Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bayesianism and politics

I went to Westminster Skeptics last night to hear Dr Graeme Archer's very entertaining talk about evidence-based policy and the problems that there are with using statistical evidence to inform policymaking decisions.

Through necessity, Graeme skipped though quite a lot of it and I didn't fully follow everything, but broadly speaking, his talk appeared to give a concrete underpinning to a lot of views that I hold already.

Obviously, this is a very good thing. I appeared to have reached the same position by a bayesian process that he says that he has reached as a practicing statistician in the pharmaceuticals industry.

This may have come up after I left (I couldn't stick around for the questions after) but there was one thing that jarred. He seemed to think that an ability to treat statistical evidence to tweak bayesian priors rather than use it as a device by which we wipe previous assumptions out (and replace them with a beleif in whatever the 'evidence' tells us to beleive in) is a trait that is widely found in the political left but not the right (Graeme is a Tory).

A few quibbles:

Firstly, the pre-Thatcher Conservative Party was a good deal more Burkean than they have been since. Paraphrasing Burke very swiftly, he was clearly of the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' view, and that tradition (the Bayesianism of the most powerful sections of society?) needs an overwhelming case to be made before reform is acceptable. This appears to be the political manifestation of small-c conservatism.

Secondly, I think that he would have had a point if he'd argued that New Labour were particularly guilty of gathering evidence that appeared to support some radical-ish managerial approach, and using it to force through Year-Zero type policies, but there's a political context behind that which I will come to shortly.

Thirdly, if you're a big fan of market processes as a way of making decisions, then Graeme's (and my) views are comforting ones. I'm quite happy to sign up to this statement by way of a general creed:
The distributed wisdom of lots of small decisions will usually be a great deal better than less frequent big decisions made as a result of a formalised process. The main brake upon this means of making decisions should be a counterweight from elected bodies that apply distributed moral wisdom 
 (Apologies again for self-linking).

I accept that this view is held by socialists who aren't dismissive of the markets and by Tory wets, but probably not by Democratic Centralists and their fellow travellers on the left or the Tory right. As such, if you were to map it on a simple (fictional) linear left-right axis, the big bump would probably be on the centre-right.

My criticism of most Conservatives is that they're far to relaxed about the distorting power of monoplies on the economic side of this issue, and of commercial pressure-groups on the political elements.

And surely the phrase 'there is no alternative' rings a bell with any Conservative?

I'd also argue that politicians are behaving rationally (in that very particular definition of the word) when they embrace certaintly - particularly politicians who don't generally get an easy ride from the press. It's one of the reasons that the governing style of the current government is a good deal more superficially attractive than the the white-knuckled hyperactivity of the previous lot.

This may read like an excuse from a political grouping that is sick of constantly losing elections because of media hostility, but I can understand where it comes from.

Finally, to start another hare running, I think I'd be able to argue Graeme into a position where he'd oppose all future uses of referendums based on his views on this, but then I regard almost everything as an argument against referendums.

(This is another of my posts that is too long because I don't have time to boil it down and tidy it up - sorry)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Buyer-beware. Is populism finished?

Has Populism peaked? Probably not. But it may have reached the end of it's beginning.

It's hard to be comfortable about any form of collective punishment, but the Italian people are about to go through a spot of it at the hands of Super Mario. It will take effect as a punishment for picking the wrong government. For allowing the shallow appeal of Berlusconi to trump other considerations, the Italian people have enjoyed a level of economic growth that was only worsted by Zimbabwe and Haiti. And that's only the beginning of a story that may take decades to play out.

It's the demagogic politics of bread and circuses. When a polity is dominated by the politics of purely emotional appeal - and almost nowhere has been immune to it -these democratic shortcomings lead to sub-optimal government. Vote stupid? Pay later!

Berlusconi himself was the protege and beneficiary of previous corrupt Italian governments, and the world is now conspiring to replace him with a technocrat. In Russia, the debased democracy that followed the collapse of communism resulted in a return to the dictatorship-lite of the Putin years.

But in the past week, US Republicans have learned that support from The Tea Party is a two way street that may cost them the Presidency. Let's hope so.

Super Mario's appointment is far from being a cause for celebration. His alleged deal to pull back from breaking up Berlusconi's media holdings is particularly worrying.

This is a crisis that is less rooted in bad economics than the bad democracy that results in bad economics. The EU and the IMF are wrong to allow Italy to duck this bullet and it does not bode well that, everywhere, the symptoms and not the illnesses are being treated.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

James Murdoch: Parliament failed this week

If I owned a company and you worked for me, and you did something bad to an innocent third party, I'd have to take some responsibility whether I knew about it or not.

I'd deserve the appropriate sentence - a slap on the wrist, a modest fine, and in the worst cases, a short-ish spell inside. As Chris Bryant says of James Murdoch,

"No CEO of a construction firm could have passed the buck in the way you have tried to do. In the end it's your company, your employees, your profits and your responsibility."

Not that anyone believes James Murdoch's "never-done-nuffink-dead-when-I-found-it" defence either. But with a high burden of proof, he deserves no stricter sanction than the CEO of Chris's construction firm (a sanction that he has not had placed upon him, by the way - he's walked away from that one).

But if I were then to place surveillance on the injured third party's lawyers, and on politicians who had taken up the case, the guilt would have moved up the food chain. In the way that jury-tampering is a lot worse than serious theft, the gravity of the situation increases exponentially.

This was not a deniable shop-floor decision. It was a corporate one. It was taken in the part of the company that was directly responsible to the the highest level of managers. And it is a graver charge than the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone.

It is also a transgression that News Corp actually admitted to and apologised for this week. Parliament seems to be saying "thanks for the apology - now let's move on."

Historically, Parliament has failed to acquire the powers to deter corporations from behaving this way. That's bad. With notable exceptions in Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, Parliamentarians failed to respond to News Corp's astonishing apology this week with anything more than a quiet sigh.

What a waste of space an money. They might as well pack up their bags and go home.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Google: "No pay? No play!"

So, entrepreneurship is “the pursuit of opportunity beyond the resources you currently control” (source). It's a nice line, and one that sums up a lot of very profitable new tech businesses very nicely.

Reading this post by Gerry Morrissey* we see in News Corp a company that exercises monopolistic muscle and makes £100s of Millions in the UK out of it's ability to beat regulators - not beating competitors.

With Murdoch, it's easy to form judgements like this. Christ, the guy wears his Lex Luthor credentials so proudly on his sleeve where every European liberal can see them. We've spent the last six months screaming at anyone who will listen: "How did you not see this already you thick gits?"

But where Murdoch has adopted Machiavelli's injunction that 'it's better to be feared than loved', the big tech media players have gone the other route. By giving us shiny things that we like, they've been able to escape the grasp of regulators, because to regulate would be to deprive us all of the free-shiny that Apple and Google let us access.

So mp3 players as fantastically designed as the iPod are worth every penny of the £160 that it costs to buy. Why? Partly, because it allows us to listen to music in breach of the licence by which it was originally distributed - and it adds value to it with a cool user interface.

OK, those licences were daft, iniquitous and inflexible. Probably the optimal licencing regime for music would be some pay-per-listen, often funded through collecting companies and cushioned at the pay-point by bundling it into a complementary service (music in pubs shift beer - and hey presto! PRS!).

But two wrongs don't make a right. If I were a musician and you told me you were listening to my latest album on a file-shared mp3, I'd probably want to bite your head off and shit down your neck. And Apple have made $billions from the process that would have culminated in you having a turd poking out of your decapitated corpse.

My lovely shiny Humax box lets me time-shift and ad-skip. I love it. I've not watched an advert on TV for a long time. Thanks Humax! I just hope I don't run into a Channel 4 TV producer, screenwriter or director next time I spill that story or the same experience (head off, defecation etc) would be my just reward.

Humax have made $millions facilitating this process, crucifying the commercial Public Service Broadcasting model. As have TiVO and Sky+. Regulators with backbones would insist upon hardware and ISP levies to ofset this. But - hey! Hands off! Free-shiny!!

Google give us free tools. They're great! Or in the case of the one social media tool that I genuinely loved (Google Reader) it was great - until last week. I won't bore you with this one again, but I think that this issue raises profound questions about corporations that are given regulatory passes on the grounds that they're facilitating innovation.

Google, Apple Facebook give us nice things. There are huge social positives from what Google gives us for no noticeable charge. Like piracy or open data (the downsides of open data are under-discussed IMHO), these are game-changing processes. But because the innovation often results in positive game-changing and helps support important social strides, we give the corporations that make huge profits from them free-passes without treating them like the utilities that they often are.

And we don't acknowledge that these 'free' (at the point of use) services aren't actually free. They're part of a value-chain. And we don't acknowledge that their users have a right to access the data that they give to these services in a useable way. Google have monetised my sharing of data. They may have a strategic reason to change how it works to make more money, but they shouldn't have the right to simply deprive me of my archive.

There are parallels of course. Facebook have occasionally abused our expectations on privacy (and I doubt if most users yet understand the 'if you're not paying for it, you're part of the service being sold' argument. Millions of people may be consenting to things they wouldn't consent to if they understood them fully.

This is an issue that I'd expect journalists and politicians to take more seriously than they do. OK - politicans are crap at acting on issues they don't really understand - they have an excuse here.

But I've really written all of this because I've got into a debate with one quite-good tech/media commentator who seems to think it's alright for 'free' services that occupy monopolistic and incumbency position to suddenly turn to their users and say 'no pay - no play!'. 

It isn't alright. They're not free services. Normally, a company that has monopolistic and incumbency privileges wouldn't be allowed to do this. But because of the free-shiny, Google can. Like Apple and Google do.
"He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."

*Full disclosure: I do policy work for BECTU

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Google Reader changes: A minor disaster.

I don't usually complain about changes to social networking platforms, but I'm incensed about the Google Reader changes - particularly the removal of the 'share' function, the shared items page and the 'note in reader' browser button. I have loads of stuff in there and I use it to feed all kinds of things (including the sidebar of this blog). All gone now. Sign the petition - (ironically, in Google Docs) and, inevitably, there's this:


Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Greece:If you tolerate this, then your children will be next?

I've seen a few things recently that underline the way that ideological warfare constantly struggles to avoid the kind of conclusions that good democracies reach.

Take Greece, for example. Unless Pete / Alex / Snowflake et al (below) haven't pulled these arguments out of their jacksies, then we have to conclude that Greece has been the butt of one of the most effective ideological assaults any of us have seen in a long time - world opinion being softened up to accept the long-term smashing of an economy to protect what the Occupy movement call the 1%.

It's a warning to us all. Ideological assaults happen. History is rewritten and reality is fabricated to protect and support the beneficiaries of the failures and shortcomings of democracy. Ideological assault seems to me to be something that the left rarely arms itself against, preferring to perfect it's own analysis. It's the equivalent of ignoring the opposition's team sheet and formation before a match.

I've got a few links below (bookmarks for myself as much as anything), but what's my conclusion? It's a lightly-held one, but it seems to me that Europe's problem isn't poor economic management. If the quality of democratic decisionmaking were better in the EU, we'd be able to share the pain of the little PIIGS fairly easily.

Europe's problem is the falling standards of liberal democracy that the EU is prepared to accept. This mess is the result of bad decisions that were forced by the unbridled demands of pressure groups.

Italy is the real problem - it should never have been allowed in the EU (never mind the Eurozone) and it's done plenty in the past decade alone to warrant expulsion (as I argued in one of my earliest posts here). If Italy were a functioning liberal democracy, we wouldn't be worried by the contagion from a Greek default. If Greece were one, it wouldn't be defaulting.

In the cases of Ireland, Greece and Italy to my certain knowledge, we've seen the consequences of a debased democracy - not a fundamentally malfunctioning economy. This is not restricted to those countries either. It's an explanation that fits the whole post-Lehmans crash, and right-wing populist movements such as the tea party have been given free rein to campaign for it's continued existance.

We've seen democracies and corporations distorted in their aims by the overwhelming demands from powerful interests groups and mangers respectively. This is the problem - and the EU's decision to sidestep it (not least with the individual culprits within Greece) while demanding unpayable penalties from the Greek people speaks volumes.

I don't know why the Occupy movement are thrashing around for a set of demands to unite behind. Surely 'a good democracy' and all that it entails is the answer?


Anyway; a few links. Firstly, this from Sturdyblog, written back in June during the demonstrations in Syntagma Square:

"The first bail-out was designed to stabilise and buy time for the Eurozone. It was designed to avoid another Lehman-Bros-type market shock, at a time when financial institutions were too weak to withstand it. In the words of BBC economist Stephanie Flanders: “Put it another way: Greece looks less able to repay than it did a year ago – while the system as a whole looks in better shape to withstand a default… From their perspective, buying time has worked for the eurozone. It just hasn’t been working out so well for Greece.” If the bail-out were designed to help Greece get out of debt, then France and Germany would not have insisted on future multi-billion military contracts. As Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the MEP and leader of the Green group in the European Parliament, explained: “In the past three months we have forced Greece to confirm several billion dollars in arms contracts."

... and..

"The figure of 53 years old as an average retirement age is being bandied about. So much, in fact, that it is being seen as fact. The figure actually originates from a lazy comment on the NY Times website. It was then repeated by Fox News and printed on other publications....... Looking at Eurostat’s data from 2005 the average age of exit from the labour force in Greece (indicated in the graph below as EL for Ellas) was 61.7; higher than Germany, France or Italy and higher than the EU27 average. Since then Greece have had to raise the minimum age of retirement twice under bail-out conditions and so this figure is likely to rise further."

That post did get a bit of blowback on some of the numbers though (here)

And then this from Snowflake 5:
"Why the consternation in the rest of Europe? Because a bailout will still have to take place - of the banks, shorn of the "cover" and pretence that they were really bailing out the Greeks. In turn this will accelerate the need to re-regulate the banks and separate retail banking from investment banking - in other words reversing the trend set in course by Margaret Thatcher when she de-regulated in the 1980's, and then exported the idea to the world."
Again, read the whole thing if you have time.

And surely Big Pete has something to say on this? This comment on Will Hutton's enthusiasm for the deal last week that was supposed to draw a line under all of this unpleasantness:
"I rather think that Hutton's enthusiasm gets the better of him, mistaking centralisation of power for federal integration. The view from much of Greece is of an economic dictat that will impose endless austerity. Maybe this is overstated and the debt write down certainly gives some breathing space. But what this deal does not seem to do is to reform the structural problems of monetary union and redistribute trade imbalances (as Yanis Varoufakis argues here). Instead it still suggests that the cause of the crisis lies in the moral failures of the peripheral states, requiring the constant supervision of the enlightened technocrats at the centre, whatever their previous record.

Even that would be acceptable if it were not for one thing. The theory - austerity and orthodoxy. Faced with the incontrovertible evidence of failure, they are insisting on implementing their plan with a renewed intensity, even as the social fabric of the indebted nations tears apart."

Then there's this (but do read the whole thing if you have time)
"There’s only one word that adequately describes the majority of Dutch media reports on Greece right now: a witch hunt."

It concludes:
"In a solidary (sic) Europe, the question shouldn’t be: how do I get my money back with maximum profit? It should be: how do I help a country get out of a recession for which I am partly responsible, and who will foot the bill for that? In the first place, part of the money should be taken from those responsible for causing this mess — from the elite. The Greeks who have committed fraud for years on end, who evaded their taxes, who obfuscated their money and who speculated irresponsibly, are going free, partly thanks to a recent law on parliamentary immunity. It’s an eyesore to he Greek people that Papandreou has failed to sue even a single corrupt politician, to punish even a single entrepreneur or ship owner, and to recover even a single penny from the billions of euros that have disappeared into various pockets. And in no way does Brussels seem to be pushing for such measures. In fact, on this subject, Brussels has remained silent as the grave."
 I got a few of these links from Pete's roundup here from a while ago.