Archive for November, 2011

brassed off


reminded me of this

Although I suppose it’s more unfair to ask such struggling companies to pay the minimum wage to their labour force…

Sensible cynicism in the Libyan context

In a good weekend for the New York Times, R2P: RIP, is another excellent article. This one, by David Rieff, attempts to give some context to how interests are undermining the attempts to form a global norm around Responsibility to Protect. Especially admirable is how there is an attempt, if underdeveloped, to demarcate when working with Libya was in the West’s interests, and when it ceased to be. Because often journalism on that front is, shall we say, unclear. My favourite International Relations thought experiment at the moment is as follows.

Firstly, put on a cynical/realist mindset.

Done? Good. Now, Q1. why did the UN pass the resolution to intervene in Libya?

A. Because the powerful western Security Council members wanted oil.

Excellent! Now, Q2, Why did they work happily with Gaddafi previously and why are they not invading in Bahrain?

A. …because the powerful western Security Council members wanted oil?

The problem is, if any action or lack of action can be explained with recourse to a set of cynical motives, blunt and unchanging, then you end up not really explaining anything about what’s actually going on. This is nicely exemplified in a recent article by John Pilger in the New Statesman. It is highly plausible that global powers have a set of cynical plans they carry out to subjugate the rest of the world. But hold on– I’d assumed that the USA didn’t care about the LRA in Uganda because, you know, it wasn’t in their immediate material interests, and they didn’t care about the absolute havoc being wrought upon the people of central Africa. But now that the USA do care, we must automatically assume that the LRA aren’t that bad really (N.B. they are, in fact, very bad indeed), that the USA’s concern for the LRA is but a sideshow to the mission of  US global domination, that the LRA are a mere “distraction” with their “perennial horror stories.” Am I the only one who finds this dismissive approach a little distasteful?

There’s a whole plethora of factors to by considered when thinking about Libya (and indeed further afield); the institutional differences between NATO and the UN, the viability of the rebel force in Libya, in a geographically concentrated area to make “protection of civilians” a meaningful concept, yes, oil, but ideas of legitimacy and the agency of local actors too. This only scrapes the surface. There is scope for nuanced and cynical readings of events in Africa, North and Sub-saharan, at the moment, but their force is magnified, not undermined, by not automatically assuming the worst of every power at every moment. Rieff’s article has the power to convince, whereas one gets the feeling that Pilger is merely preaching to the converted.

It’s the economy, stupid – A year away from a presidential election

Last night, I received an email from Jim Messina of the Obama campaign, who attempted to highlight the flaws in the NY Times’ piece “Is Obama Toast?“, thus bringing the existence of this excellent piece to the collective attention however many millions of people have now joined his campaign, and exposing them to the exact nature of the straw man that Messina was trying construct.

“It uses a mathematical formula to conclude who will win this race… In other words, it says neither you nor Barack Obama has a role to play in this election, because the outcome is essentially predetermined.”

… except that it is a consciously ambivalent piece, acutely aware of its limits and soft in its conclusions, precisely because there is so long to go. But anyway.

The thrust of Nate Silver’s article is that there are some general trends which help explain electoral outcomes, including approval ratings, economic performance and the ideology of the Republican candidate. I’m not going to rehash the article here, you should certainly read it. I’m just going to provide some observations

1. (This is a conceptual consideration rather than a substantive one, because the discussion is very thorough and nuanced.) Just to say that approval ratings are themselves (in part at least) a function of economic performance, so to be treated as an entirely distinct factor in a list of three is a bit misleading. Clearly we have to take into account a President’s popularity now to assess how he might do in an election in a year, but in terms of casual chains, clearly the flagging economy affects Obama’s popularity now just as a recovered economy might benefit him in a year.

2. Very closely related… but the take home message of models such as these is that the performance of the economy is the key factor in determining electoral outcomes. This is reflected by Silver’s admission that the referendum model of voter behaviour trumps the median-voter model in the final analysis, in his observation that foreign policy bounces haven’t counted for much, and that much more simply; that if the economy recovers, Obama is favourite to win again.

3 . These sorts of approaches are strongly based in rational thought and empirical evidence, in a way that, urrr, a lot of the commentary is not. Examples such as

a) Jonathan Bernstein on a “cranky Monday” was rightly (and righteously) annoyed about this trite piece from the AP, which wheeled out meaningless and probably contradictory buzz phrases which weren’t remotely coherent. E.g. “It’s virtually certain that the campaign will be a close, grinding affair… Americans are likely to see a more partisan contest this time.” I mean what do these things even mean? It’s really very uncertain how the close it will be, as we don’t even know the candidates, and actually the closeness of the election will more likely be inversely proportional to how partisan the candidate chosen by the Republicans is. So it’s not even just vacuously meaningless, it’s violently and abrasively so.

b) Berstein also has understandable beef with the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, and his focus on individual states as a route for re-election for Obama. Citing that Obama has the largest haul of electoral seats since Clinton’s re-election is hardly profound – shucks, you mean that time Bush lost the popular vote he didn’t actually dominate the electoral college? – and kicking the Democrats out of Pennsylvania isn’t like usurping the Tories from Witney. As Berstein observes,

“If Obama wins by five points nationally, he’s going to win Pennsylvania and Michigan and Iowa and Wisconsin… he’ll win easily. If he loses by five points nationally… he’ll lose easily. He’s not going to run the same in most states but surge or drop dramatically in a handful of battleground states. It doesn’t work like that.” Indeed, it works by bigger, structural factors, like, urm, perhaps the economy?

The reference to 2000 above is significant because that seems to be the sort of election that Messina and others envisage, a case of coming down to 600-or-so-votes-in-Florida-so-your-one-really-counts. As Tim Harford of course observed (I believe in The Logic of Life – The Undercover Economist’s coattailing twin) if you were sitting at home thinking your vote could’ve counted, you’d be wrong – there’d still be 600-or-so-minus-1 votes to be accounted for. It’s bleak, it’s a damning indictment of individual agency where in the tightest election conceivable, your vote still doesn’t really count. Harford then highlights the importance of things such as the sugar lobby, and the importance of groups over individuals. But while the economy may really explain the 2000 election result, its easy to imagine a sugar lobby writ large, where voters in general vote according to who both serves their economic interest. A booming economy, plenty of jobs and personal prosperity will be rewarded, recession and bleak prospects will be punished. This doesn’t disenfranchise the electorate at all, contrary to Messina’s claims. In fact, maybe it’s the most rational way for citizens to behave.