't going to turn almost all of government into a health care provider. And the core of all this is to recognise (or rather rediscover some we once knew but has lost sight of) that the assets we accumulate during our lives - houses, pension funds, cash savings and so forth - are there to be run down during our old age not something to which our descendants have any sort of entitlement. Getting the government to tax relatively poor people so you don't have to use your assets has always been wrong. Now it's wrong, stupid and unsustainable.


Saturday, 26 November 2016

An existential cry of pain - how "The Left" is losing

As a conservative, it's only recently that I've begun to use the term 'The Left' to describe...well...'The Left'. This was a term that 'The Left', somewhat self-indulgently, used to characterise its so-called values. The premise of any discussion involving such folk was that good things were left-wing and bad things were right-wing. This made life simple - the torture and imprisonment of opponents in an approved left-wing country was necessary to protect the revolution or else simply lies put out by reactionary forces of 'The Right' seeking to undermine said revolution.

In contrast, the torture and imprisonment of opponents in a place designated as 'Right-wing' is a terrible crime against humanity. If you're a Blairite this justifies bombing the terrible place back into the stone age whereas, if you're genuinely of "The Left", the response is to organise a rally, wear clothing symbolising your support for the cause (especially if it looks cool and helps you pick up girls), and do that 'organise, mobilise, agitate' thing that 'The Left' always does.

So I thought that I'd explore this idea of 'The Left'. Not as a coherent political philosophy because, Marxism aside (and Marx would have thoroughly approved of Fascism), there is no coherent philosophy behind 'The Left'. Instead we have a set of positions - some simply not 'The Right' (remember that 'The Right' simply means "bad things I disagree with") whereas others are wrapped up in an incredibly indulgent thing usually called, in that trashing of the language beloved of 'The Left', values.

A long time ago, my Dad said that socialism or socialist in its common usage (by 'The Left') simply meant good. That was it - references to socialism or 'The Left' are intended to conjure up images of people who care more than nasty people who are called 'The Right'. We get folk pulling down a good wage paid for out of tax money or from the contributions of gullible donors while arguing for more 'caring' to be done by taking more cash off other people to give to a different set of ('deserving') people (plus well paid jobs for people from 'The Left'). These people have "values" to which we should all aspire. They are 'The Left' - complete with fluffy kittens, unicorns, glitter and shiny happy people marching for change.

The problem for 'The Left' is that countries that take the ideas of the left and turn them into a platform for government often end up totalitarian, lock opponents up and routinely use torture. These countries - from East Germany to Cuba are places that people tried to leave. Indeed they didn't just try to leave 'The Left', they did so facing the risk of getting shot, arrested and tortured. Or drowning as the tractor inner tube holding up the rickety raft sinks beneath the waves.

Today, 'The Left' face a new problem. Or rather an old problem revisited. In the democracies of the western nations there's an anger among the voters. Millions of column inches are being dedicated by 'The Left' to challenging this anger - they call it 'populism', 'nativism', even 'fascism' and are really agitated by the message it's putting out to voters. Of course, because this threat to 'The Left' is (because it is a threat) a bad thing, it is therefore right-wing, from the dark places of 'The Right'. And as a result people on 'The Right' are being told they should do something about the prospect of more folk like Donald Trump getting elected.

But when you peel back the cover of Donald Trump's agenda (ditto for Marine Le Pen and other nasty populist folk) and look at the policy programme underneath, it's pretty much an agenda that, had it come from 'The Left', would have been applauded. Clamping down on the corrupt and cosy relationship between big business and government. Protecting jobs by stopping firms moving them offshore. Protecting communities by ending dumping. Making politicians more accountable. This is a left-wing programme and it is 'The Left' that is threatened by its success.

What 'The Left' doesn't realise is that us right-wing folk simply don't start from the same place in all this debate. We don't think that the agenda proposed by the likes of Trump, Farage and Le Pen is a right-wing policy platform. The problem is that, after decades of taking its working class voter base for granted, 'The Left' has been found out. Hence the spluttering, shouting and screaming about the way in which those working class voters didn't do as they were told.

There's a huge difference between sympathy and empathy. 'The Left' is very good at the former but appalling at the latter with the result that, for all its language of caring, sharing and 'aren't we good', left-wing people these days come across as patronising, judgemental and arrogant. This is the world of 'we know what's good for you' and 'it's someone else's fault, let's go shout at the government'. The denial of agency to anyone who didn't get a degree is shocking - kids get sugary snacks because their parents can't resist advertising, poverty isn't solved by getting (and keeping) a job, and we need to make it harder for people to have a drink because they don't know how to control themselves.

But these caring noises - "there, there, it's not your fault, nasty, nasty government" - don't wash when 'The Left' shows a tin ear to the communities they claim to care about. At times it seems almost as if 'The Left' are talking about a different animal - one unable to look after itself properly, a permanent victim of 'the system'. There is no empathy for the condition of these people just the idea that we can use them to make our political point (mostly about how caring we are and how our values are so good) and to paint a cartoon picture of 'The Right'.

Back in the day, socialist parties were populist movements. Britain's Labour Party, the Socialist and Social Democratic Parties of Europe, Italy's Communist Party - all these groups built their support using the same sort of populist rhetoric that they now condemn in new political movements. It's true also that these socialist parties emerged from the same place as the Fascists - this doesn't make them the same, just that (unlike conservatives) they're competing for the same voters. This is still true and, in part, explains the screams of pain and anguish from the mainstream left. The problem is that those values 'The Left' is so big on simply aren't the values of a large chunk of the traditional support base for left-of-centre parties.

So when left-of-centre pundits tell 'The Right' that this populist (or nativist, fascist, even Nazi) upsurge is some how its problem they speak from fear. Not fear of a conservative hegemony - nothing conservative about Trump, Farage and Le Pen - but rather fear that the success of populists will keep them, 'The Left', from the things that sustain their livelihood and allow them to patronise the rest of us about values. And those things are government-funded jobs, membership of influential boards or committees, positions of authority in local and national and European government - this is what motivates 'The Left' today. The insurgent populists threaten 'The Left' by borrowing its language but sounding like they actually mean it - there's a real empathy, a genuine feeling of pain rather than a patronising, smug Tony Blair-style "I feel your pain" sympathy.

At the moment, aside form America, the traditional conservative right looks set fair - no room for complacency but it wouldn't be surprising to see by the end of 2017, conservatives leading France, Germany, Spain, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Those who think that the Front National, UKIP and Five Star are a threat to the conservative right are sadly misguided. It is 'The Left' that stands to lose as it continues to pretend that a sort of international order of the smug can sort everything out but only if we can stop those pesky electors voting the wrong way.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Welcome to the 'Great City of the West' - mankind's dead end

In the opening chapter of 'Starman Jones', Robert Heinlein sets the scene with the young hero, dreaming of space, watching the Chicago, Springfield & Earthport Ring Road - essentially a high speed inter-city transit:

"The incredible sight and the impact on his ears always affected him the same way. He had heard that for the passengers the train was silent, with the sound trailing them, but he did not know; he had never ridden a train and it seemed unlikely, with Maw and the farm to take care of, that he ever would."

In this short chapter, Heinlein not only sets the scene for 'Starman Jones' but describes the chasm that divides rural and urban America. It's true that, in American Dream style, Max Jones, Heinlein's hero does escape from his rural isolation such that the book closes with Max on one of the trains. But we need to be interested in the rest of Max's world, in the people who stay on the farm. These people, rednecks, provincials, the "left behind" have suddenly become important folk. Not individually but collectively.

The election of Donald Trump, the UK's vote to leave the EU, the growing support for France's Front National and similar trends in Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Germany all focus on people who aren't living in the shiny world of what Ishaan Tharoor in the Washington Post calls "the West's major cities". And the world beyond the cities is filled with reactionary forces aimed at stopping the glorious people in those shiny cities from dominating the world - there's even an "if mayors ruled the world" group that says this:

“These reactionaries,” Barber said, “are the last wave in a series of political attempts to pretend that sovereign states still work.” The nation-state isn't about to disappear, he cautions. But Barber envisions a future where there'll be a “rebalancing of the relationship” between nations and cities that will enable greater local governance across the world for the benefit of all.

By greater local governance, Barber doesn't mean a local municipality at some sort of human scale but rather grand 'city regions' ruled by elected but autocratic mayors. And some places will be left outside these 'Great Cities of the West' struggling in rural decrepitude or small town decline. Other rural places will tag themselves onto the great cities, stretching their boundaries so as to get some small crumbs from the mayor's table. Soon these latter places will realise they've the worst of both worlds - higher taxes, more regulations and the envious sight of money pouring into super-rich inner suburbs and city centres. Places the residents of the city region's remoter outposts seldom visit and that's often merely to gawp at the beautiful people as they enjoy their playground while shrugging at the unaffordability of all this stuff.

Since the West's population is increasingly concentrated in cities, we've come to assume that the city is the demographic and, therefore, political form of the future. There's a hankering for the idea of the city state - essentially autonomous places within a weak state - and, in this, with the idea of strong, enlightened leaders elected by those cities' wise and enlightened electorates. The result - or rather the objective of the 'Mayors Should Rule the World' advocates - will be a fragmented, divided polity dominated by the needs and preferences of those ruling mayors (or rather those with access to these mayors).

Returning to 'Starman Jones' for a second, we see the manner in which the human world's design intentionally favours the city as a form. It's not just that the train swished through Max Jones' rural America but that the design of such systems today is creating such a world - England's HS2 is designed to connect London to Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester. What lies between the cities is irrelevant except as a place filled with ghastly NIMBYs who oppose the railway for spoiling the countryside. But why should someone in an old mining village like Havercroft or Fitzwilliam look kindly on HS2? Like Max Jones they'll be watching the fast trains whoosh by while wondering where their children and grandchildren will get a job that's better than in a warehouse or serving on at a cheap restaurant (assuming that the robots and minimum wage rises haven't killed those jobs).

There's no actual reason, other than our sociable nature, for us to live in those 'Great Cities of the West'. Indeed, they're filled with untypical humans. There are the brave few who upped sticks and travelled thousands of miles to live poor quality lives on the fringes of the gleaming, sparkly city hoping for a lucky chance. We've the fortunate beneficiaries of inheritance or beauty who can skim across the surface of the city enjoying its lights and pleasures while affording the means to avoid its darkness. And there's a vast mass of clever, skilled, hard-working people who turn the wheels of the city's economy but can't get a stake in the city, can't find the means to settle and have a family, and who justify this on the basis that they can get to see the beauties in their plays, galleries and stadiums.

If this - 'The Great City of the West' is the future of mankind then it isn't a future, it's a dead end. Because the great mass of the city dwellers can't afford a family, the only way to provide the services is to import more people from elsewhere. But what happens when those elsewheres don't provide people any more? The city grinds to a halt when economic growth in other places reduces the imperative to migration. So perhaps this explains the enthusiasm of the great and good of such places for elsewheres to remain poor - not starving but just poor enough for the stream of migrants not to dry up. But this is a false perspective - even the gradual rising of economies results in reduced birth rates so the city cannot win if it does not breed.

And cities are, in everything they do, anti-child:

...localities with higher densities and higher prices — the two are often coincident — have considerably lower birth rates than areas with lower prices. This becomes even more evident when one considers the segment of the population between 5 and 14 years old, when children enter school. In 2012, urban areas with the highest percentage of children are predominately lower density and lower cost, including Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Riverside-San Bernardino, Atlanta, and Phoenix. Urban areas with the lowest percentage of people in these age groups were also the New Urbanist exemplars, such as Boston, San Francisco, New York, and Seattle.

And who would - without necessity or accident - have children in a high-rise environment featuring fug-filled air that causes asthma, streets filled with rushing vehicles, public spaces designed for adults, and places dominated by strangers. In San Francisco and Berkeley over 70% of households are childless. And we're supposed to see dense urban living as a better model than the sprawl or the suburbs, the comfort of the small town or the community of the village?

The problem isn't just that the rural and small town West has rebelled against the city but that the city is a failing model - at least the idea of the concentrated, centralised, mayor-led city. These things are parasites, sucking away all the good from small towns with the promise of riches, opportunities and better bars while giving little back when it comes to the long-term quality of our lives. Urbanists talk about 'liveability' and 'walkability', about public spaces, even about play - yet the reality of the city is selfish, focused on the here and now rather than on creating places to which people can relate, where they might want to spend their whole lives.

Planners rejected suburbia as somehow too naff, 'not our sort of place' and then justified their rejection with tales of sustainability, sprawl and the curse of the motor car. Yet suburbs - at least the one I was brought up in - were liveable, open and child-friendly. They might have been a bit boring for childless, young adults but they weren't boring for children and, mostly, weren't so for grown ups with sheds to do hobbies in, gardens to keep and associations to join.

So no, the city is not the West's defence "against right-wing nationalism" but rather one cause of that right-wing nationalism existing in the first place. If your billions of infrastructure spending excludes most of the country they won't thank you for it. If every policy you espouse is designed for the child-free world of the city, the provincials will hate you for it. And if your attitude to people who don't live in the 'Great City of the West' is sneering, dismissive and patronising don't be so surprised when they kick out at you.

This idea of a the city as a place piled on top of itself, crowded, expensive, frantic, is a dead end. It is a model that will fail and in doing so may threaten what we choose to call western civilisation. The lesson in all this is to understand that, as one commentor obeserved, cities come with a huge barrier called "cost of living", a barrier that far from making the city a solution sets it up as a parasite.

Right now the only route to success in the city for the likes of Max Jones is still to borrow your uncle's space suit and save humanity. And given that few provincial folk have uncles with space suits (or other opportunities to save mankind come to think of it) they'll stay in declining rural and small town communities sneered at by people in cities who think the future of humanity is having shiny things but no children. It won't end well.


Monday, 21 November 2016

Public health would really like to ban Christmas (and use your taxes to campaign for this ban)

OK I exaggerate but only slightly. It does feel like it's only the lack of opportunity that's stopping public health from banning Christmas - or at least anything over Christmas involving things they'd like to ban: drinking, staying up late, going out to parties, kisses, eating rich puddings with custard or cream, taking the kids for a festive Happy Meal, lashings of ginger beer, red meat, sausages, cheese, sleeping in the afternoon and anything else involving any sort of pleasure. Including of course the annual (and I'm told, 'much loved') Coca-Cola "Happy Holidays" truck tour.

As you know, I find it very difficult to why it's any part of anyone's business whether or not the Coca-Cola Christmas lorry arrives in town. Especially if your reason for objecting to the bright red truck coming is because you've convinced yourself that somehow Coca-Cola are entirely responsible for children being fat with poor teeth. Here's astroturf "campaign group" Food Active"(100% funded by your taxes):
It is with huge disappointment and concern that we see Coca-Cola are once again using the Christmas period to promote their sugary drinks across the North West in their “Happy Holidays” truck tour.

We are aware of the damage caused by these drinks which play a major role in the soaring obesity and type 2 diabetes figures in our region which place a huge and growing strain on the National Health Service.

The Chief Executive of the NHS has said that “We are now spending more on obesity-related conditions … than we are on the police or fire service.”

In the North West, 35.2% of ten-eleven year olds are overweight or obese and 33.4% of five year olds have teeth decay, largely down to their consumption of sugary drinks.
This contains some untruths - firstly the cost to the NHS of obesity (at least according to those libertarian folk at Public Health England) is £4.2 billion whereas the cost of policing in 2016 was £12.6 billion so Simon Stevens is making stuff up again. And secondly, childhood obesity and tooth rot is not - even a little bit - "down to...consumption of sugary drinks". Even if they were, then it's almost certainly not Coca-Cola that's the primary culprit. More to the point, we know absolutely how to reduce the incidence of dental caries in children - good dental hygeine (you know, brush your teeth twice a day, visit the dentist).

But public health people lying isn't my beef here. Rather it's why on earth they think banning Coca-Cola from promoting its products (including zero and low sugar products that amount to over half of the sales) is any of their business. What is truly offensive here is that your and my taxes are being used to mount an ill-informed and misleading attack on a private business. Hardly a day passes without one or other story about local councils being forced by budget cuts into closing and reducing services. All of the money for 'Food Active' comes from local council budgets in the North West and they are using it for the express purpose of lobbying for national government to change the law (as well as wanting to ban Coca-Cola's "Happy Holidays" promotion).

So next time Manchester or Liverpool council leaders wring their hands about shutting down a library or cutting funding for a community centre ask them how they can justify spending money on astroturf political campaigns like 'Food Active'.


Thursday, 17 November 2016

Fake news, filter bubbles and the failure of the BBC

A couple of days ago The Times splashed its front page with a story about a leaked 'Cabinet Office Memo'. You all saw the story, either in its original Times incarnation or else the retread from The Guardian, The Telegraph, Sky News or the BBC. The content of the memo and the argument it informs is not relevent to what I'm going to say but rather the provenance of the memo. The argument is merely the victim of the news story.

Within a few hours of The Times splashing its story, there were doubts about its veracity. Was there really a government memo or has there been some sort of creative interpretation of something else. The government helpfully told us there was no such memo but then whoever believes anything a government tells us?

In the end the story was shown as a more-or-less complete fiction. Rather than a memo produced by a government department to advise the Cabinet, we had instead a polemic created on the authors' initiative as a pitch for consultancy business. The 'truth' presented in that Times story turned out to be quite a lot less than actual truth. Fleetingly one wonders how a great newspaper can make such a cock-up even to the point of asking whether it's not a cock-up but essentially a commissioned leak designed to embarrass the government - a sort of Brexit version of the Zinoviev letter?

Oddly - or maybe not oddly at all - alongside this example of misleading news reporting there has been a story about how 'fake news' was responsible (I exaggerate but only slightly) for Donald Trump winning the US Presidential election:
In particular, there are those who argue that Facebook fueled Trump’s rise by circulating a host of fake news stories about political topics, and these stories helped tip the scale in his favor.
Coupled with the filtering algorithm used by Facebook all this fake news resulted in a 'post-truth' election result. Others, including Facebook itself, have kicked back at this argument by pointing out that most (like 99%) of the content on Facebook isn't fake news. What's odd - to me at least - is that very few people have pointed out that Facebook isn't a newspaper, it's content is user-generated, unmoderated, unedited and therefore essentially untrustworthy. But bluntly the problem isn't fake news on Facebook it's the selective presentation of news, even false news, by trustworthy media.

And this problem - what I might call the "mainstream media filter" if that didn't sound too much like the wilder fringes of left and right wing blogging - is why here in the UK, we were all so utterly shocked and surprised at Donald Trump's election. Every news story on every channel told us that there was absolutely no chance at all of Donald Trump winning. When I went to the excellent Bradford Politics in the Pub everyone, panel and audience, believed that Donald trump was toast.

Why is this? Partly it's about the failure of opinion polling - US polling has hit the same wall as polls in the UK, but I don't think this explains all that failure. It's easy for us to lean back, smile and say. "I know I was wrong but so was everyone else - look at the polls". You'd have thought that, after the 2015 election and the EU referendum, us Brits would have developed a healthy scepticism about predictions based on opinion polling?

No, the reason for us getting it so comprehensively wrong (and looking at the US popular vote, those national polls weren't so wrong any way) is that the media we trust - BBC and other broadcasters, broadsheets newspapers - created a narrative that failed entirely to reflect the actual debate in the US election. We got an easy-to-swallow caricature of Donald Trump - racist, sexist, homophobic, bonkers - set against an equally shallow picture of Hillary Clinton. The election was light and dark, good and evil, saint versus sinner - there was no way Americans would vote for a man as bad as Trump especially as it would mean we wouldn't have the first female US president.

Watching events before and after the election - especially on the BBC - we can see the shift from smug certainty to incredulity and incomprehension. The BBC's narrative - indeed the narrative of almost the entire UK press corps - collapsed under the shallowness of its analysis, the prejudice of its presumptions and the degree of its ignorance about the USA and its demographics. It's not just that some of the anti-Trump stuff might just be crying wolf but that we'd not spotted that a whole lot of people in the USA actually looked at Trump's agenda and concluded they'd have a go with that.

After all, Trump's message out there was about jobs, immigration, patriotism, ending corruption and giving a voice to the voiceless. It's true this is a deceptive agenda - the economic policies will make America poorer not greater and in a land of immigrants attacking immigration seems dumb and just a bit racist - but when the counter is shrill attacks on the candidate's character rather than a debate about the issues, should we be so surprised when a whole bunch of people gave Hillary the proverbial finger?

So when the BBC and others point at Facebook, accusing the social medium of spreading fake news and creating filter bubbles, perhaps they need to examine the massive beam in their own eye - after all Facebook doesn't pretend to be a news medium, the BBC does. And, if we've learned anything over the last two years it's that the voting behaviour (and, I don't doubt, the opinions and attitudes) of a lot of folk simply doesn't fit the liberal* narrative that our national media promotes. Whether there's anything that can be (or indeed should be) done is a matter for debate but one thing is certain, the search for different news sources on-line suggests that a lot of people out there have rejected that liberal world view and are seeking alternative news sources.

The growth of fake news - as well as polemical sites like Vox or Breitbart and conspiracy sites like Infowars or the UK's own Canary - reflects the utter failure of the main news organisations and, in the UK, especially the BBC. I watched an interview by a BBC reporter of a man from 'Gays for Trump' (this might not have been the exact name of the group but it describes it precisely). The reporter may have been tired - it was the morning after Trump's election - but what came across was utter contempt for the young man being interviewed: how dare he challenge the narrative of trump as gay-hating (he isn't) and appear as a pleasant, personable bloke rather than the cartoon version of the Trump supporter as a one-toothed, baseball-capped, wall-eyed, racist redneck!

Next year, we have elections in France. They're pretty important, not least because Marine Le Pen leads in the polls and the BBC and others will be building themselves up into a funk at the possibility of her election. What we might hope for is a slightly better narrative from the BBC and other national media, one that actually reflects the debate rather than "oh my god, no, please, not Le Pen, not a fascist, fascists are bad" repeated over and over again. It may be true that the French run-off system makes it very difficult for Le Pen to win (we saw this in Austria where they very nearly elected an old Green communist in preference to the Freedom Party candidate for president) but we deserve something of a better analysis that we've had in the last three campaigns the BBC has covered.

The selective nature of BBC news-making, the prejudice of mainstream sources and the inability of London-based reporters to appreciate a fundamental cultural difference between city and country, capital and provinces - these things have created a filter bubble around the BBC, other broadcasters and the main broadsheet newspapers that is far more damaging than 'fake news' sites on Facebook. Just as social science academia needs to actively recruit conservatives, so do the main media outlets, newspapers and broadcasters - not as superstar columnists or presenters but in the bones of the organisation as programme planners, producers, directors and researchers.

Right now a growing part of the population - radicalised by Brexit (to use the sort of divisive language the BBC valorises) - is more and more distrustful of our national news media and especially the one they pay for, the BBC. We know The Guardian and its ilk are biased but we now know that this increasingly applies to the BBC - the liberal media filter bubble just means that people at the BBC haven't recognised just how they're no longer meeting the public service remit given them in their charter. The incomprehension we saw in May 2015 became wilder in June 2016 and frantic in November 2016 - the UK's national media didn't see any of this coming because it was looking in the wrong places. Mostly its own navel. This is the problem not fake news stories on Facebook.

*Please note that where used the word 'liberal' is meant in its perjorative American meaning not its sane, noble and decent English meaning

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

What is truth?

Once upon a time I was planning director of an advertising (well direct marketing really) agency. We'd done so focus groups for a client looking at pensions and savings. They were enormous fun - I mean this, we did pensions the advertising agency way with cushions, music, pictures of sexy celebrities and party poppers. OK, I made the last bit there up - but the work was good and I learned more about the issues around pensions than I'd done from all the dry as dust actuaries and economists (we did lots of stuff with these folk too).

Any way, we presented the work to the client. It was well received by them with one, somewhat grumpy, exception. A day or two later, I got a letter (this was in the days before email since you ask) from the Finance Director asking how I could know the research was true - after all we'd conducted six focus groups with ten people or so in each. It can't be true can it, I can't commit to a major investment on the basis of giving sixty people wine and cushions can I?

I can (more or less) faithfully reproduce my reply:

"Dear Finance Director,

Thank you for your letter regarding our research. It was interesting.

What is truth?

Yours sincerely,

Simon Cooke

Account Planning Director"

The problem is that there are a load of people out there who think - nay, insist - that they know what truth is. And, more to the point, that we have moved into a "post truth" world:

Post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics) is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of "secondary" importance.
Yeah. And no politician before Farage and Trump lied. Or, shall we say, carefully selected the statistics, the words and the timing for something so as to get the maximum political impact.

The whole idea is - as these things so often are - an attempt to discredit critics of a politically dominant group by suggesting that they are, in some way, charlatans or chancers rather than wise, noble folk who care deeply about the people. Yet no-one ever challenges them on the idea of truth itself. My Finance Director at least had the defence of needing to make a decision about a major investment - most of the 'post truth' stuff isn't so significant. Instead it's a way by which an intellectual (and very Laputian) elite closes off criticism.

In political discourse there is very little objective truth. Our job isn't to capture the moonbeam of that hypothetical truth but rather to negotiate between a set of possible truths including ones based on the feelings and emotions of voters. In a world where we're encouraged to respect the faith of people who believe their prophet flew to heaven on a winged horse what exactly has changed in our understanding of truth?

Christians believe Christ died for our sins and rose again after three days. Is this truth? Is the idea of the world's creation - whoever's myth you prefer - true? Or should we go with a sceptical view that, in essence, says there is no truth except that we don't know?

In our daily lives (and this is so for peasants and kings) we make choices on limited information, opinion and prejudice. We choose to call some of this "truth" but that's a rationalisation rather than, dare I say it, truth. The truth we're getting over in 'post-truth' is exactly the truth that finance director was writing to me about - a sort of scientific method truth in a world where, most of the time, we can't conduct randomised control tests. Assuming that such things are ever truly random, controlled and a test.

Talking about 'post-truth' is a recognition from the bien pensants of this world that they have been fibbing to us for all these years. Instead of this 'skeptical' idea, we have instead an approach embracing doubt, emotion, intuition and wisdom. It's no longer the case that some academic's research - framed by their prejudice and enacted in that context - is seen as truth. Interesting, challenging, informative - but not true. Long may this last.