trollingSo, the Taxpayers’ Alliance have finally found the point at which they say something so outrageous that they actually have to apologise for it. There’s an even more shocking claim at the start of that report, however, when it refers to the TPA as a ‘think tank’, which future lexicographers may well come to regard as the point at which that term lost all meaning. Whereas a think tank used to conjure up images of dour and serious policy wonks lost in deep contemplation about the future of the country, now it appears to refer to anyone with an opinion and a non-personal website. (I’m still accepting donations to the Straw Man Institute, by the way)

Describing the TPA and their ilk as think tanks is a real misnomer, as those who work there are being paid to actively not think. There’s no pretence of objective investigation and enquiry going on, merely a process centred around mass-generation of Freedom of Information requests, the results of which are then splattered into a spreadsheet, attached to a press-release and hawked mercilessly around the lazier corners of the press. There’s no attempt to generate independent or original thought, they’re merely a conduit for providing PR to serve their donors’ needs by generating headlines favourable to their causes.

Their role is nothing more than trolling on a grand scale, derailing any attempt to have serious discussions about government, politics and society by shouting ‘but what about the rich people, eh?’ into any discussion. There is a role for genuine think tanks in political discussion, but that role is continually weakened by their association with what are nothing more than shills for whoever’s willing to pay them that week. When groups like the TPA get called ‘think tanks’ it denigrates and weakens the output of any organisation given that title, implying that they’re all nothing more than cheap PR flacks, eager to tell you exactly what you want to hear.

To try and solve this I recommend that any organisation that clearly doesn’t care about thinking should be referred to solely as a ‘troll tank’ (though some may perhaps be better referred to as ‘troll factories’ given how much their alumni crop up across the media). It’s a much better description of what they do and their role in debate, and might just lead to people understanding that they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

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To expand on an idea I had on Twitter earlier this evening, here’s a simple method for dealing with political donations by companies: The maximum amount any company can give in political donations should be linked to the amount of corporation tax it pays. This could be a straight one-to-one linkage or a ratio, but companies who pay no corporation tax wouldn’t be able to make donations.

Now, there is an argument – which I’m sympathetic to – that companies shouldn’t be making political donations at all, or if they do, that they should be approved by their shareholders but this works on a different idea. It would have two effects. First, no one could set up a dummy company to make donations – if a company’s not trading, it’s not paying tax so would be ruled out from making any donations.

Perhaps more importantly, any real company would actually have to be trading successfully and contributing to society through tax in order to have the right to have any financial influence on politics. Besides, any company not paying corporation tax is making no or very small profits and really should have much better things to invest in than trying to buy political influence. As for companies that don’t want to contribute to society here by shifting their profits and tax liabilities abroad, they’d be giving up their right to have any say in the political process here.

Sure, it’s not going to solve all the problems of political funding, but it’s something that would make it fairer and encourage companies to pay their taxes.

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indycoverWe probably shouldn’t be surprised at the news that the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office has declared that the ‘prosperity agenda’ is now more important than human rights in British foreign policy. We’re the country that hosts DSEI every year, after all, where it’s the weight of your wallet rather than your conscience that gets you attendance. Meanwhile, selling weapons to one of the world’s most repressive theocracies – a country actively encouraging wars in the Middle East – is worth more than a billion pounds a year, so we’re all somewhat aware that our supposedly ethical foreign policy is anything but.

It’s rare for someone – especially a higher-up in a department known for communicating through nuance – to be so blatant about admitting the truth, though. Our governments like to cling to the fig leaf that while we might be doing things that, when looked at from a certain angle, could appear to be somewhat bad, we’re doing them for entirely the right reasons and any negative side effects were regrettable but shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the useful process of engagement that these deals facilitated. The one restraint on the amorality of full-blown realpolitik was the need for it to be able to don a convincing human face afterwards to explain away its consequences.

But why should we be concerned with a little honesty about our foreign policy? It’s not as if Britain using military and diplomatic strength to secure dodgy trade deals is anything new, is it? Aren’t we just admitting the Augustinian nature – please make it ethical, just not yet – of our previous stances?

There are two problems with it. First, even if we never fulfilled our stated aims, I’d rather fail to reach a noble goal than not even attempt it and second, it shows just what contempt this government has for the concept of human rights. You can be sure that a civil servant wouldn’t be talking about their relative unimportance unless that was the signal being sent down from on high, but this government’s issue with human rights isn’t one of indifference, it’s active antipathy.

This is a government that’s talked about replacing international charters of rights with specifically British ones. The point of human rights is that they belong as of right to everyone, not just those who happen to be on a certain group of islands at a certain time, and replacing human rights with British rights abandons that, even before you consider that this is a government happy to strip people of citizenship and leave them stateless. Now, add to that the revelation that the Government considers the ‘prosperity agenda’ to be of much more importance than human rights, and you start to wonder just what their ‘British Bill of Rights’ might contain. If you can limit by geography and accident of birth, why not make everything conditional on not threatening anyone’s ‘prosperity’ too?

No, that would be entirely too ridiculous. It wouldn’t be anyone’s prosperity that would be protected, only those already doing well. After all, if trade is more important than human rights, maybe the only rights we’ll have will be the ones we can afford to buy? The quality of justice you receive is now determined by how much you’re able to pay for it, so the precedent’s there.

More and more, it feels like we’re living in the early days of a pariah nation. Worried yet?

(story and image via Barney Farmer on Twitter)


A window, which has been shown to actually work

A window, which has been shown to actually work

It’s become quite common for political pundits and online commentators to talk sagely about the “Overton Window” when they’re talking about public opinion. (Click here for a sampling of recent uses of it) It’s presented as an immutable law of political science – there’s a range of possible policies available on any given issue or set of issues, but only a certain amount (those within the Overton Window) are possible/politically deliverable at any given time. Thus, to make something politically possible that’s currently not, one must shift the window somehow.

There’s always a general vagueness about just how it works, but that the the Overton Window exists is taken as read by a lot of people, and I’m sure most people who cite it believe it’s an idea that’s been discussed by academics over many years and has been rigorously tested and proven to be correct. You might think that, but you’d be wrong. Here’s a search for it with Google Scholar, which indexes millions of pieces of academic research and writing, which brings back no serious academic references to it. It does get mentioned in a few Glenn Beck books, some obscure libertarian pamphlets and in publications from the think tank it emerged from, but no serious academic attention has been paid to it.

Why is that? I’d propose that the most obvious explanation is that the Overton Window isn’t actually a theory, it’s just a vague assertion. See, for instance, this article about it (pdf) which starts from the assumption that it exists and goes from there. Any actual theory of political science has to be testable, and if the Overton Window was a theory it would come with a set of testable predictions about public opinion and how it shifts over time. It would also come with justification for some of the simplifying assumptions it appears to be based on, most notably that all the policy options for a certain issue can be placed on a straight line. None of that exists for the Overton Window, and none of its advocates appear to have put any effort into trying to prove it, preferring to assert its truth without testing.

I’ve written before about Zaller’s Receive-Accept-Sample model of public opinion, and I think it provides an interesting counterexample to the Overton Window in that it’s a genuine theory which has been thoroughly tested and shown to make accurate predictions about how public opinion works. However, as it’s slightly more complex than ‘you can do some things, you can’t do others, but if you want to do the others then sizeable donations to our think tank might help make them possible’ it doesn’t get mentioned much by supposed experts on public opinion in the media.

This is a shame, because I think Zaller’s work on how elite opinion leads public opinion (in The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion) is a much more useful concept than talk of windows. Zaller shows that when elites (politicians, media and other opinion formers) are generally agreed on an issue, public opinion follows suit. Public opinion on an issue only begins to shift when elite opinion begins to divide and differ. To use Zaller’s example (though there are many others in the wider literature), American opinion on the Vietnam War was mostly in favour of it until newspapers and politicians started raising questions about it, and then it began to fade. (That’s a bit of a simplification, but the key point is that public opinion tends to follow elite opinion, not vice versa) If there’s not an elite consensus, then public opinion will tend to cover a much wider spectrum.

Public opinion is a much more vague and nebulous thing than an idea like the Overton Window gives credit for. In truth, most people have what Converse called ‘nonattitudes’ to most issues: they’re capable of giving an opinion on something if asked, but that opinion is often completely random based on what they’ve seen and heard recently rather than a fixed and carefully considered outcome of rational thought. Trying to analyse something so amorphous using concepts that are fundamentally weak is almost a guarantee of misunderstanding what’s actually happening. Public opinion can be shifted much more quickly and much more widely than people think but the key to doing that is finding messages that reach people and become part of their considerations, not obsessing over the location of mythical windows.

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If you’re a fan of Tough Decisions, then current British politics is an absolute bonanza for you. On the one hand, we have to make Tough Decisions about what to do in Syria, and on the other we have to make Tough Decisions about Trident and the nation’s capability to kill millions of people. You can tell that these are Tough Decisions because the punditocracy keep telling us just how tough they are and how important it is that the right decision is made before they all come down on the same side of the issue. None of the pontificators will have to actually go ahead and implement any of the things they advocate, but they’d all like you to know that it’s tough being an important columnist because you have to weigh up all the options at times like these and using your trademarked moral clarity is a wearying process.

In the end, though, all the Very Serious People will nod in unison and tell us that the single characteristic needed to be Prime Minister is the willingness to kill millions of people with the push of a button, and that said Prime Minister must be willing to authorise the dropping of bombs on people far away safe in the knowledge that when our bombs explode, they’re much safer than when their bombs explode. The punditocracy in full Very Serious mode is a sight to behold, now echoed by the Very Serious choir of supporters who’ll cheerlead the Tough Decisions on social media, while also ither vigorously denouncing or sadly shaking their heads at those who don’t want to accept the inherent logic of tough moral choices the Very Serious People have made.

The problem with this, as James Graham points out in a good post today, is that while the Serious People are denouncing those of us who won’t go along with them as suffering from a nirvana fallacy, they’re stuck in a fallacy of their own. James calls it the ‘hell fallacy’, and it drives the belief that everything is bad and corrupt and so the only way we can prevent things getting worse is by taking the official tough decision. Sure, some people who aren’t us may die – and the punditocracy will give a paragraph or two of consideration to them in their next column – but the argument will be that we need to make things worse for someone else now to prevent things being even worse for us and them in the future.

You might be thinking of suggesting that maybe there ought to be other ways to do this that perhaps aim for a better end than ‘maybe everything won’t fall apart until after I’m dead’, but unfortunately putting a huge amount of effort and time into making the world a better place through positive actions isn’t the sort of Tough Decision the Very Serious People approve of. That that course of action would give them an opportunity to do something other than tell everyone just how bad things are is not entirely unrelated to their unpopularity amongst them as a solution. Why go out and make a better world when telling people how bad the current one is pays a whole lot more?

The problem is that far too many of the basic assumptions that the Very Serious People base their assumptions on are granted without challenge, not least that they’re Very Serious and anyone coming from a different perspective is thus Silly (or sometimes just naive, if they want to be patronising). By presenting themselves as somehow being brave in their defence of power, rather than just taking the path of least resistance in supporting the establishment’s goals, they take a moral high ground that they haven’t earned. Once they’re up there, sneering at anyone who dares to suggest that maybe there might be another way, a good chunk of the argument has already been lost. We need to challenge the basis of their arguments, not just try and finesse the detail of them.

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Not been the busiest time on the blog the past three months, but here are the most popular posts from during it:

7) Labour’s leadership election takes us into the silly season – Remember when we all thought Jeremy Corbyn might win the leadership election? What an odd time that was…
6) Equidistance is good at winning votes, but not seats – My dissertation explained, and a notion of where Liberal Democrat strategy needs to go.
5) Where did the Lib Dem voters go? – Far, far, away…
4) European liberal parties don’t alternate between governments of left and right anymore – Another bit from the dissertation, with examples of how equidistance only worked as a short term strategy for other liberal parties.
3) Compare and contrast: Kirsty Williams and Danny Alexander on the future of the Liberal Democrats – Speaking up for liberalism, or consensus-following centrist mush?
2) Guest post: Liberal Youth members on why they’re supporting Tim Farron for leader – A post with over 50 authors, none of whom was me.

And so, the most popular post here over the last three months was this one:

1) Liberals, social democrats and Liberal Democrats: The Economist joins the long list of those not understanding the difference – When journalists talk about the Liberal Democrats being divided between ‘classical liberals’ and social democrats, it’s a sure sign they have no idea what they’re talking about.


With the dissertation over, I can get back to blogging some more. So here, have some links:

Not such a good idea: Why you should think twice about online voting – a good article setting out the flaws with online voting.
I work in PR – and we’re all terrible people – Also, water is wet. But this is an interesting insight.
Hard to be a god – An interesting essay from Ken Macleod on the intersections of SF and politics.
If the Hinkley C nuclear deal looks astonishing, that’s because it is – The strange economics of nuclear power are getting stranger.
My current reckons on Tim Farron and the Lib Dems – A good summing up of the current state of the party by James Graham.

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