Friday, 29 September 2017

My Last Word: The Status Anxiety of Post-Liberalism

Some weeks ago I wrote a thread outlining why, in my opinion, far too much focus has been given to (admittedly self-described) amateur sociologists’ theories (in particular the work of Chris Arnade and David Goodhart) to explain the emergence of a disaffected electoral block responsible for the rise of Trump and the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. I promised to write up these thoughts into a blog post - so here it is. This is intended to be my very last word on the subject and my apologies to everyone already exhausted by the debate to date.

The full thread can be found here, but below is a short summary of the main points:

1) There is a genuine problem of inequality of access to the public sphere and consequent marginalisation of people and groups whose problems are therefore de-prioritised in policy circles. This, however, does not mean that all barriers to the public sphere are illegitimate (e.g. those that protect others from harm).

2) The authors in question tend to see themselves as conduits into the public sphere for some of those marginalised groups, but the imposition of their own grand narrative serves to make these voices secondary to their own.

3) There’s a bait-and-switch going on where we are invited to condemn the clear inequity of access but in doing so are pushed also to access the much more spurious Front Row/Back Row or Somewheres/Anywheres sociological categories, for which there appears to be very little evidence. Moreover, the entire debate obscures the evident weakness of the policy proposals that come out of said distinctions.

4) Both Arnade and Goodhart reject data-based approaches to their subject – even where the data might offer some useful support or counterpoints to their theses. In particular, voting patterns by income bracket, education and age cohort paint a much more complex picture of these evolving phenomena that the authors seem to allow for.

So, what evidence can I offer in support of the above. I think both Arnade and Goodhart are right in identifying the self-reinforcing barriers to entry into the public sphere as a form of cultural elitism that is designed to prevent certain groups from voicing their concerns except through the intermediation of other members of the elite. Those barriers are educational, geographical, racial and cultural in nature and, though they might manifest themselves somewhat more subtly than they did in the past, the difference in life experience of being in the in-group or one of the many out-groups remains stark.

I should caveat here that I am not a sociologist. These are merely observations garnered in (I imagine) much the same way as Arnade and Goodhart have garnered theirs, through idle conversations on and offline and trying to read as widely as possible on the subject. Where I think they overstep is in extrapolating from this ad hoc approach to the grand theory.

Let me explain what I mean by example. Here is a passage from Arnade’s blog:

“We are a divided country, split along race and class. We are also divided by education. Front row kids, many with post graduate degrees, versus the rest.
The front row kids and minorities overwhelmingly support Hillary Clinton. A large percentage of everyone else supports Trump. The front row kids can’t understand why anyone would support Trump, often saying anyone who does is just dumb.

The divide between the two is huge. It is beyond just living in different places, and voting for different people.”

As I said, I don’t think much of the above should be all that controversial and there certainly are parallels between groups that have seen significant declines in their relative status in the US and the UK. But the observations don’t end there. Arnade continues (emphasis mine):

“The front row kids (who live in big cities and university towns) primarily find meaning through their careers, and hence through their education. It defines who they are. Their community, and their neighborhoods, are global. They moved towns often for their careers. 
The back row primarily finds meaning through their local community, and its institutions like church and sports. They live in places they have long lived in, and their families have lived in. They didn’t leave for education, didn’t leave for jobs.”

Given the breadth of the political coalition necessary for affecting the type of electoral results we are discussing the above seems rather reductive. It also seems to me to confuse identifying some of the superficial manifestations of cultural and economic divides in the US and reads through it into a fundamental, all-encompassing psychosocial phenomenon about how individuals “find meaning”.

Worse, when this quest to find meaning in “community, church and sport” doesn’t find representation in the public sphere this particular out-group are seemingly uniquely vulnerable to being taken in by conmen.

“Here is the thing I want to hammer on. When the front row (me, you, pundits, politicians) call Trumps voters, the back row, stupid. Or dumb. Or idiots. When we scold them for supporting such an awful man (he is!). That plays right into everything they have been told all of their lives. 
Being called stupid, being told they can’t keep up, is why many of them feel and are stuck in their towns. Why many of them are humiliated and angry. Why many want revenge. Why many are ripe to follow a racist like Trump.”

For me, this intellectual overstretch is precisely a function of the weakness of the anecdata approach. If you don’t have a defined academic mandate, and you don’t have any controls, and you don’t weigh what you’re hearing in a rigorous way imposing any sort of coherent thesis over the top of years worth of even carefully recorded conversations can only be done by riding roughshod over nuance and complexity.

At least one of the unfortunate results of the above is to attribute Trump’s rise to a single out-group – the disaffected, predominantly white working class – rather than the whole coalition that included huge swathes of what Arnade would classify as “front row”. As evidence of this, note the elision of Trump voters/back row in the first paragraph above.

Goodhart’s post-liberalism is based on a similarly flawed approach. In response to then-NIESR director Jonathan Portes’ discovery of a series of factual errors in a book Goodhart had written on immigration he responded: “I do check facts but I also go out and listen to what people are saying.”

Yet while there may at least (theoretically) be some value to the many interviews Arnade has carried out over the past few years in themselves, I'm afraid there seems to be little to commend Goodhart's approach to his subject. He seems mostly to rely on a series of half-remembered statistics cobbled together in a loose thread of narrative to conclude, somewhat half-heartedly, that "lower-income whites sometimes lack the mutual support that minority communities often enjoy — this can translate into a sense of loss and insecurity. This, too, should be recognised and factored into the policy calculus". In other words, we should skew policy to crudely privilege one small sub-group for a decline in their relative status rather than addressing more tangible problems of poverty, prejudice and inequality of opportunity.

If you think that too harsh a summary, the full piece inexplicably published by the FT can be found here.

Indeed, a broad dismissal of the data-based approach to their subject matters in evident in both Arnade and Goodhart. Below is another exchange between Portes and Goodhart on Twitter:

And here’s a quote from a recent profile of Arnade from the Wall Street Journal: “I’ve come to understand the value of thinking emotionally. Thinking about things rationally through numbers is very confining.”

Arnade is right. Thinking through numbers is confining. But that’s the point. The data do not allow of grand interpretations without statistical significance and can surprise and even delight us by confounding our preconceptions. Sticking to the standards of academic rigour doesn’t impose an undue burden on the subject matter, but in fact gives it a respect that the authors both seem to want to give to those they speak to.

At any rate, the thing that has latterly worried me most is that the victim status that both Arnade and Goodhart give their out-groups seems to be creeping towards the authors themselves (see the latest pieces here, here and here). That, for me, is the biggest warning sign that the group status these authors are most concerned about may be their own.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Where we are on the Brexit continuum

Now the many horrors of 2016 are behind us, the world is waking up to the horrors that await in 2017. In particular, the UK is bracing itself for the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty marking the formal notification of Britain’s intention to leave the European Union.

In and of itself, there is no great significance attached to the event. It marks the start of the two year mandated negotiation period, after which either both sides will have reached some sort of agreement, there is a unanimous vote to extend negotiations or Britain is unceremoniously dumped out of the EU and into WTO rules.

Well, that’s a 2019 problem which we’ll have to deal with when we get there. In 2017, the problem facing the UK government is twofold: How to come up with a negotiating platform that leaves open the possibility of a non-disastrous settlement for the UK and how to keep those who voted to Leave onside as the inevitable compromises get struck.

Ah, you’ll hear some say, Prime Minister Theresa May has made clear what her platform is – it’s only desperate Europhile commentators and analysts who are unwilling to listen. She has, these wise heads claim, already stated that she will prioritise control over immigration above membership of Europe’s Single Market and won’t accept anything less than full sovereignty over UK law and regulations.

As she told Sky News over the weekend:

“Often people talk in terms as if somehow we’re leaving the EU but we still want to keep bits of membership of the EU. We’re leaving, we’re coming out, we’re not going to be a member of the EU…We will be able to have control of our borders, control of our laws. This is what people were voting for on June 23rd.”

Given the rest of the EU’s implacable opposition to compromising on the four principle freedoms of capital, goods, services and people it appears the two sides have reached an impasse even before discussions have begun. So is a so-called “hard Brexit” inevitable?

There are a couple of important points worth raising at this juncture that should educate our thinking on the likely stance of UK in Brexit negotiations:
  • Firstly, I think it’s abundantly clear at this point that May’s public discussion of her “red lines”– at least since her speech to the Conservative Party conference last October – are aimed at maintaining the support of the Leave voting constituencies in both the country and her party. This is in no small part to correct the impression that, as a (lukewarm) supporter of the Remain campaign, she was somehow a cuckoo in the nest just waiting for her opportunity to undermine the referendum result. That doesn’t mean she’s not serious, only that it’s an exercise in demonstrating adherence to the principle that says little, if anything, about the process.
  • More importantly, the negotiations are *at a minimum* going to take her up to the end of March 2019 with an election legally required to be called in May 2020 – giving her little time to sell the deal before facing the voters. As such, dressing up awkward compromises – the possible economic hit from losing Single Market membership – as part of her tough negotiating stance rather than the inevitable consequence of the internal inconsistencies of the government’s position (that the “best deal for Britain” may be significantly worse than the one we’re giving up) is a trick worth preparing her audience for.
  • At any rate, whatever “plan” May is putting forward it’s more than likely to be almost entirely irrelevant to the final deal since the UK can’t set the terms of a compromise position. And actually we should make a stronger point here – if the aims are to ensure full control of Britain’s border and the laws and regulations to which the country is subject, then the position is pure fantasy. Sovereignty here would be more accurately defined not by the ability of the UK to set terms of trade and movement of peoples, but as the ability to choose the degree to which it is willing to compromise on those things in order to achieve the Leave camp’s much promised Free Trade Agreements.
  • The reason that Remain voters tend to favour remaining a member of the Single Market is not that they’re na├»ve to the political costs, nor that most would seek to use it as a backdoor route to return to the EU fold, but simply that it offers the type of already existing off-the-shelf framework for a transitional deal. May is correct to say we need to stop discussing Brexit in terms of binary “soft” vs “hard” outcomes – it is a spectrum on which these are simply two points (and neither necessarily the most likely). And we know that the UK is almost certain to require some sort of transitional deal, which a qualified majority of EU member states would have to agree to. It would be a huge ask to begin substantive negotiations on both the long term future of UK-EU relations and complete a bespoke transitional arrangement within the two year timeframe provided by Article 50.
  • Where the Leave camp favouring “hard Brexit” may be right is that it remains entirely unclear whether any deal that seeks to atomise UK-EU relations on a point-by-point basis is even possible. A carve out of freedom of movement for the UK would almost certainly invite similar requests from other member states, with the threat of further withdrawals as the bargaining chip. That is the very last thing EU institutions want to be throwing into the mix with populist nationalism springing up across the region.

So back to the original dilemma – is it conceivable that the Prime Minister could simultaneously maintain the support of her party and voter base as well as providing sufficient compromises to make a non-disastrous deal with the EU?

Sure it is. However, that says nothing of its likelihood. While it is a fair (even necessary) inference of May’s announced position to date that control of EU migration is a “red line” and that the EU would never accept such a demand from any member of the Single Market, it is significant that she would not explicitly state this – despite numerous invitations from Sky’s Sophy Ridge to do just that.

I tend to agree with David Allen Green here; the reason May is reticent in formally declaring willingness to sacrifice Single Market membership is that it is simply not in her gift to make that call (absent not triggering Article 50). Rather, as with most of the key decisions during the negotiations, it is solely a matter of EU discretion. Yet soon it could be incumbent on parliament to vote on whether or not to trigger Article 50 and this question could get asked again…and again…and again.

I don’t think it unhelpful that such pressure be applied in order for there to be proper scrutiny of the process and I think it speaks to the importance of the legal case currently in front of the Supreme Court. The key here is likely not to be the end point of repatriating powers over migration or removing EUCJ oversight, but the route taken to get there. As we have learned from IMF programmes of recent years, the most important thing for major economic adjustments is not only to have the right goals but to ensure that the timing of reforms (be they regulatory, legal or economic) is done in a way that avoids damaging the underlying economy as far as possible.

After the end of March the Prime Minister will inevitably turn her attention away from her domestic audience and towards Brussels, where Sir Tim Barrow is highly unlikely to find his negotiating partners any more generous or the government’s approach any less “muddled” than his predecessor. If, at that point, the best May can offer is “Brexit means Brexit” then I’d suggest the UK is in for a bumpy landing indeed - and all of those who vote in favour of whatever plan is ultimately presented to parliament will be implicated in the result as much as the executive.