Monday, 30 July 2018

Thinking in Bets - Questions to examine the accuracy of our beliefs

Extract 3

1. Why might my belief not be true?

2. What other evidence might be out there bearing on my belief?

3. Are there similar areas I can look toward to gauge whether similar beliefs to mine are true?

4. What sources of information could I have missed or minimized on the way to reaching my belief?

5. What are the reasons someone else could have a different belief, what’s their support, and why might they be right instead of me?

6. What other perspectives are there as to why things turned out the way they did?

A good strategy for figuring out which way to bet would be to imagine if the outcome has happened to us. If a competitor closes a big sale, we know about our tendency to discount their skill. But if we imagine that we had been the one who closed the sale, we are more likely to find the things to give them credit for, that they did well and that we can learn from. Likewise, when we close the big sale, let’s spare a little of the self-congratulations and, instead, examine that great result the way we’d examine it if it happened to someone else.

Treating outcomes as bets constantly reminds us that outcomes are rarely attributable to a single cause and there is almost always uncertainty in figuring out the various causes. Identifying a negative outcome doesn’t have the same personal sting if you turn it into a positive by finding things to learn from it. You don’t have to be on the defensive side of every negative outcome because you can recognize, in addition to things you can improve, things you did well and things outside your control. You realise that not knowing is okay.

Friday, 27 July 2018

On Imran Khan's Rigged Victory

Welcome to “New” Pakistan!

Najam Sethi in The Friday Times

Before the elections, every political party (except PTI), every foreign newspaper and every independent journalist had concluded that The Aliens, Khalai Makhluk, Agriculture Department, Miltablishment, Whatever, had conclusively pre-rigged the elections in an unprecedented manner. A day after the elections, every political party (except PTI), every foreign newspaper and every independent journalist has confirmed the finding. Before the elections, the Miltablishment, Supreme Court and Media were on trial. After the elections, the Election Commission of Pakistan has joined them in the dock.

The ECP claims that “the Remote Transmission System (RTS) broke down, hence the announcement of results was delayed by a few hours.” Was the RTS deliberately glitched because the Agriculture Department panicked when the opposition began to weigh in and something had to be done to get things back on track? Even if it was an unforeseen breakdown, this does not explain why the polling agents were kicked out while the votes were being tabulated or why such lengthy delays ensued.

In the next year or so, we should expect scores of petitions to be filed wherever the margin of PTI’s victory is less than 10,000 or thereabouts. Thousands of bags will be opened and hundreds of thousands of ballots recounted and thumbprints matched. Thousands of Form 45 will be scrutinized. But none of this huffing and puffing will bring Imran Khan’s house down because he is protected and propped up by the Miltablishment.

Imran Khan will be Prime Minister, he will choose the next President of Pakistan and the PTI will rule in Islamabad, KP and possibly even in Punjab while mounting stiff opposition to the PPP in Sindh. Why was such a sweeping victory required of it? What should we expect in the new Pakistan?

To be fair, Imran Khan cannot be denied his fair share of the voter, especially among the new youth, urbanising white-collar middle-class and rich. His prospects became brighter after he started to enroll “electables” regardless of the colour of their money or character. Equally, the PMLN, whatever its self-righteous claims or principles, was well and truly on a suicidal path. But electoral engineering on such a large scale was still necessary to provide legitimacy for a constitutional and political overhaul. What’s on the cards?

A State of Emergency could be imposed under the garb of financial necessity pinned to the alleged misdeeds of the previous regimes. The numbers in parliament will not be too difficult to get. Such an Emergency would restrict fundamental rights and pave the way for a witch hunt of political and media opponents in order to satisfy the bloodlust of the winners (IK has said he won’t do that), protect them from any potential buffeting by a disgruntled opposition and detract criticism from unpopular policy decisions or incompetent and corrupt mismanagement. If that happens, we should expect NAB, FIA, FBR and IB to get hyper active after all state institutions are brought on the same page.

The constitution may also be targeted for amendment. The 18th Amendment, for starters, has become irksome because it shaves the federal pool — which is required to pay for increasing defense expenditures and pensions— by devolving financial resources to the provinces. A need may also be felt to reduce the size and strength of Punjab in the scheme of things, especially since the development of a critical fissure in the historical pro-Miltablishment character of the province. Plans remain on the anvil to carve it up into three or more “units” that are politically more “manageable”.

But the “new dream team” that is lining up to run the “new Pakistan” will not find it easy going. The economy needs more than a shot in the arm. Hard times are upon us and the very middle-classes and rich that have catapulted Imran Khan to office will have to pay the price of their convictions. The value of their rupee is going to fall, so their everyday needs will become expensive; they will have to pay more indirect taxes and duties; and IMF structural reforms will dampen infrastructural growth and employment. This will give grist to the opposition, media and judiciary to stand up and create hurdles in his path.

Admittedly, the Miltablishment has stitched up an extraordinary political dispensation in difficult times. But, unlike Nawaz, the person they have chosen to lead it is strong-willed and unpredictable. In fact, Nawaz was eminently pliant. Yet, after a while, he felt compelled, given the nature of power, to try and be his own man. But this was unacceptable and he had to pay the price for even thinking such rash thoughts. Imran Khan, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. He may have embraced the Miltablishment as a tactical move but sooner rather than later he will begin to challenge the conventional wisdom of the national security state handed down to him. That’s when all bets will be off.

Meanwhile, let us not spoil their honeymoon with grudging digs and pin pricks.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

How do beliefs arise - Thinking in Bets – Making smarter decisions when you don’t have all the facts – by Annie Duke Part 2


How we think we form abstract beliefs:
1.       We hear something.
2.       We think about it and vet it, determining whether it is true or false; only after that.
3.       We form our belief.

We actually form abstract beliefs this way:
1.       We hear something.
2.       We believe it to be true.
3.       Only sometimes, later, if we have the time or the inclination, we think about it and vet it, determining whether it is, in fact, true or false.

If we were good at updating our beliefs based on new information, our haphazard belief formation process might cause us relatively few problems. Sadly, this is not the way it works. We form beliefs without vetting most of them and maintain them even after receiving clear, corrective information.

Truthseeking, the desire to know the truth regardless of whether the truth aligns with the beliefs we currently hold, is not naturally supported by the way we process information. We might think of ourselves as open-minded and capable of updating our beliefs based on new information, but the research conclusively shows otherwise. Instead of altering our beliefs to fit new information, we do the opposite, altering our interpretation of that information to fit our beliefs.

“We do not simply react to an event…. We behave according to what we bring to the occasion” (Hastorf and Cantrill). Our beliefs affect how we process all new things, ‘whether the thing is a football game, a presidential candidate, Communism or spinach.”

Once a belief is lodged, it becomes difficult to dislodge. It takes a life on its own, leading us to notice and seek out evidence conforming our belief, rarely challenge the validity of confirming evidence, and ignore or work hard to actively discredit information contradicting the belief. This irrational circular information processing pattern is called motivated reasoning.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Thinking in Bets – Making smarter decisions when you don’t have all the facts – by Annie Duke

Some Excerpts


- Chess, for all its strategic complexity, isn’t a great model for decision making in life, where most of our decisions involve hidden information and a much greater influence of luck.

- Poker, in contrast, is a game of incomplete information. It is a game of decision making under conditions of uncertainty over time. Valuable information remains hidden. There is always an element of luck in any outcome. You could make the best possible decision at every point and still lose the hand; because you don’t know what new cards will be dealt and revealed. Once the game is finished and you try to learn from the results, separating the quality of your decisions from the influence of luck is difficult.

- Incomplete information poses a challenge not just for split second decision making, but also for learning from past decisions. Imagine my difficulty in trying to figure out if I played my hand correctly when my opponents cards were never revealed for e.g. if the hand concluded after I made a bet and my opponents folded. All I know is that I won the chips. Did I play poorly and get lucky? Or did I play well?

- Life resembles poker, where all the uncertainty gives us the room to deceive ourselves and misinterpret the data.

- Poker gives us the leeway to make mistakes that we never spot because we win the hand anyway and so don’t go looking for them or

- The leeway to do everything right, still lose and treat the losing result as proof that we made a mistake. 


- When we think in advance about the chances of alternative outcomes and make a decision based on those chances, it doesn’t automatically make us wrong when things don’t work out. It just means that one event in a set of possible futures occurred.


- Backcasting means working backwards from a positive future.

- When it comes to thinking about the future – stand at the end (the outcome) and look backwards. This is more effective than looking forwards from the beginning.

- i.e. by working backwards from the goal, we plan our decision tree in more depth.

- We imagine we’ve already achieved a positive outcome, holding up a newspaper headline “We’ve Achieved our Goal” Then we think about how we got there.

- Identify the reasons they got there, what events occurred, what decisions were made, what went their way to get to the goal.

- It makes it possible to identify low probability events that must occur to reach the goal You then develop strategies to increase the chances of such events occurring or recognizing the goal is too ambitious.

- You can also develop responses to developments that interfere with reaching the goal and identify inflection points for re-evaluating the plan as the future unfolds.

- Pre mortem means working backwards from a negative future.

- Pre mortem is an investigation into something awful but before it happens.

- Imagine a headline “We failed to reach our Goals” challenges us to think about ways in which things could go wrong.

- People who imagine obstacles in the way of reaching their goals are more likely to achieve success (Research p223)

- A pre mortem helps us to anticipate potential obstacles.

- Come up with ways things can go wrong so that you can plan for them

- The exercise forces everyone to identify potential points of failure without fear of being viewed as a naysayer.

- Imagining both positive and negative futures helps us to build a realistic plan to achieve our goals.

How to win an argument online

Friday, 20 July 2018

Pakistan's Trials

Najam Sethi in The Friday Times

Let’s face it. Whatever some may think of Nawaz Sharif’s omissions and however much others may hate him for his commissions, the fact remains that he has demonstrated the courage of his conviction that the unaccountable Miltablishment has no business interfering in the affairs of an elected government, much less in engineering its rise or fall.

Nawaz has held firm to this conviction since 1993 when he was dismissed from office, restored by the Supreme Court and then compelled to step aside. He met the same fate in 1999 and spent seven years in forced exile. Now he is behind the bars for the same “crime” (he insisted on putting General Pervez Musharraf on trial for treason and demanding an end to the politics of non-state actors in domestic and foreign policy). He could have spent another ten years in exile in the comfort of his luxury flats in London – much like Benazir Bhutto, General Musharraf or Altaf Hussain, closer to home, and Lenin, Khomeini and many others in historical time — and looked after his ailing wife. But he chose instead to return, along with his daughter, and go straight to jail “to honour the sanctity of the ballet box”.

This is an unprecedented political act with far reaching consequences. It has driven a spike in the Punjabi heartland of the Miltablishment and irrevocably degraded the ultimate source of its power and legitimacy. The provinces of Balochistan, Sindh and KP have witnessed outbursts of anti-”Punjabi Miltablishment” sub-nationalism from time to time but this is the first time in 70 years that a sizeable chunk of Punjab is simmering not against the “subversive” parties and leaders of other provinces but against its very own “patriotic” sons of the soil. This is that process whereby the social contract of overly centralized and undemocratic states is rent asunder. In that sense, it is the Miltablishment which is on trial.

Unfortunately, the judiciary, too, is on trial. In a democratic dispensation, it is expected to fulfil three core conditions of existence. First, to provide justice to lay citizens in everyday matters. Second, to uphold the supremacy of parliament. Third, to remain above the political fray as a supremely neutral arbiter between contending parties and institutions. On each count, tragically, it seems amiss. Hundreds of thousands of civil petitioners have been awaiting “insaf” for decades. The apex courts are making laws instead of simply interpreting them. And the mainstream parties and leaders are at the receiving end of the stick while “ladla” sons and militants are getting away with impunity. At some time or the other in the past or present, controversy has dogged one or more judges. But the institution of the judiciary is in the dock of the people today because it is perceived as aiding and abetting the erosion of justice, neutrality and vote-sanctity. In 2007, the “judicial movement for independence” erupted against an arbitrary act by a dictator against a judge. In that historical movement, the PMLN was fully behind the lawyers and judges. The irony in 2018, however, is that the same lawyers and judges are standing on the side of authoritarian forces against the PMLN.

The third “pillar” of the state – Media – is no less on trial. It is expected to “freely” inform the people so that they can make fair and unbiased choices. But it is doing exactly the opposite. A couple of media houses have succumbed to severe arm-twisting and opted to gag themselves; many have meekly submitted to censorship “advice”; most are silent for or blind for material gains. The proliferation of TV channels was meant to be a bulwark against authoritarian or unaccountable forces. But a failing economy and political uncertainty has pitted the channels against one other for the crumbs, which has given a leg up to those on the “right side” of the fence. At any rate, the corporatization of the media by big capitalist interests has served to protect the powerful at the expense of the weak.

Finally, the fourth pillar of the state — Parliament — is about to be stripped of its representative credentials. The castration of the two mainstream parties and their leaders is aimed at empowering one “ladla” leader and his party, a host of militant religious groups and a clutch of opportunist “independents” to storm the citadels of the legislature.

Is all hope lost? Are we collectively fated to be victims of a creeping authoritarian and unaccountable coup by the “pillars” of the state in tandem?

No. Sooner than later, the media and judiciary will begin to crack. Neither can survive by being “pro-government” for long. Every chief justice seeks to make his own mark on history as distinct from his predecessor and no judge can shrug away the weight of popular opinion for long. The electronic and print media, too, cannot allow social media to run away with independent digital news and analysis pegged to financial sources outside Pakistan.

Meanwhile, we, the people, must get ready to suffer.

Our job as scientists is to find the truth. But we must also be storytellers

Nick Enfield in The Guardian

Scientists often struggle to communicate the findings of research. Our subject matter can be technical and not easily digested by a general audience. And our discoveries – from a new type of tessellating pentagon to the presence of gravitational waves in space – have no meaning until that meaning can be defined and agreed upon. To address this, we are often advised to use the tools of narrative.

This advice is now found everywhere from training sessions to blogs to the most prominent scientific journals. An article in Nature magazine advises scientists to relate data to the world by using “the age-old custom of telling a story.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences cites the “increased comprehension, interest, and engagement” that narrative offers. And another study shows that writing in a narrative style increases uptake of scientific results.

What is a story? Here is screenwriting guru John Truby’s definition: “A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why.” This is every Hollywood film. At the centre is a person with a well-defined goal. They pursue that goal, against the odds, and after various twists and turns the story comes to a satisfying end. Most importantly, as writer John Collee explains, a good story will have a meaning, a relatable moral with universal resonance for audiences.

How can scientists be expected to use storytelling when we are not trained in the craft? True, we are not professional screenwriters. But like everyone we are nevertheless well-practiced storytellers. When you tell someone about a frightening incident that happened on the bus to work, your narrative may be ordinary but it has the core elements of story: situation, complication, resolution, and most importantly, meaning. You are not just telling me what happened, you are telling me what it means to you, how you feel about it. And you are inviting me to feel the same. In this way, stories are one of our most important social bonding mechanisms.

So, what could be wrong with urging scientists to take advantage of our natural storytelling skills? In an article titled “Against storytelling of scientific results”, Yarden Katz explains that certain defining features of narrative – someone pursing a goal; a satisfying resolution that resolves this; a meaning that draws people in – are antithetical to key ideals and practices of scientific work.

Human beings, scientists included, have brains that are not evolved for dispassionate thinking

One objection is that, according to the scientific norm known as disinterestedness, scientists should not aim for any particular result. Our job is to find the truth. So, we should first establish the facts, and then use those facts to decide what our conclusions are. But too often, people have it the wrong way around. We start with our pre-established beliefs, and then look for evidence to support them. Another objection is that because science is a permanently unfinished line of business, there can be no satisfying endings.

Further, the scientist’s job is to inform, not persuade. Advice in Nature from authors Martin Krzywinski and Alberto Cairo seems to challenge this norm: “Maintain focus of your presentation by leaving out detail that does not advance the plot”; “inviting readers to draw their own conclusions is risky.” Most scientists would agree that this is going too far.

Katz’s concerns are well taken. But what should be done? Can we be truly dispassionate about what we are doing in science? There are reasons to think that even when we are operating in the rarefied atmosphere of scientific endeavor, we are never not wrapping our lives in stories.

Human beings, scientists included, have brains that are not evolved for dispassionate thinking. Bugs in our reasoning from the confirmation bias to the gambler’s fallacy make our natural thought processes deeply subjective and partial. And these are precisely the kinds of cognitive propensities that make storytelling stick so well. Even if an exemplary scientist has trained herself to be utterly objective, her audience will always bring their biased, story-gobbling minds.

This is why we have little choice but to apply the philosophy of judo to the problem of communicating scientific work and findings. Rather than struggle against cognitive biases, we need to work with them if we are going to keep them in check. Facts can be collected but they need to be interpreted. To interpret a fact is to give it meaning. And this is nothing other than storytelling. Only with a story can the facts be communicated, and only then can they become part of the received knowledge that drives the very possibility of scientific progress.

Scientists do not have the luxury of forgoing storytelling. We need not fear that storytelling will compromise our objectivity. If we believe that we have the right story, then we should tell it. Only then can it be evaluated. Because science is a collective enterprise, our stories will succeed when they are validated by broad agreement in our community.

It is our responsibility to become at least literate, if not masterly, in storytelling about our work. Our audiences need stories. So we must tell the right stories about our findings, if we are going to treat those findings with the respect they need.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

The cashless society is a con – and big finance is behind it

Brett Scott in The Guardian

All over the western world banks are shutting down cash machinesand branches. They are trying to push you into using their digital payments and digital banking infrastructure. Just like Google wants everyone to access and navigate the broader internet via its privately controlled search portal, so financial institutions want everyone to access and navigate the broader economy through their systems.

Hundreds of cash machines close as UK turns to contactless payments

Another aim is to cut costs in order to boost profits. Branches require staff. Replacing them with standardised self-service apps allows the senior managers of financial institutions to directly control and monitor interactions with customers.

Banks, of course, tell us a different story about why they do this. I recently got a letter from my bank telling me that they are shutting down local branches because “customers are turning to digital”, and they are thus “responding to changing customer preferences”. I am one of the customers they are referring to, but I never asked them to shut down the branches.

There is a feedback loop going on here. In closing down their branches, or withdrawing their cash machines, they make it harder for me to use those services. I am much more likely to “choose” a digital option if the banks deliberately make it harder for me to choose a non-digital option.

In behavioural economics this is referred to as “nudging”. If a powerful institution wants to make people choose a certain thing, the best strategy is to make it difficult to choose the alternative.

We can illustrate this with the example of self-checkout tills at supermarkets. The underlying agenda is to replace checkout staff with self-service machines to cut costs. But supermarkets have to convince their customers. They thus initially present self-checkout as a convenient alternative. When some people then use that alternative, the supermarket can cite that as evidence of a change in customer behaviour, which they then use to justify a reduction in checkout employees. This in turn makes it more inconvenient to use the checkout staff, which in turn makes customers more likely to use the machines. They slowly wean you off staff, and “nudge” you towards self-service.

Financial institutions, likewise, are trying to nudge us towards a cashless society and digital banking. The true motive is corporate profit. Payments companies such as Visa and Mastercard want to increase the volume of digital payments services they sell, while banks want to cut costs. The nudge requires two parts. First, they must increase the inconvenience of cash, ATMs and branches. Second, they must vigorously promote the alternative. They seek to make people “learn” that they want digital, and then “choose” it. 

We can learn from the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci in this regard. His concept of hegemony referred to the way in which powerful parties condition the cultural and economic environment in such a way that their interests begin to be perceived as natural and inevitable by the general public. Nobody was on the streets shouting for digital payment 20 years ago, but increasingly it seems obvious and “natural” that it should take over. That belief does not come from nowhere. It is the direct result of a hegemonic project on the part of financial institutions.

We can also learn from Louis Althusser’s concept of interpellation. The basic idea is that you can get people to internalise beliefs by addressing them as if they already had those beliefs. Twenty years ago nobody believed that cash was “inconvenient”, but every time I walk into London Underground I see adverts that address me as if I was a person who finds cash inconvenient. The objective is to reverse-engineer a belief within me that it is inconvenient, and that cashlessness is in my interests. But a cashless society is not in your interest. It is in the interest of banks and payments companies. Their job is to make you believe that it is in your interest too, and they are succeeding in doing that.

Digital systems may be ‘convenient', but they often fail. Cash, on the other hand, does not crash

The recent Visa chaos, during which millions of people who have become dependent on digital payment suddenly found themselves stranded when the monopolistic payment network crashed, was a temporary setback. Digital systems may be “convenient”, but they often come with central points of failure. Cash, on the other hand, does not crash. It does not rely on external data centres, and is not subject to remote control or remote monitoring. The cash system allows for an unmonitored “off the grid” space. This is also the reason why financial institutions and financial technology companies want to get rid of it. Cash transactions are outside the net that such institutions cast to harvest fees and data.

A cashless society brings dangers. People without bank accounts will find themselves further marginalised, disenfranchised from the cash infrastructure that previously supported them. There are also poorly understood psychological implications about cash encouraging self-control while paying by card or a mobile phone can encourage spending. And a cashless society has major surveillance implications.

Despite this, we see an alignment between government and financial institutions. The Treasury recently held a public consultation on cash and digital payments in the new economy. It presented itself as attempting to strike a balance, noting that cash was still important. But years of subtle lobbying by the financial industry have clearly paid off. The call for evidencerepeatedly notes the negative elements of cash – associating it with crime and tax evasion – but barely mentions the negative implications of digital payments.

The UK government has chosen to champion the digital financial services industry. This is irresponsible and disingenuous. We need to stop accepting stories about the cashless society and hyper-digital banking being “natural progress”. We must recognise every cash machine that is shut down as another step in financial institutions’ campaign to nudge you into their digital enclosures.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Dark money lurks at the heart of our political crisis

George Monbiot in The Guardian

Democracy is threatened by organisations such the Institute of Economic Affairs that refuse to reveal who funds them

Illustration: Sébastien Thibault

A mere two millennia after Roman politicians paid mobs to riot on their behalf, we are beginning to understand the role of dark money in politics, and its perennial threat to democracy. Dark money is cash whose source is not made public, and which is spent to change political outcomes. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal,unearthed by Carole Cadwalladr, and the mysterious funds channelled through Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party to the leave campaign in England and Scotland have helped to bring the concept to public attention. But these examples hint at a much wider problem. Dark money can be seen as the underlying corruption from which our immediate crises emerge: the collapse of public trust in politics, the rise of a demagogic anti-politics, and assaults on the living world, public health and civic society. Democracy is meaningless without transparency.

The techniques now being used to throw elections and referendums were developed by the tobacco industry, and refined by biotechnology, fossil fueland junk food companies. Some of us have spent years exposing the fake grassroots campaigns they established, the false identities and bogus scientific controversies they created, and the way in which media outlets have been played by them. Our warnings went unheeded, while the ultra-rich learned how to buy the political system. 

The problem is exemplified, in my view, by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). In the latest reshuffle, two ministers with close links to the institute, Dominic Raab and Matthew Hancock, have been promoted to the frontbench, responsible for issues that obsess the IEA: Brexit and the NHS. Raab credits the IEA with supporting him “in waging the war of ideas”. Hancock, in his former role as cabinet office minister, notoriously ruled that charities receiving public funds should not be allowed to lobby the government. His department credited the IEA with the research that prompted the policy. This rule, in effect, granted a monopoly on lobbying to groups such as the IEA, which receive their money only from private sources. Hancock has received a total of £32,000 in political donations from the IEA’s chairman, Neil Record.

The IEA has lobbied consistently for a hard Brexit. A report it published on Monday as an alternative to Theresa May’s white paper calls for Brexit to be used to tear down the rules protecting agency workers, to deregulate finance, annul the rules on hazardous chemicals and weaken food labelling laws. Darren Grimes, who was fined by the Electoral Commission on Tuesday for spending offences during the leave campaign, now works as the IEA’s digital manager.

So what is this organisation, and on whose behalf does it speak? If only we knew. It is rated by the accountability group Transparify as “highly opaque”. All that distinguishes organisations such as the IEA from public relations companies such as Burson-Marsteller is that we don’t know who it is working for. The only hard information we have is that, for many years, it has been funded by British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco and Philip Morris International. When this funding was exposed, the IEA claimed that its campaigns against tobacco regulation were unrelated to the money it had received. Recently, it has been repeatedly dissing the NHS, which it wants to privatise; campaigning against controls on junk food; attacking trade unions; and defending zero-hour contracts, unpaid internships and tax havens. Its staff appear on the BBC promoting these positions, often several times a week. But never do interviewers ask the basic democratic questions: who funds you, and do they have a financial interest in these topics?

The BBC’s editorial guidelines seem clear: “We should make checks to establish the credentials of our contributors and to avoid being ‘hoaxed’.” In my view, the entire IEA is a hoax. As the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has revealed (ironically, on the BBC’s website), when the institute was created, in 1955, one of its founders, Maj Oliver Smedley, wrote to the other, Antony Fisher, urging that it was “imperative that we should give no indication in our literature that we are working to educate the public along certain lines which might be interpreted as having a political bias. … That is why the first draft [of the institute’s aims] is written in rather cagey terms”.
The two men were clear about its purpose: to become a public relations agency that would change society along the lines advocated by the founder of neoliberalism, Friedrich Hayek. It should not, Hayek urged them, do any actual thinking, but become a “second-hand dealer in ideas”. The IEA became the template for other neoliberal institutes. It was financed initially from the fortune Fisher made by importing broiler chicken farming into the UK. Curtis credits him with founding 150 such lobby groups around the world.

While dark money has been used to influence elections, the role of groups such as the IEA is to reach much deeper into political life. As its current director, Mark Littlewood, explains, “We want to totally reframe the debate about the proper role of the state and civil society in our country … Our true mission is to change the climate of opinion.”

Astonishingly, the IEA is registered as an educational charity, with the official purpose of helping “the general public/mankind”. As a result it is exempted from the kind of taxes about which it complains so bitterly. Charity Commission rules state that “an organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political”. How much more political can you get? In what sense is ripping down public protections and attacking the rights of workers charitable? Surely no organisation should be registered as a charity unless any funds it receives above a certain threshold (say £1,000) are declared.

The Charity Commission announced last week that it has decided to examine the role of the IEA, to see whether it has broken its rules. I don’t hold out much hope. In response to a complaint by Andrew Purkis, a former member of the Charity Commission’s board, its head of regulatory compliance, Anthony Blake, claimed that the IEA provides a “relatively uncontroversial perspective accepted by informed opinion”. If he sees hard Brexit, privatising the NHS and defending tax havens as uncontroversial, it makes you wonder what circles he moves in.

I see such organisations as insidious and corrupting. I see them as the means by which money comes to dominate public life without having to declare its hand. I see them as representing everything that has gone wrong with our politics.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Buzzwords and crazes for clinical trials won't fix a broken aid system

Fifteen leading economists, including three Nobel winners, argue in The Guardian that the many billions of dollars spent on aid can do little to alleviate poverty while we fail to tackle its root causes

Palestinian children in a poor neighbourhood in Gaza City. More than 4 billion people worldwide live on less than £4 a day. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

Development efforts over the past few decades have not been as effective as promised.

Global poverty remains intractable: more than 4 billion people live on less than the equivalent of $5 (£3.80) a day, and the number of people going hungry has been rising. Important gains have been made in some areas, but many of the objectives set by the millennium development goals – to be reached by 2015 – remain unfulfilled. And this despite hundreds of billions of dollars of aid.

Donors increasingly want to see more impact for their money, practitioners are searching for ways to make their projects more effective, and politicians want more financial accountability behind aid budgets. One popular option has been to audit projects for results. The argument is that assessing “aid effectiveness” – a buzzword now ubiquitous in the UK’s Department for International Development – will help decide what to focus on.

Some go so far as to insist that development interventions should be subjected to the same kind of randomised control trials used in medicine, with “treatment” groups assessed against control groups. Such trials are being rolled out to evaluate the impact of a wide variety of projects – everything from water purification tablets to microcredit schemes, financial literacy classes to teachers’ performance bonuses. 

Economist Esther Duflo at MIT’s Poverty Action Lab recently argued in Le Monde that France should adopt clinical trials as a guiding principle for its aid budget, which has grown significantly under the Macron administration.

But truly random sampling with blinded subjects is almost impossible in human communities without creating scenarios so abstract as to tell us little about the real world. And trials are expensive to carry out, and fraught with ethical challenges – especially when it comes to health-related interventions. (Who gets the treatment and who doesn’t?)

But the real problem with the “aid effectiveness” craze is that it narrows our focus down to micro-interventions at a local level that yield results that can be observed in the short term. At first glance this approach might seem reasonable and even beguiling. But it tends to ignore the broader macroeconomic, political and institutional drivers of impoverishment and underdevelopment. Aid projects might yield satisfying micro-results, but they generally do little to change the systems that produce the problems in the first place. What we need instead is to tackle the real root causes of poverty, inequality and climate change.

Two classes share one classroom, in the Mpati area of North Kivu province, DRC. Photograph: Christian Jepsen/NRC

Handing out performance bonuses to teachers, for example, is an inadequate response to education budgets that have been slashed in order to pay down onerous external debts. As the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights argued in his recent report, social protections need to be ringfenced against fiscal adjustment. The most fragile members of the population need more than classes in financial literacy. They need robust, universal services and access to public education and healthcare.

Water purification tablets are too little in the face of droughts induced by climate change; what is at stake is an ecological emergency that demands coordinated public policy strategies. In agriculture, real progress requires putting an end to the excessive subsidies paid by rich nations to large producers, regulating food commodity derivatives markets, and ending the land grabs that dispossess the small-scale farmers who play vital roles in feeding the world.

We need to ensure that the governments of global south nations are able to claim a fair share of taxes owed to them by the multinational companies operating within their borders. This means, in line with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s recommendations, putting an end to the trade mis-invoicing and transfer mispricing practices that large firms employ, and regulating the tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions that are controlled by a few nations in western Europe and North America. 

Much more than microcredit services are needed to improve the incomes of poor workers. We need to introduce and enforce real labour legislation, which has proved to be instrumental in helping millions of people to escape poverty. On top of this, we need to explore ways to consolidate regulations across borders in order to mitigate globalisation’s race to the bottom for exploitable labour.

Makeshift houses along a breakwater in polluted Manila Bay, the Philippines. Photograph: Ezra Acayan/Barcroft Images

In all these areas, there is still an enormous amount to be done. If we are concerned about effectiveness, then instead of assessing the short-term impacts of micro-projects, we should evaluate whole public policies. In this respect, there is a wealth of underused data provided by decades of household surveys by national statistical offices. Combined with satellite data, recently made public, they can now be used for detailed analysis, capable of providing clear information on the public policies that have been most successful. In the face of the sheer scale of the overlapping crises we face, we need systems-level thinking.

People of the south deserve better. The sustainable development goals we agreed in 2015 hold both for northern and southern countries; they acknowledge that our crisis is a collective one: that fighting against poverty, inequality, biodiversity loss and climate change requires changing the rules of the international economic system to make it more ecological and fairer for the world’s majority. It’s time that we devise interventions – and accountability tools – appropriate to this new frontier.

Sabina Alkire Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative
Florent Bédécarrats French Development Agency
Angus Deaton Princeton University, Nobel prize in economics
Gaël Giraud chief economist, French Development Agency
Isabelle Guérin French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development
Barbara Harriss-White Oxford University
James Heckman University of Chicago, Nobel prize in economics
Jason Hickel Goldsmiths, University of London
Naila Kabeer London School of Economics and Political Science
Solène Morvant-Roux University of Geneva
Judea Pearl Columbia University
Cécile Renouard Codev-Essec Business School
François Roubaud French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development
Jean-Michel Servet Graduate Institute
Joseph Stiglitz Columbia University, Nobel prize in economics

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Sunday, 15 July 2018

The Death of Truth - How Trump and Modi came to power

Michiko Kakutani in The Guardian

Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the 20th century, and both were predicated on the violation and despoiling of truth, on the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

Arendt’s words increasingly sound less like a dispatch from another century than a chilling description of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today – a world in which fake news and lies are pumped out in industrial volume by Russian troll factories, emitted in an endless stream from the mouth and Twitter feed of the president of the United States, and sent flying across the world through social media accounts at lightning speed. Nationalism, tribalism, dislocation, fear of social change and the hatred of outsiders are on the rise again as people, locked in their partisan silos and filter bubbles, are losing a sense of shared reality and the ability to communicate across social and sectarian lines.

This is not to draw a direct analogy between today’s circumstances and the overwhelming horrors of the second world war era, but to look at some of the conditions and attitudes – what Margaret Atwood has called the “danger flags” in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm – that make a people susceptible to demagoguery and political manipulation, and nations easy prey for would-be autocrats. To examine how a disregard for facts, the displacement of reason by emotion, and the corrosion of language are diminishing the value of truth, and what that means for the world.

Trump made 2,140 false or misleading claims during his first year in office – an average of 5.9 a day

The term “truth decay” has joined the post-truth lexicon that includes such now familiar phrases as “fake news” and “alternative facts”. And it’s not just fake news either: it’s also fake science (manufactured by climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, who oppose vaccination), fake history (promoted by Holocaust revisionists and white supremacists), fake Americans on Facebook (created by Russian trolls), and fake followers and “likes” on social media (generated by bots).

Donald Trump, the 45th president of the US, lies so prolifically and with such velocity that the Washington Post calculated he’d made 2,140 false or misleading claims during his first year in office – an average of 5.9 a day. His lies – about everything from the investigations into Russian interference in the election, to his popularity and achievements, to how much TV he watches – are only the brightest blinking red light among many warnings of his assault on democratic institutions and norms. He routinely assails the press, the justice system, the intelligence agencies, the electoral system and the civil servants who make the US government tick.

Nor is the assault on truth confined to America. Around the world, waves of populism and fundamentalism are elevating appeals to fear and anger over reasoned debate, eroding democratic institutions, and replacing expertise with the wisdom of the crowd. False claims about the UK’s financial relationship with the EU helped swing the vote in favour of Brexit, and Russia ramped up its sowing of dezinformatsiya in the runup to elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries in concerted propaganda efforts to discredit and destabilise democracies.

How did this happen? How did truth and reason become such endangered species, and what does the threat to them portend for our public discourse and the future of our politics and governance? 

It’s easy enough to see Trump as having ascended to office because of a unique, unrepeatable set of factors: a frustrated electorate still hurting from the backwash of the 2008 financial crash; Russian interference in the election and a deluge of pro-Trump fake news stories on social media; a highly polarising opponent who came to symbolise the Washington elite that populists decried; and an estimated $5bn‑worth of free campaign coverage from media outlets obsessed with the views and clicks that the former reality TV star generated.

If a novelist had concocted a villain like Trump – a larger-than-life, over-the-top avatar of narcissism, mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, boorishness, demagoguery and tyrannical impulses (not to mention someone who consumes as many as a dozen Diet Cokes a day) – she or he would likely be accused of extreme contrivance and implausibility. In fact, the president of the US often seems less like a persuasive character than some manic cartoon artist’s mashup of Ubu Roi, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and a character discarded by Molière. But the more clownish aspects of Trump the personality should not blind us to the monumentally serious consequences of his assault on truth and the rule of law, and the vulnerabilities he has exposed in our institutions and digital communications. It is unlikely that a candidate who had already been exposed during the campaign for his history of lying and deceptive business practices would have gained such popular support were portions of the public not blase about truth-telling and were there not systemic problems with how people get their information and how they’ve come to think in increasingly partisan terms.

For decades, objectivity – or even the aim of ascertaining the best available truth – has been falling out of favour

With Trump, the personal is political, and in many respects he is less a comic-book anomaly than an extreme, bizarro-world apotheosis of many of the broader, intertwined attitudes undermining truth today, from the merging of news and politics with entertainment, to the toxic polarisation that’s overtaken American politics, to the growing populist contempt for expertise.

For decades now, objectivity – or even the idea that people can aspire toward ascertaining the best available truth – has been falling out of favour. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s well-known observation that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts” is more timely than ever: polarisation has grown so extreme that voters have a hard time even agreeing on the same facts. This has been exponentially accelerated by social media, which connects users with like-minded members and supplies them with customised news feeds that reinforce their preconceptions, allowing them to live in ever narrower silos.

For that matter, relativism has been ascendant since the culture wars began in the 1960s. Back then, it was embraced by the New Left, who were eager to expose the biases of western, bourgeois, male-dominated thinking; and by academics promoting the gospel of postmodernism, which argued that there are no universal truths, only smaller personal truths – perceptions shaped by the cultural and social forces of one’s day. Since then, relativistic arguments have been hijacked by the populist right.

Relativism, of course, synced perfectly with the narcissism and subjectivity that had been on the rise, from Tom Wolfe’s “Me Decade” 1970s, on through the selfie age of self-esteem. No surprise then that the “Rashomon effect” – the point of view that everything depends on your point of view – has permeated our culture, from popular novels such as Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies to television series like The Affair, which hinge on the idea of competing realities.

 History is reimagined in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Warner Bros

I’ve been reading and writing about many of these issues for nearly four decades, going back to the rise of deconstruction and battles over the literary canon on college campuses; debates over the fictionalised retelling of history in movies such as Oliver Stone’s JFK and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty; efforts made by both the Clinton and Bush administrations to avoid transparency and define reality on their own terms; Trump’s war on language and efforts to normalise the abnormal; and the impact that technology has had on how we process and share information.

In his 2007 book, The Cult of the Amateur, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Keen warned that the internet not only had democratised information beyond people’s wildest imaginings but also was replacing genuine knowledge with “the wisdom of the crowd”, dangerously blurring the lines between fact and opinion, informed argument and blustering speculation. A decade later, the scholar Tom Nichols wrote in The Death of Expertise that a wilful hostility towards established knowledge had emerged on both the right and the left, with people aggressively arguing that “every opinion on any matter is as good as every other”. Ignorance was now fashionable.

The postmodernist argument that all truths are partial (and a function of one’s perspective) led to the related argument that there are many legitimate ways to understand or represent an event. This both encouraged a more egalitarian discourse and made it possible for the voices of the previously disfranchised to be heard. But it has also been exploited by those who want to make the case for offensive or debunked theories, or who want to equate things that cannot be equated. Creationists, for instance, called for teaching “intelligent design” alongside evolution in schools. “Teach both,” some argued. Others said, “Teach the controversy.”

Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the publicTobacco industry executive memo, 1969

A variation on this “both sides” argument was employed by Trump when he tried to equate people demonstrating against white supremacy with the neo-Nazis who had converged in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of Confederate statues. There were “some very fine people on both sides”, Trump declared. He also said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”

Climate deniers, anti-vaxxers and other groups who don’t have science on their side bandy about phrases that wouldn’t be out of place in a college class on deconstruction – phrases such as “many sides,” “different perspectives”, “uncertainties”, “multiple ways of knowing.” As Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway demonstrated in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, rightwing thinktanks, the fossil fuel industry, and other corporate interests that are intent on discrediting science have employed a strategy first used by the tobacco industry to try to confuse the public about the dangers of smoking. “Doubt is our product,” read an infamous memo written by a tobacco industry executive in 1969, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”

The strategy, essentially, was this: dig up a handful of so-called professionals to refute established science or argue that more research is needed; turn these false arguments into talking points and repeat them over and over; and assail the reputations of the genuine scientists on the other side. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a tactic that’s been used by Trump and his Republican allies to defend policies (on matters ranging from gun control to building a border wall) that run counter to both expert evaluation and national polls.

In January 2018, protests were held in 50 states urging US senators to support scientific evidence against Trump’s climate change policies. Photograph: Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

What Oreskes and Conway call the “tobacco strategy” was helped, they argued, by elements in the mainstream media that tended “to give minority views more credence than they deserve”. This false equivalence was the result of journalists confusing balance with truth-telling, wilful neutrality with accuracy; caving in to pressure from rightwing interest groups to present “both sides”; and the format of television news shows that feature debates between opposing viewpoints – even when one side represents an overwhelming consensus and the other is an almost complete outlier in the scientific community. For instance, a 2011 BBC Trust report found that the broadcaster’s science coverage paid “undue attention to marginal opinion” on the subject of manmade climate change. Or, as a headline in the Telegraph put it, “BBC staff told to stop inviting cranks on to science programmes”.

In a speech on press freedom, CNN’s chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour addressed this issue in the context of media coverage of the 2016 presidential race, saying: “It appeared much of the media got itself into knots trying to differentiate between balance, objectivity, neutrality, and crucially, truth … I learned long ago, covering the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia, never to equate victim with aggressor, never to create a false moral or factual equivalence, because then you are an accomplice to the most unspeakable crimes and consequences. I believe in being truthful, not neutral. And I believe we must stop banalising the truth.”

As the west lurched through the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s and their aftermath, artists struggled with how to depict this fragmenting reality. Some writers like John Barth, Donald Barthelme and William Gass created self-conscious, postmodernist fictions that put more emphasis on form and language than on conventional storytelling. Others adopted a minimalistic approach, writing pared-down, narrowly focused stories emulating the fierce concision of Raymond Carver. And as the pursuit of broader truths became more and more unfashionable in academia, and as daily life came to feel increasingly unmoored, some writers chose to focus on the smallest, most personal truths: they wrote about themselves.

American reality had become so confounding, Philip Roth wrote in a 1961 essay, that it felt like “a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination”. This had resulted, he wrote, in the “voluntary withdrawal of interest by the writer of fiction from some of the grander social and political phenomena of our times”, and the retreat, in his own case, to the more knowable world of the self.

Real estate and realism … Bruce Willis in the 1990 film version of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Photograph: Allstar/WARNER BROS.

In a controversial 1989 essay, Tom Wolfe lamented these developments, mourning what he saw as the demise of old-fashioned realism in American fiction, and he urged novelists to “head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property”. He tried this himself in novels such as The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, using his skills as a reporter to help flesh out a spectrum of subcultures with Balzacian detail. But while Wolfe had been an influential advocate in the 1970s of the New Journalism (which put an emphasis on the voice and point of view of the reporter), his new manifesto didn’t win many converts in the literary world. Instead, writers as disparate as Louise Erdrich, David Mitchell, Don DeLillo, Julian Barnes, Chuck Palahniuk, Gillian Flynn and Groff would play with devices (such as multiple points of view, unreliable narrators and intertwining storylines) pioneered decades ago by innovators such as William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford and Vladimir Nabokov to try to capture the new Rashomon-like reality in which subjectivity rules and, in the infamous words of former president Bill Clinton, truth “depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”.

But what Roth called “the sheer fact of self, the vision of self as inviolable, powerful, and nervy, self as the only real thing in an unreal environment” would remain more comfortable territory for many writers. In fact, it would lead, at the turn of the millennium, to a remarkable flowering of memoir writing, including such classics as Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club and Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – books that established their authors as among the foremost voices of their generation. The memoir boom and the popularity of blogging would eventually culminate in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle – filled with minutely detailed descriptions, drawn from the author’s own daily life.

Personal testimony also became fashionable on college campuses, as the concept of objective truth fell out of favour and empirical evidence gathered by traditional research came to be regarded with suspicion. Academic writers began prefacing scholarly papers with disquisitions on their own “positioning” – their race, religion, gender, background, personal experiences that might inform or skew or ratify their analysis.

Social networks give people news that is popular and trending rather than accurate or important

In a 2016 documentary titled HyperNormalisation, the filmmaker Adam Curtis created an expressionistic, montage-driven meditation on life in the post-truth era; the title was taken from a term coined by the anthropologist Alexei Yurchak to describe life in the final years of the Soviet Union, when people both understood the absurdity of the propaganda the government had been selling them for decades and had difficulty envisioning any alternative. In HyperNormalisation, which was released shortly before the 2016 US election, Curtis says in voiceover narration that people in the west had also stopped believing the stories politicians had been telling them for years, and Trump realised that “in the face of that, you could play with reality” and in the process “further undermine and weaken the old forms of power”.

Some Trump allies on the far right also seek to redefine reality on their own terms. Invoking the iconography of the movie The Matrix – in which the hero is given a choice between two pills, a red one (representing knowledge and the harsh truths of reality) and a blue one (representing soporific illusion and denial) – members of the “alt-right” and some aggrieved men’s rights groups talk about “red-pilling the normies”, which means converting people to their cause. In other words, selling their inside-out alternative reality, in which white people are suffering from persecution, multiculturalism poses a grave threat and men have been oppressed by women.

Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis, the authors of a study on online disinformation, argue that “once groups have been red-pilled on one issue, they’re likely to be open to other extremist ideas. Online cultures that used to be relatively nonpolitical are beginning to seethe with racially charged anger. Some sci-fi, fandom, and gaming communities – having accepted run-of-the-mill antifeminism – are beginning to espouse white-nationalist ideas. ‘Ironic’ Nazi iconography and hateful epithets are becoming serious expressions of antisemitism.”

Some Trump allies on the far right invoke The Matrix to sell their inside‑out alternative reality

One of the tactics used by the alt-right to spread its ideas online, Marwick and Lewis argue, is to initially dilute more extreme views as gateway ideas to court a wider audience; among some groups of young men, they write, “it’s a surprisingly short leap from rejecting political correctness to blaming women, immigrants, or Muslims for their problems.”

Many misogynist and white supremacist memes, in addition to a lot of fake news, originate or gain initial momentum on sites such as 4chan and Reddit – before accumulating enough buzz to make the leap to Facebook and Twitter, where they can attract more mainstream attention. Renee DiResta, who studies conspiracy theories on the web, argues that Reddit can be a useful testing ground for bad actors – including foreign governments such as Russia’s – to try out memes or fake stories to see how much traction they get. DiResta warned in the spring of 2016 that the algorithms of social networks – which give people news that is popular and trending, rather than accurate or important – are helping to promote conspiracy theories.

There is an 'asymmetry of passion' on social media: most people won’t devote hours reinforcing the obvious. Extremists are committed to ‘wake up the sheeple’

This sort of fringe content can both affect how people think and seep into public policy debates on matters such as vaccines, zoning laws and water fluoridation. Part of the problem is an “asymmetry of passion” on social media: while most people won’t devote hours to writing posts that reinforce the obvious, DiResta says, “passionate truthers and extremists produce copious amounts of content in their commitment to ‘wake up the sheeple’”.

Recommendation engines, she adds, help connect conspiracy theorists with one another to the point that “we are long past merely partisan filter bubbles and well into the realm of siloed communities that experience their own reality and operate with their own facts”. At this point, she concludes, “the internet doesn’t just reflect reality any more; it shapes it”.

Language is to humans, the writer James Carroll once observed, what water is to fish: “We swim in language. We think in language. We live in language.” This is why Orwell wrote that “political chaos is connected with the decay of language”, divorcing words from meaning and opening up a chasm between a leader’s real and declared aims. This is why the US and the world feel so disoriented by the stream of lies issued by the Trump White House and the president’s use of language to disseminate distrust and discord. And this is why authoritarian regimes throughout history have co‑opted everyday language in an effort to control how people communicate – exactly the way the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four aims to deny the existence of external reality and safeguard Big Brother’s infallibility.

Orwell’s “Newspeak” is a fictional language, but it often mirrors and satirises the “wooden language” imposed by communist authorities in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. Among the characteristics of “wooden language” that the French scholar Françoise Thom identified in a 1987 thesis were abstraction and the avoidance of the concrete; tautologies (“the theories of Marx are true because they are correct”); bad metaphors (“the fascist octopus has sung its swan song”); and Manichaeism that divides the world into things good and things evil (and nothing in between).

‘Trump has performed the disturbing Orwellian trick of using words to mean the exact opposite of what they really mean.’ ... John Hurt in the film adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Photograph: Allstar/MGM

Trump has performed the disturbing Orwellian trick (“WAR IS PEACE”, “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY”, “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH”) of using words to mean the exact opposite of what they really mean. It’s not just his taking the term “fake news”, turning it inside out, and using it to try to discredit journalism that he finds threatening or unflattering. He has also called the investigation into Russian election interference “the single greatest witch-hunt in American political history”, when he is the one who has repeatedly attacked the press, the justice department, the FBI, the intelligence services and any institution he regards as hostile.

In fact, Trump has the perverse habit of accusing opponents of the very sins he is guilty of himself: “Lyin’ Ted”, “Crooked Hillary”, “Crazy Bernie”. He accused Clinton of being “a bigot who sees people of colour only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future”, and he has asserted that “there was tremendous collusion on behalf of the Russians and the Democrats”.

In Orwell’s language of Newspeak, a word such as “blackwhite” has “two mutually contradictory meanings”: “Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this.”

Trump's inauguration crowd: Sean Spicer's claims versus the evidence

This, too, has an unnerving echo in the behaviour of Trump White House officials and Republican members of Congress who lie on the president’s behalf and routinely make pronouncements that flout the evidence in front of people’s eyes. The administration, in fact, debuted with the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, insisting that Trump’s inaugural crowds were the “largest audience” ever – an assertion that defied photographic evidence and was rated by the fact-checking blog PolitiFact a “Pants on Fire” lie. These sorts of lies, the journalist Masha Gessen has pointed out, are told for the same reason that Vladimir Putin lies: “to assert power over truth itself”.

Trump has continued his personal assault on the English language. His incoherence (his twisted syntax, his reversals, his insincerity, his bad faith and his inflammatory bombast) is emblematic of the chaos he creates and thrives on, as well as an essential instrument in his liar’s toolkit. His interviews, off‑teleprompter speeches and tweets are a startling jumble of insults, exclamations, boasts, digressions, non sequiturs, qualifications, exhortations and innuendos – a bully’s efforts to intimidate, gaslight, polarise and scapegoat.

Precise words, like facts, mean little to Trump, as interpreters, who struggle to translate his grammatical anarchy, can attest. Chuck Todd, the anchor of NBC’s Meet the Press, observed that after several of his appearances as a candidate Trump would lean back in his chair and ask the control booth to replay his segment on a monitor – without sound: “He wants to see what it all looked like. He will watch the whole thing on mute.”
Protesters react to white nationalist Richard Spencer as he speaks at a college campus in Florida in 2017. Spencer participated in the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally earlier that year. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Philip Roth said he could never have imagined that “the 21st-century catastrophe to befall the USA, the most debasing of disasters”, would appear in “the ominously ridiculous commedia dell’arte figure of the boastful buffoon”. Trump’s ridiculousness, his narcissistic ability to make everything about himself, the outrageousness of his lies, and the profundity of his ignorance can easily distract attention from the more lasting implications of his story: how easily Republicans in Congress enabled him, undermining the whole concept of checks and balances set in place by the founders; how a third of the country passively accepted his assaults on the constitution; how easily Russian disinformation took root in a culture where the teaching of history and civics had seriously atrophied.

The US’s founding generation spoke frequently of the “common good”. George Washington reminded citizens of their “common concerns” and “common interests” and the “common cause” they had all fought for in the revolution. And Thomas Jefferson spoke in his inaugural address of the young country uniting “in common efforts for the common good”. A common purpose and a shared sense of reality mattered because they bound the disparate states and regions together, and they remain essential for conducting a national conversation. Especially today in a country where Trump and Russian and hard-right trolls are working to incite the very factionalism Washington warned us about, trying to inflame divisions between people along racial, ethnic and religious lines.

There are no easy remedies, but it’s essential that citizens defy the cynicism and resignation that autocrats and power-hungry politicians depend on to subvert resistance. Without commonly agreed-on facts – not Republican facts and Democratic facts; not the alternative facts of today’s silo-world – there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office, and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people. Without truth, democracy is hobbled

Friday, 13 July 2018

Nevis: how the world’s most secretive offshore haven refuses to clean up

Oliver Bullough in The Guardian

Tax havens hate attention. Places such as Jersey, Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands made a handsome living from helping their clients break other countries’ laws for decades, without anyone really noticing. And they liked it that way. Then came the 2007-8 financial crisis, and the good times ended. Rich nations, angry over the loss to their budgets caused by tax dodging, put diplomatic pressure on the havens. Activists, furious over the theft of hundreds of billions of pounds from poor countries, exposed them in the press. The release of vast troves of confidential information – SwissLeaks, the HSBC files, the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers – cemented a public perception that offshore financial centres exist to help the powerful dodge their obligations to the rest of us, and governments have queued up to punish them. In May, when Britain’s parliament voted to force transparency on its Caribbean islands, it was just the latest blow to the offshore havens.

This concerted campaign has threatened the tax haven business model. Since Swiss banks were forced to open up by the US Department of Justice in 2010, their share of the world’s offshore wealth has dropped from almost half to less than a third. In the British Virgin Islands (BVI), where UK investigators now have access to corporate ownership information, the number of new companies created annually has fallen by more than 50% since 2012. Jersey’s banking sector is barely half the size that it was in 2007.

Although cooperating with outsiders in this way has proven expensive, the havens clearly concluded there was little choice. If denied access to the global financial system, or sanctioned by Brussels or Washington, an offshore centre could be put out of business altogether.

This is good. Tax havens have helped the world’s wealthiest and most powerful keep a disproportionate share of the benefits of globalisation, by preventing the rest of us from seeing how much they own. This, in turn, has eroded trust in democracy and capitalism all over the world. Restricting the operations of tax havens, and enforcing true transparency on the ownership of property, is crucial if citizens are truly to take back control of their countries’ destinies.

Yet, at the heart of this increasingly encouraging picture, there remain a few holdouts – places that have stuck to the old habit of keeping the secrets of the powerful. Foremost among them is Nevis, a solitary volcano in the Caribbean with a population of just 11,000, which has been implicated in some of the most sordid financial scams of modern times, from Britain’s biggest-ever tax fraud to the fleecing of 620,000 vulnerable Americans in a $220m payday loan scam. The story of Nevis reveals the difficulties the world faces in trying to put an end to tax evasion, fraud and kleptocracy.

While Nevis’s rivals have lost business by opening up, Nevis has doubled down on secrecy. Not long ago, I spoke to a lawyer with extensive experience of the island, who asked not to be identified because he still needs to work with Nevisian officials. “The only good thing that Donald Trump could do, if he was ever so inclined,” he said, “is take a battleship and roll it up to Nevis, and literally train the guns and say: ‘Get rid of these bullshit laws or I’ll blow you to kingdom come.’”

In short, he said, “A bright light needs to be shone on this cockroach.”

Tax havens are often lumped together as if they all do the same job. In reality, they are distinctive and highly specialised predators in the financial shark tank. At the top of the food chain – as far as the western world goes, anyway – are places such as London, Switzerland and New York. These apex predators are surrounded by clouds of pilot fish that snap up the scraps: places such as Monaco, Jersey and the Cayman Islands.

These smaller centres all play different aspects of the offshore game: Jersey specialises in trusts, the BVI in incorporation, Liechtenstein in foundations. They also differ in their tolerance for criminality. Among the British territories: Gibraltar is dodgier than Guernsey, but cleaner than Anguilla. And they serve different geographical regions: Mauritius for Africa and India; Cyprus for the former Soviet Union; the Bahamas for the US.

In the world of offshore, Nevis is a bottom-feeder. It specialises in letting its clients create corporations with greater anonymity than almost anywhere else on earth. Last year, information on 70,000 Nevisian companies was leaked as part of the Paradise Papers investigation, but that didn’t help us find out who owns them: ownership information is so secret there that even the island’s own corporate registry doesn’t know. In other words, there was nothing substantial to leak.

“We feel very strongly that people are entitled to some semblance of financial privacy,” the Nevis premier, Mark Brantley, himself an offshore lawyer, told me when we met in his office in January. “Why shouldn’t you be entitled to a secret?”

The secrets don’t belong to residents of Nevis, of course: it would be hard to keep anything quiet for long on an island this size. The secrets belong to foreigners and are being kept from other foreigners, with Nevis getting paid to protect them.

A satellite image of St Kitts and Nevis (the smaller island to the bottom right). Photograph: Planet Observer/UIG/Getty/Universal images

We can see that these secrets exist thanks to the UK’s Land Registry, which releases spreadsheets listing all offshore-owned property in the country, along with the registered address of the company that owns it. Some of the secrets are mundane and could be entirely innocent. For instance, who is behind Shi Li Gao Trustees Ltd, the Nevis-incorporated company that owns 13 Brunswick Gardens, a handsome terrace a short walk from Kensington Palace? Some of them are intriguing: for what reason would a Catholic primary school in Liverpool be held via this little Caribbean volcano? And some are decidedly weird: who on earth decided to structure their ownership of a room in a hotel on Llandudno’s North Parade through Caribbean Establishment LLC?

But all of these questions are impossible to answer since the secrets are sealed away in Nevis. If these properties were owned via a British company, the true owner of that company would have to be declared to Companies House, and would be visible to anyone with access to the internet. If they were owned via a BVI company, that information would be available to the British police. But a Nevisian company is a closed book, and some people really like it that way.

While the BVI has seen the number of companies created there each year collapse, the number created in Nevis has stayed stable. Since 2012, the island’s financial services sector has grown by more than a quarter, as people with secrets have moved to a place that still keeps them. That is a pretty good argument for Brantley’s government not to follow the BVI in opening up its corporate registries to foreigners. Secrecy pays.

“The numbers are relatively small, compared to other financial services industries around, but bear in mind the size of Nevis,” Brantley said. “We get direct revenues of $5m-$5.5m, simply from renewal fees.” Renewal fees are what you pay to maintain your company’s registration; the more companies there are, the more fees you get. “When that is extrapolated outwards – in terms of rental of office space, employment – we recognise that it does have a multiplier effect on the economy.”

It is this provision of secrecy that makes Nevis such an obstacle to law-enforcement investigators. If police can’t prove who owns something, they can’t prove it was criminally acquired, say, or that tax was avoided on the profits from it. This is what crooks are looking for when they send their business offshore. Around 300 British properties are owned in Nevis, and Brantley was unrepentant in defending the secrecy his island provides to those properties’ owners.

“Why should a bureaucrat in London, or wherever, curious about his neighbour’s financial situation, pick up the phone and say, ‘You know what, I need to know if Mr John Smith, who’s my neighbour down the road, has an account or a company in Nevis.’ Why’s that his business?” Brantley asked. “Why are Mr John Smith’s financial affairs any business of a bureaucrat in London, unless there’s an allegation against Mr John Smith that he’s somehow contravening some law somewhere?”

It is an interesting philosophical question, but it is also a major problem. Countries recognise and respect each other’s laws and sovereignty, so Nevis corporations have as much international validity as anyone’s. So, as long as Nevis persists in denying foreigners access to the ownership information of its companies – no matter how hard other places work to open up – scoundrels can keep routing their business via Nevis, breaking the chain of traceable ownership, and hiding themselves and their crimes from discovery. That means crooked politicians, tax dodgers and fraudsters in Ukraine, Nigeria, Malaysia, the US or anywhere else get to mismanage their country’s finances for their own benefit.

And, thanks to Nevis’s curious constitutional situation – it is neither an independent country nor can it be controlled by any other country – there doesn’t appear to be anything we can do about it.

From the sea, Nevis (pronounced “knee-vis”) resembles a green nipple. It is elegantly symmetrical, a tropical volcano ringed with golden beaches. By surface area, it is roughly the same size as Bristol, yet its peak is taller than any mountain in England, so the whole island slopes upwards, starting gently where the beach bars shelter among the palm trees, then steadily steepening, while the tree cover gets denser. If you hike up the peak, you are in true rainforest, and will find yourself scrutinised by monkeys in the overhanging greenery.

It is a gorgeous place, much frequented by famous people. Earlier this week, John Cleese told Newsnight he was so fed up with how Britain is run that he is moving to Nevis for good. “It’s one of the nicest islands I’ve ever been to,” he said. “The children and adults are extraordinarily well-educated, the weather’s good the whole time, I’m very lucky.”

The island was once a major centre for Britain’s sugar growers and slave traders, but it slipped into obscurity in the 18th century, when it was out-competed by larger and more fertile rivals. In the 19th century, Britain added it to neighbouring St Kitts for administrative purposes, and it was as the junior half of the Federation of St Kitts and Nevis that it became independent in 1983.

The 80s were a bonanza period for Caribbean islands, as the global economy opened up and law enforcement was caught flat-footed. Tax evaders and drug dealers from North and South America flew planeloads of dollar bills into places such as Cayman and Anguilla, stashed them in bank accounts owned by untraceable shell companies, then invested them in property in Florida, the south of France or New York.

In 1984, Bill Barnard, an American lawyer who had taken to vacationing on Nevis, asked the island’s premier if he would be interested in getting into the offshore game. Thanks to the almost complete autonomy Nevis enjoys under the federal constitution of St Kitts and Nevis, its first premier, Simeon Daniel, was free to do what he liked. He approved Barnard’s suggestion, passed the incorporation and secrecy laws the American lawyer drafted and awarded Barnard’s company, Morning Star Holdings, the right to act as exclusive agent for creating the companies. It was a win for both of them. (Neither Morning Star Holdings nor Barnard wished to comment for this piece.)

At first, Nevis struggled to compete with already-established rivals, partly because it had no particular advantage of its own. Barnard and his team of American lawyers had borrowed their legislation from Delaware, which acts as a sort of tax haven within the US by offering laxer regulations and lower taxes than the other states, so there wasn’t much reason to look to a remote island for products you could already buy elsewhere. “It was certainly successful,” says David Neufeld, a New Jersey lawyer and an expert on company structuring and international tax. “But it was never at the level of BVI or Cayman.”

Long Haul Bay, Nevis. Photograph: Michael Runkel/Robert Harding/Getty

When Barnard’s monopoly expired in 1994, Nevis took the opportunity to reboot. Neufeld already worked with Barnard, and was asked to help Nevis diversify its offering. Tax havens are always borrowing ideas from each other, seeking to improve on laws that are proving popular – and this process has led to progressively greater secrecy, fewer taxes and lighter regulations. Neufeld looked to the USnited States for inspiration, and specifically to Wyoming, which had invented the limited liability company (LLC), a useful hybrid structure that allowed people to avoid identification and taxes at the same time, as well as offering other benefits.

LLCs make it hard for your creditors to find your assets, which also helps rich people avoid paying damages if they lose a lawsuit. Your creditors may have a court judgment against you, but if they can’t find your stuff, they will settle for perhaps 50 cents on the dollar to get the legal wrangling over with. Lawyers call this asset protection.

But in the US, it is hard to hide property, since courts can order disclosure of information. Handily, those courts have no jurisdiction in Nevis, which made the idea of a Caribbean version of the LLC very attractive. “In my mind, I was trying to create an LLC for the 51st state,” Neufeld told me. “If you see yourself as someone who could be exposed to some kind of predatory lawsuit where people feel you have assets that are exposed, this gives you an opportunity to protect that.”

In simple terms, Nevis’s laws allow rich people to put ramparts around their property, to protect it from someone who might want to use the courts to take it away, whether that be a business partner, a spouse, an estranged child, or indeed anyone. All tax havens do this, but Nevis turned the ratchet many clicks further than its rivals, in its efforts to tempt business away from its rivals.

To bring legal proceedings on Nevis, you have to file a bond of $100,000 with the court as proof that your case isn’t frivolous. If you win, that is only the beginning of your quest for the assets. Nevis’s regulator holds no information on either the ownership of the company or its assets. Nevis’s LLCs – Neufeld’s innovation – can’t be wound up, meaning you won’t be able to confiscate any assets they own, and you would have to seek redress elsewhere. If you seek to challenge the legality of a property being put in a Nevis-registered trust – for example, if you thought the property actually belonged to you – you have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the trust’s creation was fraudulent, and you would have to begin that legal challenge within a year of its creation. This is tricky, since Nevis law requires all information on the trust to be confidential, so you would be unlikely to know it even existed.

These ludicrously formidable defences are not really intended to be used, but instead – like the bright colouring of a poisonous tree frog – they exist to warn you off attacking in the first place. If they can persuade a plaintiff to settle out of court for less than is owed, then, for a rich person with vulnerable assets, they are well worth paying for.

“I don’t like the word ‘hidden’,” says Laurie Lawrence, who retired a couple of years ago after two decades as permanent secretary to the Nevis government. “It’s protected, not hidden. There’s nothing to hide. Look at it from the other way: a lot of females are gold-diggers. You are married to a man; you don’t really love him, but he has money. People find ways and means to protect their assets.”

This is perhaps why a wealthy person might want to own a Kensington house (or, indeed, a Llandudno hotel room) via a Nevisian company or other structure: it prevents a divorced spouse, or any other creditor, from accessing that property, without a tortuous legal process. “Nevis structures started coming up about 12 years ago, and they’re coming around with increasing prevalence,” Jeffrey Fisher, one of America’s leading divorce lawyers, told me by telephone from West Palm Beach in Florida.

“I’m a former prosecutor, and I know about the ways people hide money, and what they’ll do,” said Fisher. “My approach to getting assets that are in asset protection entities like a Nevis LLC, is that you don’t go to Nevis and try to get the money out – that is a foolhardy enterprise. They passed laws and they set up structures to stop us and to make it expensive and to make it take years and years and years. What we do here is we use some more creative approaches to, for lack of a better term, make them cough up the dough.”

Fisher’s approach is to target property and bank accounts in the US, to make his opponents’ lives so onerous that they eventually beg to settle – and he’s extremely good at it. The trouble is that anyone who cannot afford to employ highly expensive specialists such as Fisher has no prospect of even finding where their spouse has put their property, let alone wrestling a fair share away from them. They have to accept what they’re given – there’s no court that can help them.

“You’ve got to realise that the asset protection industry is trillions of dollars, not billions of dollars, it’s trillions of dollars,” said Fisher. “Essentially, it’s: we’re going to find a way to screw legitimate creditors out of collecting a legitimate debt. That’s the business these people are in.”

Brantley, the Nevis premier, is fluent and passionate in his defence of the ramparts that Nevis builds for rich people looking to protect their assets from creditors. “All it does is say that you’re creating a locked box, so to speak, if you want to protect assets,” Brantley said, when we met in his office up the hill from Charlestown, Nevis’s capital village. “And people protect assets for a variety of reasons. It’s not always to get away from a pending divorce.”

The trouble is that when you cast your eye beyond the divorce cases, Nevis’s business model begins to looks even worse. The Nevis financial system is rudimentary compared to the large tax havens – places such as Jersey, or the Cayman Islands, which have major accountancy firms, fund managers, large banks and other global behemoths. In Nevis, there’s precious little money for anyone to avoid tax on. But then, it isn’t really a haven from taxes at all, so much as a haven from scrutiny of any kind. The same laws that appeal to the kind of nervous and wealthy men who want to hide their assets from their wives, have been regularly exploited by crooks from all over the world.

Britain’s biggest-ever tax fraud – for which five men were jailed in November, after attempting to scam the Treasury out of £107m in tax – involved Nevis-registered companies, which were helping to hide the identity of the fraudsters. The family of a former president of Taiwan used a Nevis trust to help to hide its ownership of corruptly acquired US property. Ukraine’s deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, used Nevis structures to hide his stolen assets, as did corrupt Russian officials who stole $230m from the budget in 2007. (When the accountant Sergei Magnitsky uncovered the scam, they arrested him and left him to die in jail.) British trader Navinder Sarao, who pleaded guilty to fraud for helping cause 2010’s flash crash, diverted some of his profits to a Nevis structure called the NAV Sarao Milking Markets Fund.

According to the independent advocacy group Tax Justice Network, Nevis out-obscures all the traditional offshore centres: BVI, Switzerland, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Luxembourg, and even fellow bottom-feeders such as Belize and the Cook Islands. And its enthusiasm for secrets impedes other countries’ efforts to enforce transparency.

To see how, just look at the UK. In theory, it has always been possible to find out who a British company’s shareholders are, but until recently there was a loophole. If a company was owned offshore, shareholders could preserve their anonymity. To combat this, in 2016, the government brought in a law that requires UK companies to declare the identity of their true owner or owners: any person with significant control (PSC). (Defined thus: “A person of significant control is someone that holds more than 25% of shares or voting rights in a company, has the right to appoint or remove the majority of the board of directors or otherwise exercises significant influence or control.”) This new system is imperfect, not least because Companies House doesn’t check the information provided to it, but it’s a step towards full transparency, and part of the UK’s commitment to stop its companies being used to enable tax dodging and kleptocracy.

But a search of the Companies House website reveals how Nevis is able to defang Britain’s attack on secrecy. For instance, I recently came across three LLPs, all of which are owned by the same two Nevis companies: Tallberg and Uniwell. According to data gathered by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, one of these LLPs controlled a Latvian bank account used in a money-laundering scheme; the other two have not been implicated in any wrongdoing (and neither have Tallberg and Uniwell).

According to Companies House, the three LLPs have the same ownership structure, which means that their person or persons with significant control should be the same. Mysteriously, however, each of the LLPs is listed as having a different PSC. This is technically possible, but highly unlikely. But we have no way of finding out the truth, since Nevis does not cooperate with the UK in allowing law enforcement officers to see who really owns Nevisian companies such as Tallberg and Uniwell. These three LLPs are not isolated examples – Tallberg and Uniwell alone have owned dozens of British companies, and there are many more Nevisian corporations like them.

The new UK law requiring disclosure of true owners is useless if that ownership can just be hidden in Nevis. And this is why Nevis-controlled but British-registered companies, whose ownership is unclear, have been involved in many of the massive eastern European money-laundering scams collectively known as the “laundromats”, which have moved tens of billions of dollars out of the former Soviet Union. Nevis ownership can transform a supposedly transparent British company into a secrecy vehicle as iniquitous as anything on earth.

In the words of Jack Blum, a veteran investigator of corruption who has worked for the UN and the US senate: “If somebody finds out that there’s a Nevis corporation involved [in a scam], and they go to Nevis, they could waterboard the entire board of directors and nobody would know anything.”

Charlestown is a handsome place, consisting of a long street of two-storey buildings parallel to the shore, many with first-floor balconies for catching the sea breeze. Its most striking feature, however, is the truly remarkable number of signs advertising lawyers, accountants and administrators. The Devon town of Ilfracombe, with its 11,000 inhabitants, has two lawyers’ offices, an insurance company and two sets of accountants, as well as a branch of Lloyds and a Nationwide. The 11,000 Nevisians, by contrast, host six domestic banks, one international bank, 18 insurance managers, seven international insurance entities, four money service businesses and 58 registered agents, many of them law firms. Nevis may be the most over-lawyered place on earth.

When you get off the ferry, almost the first house you see is the Henville building, nominal home to the Azerbaijan first family’s business empire. If you then turn right at the T-junction, you see the Edith Solomon building (although it has lost two of the letters from its name), which hosted an Idaho payday loan company that was shut down by the state government in 2012, for operating without a license. Barely 100 metres in the opposite direction on Main Street, meanwhile, is the office of Morning Star Holdings, pioneers of the Nevis offshore industry.

I was keen to find the registered address of Tallberg and Uniwell, the two Nevisian companies that had so successfully outmanoeuvred UK company law, in the – admittedly, rather forlorn – hope that I could find someone who would give me information about them. Their registered address was the same as that of the Nevis International Trust Company (NITC), which, according to its website, will supply you not only with a shell company, but also with nominee directors and shareholders, which will further obscure your involvement in it, as well as a bank account, a credit card and a stock trading account. “Nevis is an excellent location for: privacy, estate planning, asset protection, tax reduction planning, holding investments, royalty and licensing ownership,” the website states.

I had an address for the NITC’s office, but no one on the island was able to tell me where it was. I spent a frustrating, hot and thirsty morning searching for it and, when I finally got through on the phone, was brushed off. “I’m not a robber,” I told the woman who answered the phone, after she had refused to help me. “I don’t know that, do I?” she replied.

In fairness, she had a good reason not to talk. According to a 1985 law, anyone on Nevis disclosing financial information without a court order is liable to a prison term of up to a year, as well as a fine of $10,000. (This is another area where Nevis is resisting the trend towards openness. Cayman previously had a similar law against breaching confidentiality, but decriminalised the offence in 2016.)

When I tried phoning the registered office of Tallberg and Uniwell, the receptionist refused to even tell me where the office was, so I couldn’t visit. When I emailed the NITC, there was no reply. Eventually I had to accept that it was not going to be possible to make contact with them, which meant the true ownership information for the three LLPs was undiscoverable.

Nevis, looking up at the volcano. Photograph: Marka/Getty

And it is not just journalists who are unable to check the reliability of Nevis’ financial information for themselves; foreign police can’t either. That means we are all reliant on the Nevis financial services regulatory commission to do it for us. The commission is based in an office in the centre of Charlestown, and is run by Heidi-Lynn Sutton, its chief regulator, who works in an office on the first floor.

Sutton started off unfriendly, and became less friendly as our 45-minute chat progressed, her manner becoming increasingly exasperated. She flatly dismissed the US state department’s description of Nevis as “a desirable location for criminals to conceal proceeds”. It was simply untrue, she said, that Nevis had anonymous bank accounts, bank secrecy and an opaque corporate register.

This was odd, since her regulator’s own website states that bank account holders on the island have no obligation to provide any “statement, return or information (to) … the regulator or the minister”. However, Sutton defended Nevis against all allegations, no matter how serious. The heavy cost of bringing proceedings in Nevis court, for example, was simply to protect the justice system from being “bombarded with frivolous lawsuits”, rather than to protect the wealthy. “That is our weeding-out mechanism,” she said. “Some countries are very litigious. If you get a little burn on your hand because you spill a McDonald’s coffee, somebody will sue you.”

When I explained the difficulty I had faced in even finding NITC, Sutton laughed, asking why I was looking for it. I explained that I had hoped to discover who actually owned the limited partnerships on the British registry. When I asked about whether the regulator she runs might have failed to notice a number of serious money-laundering schemes, she simply said: “I can’t speak to that, I really cannot speak to that.”

What about the fact that the former ruling families of Taiwan and Ukraine, as well as lower-profile crooks from all over the world, had used Nevis vehicles to obscure the ownership of their stolen assets? Sutton laughed again. “I can’t accept that there has been multiple usage of our structures to facilitate whatever. I can’t accept hearing it from you. I won’t be able to speak to that.”

If the island is so clean, why did online trolls looking to smear Emmanuel Macron before the 2017 French presidential election create fake documents supposedly showing he had a shell company in Nevis? Isn’t that a sign that the industry Sutton oversees has an image problem? “People make things up all the time,” she replied. “Once you are an international financial centre, and provide certain services, you will always be a target, it doesn’t mean that it’s true.”

I have spent most of the last four years researching financial crimes, and have spoken to dozens of regulators and investigators in multiple jurisdictions, but never before had I met one who responded in such a way to allegations of grand corruption, money laundering and fraud that I was making against their jurisdiction.

Like any financial centre, Nevis must choose between turning away dirty money, or attracting as much business as it can. I did not find my visit to Nevis reassuring.

Since Nevisian officials appear happy with the current situation, it is up to outsiders to force change on the island, and sadly – thanks to the constitutional peculiarities of the federation – this is all but impossible. We know this because it has been tried.

In 1995, in federation-wide elections, the St Kitts and Nevis Labour party swept to power with seven of the 11 federal seats, and its leader, Denzil Douglas, became prime minister. He had no seats on Nevis, but did not need any to pass laws for the whole federation. Among his priorities was restricting Nevis’ sordid financial sector. “We were aware that the international community had begun to frown upon Nevis, and on the international financial services that were poorly regulated, not supervised, etc,” said Douglas when we met in his office in Basseterre, the federal capital, which is on St Kitts. “And we sought to bring in new legislation. So they had their referendum.”

The federal constitution allows Nevis to hold a referendum on secession whenever it wants to, and so, in 1998, annoyed by Douglas’s attempt to rein in its lawyers, it did. And 62% of Nevisians voted to break free of their neighbours, which was not quite enough to reach the two-thirds super-majority that the constitution demanded, but enough to make Douglas and his government back down. “The government has no choice,” Douglas said, “because we’ve tried.”

In 2000, the Financial Action Task Force – a Paris-based group created by the G7 to develop policies against money-laundering – blacklisted the whole of St Kitts and Nevis, as one of 15 countries deemed to be non-cooperative. That forced Nevis to agree to federal legislation, but did not change the basic dynamic that it has significantly more autonomy than Scotland has within the UK, and in some ways more than individual US states. One financial professional in Basseterre described the relationship between Nevis and St Kitts as like that of a teenager with access to his big brother’s credit card.

Even if Premier Brantley were not ideologically committed to selling privacy to wealthy foreigners, his government’s statistics provide plenty of reasons for him to favour maintaining the country’s opaque company-registration system on purely pragmatic grounds. Fees from incorporating companies and renewing their registration made up more than 16% of Nevis’s government revenue in 2015, up from less than 12% in 2014.

None of the tools that large countries have used against tax havens such as Switzerland or Jersey – diplomatic pressure, legal proceedings against banks, and so on – are applicable to Nevis. It is part of a fully independent country (unlike the BVI or Gibraltar) and the companies providing its services (unlike the Swiss banks targeted by the US Department of Justice) are not large enough to fear losing their offices in the US.

Major western countries will have to make their criticism of Nevis via diplomatic channels, if they want it to change its ways. Brantley got his retaliation in first, however, accusing the British government of hypocrisy.

“It is no secret that the UK, and London in particular, has a disproportionate number of wealthy Russians, for example, and wealthy oligarchs from all around the world, and the question is: why? It can’t be for the weather. So, why are people flocking to London? So, if the United Kingdom can do that, then what is the issue with other countries, not as endowed as the UK, trying to stand on their own two feet?”

The issue is that if every jurisdiction thinks only of how to stand on its own two feet – whether that’s post-Brexit Britain, Nevis or Wyoming – we will all be pushed over separately by the world’s crooks and thieves. Brantley is right that we all need to do more to fight kleptocrats and fraudsters, but by keeping their secrets and making money from it, Nevis is stopping the rest of us from moving forward.