Friday, 17 November 2017

On safari with the poverty tourists

Since the Brexit vote in Britain and Trump's election in the USA, there has developed a genre of journalism that involves the writer departing from their comfortable, elite environs (London, New York, San Francisco) and venturing out into the badlands where people voted either the leave the EU or else for Donald Trump. On safari with their patronising pencils:
Hale, who is 65 and lives in San Francisco, is a career activist who got her start protesting nuclear plants and nuclear testing in the 1970s. In 2005, she was one of the founders of Third Way, a center-left think tank, and it was in that capacity that she and four colleagues had journeyed from both coasts to the town of Viroqua, Wisconsin, as part of a post-election listening tour. They had come on a well-meaning mission: to better understand their fellow Americans, whose political behavior in the last election had left them confused and distressed.
Or by the seaside smugly observing poor people struggling:
The elephants that lumbered up and down Blackpool’s beach have long gone. Britain’s political parties have stopped decamping to the town for their annual jamborees. Even the deckchairs have left: the local government sold all 6,000 of them three years ago to a company in the affluent county of Cheshire. The one thing that hasn’t disappeared is the people.
This sort of poverty tourism feeds a set of consumers eager for the latest instalment of voyeurism, the next explanation as to why these stupid people voted for Brexit or plumped for Trump. We get depressing descriptions of people's lives interspersed by showing how they're all bigoted, racist, misogynist, overweight and unhealthy. What there isn't is any attempt at all to understand why, at least not beyond glib, smug quips about "shit life syndrome" or lurid reporting on illiberal attitudes towards druggies, welfare queens and high school drop-outs.

The whole approach - whether it's a Financial Times journalist going to Blackpool, a Guardian writer venturing to Stoke, or some San Francisco researchers driving through rural Wisconsin - reeks of 19th century anthropology where intrepid researchers ventured into the dark jungle in search of lost tribes to write up in their next book - published to great acclaim and talk of how brave, how brilliant. What we don't get is any real sense of understanding as journalists turn for insight to the public sector elites that dominate many of these places - to the very people who are failing to turn them round.

It's no surprise then, that the descriptions focus on the dysfunctional lives of people who live in these places, on the drugs and alcohol, the depression and the sense of hopelessness. What's lacking from this poverty tourism is any sense of empathy, any appreciation of what having a shit life is really like. And why so many people with those shit lives are in Blackpool, Stoke and rural Wisconsin. It struck me as telling that the UK edition of J D Vance's gripping 'Hillbilly Elegy' describes it as "a great insight into Trump and Brexit" - it may be that but more importantly it's a revealing story of the struggles faced by the white working class in the deindustrialised Mid West. That Trump and Brexit were stuck on the book's front cover tells you everything you need to know about the interests and priorities of bien pensant bookshop browsers in London or New York.

What's missing is any suggestion as to what - other than familiar cries for more government cash - should be done to change shit lives into lives that are all right. We get little criticisms of government like this:
For Jonathan Portes, chief economist at the DWP between 2002 and 2008, the lack of a plan was, in retrospect, part of the problem. “There’s an argument for saying you can’t do [welfare reform] separately from having some sort of place-based economic strategy as well — and we never really had that,” he says. “Just telling them, ‘Well there’s 5,000 new jobs in London every week, and people seem to find it perfectly easy to move 600 miles from rural Romania to take one of these jobs, so why can’t you move 200 miles from Blackpool?’ — it’s true but it sort of ignores the social context.”
The truth, of course, is that we had decades of place-based economic strategies some funded through ERDF Objective One and Two, others by UK government funding (City Challenge, SRB, Estate Action - a potpourri of place-based regeneration) but, in the main, the places that were poorest in 1968 are more likely to be poor in 2018. And, while all this money helped, the economic fundamentals for places like Blackpool, Barnsley or Stoke haven't changed all that much.

When you read Vance's book, you get a little sense of the irritation many like him (hillbillies, rednecks, chavs, pikies - the white working classes of Britain and America) feel at the way they're portrayed in these poverty tourism pieces. We're given the idea that such folk are dull, listless, ignorant and essentially helpless, that only the intervention of bright, engaged, educated and empowered people from outside can resolve the problem. We're to say "there, there" and provide a big middle-class hug to all these sad, incapable poor people out there in the sticks.

Perhaps instead of that hug, we should try a little bit of understanding? Get underneath why their lives are shit? Maybe we can stop hassling them about lifestyle too and focus instead on the things that could help? But then, I've a suspicion, the journalists, academics and think-tankers believe they're done their job by pointing at Blackpool as saying "ewww, isn't it horrid" (albeit taking 5000 words to do so). After all their readers will now be armed with all they need to hold forth about the evils of capitalism, the failures of Tory welfare policies and the noble work being done by the public sector elites in these towns, people who are sacrificing the comforts of civilisation to do good work in these sad, broken places.


Thursday, 16 November 2017

People who think Twitter - with or without Russians - decided the referendum need to get out more

There is an almighty panic afoot. It seems that a vast army of trolls in fur hats with snow on their boots are ruining our democracy by doing stuff on Twitter. Yes folks, it's the Russians - even the Prime Minister was moved to say how naughty they are albeit in a wonderfully sinister way ("we know what you're doing").

Some perspective is needed here because, while it may well be the case that Russian spies sat at computers in St Petersburg are bombarding Twitter with stuff, the impact on elections ranges from pretty much zero to really not very much at all.

According to Oleksandr Talavera at Swansea University there are 150,000 accounts with "links to Russia" that Tweeted about Brexit during the campaign. Talavera is at the upper end of the spectrum of guesses about these Russian bots most other researchers give much lower figures for accounts that can be clearly linked to the folk in St Petersburg - 419 from researchers in Edinburgh, 13,493 from London University and just 54 from Oxford University.

Taking the 419, this is what they were doing:
Professor Laura Cram, director of neuropolitics research at the University of Edinburgh, told the newspaper that at least 419 of those accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of 3,468 times – mostly after the referendum had taken place.

Commenting on the Brexit tweets, she told The Guardian the content overall was “quite chaotic and it seems to be aimed at wider disruption. There’s not an absolutely clear thrust. We pick up a lot on refugees and immigration”.
I'm pretty sure that the same will go for the bigger numbers. For a little context, however, we should note that there were literally millions of Tweets about the referendum - the LSE, for example, looked at 7.5 million in their analysis. Those Russian tweeters represent a drop in this ocean of Tweets. Let's remember also that there are about 10 million UK Twitter accounts (this matters because they're the ones with a vote) and let's also note that 17.4 million people voted to leave - rather more than have those Twitter accounts.

Even accepting that Russia did try to interfere in - disrupt, influence - the referendum (something that probably shouldn't surprise us), the evidence presented by researchers tells us that it really didn't make much difference at all, indeed it was swamped by a vast tide of Tweets from real people about Brexit. Indeed that LSE study showed just how Brexiteers were much more engaged and active:
There is clearly a pattern in the way the referendum campaign unfolded on Twitter, with those wanting to leave communicating in greater numbers and with greater intensity. Districts with a greater share of Twitter users supporting Leave also tended to vote for leaving the EU, so that Twitter activity correlates with voting in the referendum.
We also know from that LSE blog that the same goes for Facebook, Instagram and Google search - as a senior politician (and remain voter) said to me: "Brexit voters were going to crawl over broken glass so they could vote to leave". I've been involved in politics for 40 years and have never seen ordinary voters - the sort who often don't bother - so motivated to turn up and vote. Public meetings were a thing of history in British elections, yet we held a debate in Cullingworth and filled the hall with over 250 people, most of them planning to vote leave.

This latest conspiracy theory - hot on the heels of the "it was big data" nonsense - reminds us that many of those who voted to remain are still in denial as to what the campaign outcome was down to. These inconsolable remain voters simply can't countenance that their 'business as usual' message got both barrels from an electorate that frankly didn't think that 'business as usual' was doing them any good. The result has been firstly to shout about how it was all the stupid people who did it and it's not fair, then to blame the Daily Mail followed by lots of overhyped scare stories about 'hate crime'. We then got the conspiracies - it was shadowy American billionaires, it was manipulating 'big data' and now it's the Russians.

The truth is that two-and-a-half million mostly older and working class voters who don't usually vote or vote infrequently decided on this occasion to go down to the church hall or school and stick a big firm X in the box marked "Leave the European Union". There were a pile of reasons why they did this but the main one was that the EU is a distant, unaccountable, corrupt and undemocratic institution a very long way away filled with people who have absolutely no connection with or idea about what matters in Denholme or Wyke or Scarborough. It really had absolutely nothing at all to do with Twitter, the Russians, Cambridge Analytica or whatever stupid conspiracy sobbing remainers dream up and if you think otherwise you really should get out more.


Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Racism - why the progressive left's definiton is damaging

It was some time in the early 1990s when a friend, steeped in the occult law of progressive politics, explained to me that most on the "left" didn't mean what I thought they meant when they talked about racism.

You see, along with most of the populace, I'd laboured under the misunderstanding that racism was prejudice based on a persons race. So a decision, for example, to exclude someone, not employ someone or stereotype someone based on their race is pretty much all there is to racism. It seems I was wrong - or rather that there's a different meaning of racism that derives from society's structure, history and other stuff that Marxist sociologists speak about.

Under this different meaning of the word 'racism', I (as a white person) do not have to say or do anything at all that regular folk consider racist for the progressive left to consider that I am a racist. My very existence is a monument to racism - white people are racists because they are white people. And, of course, the victims of that racism - people of colour - cannot be racist even if they use language or act in a way that most folk would consider racist. Understand that you don't have to agree with this definition of racism (and I don't) for it to be significant in the way a discourse about racism is conducted.

There is, for some white people, an escape clause. You become an 'ally' of people of colour. This doesn't actually stop you being a racist because you are white but it does provide some protection as your heart is in the right place - especially if you've acknowledges the deep structural causes of racism within society (having learnt about this from listening to those Marxist sociologists).

Which brings me to Emma Dent-Coad MP and Nasreen Khan (or Naz Kahn as she was until recently).

Taking Naz Kahn first. It is clear that Naz is a person of colour (being, in this case, a Muslim of South Asian heritage) which means that, in progressive mythology, she cannot be a racist even if she says something that is racist. Moreover, Naz's crime was to be anti-Jew and there's a problem with the Jews in that progressive myth . Everyone recognises that Jews are a minority and that they were (and are) persecuted but they are mostly outside that people of colour definition because that would put them in the same category as the Palestinians who are, of course, oppressed (by Zionists who are mostly Jewish).

Ms Kahn may have overstepped the boundaries of what the progressive left will accept in terms of antisemitism - mostly by suggesting Hitler wasn't all that bad, which means the Labour Party will eventually get round to sacking her - but her opinions are simply slightly more extreme versions of those held by a significant proportion of Labour members. Anti-Zionism is acceptable (because the Palestinians are oppressed) even though opposing Zionism means opposing the existence of Israel, something central to the identity of most Jews.

Meanwhile, Emma Dent-Coad, the MP for Kensington is reported to have called a black Tory activist, Shaun Bailey, a "token ghetto boy". Normal progressive left reaction to this (and indeed that of most regular folk) would be to say "racism" because referencing the ghetto and calling a black man 'boy' definitely fits everyone's idea of racism and Ms Dent-Coad is white so, in that progressive mythology, presumed guilty of racism. Yet a black progressive left MP, Clive Lewis, chose to defend her:
I see some brothers getting upset at @emmadentcoad recent comments. Where were your howls of outrage at the Tory ‘nigger in a woodpile’ comments? Pathetic.She’s done more for black people in her constituency with #grenfell in 6months than most tories will do in their entire lives.
What you see here is that Ms Dent-Coad is being defined as an 'ally' to people of colour thereby provided cover for a deeply racist (in regular folks' understanding of what that word means) remark. You see, Ms Dent-Coad is on our (people of colour) side so therefore we can excuse her offensiveness to a black person. And this get out clause is reinforced by the victim is this case being a Conservative activist and politician. Here's Mr Lewis again:
If you think you can fight racism and be in the Tory party then I guess this conversation isn’t going to go very far I’m afraid. If anyone has any understanding of the structural reality of modern racism, you’d not come within a country mile of a Tory membership card.
In Mr Lewis's mind, Tory equates to white. What he's saying is that any black person (and the comment was in response to someone who is a person of colour) who joins the Conservative Party has given up on racism, is a sort of traitor to the cause - an Uncle Tom or a 'coconut'. And, within Mr Lewis's mindset, adhering as it does to those progressive myths about racism, this must be the case - the Tories are the party of the establishment and the establishment is white and racist.

If one thing comes of this sorry situation - with a senior Labour MP insinuating that thousands of black and minority Tory activists, including hundreds of councillors and MPs are somehow unconcerned about racism - I hope it is to confine the stupid progressive definition of racism to the dustbin of silly ideas where it belongs. We've made huge progress over the past few decades in dealing with the endemic racism within our society and, as the words of Naz Kahn and Emma Dent-Coad show, we've still a long way to go. But to say that "structural reality of modern racism" (whatever that actually means) says that Conservatives don't care about racism is to wear a set of ideological blinkers. Racism is, in the end, always about people prejudging others, often harmfully, on the basis of their race. Yes it's ingrained and embedded in society but can we not try and turn it into some sort of 'groupthink' where only those subscribing to a narrowly-defined ideological position can be called anti-racist?


Monday, 13 November 2017

The appeal of autocracy to intellectuals

Joel Kotkin is bang on the money here:
China’s ascendency appeals to many in America’s intellectual classes, and not only them, who historically have a soft spot for “enlightened” autocrats and overweening bureaucracies. In the progressive era, the lodestone was imperial Germany, in the 1930s for many the “future” was to be seen in the Soviet Union and even fascist Italy. In the 1980s, Japan emerged as the role model, followed in the late 1990s by a united Europe that seemed to many more humane and successful than the U.S.
The reality is that, for all its many flaws and failings, the US system based on liberal capitalism is more robust, responsive and successful than the Utopian "Man in Whitehall Knows Better" systems beloved of the centrist and progressive left - especially the acedemic and intellectual bits of it.


Thursday, 9 November 2017

It's not capitalism we need to defend, it's freedom

Every now and then I get asked about why I'm in politics and, once I've done the self-deprecating bit about how no other business would have me, I get to the crunch. I am involved because free speech, free markets, free trade and free enterprise need defending. The systems of government, the lobby groups, the business organisations, the voluntary sector and 'thinking people everywhere' all conspire to limit and restrict your and my freedom to act. Challenging this sad truth is essential.

And the problem isn't capitalism, it's government. This isn't to say that big business is innocent - the amounts spent by business on lobbying government for law changes, subsidy, new trade barriers and more regulation remind us that many large organisations really don't like the idea of freedom. So when Corbyn-loving students tell me capitalism is corrupting, I get their point - hardly a day passes without one or other example of a big business getting some sort of protectionist fix or some new regulation aimed at preventing market entry. We've known this for a long while - it's the central theme of Adam Smith's 'Wealth of Nations' - mercantilism, market fixing, cartels and protectionism, all those things the technocrats try to justify, prevent the growth of wealth, the opportunity for equality and the raising of people out of poverty.

I also understand how those young people are disgruntled at being 'Generation Rent', at having great fat student debt they probably won't pay off and at seeing my generation sitting snuggly on a pile of assets (but still moaning at having to use those assets to look after ourselves in our old age). But when Corbyn or other socialists try to say that these problems are some how a consequence of free markets, free trade or free enterprise, they are lying - even when they use the catch-all term of capitalism.

Housing in London is expensive because for sixty years we've run urban containment policies around the capital and for forty of those sixty years, London has generated more new jobs than it has new houses. And if you provide just six new homes for every ten new households, housing is going to get more expensive. This isn't the fault of the market, it's the fault of government for rationing the land we've got to build houses on. They call this planning and it's the basic building block of socialism - instead of having a free market, some folk in an office with a computer model decide what the price should be, how much should be made and how it should be distributed. It limits your freedom and it doesn't work.

Defending freedom is not, therefore, simply about the moral imperative of liberty but is justified for straightforward and practical reasons. Those freedoms - speech, trade, markets, enterprise - should be defended because they work, because they are the things that made us rich and, right now, are making poor people everywhere richer. The only places - North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe - where people are getting poorer are places where these freedoms are comprehensively rejected. Places where socialism - the planned economy - is the chosen model.

Everywhere I look freedom is under attack. Technocrats and business lobbyists saying import tariffs protect domestic business. Local councils saying limiting procurement options supports local economies. Planners saying the problem is the wrong plan not the planning itself. Farmers saying they couldn't operate without subsidy. Public health groups wanting to ban smoking in parks or to fix booze prices. Police forces calling for new powers to seemingly arrest anybody for almost anything. Housing lobbyists saying the solution is to fix rents not to build houses. Schools snatching sausage rolls from innocent children's lunchboxes. Mayors enforcing public morals by banning pretty women from advertising or drinking from the train.

And then we're told the problem is capitalism? It's not, the problem is that government - in cahoots with a bewildering lobby of charities, businesses and 'campaigners' - takes away freedoms. And we can't subdivide these freedoms - be cross about the loss of one freedom that's important to us while cheering on a ban on something we don't like. For sure some of these losses of freedom are less damaging than others but each loss - from daft rules on advertising vaping to 'Public Space Protection Orders' that make anything an official doesn't like a crime - represents a further restriction and another barrier to pleasure, enterprise or exchange.

I'm happy to defend capitalism - the idea that the rewards from business success goes to the people who put up the cash - but it's not as important as defending free markets, free trade, free enterprise and free speech. Those freedoms constrain the worst urges of business, protect us from the busybody and limit the oppressive instincts of government. We have become too glib about each new loss of freedom - even sometimes to the point of welcoming it because of the NHS or crime or community safety or, the favourite all-purpose reason, because of the children.

So let's get less hung up about whether something's owned by the people who invested, by the workforce or by the community and worry instead about those who want to take away your freedom to organise business how you want. Let's be bothered about government and business wanting to fix gas prices or food supply or where you can buy gin and lemonade. The good life we enjoy and that we'd like everyone to enjoy, was made possible by that free enterprise, by those free markets, and by that free trade. And underpinning all this is free speech - our right to speak what we see as truth, to promote our business and to challenge the assumptions and presumptions of those who govern us. Freedom matters - let's defend it.


Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Nothing new about the Russians trying to influence our politics

Like this:
Nor is Russian interference in American politics new, or for that matter vice versa. The Comintern funded “The Daily Worker” in the 1920s, and various Soviet and communist sources have funded agitation around the world for many decades. Those nefarious activities used a variety of cooperating Western suppliers, including delivery trucks, publishers, paper makers and much more, but again we don’t regard those businesses as sinister.
Or, closer to home (and to the Labour Party) there's this:
He confirmed in April that Jack Jones was a Soviet agent. ‘I was his last case officer,’ wrote Gordievsky (Daily Telegraph, 28 April), ‘meeting him for the final time in 1984 at Fulham [six years after Jones’s retirement from the T&G], together with his wife, who had been a Comintern agent since the mid-1930s. I handed out to him a small amount of cash. From 1981, I had had the pleasure of reading volumes of his files, which were kept in the British department of the KGB until 1986, when they were passed on to the archive.’
Or this:
He and the former editor of the left-wing newspaper Tribune Dick Clements, were in regular contact with the East German secret police, the Stasi, according to the security service's files.

The allegations come only 24 hours after the BBC unmasked Hull University lecturer Robin Pearson as a former Stasi agent.

Earlier in the week, it was revealed that Melita Norwood, an 87-year-old great-grandmother, and former Scotland Yard detective John Symonds had also betrayed Britain during the Cold War.

The latest revelations suggest the KGB and the Stasi saw Mr Allen and Mr Clements as "agents of influence", who could provide useful information and help promote pro-Soviet policies.
So bunging out loads of bots and inviting Nigel Farage for tea is in a long and dishonourable tradition. One that sought for decades to subvert Britain's left to the Soviet cause - a cause with so much blood on its hands it stained the flag red.


Tuesday, 7 November 2017

More on how Big Data didn't win it

Buzzfeed published an article back in February about the 'Big Data' thing and Donald Trump's campaign:
Several people who worked directly with Cambridge Analytica told BuzzFeed News that despite its sales pitch and public statements, it never provided any proof that the technique was effective or that the company had the ability to execute it on a large scale. “Anytime we ever wanted to test anything as far as psychographic was concerned, they would get very hesitant,” said one former campaign staffer. “At no point did they provide us any documentation that it would work.”
Now I suppose that, if you're a conspiracy theorist, this can be dismissed as the campaign people throwing chaff out the back of the plane but it reinforces for me the weaknesses of the Cambridge Analytica claims. The article sets out some of these claims - or at least the ones that the company has broadcast proudly - including the use of 'psychographics'.

We know (because Cambridge Analytical tell us so) that the company has a 'psychographic profile' derived either from, questionably-sourced, Facebook data or else the company's own surveys. For this to be usable it has to be translated into a system that can be applied to the whole population (or at least that population in very small units). It seems that the Cambridge Analytica CEO is saying they have such a system because he claims the company had “profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America — 220 million people.”

The real question here isn't whether or not such a profile exists (and if it is based solely on Facebook it doesn't since over 40% of Americans aren't using Facebook and a large part of those who are are irregular or infrequent users even before privacy choices are considered) but whether it is in any way either meaningful or effective as a marketing tool. I've a feeling that it is little better than standard geodemographics built on Richard Webber's 'birds of a feather flock together' principle. The observations of people involved in the Trump campaign seem to bear this out - Cambridge Analytica's work perhaps did provide useful targeting insights but didn't then provide any useable means of directly reaching these new targets.
In marketing pitches, two GOP operatives recalled, Nix has claimed his company has access to proprietary information that includes Facebook data. One of the operatives said the data was too old to be helpful and couldn’t be updated. Others said they’d received a similar pitch, but Nix was too vague about the details for them to evaluate what the data really was. None of the campaign staffers BuzzFeed News spoke with said Cambridge Analytica’s proprietary data had played a key role in any decision-making.
There may indeed be some strategic value in extensive data analysis but it is not the salvation. Indeed, there's some suggestion that Hillary Clinton's campaign was even more driven by data analytics than Trump's campaign:
What Ada did, based on all that data, aides said, was run 400,000 simulations a day of what the race against Trump might look like. A report that was spit out would give campaign manager Robby Mook and others a detailed picture of which battleground states were most likely to tip the race in one direction or another — and guide decisions about where to spend time and deploy resources.

The use of analytics by campaigns was hardly unprecedented. But Clinton aides were convinced their work, which was far more sophisticated than anything employed by President Obama or GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, gave them a big strategic advantage over Trump.
And we know what happened here - Clinton targeted either places she was winning easily or places where chaotic information led the campaign to believe it was doing better than it was. There seems to have been a deal more art in the Trump campaign than the conspiracy theorists want, with those involved using data more cautiously than was the case for the Democrats. Just as with the EU referendum, we see people wanting to deny the failings of their own campaign by suggesting the matter was determined by devious, sinister, billionaire-funded legerdemain. This problem continues today and, if anything, is expanding as Russian bots, Macedonian fake news and manipulative 'right wing' media are added to the things blamed for the 'wrong' result.

The same message needs to go to Democrats as I sent to Remain supporters in the UK:
At some point the rump of disappointed remain voters will stop trying to find some sinister external force - Russians, American data companies, Facebook - that explains why we voted to leave and recognise that, in truth, we voted to leave because the EU is a distant, anonymous, unapproachable, corrupt and interfering undemocratic institution. That's it - all of it. And if you ask people a slightly different question, they'll tell you that London is also a distant, anonymous, unapproachable, corrupt and interfering undemocratic place too. One run by and for people with more connection to New York or Paris than Barnsley or Stoke. Perhaps those still angst-ridden by us leaving can begin to learn this?