Lies, damned lies and gross contribution figures

The private prosecution brought against Boris Johnson has got me thinking again about the 350 million figure used by Vote Leave. As Jonathan Portes points out here, it represented an unusual moment in politics. Politicians may often engage in spin, and this is surely a normal, or at least unavoidable part of politics. They may even try and promote false beliefs. But they usually do so whilst avoiding obvious, outright lies. Take Iain Duncan Smith’s claim in 2012, for example, that there were ‘more people in work than ever before’. The message, that unemployment was historically low was false, but the statement itself was strictly true. This example illustrates how a politician can promote a false belief without making a literally false statement. But it also illustrates something else: it is not clear that the distinction between a literal lie and an intentionally misleading statement is particularly useful. And with regard to the 350 million figure used by vote leave, the literal sense in which it was a lie may have not been the most significant way in which it was misleading.

Why is this? As we all know, the literal sense in which Vote Leave’s claim was a lie was that it took a gross contribution figure and claimed it could be reallocated and spent as if it were a net contribution figure, even though it they explicitly promised to match almost all EU spending in the UK to reassure direct beneficiaries. If we wanted to analyse this further, we might say that it was actually even worse than this. The 350 million was not even in a gross figure in the particularly useful sense, as it included a cash rebate, deducted before payment. But the surface level claim of a specific figure was not all that relevant anyway. Most people don’t have much of a sense of what these kind of numbers mean in the context of overall government spending. The significance of the number was that it sounded large, and could be reallocated*. But for a decision of the magnitude of Brexit, even the false figure is not actually that big. What’s more,  because of  almost certain declines in government revenue following Brexit, and additional spending commitments coming from replicating existing regulatory structures, any ‘savings’ from net contributions would be dwarfed by losses elsewhere.

Indeed, the substantial sense in which Vote Leave lied might very well have been achievable without resorting to strictly untrue statements. This is as the actual net contrition figure might well also have sounded arbitrarily large to many people too. The spirit of the lie, that there is a substantial cash dividend to Brexit, could have been preserved without making a strictly false statement.What, then, was the significance of the literal mistruth? As Dominic Cummings himself boasts, it may well have been a major strategic innovation. By goading remainers into disputing the 350 million figure, the discussion became about precisely what the net contribution figure was. But all of the numbers mentioned sounded large to a general audience. The spirit of the lie was therefore reinforced by the literal lie being challenged.

But I think it is significant that this strategy worked. When I first heard that Vote Leave had decided to go with this figure, I thought it would backfire. It was, as mentioned, an unusually crude and brazen lie, and what’s more, it was very easy to falsify. Indeed anybody could do so with a single google search.  In a different world the very straightforwardness of the lie would have been its undoing. The story that  dominated the campaign could have been Vote Leave lying, critically undermining their credibility. The fact that it did not certainly paints a depressing picture of the state of the British press and media. It is one where even the most obvious and uncontroversial falsehoods can go unchecked if they are politically favourable to the right people. And the success of Vote Leave was certainly instructive to other unscrupulous politicians. While it may be true that more subtle means of deception may have similar effects, these are at least more difficult to achieve and more situationally constrained. The success of this strategy is surely an unwelcome development.

* It is also possible that the mere fact of a large figure being ‘taken’ was a source of anger, separate from any sense that it could be better used. Given the low level of trust in politicians to actually deliver improvements, it would not surprise me if anger that money was ‘sent’ to the EU was as important as the idea that something constructive could be done if this weren’t the case.

Who's Next?

What was once impossible is now inevitable. Theresa May will step down as leader of the Conservative Party on June 7th, and, following the selection of a new leader, will resign as Prime Minister. I wish I could be pleased. But whoever comes next will almost certainly be unspeakably bad.

This is not, primarily, a comment on the likely candidates as individuals. Yes, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Esther McVey and Sajid Javid are a pretty dire selection of personalities. But more importantly, whoever does win the Conservative leadership contest will have done so having made the most grotesque set of promises to the party membership they can come up with. It’s true that candidates will also need to be one of the top two shortlisted by Tory MPs, but ERG support should all but guarantee the second place. Coordination to prevent this would be very difficult, and go down very badly with a membership that even less extreme MPs are worried about angering.

The reason for this is simple. The Conservative Party membership have been radicalised. On Brexit, the membership favours the 'no deal' option by a large margin. Polling of this sort is difficult to do accurately, but figures in January suggest 57% support no deal as their preferred choice of outcome, and in April about 75% said supported it in an unranked poll (support vs do not support). Candidates will have to compete for the support of these members, subject to the same structural pressures which tend to progressive radicalisation that has occurred since 2016.  They will still justify policy purely in terms of abstract satisfaction of 'popular will' rather than desirability. They will still be constrained by the realities of Brexit, which will not allow them to fulfill any of the promises of what it can bring without immense destruction. And they will still be tempted to try delegitimise any institutions which get in their way.

Crucially, the individuals themselves have fairly limited agency in this process. With weakened party structures, their rise and fall depends on bending to these pressures. And there will always be plenty of people willing to do so. Figures like Jacob Rees Mogg and Mark Francois were nobodies a few years ago, but became somebodies very quickly once they started making the right noises on the issue of the day. Conversely, the moment Rees Mogg suggested he might in fact back the Withdrawal Agreement, he quickly had to change his tune in the face of backlash from his supporters. Leadsom and Johnson almost certainly only supported Brexit in the first place with a moment like this is mind, and McVey has fully embraced no deal lunacy for similar reasons. The only alternative candidates have that is politically viable given party membership is to try and once again promise impossible concessions from the European Union. And they will have to make clear that when these inevitably fail, they will opt for no deal.

Whoever emerges as leader from this process will have done so promising grotesque lunacy. The only upside to this is they might very well quickly lose a vote of no confidence, if enough Conservative MPs can be brought on board. The next few months could be very troubling indeed. 

Brexit vs austerity, a tragically unnecessary dispute

The left and centre left of British politics are currently involved in a bitter dispute over Brexit. This is not, for the most part, a question about what the ideal outcome of the whole affair would be. Most involved agree, in principle at least, that continued EU membership would be the ideal outcome if it were politically possible. The disagreement is largely about what is in fact politically possible and  the relative significance of Brexit as opposed to other domestic issues, austerity in particular. The tragedy is that this is all completely unnecessary. Opposition to Brexit and to austerity should go hand in hand.

The reason for this is twofold. The first argument is intellectual. Both Brexit and austerity are terrible ideas. They both have obvious, significant harms, and almost no credible upsides or intellectual justifications. The arguments about Brexit are too well known to go through. On austerity, the case against running higher deficits in the short run to counter persistent low growth was flimsy in 2010 and is even flimsier now. What's more, even if this were not the case, it would still be possible to significantly raise social expenditure through taxation, which would not end austerity in the economic sense, but still alleviate a some of the social harms which it is associated with it. Not only are both austerity and Brexit bad ideas, but it makes sense intellectually for an opponent of one to care about the other. Brexit will depress government revenue, meaning that whoever is in government will face a series of worse choices and trade offs than before in terms of taxing and spending. While it might still be possible for a government to have better priorities than the current one, the available options will still be significantly worse, and there is not any guarantee that a future government will indeed have better priorities. Conversely, for those primarily concerned with EU membership, the social and economic consequences of austerity are likely significant contributing factors to the political success of nativism, right wing populism and ultimately Brexit itself.

Secondly, politically opposition to austerity and Brexit should now be politically self reinforcing. Most remain support comes from those on the political left and centre left. In 2015, 31% of remain support came from Conservative voters, and almost all of the remaining 69% from Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and the SNP. Shifts in voter preferences since then have strengthened this trend further. Conversely, the overwhelming majority of supporters of these parties want to remain in the EU. But even if most supporters of EU membership also would like to end austerity and vice versa, they may see these two things with different senses of urgency and differing levels of emotional attachment. The consequence of this divide is straightforward. Opposition to Brexit cannot gain the breadth of support required for political success without opposition to austerity. And opposition to austerity alone is unlikely to succeed politically without strong, committed opposition to Brexit.

The problem is that the leadership of each respective positions does not appreciate the importance of the other or see the political symbiosis of the two. The leadership of ChangeUK and the Lib Dems still have not properly digested the case against austerity, and still do not fully appreciate the public anger over it. The leadership of the Labour Party is either in denial of the electoral costs of its position on Brexit, or, in the case of Corbyn and perhaps McDonnell, are simply in favour it. The Green Party is something of an exception, but there are very significant barriers to them capitalising on this.

Both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats therefore have a historic opportunity. They are fortunate enough to be faced with a situation where doing the right thing on the two big issues of the day is also politically advantageous. The costs electorally in Tory europhile votes for the Lib Dems or Lexiteer votes for Labour pale in significance to the gains to be made by uniting the bulk of the left of centre. And the path to electoral victory has been made even easier by the split of right wing votes between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party. It would be a tragedy this opportunity were squandered.

Botched reforms to the GCSE

When I’m not busy sounding off online about the state of British politics, I mostly spend my day teaching Maths and German to secondary school children. One thing I’ve had to spend quite a lot of time thinking about over the last couple of years is the reform of the GCSEs. This post may well be more of interest to people who work in education than anyone else, but perhaps, in some limited way, it is an interesting example of how a government reform can, in my view, go rather wrong. 

As readers may be aware, the new, reformed GCSEs have been phased in over the last few years. The new specifications were drawn up while Michael Gove was Minister of Education, but they have only fully taken effect more recently. This is partly to do with ensuring a cohort is only taught for one specification and partly due to how decentralised the whole system is (there are lots of different exam boards; independent schools largely now enter children for an equivalent exam called the IGCSE etc). In any case, by this summer more or less all exams will be in accordance with the new specifications.

The most visible difference is the grading system. The old GCSEs were graded A*-E, now the grades are 9-1. The substantial difference here is that the new grade 9 is dramatically more difficult to obtain than the old A*. To put this into context, in Maths, the old A* was given to roughly the top 7% of candidates. The new level 9 is awarded to the top 1.5-2.5%, and the 5% or so candidates who would have received an A* are now supposed to get a level 8.  The remaining grades are meant to be distributed to allow for a rough equivalence between the old and the new system. An old A is a 7, a B is a 6  and so on.

In principle, this doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. The reform could more or less keep the old grade distributions intact, but allow for an additional category for children who are exceptionally good at a particular subject. In Maths teaching, there does seem to be a qualitative difference between the top couple of students in a year and the top 7 or 8. It seems reasonable enough that those couple of students have something on paper which recognises this, and the reform also encourages teachers to give those students appropriately challenging material. This can certainly the subject more interesting to teach.

The problem is, the way in which differentiation at the top was achieved was by making the entire exam dramatically more difficult. There is a bit of a rationale for this. About 60% of the questions in the old Maths GCSE used to be what you might call procedural questions, or ones which only test fluency with a particular method. This is not to say the questions didn’t require knowledge. Solving a pair of simultaneous equations, applying trigonometric identities, using the quadratic formula etc can’t be done without some learning, but once learned they can be done in a fairly procedural manner.  Indeed, even some more advanced Maths can be learned in a procedural fashion. You could learn to solve a second order differential equation without really understanding what you are doing. By contrast, a very difficult Maths problem could be made requiring only very basic Maths to solve it. A good example of this are the Maths and logic puzzles made by the late Bob Hargrave of Balliol  College Oxford, which can be found here. He used to give these to first year Philosophy undergrads, and they are quite tricky, but  the mathematical knowledge required does not go beyond what is taught in primary school. What is hard about them is that they require keeping track of large amounts of interacting information, applying ideas in an unfamiliar context, linking previously separate concepts and making novel leaps of inference.  The new GCSE was meant to be harder in this sense. Children were meant to be taught to have ‘mastery’ over concepts, and be able apply them in what for them was a novel way. As such, the proportion of the exam which consisted of essentially procedural questions was reduced to about 25% of the exam, the rest requiring a degree of interpretation and novel* thinking to solve.

This kind of mastery is one of the things which make a higher level mathematical education interesting and exciting. The problem is, it simply does not reflect the reality of what most children can learn, or what for them a mathematical education can offer. That’s not to say there is no value in raising expectations, or trying to broaden the number of students who are trained to think this way, or to encourage a larger number of students to do so more often. As a teacher, you can often be quite surprised by a student’s improvement, and how much additional methodological fluency eventually seems to allow for more novel thinking. But the exam reforms are just unrealistic about the extent to which many students can achieve this.

The haphazard response from the government and from exam boards as they realised this would be amusing if it wasn’t so hard on so many children. When the first cohort of students were about to take the new GCSE’s in Maths and English in 2017, until a couple of months before they sat the exams, they were led to believe that a grade 5 was the equivalent to a C grade at GCSE. This base level for a pass in hugely important, as a pass in Maths and English are requirements for entry for most schools at 6th form, any  institution of tertiary education other than the Open University, and almost any reasonably paid job. A very large number of children thought based on their mock results that they were on the verge of failing this exam, and were going to end up being put through the demoralising process of re-sitting it. When the department of education realised  this, it was decided at the last minute that a grade 4 would be, for all personal purposes, a ‘pass’, but schools would still be measured and keep statistics on the number of passes at grade 5 and above. In other words, a lot of children were totally unnecessarily put through a lot of anxiety, and now the statistics which schools publish don’t really reflect what is actually most relevant to their students.

What’s more, even with the shift to a grade 4 as the pass, the difficulty of the exam meant that the grade boundaries are now set absurdly low. In 2017, the boundary for a pass at level 4 was set by Edexcel (the most popular exam board for Maths) at 17%. This is not a good solution. For one thing, it is demoralising for children. Telling a child, who has done a mock paper, not to worry about only being able to attempt 30% of the questions and that gaining a score of 23% is in fact a pass does not leave a student feeling very confident in themselves. What’s more, it means that for candidates hovering around the pass level, the process in increasingly random, as their performance depends on a very small number of questions.

What this shows is that those behind the reforms did not have much of an idea of the reality of education and how the children who take these exams actually learn. They missed the fact that for many people mathematical education is  about fluency with a certain type of procedure in defined contexts. And that is no bad thing. It is a useful thing to be able to learn, and quite useful to have a test which shows if someone can learn how to implement certain kinds of mathematical procedures and operations. What’s more, some of the ways in which the exams have been made more difficult don’t even have lofty, albeit misplaced justifications. They just make no sense. It is now a requirement that all students learn all formulae by heart, as they are not given a formula sheet. This simply does not test anything interesting. Apart from the very rare student who is perhaps able to derive the cosine rule or the quadratic formula from first principles, all this really tests is rote learning.

The worst thing about all of this is that the genuine benefits of the reforms at the higher end could have been achieved quite easily without demoralising everyone else. It would have been quite easy to simply add in an extra few very challenging questions at the end of each GCSE paper which require the kind of novel, highly abstract mathematical thinking that only a small number of candidates are likely to be able to consistently do. But instead, we created an exam that only caters really well for these students. 

* By novel I mean novel for that particular person, i.e taking an approach they have never been taught before. This might be compared with Chomsky's idea of 'novel' uses of language. 

Labour's meaningless referendum criteria

David Allen Green asks a good question. What is the purpose of the phrase 'option of' in Labour party statements about the conditions of a second referendum? It can't serve any useful purpose other than to give cover for failing to back one when the party's conditions for a second referendum are met. In truth, however, this is completely unnecessary. Labour's conditions for a second referendum are designed to be, subject to interpretations, impossible to fulfill.

Why is this? Labour sets out two conditions for a second referendum. The first is that the government is unable to pass what the Labour Party considers to be a 'good' deal. This used to have a clearer definition, in accordance with Keir Starmer's six tests, but these seem to have now been abandoned. The second criterion is that Labour fails to obtain a general election. This second criterion, absent either a time frame or reference to an explicit process, is completely meaningless. Strictly speaking, Labour has failed to obtain a general election the moment the policy is announced. Since the condition is not taken to have been met instantly, you would assume some degree of time has to elapse before Labour is deemed to have failed to obtain a general election. But how long? Until it is not conceivable that there will be one? This makes no sense either. After all, there will have to be a general election at some point. What's more, the fragility of the May government means this could always, quite plausibly, be not too long away.

Perhaps, one might argue, this is too literal a reading. After all, you don't need an explicit time-frame to have a shared general sense of roughly what it might be. But as Simon Wren Lewis writes, there is no reason to give the current Labour leadership the benefit of the doubt on this. After all, the understanding used to be that Labour would have failed to obtain a general election if they lose a no confidence vote. This happened on January 15th of this year, after the defeat, by enormous majority, of the withdrawal act in the so called first meaningful vote. The only other interpretation would be that this failure would occur at the last moment there is time to hold a second referendum. But even with the extension, the time allotted according to Article 50 ends in October. That time would sure be now, and the upcoming European elections surely a good occasion to announce this. If this is how the Labour leadership intends to proceed, they have no need for additional weasel words about options or tables. Their own criteria for a second referendum are sufficiently vague that, if acting in bad faith, they can never be fulfilled.

Epiphenomenal Arguments

 If remainers hope to achieve and win a second referendum, it is crucial that they get their arguments, tone and strategy right. But in order to do this, they have to get a sense of the motivations of those they wish to convince. This is a less straightforward task than it may at first seem. The most obvious port of call might be to simply look at what is said. This means looking at stated priorities in opinion polls, whatever information can be obtained from focus groups, or, if nothing else, listening to public debates and seeing what kinds of arguments seem to work with an audience. Public debates suffer from the specific defect that they tend to select for the most unreasonable speakers and audience members. But the problem that almost any data will have is that it will tend only to provide stated views, motivations and justifications. The difficulty here is manifold.

Firstly, stated opinions are not always honest. Proponents of Brexit may find it easier to say you in favour of ‘control’ of immigration rather than reducing it. It was similarly easier at the time of the case put forward by Gina Miller to say you were in favour of proper parliamentary procedure, rather than the impact you might hope this would have on the outcome of Brexit.

Secondly, even when arguments are sincerely believed, this does not mean they accurately describe people’s motivations, or that refuting them is necessarily all that useful. Many stated beliefs are in fact epiphenomenal: they have very little causal impact on people’s actual behaviour. We see this all the time in our lives. Argue against a strongly held belief and even in those rare instances where you actually refute a justification, the person comes back 10 minutes later with another, completely new justification for their beliefs. If the justification in question actually mattered, you would expect at least some of the time for the belief to change when the justification was found not to work. There are many possible explanations of this phenomenon. Sometimes we may see this as a kind of psychological fallacy. But in a sense it is difficult to see how things could ever be otherwise. We cannot always know or and certainly cannot store all the information about how a personal belief is formed, but certainty that a valid justification exists may be a useful. This is particularly so given that a lot of knowledge is socially enmeshed. As a non-specialist I might well have no good response to someone who claims that natural selection would be highly unlikely to produce something like the eye. If I was inclined to think about this further, I would likely grab the first plausible sounding answer from a scientific source. But I would be reasonable enough in assuming that there is a decent explanation out there, even if I don’t know it. If you believe other people have decent, and well thought through Brexit plans, perhaps the WTO might sound like the sort of thing which could form the basis of that decent plan, even if you didn't know anything about it previously.  Finally, some of the time the literal content of a justification may just be part of the way we talk about how we feel. Religious and secular discourses of morality all tend to prohibit unlawful killing, and whether you talk about God, religious texts, with terms borrowed from the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals or any secular vocabulary is pretty immaterial.

This matters a great deal in the Brexit debate. Stated justifications for or against the legitimacy of a second referendum might well turn out to be largely epiphenomenal. We know that key leavers, Mogg, Farage and Redwood in particular, were perfectly in favour of a second referendum when they thought they might lose the first. We also know that many remainers, who I suspect quite sincerely talk about the need for further democratic involvement through a second vote, would have been quite against having a referendum on the topic in the first place. Or take the argument that constitutional changes should require a super majority: how many remainers would that argument convince if the argument were put forward that since going forward with Brexit is now the status quo, changing course should require a super majority in a second referendum.  Constitutions and legal norms shape the way in which we think about political legitimacy, but in this case, because we essentially have none, and because of the complex and long durational nature of the task at hand, there are plausible enough moral justifications for your position on a second referendum whatever it happens to be. Talk of the importance of upholding a result can easily give way to talk about the need of democratic systems to facilitate changes of mind, but only at the point at which minds actually change. The motivation comes from your own desires, and the sense of legitimacy comes from the perception that most people agree. The actual content of the arguments about legitimacy may not be all that important. The revelations of illegality from Vote Leave and may be exceptions, but even here, what is significant may be the attitudes people have to the revelations themselves, not the persuasiveness of arguments about whether these revelations should mean in terms of a second vote.

In terms of campaigning, remainers need think very hard about which arguments to focus on, which opposing arguments need to be countered, and which are best ignored. The legitimacy argument has likely been important, but more as a way of giving those who may want a second vote but a wavering the confidence of their convictions that it is a reasonable course of action. The specific content of the argument does not matter, merely that it is plausible enough and readily available to those who want to hear it. In terms of convincing those who are still unsure, what really matters is convincing them that remaining in the EU is still a good idea. The belief that it is legitimate to do so will come soon enough.