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John Quiggin

The Day after Brexit (repost from 2016)

by John Quiggin on December 14, 2019

Now that Brexit is almost certainly going to happen, I’m reposting this piece from late 2016, with some minor corrections, indicated by strike-outs. Feel free to have your say on any aspect of Brexit.

Since the collapse of faith in neoliberalism following the Global Financial Crisis, the political right has been increasingly dominated by tribalism Trumpism. But in most cases, including the US, this has so far amounted to little more than Trilling’s irritable mental gestures. To the extent that there is any policy program, it is little more than crony capitalism. Of all the tribalist Trumpist groups that have achieved political power the only ones that have anything amounting to a political program are the Brexiteers.

The sustainability of tribalism Trumpism as a political force will depend, in large measure, on the perceived success or failure of Brexit. So, what will the day after Brexit (presumably, sometime in March 2019) look like, and more importantly, feel like? I’ll rule out the so-called “soft Brexit” where Britain stays in the EU for all practical purposes, gaining some minor concessions on immigration restrictions. It seems unlikely and would be even more of an anti-climax than the case I want to think about.

It’s easy to imagine a disaster, and maybe that will happen. But suppose everything goes relatively smoothly. That is, Britain leaves the EU and the single market, but gets deals in place that keep trade flowing smoothly, retains visa-free travel for visitors and so on.

What will the day after feel like?

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Virtue signalling and vice signalling

by John Quiggin on December 5, 2019

One of the stranger terms of political abuse to enter the lexicon in recent years is “virtue signalling”. It’s used almost exclusively by the political right and covers many different kinds of statements, actions and policies, mostly associated with the culture wars.

A particularly striking feature of this is that, until recently, “virtue” was a term primarily associated with the right. Bill Bennett (Education Secretary under GW Bush) had a big hit with The Book of Virtues back in the 1990s. He’s now an apologist for Trumpism.

It’s too complicated to cover all aspects of this in one post, but it may be useful to compare two symbolic actions

  • displaying a rainbow flag; and
  • wearing a MAGA hat.

Clearly the term “virtue signalling” would be applied only to the first of these. And this is not just a matter of semantics, as it would be if the left had a corresponding term.

People who display the rainbow flag are virtue signalling in the obvious sense of the word: the flag says something like “equal marriage is a good cause. I support it, and so should you”.

Normally, the opposing response would be to say “No, it’s not a good cause, and those who support it are wrong’

The problem for the right is that they don’t have any moral standing for a claim like this, and they know it. While many rightwingers undoubtedly believe homosexuality to be sinful, they know that this belief violates norms of equal treatment and personal freedom they claim to accept, and they therefore can’t put it forward without inviting condemnation, or at least rejection, including from their own side. So, they have to resort to terms like “virtue signalling”, in this case implying an ostentatious moral superiority, combined with hypocrisy.

And the same is true across the whole range of issues summed up in the cognate term “Social Justice Warrior”.

The MAGA hat is the mirror image of this. The MAGA hat
(unlike, say, an American flag lapel pin) is not a claim, legitimate or otherwise, to be a patriotic American. Rather, it’s a deliberately offensive statement of support for Trump’s racism, misogyny and corruption.

The whole point is to “trigger the libs” as Trump Jr’s recent book puts it. No claim to virtue is being put forward. It’s a pure piece of identity politics, making the assertion that the wearers should be treated as superior without having any actual justification for this claim, moral or otherwise. Again, this can’t be spelt out; being an explicit white nationalist remains beyond the pale, and the conduct of the Trumpists defies any credible defense.

So, the intellectual apologists of the right can only resort to tu quoque, making the claim, in various forms, that the left is just as bad as their own side. This started with the Republican War on Science, but is now virtually universal.

The point of ccusing other people of “virtue signalling” is to make this claim, without having to say what is wrong with the virtue being signalled.

Virtue signalling and hypocrisy

Most of the time, the accusation of “virtue signalling” includes an implicit connotation of “hypocrisy”. But then, why introduce a new and obscure term for something we have known about for millennia?

The answer is that hypocrisy is a specific accusation that can be backed up, or refuted, by evidence. For example, if a church leader who claims to be a Christian advocates locking up innocent children, the case is pretty clear-cut.

By contrast, “virtue signalling” is an insinuation rather than a factual claim. It doesn’t need to be backed up, and usually isn’t. If the person accused of virtue signalling on the basis of a symbolic action shows that they are in fact making costly efforts in support of their cause, these actions are just added to the charge sheet.

The charge of virtue signalling doesn’t rely on the actual inconsistencies of individuals. Rather it relies on in-group shared negative perceptions of out-groups (inner city latte sipping lefties and so on).

To restate the central point, accusations of virtue signalling aren’t meant to promote actual virtue over fraudulent signals: rather to argue against virtue and in favour of vice. Those who use the accusation want to score points in favor of behavior they aren’t willing to defend openly.

In all of this, it’s worth remembering the observation of La Rouchefoucald that “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue”. The accusation of virtue signalling represents the refusal of vice to pay this tribute.

Russia or California ?

by John Quiggin on November 23, 2019

Would Republican voters rather live under a government like that of Russia, or one like that of California? This sounds a bit like those polling questions we used to laugh at, such as the 2009 finding that 14% of New Jersey Republicans thought Obama was Antichrist and 15% weren’t sure. But it actually reflects the choice Republican voters may well be facing.

Update: I was worried that I might be going over the top with this post. Immediately after putting it up, I found Bret Stephens saying much the same thing, (substituting Ukraine for Russia) in the New York Times. Not that I need Stephens’ endorsement, but obviously these thoughts are in the air. Also, I think Noah Smith mentioned the California scenario a while back, but I couldn’t find where. End update

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What, if anything, is neoliberalism?

by John Quiggin on November 2, 2019

The comments thread on my WTO post raises the much-argued question of whether the term “neoliberalism” has any useful content, or whether it is simply an all-purpose pejorative to be applied to anything rightwing. O

In this 2002 post from the pre-Cambrian era of blogging, at a time when I aspired to write a book along the lines of Raymond Williams’ Keywords, I claim that neoliberalism is a meaningful and useful term, which isn’t to deny that it’s often used sloppily, like all political terms.

Some thoughts seventeen years later

First, this definition refers to the standard international use of the term, what I’ve susequently called “hard neoliberalism”, represented in the US by the Republican Party. I subsequently drew a distinction with “soft neoliberalism”, which corresponds to US usage where the term is typically applied to centrist Democrats like the Clintons. I’d also apply this to Blair’s New Labour, although, as stated in the post, there were points at which Blair and Brown drifted back in the direction of traditional social democracy.

Second, the discussion of how the right (in Europe and Australia) is shifting away from neoliberalism towards “the older and more fertile ground of law and order and xenophobia” seems as if it could have been written today. These processes take a long time to work themselves through.

As a corollary, the idea of Trump as a radical break with the past is unsustainable. There’s been a qualitative change with Trump and the various mini-Trumps, but the process was well underway before this new stage.

Finally, my characteristic overoptimism shows up in various places.

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Arrogance destroyed the World Trade Organisation …

by John Quiggin on October 27, 2019

… what replaces it will be even worse. That’s the (slightly premature) headline for my recent article in The Conversation.

The headline will become operative in December, if as expected, the Trump Administration maintains its refusal to nominate new judges to the WTO appellate panel. That will render the WTO unable to take on new cases, and bring about an effective return to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) which preceded the WTO.

An interesting sidelight is that Brexit No-Dealers have been keen on the merits of trading “on WTO terms”, but those terms will probably be unenforceable by the time No Deal happens (if it does).

No true war is bad?

by John Quiggin on October 13, 2019

On Facebook, my frined Timothy Scriven pointed to an opinion piece by classics professor Ian Morris headlined In the long run, wars make us safer and richer It’s pushing a book with the clickbaity title War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.”. Timothy correctly guessed that I wouldn’t like it.

Based on the headline, I was expecting a claim along the lines “wars stimulate technological progress” which I refuted (to my own satisfaction at any rate) in Economics in Two Lessons”. But the argument is much stranger than this. The claim is that war, despite its brutality created big states, like the Roman empire, which then delivered peace and prosperity.

For the classical world at 100 CE or so, the era on which Morris is an expert, that argument seemed pretty convincing. As the famous Life of Brian sketch suggests, Roman rule delivered a lot of benefits to its conquered provinces.

The next 1900 years or so present a bit of a problem, though. There have been countless wars in that time, and no trend towards bigger states. On the contrary two or three dozen states (depending on how you count them) now occupy the territory of the former Roman Empire.

You could cut the number down a bit by treating the European Union as a new empire, but then you have an even bigger problem. The EU was not formed through war, but through a determination to avoid it. Whatever you think about the EU in other respects, this goal has been achieved.

Morris avoids the problem by a “no true Scotsman” argument. He admits in passing that the 1000 years of war following the high point of Rome had the effect of breaking down larger, safer societies into smaller, more dangerous ones, but returns with relief to the era of true wars, in which big states always win. That story works, roughly, until 1914, when the empires he admires destroyed themselves, killing millions in the process.

After that, the argument descends into Pinker-style nonsense. While repeating the usual stats about the decline in violent deaths, Morris mentions in passing that a nuclear war could cause billions of deaths. He doesn’t consider the obvious anthropic fallacy problem – if such a war had happened, there would not be any op-eds in the Washington Post discussing the implications for life expectancy.

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The third lesson ?

by John Quiggin on October 9, 2019

Another review of Economics in Two Lessons has come out. It’s by David Henderson and appears in Regulation, published by the Cato Institute (link to PDF). There’s a blog post with extracts here.

Unsurprisingly, given the source, it’s mainly critical of the analysis, but still has some kind words about the book. This para gives the flavour

Quiggin is a good writer who lays out much of the economics well. His analysis of rent control and price controls in general is a thing of beauty. Along the way, though, he makes small and big mistakes. He also shows by omission that the book, to be complete, badly needs a third lesson, on why government works so badly even when it intervenes in cases where markets work badly.

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At Five Thirty Eight, Maggie Koerth-Baker has yet another article bemoaning the way partisanship biases our views. Apparently, one side, based on eyeballing, thinks the earth is flat, while the other, relying on the views of so-called scientists, or the experience of international air travel, regards it as spherical, or nearly so.

In the past, before the rise of partisanship, we would have agreed on a sensible compromise, such as flat on Sundays, spherical on weekdays, and undetermined on Saturdays. Moreover, there was a mix of views, with plenty of Democratic flat-earthers, and Republican sphericalists.

Of course, there is no way to resolve questions of this kind, but apparently, ““warm contact” between political leaders” will enable us to agree to differ, which would be a big improvement, at least until we decided whether to risk sailing over the edge of the world.

Cum/ex

by John Quiggin on September 24, 2019

Looking for a different story in the business pages of The Guardian, I happened across a headline stating The men who plundered Europe’: bankers on trial for defrauding €447m. That attracted my attention, but the standfirst, in smaller print, was even more startling

Martin Shields and Nick Diable are accused of tax fraud in ‘cum-ex’ scandal worth €60bn that exposes City’s pursuit of profit

I think of myself as someone who pays attention to the news, but I had missed this entirely. Google reveals essentially no coverage in the main English language media. There’s a short but helpful Wikipedia article and that’s about it. The scandal has been described as the ‘crime of the century’, but it’s just one of many multi-billion dollar/euro heists, with the GFC towering above them all.

It remains to be seen how the trial will turn out, but it’s already clear that, as usual, the banks have got away with it. The bank most closely involved in the scam, HypoVereinsBank in German has set aside €200 million euros to cover its potential liability. That’s less than 1 per cent of the tax avoided or evaded (the lawyers will be fighting out which, for some time, but the effect on ordinary citizens is the same).

The crucial point here isn’t the failure of the law to punish wrongdoing.

What matters is that crooked deals of this scale suffice for a complete explanation of the growth of the global financial sector since the 1970s. The point of the financial sector is not to allocate capital more efficiently, but to undermine the regulatory and tax systems that are supposed to make the economy work properly. Unsurprisingly the huge financial boom has been accompanied by miserable productivity growth, repeated business collapses and massive growth in inequality.

The only way to fix the problem is to shrink the financial sector to a tiny fraction of its current size, and tightly regulate what remains. The rational route to achieve this would start with the kinds of reforms being proposed by Elizabeth Warren. But we may be stuck with a messier path, in which courts tire of giving slaps on the wrist to recidivist banks and start shutting them down.

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Passports and Brexit

by John Quiggin on September 9, 2019

I was looking over this post from 2016, on the consequences of a relatively successful Brexit

I’m finding it hard to see that anything will happen to justify the massive effort involved. The Poles and other EU citizens whose presence was the biggest single justification for Brexit won’t go away. On the contrary, it seems pretty clear that all EU citizens will get permanent residence, even those who arrived after the Brexit vote. Even with a hard Brexit, the benefits of consistency with EU regulations will be overwhelming. The terms of any trade deal with non-EU countries won’t be any better than the existing EU deals and probably worse.

Even symbolically, what’s going to happen? Typically, national independence is marked by a ceremony where the flag of the imperial power is lowered, and the new national flag is raised. But, from what I can tell, the EU flag is hardly ever flown in the UK as it is. The same for national currency, passport, official languages and all the other symbolic representations of nationhood. So, after a successful Brexit, Britain will be a little poorer and more isolated than before, but otherwise largely unchanged. Will that count as success in the eyes of those who voted to Leave. I don’t know.

Most of that still looks about right. But as commenters at the time pointed out, I was wrong about passports. One of the big things Leavers disliked about the EU was the replacement of the blue British passport with EU burgundy. It turns out that the colour change wasn’t compulsory, and the reintroduced blue passports will be printed in France, but at least that is a symbolic win for the Brexiteers.

On the other hand, how does this fit with the oft-repeated claim that Leave voters were “left behind” “stayers”? To be nostalgic for blue passports, you would presumably need to have undertaken a fair bit of international travel before 1988, when they were replaced. That experience, combined with the assumption that Britain is far superior to the EU, sounds like the profile of a stereotypical well-off, middle-aged or older, Tory voter. And, as far as I can tell, it was this category that provided the core support for Leave. That’s consistent with Trumpist voting most places in the English speaking world.

Could the Queen sack Johnson? Would she?

by John Quiggin on September 2, 2019

Having vague ideas of Parliamentary supremacy, I’m struck by reports that Boris Johnson could simply ignore a vote of no-confidence, and remain office to push through a No Deal Brexit, even in the face of legislation prohibiting such a course of action. As far as I can tell, these arguments are based on the premise that Parliament must nominate an alternative, and the assumption that neither Corbyn nor anyone else would prove acceptable to a majority. (Update: On more careful reading of the linked article I see that the new boss, Cummings, saying that Johnson could, for which I read would, ignore a vote for a new PM).

That might be true, and then again it might not. The question that occurs to me is whether Johnson could also ignore a vote in favour of a new PM, and if so, what could be done about it? One possibility is that the Queen could dismiss him, and invite the new PM to form a government, which would presumably hold immediate elections.

That, pretty much, is what happened in Australia in 1975, though the government’s position was far more tenable than in the hypothetical that I’ve outlined above. The government had a majority in the House of Representatives (our equivalent of the Commons). However, the government was unpopular and the Senate (similar to the US Senate in most respects) refused Supply, creating a financial crisis. The Governor-General (representing the Queen) sacked the PM (Whitlam) and installed the Leader of the Opposition (Fraser) in his place. Fraser called an election and won.

I honestly have no idea whether if Johnston refused to go, he could be removed, by the monarch or otherwise. For that matter, could he get the Queen to prorogue Parliament indefinitely, and govern by decree? That sounds inconceivable, but maybe only in the sense of Vizzini in the Princess Bride.

It’s worth noting that the absence of a written constitution isn’t the critical issue here, or at least not to the extent often claimed. Australia has a constitution, but it’s silent on all the relevant issues (it doesn’t even mention the office of a PM).

That’s enough from me. Useful links and informed comments much appreciated.

Jimmy Carter gets advice about global warming

by John Quiggin on August 22, 2019

In the course of attempting to threadjack Harry’s post on advice to new students, a commenter made the often-repeated claim ““Forty years ago (1970’s) global cooling was all the rage!””. As it happens, just before reading this comment, I received a link to some files from the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. It’s a daily log or similar, and starts with a response to someone named Frank Press who had written to Carter raising concerns about CO2 emissions and global warming. The advice given to Carter was as follows:

The issue raised by Press is not new. The experts all agree that more infor­mation is needed. The energy plan indicates that nearly $3 million was being requested for ERDA to study the long-term effects of co2. (James) Schlesinger feels that the policy implications of the issue are still too uncertain to warrant presidential involvement or poli­cy initiatives. Schlesinger is examining the issue in the preparation of the FY 79 budget, and will, at that time, have the full report of the NAS study and further results from ERDA.

That accords with my memory, but not, apparently that of numerous others. Both warming and cooling were discussed in the 1970s, but there wasn’t clear evidence either way. By the 1980s, it became clear that the trend was towards warming, though it took another decade or so to produce broad scientific agreement that greenhouse gas emissions were the most likely cause and another decade for this agreement to reach near-certainty.

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Cutting the financial sector down to size

by John Quiggin on August 18, 2019

That’s the provisional title I used for my latest piece in Inside Story. Peter Browne, the editor, gave it the longer and clearer title “Want to reduce the power of the finance sector? Start by looking at climate change”.

The central idea is a comparison between the process of decarbonizing the world economy and that of definancialising it, by reducing the power and influence of the financial sector. Both seemed almomst impossible only a decade ago, but the first is now well under way.

There’s also an analogy between the favored economists’ approach in both cases: reliance on price based measures such as carbon taxes and Tobin taxes. Despite the theoretical appeal of such measures, it looks as if regulation will end up doing much of the heavy work.

Give children the vote

by John Quiggin on August 17, 2019

Looking at the array of ignorant and vindictive old men attacking Greta Thunberg and other young climate activists, the case for lowering the voting age is just about unanswerable. Anything that could be urged in justification of stopping 16 year olds, as a group, from voting, is equally applicable to those over 60 (a group to which I belong). Over 60 voters are, on average, poorly educated (the school leaving age in Australia was 15 when they went through and I assume similar in most places), and more likely to hold a wide range of false beliefs (notably in relation to climate change).
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How do student evaluations survive ?

by John Quiggin on August 4, 2019

Among the few replicable findings from research on higher education, one of the most notable is that student evaluations of teaching are both useless as measures of the extent to which students have learned anything and systematically biased against women and people of color. As this story says, reliance on these measures could lead to lawsuits.

But why hasn’t this already happened. The facts have been known for years, and potential cases arise every time these evaluations are used in hiring or promotion: arguably every time the data is collected. And student evaluations are particularly popular in the US, where litigation is the national sport. Yet no lawsuits have yet taken place AFAICT.

Maybe the zeitgeist is changing. I was going to write this post before seeing the linked article, which turned up in my Google search. Any lawyers or potential litigants want to comment?