Thompson, Arendt, and the ‘nazi’ word

11/06/2014 Comments Off on Thompson, Arendt, and the ‘nazi’ word

I was recently re-reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72  (for a sample, see here). Words fail, really. Thompson’s approach was so…different, and that’s true for his political writing and his living.

A seemingly minor point, but as I was reading along I noticed the almost-casual use of the word ‘nazi’. Maybe it’s the internet era and Godwin’s law, maybe it’s the mythologising that goes with the distance of time — the War isn’t something in which we participated (my WWII-veteran relatives died in the last few years) but something we tell stories about — but it seems the word has become monstrous in a phantasmagorical sense.

But, of course, Thompson, writing in 1972, would have had a better idea of what ‘nazi’ means than I do, forty years later. He grew up in that generation too young to serve in WWII but old enough to know what was going on. And certainly, in his military service and journalism career, he would have met many vets and heard their stories.

So, when he calls someone a ‘nazi’, he knows what he means. But, do I?

As it happens, a movie about Hannah Arendt was recently playing in Wellington. I couldn’t go, but it reminded me that Corey Robin uses Arendt as one of the four political philosophers in his book Fear: the history of a political idea (several keys ideas are picked up here). Arendt is famous for The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. Robin argues that she pursues two different lines of thinking about fear in the two books, and that many Arendt (errant?) academics focus on Origins without understanding the lessons of Eichmann.

The key to Eichmann, both the man and the book, is careerism:

Many people believe that great crimes come from terrible ideas: Marxism, racism and Islamic fundamentalism gave us the Gulag, Auschwitz and 9/11. It was the singular achievement of Eichmann in Jerusalem, however, to remind us that the worst atrocities often arise from the simplest of vices. And few vices, in Arendt’s mind, were more vicious than careerism.

Slavoj Zizek also discusses Arendt. In How to read Lacan, he points to the key twist in perspective that Himmler and other performed to justify / validate / rationalise their actions:

Most of them were not simply evil, they were well aware that they are doing things which bring humiliation, suffering and death to their victims. The way out of this predicament was that, “instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!”

I came to realise that Thompson was not being casual in calling the politicians he observed ‘nazis’. He was calling it as he saw it, as Arendt saw the hustlers and operators of her day. He saw them as mean little careerists, willing to destroy anything that got in the way of their pursuit of power, happy to absolve themselves of responsibility and able to wash their hands of any stain by invoking the Himmler twist — the more horrible the deed, the more noble am I to have done it.

We still need such a word. ‘Nazi’ doesn’t cut it anymore, for the reasons given. But the impulse is not gone. In this era in which far-right parties are gaining ground in national and European elections, we need to be able to talk about what they are and why they exist.

Italians ignore the experts

28/02/2013 Comments Off on Italians ignore the experts

By now, it is old news that Italians expressed their collective displeasure with economic experts telling them how to run their country. Monti, you will recall, was appointed Prime Minister in a true ‘call in the experts’ move. Now, his party has made a poor showing in the election, and no wonder:

Battered by 13 months of the technocrat government’s austerity measures, many voters had grown to loathe Monti for – as they saw it – turning the screw on them with tax hikes when they were already struggling in a recession.

The adjective commonly applied to Mario Monti was ‘technocratic’. It’s such a bloodless word. For it to have any meaning, one must make massive assumptions about the objectivity of knowledge and the possibilities for even-handedness. It’s an entire worldview hiding in a single word.

Economies are, of course, for the benefit of people. If people decide that things aren’t working out for them, they have options. Sometimes, it means changing jobs, or cutting back on spending, or moving cities. Those are all individual actions made within the bounds of existing conditions. Sometimes, though, people decide that the conditions need to change. That’s what the Italian election signals, as Krugman explains:

The fundamental fact is that a policy of austerity for all — incredibly harsh austerity in debtor nations, but some austerity in the European core too, and not a hint of expansionary policy anywhere — is a complete failure. None of the nations under Brussels/Berlin-imposed austerity has shown even a hint of economic recovery; unemployment is at society-destroying levels.

In a crass way, this is clearly a consultancy failure: the expert didn’t understand the client. He pushed the client too hard on challenging issues and didn’t understand the complexities of the environment in which he was operating. It’s no wonder his contract was terminated.

I’m sure he will be appointed to some other job, though. Unlike many of his compatriots.

Election lessons for consultants

16/11/2012 § 4 Comments

One of the curious stories out of the US presidential election is about the consultants on the Romney campaign. Apparently, they made a lot of money:

Much of Romney’s operation, for example, appears to revolve around a close-knit
group of insiders at American Rambler Productions, which took in more than $160
million through mid-October, records show.

That’s some gravy.

And what did the campaign get for this money? Here’s one thing they got:

If you spend your time watching politics and haven’t been hiding in a deep depression since Tuesday, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about “ORCA.”  According to the Washington Post, ORCA “was designed as a first-of-its-kind tool to employ smartphones to mobilize voters, allowing them to microtarget which of their supporters had gone to the polls.”

There is now widespread condemnation of the program as being sloppy and poorly deployed.

They say that the truth is the consultants essentially used the Romney campaign as a money making scheme, forcing employees to spin false data as truth in order to paint a rosy picture of a successful campaign as a form of job security.

The last paragraph spreads the blame around — consultants and employees. Clearly, though, there is some consternation about having paid for all these consulting services and not getting a working product.

Hey, consulting isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Most projects work but some don’t. It isn’t unusual for clients to be a bit unsure about what they want. They may not figure it out until you deliver to them the wrong report. Then you have the clients who do know what they want, but it doesn’t accord with, um, reality.

What’s a consultant to do? I figure there are three strategies.

  • One strategy is to give the people what they want. You figure out what the client really wants, and then deliver it. People know what they are getting when they hire you. This approach keeps people happy — short term. There are two weaknesses to this approach. First, you aren’t really helping the clients. The answer they want may not be the right answer, so they end up with the wrong information and eventually that will have consequences. Secondly, third parties also know what you deliver. Whatever your advice, right or wrong, it’ll be suspect.
  • The second way is even more cynical. You promise what you know the client wants, and deliver the cheapest result you can get away with. An election is an interesting consulting problem. From the consultant’s point of view, the client is transient — it disappears the day of the election — so you have to get payment beforehand. From the client’s point of view, the consultant is only as good as the results, which are apparent only on election day. It’s easy to see how the ORCA debacle can happen, how a client could pay for a shoddy project.
  • The third strategy is to play it straight. You work on understanding what clients want. You tailor your research to their needs. But you also do the work as best you can, honestly, with (in the case of economic research) one eye on theory and the other on the data. Some projects won’t work out; some clients will have a different view of the world and won’t like yours. Those projects you have to take on the chin. Most projects, though, should go well, and most clients will be happy, and you’ll get a reputation for quality and consistency.

I prefer the third approach. It suits my personality and it seems to work for me. The first two sound like far too much hassle, trying to keep people happy and stay one step ahead of expectations.

But let’s not be naive. Some consultants will work the first two strategies. With $160 million up for grabs and accountability disappearing on election day, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Romney campaign ended up landing an ORCA.

US Election Day 2012

06/11/2012 § 2 Comments

It’s voting time! I’m expecting Obama to win, given the pre-election survey analysis, so what can we expect from a second term?

More of the same, and probably a bit less.

On the US economy: Obama’s strategy has been to spend the minimum of political capital necessary to keep the economy from absolutely tanking. The discussion around the original plan in 2008-2009 was, how big? Apparently, the original calculation was $1.8 trillion, then $1.2 trillion. But that was too risky, politically, so the final package was $0.8 trillion, less than half the original number.

The stimulus performed as expected, intended, and designed. It was enough to keep the peak in headline unemployment numbers at 10%, and stopped the slide in GDP. Extension of unemployment benefits, the natural increase in welfare programmes like food stamps, and various other provisions sanded some of the roughest edges off the recession.

Now, the US is slowly working its way back. Its economy is something around 70% dependent on consumer spending. That spending relies on income and wealth. Household wealth has taken a big hit, and households will be adjusting their future spending from the losses incurred. Incomes may be recovering, but the uncertainty associated with this new experience of extended unemployment is likely to encourage more risk aversion. That means less spending and more savings. Slowly, consumer spending will return, but it will take years.

As a result, the US and the world economies are likely to continue on this kinda forward, kinda sideways shuffling.

On the politics: Obama will be stymied. Presidents generally have their big legislative accomplishments early on. Obama’s ARRA was in 2009, and the healthcare reform was in early 2010 after months of haggling.

Recall Clinton’s second term. Lewinsky. Impeachment. The spectre of Vince Foster. The Whitewater investigation. Yes, sure, there was a lot more going on. But the diversions and political fighting were legendary.

Obama’s likely victory is already being cast as illegitimate. His opponents have obviously set up the idea that Obama doesn’t belong — needing to ‘learn how to be American’; ‘no one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate’. They are setting up the excuses: Hurricane Sandy; the liberal press and polls; voter fraud; etc. Whatever the reason, it won’t be because people represented by a majority of the Electoral College wanted him to be President.

In 2010, Republicans explained their strategy for the first term:

The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.

Recently, Romney explained the second-term strategy:

You know that if the President is re-elected, he will still be unable to work with the people in Congress….The debt ceiling will come up again, and shutdown and default will be threatened, chilling the economy.

Or, as it’s been translated, that’s a nice little economy you have there.

I think, in this case, Romney is a man of his word. Expect the US economy to do a lot more shuffling, but now with its shoelaces tied together.

I’m in the 47%

21/09/2012 § 2 Comments

There’s been a kerfuffle over Mitt Romney’s videotaped comments at a Florida fundraiser. Just to refresh, here are the reported comments:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. But that’s an entitlement, and the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.

This episode revealed two things about US politics, one an old characteristic and one a new trend.

The old characteristic is essentially rhetorical: carefully construct arguments so that they are technically correct, but use them to imply something different. Delong does the detailed work on the 47% figure:

…the 47% talking point was constructed:

Last year 47% of tax units paid no net federal income taxes.

Low-information voters are supposed to hear this and process it as “47% pay no taxes” and conclude “they–not me–are moochers!”

Republican operatives and candidates are supposed to know that almost every word in “last year 47% of tax units paid no net federal income taxes” is necessary for the deception. “Last year” because right now the share of taxpayers is far below normal because of the lesser depression–and that is a good thing. “Tax units” because we are talking not about a share of Americans but rather of pieces of paper flowing through the IRS. “Federal” because lots of people pay state and local taxes. “Income” because lots of people pay payroll taxes. “Net” because for historical reasons we channel our Child and Earned Income Tax Credits–programs loved by, among others, Ronald Reagan–through the IRS rather than through HHS.

This has, of course, been going on forever. Carefully choose the base period or the sample frame or the specific behaviour/impact/result, and the statistic will tell the story you want to tell. People want to believe statistics that reinforce their priors, so it gets endlessly repeated but without the qualifiers.

The newer trend is described both by DeLong and by Krugman: the professionals believing the propaganda. In the 1970s and 1980s, all the same messages were around. But the professionals — the politicians and their handlers — knew it was propaganda for the rubes. They knew how things really worked. They just said these things for the camera, but behind closed doors they acted differently.

What seems to have happened over the last 15 years is that a large number of elites have started to believe their own hype. They really do truly believe that they are Masters of the Universe. They really do truly believe that half the US is moochers. They truly believe that they are in a cultural war between clean, honest, Christian living and secular humanist dependency socialismcommunismanarchism. And they are trying to run the country with that mindset.

As a small counterbalance, as a wee grain of factual sand in the gears of this smoothly running propaganda machine, let me proudly stand up and declare myself one of the 47%. I am a tax unit. I send in my US tax forms every year to the international returns processing centre in Texas. Every year, it is a nil return. Zip, zero, zilch, nada. I don’t pay US federal income taxes. Why? Well, because the law says that (a) there is a foreign earned income exclusion — a certain amount of overseas earning are ignored, and (b) the US and NZ have a double-taxation agreement that offsets taxes due one country by taxes paid in the other. Most US citizens overseas would be in the same boat.

I don’t tend to think of myself as a moocher, a victim trapped by dependency. But who am I going to believe, Mitt Romney or my own lying eyes?

Narratives to policies

11/11/2011 Comments Off on Narratives to policies

Alright, we’ve had the set-up; now, the punch line.

The parties have different stories about how the economy works. Policies are evaluated first on whether they fit these stories. If they fit, they are prima facie ‘good’.

Take the asset sales policy. TVHE has sparked a good discussion with several posts about how to evaluate the economic impacts of sales. I’d suggest, however, that asset sales are already good or bad (or possible) because of the way they fit the story.

For National, the selling is the point . It isn’t a question of how much value can be realised, or what trade-offs get made. National’s story is that Government will be transformed; selling major government assets is proof of the commitment to change. It doesn’t matter what we get for them. The important thing is to do it.

Labour, by contrast, already knows the deal will be bad. Market prices for everything are already wrong, and in particular are skewed against labour (small ‘l’). Regardless of the outcome, the mere fact of a market transaction signals that investors, particularly foreign investors, are going to rip off the New Zealand public. That’s how the story goes.

The minor parties (leaving aside the New Economic Party, of whose existence I was ignorant until I saw a hoarding last night) have stories that don’t commit them one way or the other. The sales can fit their narratives as long as they have the right details. This is sensible politics – keeping their options open – but it also means that the real economic analysis and debate should come out of the minor parties.

The Act Party can explain how removing the governmental impediment will allow the market to provide power efficiently and encourage innovation. The Greens can describe how sales might be good, as long as the right measurements/policies/incentives are in place to foster sustainability. The Maori Party can focus on the impacts on Maori. How does it affect power prices for lower-income families, development of Maori resources, and employment or training for Maori workers?

We could take the same approach to thinking about employee skills training. I’m contributing to an MED workshop next week on the topic. If we have stories that tell us Workers are already skilled and capable, it is hard to see where skills training fits. National, Labour, and Act have this narrative. Workers are capable; they are either held back by Government or swindled by investors. Why would they need training? The Green and Maori Parties can fit skills training more easily into their narratives. They are saying that workers need to be prepared for the future economy (Greens) or the wider economy (Maori), in order to benefit from it. Training is therefore already a good idea, before we even know what it entails.

The point, I guess, is that economic analysis is an afterthought. The narratives determine whether the policies are ‘good’ ideas.

Narratives of minor parties

10/11/2011 Comments Off on Narratives of minor parties

I’ve looked at National and Labour and the stories they tell about how the economy works. What about the minor parties?

Greens: I was struck by how technocratic they are. They take the economy as a given, and then make suggestions for how to push or pull it in the ‘right’ way. It is a partial equilibrium view, admittedly — the feedbacks and general equilibrium effects are missing. They also try to broaden the discussion: we shouldn’t look just at the market outcomes, but at the wider economic effects. To do this, we should measure the ‘right’ things. The focus on measurement signals acceptance. They aren’t trying to say that the market system failed; it isn’t a systemic critique. Instead, they are saying, ‘Look, when we measure and aim for growth, we get it. Now, let’s do the same for the things that really matter: the environment, society, families, etc.’ This is economics as the operating system for humanity.

Act: It is hard to separate Act 2011 from Hide, Brash, and classical liberalism generally. I won’t really try. Brash was on Close Up on Monday, and repeated the Taskforce 2025 prescription that NZ needs world-leading regulation. That brought to mind, ‘That government is best which governs least’. This is the reasoning behind Hide’s Regulatory Standards Bill. The underlying narrative reminds me of Rousseau: man starts in a state of nature, and then is corrupted. The economy starts off in a state of natural function, and then is corrupted by government.

Maori: Much of the party policy focuses, not surprisingly, on the tangata whenua. The party talks about how outcomes are different for Maori. A lot of the discussion is supply-side: producing more young people with education and training, making better use of the resource base, understanding Maori IP. The demand side is less visible: what skills will be demanded, or why demand for Maori-owned resources aren’t as high. The implication is that the economy works, it just doesn’t work well for Maori. They need to get in there and participate.

A different narrative, one that isn’t used, is that the market produces winners and losers. The poor and dispossessed are as integral to the system as the wealthy. Such as system is unjust, and must be replaced. Instead, the Maori party seems to say that the economy generally works, but Maori need better participation.

I may be reading this wrong, but all three of these parties seem to believe that the economy generally works well. It may need some refocusing (Greens) or relaxing of controls (Act), or we may want a bigger piece of it (Maori), but its centrality and functioning are taken as given. These narratives parallel the political fortunes. They can’t change the essential nature of the Government. Instead, they can alter its trajectory a bit towards their own goals.

Tales for another time

10/11/2011 Comments Off on Tales for another time

Rauparaha over at TVHE has expanded on this idea of economic narratives of the parties (thanks for the link!). I thought I’d save the comparative literature for tomorrow, but he’s got an interesting take on the inversion of National and Labour narratives:

Aren’t we more used to seeing that the other way around, with more libertarian types complaining about the system and progressives calling for more government intervention to save the day?

This emphasises the anachronism of Labour’s narrative. It harkens back to 19th c. and early 20th c. views of government in the pocket of big business. This is also the narrative of #OccupyWhateverWeCan, but it isn’t clear to me how far this narrative resonates with New Zealanders. I simply don’t know. The polling results suggest that maybe it isn’t a movie that audiences want to watch.

Election: Labour’s story

09/11/2011 Comments Off on Election: Labour’s story

Alright, let’s see what Labour’s economic story is.

The website has a number of economic policies. One central idea is that Kiwis ‘deserve’ better jobs and better pay. The Party also says that the wealthy have earned more than their share and not paid enough taxes. The other big theme is around assets: not selling state assets, making sure foreign direct investment is for the good of the country, and scrutinising land sales.

I’ve been trying to piece this together, and have decided there are two stories. The first story is around the characters in the election: Government, Workers, Wealthy, Foreigners. It is a story of Workers being tied to the tracks. They are not paid a fair wage, and Foreigners are ripping them off by buying up the country’s businesses and property. Government under Labour will step in to unchain the Workers and protect them from the dastardly forces of exploitation.

This is mainly a story of redistribution. The economy is big enough and produces enough, but Workers don’t share in the wealth. Workers don’t earn as much as Australians because someone else is taking too much of the pie.

This story also doesn’t really seem to be a 20th-century novel focused on the personal development of characters. It’s much more a 19th-century novel motivated by dislocation and dominated by impersonal forces.

Underneath that novel is the second story, which is Labour’s understanding of the economy. I can sum it up in three words:

Prices are wrong.

Labour is saying that wages — the price of labour — are wrong; they don’t reflect that actual contribution of workers to the economy. Labour is also saying that asset prices are wrong. Whatever price we get for state assets won’t fairly compensate for the lost dividends. Foreign investors aren’t paying enough for our businesses and land. So, the prices of both capital and labour are wrong.

Prices are fundamental to the functioning of a market economy. Once Labour decides that prices are wrong, they are in effect saying that the whole market economy is broken. That is the story that Labour is telling voters.

Election: National’s economic story

08/11/2011 § 1 Comment

Drawing on McCloskey and others, I have been thinking about the ‘economic story’ that the parties are telling for the election. Stories have heros who are transformed by their trials. They have obstacles or villains to test the heros. They start with a setting – the world pottering along as it does – until a dark stranger comes into town or a change falls over the land.

What story is the National Party telling?

Let’s start with what they’ve said. They will balance the books to lower debt and interest rates. They will create incentives ‘ for people to work hard, save and get ahead’. They will also build ‘better roads, broadband and other infrastructure so businesses can grow’.

In this story, the People and Businesses are caught in a grey muddling-through. There is no reward for working hard, and poor infrastructure makes it too hard, anyway. This will all change when the government pays off its debts, aligns the incentives, and rebuilds the infrastructure. Then, our economy will prosper and life will be in Technicolor (once more).

In this story, People and Businesses will not be transformed because they don’t need to be. They are already capable of the economic growth we could have.  They merely need to be released.

If the hero of a story is the one who is transformed, then the hero is Government. Government starts as dissolute spendthrift and becomes a mate helping spruce the place up. But that’s a political story. The economic underpinning is of People and Businesses who are good-hearted and creative, who are sufficient unto the task but held back.

Not all the policy details fit the story. The $150 million advanced technology institute, for example, seems like a poorly connected sub-plot. The obvious fudge is calling it investment that unlocks the existing creativity, but the spending targets specific industries. It suggests that maybe some Businesses aren’t quite sufficient enough.

‘Asset sales’ play a central role in the story. National has identified two different obstacles that Government must overcome to become our mate. For People, the problem is too much taxing and even more spending. For Businesses, the problem is not enough infrastructure. Government must therefore both spend less and spend more. Asset sales are a deus ex machina to resolve this conflict and allow the story to be internally coherent. It’s like finding out in chapter 20 that Great-Auntie’s little book of poetry from chapter 1 is really a signed first edition and you really can buy a gown, go to the ball, and meet the prince.

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