Overstating Incoherence

A frequent charge brought against right wing populist movements is that their arguments hypocritical to the point of absurdity. In the U.K, two such possible hypocrisies stand out. The first is the idea that these movements are anti-elite. Brexiteers rail against the 'elites' and the 'establishment', yet include cabinet ministers, Etonians and influential journalists, at times all embodied in the same person. The second concerns the rule of law and institutions. Conservatives talk a good game when it comes to tough application of the law and the supposed superiority of the British constitution, but seem to make an exception when this imposes constraints on their own power. As Nick Cohen put it, the Conservative party prides itself of being " “party of law and order”. It died invoking mob rule." Certainly there is some hypocrisy here. But I think rather less than we might imagine, if we understand the ideas on their own terms. And it is important to do so if we wish to formulate effective counters to them.

The right wing populist idea of the 'elite' might be strange and infuriating, but it is not random. It does not really refer to wealth or even political power per se, but social status and education. In short, it designates the well educated, liberal, urban professional class. The use of the term is of course tied up with flawed ideas of how power works in modern societies- it tends to presuppose a politically homogenous 'elite' that consists almost entirely of people in certain professions, with certain backgrounds, but the rules of reference aren't incompressible or contradictory in and of themselves. Individuals who inherit their wealth are in this sense not part of the 'elite' as they are not professionals. 

Take a look at who the leading figures in these movements are and how they behave. Many actively flaunt their wealth and privilege. Rees Mogg and Johnson play up their somewhat mythological aristocratic status, using obscure, archaic vocabulary and wearing dated clothes. Or take Iain Duncan Smith, someone born into modest circumstances, alternating between railing against the elites and posing with his classic car in front of his country estate. This is no accident: so long as they play the aristocrats, they are not part of the professional middle and upper middle class. 

Another iteration of this is that of the flamboyant tycoon. Trump is the most obvious contemporary example, but as is the original right wing populist of modern times, Silvio Berlusconi. They do not hide their wealth and power, they flaunt it every opportunity, whether it is Berlusconi's 'bunga bunga' parties or events at Mar-a-Lago. The U.K has its lesser figures of this sort, Tim Martin being an example. 

This idea of the elite is certainly tied up with flawed ideas of political power, but it is historically conditioned. It plays into long term resentments that flow from the shift towards a service economy which rewards education, particularly in law and economics. This development, and the concurrent, if only partially related trend towards greater social liberalism unsurprisingly generates backlash against this particular group. As Simon Wren Lewis argues, one of the key reasons for the success of Brexit was its ability to unite both those who had lost out socially and economically from this trend. This has likely been enhanced by the financial crisis of 2007/8, which contributed to suspicion of people working in the financial sector. Finally, this idea of the elite plays into long standing tensions and resentments of the modern world that arise from bureaucracy and managerialism, many of which are more immediately and frequently experienced at work and in  every day life than the injustice of the ultra wealthy. We need do no more than read a story by Franz Kafka to know these ideas are not new,  and a look at Soviet comedy suggests that these resentments may not be even unique to capitalism.  

The second hypocrisy, on law and the constitution, is more of a mixed bag. On the one hand there is surely some hypocrisy when it comes to direct discussion of things like Parliamentary sovereignty. But it is surely wrong to understand references to 'law and order', as is sometimes suggested, as implying checks and balances to state power. When political parties campaign on 'law and order', they are not campaigning on constitutionalism or the rule of law. If anything, they mean the opposite. They mean being tough on the 'bad guys', being willing to dish out long prison sentences or other brutal punishments, sometimes explicitly in contrast to due process (think about appeals to put the 'victim' above the 'criminal' as justifications for less concern about what happens in a trial, or attacks on 'soft' judges, sneaky barristers etc). In this sense what we see with Johnson's government is an extreme iteration with a familiar way of talking about the law and criminal justice, rather than a complete departure from an old tradition. 

Brexiteers have indeed talked at length about Parliamentary sovereignty and the superiority of the British constitution, but don't seem so interested in these ideas right now. Perhaps they could justify this current indifference as a necessary step towards an eventual goal ('a more sovereign Parliament, eventually'), but it is hard to distinguish this from not caring full stop. And certainly, both here and when talking about the 'elites', there are plenty of tensions, misrepresentations and falsehoods. But if we want to counter these ideas, we have to make a serious attempt to understand how they work and what makes them appealing. It is no good to simply point out that those who rail against the elites are themselves wealthy, or that those who talk about law and order don't want justice to apply to themselves. Nothing is revealed to supporters that is not already known. 

Are we Bayesian reasoners? Some thoughts.

Are humans Bayesian reasoners? Do they have a set of probabilistic beliefs about the world, or 'priors', which get updated by experience? To me this seems like an very strange and unlikely way of describing how people think most of the time, but a lot of very intelligent people seem to disagree, so the question seems worth taking seriously.

I still think the answer is no, but first I think it's worth discussing what I think people mean when they say people are Bayesian. I don't think they mean that this literally describes what people's conscious thought processes are like most of the time. That is just too obviously false. Even when it comes to every day events, like rain, or the train being late, most of the time people could only give a very vague idea of how likely they thought an event was. There are a huge number of things which matter a great deal to us that we would be even less able to meaningfully say anything about the probability of, let alone consciously 'update' these prior beliefs as new evidence comes to light. Consciously doing this in a systematical, mathematically valid fashion is a rarefied activity that requires specialist training and is only applied to limited circumstances (work in finance, weather modelling etc).

A more reasonable interpretation would be to say that the 'Bayesian reasoner' model of humans describes not conscious thought processes but behaviour, or perhaps some mixture of the two. Consciously or otherwise, our patterns of thought and behaviour respond to what we see and experience. Perhaps every so often we actually think 'I thought that was unlikely, but now I think that is more likely', but more often than that, we simply worry about something more, take a possibility more seriously etc. This interpretation could also allow for flaws in reasoning: perhaps people only roughly adapt their beliefs and behaviours in this way, perhaps there are certain systemic flaws in human psychology which lead them to sometimes over adjust or under adjust their beliefs (let's say for example we made allowances for exceptional events, like witnessing a plane crash, totally skewing how much we worried about plane crashes).

My problem with this behavioural description is that I don't think Bayesianism is really the right way of thinking about what is going on. This is because probability is on a continuous scale, but behaviour is discrete. What do I mean by this? There are an infinite number of probabilities I can assign to my train being late today (there are an infinite number of values between 0 and 1). In reality, my behaviour and thought processes only take certain discrete characters. Either I worry about my train being late or I don't. Perhaps I worry a little or a lot, but we can't meaningfully break this down much more than that. More importantly, my behaviour is extremely discrete. Perhaps I think of alternative routes in case my train is late, perhaps I don't bother. Most of life seems like this. Things we either worry about or don't, things we hope for or think are unrealistic, ideas which occur to us or do not, thoughts we think are worth entertaining or aren't, possibilities we factor in to our decisions or we do not. OK, there is a bit of space for something muddy in between all of these, but when it actually comes to trying to classify these in between states, there aren’t all that many. Take the way people talk about their own certainty about something- it’s almost always one of a few values if expressed numerically (‘50/50’, ‘80/20’ ‘I’m 99% sure’). And it’s true that continuous scales can be useful approximations of data which takes discrete values (a normal distribution curve could usefully approximate the probability of rolling a certain number of 6’s provided I rolled a sufficiently large number of times) but in this case, the discrete behaviours and beliefs seem too few for this to be the true.

And on that note- I've got a train to catch.

Accidental authoritarianism- some further notes and justifications

The other day I wrote a blog post arguing that the prevalence of authoritarian populist political tropes in the U.K are largely a response to the particular difficulties surrounding the 2016 referendum. I tried to sketch out a story of how I think this happened, focussing on both the referendum campaign and problems of implementing the result. What I realise I didn’t do is properly justify why I think that approach is likely to be correct, so this post is a kind of follow up explanation of that argument. As mentioned in the previous post, this kind of explanation can be contrasted with a second kind of explanation which stress the growth of these attitudes as a separate phenomenon, which may in turn be used to explain why Brexit has panned out the way it has. That kind of narrative might focus on longer term issues (deindustrialisation, low wage growth since the financial crisis etc) and comparisons with developments of seemingly similar movements internationally. The two aren’t completely incompatible. Perhaps the latter line of reasoning might some explanation as to why Leave won (though it’s quite possible Leave could have won in different circumstances), while the former developments subsequently, or perhaps they are both at work. But I think the distinction is under appreciated and it is worth setting out why the first kind of story might be a more useful explanation of what has happened in the UK post 2016. Finally I would like to contrast this first kind of explanation with one which one which sees Brexit as presenting a clash between representative and ‘direct’ democracy, which I think misreads what Leave supporters are really asking for. The reasons for this are as follows:

1.     While it is true that there is a strong correlation amongst voters between remain/leave support and authoritarian/liberal attitudes, there is little evidence to suggest that authoritarian attitudes have generally growing in popularity in the UK. The public is generally speaking more positive about immigration and less in favour of the death penalty now than it was a few decades ago, though there was a brief jump in saliency of immigration around the time of the referendum. What the referendum did was divide the population along these lines and give greater saliency to certain questions.

2.     Most people do not spend much time thinking about the theoretical justifications for democracy, why it is a good or bad thing, or what it is supposed to mean. The first idea most people have about democracy is that it is about putting things to a vote, in which the most popular option wins. That is what people have most immediate experience of, and also reflects the fact that ‘democracy’ is typically understood as something in contrast with a dictatorship, i.e where an unelected and small clique rule over a majority. The first point is particularly true of the U.K, with an electoral system that historically produces majority governments meaning that British democracy has a ‘winner takes all’ feel to it. It seems natural enough that many people should adopt a winner takes all approach to the referendum, and that majoritarian ideas like ‘the will of the people’ should be popular in contrast with appeals to compromise or parliamentary process.

3.     There are almost no calls for a move towards more direct democracy generally. If this was important over and above the specific question of Brexit, you would  expect people to be advocating more referendums about a greater number of issues, with at least some interest in how this could be made to work.

4.     Strongman politics, the idea of an individual implementing a popular will that is frustrated by corrupt or irrational institutions, always has its appeal, and you can see latent support for some of its surrounding ideas in any functioning liberal democracy. Just look at the popular trope that literal application of the law as argued by clever lawyers leads to criminals getting off the hook. It is not such a big move to progress from this to dismissing judges as politically motivated. Or look at the role anti-politics and suspicion of politics has played in ‘normal’ elections (how many successful opposition parties have claimed or heavily implied their opponents are corrupt?). Strongman politics of the kind Johnson is currently trying to capitalise on plays into deep rooted suspicions of institutions and politicians. The referendum result did not create these attitudes, but it gave them focus and saliency as they related to an immediate issue- whether Parliament could or would implement Brexit.

Accidental Authoritarianism

Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament has justifiably left a lot of people worried about the threat he and his brand of politics poses to representative democracy. That this comes at the same time as judges are dismissed as partisan, political opponents accused of treason and large parts of the population are relegated to not of ‘the people’ gives a real urgency to this anxiety. It seems worth trying to diagnose why this brand of politics seems so effective right now. Certainly this can be viewed in context of the wider success of authoritarian populist movements internationally. But I think what’s going on here is largely the result of specific political and institutional tensions resulting from the way the 2016 referendum was set up. Broadly, there were two big problems. Firstly, the nature of the referendum campaign encouraged a extreme, tribalistic and conspiratorial thinking as the go to intellectual framework for Brexit. Secondly, the contradictory mandate and absence of a clear legal framework for dealing with this kind of referendum set up a tension between parliament and the institutions of the state on the one hand and the Brexit supporting press and politicians on the other. It is this, combined with the latent appeal of authoritarian, strongman politics that can always be seen here and there in functioning liberal democracies, rather than a kind of  ‘slide into authorarianism’ that is at the heart of our current predicament.

The 2016 referendum was a highly unusual one. It was one where the government proposing it supported a ‘no’ vote, without setting out a plan for what would happen if this did not occur. The entire process was a gamble on a majority voting remain; at no point had the government determined if leaving the EU would be feasible, or if so how. What leaving the EU would mean would either be determined during the campaign or retroactively.

The representation of the leave position was, as these things are, handed over to a group of think-tankers, SPADs and campaign managers, whose primary experience and interest was in political advertising. And that was their role here- not to work out the details of how a policy could be made workable, or what the point of it was, but to win a campaign. A particularly unscrupulous set of individuals (the most intelligent of whom, Dominic Cummings, now advises the Prime Minister) spent a huge amount of time and energy trying to work out the most effective strategy for winning the referendum. In their judgement, this involved contradictory messages (allocating the same sum of money several times, promising savings in agricultural subsidies, but also protection for farmers, dramatic price drops but also no adjustment shocks, free trade deals with the third countries but also no additional barriers to trade with the EU etc), outright lies (Turkey, the bus etc), appealing to widespread anti-immigrant sentiment, and demonising political opponents as unpatriotic or part of some kind of sinister ‘liberal elite’.  

This style of campaign would have disastrous consequences in the event of a leave vote. For one thing, it made a ‘loser’s consent’ a hard proposition for those most involved or impacted. But most significantly, it set up a series of impossible expectations about what Brexit would mean. The prominence of anti-immigrant rhetoric and linking this with European freedom of movement made single market membership incompatible with Brexit. This is also true of talk of free trade deals with third parties. Brexit was thus set out in such a way that it had to imply a radical break with the European Union. But at the same time, it also was promised to be a relatively smooth process compatible with increased levels of public expenditure in social services. In other words, the campaign was set up in such a way that the best strategy for the Leave campaign was to set up a policy that was divisive, contradictory and undeliverable. Thus from June 2016 onwards the government has had to try and implement a policy it did not believe in, with no coherent rationale, but in the wake of a campaign whose promises rendered an economically (and morally) palatable outcome untenable. MPs would have to ratify agreements they thought disastrous.

Crucially, the referendum set up no legal mechanism to ensure that any of this actually happened, it was all dependent on the government of the time and enough MPs concluding that it had to, which was largely dependent on public opinion favouring that course of action. This blurred the distinction that normally occurs after a vote between accepting the legitimacy of a result and supporting it. Any act by a public figure that made the implementation of the result less likely, including simply continuing to make the public case against Brexit, could be construed as not accepting the legitimacy of the result, if this is taken to mean believing it therefore ought to be implemented. This meant that appeals to the respect the ‘will of the people’, however authoritarian and dangerous, occurred against a political backdrop which made them plausible and persuasive. And the experience of the referendum campaign itself suggested to many an unscrupulous politician that this style of argument could be effective.

The tension between parliamentary democracy and Brexit was thus an inherent consequence of the referendum itself, particularly given the way the campaign panned out. It meant that those asserting the legitimacy of the result were asserting a higher legitimacy over and above the normal, institutionally mediated procedures of representative democracy. That notion of legitimacy implied that the correct course of action was the one most in accordance with an abstract idea- Brexit- rather than one that was most desirable. It meant that the overarching criterion when deciding, for example, whether the UK should remain a member of the customs union, was not whether anyone thought leaving was a good idea, but whether remaining was truly “Brexit”. This all but ensured an outcome that most MPs, and the remain supporting public, simply could not agree to.

Against this backdrop, the appeal of Johnson’s authoritarian, anti-parliamentarian reflexes makes sense.  Not because it is justified, but because it plausibly relates to political reality. Furthermore, it is in tune with popular conceptions of democracy that are primarily majoritarian (particularly in the UK, without a culture of consensus politics). They also have deep roots in popular discontent with politicians, and a suspicion of process and institutions as things which frustrate common sense. Brexit simply gave expression and saliency to these ideas, and in doing so turned a large chunk of the population and its politicians into accidental authoritarians.  

Division and multiplication signs

It's the start of the academic year, so once again I'm mostly thinking about Maths teaching. Or at least a little more than in August. Perhaps this is a fortunate distraction from British politics, so hopefully this post can be for you, too. Or maybe a discussion about Maths teaching is too dull to act as a good distraction even in these times. Let's see.

One persistent problem children seem to have in early secondary school Maths is related to two common signs. The multiplication sign '×' and the division sign '÷' .   The first problem they have (starting in primary school) is with the order of operations. When performing a calculation like 5 - 3 x 2 you have to remember that multiplication happens first (you may remember learning something terribly tedious called BIDMAS). The second problem arises when children transition to secondary school and start learning algebra. Algebra is laid out in such a way that putting two symbols next to each other implies multiplication. So 3ab means 3 × × b. The problem is that children will end up switching between the two ways of writing operations (for example when substituting a value into an algebraic expression). This can be particularly problematic when they try and rearrange certain equations, because they way in which they learn to rearrange them is heavily reliant on visual cues and metaphors which are first and most easily related to purely algebraic notation. So if you have an equation like 7x + 3 = 10 - 3x, you either learn to 'move' the bits of the equation around, or 'balance' the equation by 'doing' the same thing to both sides (I can add 3x to both sides of the equation and get the new equation 10x + 3 = 10. But this gets more confusing for some children you have an equation more like 7x +5  = (2x +3)/3
They might learn to multiply both sides by 3, but write that as 7x + 5 × 3 =  2x + 3. Even if they add in brackets (7x + 5) × 3 =  2x + 3 it still looks confusing and unfamiliar. Or sometimes they have, or end up with some expression like  x × 3 = 7, and not see that the solution is x= 7/3, because they are used to only being able to make that step when the original equation is written as 3x = 7. 

Similarly, early on, it is often difficult for children to recognise that a fraction is equivalent to a division. So 7 ÷ 3 doesn't look the same to them as 7/3. This can make all sorts of steps in rearranging equations, dealing with algebraic fractions or even just answering basic 'every day' type numerical problems a lot more challenging.

So here is a modest proposal: why not get rid of these signs? The multiplication sign can easily be replaced with the dot notation used in many other countries. So 10 x 3 can be written as 10 · 3. This would make the difference visually between algebraic notation and the notation used in arithmetic a lot less pronounced. After all, you are just writing things next to each other with a dot in between. This also makes substitution a lot simpler. If presented with the task of evaluating 3x^2 - 10 when x = 2, they can just write 3·2^2 -10 rather than writing the more convaluted 3 x 2^2 - 10 which has more room for mistakes in the order of operation. You’d still for more advanced stuff need different multiplication signs to distinguish between say, the dot and vector product of two vectors, but that requires no change. 

Similarly, unless I'm being stupid, I don't see any reason for the division sign at all. Just write all division operations as if they are fractions. On a more basic level, this makes it easier to see simpler routes to division problems (through manipulating fractions). Combining this with dot notation, it also makes the order of operations a lot easier to see visually, and could make the transition to algebra later more straightforward. 

Defending Representative Democracy

Paul Evans asks a good question: how do we effectively make the case for Parliamentary democracy, as a better, and more legitimate way of doing things than government by referendum?

The most important point is what the argument should not be. The case for parliamentary democracy must not be framed in terms of elected representatives knowing more than ordinary voters, or being better able to deliberate on technical issues. This kind of patrician argument  plays into the charge that those defending the parliamentary system are in fact defending elitism. You could not give Dominic Cummings a better gift than to frame the argument in these terms. 

Instead, it should be about the value of Parliament as a deliberative body, which allows for a greater degree of representation than government by plebiscite or by an executive claiming to represent popular will. The list below might provide a starting point for thinking about how the case could be argued:

1. Referendums allow governments to abuse power by claiming popular mandates they don't have. Government by referendum, at least as it is likely to be instantiated, cannot provide a basis for working out the details of policy. This implies that power resides in whoever gets to define what the question put to a referendum means. If this is left vague at the time of a the vote, this is then done retroactively. Referendums are therefore open to abuse by governments seeking to define them however they like.

2. Referendums do not provide accountability, parliamentary democracy does. Even simple policies require a lot of effort to implement well, and a lot of value judgements and decisions about how they are implemented. A government seeking to be re-elected has to be held accountable for these decisions, but a referendum allows a government to disown any negative consequences of their decisions or executive ineptitude. They were, they might say, simply following instructions from 'the people'.

3. Referendums as conducted in the UK are too inflexible to be representative of changes in public opinion. By providing an absolute mandate for a policy, they do not easily allow for changes in circumstance or public mood. This is not to say there are no conceivable mechanisms for making them more fleixble, but no significant political forces in the UK are arguing for means to do so. In a system of representative democracy, governments are only bound to continue down a particular path in so far as they think that it is electorally advantageous to do so.

4. Referendums do not allow provide a mechanism for deciding on the relative importance of an issue, or how it meshes with other policy choices. Many policy choices strongly interact with one another. It might make little sense, for example, to ask whether taxes should be lowered without asking how much money should be spent on public services, or how much should be spent on one area without considering the implication for others*. Referendums do not ask people how important a policy is relative to other issues, or in what circumstances a policy should be implemented. It means there is option for supporting a policy in a limited range of circumstances, or in the context of other choices- it is all or nothing. When voting for a political party in a general election, on the other hand, you are voting for a broader set of policy choices and a manifesto as a whole.

5. Referendums do not in and of themselves produce political coalitions that are capable of delivering a policy. For policies to be effectively implemented and to last, they require broad coalitions of voters, politicians and interest groups who on some level think they are a good idea. A government that has to implement a referendum result it does not favour has to try approximate what it thinks supporters of a policy want. It is unlikely to do so effectively, or have any decent mechanism for balancing these desires with its own priorities. This is no good for those who want a policy to be implemented, as they lack an effective mechanism for doing so.

6. Parliaments can allow greater discussion and consensus building. It is not built in to parliamentary systems that this has to happen (the UK is quite bad at consensus politics), but they at least offer this potential. Referendums do not. At the very least, parliaments provide a legitimate space for opposition, and scrutiny of governments. 

* This is true regardless of the debate on deficit spending. Assuming there is some upper limit to deficit spending, or some point above which there are substantial costs (e.g inflation), at some point down the line there are trade offs.