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 the letter which I now offer to the public fell into my hands; 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.

Comments Off on We’re all living in America

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.

Comments Off on Woke Capital is not your friend

Woke Capital is not your friend

It is unconscionable that @StarWars has not yet tweeted the words #BlackLivesMatter — Chris Taylor

A Bugman is your typical big left leaning city dweller… Everything about his personality and life is not defined by who he is, but by what he buys and his consumerist tendencies — Urban Dictionary

Businesses don’t make money by setting themselves in opposition to their consumers, and the rise of the urban liberal both as market to be sold to and employee to retain has led to a corresponding shift in the values espoused by corporate PR. It is no longer sufficient for a company to simply sell you widgets; it must now sell you widgets while telling you about its grand social purpose, and this phenomenon is on full display in the current firestorm engulfing the US. Across that great country, legions of humanities graduates are composing sombre missives — white text, black background — to be posted on social media emphasising OmniGlobalHyperMegaCorp’s dedication to equality and support for social justice. The best that can be said for these posts is that they are usually no more than mildly grating in tone and content.

Occasionally, however, they’re pretty funny.

If it hadn’t been for the current conflagration, we might never have learned that The Dow Chemical Company believes strongly that when “we see injustice and inequity, we cannot be silent. We must stand up and speak out”. Strong words, and an admirable message, with a small caveat: the injustice and inequity can’t have anything to do with the Bhopal disaster. Then things are a little more complicated; Dow didn’t own Union Carbide at the time of the chemical leak, it didn’t take on its liabilities when it bought it, and standing up and speaking out is a mere moral obligation of very little weight compared to a dense mass of paperwork that shows it isn’t your problem anyway.

And while Nike has stood behind (and funded) activist Colin Kaepernick’s work on this issue for years, we wouldn’t have understood just how dedicated it is to grassroots activism; the company’s belief it’s time to be “part of the change” and that we can’t “pretend there’s not a problem” is a strong and welcome corrective to any confusion that might have arisen about its values. Confusion of the sort that might have been created last year, when Nike was busy removing Houston Rockets merchandise from its Chinese stores after the team’s general manager supported protesters in Hong Kong.

But maybe this was to be expected. We don’t look to clothing brands for moral leadership. Disney, though. Disney we can trust. Disney is devoted to ensuring “we are fostering a culture that acknowledges our people’s feelings and their pain”. Admittedly, this culture was fostered too late to prevent the posters for the Chinese release of The Force Awakens carefully minimising the presence of black actor John Boyega, or the editing out of a same-sex kiss in Singapore, but look, it’s something, right?

And anyway, Disney’s record is far better than that of Apple, where CEO Tim Cook can write to employees to say that while people “may want nothing more than a return to normalcy… [that] desire is itself a sign of privilege” without reflecting on his company pulling an app used by Hong Kong protesters to track Chinese police.

Or Activision Blizzard, that can simultaneously “support all those who stand against racism and inequality” and suspend players who support protests in Hong Kong. Or Gap, that tells us that “WE MUST STAND UNITED. Because together we are stronger. Together we create change”, while also making craven apologies for failing to respect “China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” in not including Taiwan on a map of the country. Or Facebook, where staff “stand with the black community” in America and trained Rodrigo Duterte‘s campaign in the Philippines.

And, of course, they’re all better than Tik Tok, that’s “proud to provide a platform where #blacklivesmatter and #georgefloyd generate powerful and important content with over 1 billion views” and “committed to fostering a space where everyone is seen and heard”, just so long as they don’t bring up Tiananmen Square or Tibetan independence.

Broken. It’s all broken. America is broken. Isn’t time you drove a Ford? — Eddie Pepitone

I’m not suggesting that the people in America saying these things don’t believe them with every fibre of their beings. I’m just saying that if tomorrow it were more profitable to believe the opposite — and perhaps crucially more socially acceptable to do so — the corporations they work for would switch sides faster than you could say “hypocrite”.

And they’d do so with good reason. The responsibilities of a corporation — and the determinants of management pay — generally run to “promote the interests of shareholders” and end there. Any other obligations tacked on are pretty clearly viewed as secondary; constraints on the achievement of this objective.

It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a scenario where a company finds an immensely profitable asset which will, sadly, destroy the world in 100 years time, and then proceeds to quite rationally make use of it to please the shareholders. It wouldn’t be hard because it’s already happened. Exonn knew perfectly well that burning hydrocarbons was leading to changes in the climate. It did the coldly rational thing; it continued to drill, and funded climate denial. On a more human scale, the tobacco industry knew perfectly well that the cigarettes it sold caused cancer. The firms manufacturing leaded petrol knew that it damaged the brain. Oh. And, of course, a whole suite of American companies did highly lucrative business with the Third Reich.

My point is not that corporations are staffed with repugnant hypocrites who will surely be up against the wall come the revolution but that woke capital is not your friend. The point of a corporation, as an entity, is to remove legal responsibility from the owners. That’s fine and probably good. But what it also does is move people into a realm of systemic incentives. Corporations are value neutral by definition.

When they publish their statements on Black Lives Matter, or talk about their dedication to social justice, or how much they care about the environment, or how they’re working to improve diversity in their workforce, they’re doing this because they’re selling you what they think you want to see.

A corporation is never going to take a stand for values on the edge of social acceptability when it can just reflect wider society. At best, it’s going to back a cause that already has the press and politicians behind it. This isn’t virtue signalling because a corporation does not have virtue. It’s PR. It’s an identity a marketing team tries to create and project.

In turn, this sometimes throws activists who are used to using the language of the underdog. Finding out that you’re the cultural mainstream rather than the rebel alliance can be a hell of a shock to the system. But the fact that every time they demand statements they get them in sombre black and white text shows it.

A more interesting question is why they’re so desperate for the companies they buy from to write these meaningless statements. All I can think of is that people are so bound up in brands as part of their identity that they need them to reflect and validate their views, rather than simply provide them with goods and services.

In the end, of course, Star Wars released a suitably sad statement in plain white text on a black background.

Image courtesy of Sarah Corriher, used under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments Off on Chen Sheng and the Twitter mob

Chen Sheng and the Twitter mob

Let’s say that one day you’re minding your own business, watching a film on Netflix or something similarly mundane, and because you haven’t learned the first lesson of 21st century living — never tell anyone what you think — you make the fatal mistake of writing down your thoughts and posting them online. Before you know it, you’re trending globally (#HasHeLoggedOnYet), the BBC want to interview you, the Daily Mail has people rooting through your bins, and some website called “4Chan” is torn between asking whether you’re “OurGuy” and trying to hack your social media accounts to post excerpts from Mein Kampf.

What, precisely, logging back on to Twitter, should you do when you see the dreaded 99+ sign in your notifications tab?

The one thing you absolutely should not do is back down and apologise.

Genuinely. By the time an outraged mob forms it’s far too late for that. They’re already too amped-up  to be placated, and now they want the ceremonial slaughter of your social life. Instead, given that the world as you know it is burning down around your ears, you should double down and at least earn that cancellation. This approach has the added benefit of providing onlookers with genuinely spicy takes as opposed to some milquetoast sentiment about how it would probably be bad to abolish the police, and also allows you to get a few things off your chest. Effectively, think Chen Sheng (1).

Chen Sheng was an officer under the Qin dynasty. One day, Chen and a man named Wu Guang received orders to bring soldiers to the north to assist with the defence of the realm, which they duly set about doing. After all, the punishment for disobedience was death. And just so that no canny soldiers attempt to weasel out of having to fight a pitched battle by dawdling along the way, the punishment for being late is also death.

The problem, as ever, was the weather. Halfway to the rendezvous, Chen and Wu found themselves halted by flooding. They couldn’t go forward. They certainly couldn’t get to the battlefield on time. This posed a number of interesting philosophical questions, the most prominent of which was this:

“If we follow our orders, we will be relieved of command and executed. If, on the other hand, we raise an army of ten thousand men and launch a rebellion to seize the throne for ourselves… then if we fail we will be relieved of command and executed. So why, precisely…”

And so it was that the problem of perverse incentives was discovered and made painfully clear to the men at the top, who proceeded to learn absolutely nothing and were eventually toppled by the founder of the Han dynasty in a startlingly similar revolt caused by precisely this problem.

Right. That’s the history covered. Now back to 21st century online norms. God willing, you’ll never be in the position of a Justine Sacco or any of the other people who the internet decided to destroy on the basis of a badly worded tweet. But if you’re online long enough and you do anything even vaguely political, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll get the minor version of it at some point, when some 100k+ account decides to quote tweet you to the hard left or hard right, and your mentions flood with weird cartoon avatars. And when that happens, just remember: an apology won’t make it stop.

Like Chen Sheng, you may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. The punishment for transgression is social and career death, and they’re determined that you’ve transgressed. So why not see where holding your ground gets you?

Image courtesy of Andreas Eldh, used under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments Off on The Tower and the Office Block

The Tower and the Office Block

1. A couple of years ago, during my postgraduate studies, I was doing some research into the theoretical properties of public housing allocation systems in the UK. British councils tend to use a type of programme known as a ‘choice based letting’ system, and I was interested in how close these would be to the algorithms we used in matching theory problem sets.

The answer turned out to be ‘not at all’, and while there were probably a number of reasons for that one of the starkest was the difference between the theoretical agents in an economic model — who knows what they want, and will choose their ‘strategy’ accordingly — and the people who actually went out to find public housing to live in.

One of the most interesting discoveries from that brief sojourn out of the ivory tower was that people often held totally erroneous beliefs about the way the matching process worked. These beliefs were not confined to more general myths (‘they all go to refugees’), or a reasonable lack of understanding of how an algorithm might work, but took in some truly bizarre misunderstandings of the relatively simple part the user played in operating the system.

While the allocation algorithm is simple — applicants nominate their most preferred houses in order, then the applicant highest on the list picks a house, and so on down — the interactions between bidders can make the end result hard to predict, and people often fail to follow instructions. In turn, this leads to a sort of mythology about the best way to get a council house. People would stay up to bid in the middle of the night, convinced that being ‘first in line’ would finally get them into a permanent house, or would bid on houses they didn’t want out of concern that failing to use all their bids would render them ineligible. Neither of these things were true.

Fast-forward to May 30th, 2020. Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van Tam is being asked whether the UK’s new Coronavirus contract tracing system could lead to fraudsters calling people up to get access to their personal data. Apparently not: “I don’t think people are going to fall for this”.

Well, maybe we’ll be lucky. But anyone with a landline knows that the moment your number gets out there, you will be inundated with calls from ‘Microsoft technical support’, ‘HMRC’, ‘Apple’ and someone who knows you were in an accident that wasn’t your fault. Generally speaking, the people making these calls aren’t doing for the sheer joy of having people hang up on them. They’re making them because they work. And they work because the people who pick up the phone are generally less switched on than the people Van Tam usually associates with.

What we have, again, is a system that makes perfect sense from the point of view of the intelligent people that designed it, but that might not be quite so intuitive for those who will end up interacting with it.

The common factor between the cases as I see them is the failure of the designers to respect a hidden constraint on their plans: the ability of the end user to understand the system and their place in it.

I would guess broadly that this type of design failure becomes more frequent the greater the distance between the designer and the end user; an awful lot of information is filtered out as we move up the levels of an organisational hierarchy, and while the broad strokes of a problem may be presented the details are very unlikely to be.

Compounding this, I suspect that that the people towards the top of an organisation tend to be rather brighter than those at the bottom. Certainly, they are likely to be better educated and have more experience with the sort of task involved in building out a product, and for many purposes these things are pretty much equivalent. The tendency of talent to rise to the top — where it can be better put to use — leads to two further problems. The first is that the people who engage with customers day-to-day as people rather than points of data are unlikely to have the skills to build systems for themselves, or to identify how to meet user needs. The second is that the people at the top who build the system are surrounded by people of similar ability who are not at all representative of the general population.

At this point, I want to take a brief detour. It is all but certain that you, the person reading this, are also not representative of the population at large. It is also very likely that you don’t know how unrepresentative you are. Robin Hanson made this point well in a 2009 post; in a random sample of US adults, only 52% of respondents could look at a table in an almanac and correctly answer a question about whether US oil exports went up or down between 1976 and 1978.

Take a different example. Around the world, 15 year old students are asked questions to compare performance across countries. One item begins by telling students that when it is 1:00 AM in Berlin it is 10:00 AM in Sydney, then asks what the time in Berlin will be when it is 7:00 PM in Sydney. What proportion of American teenagers do you think got that question right? 90%? 80%?

Just under 46% of American students answered it correctly.

The thing is, these people aren’t stupid. That’s the point. They’re average, and you don’t really know what that looks like. And that’s a problem, because it’s going to be someone like you who designs the systems they rely on and work within in everyday life.

From this point of view, the biggest challenge in designing a system isn’t building in the capability to hand every possible case fed into it; it’s designing one that can be used and run by the less capable without totally falling apart.

What is particularly difficult about this is that the construction of the problem (the less capable operators serving the less capable users) rules out the obvious solution of staffing your structure with benevolent social planners who can carefully work out the optimal solution for their client (1). Instead, whatever you come up with has to be resilient to the normal on both ends.

I suspect this understanding is what results in some of the more frustrating rigidities in bureaucratic systems. A lot of time and work goes into defining the plausible use cases, and minimising the difficulty involved in handling them; call centre workers are given scripts, websites provide neat prompts, and the entire edifice is set up to funnel people into the best path to a solution with minimal fuss. The problem with this structure appears when something slightly out of the ordinary arises, because it really doesn’t offer much in the way of flexibility or independent decision making to the people operating it. It doesn’t do this because it can’t; the rules need to be simple and predictable, because discretion is likely to result in chaos.

From this angle, the primary problem of civilisation isn’t how to stop ourselves destroying one another. Humans might be selfish, grasping, greedy, venal, petty, tainted by original sin, and so on, but we are also members of a social species that generally manages to avoid the state of all against all. Instead, it’s how to harness people towards a common scheme; sure, preventing violence and theft is a part of this, but so are safety regulations and making sure we don’t build cities on top of active faults (looking at you, America). Less Hobbes’ Leviathan, and more Duns’s Leviathan (2).

So, back to Van Tam. In a plan’s transmission from the ivory tower to the concrete office block, quite a lot can go awry. Van Tam’s failure to understand the people who will be using his service — the elderly, the vulnerable, the scared, and the sick — is going to leave people open to scammers, who I expect will take full advantage of this golden opportunity.

And this really isn’t good enough. Highly capable people like Van Tam owe the less capable people who rely on them better than this. We can argue about how intelligence works until the cows come home, but I think we can probably broadly agree that (a) it exists and (b) people possess it in differing degrees. Why it does so is a different matter entirely, and perhaps with good schooling and tuition we could all operate on the level of Euler or Goethe. But for the most part people don’t have access to the time or resources to undertake that sort of schooling, and we have to take them as we find them.

This is, in some senses, the strongest case for redistribution and paternalism. We owe these people. We were lucky enough to be born with good genetics, or into a family that valued education, or in the catchment area for a good school, or with whatever your preferred explanation for differing ability is. As Scott Alexander has remarked, this debt is especially marked in a society which has carefully removed every outside source of support that they could once have relied on; they can’t hunt deer or gather berries or grow wheat because they have no land and have no right to it. And short of the long-overdue unwinding of the Norman conquest and the enclosure movement, they are’t going to get it. We are responsible for making the world we build one that they can navigate.

And when the government sets up a system that gives scammers a golden opportunity to fleece these people, then flings up its hands and says ‘well, I don’t think they’ll fall for it’, that is a total abnegation of that responsibility.

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New paper: Fatalism and COVID-19

I appreciate this isn’t what the three regular readers of this site have come to expect, but I am going to briefly halt the flow of half-thought-out musings to direct your attention to some of my academic work, and one new paper in particular. The study is on the effect people’s beliefs about COVID-19 have on their behaviour, and it comes up with a few cool outcomes.

The starting point is that people think COVID-19 is way more infectious than it actually is. The mean participant in our project thought that a person with the virus will go on to infect 28 others on average. The actual figure, even at the ends of confidence intervals, seems to be between one and six.

Showing how beliefs affect behaviour can be really tricky, but because of the design of the project we were able to artificially create variation in people’s beliefs about infectiousness of the disease. We designed information treatments exploiting variation in expert estimates about the infectiousness of COVID-19, seen below, showing people upper-bound or lower-bound estimates of infectiousness.

We were able to show that this information did change beliefs, and that in turn beliefs generate changes in intended behaviour.

What we found shows that exaggerated beliefs really matter: when people thought COVID-19 was massively infectious, they were less likely to comply with social distancing measures. We call this the ‘fatalism’ effect, and it actually makes quite a bit of sense. If the disease is infectious enough, then social distancing won’t keep it at bay. And if you’re going to get it anyway, then there’s not much point in going through all the inconvenience and pain of locking yourself away for weeks on end. There’s a good bit of circumstantial evidence supporting this interpretation, perhaps the strongest of which is the fact that higher perceived infectiousness led people to be less optimistic about their future prospects.

The good news is that people responded to our treatments by updating their beliefs to be closer to the expert estimates. Giving people good information that causes them to revise exaggerated beliefs downwards is an effective way to encourage social distancing and other desirable behaviours. A very conservative (and very back-of-the-envelope) calculation shows that the benefit to revising down beliefs could be worth roughly $2.7 billion in reduced mortality loss in the US alone, simply through encouraging people to wash their hands more frequently.

The full paper goes into significantly more detail on what we found and how we found it, and can be read here. Perhaps most importantly, I’d like to thank my co-authors for all their work on this. Jesper in particular put in a magnificent late night shift to get it over the line for submission, and any praise for the article should be expressed in willingness to shout him a round if you run into him in London. Any blame for the paper should be directed at me, on the basis of the bountiful evidence of this website.

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Memento Mori

You are going to die, and so is everyone you love. Unless you are part of the extraordinarily lucky generation whose lives overlap with the time when cellular immortality is finally invented, “the price of life is death”. That does not mean that life is meaningless or short; when Beetham said those words he was mourning the loss of Mallory and Irvine on Everest. His subsequent conclusion that “so long as the payment is made promptly, it matters little to the individual when the payment is made” is by no means one that you must accept; a long and happy life lacking the peaks of a short and thrilling one may still be just as fulfilling, if not more so.

At the same time, almost everything worthwhile in life carries some risk with it. Love carries the possibility of rejection, sports of injury, eating of choking, travel of crashing. It is possible to go too far in seeking to avoid danger; as Jonathan Waterman puts it, “no journalist wrote about the banality of city life or how easy it is to become yet another automaton paying bills and working nine to five” so that “when death finally approaches in some antiseptic white room, just as you have been waiting for it, you sense that you have already been dead for years”. A life without any risk would consist of sitting in a carefully padded room, waiting for the last sands to run out of the hourglass.

This opening is not an attempt to grab the reader by the collar and force them to stare into the empty eye sockets of the reaper, but to draw attention to the point so clearly expressed by Aristotle; virtuous courage is somewhere between feelings of fear and confidence. We should not be heedless of cost, but equally we should not let the fear of those costs govern our lives entirely.

Mortality is frightening. It is particularly so in a culture that has relegated death to the status of something that happens to other people in carefully sterilised rooms, rather than something that walks with us. A virus that sweeps through a country killing tens of thousands is a potent and disquieting memento mori; each newspaper headline becomes a reminder that you came from dust and will return to dust in time.

Wanting to avoid this fate is entirely natural. Choosing to fight the disease is healthy. Entering lockdown to halt its controlled spread was a noble sacrifice; what it emphatically was not was a job done and the end of the matter. A national quarantine is a sensible step when you don’t have a plan; it lowers the number of cases and gives you time and space to increase the capacity of your health system to handle cases. It is not something that can last for a year or more, nor something that should.

We will need more courage now as we start to find the way out, because any feasible path will mean facing up to two harsh truths alongside our own mortality. The first is that anything short of total lockdown will result in ‘avoidable’ deaths. The second is that the cost of maintaining lockdown to avoid them would not be worth it.

Neither of these views are popular. Expressing them will not win you friends. But at the same time they underlie decisions that we make continually in everyday life. When the NHS decides which medicines and treatments to fund, it is making decisions about the value of life. When we decide to get into a car or a plane, to go climbing or swimming, we take on an increment of risk. The pandemic makes an additional demand of us; when we decide how much risk to bear, we must take into account the fact that we are also, to a degree, deciding for those around us. The presence of these external costs means that there is a role for common rules and policies to find an acceptable minimum risk of transmission; it does not mean that remaining locked in our homes until the uncertain advent of a vaccine is the answer.

Defining an exit strategy is about finding the degree of risk we’re willing to tolerate, and accepting that there are valid trade-offs to consider. Immunity passports will see some locked away longer than others, and could see younger people deliberately catching the disease in order to resume some semblance of normality. Testing, tracing, and quarantining would significantly reduce the caseload, but would present higher risks than a policy of locking everyone away until a vaccine is found. Staying in lockdown would tank the economy, rob the young of time, and leave us with uncertainty about when (if ever) any vaccine would be ready.

Dialogue around these trade-offs often focuses on money and deaths, partly because these are easy to measure when other costs are hidden. But lost hours and days being hard to measure does not mean they are without meaning; the psychological toll can be heavy, the strain on relationships severe, and the opportunity to be young does not, generally, come around twice. If we want to put these costs on an even footing with those more easily measured, it may be easier to think of each option as a series of transfers.

What incidence in the rate of depression are we willing to see in the young and healthy in order to reduce the risk to the vulnerable by 1%? What about to reduce it by 10%? How much should the middle-aged pay in lost earnings to avoid one infection in the healthy population? How much to avoid one hundred? How much time are we willing to take from the young to tack on to the lives of the elderly? Because that is, in one sense, what we are doing here. How many days in the prime of their lives locked inside their flats and bedrooms is worth another day of living to someone in their 90s? Is the ratio 1:1, 1:2, 1:10? How much economic harm are we willing to inflict on the working population? If this sounds callous, remember that we already make this calculation when we fund the NHS; in this case, the treatment and cost is simply that of locking the young away.

When the NHS makes these decisions it weighs them by quality-adjusted life years; the number of years in perfect health gained by funding a course of treatment. Implicitly, this suggests that not all deaths are equal. If a man of 91 passes when he might have seen 92, that is sad. If a mother of two dies in her thirties, that is tragic. We are all heading to the same place, but we have different distances left to travel. A policy which takes too much from those at the start of their journey to give to those almost at the end of theirs is morally flawed.

Image courtesy of Arallyn!, used under a Creative Commons licence

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