Comments Off on So what did make Britain rich?

So what did make Britain rich?

Over in the Spectator, I summarised the better economic history research on whether slavery and sugar made Britain rich. While the answer is a clear and resounding “no”, I thought it might be useful to briefly expand on what did make Britain rich here.

In his essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, John Maynard Keynes wrote that “the absence of important technical inventions between the prehistoric age and comparatively modern times is truly remarkable. Almost everything which really matters and which the world possessed at the commencement of the modern age was already known to man at the dawn of history”. Mathematics, language, fire, metalworking, astronomy — it’s all there, long ago. So why didn’t we turn these tools into growth? And why did that growth happen in a small, rainy archipelago in the unfashionable North West of the European peninsula?

While pinning down a precise cause is hard, we can rule some concepts out. If slavery were the basis for modern economic growth, we should expect to see it in Portugal, a country that took more slaves from 1800-1850 than the British did in any 50 year period, or in France, where the plantations were considerably more productive, or in Spain, where the profits on the Cuban endeavour were a far larger share of national income.

If instead we believe looting and pillaging to be the true source, we would find it in Spain, where gold flowed from the New World. The problem for the Spanish was that this money made Spain rich without genuine development. Like the modern oil economies of the Middle East, a society built on the extraction of natural resources such as gold and silver has the benefits of wealth without the capacity to produce it. This complacency — and certain difficulties such resource rents create — if anything held Spain back. As Alfonso Nuñez de Castro wrote, “Let London manufacture those fabrics of her to her heart’s content; Holland her chambrays; Florence her cloth… The only thing it proves is that all nations train journeymen for Madrid and that Madrid is the queen of Parliaments, for all the world serves her and she serves nobody”.

The reason we don’t find the birth of modern growth in these places is because looting, pillaging, and slavery were not the creators of wealth. They were its consequences.

The revisionist school of economic history — led by scholars such as Kenneth Pomeranz — attribute the wealth of the West to exploitation, arguing that until very recently (~1800) Asia was on par with Europe. The problem with this thesis is that the evidence we have simply does not bear it out.  Angus Maddison devoted his career to producing large scale datasets showing global economic performance across the major regions of the world back into the depths of history, using a range of innovative sources and techniques. The latest updates to his figures by scholars working together across the globe show that the wealthiest region of China fell behind Italy in terms of income per capita around 1500 AD — and that Italy, at this point, was already beginning to fall behind Holland and Britain. By 1820, that same region was 600 years of economic growth behind Britain.

If we take a step back, this makes a lot of sense. Europe is not rich because it has empires, Europe has empires because it is rich. The subsequent emergence of modern economic growth in the form of the British Industrial Revolution is no great mystery from this perspective; if it was going to happen anywhere, a wealthy country in the wealthiest region of the wealthiest continent is as good a place as any1.

The outstanding question then becomes one of timing. Why, as Keynes asks, did it take so long for us to crack this problem?

The answer to this question is less clear, but it involves understanding a few key concepts. Modern economic growth is something quantitatively different to the sort that came before it; Smithian growth through trade and specialisation or classical growth through the accumulation of capital do not generate the sort of sustained improvement in living standards we see from improvements in technology.

The Industrial Revolution marks the point at which this growth begins. In a sense, it almost makes sense to disregard our images of the industrialist in the top hat looking at a belching smokestack; all that stuff is a consequence of the core change, not a cause. The Industrial Revolution is the point at which we invent the idea of invention.

This idea has been described by scholars as the ‘Industrial Enlightenment’, a fundamental shift in how people understood and interacted with the world. We move away from a world which runs on poorly understood forces susceptible to manipulation through prayer, ritual, or superstition, or otherwise too complex to understand, and towards one where the world runs on founded rules that are constant and exploitable.

This involves a change in the type of knowledge we generate. We begin to build up propositional rather than prescriptive knowledge, understanding how systems work rather than just that something does, and realise that meaningful change is something that is attainable through systematic experimentation and improvement.

What underlay this process in turn is a question with a very long answer that I will attempt briefly to summarise in closing. The direct links between the scientific revolution of the 17th century and the key inventions of the Industrial Revolution in the early 18th are slim to non-existent; Crompton’s mule, Darby’s blast furnace, and Hargreaves’ spinning jenny were not based on theoretical insights, but were the result of tinkering by practical men. The steam engine required some practical knowledge for the first example (built by Papin), but Savery’s engine was again the result of clever craftsmanship.

What does appear to have mattered is the change in culture; the move to Baconian methods of systematic experimentation, and the creation of institutions facilitating access to knowledge such as the Birmingham Lunar Society and scientific journals. Moreover, across Europe there was a marked rise in the interaction of practical men and natural philosophers (James Watt famously corresponded with leading European thinkers, and attempted to calculate the thermal efficiency of his engines). A broader spread of knowledge and scientific principles may well be partly to credit.

And within Europe, Britain is wealthy. It has a good patent system — possibly at some times too protective. It has a well-trained population of technicians, and a high level of education for the period. British workers are relatively expensive relative to capital — released in part by secure property rights and good banking — and coal is cheap. There is every incentive to work on the problem of substituting human labour for mechanical inputs, and this is precisely what the new scientific method is set to.

Of course, this is only a partial explanation at best — why was North West Europe richer than the South? How did Europe pull ahead of Asia? Why did the Scientific Revolution occur when it did? — but that’s the beauty of history; there’s always another why.

Other articles

I had a couple of other pieces elsewhere. In the National Review, I make the case for reviewing occupational licensing in America:

“If you want to become a cosmetologist in America, you need to complete an average of 386 days of training. If you want to become an Emergency Medical Technician, you need 34. There is nowhere in the United States where you can cut hair without a license. In Nevada, you need 900 days of experience, four exams, and $165 in fees to call yourself a barber. Louisiana even requires florists to pass an exam. And, of course, pay a fee.”

And in UnHerd, I discuss whether you can commit an unintentional hate crime:

“Treating every innocent interaction as a cause for a potential hate crime investigation does not exactly sound like a recipe for harmony either.”

Cover image courtesy of Damien Walmsley, used under a Creative Commons Licence

Comments Off on The Everest Regression

The Everest Regression

Here’s a neat bit of terminology coined by Garett Jones: the ‘Everest regression’.

I’m going to assume you’ve come across the term ‘regression analysis’ before, but if you haven’t, it’s a way of estimating the relationships between a set of variables; finding out what happens to Y if we increase X by a little bit, and so on. Economists, statisticians, and data scientists use regression models to develop predictions and work out the partial or combined effects of different inputs on an output. One of the useful things a regression model does is allow us to hold other things constant; we can talk about the effect of X on Y when nothing else changes.

The phenomenon I’m going to talk about is an example of this process not exactly going wrong, but certainly not going to plan. An Everest regression is what you get when you decide to control for an essential characteristic of the thing you’re interested in; ‘controlling for height, Mount Everest isn’t that cold’.

The result you get isn’t wrong, but it isn’t always useful. It’s effectively a matter of what question you want answered. The specification above (temperature controlling for height) is useful if what you want to do is find out whether Mount Everest is somehow uniquely cold for a given altitude (although quite why you’d want to do that is less clear, assuming you aren’t testing the effects of vengeful ghosts on local temperature). If you just want to see the difference in temperature between Mount Everest and wherever else you’re looking at, controlling for height isn’t the right approach.

This might be clearer with a toy model. Let’s say we want to look at muscle mass. This is our dependent variable, so we’ll call it y. In this world, someone who works out more is likely to have more muscle (1) than someone who does not (we’ll call this e for exercise), and so is someone with higher testosterone levels (t). Finally, we know whether people are male or female, and we think that this affects t. Because this is a binary category (2), for technical reasons we have to set one as the baseline. We’ll choose female as the base for this model, so we’ll add a variable (M) that indicates whether someone is male.

If this is the world we’re in, then when we set up our model we need to think about what question we want to answer. If we decide to model

y = \beta t + \delta e

then \beta is the effect of testosterone on muscle mass, and \delta is the effect of exercise (3).

If we decide to model

y = \alpha M

then  \alpha is the average difference between men and women in terms of muscle mass.

Things would get a bit odd if we did

y = \beta t + \delta e + \alpha M.

Unless ‘being male’ has an effect on muscle mass that doesn’t work through testosterone levels, then the usual value of \alpha produced by this model should be equal to 0 (4). Being a man has no effect on muscle mass, controlling for testosterone. This is entirely true, and also almost completely useless if what we wanted to know was what effect being a man has on muscle mass. This is an Everest regression.

If you’re reading a paper that finds no effect of X controlling for Z, it’s worth thinking about whether the control is sensible. If it’s an essential characteristic of X, then the results might not be useful.

Comments Off on A neat trick (warning: contains maths)

A neat trick (warning: contains maths)


This is a radical.

\sqrt{1 + \sqrt{2}}

This is a nested radical.


This is an infinitely nested radical; it goes on, and on, repeating itself.

You may now be asking yourself two obvious questions: (a) what has this got to do with me, and (b) is this going to end up in a joke about political radicals saying the same things over and over again. The answers, respectively, are they present an interesting example of how redefining a problem can make it easier to solve, and that it probably would have done if I’d thought of it prior to your suggestion.

Let’s take \sqrt{1+\sqrt{1+{\sqrt{1+...}}}}.

Let X = \sqrt{1+\sqrt{1+{\sqrt{1+...}}}}

Then X =\sqrt{1+X}

Therefore X^2 = 1+X, X^2 -X = 1, X = \frac{1}{2} + \frac{\sqrt{5}}{2}. You might recognise this last as the golden ratio; when the ratio of X to Y is the same as the ratio of Y to X+Y. This number pops up everywhere; the patterns of spirals in leaves follow it to maximise density, designers use it in the layout of books and playing cards, architects employ it in the design of their buildings.

Here’s a more complicated infinitely nested radical.


Finding the pattern here isn’t quite so easy, so we’re going to steal Ramanujan’s solution (this is fair as it’s also his question). And if you want the answer before we start, mouse over this footnote 1.

Let’s have another look at the shape of that problem. What we’d like to do is something similar to what we did with the first one; turning it into a recursive problem.

Ramanujan started by pointing out that

n(n+2) = n\sqrt{1+(n+1)(n+3)} (2)

If we then label f(n) = n(n+2), we can write the right hand side as f(n) = n\sqrt{1+f(n+1)}

Or as f(n) = n\sqrt{1+(n+1)\sqrt{1+f(n+2)}}

Or as… and so on down the line.

What we end up with is

f(n) = n\sqrt{1+(n+1)\sqrt{1+(n+2)\sqrt{1+n+3\sqrt{...}}}}

And in our original problem, we had n=1.

So the right hand side collapses back to \sqrt{1+2\sqrt{1+3\sqrt{1+4{\sqrt{1+...}}}, and the left hand side collapses to… 3.

There isn’t much of a point to this post other than presenting a problem that I found neat, and a lovely little solution to it, so I’ll leave off here.

Comments Off on It’s useful to forget (some) things.

It’s useful to forget (some) things.

Over on Twitter, the excellent Tom Chivers (find his book here) is curious about how the human brain works: “Is there a specific name for the cognitive bias that makes us remember weather forecasts the few times they’re wrong… but not all the times when it’s right?”

Good question, and one I embarrassingly can’t think of a satisfactory answer to. This is not my area of behavioural science (I tend to do more typical econ stuff), but I can offer a couple of half-thought-out suggestions.

The first is that we react more strongly to negative information. It’s easier to remember negative shocks, and there’s probably quite a good evolutionary basis for that; if there are several pretty good options in front of you, it’s less important that you choose the best than it is that you don’t choose the really bad one (1).

The second is that weather forecasts are usually correct. The memory is less like a video recorder — everything goes in and is kept until it gets taped over — than it is a notebook; we decide what to remember and we actively overwrite and forget things. This is useful; we don’t need to recall every detail of an event so much as we do the shape, because that’s what lets us fit new events against existing information. Part of this process is discarding things which fit well against existing information; we retain outliers and novel experiences because they attract our attention while we process new information.

So when the weather forecast is correct, as it usually is, and we planned on it being correct, there’s not much new there to remember, and there’s no negative experience to learn from. When we went out and bought sausages for a barbecue that can’t go ahead because it’s chucking it down, that sticks.

A related process of streamlining the storage of information also might also explain an oddity I’ve observed in my own behaviour. If you’ve ever sat exams on two related subjects, you may have noticed the odd sensation that you aren’t drawing the connections between them. While you may cover some of the same topics, the information is effectively siloed. This is probably an example of functional fixedness; when we think of ways to use an object, we tend to limit our attention to the things we’ve seen it used for before.

This process seems to be something that happens to conceptual information as well; unless we’re very used to applying a concept generally, there’s a risk that we will store it as field-specific information and won’t have it come to mind when we consider a problem in a different context.

It also sometimes seems to me that examples of seeming hypocrisy in someone’s values or beliefs have arisen through a similar process; problem one was encountered in context A, problem two in context B, and the reasonable application of the processes which came to mind first resulted in answers which don’t quite match. The problem is not dishonesty, but poorly integrated thinking.

Update 13/06/2020: Amusingly one of the concepts I wished to note as something with field-specific recall was the Gell-Mann amnesia effect. Unfortunately, I forget it.

Image courtesy of duncan c, used under a Creative Commons licence

Comments Off on Morality Policing

Morality Policing

Until relatively recently, you may have been under the misapprehension that preventing people from breaking the law was somehow part of the job of a police officer. If current events had not quite managed to disabuse you of this notion, then you can ask Chief Constable Ben-Julian Harrington: officers at Black Lives Matter rallies dedicated to the destruction of monuments will be “looking to make sure that people don’t get hurt in the first instance, trying to protect property if that’s the right thing to do, but people come first, making sure officers and those taking part are safe”.

A laudable statement, and one that almost manages to make the reader forget that the gatherings themselves are illegal, and illegal for the purpose of making sure that people are safe. In this, it is in no way out of the usual; police forces around the country are tying themselves into logical knots attempting to explain why a few weeks ago they were so keen to bully and intimidate people who wish to sit in their privately-owned front gardens, use drones and roadblocks to make sure people don’t walk in too nice an area, and otherwise enforce the lockdown regulations that they are allowing these protesters to flout. Standing by to watch the destruction of property is merely an added bonus when they’re already standing by to take the blows of the protesters on the chin.

Explaining this shift in behaviour is hard not because it is inconsistent, but because it’s consistent with an entirely different framework of operation than that which we are told is used. Rather than a genuine and good faith attempt to uphold the law, the objective is a sort of morality policing. Under this system the law is enforced based on the perceived popularity and difficulty of doing so, rather than what it actually is.

When the lockdown was the focus of public obsession and people were assembling for the two minute love-in, police forces stopped health professionals and told them NHS ID badges weren’t sufficient proof that they really needed to travel to work, or threatened to place cops on the end of aisles to make sure that only essential items were purchased. Now that Black Lives Matter is the major moral issue of the day, lockdown is set to one side, and the police watch happily as protesters smash statues. Enforcing lockdown would be difficult, and the activists are in favour of allowing the protests to continue. The same laissez-faire attitude would probably not apply if a far-right group of skinheads turned up next to the statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square.

It’s almost a variant of policing by consent; find the path of least resistance and most support, and follow it. It’s the variation in the source of this resistance that leads to some of the odder outcomes in the process. Morality policing by consent does not necessarily mean the morality of the majority; that would probably have involved asking the Rotherham force to look into grooming gangs rather than ignoring the reports for fear of increasing racial tensions.

Sometimes the consent required may be that of the press, the politicians, or the activist class. If a man retweets a limerick about transgender people, then the police must call him up to “check” his thinking; the law is enforced not as written, but in the spirit of the activist behind it. If an offensive video about Grenfell or George Floyd is made, then those who made it must be arrested to assuage the moral sentiments of the mob. It is certainly easier to win plaudits for policing high profile violations of taboo than it is to actually enforce the law, but it still takes time and resource. This may be why we so often hear about our poor outnumbered police lacking the manpower to investigate every burglary or mugging, despite apparently having enough officers to sit one on every till and monitor shopping for illicit Easter eggs.

This is not, of course, to say that the police are useless. Quite the contrary; as I have written elsewhere, they are surprisingly effective. The criticism of morality policing is directed at the manner in which they choose to execute their duty in certain circumstances, rather than in general, and is accordingly a criticism of higher level decision makers. The problem with morality policing is that apart from anything else it makes it next to impossible to predict which laws will be enforced and how they will be so; it turns the rule of law into the rule of politics, which is a rather more nebulous category.

Image courtesy of Richard Hopkins, used under a Creative Commons Licence

Comments Off on Using the protests: a letter from a Senior to a Junior Devil

Using the protests: a letter from a Senior to a Junior Devil

I have no intention of explaining how I obtained this letter; suffice it to say that circumspect investigations have confirmed its authenticity, and the identity of the correspondents.

My dear Wormwood,

I read your latest letter with great trepidation. You may well feel that things with your patient are proceeding marvellously; he has been persuaded, as have many of the mortals, that the actions of the partisan are answerable only to a higher power than any authority on earth.

In this he is of course quite correct, but thanks to your excellent work — and the work of those who have gone before you — he does not identify that power with the Enemy, but rather with a curious notion of an abstract morality; one that stands according to his prejudices, and is quite unbreachable by reason or argument.

The problem, dear Nephew, is that you seem to believe that the patient can now be safely relied on to deliver himself to Our Father Below. Nothing could be further from the truth! Partisanship is all well and good, but you must be constantly active in provoking this sensation. Let him read constantly of some new outrage or behaviour of the other side, and let him believe that echoing it in turn is merely a justified response! He must never suspect that those who oppose him may in turn be responding to some member of his own tribe. Keep him in ignorance about these things, and adequately fed on outrage, and he will be ours in good time.

In your last letter you asked how you might best handle this latest stage of the pestilence. The brief period of confinement associated with its earlier stage offered us the opportunity to invite the patient to sample depravity, but you must now adjust your tactics to account for the new reality. The protests — to which he is already sympathetically inclined — offer an excellent opening. If you can, have him take part in them, rather than merely cheering them on from the sidelines; let him believe that he is practising virtue by risking the health of those around him, when in fact he is merely practising egotism.

Remember, he is not like you or I a pure spirit; he does not see the world as it really is, but as it is constructed by the curious filtering effect of the human senses. To him, the spectre of the virus has long receded into the past. There are more urgent matters than combating the spread of disease; he has protests to organise, crowds to jam into, and aerosolised saliva to spread by chanting ‘we can’t breathe’. The human concept of the world is little more than a collective hallucination that they happen to be sharing, and as he is now bored of the virus it is no longer a threat.

He must not be allowed to be persuaded that this is untrue.

You mentioned that your patients partisanship had led to his arguing in defence of political violence; this is most cheering! This is, however, regrettably ground upon which the Enemy has many strong arguments to present — do not do evil that good may result, and so on. I have therefore taken it upon myself to arm you with some useful little phrases that you may turn to the cause.

Should your patient be challenged with the assertion that violence on the part of his side will open the door for violence on the part of the other, try telling him that the other side is already violent; that the state of the world itself and their action or inaction constitute a violent oppression of his political tribe. This is of course a foolish argument, but it is one which proves surprisingly forceful when combined with the inner prejudices of a man’s soul.

If your patient moves in more politically sophisticated circles, he will probably be called to notice that the police, far from oppressing him, are passively standing by and permitting the breaking of the law. In this case, he may also be asked whether he wishes the law to be enforced based upon the perceived popularity of doing so, and what this might do to the vulnerable members of society he professes to care so deeply about. The point may also be raised that with vandalism and destruction will make the cause look bad, and may be counterproductive.

If he is, as you say, deeply enough involved in this movement to be exposed to these criticisms, then you may appeal to realpolitik. Do not waste time trying to persuade him that they are invalid; he already knows in his heart of hearts that they are true, but does not care. The primacy of the cause as the ultimate good will be sufficient to persuade him that it is worth the moral cost. Instead, you must take great care to ensure that he does not come to believe that they point to ways in which his actions may damage the cause — for that would result in disengagement, and from disengagement, sanity, and from sanity, regret, repentance, and the sorry spectacle of a soul which may have been usefully turned being redeemed.

In this matter, the best thing to do is to give him a sight of the world as it really is. Not too much of one, of course — you must keep his gaze narrowly blinkered, so that he does not spot his real position. Here you may fruitfully point out that when violence occurs at a left-wing demonstration, sympathetic writers in the press will often say that they should not permit the actions of a few rogue elements to detract from the attention generated for the noble cause. You may also note that the same journalists will often leap to a panic about the menace of the far-right while the ashes are still smouldering. This has the beneficial consequences of consigning the idea that left-wing violence is a problem of any real scale to the abyss of memory, and creating a lasting asymmetry in perceptions of both the frequency and legitimacy with which the extreme left and right wield violence as a political tool.

The idea that this strategy could at some point backfire by setting an example that cannot be readily ignored — resulting in political violence becoming normalised as a tool to win power — is one that can be safely ignored. Precedent, anyway, is something that happens to other people; should this turn out to be incorrect, his side will have struck the first blow.

In this manner, he may be persuaded that violence is at the least not harmful to his cause, and may in time come to view it as a useful tool — these humans are so predictable.

Of course, he does not see as you and I do the events that would naturally follow. Should the police continue to give leeway to the left, the right will rise to fill the void, and the police will then be instructed to crush them. This, in turn, will present the right with the image of the state actively promoting double standards, and choosing the side of those who wish to destroy their past — always destroy, or erase, or otherwise mutilate, we will make sure to it that an appropriate term is chosen — and act as a recruiting drumbeat for the far right. In turn, this will drive more people into the arms of the far left, and so on.

If done correctly, you and your fellow tempters will have placed your patients in states where they can at the same time cheer on acts of violence from their own side, while decrying those of the people they oppose. They will be quite incapable of reasoning with one another, but instead will view their opponents as an existential threat to be eliminated. And once one side finally does win power, they will set about doing so.

And that, dear Nephew, will be a most delicious harvest.

Your affectionate Uncle,


Cover image courtesy of Spencer Means, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Comments Off on John de Balliol must fall!

John de Balliol must fall!

Once again, Tom Holland has put it best: “Whenever people steeped in Christian assumptions experience a particular upsurge of moral fervour, iconoclasm has rarely been far behind.” With the police watching politely from the sidelines, enterprising mobs across Britain and America are taking matters into their own hands; monuments to the old ways must fall, old media deemed insufficiently woke must be removed from circulation, and if it isn’t time to burn books yet we should at least be considering the possibility of gathering She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s works in advance.

As is so often the case with these things, Oxford University’s student body is well ahead of the curve. A few years ago during an apparent bout of exam-induced stress, a letter was circulated among the inmates of Balliol college demanding their support for the decolonisation of the institution. This was, of course, a cause that was close to my heart; I wholeheartedly supported the spirit of the endeavour, differing only slightly in my interpretation of what decolonisation should mean. I have therefore taken the liberty of republishing the original letter (with my small additions to its text) that we might, collectively, work together towards the noble goal of decolonising Oxford.

Dear Friends,

I believe that it is time to acknowledge that the name of our beloved college does not accurately reflect Balliol’s long tradition of progressive anti-colonialism. Instead, it reinforces an exclusionary, patriarchal, white-Norman-centred mentality, celebrating feudal class power that has no place in the 21st century outside of Buckingham Palace.

Naming the college after John de Balliol — a Norman oppressor of the indigenous peoples of Britain — was a slap in the face to the descendants of those dispossessed by dead, white, French men, and also means that people consistently mispronounce my place of study. Moreover, the name “Balliol” reinforces a colonialist mentality whereby the inhabitants of these isles are viewed as naturally subject to a European yoke, and is therefore out of step with our bright future out of the European Union.

The damage Balliol and his colonialist friends did to Britain is still felt today; our language has been colonised by the French tongue, and despite almost a millennium passing the privileged descendents of Norman aristocrats continue to benefit from a system of heirarchical oppression. I strongly believe it is time for change, to present a more historically accurate context, and to make the experience of English students at the college more welcoming.

In order to begin the process of decolonising Balliol, I suggest that we instead recognise that great resistance leader of 9th century England by renaming ourselves Alfred College.



Image courtesy of Reading Tom, used under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments Off on Some bits and pieces elsewhere

Some bits and pieces elsewhere

Over at Reaction: using evolutionary game theory as a framework for understanding the rise of wokeness.

“I think if we want to understand what’s happening here, the best place to look is China. From the Song dynasty to the early 20th century, the practice of footbinding was widespread among all Chinese families other than those where women were expected to work as labourers. Then, after roughly a thousand years, the practice died out in a single generation.”

For the rest of that piece, click here.

And for the Spectator USA, a survey on what abolishing the police would actually look like.

“The idea that policing offers nothing in the way of crime prevention is based on a set of statistical misunderstandings; areas with high crime tend to have more police precisely because they are areas with high crime. The intuition is laid out nicely in the joke about Russian czar and the plague doctors. The ruler is looking at a map of his country, marked for plague outbreaks, and at the number of doctors in each province when suddenly the great man thumps his fist on the table. ‘God damn them!’ he says, ‘these doctors are worse than useless — wherever they show up, the people are sicker!’”

For the rest of that piece, click here.

Finally, in Quillette, a re-working of the piece on Woke Capital previously published on this blog.

“This isn’t virtue signalling because a corporation is a legal fiction—and so it doesn’t have virtue to signal. Indeed, the only real moral lesson to be learned from this spectacle has played out among consumers and activists, who always turn out to be a lot more gullible than we imagine.”

For the rest of that piece, click here.

Comments Off on Why are public health professionals burning their credibility?

Why are public health professionals burning their credibility?

We should always evaluate the risks and benefits of efforts to control the virus. In this moment the public health risks of not protesting to demand an end to systemic racism greatly exceed the harms of the virus. — Jennifer Nuzzo

If I could offer one piece of advice to a profession fighting its greatest battle in recent memory, I think it would be this: please don’t open a second front on domestic politics. It’s not going to work. Your newfound status as caped heroes battling the coronavirus, the recession, or whatever the latest global crisis is will not survive contact with the culture wars, which suck everyone down into the mud where the good guys are indistinguishable from everyone else. All you will achieve is the politicisation of your profession and the associated suspicion of your recommendations, rendering you useless in the domestic struggle and weakened in the battle against the ongoing crisis.

Quite why so many public health experts felt the need to burn up their accumulated trust and prestige in order to defend mass gatherings on political grounds is therefore a mystery to me. It’s as though a collective amnesia has gripped the profession; people who were one day warning of the dangers of attending the funerals of our families and of the unconscionable risks involved in visiting our friends have pivoted cleanly to explaining that no convincing argument can be made against gathering tens of thousands in people in close proximity to chant and yell and spread the virus among themselves (1).

What makes this worse is the utter transparency of the reasoning involved; the pivot is entirely partisan. Dr Tom Frieden, the former Director of the US Centre for Disease Control, tells us that the threat posed by the protests is “tiny” compared to the threat of the government acting “in ways that lose community trust”; just a few days before he was emphasising the deadly risk of social gatherings. Greg Gonsalves, an Assistant Professor at Yale, took a different tack: protesters are “balancing competing risks to their communities”, and voting with their feet on which is the greatest. It is entirely consistent to argue “for social distancing in February, March, April, and May”, and now to argue “for exceptions for social gatherings such as protests”. And anyway, we’re past the peak and people are wearing masks.

The grab bag of arguments on offer indicates that there really isn’t a single clear and compelling reason to believe that protesters screaming “I can’t breathe” won’t spread a disease that kills its victims by filling their lungs with fluid. Instead, there are clear and compelling partisan reasons to avoid pointing this out; people want to be good allies to the black community, and this means letting the disease spread faster there. Black lives matter, but not as much as political in-group approval.

Saying that protesters have “voted with their feet” when weighing these risks is a non-starter; the public health profession is out there telling the world that the risks are lower. Claiming to follow revealed preference while reinforcing that decision is clearly inconsistent, and it is far from clear that the necessary analysis to determine which ‘risk’ is greater has been performed. A rationale for protests that follows this utilitarian calculus needs harder backing than the feelings of the man on the street. If you have good evidence that the number of quality-adjusted life years lost from protesting will be less than the number lost by failing to protest — not just that gaps in outcomes exist, but that striking now when the iron is hot is an opportunity to effect change that will not come round again — then you need to present it.

And you need to include in that analysis the effect on compliance with lockdown overall. As Frieden was saying, maintaining trust in the proportionality and efficacy of your measures is critical in generating compliance. If people can look outside and see a crowd of thousands spreading the disease, what exactly do they gain from following the rules themselves? If enforcement is absent or selective, it’s hard to form reasonable expectations around what is required, and what will happen if the rules are broken.

The United Kingdom has just had precisely this conversation at length around the behaviour of a senior government advisor. To cut a long and very tedious story short, Dominic Cummings — architect of the Vote Leave victory in 2016, and Boris Johnson’s successful bid to become Prime Minister — was found to have driven from London to Durham when sick in order to isolate closer to his family. Cue a week of furious debate as to whether this was technically permitted within the rules or a flagrant violation, during which figures advising the government on ensuring compliance with lockdown opined that letting Cummings off had “trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence”. A few weeks later, and the same advisors are tweeting their support for the protests in America.

It’s an interesting question. Will a single high profile individual getting away with leaving the capital encourage more people to break the rules than several thousand people congregating in the heart of London? My gut instinct says ‘no’, but I could be wrong on this. What I do not believe is that the first could ‘trash’ all advice on securing compliance while the second has no effect.

The second reason we should disregard the argument that people have ‘voted with their feet’ is that the entire point of binding rules is to prevent them from doing so. It is entirely possible for breaking lockdown to be rational on an individual level while being undesirable from a social perspective; the protests put at risk people who did not attend by bringing the virus back to their communities. The idea that we can simply follow the decisions of the protesters in assessing risk is one without credibility when the consequences of their decisions may fall on others. The public health profession knows this; it is fundamental to their entire approach to handling communicable disease. So why are they setting it aside now?

I am clearly not alone in finding the sudden change in attitudes confusing. Jeffrey Flier, former dean of Harvard Medical School, told Politico that “the sudden change in views of the danger of mass gatherings has been disorienting, and I suspect it has been for many Americans”. But perhaps we’re simply taking too simplistic a view of the matter. Perhaps the public health profession really has weighed the damage to its reputation and the willingness of people to believe its advice against the benefits of interceding. After all, they’ve voted with their feet.

Photo courtesy of David Geitgey Sierralupe, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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We’re all living in America

As protesters crammed themselves into Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park, as they screamed “hands up don’t shoot” at unarmed British police officers, and as they threw objects and grapple with the same — some of whom had just taken a knee in solidarity with George Floyd — all I could think was how fortunate it was that the pandemic was over. That COVID-19 was gone from our lives, that lockdown had ended, and that a disease that killed black people at a far higher rate than the rest of the population would not be spreading among that crowd to be taken back to family and neighbours.

Across Britain, France, Holland, New Zealand, Canada — the list goes on — people are protesting American police brutality in a way that puts their own countrymen at risk. On the unemotional rational level, the effect of these protests in addition to the burning down of substantial chunks of America’s heartland is probably pretty negligible, while the risk to the loved ones of those involved is not. Protesting, encouraging others to protest, and indeed turning a blind eye to the breaking of laws meant to protect us seems sub-optimal in this calculus.

The problem is that this is not the framework that is being applied. The response to the American protests is entirely emotional, and it is emotional in a very specialised sense. Within a crowd on the edge of becoming a riot, throwing the first rock can trigger a cascade. People pick up stones and begin to follow, directing anger at the approved targets. Within a country, riots can jump from city to city as people who identify with the initial rioters begin to act, spurred on in part by the realisation of how thin that blue line really is. So what does it say when a movement starts to jump from country to country?

Well, it’s simple. We’re all living in America, whether we understand that or not.

In particular, we are all Americans online. Across social media sites, the Americans form by far the largest contingent of first-language English-speaking users, and they get to set the norms of conversation and discussion accordingly. The result is a generation marinated in American political thought, with a shared identity with American Liberals or African Americans, and with a tendency to reach for American dialogue when asked to address political issues — no matter the differences in cultural context, national history, or even demography. We have conversations about the use of lethal force that ignore the massive differences between the UK and the US. We scream ‘hands up don’t shoot’ at police officers who don’t carry guns. We talk Jim Crow laws in a country that rejected them, or about the universal legacy of slavery when Britons of Black African descent outnumber those of Black Caribbean heritage.

In this framework the jump of Black Lives Matter protests from American issue to worldwide phenomenon is just the latest example of America’s obsessions becoming the talk of the world; as with any empire, the fashions of the core become that of the periphery. The failure of rioting to follow the protests merely illustrates a limit to our shared identity; we are not yet sufficiently integrated with our newfound countrymen.

It’s still more than sufficient proof of an obsession with American politics that is unhealthy. Not just because transplanting rhetoric to a different cultural context frequently robs it of validity, but because we are importing with that rhetoric the unique degree of toxicity and racial animus that characterises American politics.

If you believe, having been radicalised by American politics, that the United Kingdom is run by white supremacists, or that the clash of ethnic interests is such that Black Britons have more in common with African Americans than their own countrymen, or that as a White British liberal you are arm in arm with American liberals fighting the same battles, then the use of American rhetoric seems a wholly sensible course of action.

The problem for the rest of us is that every action brings a reaction. And the natural reaction to the importation of race-based politics could well turn out to be the mimicking of another element of American life; the creation of a white identity politics around perceived ‘white interests’, which is something we’ve spent quite a lot of time and energy attempting to prevent. Pretend that Boris Johnson is Donald Trump for long enough, and you might find that eventually that’s what you get.

Image courtesy of Nicolas Raymond, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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