Wednesday, 30 August 2017

We need to nationalise Google, Facebook and Amazon. Here’s why

A crisis is looming. These monopoly platforms hoovering up our data have no competition: they’re too big to serve the public interest

Nick Srnicek in The Guardian

For the briefest moment in March 2014, Facebook’s dominance looked under threat. Ello, amid much hype, presented itself as the non-corporate alternative to Facebook. According to the manifesto accompanying its public launch, Ello would never sell your data to third parties, rely on advertising to fund its service, or require you to use your real name.

The hype fizzled out as Facebook continued to expand. Yet Ello’s rapid rise and fall is symptomatic of our contemporary digital world and the monopoly-style power accruing to the 21st century’s new “platform” companies, such as Facebook, Google and Amazon. Their business model lets them siphon off revenues and data at an incredible pace, and consolidate themselves as the new masters of the economy. Monday brought another giant leap as Amazon raised the prospect of an international grocery price war by slashing prices on its first day in charge of the organic retailer Whole Foods.

The platform – an infrastructure that connects two or more groups and enables them to interact – is crucial to these companies’ power. None of them focuses on making things in the way that traditional companies once did. Instead, Facebook connects users, advertisers, and developers; Uber, riders and drivers; Amazon, buyers and sellers.

Reaching a critical mass of users is what makes these businesses successful: the more users, the more useful to users – and the more entrenched – they become. Ello’s rapid downfall occurred because it never reached the critical mass of users required to prompt an exodus from Facebook – whose dominance means that even if you’re frustrated by its advertising and tracking of your data, it’s still likely to be your first choice because that’s where everyone is, and that’s the point of a social network. Likewise with Uber: it makes sense for riders and drivers to use the app that connects them with the biggest number of people, regardless of the sexism of Travis Kalanick, the former chief executive, or the ugly ways in which it controls drivers, or the failures of the company to report serious sexual assaults by its drivers.

Network effects generate momentum that not only helps these platforms survive controversy, but makes it incredibly difficult for insurgents to replace them.

As a result, we have witnessed the rise of increasingly formidable platform monopolies. Google, Facebook and Amazon are the most important in the west. (China has its own tech ecosystem.) Google controls search, Facebook rules social media, and Amazon leads in e-commerce. And they are now exerting their power over non-platform companies – a tension likely to be exacerbated in the coming decades. Look at the state of journalism: Google and Facebook rake in record ad revenues through sophisticated algorithms; newspapers and magazines see advertisers flee, mass layoffs, the shuttering of expensive investigative journalism, and the collapse of major print titles like the Independent. A similar phenomenon is happening in retail, with Amazon’s dominance undermining old department stores.

These companies’ power over our reliance on data adds a further twist. Data is quickly becoming the 21st-century version of oil – a resource essential to the entire global economy, and the focus of intense struggle to control it. Platforms, as spaces in which two or more groups interact, provide what is in effect an oil rig for data. Every interaction on a platform becomes another data point that can be captured and fed into an algorithm. In this sense, platforms are the only business model built for a data-centric economy.

More and more companies are coming to realise this. We often think of platforms as a tech-sector phenomenon, but the truth is that they are becoming ubiquitous across the economy. Uber is the most prominent example, turning the staid business of taxis into a trendy platform business. Siemens and GE, two powerhouses of the 20th century, are fighting it out to develop a cloud-based system for manufacturing. Monsanto and John Deere, two established agricultural companies, are trying to figure out how to incorporate platforms into farming and food production.

And this poses problems. At the heart of platform capitalism is a drive to extract more data in order to survive. One way is to get people to stay on your platform longer. Facebook is a master at using all sorts of behavioural techniques to foster addictions to its service: how many of us scroll absentmindedly through Facebook, barely aware of it?

Another way is to expand the apparatus of extraction. This helps to explain why Google, ostensibly a search engine company, is moving into the consumer internet of things (Home/Nest), self-driving cars (Waymo), virtual reality (Daydream/Cardboard), and all sorts of other personal services. Each of these is another rich source of data for the company, and another point of leverage over their competitors.

Others have simply bought up smaller companies: Facebook has swallowed Instagram ($1bn), WhatsApp ($19bn), and Oculus ($2bn), while investing in drone-based internet, e-commerce and payment services. It has even developed a tool that warns when a start-up is becoming popular and a possible threat. Google itself is among the most prolific acquirers of new companies, at some stages purchasing a new venture every week. The picture that emerges is of increasingly sprawling empires designed to vacuum up as much data as possible.

But here we get to the real endgame: artificial intelligence (or, less glamorously, machine learning). Some enjoy speculating about wild futures involving a Terminator-style Skynet, but the more realistic challenges of AI are far closer. In the past few years, every major platform company has turned its focus to investing in this field. As the head of corporate development at Google recently said, “We’re definitely AI first.”

Tinkering with minor regulations while AI companies amass power won’t do

All the dynamics of platforms are amplified once AI enters the equation: the insatiable appetite for data, and the winner-takes-all momentum of network effects. And there is a virtuous cycle here: more data means better machine learning, which means better services and more users, which means more data. Currently Google is using AI to improve its targeted advertising, and Amazon is using AI to improve its highly profitable cloud computing business. As one AI company takes a significant lead over competitors, these dynamics are likely to propel it to an increasingly powerful position.

What’s the answer? We’ve only begun to grasp the problem, but in the past, natural monopolies like utilities and railways that enjoy huge economies of scale and serve the common good have been prime candidates for public ownership. The solution to our newfangled monopoly problem lies in this sort of age-old fix, updated for our digital age. It would mean taking back control over the internet and our digital infrastructure, instead of allowing them to be run in the pursuit of profit and power. Tinkering with minor regulations while AI firms amass power won’t do. If we don’t take over today’s platform monopolies, we risk letting them own and control the basic infrastructure of 21st-century society.

Britain is still a world-beater at one thing: ripping off its own citizens

From energy and water bills to exorbitant rail fares, we’re all busy lining the pockets of wealthy ‘investors’

Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian

And so to the big question. The one that has dogged us ever since the EU referendum and haunts every Brexiteer’s chlorinated daydreams. What is Britain for? Cliche-mongers will tell you that Britain lost an empire then couldn’t find a role. They are wrong. After careful study of recent newspaper articles, I have discovered just that new part – and today, dear reader, I am going to share it with you.

The British are now world-beaters at paying other people to rip them off. We are number one at handing over cash to “investors” who do no investing, to “entrepreneurs” who run monopolies – and who then turn around and tap us up for a bit more on the way out.

Consider two stories from the past few days. British Gas announces its electricity prices will rise by 12.5%, starting next month. Just as the cold nights start drawing in, more than 3 million Britons will find their bills are more expensive. Never mind that the competition watchdog judged last year that British Gas and other energy giants were taking well over a billion pounds a year through “excessive prices”. This privatised industry has a tradition of ripping off loyal customers to uphold.

Think about the scandal of people having to pay huge ground rents just to stay in their own homes. For years, big property developers have been flogging the freeholds on newly built estates to speculators, often based offshore, whose only relationship with the people living there is to hit them with ever-larger bills. Tens of thousands of families have been bundled up and turned into human revenue streams. Nor are they alone. Whether as taxpayers or consumers, pretty much everyone in Britain is now human feedstock for Big Capital.

This may not be how you see yourself. After all, you’re a customer and in our dynamic, choice-stuffed markets the customer is king. Except that the propaganda doesn’t match reality. If, like me, you live in London and use water, you are forced to give your business to Thames Water. The same Thames Water that is owned by a consortium of international investors, whose interests were until recently managed by Macquarie, an investment firm with headquarters in Australia. I have reported before on this arrangement, which ran from December 2006 until March of this year. Between 2006 and 2015, Thames Water divvied up £1.6bn in dividends to its small circle of shareholders, who in turn loaded up the company with billions in debt.

These “investors” were not doing much investing – indeed, they will shoulder neither the costs nor the risks of building London’s £4bn super-sewer. Much of the money will come from me and Thames Water’s 15 million other customers, through our bills. Between 2011 and 2015, the company paid no corporation tax at all. Someone bagged a bargain, and it wasn’t the taxpayer.

Think about the train operators that are subsidised to the tune of billions by public money – only to penalise the public with eye-watering fares and crap broadband. We pay them to rip us off. Ponder the new nuclear station about to be built by the Chinese and French at Hinkley Point, at an estimated cost to British households of £30bn. Neither David Cameron nor Theresa May would countenance the British government creating a new power station, but they will pay way over the odds for foreign governments to do so.

Want more examples? Think about the giant outsourcing industry, where a multinational such as G4S can fail to lay on enough guards for the 2012 London Olympics and charge taxpayers for phantom electronic tags on dead criminals – and still be put in charge of securing the Royal Mint.

In the early 00s, the Mail and the Express would bang on and on about “Rip-off Britain” and how booze and fags and Levi’s jeans were cheaper abroad. Right under their nose a rip-off industry was getting started in the form of the private finance initiative. Tony Blair saw the arrangement as a way of funding more schools and hospitals without raising taxes or taking on public debt. As York University’s Kevin Farnsworth points out, PFIs also served an ideological purpose. “Try getting change in… public services,” he once chortled to a conference of private equity financiers. “I bear the scars on my back.” PFI – putting the private sector in charge of providing public infrastructure – was one of his ways of getting that change.

These are all examples of losing control – over our bills, over our taxes, over our water and trains and schools

Almost two decades later, we can see the results. PFIs have produced more fleecing than Millets. A PFI primary school in Middlesbrough, only opened in 2006, was demolished in 2015 because its foundations had been built on “defective fill material” – literally, dodgy ground. Children and staff moved to another site – nevertheless, payments on the contract had to be made. In Liverpool, a PFI school has been shut since 2014 – because there aren’t enough pupils to keep it open – yet taxpayers still pay £12,000 a day under the contract. These aren’t one-offs: they are inherent in the structure of PFIs, which dump all the risks on the public and hand the private sector all the rewards.

As the TES (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) found in April, one PFI school in Bristol that needed a new window blind will have to pay £8,154 for it. Another that had to install a tap is facing a bill for £2,211. Private companies get paid for the building, then get paid again for cleaning and maintenance and interest charges. Across the UK there are more than 700 PFI projects with a capital value of around £55bn. It is estimated that they will cost the public more than £300bn.

These are all examples of the public losing control – over our bills, over our taxes, over our water and trains and schools. Will freeing ourselves of the shackles of the European court of justice or EU state aid rules or any other Brexiteer hobbyhorse allow us to “take back control”? On the basics that govern our lives we have lost sovereignty. Brussels didn’t sell us down the river: Thatcher, Blair and Cameron did.

Leaving the EU won’t change any of this. Theresa May will continue to privatise chunks of the NHS. Philip Hammond will still flog Britain to foreign capital as a bargain basement of cheap workers and low taxes – one giant Poundland. And Britons will find more and more aspects of their daily lives picked over by big businesses for revenue streams.

PFI is bankrupting Britain's public services

The plight of my local hospital trust in Walthamstow shows just how debt is holding our country back. Could this be the time for a windfall tax?

Stella Creasey in The Guardian

Next time you have an appointment cancelled at hospital, or a headteacher tells you their school will be losing staff because of budget cuts, ask how much PFI debt they have – the answer may surprise you. My hospital trust, in north-east London, spends nearly £150m a year repaying its PFI debt – nearly half of which is on interest payments. If Theresa May is serious about taking on the unacceptable face of capitalism, she could save Britain a fortune if she goes after the legal loan sharks of the public sector.

New research from the Centre for Health and the Public Interest (CHPI) shows just how much these debts are hurting our NHS. Over the next five years, almost £1bn of taxpayer funds will go to PFI companies in the form of pre-tax profits. That’s 22% of the extra £4.5bn given to the Department of Health in the 2015 spending review, and money that would otherwise have been available for patient care.

The company that holds the contract for University College London hospital has made pre-tax profits of £190m over the past decade, out of the £725m the NHS has paid out. This alone could have built a whole new hospital as 80% of PFI hospitals cost less than this to construct. This is not just about poor financial control in the NHS – UK PFI debt now stands at over £300bn for projects with an original capital cost of £55bn.

It’s time to grasp the nettle and get Britain a better line of credit

Private finance initiatives are like hire-purchase agreements – superficially a cheap way to buy something, but the costs quickly add up, and before you know it the debt is crippling.

For decades, governments of both main parties have used them for the simple but ultimately short-sighted view that it keeps borrowing off the books – helping reduce the amount of debt the country appears to have, but at great longer-term expense. Its now painfully clear that the intended benefits of private sector skills to help manage projects have been subsumed in the one-sided nature of these contracts, to devastating effect on budgets.

No political party can claim the moral high ground. The Tories conveniently ignore the fact that these contracts started under the John Major government – and are expanding again under Theresa May, with the PF2 scheme. Labour veers between defensive rhetoric that PFI was the best way to fund the investment our public sector so desperately needed during its last government, and angrily demanding such contracts be cancelled outright, wilfully ignoring what damage this would do to any government’s ability to ever borrow again.

It’s time to grasp the nettle and get Britain a better line of credit. That requires both tough action on the existing contracts to protect taxpayers’ interests, and getting a better deal on future borrowing. Some have already bought out contracts – Northumbria council took out a loan to buy out Hexham hospital’s PFI, and in doing so saved £3.5m every year over the remaining 19-year term. But as the National Audit Office has shown, gains from renegotiating individual contracts are likely to be minimal – what is saved in costs is paid out in fees to arrange.

However, the CHPI research also shows up another interesting facet of PFI. Just eight companies own or appear to have equity stakes in 92% of all the PFI companies in the NHS. Renegotiating not the individual deals done for hospitals or schools, but across the portfolios of the companies themselves could realise substantial gains. Innisfree, which manages my local hospital’s PFI and others across the country and has just 25 staff, stands to make £18bn alone over the coming years. If these companies are resistant to consolidating these loans into a more realistic cost, then it’s time to look again at their tax reliefs, or – given the evidence of excessive profits in this industry that shareholders have received – resurrect one of New Labour’s early hits with a windfall tax on the returns made.

Longer term, we need to ensure there is much more competition for the business of the state. Despite interest rates being low for over a decade, these loans have stayed stubbornly expensive. The lack of viable alternatives – whether public borrowing or bonds – gives these companies a captive market. If the government wants better rates, it needs to ensure there are more options to choose between, whether by allowing local authorities to issue bonds, or reforming Treasury rules that penalise public sector borrowing in the first place.

As our public services struggle under the pressure of PFI, Labour must lead this debate to show how we can not only learn from our past, but also provide answers for the future too. The government has already spent £100bn buying the debt of banks through quantitative easing. With Brexit expected not only to add £60bn to our country’s debt but also affect our access to European central bank funds, taking on our expensive creditors is a battle no prime minister can ignore in the fight to stop Britain going bust.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Spin Bowlers - Going through life as an individual

Suresh Menon in The Hindu

Spin bowlers tend to be like French verbs — they follow rules peculiar to their type, and the exceptions to the rule are fascinating. Often exceptions have rules too. Shane Warne didn’t need to bowl an off-break; Graeme Swann didn’t bowl the leg-break, not even the fashionable doosra. Yet cricket’s great mystery bowlers have been the spinners, not the fast men who might threaten life and limb, but seldom leave the batsman feeling foolish.

It would have been nice to get into the heads of India’s leading batsmen Virat Kohli and K.L. Rahul after they were beaten and bowled in one magical over by Sri Lanka’s latest mystery spinner, Mahamarakkala Kurukulasooriya Patabendige Akila Dananjaya Perera.

It wasn’t the classical duel where the bowler teases and tantalises, torments and mocks over a period before the kill. There isn’t time for that in a limited overs game. Here, speed of execution is of the essence, and both batsmen were fooled by an apparently innocuous delivery. There was something gentle about it all. A slight drift, a final dip, and batsmen with a reputation for dominating spin bowling were done in, playing the wrong line.

Perhaps ‘mystery’ applies to spin bowlers in general. The flighted delivery bowled above the eye line works against the steady head and tricks the batsman into believing the ball will pitch closer to him than it actually does. Then there is the problem of figuring out which way it will turn.

To those watching from the outside it is a cause for wonder that a slow delivery, sometimes spinning, often not, hits the stumps ignoring the bat and pads. It is one of the most satisfying sights in cricket, to watch a Goliath, complete with protective gear fall prey to a bowler whose greatest deception sometimes is that there is no deception at all.

Dananjaya is an off-break bowler who also bowls leg-breaks, doosras and the carom ball. He will be studied with great care by batsmen who will work out where his shoulder and feet and hands are at the time of delivery.

In modern cricket, mystery spinners need to be able to beat both the batsmen and the coaches armed with their computers. The most artistic of deliveries can be reduced to their mathematical specifics. Before the advent of technology, the average spinner sometimes needed to develop ‘mystery’ deliveries to be successful. Now the ‘mystery’ spinner needs to get back to the roots of his craft, focusing on the traditional.

It is a lesson the phenomenally successful Test off-spinner R. Ashwin has to absorb if he hopes to be a permanent fixture in the one-day side.

‘Mystery’ spinners through history, from Jack Iverson to Johnny Gleeson to Ajantha Mendis have tended to have early success, and then faded out. Once the opposition worked them out, they lacked the control over their basic craft to take wickets.

Iverson’s bowling action was characterised as that of a man flicking out a burnt cigarette. That might have been the original carom ball, except that using his long middle finger and thumb he could turn the ball from off to leg. Some batsmen began to play him as an off spinner although he took wickets with his leg break and top spinner. He was sorted out in the inter-state matches in Australia by Arthur Morris and Keith Miller — in the days when players had to think for themselves, who recognised the top spinner as the one tossed up higher and went hard at the bowler.

Gleeson, who also had a long middle finger and could bowl the Iverson delivery in the 1960s, strengthened his fingers by milking cows. Despite their short stints, the game has been the richer for their presence.

Increasingly, cookie-cutter coaching tends to convert the unorthodox spinner into something more comprehensible. As David Frith says, “Every young spinner turned into a colourless medium-pacer constitutes a crime against a beautiful game.”

The one country where the unorthodox is not just accepted but actively encouraged is Sri Lanka. Think Muttiah Muralitharan, or Lasith Malinga or Mendis, bowlers who were allowed to remain themselves with no coach attempting to iron out so-called deficiencies.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but spinners with too many variations tend not to be as successful as those with a few, of which they are the masters. It is the fox versus the hedgehog theory all over again. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Sometimes in cricket, it is smarter to be the hedgehog.

“There seemed to be an absence of orthodoxy about them, and they were able to meander through life as individuals, not civil servants.” That is a line from the Australian spinner Arthur Mailey. He was speaking about spinners in general. It applies equally to Dananjaya and his special kind.

'I am drowning and you are describing the water' - A critique of India's liberals

Javed Naqvi in The Dawn

“THEY have the president. They have the vice president. They have both houses of Congress. They have the supreme court too. But, wait a minute, we have the majority.” That was Michael Moore speaking to his audience recently in his one-man show at Broadway about the political equation in Trump’s America.

Moore’s reference was to an encouraging fact that Donald Trump won the election but lost the popular vote. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The equation applies to Modi’s India too, even if the opposition, rather mysteriously, I feel, doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge it. What did Mr Modi’s fabled popularity in 2014 amount to? He got 52 per cent seats with 31pc votes! Will the Indian opposition heed Moore?

There are understated problems, of course. In America, the opposition comes from the people, militantly united if required or peacefully persevering where it works. The agitators in India are scattered into caste, regional and linguistic pursuits if they are not in the meantime falling at the feet of some fraudulent spiritual guru. As some say, it is a big failure for India’s left that the masses who should be better educated in the 70 years of independence are turning to spurious god men for false hope.

Another pervasive problem is that people almost religiously believe that a court of law can address all the challenges to democracy. “Court-aat bhetu ya,” is a familiar Maharashtrian challenge to an adversary. See you in the court. People are not listening to what Michael Moore knows otherwise.

Fascists are usually better equipped to advance their planned and coordinated objectives by wrecking the legal compact, by hollowing out democracy’s beams and pillars.

Kondratiev waves of high and low emotions have thus stalked too many of my friends over the years, nearly always to do with Indian courts and their rulings and the government’s response or absence of it. The legal defeat of the nefarious privacy bill brought joy beyond belief. Edward Snowden would be smiling. As he would see it, the state already knows far more about its subjects than it perhaps wants to know.

Moreover, how long would it take for an intrusive government to overturn any court ruling, say, by presidential decree? If it won’t do that, it doesn’t need to do that. The creeping fascist challenge comes from overwhelming street power where courts have little say and virtually no control.

Fascists can use instruments of law, of course, to torment their opponents — as they did with the legendary artist M.F. Husain. Recently they commandeered the law against student leaders of rare spunk, while putting a 90pc crippled professor in jail, convincing the courts that the wheelchair-bound man’s freedom was a threat to Indian security.

Fascists are usually better equipped to advance their planned and coordinated objectives by wrecking the legal compact, by hollowing out democracy’s beams and pillars. If they have their way with the constitution they will rewrite it. If not, they will subvert it anyway.

One doesn’t have to look too hard to divine the pattern. People gaping with disbelief at the government’s apparent connivance with a convicted rapist the other day forgot that the Babri Masjid was destroyed only after snubbing the supreme court. Remember how senior politicians thumbed their noses at the court’s restraining orders against changing the status quo in Ayodhya.

Nobody was punished for the outrage. In fact, stalwarts among the accused became powerful ministers. Recently, the supreme court ordered the expediting of cases against men and women involved in the destruction of the mediaeval mosque. The court has set a two-year deadline for a non-stop trial followed by an early verdict. That would roughly coincide with the 2019 general elections.

In the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose equation between Indian fascists and the opposition, the fascists will be inevitably heading the victory celebrations. They will either claim vindication of their false innocence or they would play the martyr. As the dice seems loaded, the opposition, including our liberal friends, doesn’t have a trick to give it succour. Their joy could come by turning a collective if scattered majority into a winning showdown with Prime Minister Modi in two years. The judicial route to retrieve democracy can at best be a palliative, not a cure. Even the judges know that.

Ideologues of fascism are running the government and they are running the parallel government through the lynch mobs. The violent ban imposed by right-wing groups with the connivance of the state on interfaith marriages they nefariously call love jihad, and their intrusion into people’s eating habits and so forth, became possible only by tossing the law books out of the window.

A recent decoy that sent the liberals brimming with joy was the supreme court’s ban on triple talaq, reference to instant divorce by Muslim husbands. Look again, triple talaq was banned in Pakistan in 1961. So why did Tehmina Durrani published My Feudal Lord in 1991? Read it. Among other searing challenges, in which triple talaq comes low down the order, married women in a feudal society struggle to even secure a divorce from a man they didn’t want to live with.

Ms Durrani’s marriage to an eminent political figure turned into a nightmare. Violently possessive and pathologically jealous, the husband cut her off from the outside world. When she decided to rebel, as a Muslim woman seeking a divorce, she signed away all financial support, lost the custody of her four children, and found herself alienated from her friends and disowned by her parents.

We are not even beginning to discuss bride burning and honour killings that stalk women in South Asia with impunity. Banning instant divorce was important, not the celebrations it triggered. “I am drowning, and you are describing the water,” complained Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. He may have been critiquing the liberal Indians.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Labour's new clarity on Brexit

The Independent

After months of confusion, contradictory statements and embarrassing media interviews, Labour has finally brought some clarity to its opaque policy on Brexit.

Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, has announced that the Opposition wants the UK to remain in the single market and customs union during a transitional phase after it leaves the EU in March 2019. During that period, Labour would accept the rules of both arrangements, including free movement – a departure from the party’s manifesto at the June election, which said “freedom of movement will end when we leave the EU”.

Significantly, Starmer does not rule out permanent membership of the single market and customs union after the transitional phase, if the EU agreed reforms on issues such as migration.

Labour’s move is overdue but welcome. Remaining in the EU’s main institutions for the transition is common sense. Such an “off the shelf” arrangement would provide the certainty and stability that business desperately needs, probably reducing the loss of investment and jobs. Despite that, Theresa May seeks a more complicated “bespoke” transitional deal, and insists the UK must leave the single market and customs union in 2019. The time and energy wasted on securing such an agreement would be much better spent on forging a long-term UK-EU partnership.

Although the Chancellor Philip Hammond would probably support an “off the shelf” transitional deal, Ms May seems worried that hardline Brexiteers would then accuse her of not implementing last year’s referendum decision. The Prime Minister should start to do what is right for her country rather than her party.

If she does not, it will fall to Parliament to ensure a sensible transition in line with Labour’s new approach. House of Commons arithmetic means that several of the 20 pro-European Conservatives would need to vote with opposition parties to secure single market and customs union membership for the transition. When MPs return to Westminster next month, these Tories will come under enormous pressure not to hand Jeremy Corbyn a landmark victory. But they should act in the national interest, even if Ms May does not.

Mr Corbyn, a long-standing Eurosceptic, should be applauded for his pragmatism. Although many working-class people in the North and Midlands voted Leave last year, voters did not endorse Ms May's hard Brexit vision in June. Labour is now unmistakably the party of soft Brexit.

Mr Corbyn has also acknowledged the support for close EU links among his MPs, party members and the trade unions – not to mention the adoring crowds at Glastonbury. Probably he senses that Labour’s new stance will enable it to make trouble for Ms May in Parliament. What he wants above all is another election; after his performance in June, who can blame him?

The Opposition now offers more clarity on the biggest issue facing the country than the Government. In a series of position papers in the past two weeks, ministers have set out to replicate much of what the UK currently enjoys after Brexit – on issues including customs, the Northern Ireland border, civil judicial cooperation and data protection. Which, of course, begs the question: why not stay in the single market and customs union, at least during the transitional phase?

Although Boris Johnson has been virtually silent on Brexit over the summer, the Government’s papers show that it has adopted his totally unrealistic “have-cake-and-eat-it” approach. This has naturally gone down badly with the 27 EU members. They have not fallen for a naked attempt to switch the focus on to a trade deal before “first round” matters are settled on citizens’ rights, Northern Ireland and an inevitable divorce payment on which the UK refuses to engage.

When negotiations resume in Brussels on Monday, David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, will urge his counterpart Michel Barnier to show more flexibility. Yet it is time for the Government to do just that. It would also do well to display the same clarity and pragmatism as Labour.

Economists have started to take morality seriously

Ben Chu in The Independent
“We don’t do God,” Tony Blair’s press secretary, Alistair Campbell, once famously remarked. Similarly, economists don’t “do” morality.

They are a breed concerned with economic efficiency not spiritual uplift; human choices and incentives, not human values. They believe questions of morality can be left to philosophers and theologians.

There’s an element of truth in that stereotype. Economists have indeed tended to leave aside issues of morality. In some cases that’s because they think, on ideological grounds, that it has no place in the discipline.

But even more thoughtful and less dogmatic economists have tended to shy away from the question on the grounds that moral values are tricky to pin down, much less quantify.

That’s not to say that their research agendas have not supported “moral” agendas. They often expose market failures which harm the less well-off. And they defend the right of governments to intervene in markets in ways that might reduce short-term economic efficiency, such as by fining polluters.

They argue for the responsibility of governments to provide public goods like education. And there are also plenty of mainstream economists who justify progressive taxation on the grounds that high inequality is socially undesirable.

Yet their theoretical models themselves have generally had no place for morality.

But things might be changing. Two economic Nobel laureates at a meeting on the German island of Lindau last week outlined a bold attempt to put morality into theoretical economical modelling.

Oliver Hart, a 2016 Nobel winner, presented a paper, co-authored with Luigi Zingales, in which he looked at how the personal morality of shareholders might affect the behaviour of the companies in which they invest, in particular whether those firms will behave in a way that will maximise profits or whether they sacrifice some profit for the sake of behaving in a socially responsible manner.

To give an example, it’s perfectly legal for the American supermarket giant Wal-Mart to sell automatic weapons. But its executives could, in theory, choose not to do so. So what determines the corporate decision?

The Hart model raises the possibility that the incentives in the system of stock-market listed companies – the psychology of shareholders and the pressures on managements – might be behind an “amoral drift” in corporate behaviour.

In a similar vein, Jean Tirole, who won the Nobel in 2014, outlined at Lindau a theoretical framework in which he, along with Armin Falk, tries to model behaviour taking into account how certain popular “narratives” can inhibit people from doing what they would normally consider the right thing. A good example of such a narrative in the British context might be popular opposition to the admittance of Syrian child refugees on the false belief, pushed hard by the right-wing media, that they are all really adults pretending to be children.

“Economics is fundamentally a moral and philosophical science, embedded in the larger social sciences,” Mr Tirole said, urging other economists in the audience to join in the project of trying radical new approaches.

It remains to be seen whether this particular research agenda gets anywhere. There are plenty of holes that one can pick in the very simple models presented by Hart and Tirole and the broad-brush assumptions they make about people’s decision-making processes – something they both readily acknowledged.

It may turn out that the particular value that economics adds does indeed lie more in analysing the behaviour of broadly self-interested individuals in markets (whether competitive or not) rather than trying to build models that factor in more complex human motivations.

Yet those who criticise the “dismal science” for assuming that we are all self-interested robots should at least acknowledge these efforts by some of the luminaries of the field.

And this work is also a useful rebuke to the charge that by analysing human behaviour as narrowly self-interested the economics profession is implicitly encouraging people to behave in that selfish way, that the axioms of classical economics have a “normative” impact on society. 
And in a sense this is a return to older ways of thinking. Seventeen years before he wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776 Adam Smith produced The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it,” wrote the revered father of economics.

Some of Adam Smith’s successors, at least, are taking those insights seriously.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Two cheers for the Supreme Court

Gautam Bhatia in The Hindu

On the 4th of November, 1948, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar rose to address the Constituent Assembly, and proudly stated that “the... Constitution has adopted the individual as its unit”. On Tuesday, this constitutional vision, under siege for much of India’s journey as a democratic republic, came within a whisker of destruction at the hands of the Supreme Court. But when all the dust had cleared in Courtroom No. 1, it finally became evident that Chief Justice J.S. Khehar had been able to enlist only one other judge, out of a Bench of five, to support his novel proposition that the religious freedom under the Indian Constitution protected not just individual faith, but whole systems of “personal law”, spanning marriage, succession, and so on. This view would not only have immunised instantaneous triple talaq (talaq-e-biddat) from constitutional scrutiny, but would also — in the Chief Justice’s own words — have ensured that “it is not open for a court to accept an egalitarian approach, over a practice which constitutes an integral part of religion”.

Had the Chief Justice managed to persuade one other judge to sign on to his judgment, we would have found ourselves living under a Constitution that sanctions the complete submergence of the individual to the claims of her religious community. A reminder, perhaps, of how even the most basic constitutional values, often taken for granted, hang by nothing more than the most fragile of threads. But if the relegation of the Chief Justice’s argument to a legally irrelevant dissenting opinion narrowly averted disaster, the separate opinions of three judges invalidating the practice of talaq-e-biddat gave us something to cheer about — but not much. By a majority decision, instantaneous triple talaq is now invalid, a significant victory that is the result of many decades of struggle by the Muslim women’s movement for gender justice. That is something that must be welcomed. However, the value of a Supreme Court judgment lies not only in what it decides, but also in the possibilities and avenues that it opens for the future, for further progressive-oriented litigation. In that sense, the triple talaq verdict is a disappointment, because even the majority opinions proceeded along narrow pathways, and avoided addressing some crucial constitutional questions.

The majority

Justice Rohinton F. Nariman, writing for himself and Justice U.U. Lalit, held that the 1937 Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act had codified all Muslim personal law, including the practice of triple talaq. This brought it within the bounds of the Constitution. He then held that because talaq-e-biddat allowed unchecked power to Muslim husbands to divorce their wives, without any scope for reconciliation, it was “arbitrary”, and failed the test of Article 14 (equality before law) of the Constitution. The practice, therefore, was unconstitutional.

Justice Nariman’s reasoning, while technically faultless, avoided the elephant in the room that had been ever-present since the hearing began. Under our constitutional jurisprudence, codified personal law — that is, personal law that has been given a statutory form, such as the Hindu Marriage Act — is subject to the Constitution. However, uncodified personal law is exempted from constitutional scrutiny. In other words, the moment the state legislates on personal law practices, its actions can be tested under the Constitution, but if the state fails to act, then those very practices — which, for all relevant purposes, are recognised and enforced by courts as law — need not conform to the Constitution. This anomalous position, which had first been advanced by the Bombay High Court in a 1952 decision called Narasu Appa Mali, and has never seriously been challenged after that, has the effect of creating islands of “personal law” free from constitutional norms of equality, non-discrimination, and liberty.

By holding that the 1937 Act codified all Muslim personal law, Justice Nariman obviated the need for reconsidering this longstanding position, even as he doubted its correctness in a brief, illuminating paragraph. As a matter of constitutional adjudication and judicial discipline, he was undoubtedly right to do so. However, it is impossible to shake off the feeling that the court missed an excellent opportunity to review, and correct, one of its longstanding judicial errors. It seems trite to say that in our polity, there should not exist any constitutional black holes. The basic unit of the Constitution, as Ambedkar said, is the individual, and to privilege state-sanctioned community norms over individual rights negates that vision entirely.

In a separate opinion — which turned out to be the “swing vote” in this case — Justice Kurian Joseph did not go even that far. He simply held that talaq-e-biddat found no mention in the Koran, and was no part of Muslim personal law. Effectively, he decided the case on the ground that talaq-e-biddat was un-Islamic, instead of unconstitutional — begging the question whether secular courts should be adjudicating such questions in the first place. If Justice Nariman’s opinion was narrow and technical, Justice Joseph’s was narrow and theological. Therefore, in a case that involved, at its heart, issues of the intersection between personal law, the Constitution, and gender discrimination, there is no majority view on any of these topics.

The dissent

This brings us back to the dissent. Not only did the dissenting opinion privilege community claims over individual constitutional rights, it also conflated the freedom of religion with personal law, thereby advancing a position where religion could become the arbiter of individuals’ civil status and civil rights. Here again, it had been Ambedkar, extraordinarily prescient, who had warned the Constituent Assembly on the 2nd of December, 1948: “The religious conceptions in this country are so vast that they cover every aspect of life, from birth to death... if personal law is to be saved, I am sure... that in social matters we will come to a standstill. I do not think it is possible to accept a position of that sort. There is nothing extraordinary in saying that we ought to strive hereafter to limit the definition of religion in such a manner that we shall not extent beyond beliefs and rituals as may be connected with ceremonials which are essentially religious. It is not necessary that the sort of laws, for instance, laws relating to tenancy or laws relating to succession, should be governed by religion.”

Ultimately, what separates religious norms and personal law systems — and this includes all religions — from the laws of a democratic republic is the simple issue of consent. This is why the Chief Justice’s conflation of religious freedom and personal law was so profoundly misguided: because, in essence, he took a constitutional provision that had been designed to protect an individual, in her faith, from state interference, and extended it to protect a personal law system that claims authority from scriptures — scriptures whose norms are applied to individuals who had no say in creating them, and who have no say in modifying or rejecting them. The Muslim women challenging triple talaq invoked the Constitution because there was no equivalent within their personal law system; the Chief Justice would have denied not only them that possibility, but would have denied to every other individual, who felt oppressed and unequally treated by her religious community, for all time — and told them, as he did in this case: “Go to Parliament, but the Constitution has nothing for you.”

At the very least, the Majority judgments did not close that window. For that, we must say: two cheers to the Supreme Court.

Silicon Valley siphons our data like oil. But the deepest drilling has just begun

Ben Tarnoff in The Guardian

What if a cold drink cost more on a hot day?

Customers in the UK will soon find out. Recent reports suggest that three of the country’s largest supermarket chains are rolling out surge pricing in select stores. This means that prices will rise and fall over the course of the day in response to demand. Buying lunch at lunchtime will be like ordering an Uber at rush hour.

This may sound pretty drastic, but far more radical changes are on the horizon. About a week before that report, Amazon announced its $13.7bn purchase of Whole Foods. A company that has spent its whole life killing physical retailers now owns more than 460 stores in three countries.

Amazon isn’t abandoning online retail for brick-and-mortar. Rather, it’s planning to fuse the two. It’s going to digitize our daily lives in ways that make surge-pricing your groceries look primitive by comparison. It’s going to expand Silicon Valley’s surveillance-based business model into physical space, and make money from monitoring everything we do.

Silicon Valley is an extractive industry. Its resource isn’t oil or copper, but data. Companies harvest this data by observing as much of our online activity as they can. This activity might take the form of a Facebook like, a Google search, or even how long your mouse hovers in a particular part of your screen. Alone, these traces may not be particularly meaningful. By pairing them with those of millions of others, however, companies can discover patterns that help determine what kind of person you are – and what kind of things you might buy.

These patterns are highly profitable. Silicon Valley uses them to sell you products or to sell you to advertisers. But feeding the algorithms that produce these patterns requires a steady stream of data. And while that data is certainly abundant, it’s not infinite.

A hundred years ago, you could dig a hole in Texas and strike oil. Today, fossil fuel companies have to build drilling platforms many miles offshore. The tech industry faces a similar fate. Its wildcat days are over: most of the data that lies closest to the surface is already claimed. Together, Facebook and Google receive a staggering 76% of online advertising revenue in the United States.

An Amazon Go ‘smart’ store in Seattle. The company’s acquisition of Whole Foods signals a desire to fuse online surveillance with brick-and-mortar business. Photograph: Paul Gordon/Zuma Press / eyevine

To increase profits, Silicon Valley must extract more data. One method is to get people to spend more time online: build new apps, and make them as addictive as possible. Another is to get more people online. This is the motivation for Facebook’s Free Basics program, which provides a limited set of internet services for free in underdeveloped regions across the globe, in the hopes of harvesting data from the world’s poor.

But these approaches leave large reservoirs of data untapped. After all, we can only spend so much time online. Our laptops, tablets, smartphones, and wearables see a lot of our lives – but not quite everything. For Silicon Valley, however, anything less than total knowledge of its users represents lost revenue. Any unmonitored moment is a missed opportunity.

Amazon is going to show the industry how to monitor more moments: by making corporate surveillance as deeply embedded in our physical environment as it is in our virtual one. Silicon Valley already earns vast sums of money from watching what we do online. Soon it’ll earn even more money from watching what we do offline.

It’s easy to picture how this will work, because the technology already exists. Late last year, Amazon built a “smart” grocery store in Seattle. You don’t have to wait in a checkout line to buy something – you just grab it and walk out of the store. Sensors detect what items you pick up, and you’re charged when you leave.

Imagine if your supermarket watched you as closely as Facebook or Google

Amazon is keen to emphasize the customer benefits: nobody likes waiting in line to pay for groceries, or fumbling with one’s wallet at the register. But the same technology that automates away the checkout line will enable Amazon to track every move a customer makes.

Imagine if your supermarket watched you as closely as Facebook or Google does. It would know not only which items you bought, but how long you lingered in front of which products and your path through the store. This data holds valuable lessons about your personality and your preferences – lessons that Amazon will use to sell you more stuff, online and off.

Supermarkets aren’t the only places these ideas will be put into practice. Surveillance can transform any physical space into a data mine. And the most data-rich environment, the one that contains the densest concentration of insights into who you are, is your home.

That’s why Amazon has aggressively promoted the Echo, a small speaker that offers a Siri-like voice-activated assistant called Alexa. Alexa can tell you the weather, read you the news, make you a to-do list, and perform any number of other tasks. It is a very good listener. It faithfully records your interactions and transmits them back to Amazon for analysis. In fact, it may be recording not only your interactions, but absolutely everything.

Putting a listening device in your living room is an excellent way for Amazon to learn more about you. Another is conducting aerial surveillance of your house. In late July, Amazon obtained a patent for drones that spy on people’s homes as they make deliveries. An example included in Amazon’s patent filing is roof repair: the drone that drops a package on your doorstep might notice your roof is falling apart, and that observation could result in a recommendation for a repair service. Amazon is still testing its delivery drones. But if and when they start flying, it’s safe to assume they’ll be scraping data from the outside of our homes as diligently as the Echo does from the inside.

  Silicon Valley is an extractive industry. Its resource isn’t oil or copper, but data. And to increase profits, Silicon Valley must extract more. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Amazon is likely to face some resistance as it colonizes more of our lives. People may not love the idea of their supermarkets spying on them, or every square inch of their homes being fed to an algorithm. But one should never underestimate how rapidly norms can be readjusted when capital requires it.

A couple of decades ago, letting a company read your mail and observe your social interactions and track your location would strike many, if not most, as a breach of privacy. Today, these are standard, even banal, aspects of using the internet. It’s worth considering what further concessions will come to feel normal in the next 20 years, as Silicon Valley is forced to dig deeper into our lives for data.

Tech’s apologists will say that consumers can always opt out: if you object to a company’s practices, don’t use its services. But in our new era of monopoly capitalism, consumer choice is a meaningless concept. Companies like Google and Facebook and Amazon dominate the digital sphere – you can’t avoid them.

The only solution is political. As consumers we’re nearly powerless, but as citizens, we can demand more democratic control of our data. Data is a common good. We make it together, and we make it meaningful together, since useful patterns only emerge from collecting and analyzing large quantities of it.

No reasonable person would let the mining industry unilaterally decide how to extract and refine a resource, or where to build its mines. Yet somehow we let the tech industry make all these decisions and more, with practically no public oversight. A company that yanks copper out of an earth that belongs to everyone should be governed in everyone’s interest. So should a company that yanks data out of every crevice of our collective lives.

No alternative to austerity? That lie has now been nailed

Owen Jones in The Guardian

Ever since the banks plunged the western world into economic chaos, we have been told that only cuts offer economic salvation. When the Conservatives and the Lib Dems formed their austerity coalition in 2010, they told the electorate – in apocalyptic tones – that without George Osborne’s scalpel, Britain would go the way of Greece. The economically illiterate metaphor of a household budget was relentlessly deployed – you shouldn’t spend more if you’re personally in debt, so why should the nation? – to popularise an ideologically driven fallacy.

Greek debt crisis: ‘People can’t see any light at the end of any tunnel’

But now, thanks to Portugal, we know how flawed the austerity experiment enforced across Europe was. Portugal was one of the European nations hardest hit by the economic crisis. After a bailout by a troika including the International Monetary Fund, creditors demanded stringent austerity measures that were enthusiastically implemented by Lisbon’s then conservative government. Utilities were privatised, VAT raised, a surtax imposed on incomes, public sector pay and pensions slashed and benefits cut, and the working day was extended.

In a two-year period, education spending suffered a devastating 23% cut. Health services and social security suffered too. The human consequences were dire. Unemployment peaked at 17.5% in 2013; in 2012, there was a 41% jump in company bankruptcies; and poverty increased. All this was necessary to cure the overspending disease, went the logic.

At the end of 2015, this experiment came to an end. A new socialist government – with the support of more radical leftwing parties – assumed office. The prime minister, António Costa, pledged to “turn the page on austerity”: it had sent the country back three decades, he said. The government’s opponents predicted disaster – “voodoo economics”, they called it. Perhaps another bailout would be triggered, leading to recession and even steeper cuts.

There was a precedent, after all: Syriza had been elected in Greece just months earlier, and eurozone authorities were in no mood to allow this experiment to succeed. How could Portugal possibly avoid its own Greek tragedy?

In 2016 – a year after taking power – the government could boast of a 13% jump in corporate investment

The economic rationale of the new Portuguese government was clear. Cuts suppressed demand: for a genuine recovery, demand had to be boosted. The government pledged to increase the minimum wage, reverse regressive tax increases, return public sector wages and pensions to their pre-crisis levels – the salaries of many had plummeted by 30% – and reintroduce four cancelled public holidays. Social security for poorer families was increased, while a luxury charge was imposed on homes worth over €600,000 (£550,000).

The promised disaster did not materialise. By the autumn of 2016 – a year after taking power – the government could boast of sustained economic growth, and a 13% jump in corporate investment. And this year, figures showed the deficit had more than halved, to 2.1% – lower than at any time since the return of democracy four decades ago. Indeed, this is the first time Portugal has ever met eurozone fiscal rules. Meanwhile, the economy has now grown for 13 successive quarters.

During the years of cuts, charities warned of a “social emergency”. Now the Portuguese government can offer itself as a model to the rest of the continent. “Europe chose the line of austerity and had much worse results,” declared the economy minister Manuel Caldeira Cabral. “What we are showing is that with a policy that restitutes income to the people in a moderate way, people get more confidence and investment returns.”

Portugal has increased public investment, reduced the deficit, slashed unemployment and sustained economic growth. We were told this was impossible and, frankly, delusional. And so British workers endured the longest squeeze in wages since the 19th century, while the coalition did not even come close to meeting its commitment to eradicate the deficit by 2015. Why? In part, because low pay means workers paying less tax, receiving more in-work benefits, and spending less money. Portugal is increasing demand; the Tories suppressed it.

Portugal’s success is both inspiring and frustrating. All that human misery in Europe – and for what? What of Greece, where over half of young people languished in unemployment, where health services were decimated, where infant mortality and suicide increased? What of Spain, where hundreds of thousands were evicted from their homes? What of France, where economic insecurity fuelled the rise of the far right?

Portugal and Britain offer lessons for social democracy too. In the aftermath of the bankers’ crash, social democratic parties embraced austerity. The result? Political collapse. In Spain, support for the socialists fell from 44% to the low 20s as the radical left Podemos ate into their vote. In Greece, Pasok almost disappeared as a political force. In France, the Socialists achieved little over 6% in the first round of this year’s presidential elections. And in the Netherlands this year, the Labour party slumped from a quarter of the vote to less than 6%.

By contrast, the two social democratic parties that have broken with austerity – in Portugal and Britain – are now performing better than almost all their sister parties. Indeed, polls show Portugal’s Socialists now 10 points clear of the country’s rightwing party.

Europe’s austerity has been justified with the mantra “there is no alternative”, intended to push the population into submission: we have to be grownups, and live in the real world, after all.

Portugal offers a powerful rebuke. Europe’s left should use the Portuguese experience to reshape the European Union and bring austerity across the eurozone to a halt. In Britain, Labour can feel more emboldened in breaking with the Tories’ economic order.

Throughout Europe’s lost decade, millions of us held that there was indeed an alternative. Now we have the proof.

Monday, 21 August 2017

The myth of the benefits cheat is a sign of unkind times

Zoe Williams in The Guardian

Some things are easier to see from far away, and a collective slide away from empathy and common sense, towards pearl-clutching judgmentalism, is one of them. At the start of August the co-leader of New Zealand’s Green party, Metiria Turei, was forced to resign, following an outpouring of opprobrium that threatened to poleaxe her party’s prospects in September’s elections.

The crime for which this tide of hate would have been proportionate is hard to imagine: in fact, it was spurred by her admission that she committed benefit fraud in the early 90s, a confession she made freely to highlight how hard it was then, and is now, to raise a child as a single parent under New Zealand’s notoriously punitive welfare system.

More than half of all that country’s benefit claimants owe money to their work and income department, in what appears to be a version of Gordon Brown’s working family tax credit overpayments, where you identify the country’s poorest families, pay them slightly more than you intended by a metric you haven’t really explained, then saddle them with a debt they have no hope of repaying. When you get to the point that these debts affect 60% of claimants, this is no longer a glitch in the system: this is the system.

Families on benefits are now 40% short of what a citizens’ jury thinks they need to live a decent life

As the journalist Giovanni Tiso described in a moving essay, “once the blood was in the water, the sharks had to do as nature commanded them” – her admission of guilt was deemed not quite penitent enough. The media set out to “investigate” the extent of her fraud, and found that she had also had support from family members when she was young, so couldn’t possibly have been as destitute as she claims.

The prevailing view landed on the fact that she was a thief: she had stolen from the great, honest taxpayer, that creature of myth who needs nothing, takes nothing, works only to support others lazier than himself. Turei had to go. The fact that she created something miraculous – a stable home for her daughter, a law degree, a performance art troupe, a political career – from a standing start of grinding poverty and no qualifications was overlooked.

An incalculably valuable thing – a person in politics who knows what it is like to rely on the systems politicians create – has been righteously thrown away like contaminated sharps.

And for what? The maintenance of the narrative: benefits claimants are inherently suspect, because if they were better people they wouldn’t be on benefits. You have to watch them like hawks, and if you spend more money on surveillance than you could ever save from the detection of the fiddles you lie awake imagining, so be it – our own Department for Work and Pensions sanctions system is fantastically expensive, a fact of which the government seems perversely proud.

The idea that need should come with a badge of shame is not new: the 1697 Poor Act laid down in law that those in receipt of parish aid should wear some blue or red cloth.

Yet it is relatively recent that a competing theory has been overturned. Even in the darkest days of me-first Thatcherism, the social security conversation hinged on whether or not the dole was enough to provide a decent life. State benefits were compared to the median income, and to similar systems in Europe: the question of fraud rarely came up, because the conditions of the 97% not committing it, living honestly on money to which they were entitled, were thought more important.

Simply by changing the frame, pointing attention towards the dishonest, the government managed to render whole swaths of normal social inquiry – what is life like for those at the bottom? – irrelevant. Ask not what life is like for those at the bottom; ask whether they really are at the bottom, or have a cash-in-hand window-cleaning job that puts them nearer the middle. Ask what mountain of fecklessness prevents their escape from the bottom.

Yet when people engage seriously with the concept of social security, different attitudes emerge. The minimum income standard is a research method where small groups, drawn from every social class, calculate what a person needs to live on: they consider the impact of not being able to afford Christmas presents, as well as council tax. They ponder how often one might need a new toaster. They come up with a ballpark figure that, currently, according to a report released by the Child Poverty Action Group, a huge number of people fall short of.

A household of two adults working full time for the minimum wage is 13% shy of it; a single parent on the same wage, 18%. Families relying on benefits, through a combination of inflation and the benefits freeze, are now 40% short of what a citizens’ jury thinks they need to live a decent life.

When you consider these figures as a lived experience, the picture is bleak: yet there is a thread of optimism in the minimum income standard itself. The ostentatious parsimony of the state has not cut through. People still have a conception of decency that goes well beyond mere sustenance, and wish it for one another. All that remains is that we remember how to fight for it.

Extremism is surging. To beat it, we need young hearts and minds

Scott Atran in The Guardian

The last of the shellshocked were being evacuated as I headed back toward Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s famed tourist-filled walkway where another disgruntled “soldier of Islamic State” had ploughed a van into the crowd, killing at least 13 and injuring more than 120 from 34 nations. Minutes before the attack I had dropped my wife’s niece near where the rampage began. It was deja vu and dread again, as with the Paris massacre at the Bataclan theatre in 2015, next door to where my daughter lived.

At a seafront promenade south of Barcelona, a car of five knife-wielding kamikaze mowed down a woman before police killed them all. One teenage attacker had posted on the web two years before that “on my first day as king of the world” he would “kill the unbelievers and leave only Muslims who follow their religion”.

Mariano Rajoy, the president of Spain, declared that “our values and way of life will triumph” – just as Theresa May had proclaimed “our values will prevail” in March when yet another petty criminal “born again” into radical Islam drove his vehicle across Westminster Bridge to kill and wound pedestrians.

In Charlottesville the week before, the white supremacist attacker who killed civil rights activist Heather Heyer mimicked Isis-inspired killings using vehicles. “This was something that was growing in him,” the alleged attacker’s former history teacher told a newspaper. “He had this fascination with nazism [and] white supremacist views … I admit I failed. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country.”

The values of liberal and open democracy increasingly appear to be losing ground around the world to those of narrow, xenophobic ethno-nationalisms and radical Islam. This is not a “clash of civilisations”, but a collapse of communities, for ethno-nationalist violent extremism and transnational jihadi terrorism represent not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their unravelling.
This is the dark side of globalisation. The western nation-state and relatively open markets that dominate the global political and economic order have largely supplanted age-old forms of governance and social life. People across the planet have been transformed into competitive players seeking fulfilment through material accumulation and its symbols. But the forced participation and gamble in the rush of market-driven change often fails, especially among communities that have had little time to adapt. When it does, redemptive violence is prone to erupt.

The quest for elimination of uncertainty, coupled with what social psychologist Arie Kruglanski deems “the search for significance”, are the personal sentiments most readily elicited in my research team’s interviews with violent jihadists and militant supporters of populist ethno-nationalist movements. In Hungary, we find strong support for the government’s call for restoring the “national cohesion” lost with the fall of Miklós Hothy’s fascist regime in the second world war. In Iraq, we find nearly all young people coming out from under Isis rule in Mosul initially welcomed the stability and security it offered, despite its brutality, amid the chaos following the US invasion.
In the world of liberal democracy and human rights, violence – especially extreme forms of mass bloodshed – is generally considered pathological or an evil expression of human nature. But across most history and cultures, violence against other groups is claimed by the perpetrators to be a sublime matter of moral virtue. For without a claim to virtue it is difficult, if not inconceivable, to kill large numbers of people innocent of direct harm to others.
Ever since the second world war, revolutionaries and insurgents willing to sacrifice themselves for causes and groups have prevailed with considerably less firepower and manpower than the state armies and police forces they oppose. Meanwhile, according to the World Values Survey, the majority of Europeans don’t believe democracy is “absolutely important” for them; and in France and Spain we find little evidence of willingness to sacrifice much of anything for democracy – in contrast to the willingness to fight and die among supporters of militant jihad.

How can we resist, compete with, and overcome these strengthening countercultural pressures in the present age? Perhaps, for some, a re-enchantment and communitarian rerooting of our own values of representative government and cultural tolerance provides an answer. Preserving what is left of the planet’s fauna and flora and avoiding environmental catastrophes may offer a new course for others. Or the coming generation, if allowed, may offer whole new ways of understanding.

Young people are viewed mostly as a youth bulge and a problem to be pummelled rather than as a youth boom

Yet no countervailing message will spread in a social vacuum, in the abstract space of ideology or counter-narrative alone. The means of engagement are critical, requiring close knowledge of communities at risk. Most often, people join radical groups through pre-existing social networks. This clustering suggests that much recruitment does not take place primarily via direct appeals or following individual exposure to social media (which would entail a more dispersed recruitment pattern). Rather, recruiting often involves enlisting clusters of family, friends and fellow travellers from specific locales (neighbourhoods, universities, prisons).

Our research into the history of Isis-inspired attacks in western Europe clearly indicates that initial attempts by those directly commissioned by Islamic State, and without involvement from locally pre-existing social networks, mostly failed; however, as that involvement broadened and deepened, attacks became progressively more lethal. In our research, we find loose but wide-ranging connections between jihadist circles in Barcelona and much of western Europe, the Maghreb, the Levant and beyond that stretch back even before the attacks of 9/11.

The necessary focus of engagement must be youth, who form the bulk of today’s radical recruits and tomorrow’s most vulnerable populations. Volunteers for al-Qaida, Isis and many extreme nationalist groups are often young people in transitional stages in their lives – immigrants, students, people between jobs and before finding their life partners. Having left their homes and parents, they seek new families of friends and fellow travellers to find purpose and significance.

We need a strategy to redirect radicalised youth by engaging with their passions, rather than ignoring or fearing them, or satisfying ourselves by calling on others to moderate or simply denounce them. Of course there are limits to tolerance, and dangers of worse violence in appeasement of the intolerable. Our partisan divisions include real differences in values that politicians and pundits hype and ply into existential threats. But there are still vast common grounds in a world where all but the too-far-gone can live life with more than a minimum of liberty and happiness, if given half a chance. It is for this chance that some of our forebears fought revolutions, civil wars and world wars.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The 10 best jokes from the Edinburgh fringe

Paul Fleckney in The Guardian

Robert Garnham: Insomnia is awful. But on the plus side – only three more sleeps till Christmas.

Dan Antopolski: Centaurs shop at Topman. And Bottomhorse.

Paul Savage: Oregon leads America in both marital infidelity and clinical depression. What a sad state of affairs.

Caroline Mabey: I’m very conflicted by eye tests. I want to get the answers right but I really want to win the glasses.

Athena Kugblenu: Relationships are like mobile phones. You’ll look at your iPhone 5 and think, it used to be a lot quicker to turn this thing on.

Evelyn Mok: My vagina is kind of like Wales. People only visit ironically.

Phil Wang: In the bedroom, my girlfriend really likes it when I wear a suit, because she’s got this kinky fantasy where I have a proper job.

Gráinne Maguire: The Edinburgh fringe is such a bubble. I asked a comedian what they thought about the North Korea nuclear missile crisis and they asked what venue it was on in.

John-Luke Roberts: How did the Village People meet? They obviously led such different lives.

Olaf Falafel: If you’re being chased by a pack of taxidermists, do not play dead.

Why the Booker prize is bad for writers

Amit Chaudhuri in The Guardian

There are at least two reasons why almost every anglophone novelist feels compelled to get as near the Booker prize as they can. The first is because it looms over them and follows them around in the way Guy de Maupassant said the Eiffel Tower follows you everywhere when you’re in Paris. “To escape the Eiffel Tower,” Maupassant suggested, “you have to go inside it.” Similarly, the main reason for a novelist wanting to win the Booker prize is to no longer be under any obligation to win it, and to be able to get on with their job: writing, and thinking about writing.

Today, there’s little intellectual or material investment in writers: prizes and shortlists are meant to sell books

The other reason is that the Booker prize is most literary publishers’ primary marketing tool. There are relatively few Diana Athills (Athill was VS Naipaul’s editor) and Charles Monteiths (Monteith was William Golding’s) today: publishers who identify, and are loyal to, novelists in the long term because of commitment to literary merit. Publishing houses were once homes to writers; the former gave the latter the necessary leeway to create a body of work. Today there’s little intellectual or material investment in writers: literary prizes and shortlists are meant to sell books, and, although there’s a plethora of them, the Man Booker is the only one that has a real commercial impact.

The idea that a “book of the year” can be assessed annually by a bunch of people – judges who have to read almost a book a day – is absurd, as is the idea that this is any way of honouring a writer. A writer will be judged over time, by their oeuvre, and by readers and other writers who have continued to find new meaning in their writing. The Booker prize is disingenuous not only for excluding certain forms of fiction (short stories and novellas are out of the reckoning), but for not actually considering all the novels published that year, as it asks publishers to nominate a certain number of novels only. What it creates is not so much a form of attention but a midnight ball. The first marketing instrument is the longlist (this year’s was announced last month): 13 novels arrayed like Cinderellas waiting to catch the prince’s eye. (Those not on the longlist find they’ve suddenly turned into maidservants.)

When the shortlist is announced, the enchantment lifts from those among the 13 not on it: they become figments of the imagination. Then the announcement of the winner renders invisible, as if by a wave of the wand, the other shortlisted writers. The princess and the prince are united as if the outcome was always inevitable: at least such is, largely, the obedient response of the press. And the magic dust of the free market gives to the episode the fairytale-like inevitability Karl Popper said history-writing possesses: once history happens in a certain way, it’s unimaginable that any other outcome was possible. 

What is astonishing is the acquiescence with which the value system I’ve just described is met with by most writers. Most will feel that it doesn’t speak to why they’re writers at all, but few will discuss this openly. Acceptance is one of the most dismaying political consequences of capitalism. It informs the literary too, and the way publishers and writers “go along” with things. The Booker now has a stranglehold on how people think of, read, and value books in Britain. It has no serious critics. Those who berate its decisions about individual awardees (James Kelman’s prize back in 1994 prompted one judge to say it was “frankly, crap”) ritually add to its allure. After all, the attractiveness of the free market has to do with its perverse system of rewards – unlike socialism, which said everyone should be moderately well off, the free market proposes that anyone can be rich.

The Booker’s randomness celebrates this; it confirms the market’s convulsive metamorphic powers, its ability to confer success unpredictably. In literature, it has redefined terms like “masterpiece” and “classic”.

‘Virginia Woolf didn’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘I wonder if Mrs Dalloway will be longlisted for the Booker?’’ Photograph: George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Few writers, though, display any prickliness. Instead, we end up with the acceptance characteristic of capitalism – which, lately in politics, has led to deep alienation and monstrous alternatives like Donald Trump. I was shocked to run into a novelist who used to regularly rant against the Booker soon after he’d finally won it. It seemed like a part of his personality had gone. Docilely, he was doing the promotional rounds, as if he had been administered a massive sedative. He was robbed of the crusading bitterness that once animated him, and had become a case study of the memory-erasing contentment that capitalism provides.

I’m not saying that the Booker shouldn’t exist. I’m saying that it requires an alternative, and the alternative isn’t another prize. It has to do instead with writers reclaiming agency. The meaning of a writer’s work must be created, and argued for, by writers themselves, and not by some extraneous source of endorsement. No original work is going to be welcomed with open arms by all, and the writer is not doing their job if they don’t make a case for their idea of writing through argumentation, debate, and fervour.

Virginia Woolf didn’t wake up in the morning and think, “I wonder if Mrs Dalloway will be longlisted for the Booker?” She wrote instead her essay, Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, questioning prevailing forms of valuation in the establishment. Her reformulation of what the novel could be or do, its impact on the reader, and, crucially, the ways in which we value or ignore its possibilities, is as pressing – as political – now as it was then.

DH Lawrence, TS Eliot and Henry James too had to argue, in and outside their creative work, for their idea of the literary, because the question of why literature was important hadn’t been settled. It isn’t settled today.

But, as in other walks of life under capitalism, there has been a loss of initiative among writers: a readiness to let others decide why their work is significant while they busy themselves at literary festivals. 

There has been, largely, an abjuring of the critical debates that should, at any given moment, define literature. In British academia, this loss of control over what constitutes value, especially in the humanities, has had its counterpart in what the UK government equivocally calls impact. “Impact” is judged not by gauging the importance of new scholarly work to other scholars, but to the market.

In emollient governmental language, impact is described as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”. As academics have discovered, “beyond academia” is, fundamentally, the market. In other words, the significance of scholarly work will not be judged by the impact it has on the field, but outside it.

The reason why very few question the Booker is, of course, that they will be accused of sour grapes or speaking inappropriately
. That’s all right. Woolf was speaking inappropriately when she wrote against the grain of the prevailing decorousness; she suffered from sour grapes, on behalf of her gender and her craft. But her questions needed to be raised, and expressed with pertinence. Only rarely is silence a useful riposte.