Sunday, 29 July 2012

We have met the enemy and he is us

Political economists divide politics into “special interest” and “general interest”. Special interest politics is about how relatively narrow, sectional interests like the arms industry, nuclear power, or the universities affect political outcomes. It is the analysis of smoke-filled rooms, expensive dinners, consulting jobs for ex-Ministers and so on; at the bottom end, we come to brown envelopes and the local councillor with a swimming pool on his patio after the new shopping centre is approved. Hobbes called these things “worms in the body politic”. (Yes, the seventeenth century had its own Public Choice theory.)

If special interest politics is parasitology, general interest politics is more like plate tectonics. It deals with the clash of great, broad strata: the rich versus the poor, business versus unions in general, and the neverending campaign for the median voter. Think cheering crowds, newspaper headlines, and MPs coming back to Westminster cowed by their angry constituents.

Special interest politics are the big problem for most countries. In these countries, politics is more or less corrupt, and the unorganized majority is held back by the interests of entrenched minorities, in the way Mancur Olson talked about. Special interest politics are a big source of problems in all countries: you cannot eradicate the power of small, well-organized interest groups, any more than you can eradicate all a body’s parasites. So on a global scale special interest politics is what matters.

But I think that the storms on Western countries’ horizons come from general interest politics. Take two examples: social security and global warming.

Nobody likes welfare benefits. They breed scroungers (just ask the Daily Mail) and they cost a lot. Every political party for the past 30 years has wanted to reform welfare, and slowly it is being reformed. The problem for European democracies, though, is not handouts to the feckless poor. It is pensions. Nobody would dare say, or be daft enough to think, that pensioners are feckless. No politician dares cut pensions. They are the third rail even in conservative America. Mess with them and you will make the median voter angry. Unfortunately, the huge black hole – composed of off-balance-sheet dark matter – in European and American budgets is made up of public pensions.

Global warming is the biggest danger to the human race, but as an issue in the Presidential campaign it’s non-existent. You could blame Big Oil. But think about the threat to the ozone layer from CFCs. That problem appeared about the same time as global warming, we solved it rather fast, and Big White Goods couldn’t stop it. Ultimately, the economic power of oil comes down to the fact that it drives a huge chunk our economy, and the political power of the anti-global warming movement comes down to our great capacity for kidding ourselves. Dealing with global warming would mean uncomfortable lifestyle changes for all of us. Of course, that would be impossible, so it must be unnecessary, and global warming must be a fraud.*

Most of the world is still struggling against privileged minorities. In the West we have really solved that problem, as much as it can be solved. A lot can still be got away with, but really egregious abuses result in a public outcry and Something is Done even if it takes a quarter-century to do it. Our biggest danger is the privileged majority, which does not even believe it is privileged, and will be angry if you tell it different. We Have Met The Enemy, and He Is Us.

* If you want to know more about global warming, then there are some good websites. is my favourite. and seem to be the best of the deniers. I don't think climate scientists are saints or geniuses, and I am dubious about their computer modelling; but the skeptics seem much worse. For books, I liked The Hot Topic and Storms of my Grandchildren; I confess to not having read any skeptical books. Go and make up your own mind.

Friday, 27 July 2012


A big list of Roman graffiti. My favourite:
We have wet the bed, host. I confess we have done wrong. If you want to know why, there was no chamber pot.
Off to Ljubljana for ECPR summer school tomorrow. (The website cunningly hides the details: scroll over "Summer school" to see the hidden dropdown menu.)

Wednesday, 25 July 2012


German academia has problems with plagiarism, says German academic.
And Chinese students in the US face prejudice from back home (and loneliness abroad).
Luigi Zingales on orphan ideas. A related incentive problem is that researchers get kudos for finding exciting new ideas, but not for repeating sensible old ones. (I once heard Alberto Alesina describe how he had given up urging Italy to reform its labour markets, and instead decided to write a model explaining why its labour markets were optimal, given Italians' desire to stay near home.... It's a really interesting model, by the way.)

Friday, 20 July 2012

Monday, 16 July 2012


Apologies for lack of posts. I've been ill.

Did xenophobia evolve to protect us from infectious diseases? If so, might there be a genetic basis for it?

Proposal to renationalise the railways, mooted by Maria Eagle. Only someone who does not remember British Rail could say "Bring back British Rail". Well, or ASLEF of course.

Passenger km on the railways since 1987:
Rail report graph
Railways were privatised in 1994. (Wikipedia has history.)

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Bob's evidence

Obviously, this banking scandal is another reason why honesty and integrity are hot topics for social scientists. Let me focus on a detail, like Adorno analysing fascism via modern car doors (here, aphorism 19).

In his evidence to the committee yesterday, Bob Diamond called all the MPs by their first name. This replacement of "Mr. X" by "Jim" is actually an ongoing trend of our democratic age. I think it is a loss of a small area of respectful distance. It also leads to two comic phenomena:

(1) On the radio, "Dave" tells "Ed", his sworn opponent, that he is politically incompetent, his policies are bad for Britain and borderline treason, etc.
(2) Using your interlocutor's first name as a way to patronise them, as if you were their kindergarten teacher. Which is then reciprocated, leading to a kind of weaponized chumminess.

My students tend to be schizophrenic, either calling me "Professor Hugh-Jones" or "Yo Dave". Personally, I am fine with Dave. When I demand to be called Dr Hugh-Jones, I will definitively have become an Old Fart. Maybe skip the Yo though.

Perhaps Adorno -- Theo -- has the mot juste in aphorism 20: "The matter-of-factness [Sachlichkeit] between human beings which clears away the ideological ornamentation between them, has itself already become an ideology of those who wish to treat human beings as things."