Sunday, May 1, 2016

The spirit of the time

Just about every afternoon I have a (usually) quiet coffee at a bar that serves a cinema complex. Today something was up: I have never seen a crowd like this queuing for a film here. Quite a buzz. A movie had touched on something important; it was showing simultaneously on two screens. What was I missing then?

Embrace of the Serpent (Spanish Film Festival). Checked a few reviews. Predictably enough, it is highly political, screamingly anti-colonialist, utterly Romantic (in the original Rousseauian sense), a little bit psychedelic – and very, very spiritual.

Not my cup of tea.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Obama's warning

US President Barack Obama has responded to Boris Johnson's journalistic musings concerning the President's personal feelings about Britain. Johnson had been angered by, and was responding to, the President's strong endorsement of the campaign to keep Britain in the EU.

In his article, Johnson suggested that President Obama, on account of his family background, and specifically his Kenyan heritage, may well have less than positive feelings about the UK and its imperial past. He referred to a story that a bust of Winston Churchill had been removed from the Oval Office at the beginning of Obama's tenure.

The mainstream media came out strongly against Johnson, with accusations of racism, and various sources claiming that the removal of the bust was not Obama's decision at all.

Obama's subsequent comments confirm however that it was his decision.

"When I was elected as President of the United States my predecessor had kept a Churchill bust on the Oval Office. There are only so many tables where you can put busts otherwise it starts looking a little cluttered," he said.

“I thought it was appropriate and I suspect most people here in the UK might agree, that as the first African American president it might be appropriate to have a bust of Martin Luther King in my office to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who had somehow allowed me to have the privilege of holding this office.”

He claims to have warm feelings about Winston Churchill. "I love the guy," he said.

But his remarks also contained a warning about trade links with the US should Britons vote to leave the EU.

The Independent reports:

He said the US would rather the UK remained in the bloc, and said a unilateral free-trade deal between the two countries would not be a high priority for America.

He added that he was merely offering advice to a “friend” and that it was up to the British public which way they voted. [Britain votes on 23 June on whether to stay or leave the bloc.]

Sounds like a threat to me; and a curious one, given that the Obama administration will no longer be in place when decisions about a bilateral deal with a post-Brexit Britain would need to be made. [In the event of a vote to leave the EU, there would be an extended transition period during which Britain would remain within the trading bloc.]

In a piece written immediately after Boris Johnson's initial announcement of his support for the leave campaign, I suggested that his popularity and mainstream credentials could possibly swing the balance of probabilities towards Brexit. But the polls seem to indicate that a majority of Britons still favour remaining in the EU.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Stagflation on the way?

Whilst not necessarily endorsing Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's general approach to economics (too Keynesian for me), I always find his analyses worth reading. In a recent article he sounds a warning about equities and a stalling US economy, addressing the big question about how long disinflationary forces will persist.

What is clear is that the Fed and fellow central banks can do precious little to reverse a chronic decline in productivity. In this respect, we have reached the limits of central bank action.

Fed chief Janet Yellen is in a horrible predicament. She can keep running the economy 'hot' - and by her own admission real rates are 1.25pc below their 'neutral' or Wicksellian level - in a bid to build up momentum.

But in doing this she risks falling behind the curve on inflation, or more accurately 'stagflation', since that is where the US seems headed. She can pick her poison from one side or the other of the 1970s Phillips Curve - jobs or prices - but pick she must. “The longer the Fed dithers, the higher rates are eventually going,” said Paul Ashworth from Capital Economics.

Yellen has a revolt on her hands in any case. The heads of the Atlanta, St Louis, and San Francisco Feds have all been talking up the inflation threat. Even the ultra-dovish Boston chief has gently cautioned markets to expect more than the one solitary rate rise priced in by futures contracts for this year.

The Fed may succeed in stretching this cycle until 2017. But sooner or later it will have to grasp the nettle, and then we will discover how much monetary pain can be taken by a dollarized global economy with post-QE pathologies and total debt ratios some 36pc of GDP higher than in 2008...

There has been a lot of talk about stagflation recently. It seems like it may indeed be coming.

The scariest statement here is the remark by Paul Ashworth: "The longer the Fed dithers, the higher rates are eventually going."

And dithering they have been for years now.

For a slightly different perspective, emphasizing the current global deflationary situation and competitive currency devaluations (but equally critical of the role of central banks), note the latest – very bearish – views of Bob Janjuah of Nomura.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Conservatives in the closet

In a recent piece for Bloomberg View, Megan McArdle recounts her experience as a student of the humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. It's a sad and oft-told tale of shameless political bias on the part of academics.

... “Conservatives can safely study ancient history but not modern American history, economics but not sociology,” writes my colleague [Virginia Postrel]. “Literature, largely a politics-free zone until the 1980s, has become hostile territory.” This resonates with me, and not just for ideological reasons.

The politicization of the humanities was well under way when I was an English major in the early 1990s, and my education suffered as a result. This wasn't because I was so oppressed as a conservative, but because in roughly half my classes, there was no easier route to an A than to argue that some long-dead author was a sexist pig, racist cretin or homophobic jerk. Being, like so many college students, not overfond of unnecessary labor, I’m afraid I all too frequently slithered along the easy path to the 4.0.

It's no wonder that academics have lost the general respect they once had. Far too many are mere ideologues and certainly not professionals serving the public. The only surprise is that the public has put up with this situation for so long.

And, as McArdle points out, in certain subject areas the few conservative academics left standing must keep their conservatism well hidden.

Every time I write about bias against conservatives in academia, I can count on a few professors writing me to politely suggest that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Sometimes they aren’t so polite, either. How would I know what goes on in their hiring meetings, their faculty gatherings, their tenure reviews? They’re right there, and they can attest firsthand that there ain’t no bias, no sir!

But none of them can explain why, if that bias doesn’t exist, so many of their conservative and libertarian colleagues feel compelled to hide in the closet. Deep in the closet, behind that plastic zip bag of old winter coats in mothballs, and sealed, with many layers of packing tape, in a box marked “Betamax Tapes: Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon 1981-1987.”

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Some thoughts on political idealism and America's role in the world

From time to time I will be posting either here or at Language, Life and Logic (as appropriate) essays or extracts from my essays or selected comments from The Electric Agora. My latest piece, Science and Disenchantment, was published there a day or so ago. I may repost it here after the comments have closed in a couple of weeks.

For now, here is something based on an exchange that took place earlier this month...

Commenting recently at The Electric Agora, David Ottlinger accused me of "defeatism" because I expressed reservations about his optimistic and idealistic ideas about the possibility and scope of democratic debate and public advocacy.

Here is a (slightly revised) extract from my response:

... The thing is, you seem to want to speak for 'reason' or some such, to rise above the fray. But my gut feeling, at any rate, is that in the end one has to bite the ideological bullet and – well, join the fray (if one wants to be an activist, that is). But then, unfortunately, you leave the high ground of reason behind for something like rhetoric. (Like that opinion piece [an article by Conor Friedersdorf criticizing outspoken conservatives] you referred me to: it was nicely done, but quite polemical and tendentious.*)

I am not a natural activist. That may be why you see me as defeatist, but I've got nothing against activists – at least not against those who are not engaged (as many of them are, as it happens) in trying to undermine the things I hold most dear.

You obviously hold certain things dear, not just abstract ideals but some good things about the culture you grew up in and are committed to. I too can see some good in American culture, but simply don't share your belief that the political structures can be made to work again as they once did. The economy, as I see it, is also a problem.

Regarding the New Republic article [a piece by Heather Hurlburt defending military humanitarian interventionism]: the issues are difficult, and have (as the author suggests) been made more difficult by previous flawed interventions. Part of the tragedy is that the US, by over-reaching and over-promising and by its perceived hidden agendas and very mixed motives, is rapidly losing respect in the world. Not so long ago you could still see it (or at least I could) as the cavalry riding to the rescue. Not any more. That myth has soured.

What I see now is a rapidly fading superpower with looming budgetary and social problems trying to maintain its geopolitical sway in a changing world and, to that end, involving itself in various far-away regions like Ukraine, for example, and the South China Sea (as well of course as the Middle East). NATO expansion (was it really necessary?) has arguably exacerbated tensions in Eastern Europe and pushed Russia in an unfortunate direction. American activities in the Western Pacific/South China Sea could be seen as an attempt to retain a role the U.S. once had and which China is now seeking to take up. These are dangerous times.

Which brings me back to that article. Was the author suggesting that the US should send troops into Burma?!

I don't deny that there have been effective humanitarian military interventions in the past and that there will be more in the future. But one important determinant of success is that the flag of the intervening power should inspire respect and trust.

* For example, you can't just dismiss the notion (as Friedersdorf appears to do) that immigration alters the ethnic balance of a country and that these changes (in America and most other Western countries) have generally been encouraged by and worked to the benefit of the left.

And this is an earlier comment of mine on that thread (which prompted David Ottlinger's reference to the article by Heather Hurlburt):

[Quoting him] "... I believe you severely underestimate the extent to which we are dependent on experts to make determinations about serious issues."

My views on expertise probably differ from yours more on the issue of 'moral expertise' than in other areas.

"The question of whether economic history since 1960 is more consistent with monetarism or Keynsianism or whether the history of various military interventions is more consistent with limited interventionism or isolationism is just going to be too complicated, way too complicated, for voters to make determinations on without experts."

Or even with the assistance of 'experts': because in a sense there are no experts here. Let me explain.

Macroeconomic theory is a contested area, and moral and ideological commitments clearly come into it. I think it was Wilhelm Röpke who said that inflation is a 'moral problem'. And this goes to the heart of my response. In decisions concerning choices between various economic approaches or frameworks both factual (relating to whether descriptions and predictions map onto the real world) and moral/ideological factors come into play.

Similar factors apply to judgments about military interventions. There are practical questions about consequences, and then the moral dimension. To a large extent the question of whether to launch a military attack on Iraq and kill its leader (or do the same in Libya) could be seen as a moral problem. And moral problems simply cannot be dealt with in an objective or fine-grained sort of way like we deal with technical or scientific problems. I must confess that before the Iraq war, I was undecided about it: it was only after the event that it became clear to me that it had been a mistake. The predictions of the advocates of intervention were all proven to be wrong. And I think most people don't need the help of experts to see this. There were no WMD. Iraqis did not embrace democracy and live together in prosperity and harmony. Likewise the disastrous intervention in Libya.

Other 'interventions' in the past have been arguably even more clearly morally flawed. Take the Allied bombing campaigns in Europe towards the end of World War 2 directed at civilian targets (e.g. Dresden) or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don't think we need to call in the experts here. I know where I stand.

I also know where I stand on economic questions (though I am not an economist). It may be that I have chosen to believe the wrong set of experts. Time may tell. General predictions have been made (you can never give precisely timed predictions in this area). How it finally plays out will not necessarily clearly validate or vindicate (or invalidate) any particular framework, but some predictions will be shown to have been more accurate than others.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The UK and the EU

It may not seem all that significant that a popular moderate conservative figure in the the UK has come out in favour of Britain leaving the EU, but Boris Johnson is rather special, and I suspect his decision will tip the balance in the current referendum debate.

If Britain did leave, it would be very significant not just for the UK, but for Europe as a whole and to some extent for the wider world. For anyone with an interest in geopolitics, this is a big deal.

This is how Boris Johnson's article in the Telegraph in which he announced his decision to support the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union opens:

"I am a European. I lived many years in Brussels. I rather love the old place. And so I resent the way we continually confuse Europe – the home of the greatest and richest culture in the world, to which Britain is and will be an eternal contributor – with the political project of the European Union. It is, therefore, vital to stress that there is nothing necessarily anti-European or xenophobic in wanting to vote Leave on June 23."

Crucially, Johnson's stand will help convince wavering voters who are repelled by backward-looking, reactionary or xenophobic thinking that voting for Brexit does not not entail anti-European or unenlightened attitudes.

There is one aspect of Johnson's article I would quibble with however. Given that the pioneers of project which has resulted in the EU were intent on an eventual European federation and given the natural tendency of bureaucratic structures to take on a life of their own, couldn't the current situation, at least in general terms, have been reasonably predicted long ago – well before German reunification which (as Johnson notes) hastened moves towards integration, and well before the UK joined the Common Market in 1973?

In other words, could it not be seen as having been a mistake from the start to imagine (as many in Britain imagined or were persuaded to believe) that the progress of the new structures towards a unified federal state would be – while those structures remained in place – anything other than inexorable?

When in 1975 a referendum was held to determine whether the UK would stay in, the political establishment and the mainstream press were overwhelmingly in favour of doing so. This is no longer the case, and a British withdrawal is now very much on the cards.

If Britain does pull out, the consequences both for the future of Britain and for the rest of Europe are unpredictable. But it is certain that a British withdrawal would precipitate radical changes to a Continental status quo which – partly because of a poorly designed common currency, and partly for wider social and economic reasons – is already tottering and clearly unsustainable.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

On social ideals and values

Can you talk about human values, social ideals, etc. in a clear and objective way? Indeed you can – but only if you recognize that value-based claims and commitments cannot be objectively grounded as other sorts of claim can be. Much unnecessary conflict and confusion will be avoided if this fact is recognized and acknowledged.

In a piece recently published at The Electric Agora, I set out my views on this matter, sketching out, as concisely and dispassionately as possible, the implications of a particular (and I think perspicuous) view of logic, language and human knowledge. There was nothing particularly unusual or original in what I was saying, but it is a view which is strenuously rejected in many circles.

As I see it, value claims (which are based in biology and social and cultural interaction) are quite unlike ordinary factual or scientific claims. They are (I argue) simply not the sorts of things that can be objectively assessed as being true or false, correct or incorrect. And this idea has profound social and political implications. Embracing it entails a rejection of dogmatism, fanaticism and all forms of 'political correctness'.

In the essay I deal first with the nature of ordinary factual and scientific claims and then with aesthetic and moral claims respectively. Here is the final section – on morality.

Morality is a more difficult topic, partly because it is an intrinsically vague concept. Moral judgments can overlap with aesthetic judgments (courtesy and politeness, for example, have both a moral and an aesthetic dimension) and also, I would claim, with prudential judgments. (My views here are more in line with Classical than Christian thought.)

Prudential claims could be seen to have a greater claim to being objectively true (or false) than purely value-based claims as they relate to observable effects. Consider proverbs, for example, which tend to have a pragmatic and prudential (rather than a strictly moral) focus. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.” “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Pretty vague and sweeping, but you could conceivably finesse these sorts of claims into testable hypotheses. The same goes for other proverbs many of which (helpfully? – well, perhaps not…) even incorporate numerical values. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

By contrast to factual or prudential claims, we have, almost by definition, no way of testing value-based claims. Which human qualities are most to be valued (and encouraged), for instance? Individuals will differ in their views. Do we favor an ethic based on martial values of courage, strength and self-sufficiency; on justice and righteousness; or one based more on compassion and equality (i.e. a commitment to ‘social justice’)?

Or do we want to refuse to play that game altogether and adopt a ‘non-ethical’ (or amoral) ethic or perspective? (Machiavelli, Max Stirner…).

Politics and religion obviously come into the picture also, but it must be borne in mind that many religious and political claims are not mere value claims. Most traditional religious doctrines, for example, involve (sometimes testable) claims about how the world is. Likewise political ideologies (e.g. the social and economic predictions of various versions of Marxism or classical liberalism). So basic value elements often need to be isolated or disentangled from other elements.

But even if in many instances isolating the value-based elements is a difficult task, my central point stands, I think. We cannot demonstrate that someone making basic value claims which diverge from normally accepted standards is wrong or mistaken. The best we can do is to show them (if they are not already aware of the fact) that they are in a very small minority on the issue.

Of course, in the event of these anomalous views being associated with antisocial actions or behaviors, it is important that social mechanisms be activated to prevent (further) social harm. Nothing I’ve said here should be seen to deny or undermine this. Robust informal regulatory mechanisms exist in every functioning society. And, with respect to more formal mechanisms, it’s quite clear that efficient and equitable systems of law and law enforcement need not be in any way dependent on a commitment to notions of moral realism, natural law or natural rights.