The Dim-Post

August 20, 2015

Variations on the same old theme

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 5:03 pm

Rob Salmond has a post up about the UK Labour leadership election and the political centre, and how Jeremy Corbyn’s abandonment of same which will doom the Labour Party to in-electability. Which, maybe it will, I don’t know. I’ve given up trying to forecast political outcomes. But this piece about the leadership race in the New Statesmen jumped out at me. It describes the Corbyn campaigns phenomenal registration drive then expands:

Yet Corbyn’s success owes less to entryism than thought. There are Labour voters who departed under Blair and now feel liberated to return; left-wing members who joined under Ed Miliband (and regard Corbyn as his successor); and young voters who are losing their political virginity. On the party’s right, there is self-reproach at their failure to sign up moderate supporters to counter the radicals. “We were hideously complacent,” one MP said.

Others attribute Corbyn’s rise to the ­unattractiveness of his opponents. “Andy, Yvette and Liz have a lot to answer for,” a senior MP told me. “If you can’t beat Jeremy Corbyn, how you can beat George Osborne, Boris Johnson or Theresa May?” Some of the other three’s own backers are stunned by how few new ideas they have offered.

This pattern of left-wing centrists adopting ‘strategic values’ because ‘that’s what voters want’, and then getting annihilated because of total political ineptitude is becoming a depressingly familiar trend. There’s a cargo-cult mentality to it, I think. ‘Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were centrists’, the reasoning goes, ‘They moved left-wing parties to the right and they won. So to win you simply need to move to the right.’ So they move to the right and just sit and wait for the voters to fly in. But they never come.

Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were very astute politicians and they figured out at the beginning of their careers, all those decades ago now, that at that moment in history the best way to win was to move their parties to the right. But what if that moment in history has passed on now, and the best way to win is . . . something else? If they were starting their careers would they repeat the same strategy even though it isn’t working? Or would they look for something new?

I think they’d look for something new. And I don’t think it would be movement along the values spectrum. It would look, probably, like the data-driven grass-roots campaigning of Obama. But the closest we have to that in New Zealand is the National Party.

Update, also, too: it strikes me that if Corbyn really is an existential threat to his party, the sensible thing for the centrists to do is unite behind a single candidate instead of diluting their votes three ways. It’s almost as if they’re losing because they’re terrible at politics.

August 18, 2015

The trouble with Mike

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:02 am

I think the opposition have confused this issue a bit. The problem with Mike Hosking isn’t that he’s biased, or prolific, if he wants to praise National on his talkback show and in Herald columns then that’s just fine. The trouble with Hosking is that TVNZ is the state broadcaster and they’ve created a current affairs show in which the head presenter gives a little speech every night praising the government, with no balance, and that is a deeply weird and sinister thing to happen in a democratic society.

Happy days.

August 17, 2015

Sense and ostensibility

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 7:15 am

Andrea Vance’s latest column starts with the Greens’ Rugby World Cup licensing fiasco:

Consoling beersies for the Greens, who spent much of the week as party poopers after initially opposing Seymour’s bill. They ended it as flakes, flip-flopping on their principles.

The whole episode points to a wider identity crisis in politics. In a blind taste test could you differentiate between parties?

Seymour stayed true to ACT’s roots as a voice for business. That does mark a departure from recent predecessor who put National’s interests ahead of all else, including their base support. With his bill, Seymour called out deficiencies in the Government’s alcohol reforms.

For some time, the Greens have positioned themselves as Parliament’s social conscience. Like death’s head at the feast, they made all kinds of rational objections to Seymour’s proposal.  But you couldn’t really hear them over the howls of “buzz kill.”

Perhaps tiring of their perennial Cassandra predicament, the Greens recognised this stance made them deeply unpopular. Quicker than you could say “Seymour is a populist” – they surrendered their principles.

I don’t think the Greens were acting ‘out of principle’. I’m sure they thought they were because they like to think everything they do is principled but I tried hard to figure out what, exactly, their principle was behind their opposition. They didn’t want ‘boozed up’ people spilling out onto the streets when schools were opening – which, c’mon, really? – only now they’re supporting a modified bill that allows exactly that, and congratulating themselves that the last week of toxic news coverage was a ‘win’ because Seymour might modify his bill.

The real reason for opposing the bill was that ACT was doing something populist, and ACT is the enemy and it’s generally a good idea to prevent your enemy from becoming more popular. But you can’t just say that out loud so you have to have an ostensible reason that the media and public will believe. The Greens didn’t so their opponents got to project their own motivations onto the decision. ‘The Greens are killjoys. They hate beer and rugby etc.’ Instead of blocking ACT’s popularity they enhanced it and made themselves deeply unpopular for no gain.

A core problem we have on the left, I think, is that very few of our MPs actually understand politics. Of course it depends on how you define the term – if you expand it to include policy and ideology and political history and hating neoliberalism then yes, sure, they know about that stuff. But on the actual core challenge of influencing the public to achieve power they are mostly demonstrably clueless. Worse, they’re blind to their cluelessness. ‘Bad at politics?’ They would snort. ‘Aren’t they MPs? Haven’t they risen to that height through their own political genius? Doesn’t that, by definition, make them awesome at politics?’

Are New Zealand First backbenchers ‘awesome at politics’? They are not. The leader of their party is and he needs people to fill out the rest of his caucus and his backbenchers are really just a bunch of nobodies who’ve lucked into that slot. And an awful lot of Labour and Green MPs have done pretty much the same thing. They’ve used parties founded by or led by people with political acumen as vehicles for entry into Parliament, stayed there, some of them for decades, while evidently learning nothing. How many left-wing MPs have won a seat off National recently? How many have taken down a Minister? Won cross-party support for a bill? How many have even increased the party vote in their own electorate?

Very few. National expects success from their MPs. If they don’t perform they ditch them. But both of our left-wing parties have contrived to build MMP parties that protect mediocrity and fail to incentivise electoral success. It’s a huge problem. We desperately need party structures that discourage MPs from making ridiculous unforced errors. MPs should be worried about what the 50,000 voters in their electorate will think of their decisions, not their friends in whatever faction empowers them, or the couple dozen activists who engage with them on twitter and support whatever they do.

The most successful opposition MP at the moment is Kelvin Davis. He’s also one of the newest MPs and his background is teaching. And he got in by winning a tough electoral race. That’s telling us something, I think, about the value of all those honors degrees in political science or backgrounds as political staffers or decades of parliamentary experience that his fellow, ineffectual opposition safe-seat or list MPs possess.

August 14, 2015

Cynical thoughts on the flag referendum

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 6:41 pm

Not a lot of people like our flag. And loads of people still like our Prime Minister – so the lack of enthusiasm for his flag referendum is a little odd. What’s going on there?

The consensus on left-wing twitter is that the flag referendum is just a ‘distraction’ from whatever scandal is dogging the government that news-cycle. I don’t think that’s true. I think Key really wants to change the flag. Partly because he wants a legacy but also, mostly – I think – because, as Key said on the radio the other day, he genuinely believes it will be ‘worth billions’ of dollars over time.

The billions comment was widely mocked but I think it points us to where the drive for a flag referendum comes from. Key has been pitched this idea by someone (my prime suspect is former Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts) that a new distinctive flag will ‘enhance our brand’ and ‘add value’ to New Zealand as a product. The taxpayers have probably even paid for a report on it, or at least a power-point presentation in which pictures of Canadian flag-branded maple syrup and estimates of billions of dollars in added brand value were flashed in front of the PM’s face.

The current Saatchi CEO has a spot on the flag panel – along with standard National Party stalwarts like Rod Drury and Julie Christie- but there aren’t any designers on the panel, and, as many people pointed out when the flag long-list was released, not many of the contenders really look like flags. Flags are supposed to work on a symbolic level – they speak to our history and our identity as a nation, but none of that is even part of the debate. There isn’t any debate, unless its about whether the flag will be worth ‘billions’ or not. People don’t care.

And the reason, I think, is that Key and his panel aren’t choosing a flag. They’re choosing a logo. The replacement flag isn’t supposed to speak to our identity, it’s supposed to look snappy on our export products and help consumers in foreign markets distinguish our milk powder or kiwifruit from those of our competitors. Key’s clear preference is the silver fern, not because it symbolises New Zealand but because the flag is supposed to be a form of native advertising: whenever our athletes perform the fern will be ’embedded content’ adding value to our brand.

And Key – and whoever sold him on this idea – might be right about all of that. Maybe it’s worth loads. I don’t know.  I don’t really like the current flag, and I don’t have strong ideas about what the new one should be. And if we did have a big debate about ‘national identity’ it would probably be a horrible trainwreck. I’m just ruminating on why Key is doing this and why no one else really cares. People sense that the reason for the change is venal so they aren’t engaging.

August 10, 2015

Various

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 10:04 am

I’ve just finished reading Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin. Very short summary: le Guin writes a reality-bending Phillip K Dick novel – but this isn’t as great as it sounds which is why you probably haven’t heard of this book. Phil Dick wrote about reality and asked ‘what is the real?’, because as a mentally ill drug addicted creative genius who had regular religious visions he genuinely did not know what was real and what wasn’t. Le Guin is much more grounded. She doesn’t have the same stakes in the subject as Dick so her book on the ‘nature of reality’ becomes a vector for her interest in Daoism and other eastern faiths. It’s not terrible but its no VALIS.

But what really struck me while reading this book was the bibliography at the beginning. In the space of a handful of years Le Guin wrote:

  • A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
  • The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
  • The Farthest Shore (1972)
  • The Dispossessed (1974)

That’s an amazing streak. Two canonical sci-fi novels and three canonical fantasy novels in six years.


Also, I’ve been watching Deutschland 83, which is an excellent show in its own right, but also has a fine 1980s soundtrack. The second episode featured ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ which reminded me that I never ever listened to The Cure or New Order or any of that music until I was in my mid-to-late teens because I had heard – and genuinely believed – that listening to ‘gothic music’ made you commit suicide. This wasn’t an unusual thing to think in the early eighties, for a ten year old or even an adult. There was a lot of moral panic around youth sub-cultures. Serious media outlets wondered if Dungeons and Dragons taught children to worship the devil. The question of whether ‘gothic music’ somehow programmed people to kill themselves was an ongoing media obsession.

I remember wondering what this deadly music sounded like while also being terribly afraid that I would hear it, accidentally and then robotically kill myself. These were valid fears. Although I did also wonder how such music could be released and distributed without killing everyone involved. Ironically, despite the obsession with transgressive youth subcultures, mainstream pop culture was far more transgressive then than it is today.


Matt Nippert interviewed TV3 boss Mark Weldon. It is hilarious. My highlights: Judith Collins was considered as a Campbell Live co-host to rescue the show. Weldon explains that he was thinking ‘outside the building’. He’s supposed to be one of the most visionary geniuses of our business elite, and he’s also an Auckland National Party insider so I find it amusing that when he’s really using his brilliance to synergise and break paradigms his vision only runs as far as the nearest Auckland National MP. Also amusing: yes, ratings are down since Weldon took over. Way, way, way down – but, Weldon explains:

The strategy is a lot broader than pure ratings,” he says.

Weldon says other metrics, such as engagement and on-demand streaming, are also important, as are synergies with the company’s radio assets. Simon Barnett, a breakfast host at MediaWorks, won Dancing with the Stars, and Weldon says: “It’s been a great boost to MoreFM, a key brand for us.”

Story debuts tonight. I hope its good. These shows like to open with big stories and make a name for themselves – 3rd Degree broke some huge stories but never quite recovered from the humiliating ignominy of opening the show with a piece about a wheel clamper and following it up with an interview with Anna Guy, who was also a reporter for the show, somehow. Their ongoing challenge will be to break big stories in the climate of a network that is both desperate to arrest a ratings slide but is run by National Party hacks who shut the last show down because it was embarrassing the government. That’s gonna be a tricky tightrope to walk.

August 6, 2015

Notes on today’s John Armstrong column

Filed under: media — danylmc @ 6:30 am

The column is here.

The press gallery used to ‘hunt as a pack’, all chasing the same stories at the same time, and political staffers used to moan about this especially if their Minister or MP was the one being chased. That doesn’t happen so much no more unless the story is really huge. What the gallery does now is arguably worse: media outlets tend to minimise stories they don’t break themselves presumably to punish whatever comms or PR person fed the story to their rivals.

So in the absence of any exclusives the Herald’s line on the Saudi sheep deal has always been that it’s no big deal. Just good old Murray McCully being Muzza. It was a silly stand to take and it looks even sillier in the face of Andrea Vance’s story yesterday based on OIA’d Treasury advice about the deal which shows officials raising strong doubts about the legality and the benefits of building an agrihub in the middle of the desert, and strongly advising against the whole thing.

John Key’s response to this is the same as it was after the Inspector of Intelligence caught his office collaborating with WhaleOil – deny the whole thing by ‘talking past’ the media, negating the uncomfortable facts of the story and simply repeating to the public over-and-over again that everything is the Labour Party’s fault. It’s an effective tactic, or at least is has been in the past, but it is so weird for a gallery columnist – even the Herald’s – to lavish praise on Key for misleading the public so awesomely.

Armstrong’s previous column was about New Zealand First and how its ‘dying’ because its voters are aging. This drew outraged responses from people like Duncan Garner and Chris Trotter who sternly warned Armstrong never to count Winston out, which is true, I guess – but surely the substantive critique of  Armstrong’s thesis is that it just obviously isn’t true. Peters won an increased majority in the election and he just won an electorate off the National Party.

‘New Zealand First’s voters are dying’ is a common fantasy in the National Party, who hate and fear Peters for obvious reasons. (It’s cognate to the ‘John Key doesn’t really want to be Prime Minister so he’ll step down any day now and just go away’ fantasy that circulates around Labour.) And that’s always been my problem with John Armstrong. He sees it as his job to perpetuate the spin and disinformation and fantasies and outright lies of the major parties – the government-of-the-day especially – when the point, surely, is to do the exact opposite?

August 2, 2015

TPP and self-delusion

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:10 am

Via RNZ:

Another TPP meeting, another failure to reach agreement.

Yet the words used to describe the negotiations did not, once again, talk of defeat.

Instead, the joint statement by the TPP Ministers said: “We have made significant progress and will continue work on resolving a limited number of remaining issues, paving the way for the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.”

Yet the hurdles highlighted as sticking points going into the talks proved to be same issues holding up an agreement.

And as Trade Minister Tim Groser said, one of those is the main prize for New Zealand in these talks.

“You can see clearly that there are one or two really hard issues, and one of them is dairy.”

But Mr Groser is nothing if not an optimist, expressing confidence there is a solution that will benefit New Zealand’s dairy farmers and those in countries resistant to opening up their markets, like Canada and Japan.

Mr Groser admits total tariff removal is off the agenda, and he was no mood to give in in Hawaii.

The reporting in Australian media was a bit different. According to them it was their negotiators who held tough and refused to give in. But they also report:

According to industry figures currently in Maui, Hawaii, for talks on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), the US is not sticking to a position agreed to 18 months ago which was to be the starting point for this round of negotiations.

“When we heard, we were absolutely devastated by it because it put us back so much,” Australian Dairy Council chairman Noel Campbell said.

According to Mr Campbell the US now will not budge unless Canada opens its markets.

So the latest round of talks sounds like it was a huge step backwards, rather than the amazing progress Groser’s trumpeting. And this round was supposed to be the big breakthrough timed to prevent domestic political constraints in various member countries from contaminating the process. There are now so many participants with so many conflicting vested interests that the windows for advancement are very small. Actually, it now looks like those windows don’t exist.

Back when New Zealand signed the Free Trade Agreement with China, Helen Clark admitted it happened because we’re such a small economy. We were China’s first FTA because we were a harmless test-case for them, and we used our small size to our advantage to leverage a good deal. The original TPP arrangement was supposed to work a bit like that. New Zealand and the other signatories – Chile, Singapore and Brunei – would conclude a high quality deal covering off all the big problems in modern trade, and then when other larger economies saw how well it worked we would gradually lure them in.

Why didn’t that happen? One of the main reasons, I suspect, is the hubris of the Trade Minister and the senior staff at MFAT. Tim Groser made a comment the other day about how the TPP talks needed to remain secret from the New Zealand public because it was a task for adults ‘not breathless children’. Groser is very much a product of the culture of elitism at our Foreign Ministery. ‘The finest minds in New Zealand do not go into business or science or medicine,’ MFAT assures itself. ‘They become diplomats. MFAT is the best of the best.’ They’re the Top Gun of the public service, according to themselves. They’re the people who know what’s best for the country. They understand the way the world works. They’re the adults in the room.

Groser takes that self-regard a step further, and seems to think he is the best of the best of the best. World class. A major player of world historical significance. A global titan of international trade. And why should such a man waste his priceless time patching together a deal with the likes of Chile and Brunei? Why not Canada, too? Mexico? Japan? America? Why not put together the greatest trade deal in the history of the world? Why should he do anything less?

Because it isn’t going to work, seems to be the answer. If we had a small, highly successful trade pact and larger economies were negotiating to try and access it, as per the original plan, then we’d be bargaining from a position of strength. Instead we have some of the largest economies in the world dictating terms to us. Groser’s singular genius – whether real or a pathetic self-delusion – is running up against the hard reality that vested interests in those exponentially larger economies simply do not have to give us anything no matter how dazzlingly brilliant our diplomats think they are. We have no leverage – except to walk away, which is something our negotiators will be loath to do because they have so much invested in the process.

We don’t know what the benefits of TPP are – according to MFAT they’re trivial: a couple billion dollars by the year 2025, To put that in perspective, our trade with China is worth about $20 billion a year now and we didn’t have to sign away our own sovereignty to get it. And even if we achieve our big win – access to the US and Japan for dairy – we’re already hitting the environmental limits of our dairy production capability. And there’s a global glut in the dairy market. US farmers are currently pouring their excess milk into abandoned mines.

The best outcome here seems to be failure. The other negotiators realise it isn’t going to work and let the deal fall over, and then we can go back to the original plan of high quality arrangements with comparable economies who we can bargain with in good faith. That was a smart idea.

July 30, 2015

Notes on Seveneves and Aurora

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 10:44 am

(Warning: contains huge spoilers for both novels discussed).

The last two books I read happen to be sci-fi novels: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. They’re two of the big names in contemporary science fiction, and they happen to have written books dealing with similar themes. And they both have similar problems.

First, the theme. A lot of science fiction is set in space and in it it’s a given that humans will invent space colonies and interstellar space ships and go and live on other planets. When people think about an optimistic distant future for humanity that’s what a lot of us imagine. ‘We were born here,’ Michael Caine croaks in Interstellar, ‘We were not meant to die here.’ So Robinson and Stephenson ask whether that future is remotely likely. What will living in space actually be like?

The answer both of them come up with is: really, really shitty. We’re biological organisms. We evolved on earth over billions of years; we’re tailor-made for terrestrial life, and space is just amazingly hostile to us. It’s a lethally cold vacuum saturated with deadly radiation. The occupants of Stephenson’s ‘Cloud Ark’ in Seveneaves – built because a disaster renders the Earth uninhabitable – find themselves contemplating a perpetual future in which they and their descendents live on a low-calorie diet of photosynthesized algae, have no privacy and a low life expectancy due to the phenomenal cancer rate, micro-meteor strikes and chronic mental illness from the stress of orbital life.

Things are less immediately doomed in Robinson’s Aurora. It’s set five hundred years in the future, and the characters are on a large, far more comfortable starship than Stephenson’s doomed cloud, travelling to a solar system forty light years from Earth to colonise a planet there that has liquid water and breathable air. The journey takes about two-hundred years, so we’re several generations in when the story begins.

Robinson does a couple of interesting things. Firstly, he points out the basic flaw of the ‘intergenerational starship’, which is a beloved sci-fi trope. Starships are closed systems, he explains, and the second law of thermodynamics tells us that entropy will always increase inside a closed system. How’s that gonna work over hundreds of years? Very badly. The soil pathogens on the starship mutate, wiping out crops and leading to famine. Cosmic rays from space damage the ship’s quantum computer. Vital elements bind to plastics in ways that are hard to recycle, leading to resource depletion. Which leads to scarcity. Which leads to violent conflict. Starships ain’t gonna work, Robinson reckons.

The second very interesting thing he does is attempt to answer the Fermi paradox. Given that the universe is old and vast and compatible with life, why isn’t it filled with extra-terrestrial life? Why aren’t there loads of civilizations out there colonising the universe and coming into contact with us?

Because, Robinson says, planets capable of sustaining life will teem with microorganisms that will be deadly to alien visitors.There probably are other intelligent civilisations in our galaxy, the characters decide, but they aren’t reaching us via starships because of entropy and they aren’t colonising because of biology. They’re stuck on their home planets, just like us – only we haven’t figured that out yet.

So that’s an interesting moment in sci-fi. Two of its top writers are basically calling it for space. Sort of. Neal Stephenson is a self-confessed space-nerd. He doesn’t want his book to show that we have no future in outer space, so he does a very odd thing. Two-thirds of the way through his up-to-then very exciting, very bleak novel in which the deadliness of space brings the entire human race to the brink of existence and our extinction is inevitable, he flashes forwards five thousand years to a future in which billions of humans are all living happily in space, somehow.

This end sequence is terrible. Often plot-less, hard to conceptualise, filled with stupid neologisms – Stephenson’s worst habit – and with no proper ending. But my core problem is that I just didn’t believe any of it happened. The first six hundred pages set out with devastating clarity that everything in the last three hundred was impossible.

Robinson doesn’t know how to finish his book either. He gets his starship back to Earth with some of its inhabitants alive and should probably – like Gravity – stop at the moment of landing. They made it! Instead there’s a hundred extra pages of nothing much. He wants to say something else, I think, about how we should enjoy life here; so he ends with a very boring scene in which the main character goes swimming at the beach. For about twenty pages. But he’s already made the same point more effectively by showing us space explorers starving to death or being blasted out of airlocks or dying of alien pathogens. We get it. Space is awful. Earth is nice. We’re stuck here. We should look after it.

July 29, 2015

Nuanced?

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:57 am

Fran O’Sullivan is – as always – very excited that her friend Trade Minister Tim Groser is doing high level serious important trade stuff and meeting important serious people during the TPP negotiations. Although . . .

At the negotiating level, broad support has been stitched up in several areas, notably constraining state-owned enterprises from using soft loans to compete against private companies.

But contentious issues critical to New Zealand’s well-being are yet to be addressed.
Top of the agenda is market access for dairy.

Both Groser and John Key earlier signaled that it would be a deal-breaker for NZ if there was not a high-quality comprehensive result on this score. The position has since become more nuanced.

On TV3’s The Nation’s Groser said it was important as it was 25 per cent of export earnings. “It’ll be a bit light this year because of fallen dairy prices, but it’s typically around that. We’ve got very good deals shaping up in the other areas, and the deal on dairy simply isn’t there yet.

So we’ve conceded on IP, generic drugs, investor state dispute mechanisms and government anti-competition clauses, but haven’t quite gotten around to even asking for anything that we want yet.

I sure would like to play poker with Tim Groser. ‘Right. I’ve given you my house, my savings, my pension scheme, my clothes, my boots and my car keys. Now shuffle the deck and let’s start playing.’

July 28, 2015

Economics and propaganda

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 8:00 am

Last week I tweeted a couple of observations about the role of economics in modern propaganda and marketing; namely that it’s a frequently used tool in both of those disciplines that relies on its ability to advocate for political parties or ideologies or corporate – or other interests – while masquerading as an impartial science. Some people agreed with this and others took objection, and twitter isn’t the best medium for fleshing these things out, so here’s a more extended take.

There’s a famous science fiction short story called The Cold Equations. It was written by a guy called Tom Godwin and published in 1954 in Astounding Magazine.  In it an emergency ship is heading to a remote planet with urgently needed medical supplies without which the explorers on the planet will die. The pilot finds a stowaway on board the ship: a young girl. But, the pilot explains to her, the ship does not have enough fuel to account for her additional mass. If she stays on-board then she, the pilot, and all the people who need the medical supplies will die. She must be blasted out of the airlock into space. The laws of physics demand it, and there can be no humanistic appeals to morality against the cold, hard equations of the universe. In the end (spoiler) she willingly goes to her death.

There have been plenty of criticisms of this story, all making much the same point: Godwin’s science is fine but everything around it is ridiculous (engineers especially hate it on the grounds that no space mission would ever have such a tiny margin of error that a ~60kg weight discrepancy, preventing even the most minor course correction, would doom it to disaster). A whole lot of absurd premises are piled on top of each other to get to the point where the author can blast a young girl into space and justify it on the basis of science.

Most of the economic arguments I encounter look exactly like this to me. Selected, sometimes sound but often absurd premises carefully framed around a statistical finding or mathematical model so the economist can advocate for a client or ideology or agenda but say, ‘Look. Science! We gotta face the cold hard facts. There is no alternative!’ Here are two very recent examples:

1. Should we have a ban on foreign property buyers? BNZ Chief Economist Tony Alexander says we should. He provides six very compelling-sounding reasons why, but doesn’t mention what is certainly the most important from the BNZ’s point-of-view – that foreigners paying cash or overseas-raised debt for houses means fewer mortgages for New Zealanders, and thus less profit for the BNZ. And he ignores the fact that Australia has a foreign-buyers ban (with an exception for new homes) and absolutely none of the things Alexander predicts a foreign-buyers ban will accomplish have happened in Australia. The empirical evidence from the very similar country right next door seems like it should have some salience here.

Bank economists are, along with politicians, the most prominent economic spokespeople in our society. Most people hear economic arguments from these two groups every day, and sometimes what they say is sensible and sometimes it ain’t – but there is always an agenda, and the reason these groups use the language of economics to advance their own interests is because they know that it is the perfect propaganda tool, because it disguises itself as impartial and scientific.

2. But, twitter pointed out to me, what about academics? Politicians aren’t real economists and of course bank economists have an agenda, but academics are out there doing real science and getting peer reviewed, right?

Well here’s something that a bunch of right-wing economists, mostly academics, were all retweeting today. A blog post by Bryan Caplan, a very famous professor of economics at George Mason University in the US. Caplan is also a libertarian which means he adheres to an ideology which preaches that government is evil, and all of his research as a scientist harmoniously proves that his ideology is correct. (This doesn’t tend to happen in other sciences; science is mostly the experience of dreaming up beautiful ideas and theories and testing them to find out that they’re dead wrong, but somehow libertarian economist’s results always seem to endorse their beliefs about the state, and left-wing economists results’ always endorse theirs, even though the two ideologies are totally incompatible). Caplan talks about a documentary in which a homeless guy is given $100,000 and wastes it. He concludes:

Libertarians have occasionally offered their critics the following deal: We’ll support a one-time Equalization of Wealth, if you agree to abolish the welfare state. I’m not surprised that no one has taken the bait. Most poor people aren’t as dysfunctional as Ted. But deep down even bleeding hearts subscribe to my insensitive theory that – at least in the First World – ordinary prudence is enough to keep almost anyone out of poverty.

I could say a lot about that but I’ll restrict myself to the science. Firstly, most scientists try to have a cohort of more than one person before they make a sweeping statement about all of humanity. Secondly, you also try and have a control group. What happens if you give a non-alcoholic non-homeless person a huge sum of money? Like, say, lottery-winners? Well, if you google ‘lottery winners curse’ then you find out a lot of them do exactly what the homeless guy did – they fritter it all away. Some middle-class lottery winners end up becoming homeless. The academic literature on just how prevalent this is is contradictory, but my point is that this prominent academic economist and all of the economists retweeting and endorsing him sure don’t look like serious scientists. They look like bank economists or politicians, only they’re advocating for ideologies, not corporate or political interests.

The other point I’d make about economics and peer review is that yes, other sciences have peer review, but peer review is not really that robust. If you find something interesting in a new anti-cancer drug and you’ve tested it on mice, then you publish it in a peer-reviewed paper. If you want to give the drug to thousands of patients then you have to put it through clinical trials, a very robust process that takes years (and costs a fortune). You really, really, really need to be right. But economics doesn’t go through that kind of screening before it gets picked up by policy-makers and used to justify policy changes that affect the lives of millions, or tens of millions, or billions. Here’s an Economist article on the Reinhart-Rogoff debacle (too long to excerpt) explaining why that’s a problem.

But what really set me off on my twitter rant was thinking about Thomas Pikkety, and the response to his contention in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. His thesis in that book is simple – that in a capitalist system the rate of return on capital is greater over time than economic growth, meaning capitalism leads to concentration of wealth and greater inequality. It’s an important and simple thing to know about the economic system that drives the world. If he’s right then it has huge implications for our society and the level of redistribution and government intervention. Caplan above believes that capitalism is moral. If you work hard it will reward you. Piketty claims the opposite. That it is an amoral system in which wealth simply aggregates to itself.

Unfortunately there’s no way for a layperson to tell whether Piketty is correct because the response from his economist peers are neatly divided along ideological lines. Left-wing economists say he’s right, right-wing economists insist Piketty has been ‘debunked’. He’s dead wrong.

Because my values are left-wing I’m inclined to think Pikkety is right. But I also trained as a scientist, and I know that a gut-feeling based on my prior values isn’t good enough when you’re making huge decisions about the political economy. Economics is supposed to be a science, and economists certainly view themselves as such, and tend to be far more confident in their findings than, say, climate scientists, or geologists, or psychologists, or any other field that deals in uncertainty. But as a non-economist I find that every time I encounter the discipline it looks nothing like science and is indistinguishable from either politics and political activism or marketing, but is made more insidious and more powerful from its presentation as a cold, objective set of facts against which there can be no argument

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