Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Is populism dumb?

After the Brexit vote, a standard story is doing the rounds: the poor and uneducated are threatened by globalization. They respond atavistically, asserting their superiority over ethnic outsiders. As a result, they are fooled into voting against their own interests, for racist parties who do not really care about them.

This explanation comes in various flavours. To make it more left-wing, substitute “neoliberal world order” for “globalization”. But the basic recipe is widely reused. Obama talked about people “clinging to guns and religion”. This year, we are told it explains why people are voting for Trump.

There are some specific problems with applying this idea to Brexit. The context for the British vote was not just “globalization”: it was free movement of labour in the EU, combined with policy failures elsewhere that have led large numbers of people to seek employment in the UK.

Here’s a more basic question. Is nationalism truly irrational?

Thinking so has a long history. Adorno and Horkheimer, exiles from the Nazis, wrote a psychological study of the rigid “authoritarian personality”, who craved the certainty and leadership of fascism. The most serious science behind this argument, though, comes from social psychologists studying group identity. In lab experiments in the 1970s, Henri Tajfel showed that when people were put into completely trivial, “minimal” groups – say, people who preferred an abstract painting by Klee to one by Kandinsky – they would discriminate against the other group, giving them less money, even if they themselves lost out by this.

Tajfel’s interpretation was that people were managing their self-esteem. If threatened – say by a negative evaluation from the experimenter, or in the real world, by poverty or economic insecurity – people respond by trying to boost their self-concept. Part of that self-concept is their social identity as a member of a particular group. White people, say, or Brits. So, they boost this by boasting of their membership, and denigrating rival identities – Black people or immigrants.

This interpretation provides a scientific justification for the benign contempt in which many people hold working class nationalism. Rather than goal-directed action, it is seen as a self-soothing response to economic trauma, the collective equivalent of holding yourself and rocking. 

But this is doubtful. Starting from the scientific end, there are many alternative explanations for the phenomena Tajfel observed. One is put forward by the Japanese scientist Toshio Yamagishi. He describes human groups as “containers for generalized reciprocity”. In other words, you support your group above others, because you expect them to do the same for you.
This is intuitive. Football fans, clans, and families – all are expected to look out for each other. All organizations rely on informal, unspoken contracts, in which each of us is expected to “do our bit”. This is how collective actors are created – something so basic to social organization that it is embedded in our grammar. We.
The self-esteem based explanation for nationalism focuses on its opposition to the outgroup. This dimension is surely important. Conflict with outsiders strengthens group identity, as politicians have discovered, from Bismarck to Daniel Arap Moi and, yes, Trump. But another aspect has been underplayed. Nationalism involves an appeal to others in the ingroup. It says: “we have an especial claim on your help.”
Most people fudge their thinking on this topic. Ask someone in the modern West: are the lives of my countrymen worth more than those of people elsewhere, and you will likely get a shocked “no”. But our political system implicitly acknowledges the claims of nationality: all European welfare states spend far more to make the lives of their citizens better than they do on the lives of much poorer people around the world. (A Peter-Singer-style “effective altruist” ought, surely, to demand the immediate dismantling of our health and social security systems so that we could use the money on foreign aid.)
The nationalism or populism of the present day is a creeping suspicion that the elites of these reciprocity containers  are reneging on the bargain.
This is not obviously stupid. Here’s a picture of the change in the global income distribution over the past generation: on the left, the growth in the incomes of the world’s poorest; on the right, that of the richest:

Every Peter Singer type should rejoice at that great big left-hand camel’s hump. That’s billions of people being lifted out of poverty, maybe the greatest increase ever in human happiness. But those in between the humps are the poor of the rich nations. They may suspect that China and India’s gain is their loss.
Economists – the controversial “experts” of the referendum campaign – have responded that really, the free movement of goods and labour is everybody’s gain, that losses are just illusory. But it is sadly true that economists often change their mind. Ten years ago most economists thought that globalization didn’t harm America’s poor. Now, the facts seem to have changed. No bad faith need be involved – just the complexity of the social world.
In the UK, most economists believe that immigration has increased our wealth without harming the poor, or not many of them. This is serious research. Jonathan Portes will tell you about it. But statisticians look at averages and can easily miss variation; they examine the past which may not be a guide to the future. If I thought I’d lost my job to an Eastern European, I might not be persuaded that on average, I had not. And I might also think that a wholesale commitment to freedom of movement in the EU would, sooner or later, lead to at least some equalization of wages between the UK and, say, Romania. Economic theory would suggest it. So would common sense.
And then I might think to myself: can I trust those people up there to protect me? Do they care about me more, or about the Romanians? Perhaps I should get rid of this elite and find another. This may be selfish, since the average Romanian worker is indeed needier than the average British one. It may be mistaken: the insurgent politicians of the populist Right are, to say the very least, unknown quantities. But it is not obviously stupid.
All societies have some form of ruling elite. But elite rule rests ultimately on the  consent of the governed, and that requires the trust of the governed that the elite have their interests at heart – their interests, and not, say, a nebulous idea of global fraternity. British society was traditionally snobbish, inward-looking and paternalistic. Upper class ladies would make visits to the deserving poor. Foreigners were beyond the pale. Nobody could accuse the modern elite, today’s residents of central London, of being snobbish or xenophobic. They will accept anyone from anywhere (so long as their money is good). Visits to the poor? You must be joking.
Wise researchers are sceptical of a simple opposition between rationality and emotions. We use rational models as benchmarks, sure, but real human reason is made up of a variety of cognitive heuristics, different tricks the mind has for making sense of the world. There is no reason to treat group identity any differently. Racism and xenophobia can inflict great damage, and lead to collective madness in its most unequivocal sense. That does not mean that every appeal to identity is a symptom of confusion. If we treat it that way, we may be patronizing, and letting down, people who have legitimate expectations of our support.

Some related papers:

Monday, 27 June 2016

Quick update on the relationship between migration and immigration sentiment

Chris Hanretty commented he'd found a positive relationship at constituency level between migration levels and positive migration sentiment. I wondered if there might be some hidden non-linearity there too. Chris kindly (and like a good scientist) provided his data along with his blog post so I downloaded it (plus migration data from the 2011 census) and took a look. Here is mean immigration sentiment by quantile decile of immigration stock:

So, the relationship here is consistently positive. But note that until you get to the last 3 quantiles deciles, it's basically flat. The story here again seems to be: places with lots of immigrants are pro-immigrant, rather than places with no immigrants are anti-immigrant.

Note also: this uses stock of international immigrants. My previous post used flows over the past 10 years, which is presumably more relevant to the EU debate – the EU had nothing to do with UK immigration to the UK in, say, the 50s, 60s and 70s. But I couldn't find constituency-level data on flows.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

"I made it through the first couple of pages or so before a strong sense of doom overwhelmed me and I began to get very suspicious." YES. THANK YOU.

Today's Guardian:

Did areas with the fewest immigrants vote for brexit?

Well, as the Germans say, "jein". (By the way, wouldn't it be great if we could declare that as the referendum result?)

Here's a plot of areas' vote for Leave, against their international immigration net inflows 2004-14. I've added a line from a linear regression. Yep, there's a clear negative slope.

But here's the same data with a local smoother, which lets the relationship vary at different parts of the data.


This tells a different story. For low levels of migration of up to 5% – which includes more than 80% of all local authorities – vote to leave is flat or increasing with migration. Then there is a long tail of local authorities with very high levels of immigration, and here the leave vote declines with migration.

Running linear regressions confirms the story. When you exclude the influential observations with really really high migration, the correlation of migration flows and vote to leave becomes significantly positive.

Regressions of vote to leave on migration inflows
All Local Authorities Local Authorities with < 5% inflows
(Intercept) 55.27*** 53.65***
(0.59) (0.65)
inflow_int_pct -0.62*** 0.98**
(0.09) (0.36)
R2 0.12 0.02
Adj. R2 0.11 0.02
Num. obs. 380 299
RMSE 9.80 8.82
***p < 0.001, **p < 0.01, *p < 0.05

Moral: beware of superficially convincing statistics.

Better still, beware of self-righteous memes, which make us feel better about losing an argument, by telling us that our opponents were fools.

Update: Chris Hanretty said, how about a Scotland dummy? And he should know, so I threw one in. Then I threw in all the regions, because of omitted variable bias and what the heck. This is still only local authorities with < 5% inflows:

Regressions of vote to leave on migration inflows
Scotland dummy Regional dummies
(Intercept) 55.87*** 56.95***
(0.60) (1.16)
inflow_int_pct 0.31 0.59*
(0.31) (0.29)
I(Region == "Scotland")TRUE -16.10***
RegionEast Midlands 1.95
RegionLondon -14.37***
RegionNorth East 2.35
RegionNorth West -0.45
RegionScotland -17.24***
RegionSouth East -5.13***
RegionSouth West -2.70
RegionWales -3.53
RegionWest Midlands 2.79
RegionYorkshire and The Humber 2.48
R2 0.28 0.43
Adj. R2 0.28 0.41
Num. obs. 299 299
RMSE 7.58 6.86
***p < 0.001, **p < 0.01, *p < 0.05

Results are a bit wobbly but still nothing that looks like a negative slope. Your mileage may vary.  All goods subject to status. Objects in the rear view mirror may look like the European Union.

Second update. 
Someone on twitter said that my second picture above "focuses on tiny variations in the middle but ignores the vast trend". This is an understandable mistake and I worried that someone might make it. The 'tiny variations in the middle', where the trendline goes up, look small on the graph, but that is where 80% of the data is. To clarify, here is the same data, divided into deciles. Each column shows 1/10 of the data, from the 10% of areas with the least migrant inflow, to the 10% of areas with the most. This is hump shaped, as I said, and the only decline is in the top two deciles. (But to be fair, the only increase is in the bottom two deciles, so maybe my regression above is also a bit misleading; there's no reason to lump the middle of the data either with the bottom or the top.)

One obvious point to make is that in the top two deciles, migrants with UK citizenship may have voted to remain. So I don't think this data proves much about "exposure to immigration"; we have to be careful of the ecological fallacy here, i.e. of inferring individual attitudes from aggregate data.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

A Brexit anecdote

I took the Tube in London last Friday. The train was quite full and when it pulled in at Embankment there was a guy sitting at the platform. In his fifties -ish, short grey hair. He didn't try to get on, just looked at us gloomily. "It's the foreigner bullet, innit?" he said. Then louder: "It's the Bosnia bullet!" The carriage was indeed full of people from around the world, this being London, and nobody was quick enough to reply, e.g., "Say it to our faces if you're going to talk about us," before the train was moving again; there was a moment of awkwardness. I glanced out. There he sat – glum, grey, resentful – as the bullet sped past.