Monday, 23 September 2019

The Conspiracy Theory Of Conspiracy Theories

I'm fascinated by conspiracy theories, and just happened across the Daddy. Corey Doctorow, the entertaining science fiction writer, believes he's found the source of them all:
"... [conspiracy theories] aren’t attributable to ideology or mind-control rays... at root, they are a disagreement about how we know whether something is true or not. When we argue about the flat Earth, we’re not just debating the shape of our planet: We’re debating the method by which we can know its shape....40 years of rising inequality and industry consolidation have turned our truth-seeking exercises into auctions, in which lawmakers, regulators and administrators are beholden to a small cohort of increasingly wealthy people who hold their financial and career futures in their hands. Industry consolidation makes it startlingly cheap to buy the truth: Once an industry consists of a handful of players, it’s easy for everyone to agree on the play, and the only people qualified to be referees are drawn from the companies’ own executive ranks, whence they will return after their spin in governance’s revolving door."
Not only is this thesis merely political hogwash designed to justify a call to break up certain industry oligopolies, but it also serves to highlight how the human brain works to make conspiracies attractive in the first place (as explored by Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman and Nicholas Taleb, often mentioned here). 

The central problem is 'overconfidence' - the belief that our existence is somehow 'controlled' rather than random (also at the root of creationism vs natural selection, for example).

I mean, just imagine if all the data that every human perceives really were "bought" or curated by "a handful of players" - let alone after only 40 years of trying...

A moment's thought, let alone a cursory read of James Gleick's excellent history of humanity's attempt to master information reveals this would not be possible. And many different conspiracy theories abound in the many different communities around the planet.

Even complaints about deliberate misinformation causing the outcome of specific votes, like Brexit, are overdone. As Taleb points out, such outcomes may be classified as Black Swans - surprise events that we try to rationalise by hindsight. Lies and misinformation might be part of the swirl surrounding Brexit, yet may really only correlate with the result without being causative - they could be just as symptomatic of a deeper malaise as the result of the vote itself. 

That's not to say lies and electoral violations should be overlooked or go unpunished - or that we should not try to rectify obvious economic mistakes or life-threatening misconceptions like the "Anti-Vax" movement. But ultimate 'control' just isn't an option. We can only minimise our exposure to the downside, and maximise our exposure to the upside, of the major events that shape our history.

Applying that to Doctorow's theory: the break of up of industry oligopolies may be worthwhile for certain reasons, but that process will not somehow restore human control over the 'truth' - any more than it will alter human psychology.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Why Suggest A Bridge Between Scotland and Ireland?

Popularity develops through the snowball effect and the bandwagon effect. Some things or people are popular because they're useful, solve a real problem or are widely appreciated for some intrinsic quality: the wheel, a rock song/group, the telephone...  But what if you have nothing genuine to offer? How do you create your own snowball and bandwagon effects out of thin air? 

You do what every snake oil salesman in the Wild West did, what Bernie Madoff did, what every religious sect leader has done, what reality TV show producers do - and what the likes of Farage, Johnson and Gove have done...

You create or 'boost' something hugely ambitious, unique, deceptively simple, vaguely plausible but not actually 'real' in the sense of being achievable or demonstrable. Something in which your victims can only have faith.

Committing to solve a really big, actual problem is out of the question. Firstly, it's really hard and will take a long time, because it involves changing actual behaviour and fighting inertia - the resistance to change. Secondly, it won't make you exclusively popular because you'll likely be competing with lots of others trying to solve the same problem. You won't stand out in the crowd. You won't capture peoples' attention.

And real problems won't capture your followers' imagination or their faith.

To make your victims cling to their belief for a long time, you also need a goal that’s really big and ambitious - because, if they go for it, a big project will commits lots of people, money and resources that can't easily be redeployed.

And if the goal isn't 'real' it can never quite be achieved or delivered or found (think the Holy Grail): the quest is never-ending. Once you’ve got your popularity snowballing it's just about the journey, not the destination. Nobody wants to stop believing (and spending). Negotiating trade deals is an endless process - the job of leaving the EU successfully will literally never be "done". There's no easy way to leave the cult. Inertia is now on your side!

Here are some examples of projects that were or are hugely ambitious, deceptively simple, vaguely plausible but not actually achieved or achievable that seem to have been conjured up to boost someone's popularity... You'll see that Johnson's proposal for a bridge between Scotland and Ireland fits right in - get that feasibility study started!
  •  Farage's decades long quest for Britain to leave the EU;
  • the 'Leave' campaigns, as backed by Johnson/Gove and Farage/Banks;
  • donate X% of your income for eternal salvation;
And finally, a word from the perpetrator of the biggest fraud of all time... (or is it?)...

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Which UK Government Policies Would Prevent Free Trade Deals?

We know that the Johnson regime wants a No Deal Brexit, and that Labour only opposes that subject to agreeing its own form of Brexit. But any form of Brexit would doom the UK to lengthy trade talks and related political turmoil in a situation where Brits can no longer live and work freely in 30 other countries or trade freely with the EU and other countries under EU free trade deals. A limited 'transition' or 'implementation' period merely sugar coats the pill: Brexit spells the end of freedom of movement for labour, goods, services and capital.

In this context, the prospects for new free trade arrangements are absolutely critical, and a key consideration is whether any UK government policies or party conference 'manifesto commitments' stand in the way of negotiations. 

I've started a general list below, including policies that could either directly prevent a deal being agreed and those that could discourage businesses from a partner country actually investing in the UK or undertaking trade anyway:
  • capital controls: the UK government might first introduce controls aimed at preventing the flight of funds resulting from policies that are not compatible with existing foreign investment or that will make the UK uncompetitive with other investment opportunities. Nationalisation plans would be a particular problem given the amount of foreign ownership of utilities and other formerly public assets. There must also be concerns that foreign nationals will want to get their assets out when they wish to leave (and before any capital controls come in). Capital controls are also part of a country's monetary armoury for numerous other reasons - especially when an economy is teetering on the brink of disaster. Capital controls are excluded in US free trade deals and would likely be contested in international arbitration, subject to the IMF's power to require them to safeguard its resources. We've heard nothing from Johnson's crew on this (although the Tories have been traditionally very reluctant to introduce meaningful constraints on dodgy funds flows and Johnson cares even less about the rule of law), but John McDonnell has tried to assure people that Labour won't introduce capital controls while talking about plans that effectively require them. Problem is that governments may not warn people before introducing capital controls for obvious reasons...;
  • breakdown in the rule of law - traditionally not associated with the UK, but that reputation has been vastly undermined by the antics of the Conservative Party during the past four years and particularly the Johnson crew during the Leave campaign and over the past few weeks. Threats not to implement customs checks or to withhold payments due to the EU under budgetary commitments are particularly concerning. Nobody wants a deal that involves constant disputes and endless international arbitration proceedings; and businesses won't trade in violation of terms where that lands them in hot water or isn't otherwise in their interests.

Clearly, any government also has to be careful not to lose sight of many other factors that contribute to people and businesses' assessment about the relative attractiveness of doing business in a country more generally - such as unusual or extraordinary taxes on income, property and transactions.

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