Showing posts with label media. Show all posts
Showing posts with label media. Show all posts

Saturday, September 30, 2023

What's wrong with people?


This question is posed in the title of Chapter 10 of Steven Pinker’s book, Rationality: What it is, Why it Seems Scarce, Why it Matters.

I enjoyed reading the previous 9 chapters but didn’t learn much from them. Those chapters were a painless way to refresh my memory about definitions of rationality, rules of logic, probability, Bayesian reasoning, rational choice, statistical decision theory, game theory, correlation, and regression analysis.

I particularly liked the approach Pinker took in discussing the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky which documents many ways in which people are prone to fall short of normative benchmarks of rationality. Pinker makes the point:

When people’s judgments deviate from a normative model, as they so often do, we have a puzzle to solve. Sometimes the disparity reveals a genuine irrationality: the human brain cannot cope with the complexity of a problem, or it is saddled with a bug that cussedly drives it to the wrong answer time and again.

But in many cases there is a method to people’s madness.”

A prime example is loss aversion: “Our existence depends on a precarious bubble of improbabilities with pain and death just a misstep away”. In Freedom Progress and Human Flourishing, I argued similarly that loss aversion helped our ancestors to survive.

Pinker doesn’t seek to blame the propensity of humans to make logical and statistical fallacies for the prevalence of irrationality in the public sphere. He is not inclined to blame social media either, although he recognises its potential to accelerate the spread of florid fantasies.

The mythology mindset

Pinker argues that reasoning is largely tailored to winning arguments. People don’t like getting on to a train of reasoning if they don’t like where it takes them. That is less of a problem for small groups of people (families, research teams, businesses) who have a common interest in finding the truth than it is in the public sphere.

People tend to have a reality mindset when they are dealing with issues that affect their well-being directly – the world of their immediate experience – but are more inclined to adopt a mythology mindset when they are dealing with issues in the public sphere.

When economists discuss such matters, they may refer to the observation of Joseph Schumpeter that the typical citizen drops to a lower level of mental performance when discussion turns to politics. They reference the concept of rational ignorance attributed to Anthony Downs and Gordon Tulloch. They may also refer to Brian Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality. (For example, see Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, pp 114-115).

Pinker doesn’t refer to those economists’ perspectives but offers interesting insights about factors that might lead people to adopt mythology mindsets. In summary, as a consequence of myside bias, attitudes to the findings of scientific studies often have less to do with scientific literacy than with political affiliation. The opposing “sides” are sometimes akin to “religious sects, which are held together by faith in their moral superiority and contempt for opposing sects”. Within those sects the function of beliefs is to bind the group together and give it moral purpose.

What can we do?

Pinker’s suggestions for combatting irrationality in the public sphere are summed up by his subheading “Re-affirming Rationality”. He advocates openness to evidence, noting the findings of a survey suggesting that most internet users claim to be open to evidence. He suggests that we valorize the norm of rationality by “smiling or frowning on rational and irrational habits”.

Pinker identifies institutions that specialize in creating and sharing knowledge as playing a major role in influencing the beliefs that people hold. Since “no-one can know everything”, we all rely on academia, public and private research units, and the news media for a great deal of the knowledge which forms the basis of our beliefs. Unfortunately, these institutions are often not trustworthy.

In the case of the universities, Pinker suggests that the problem stems from “a suffocating left-wing monoculture, with its punishment of students and professors who question dogmas on gender, race, culture, genetics, colonialism, and sexual identity and orientation”. News and opinion sites have been “played by disingenuous politicians and contribute to post-truth miasmas”.

It is easy to agree with Pinker that it would be wonderful if universities and the news media could become paragons of viewpoint diversity and critical thinking. However, movement toward that goal will require large numbers of individuals to enlist for a ‘long march’ to re-establish norms of rationality in institutions that specialize in creating and sharing knowledge.                                                                    

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Do political partisans make credible assessments of the views of their opponents?


The charts shown above suggest that some of the assessments that political partisans make of the views of their opponents are wildly inaccurate. The probability that a Democrat will consider that men should be protected from false accusations of sexual assault is higher than Republicans believe it to be, and the probability of a Republican accepting that racism still exists is higher that Democrats believe it to be. The organization which published the data makes the point that Americans have much more similar views on many controversial issues than is commonly thought, especially among the most politically active. My focus here is on why partisans make such large errors in assessing the views of their opponents.

Probability assessment is not always easy.

Steven Pinker included “a sense of probability” in his list of 10 cognitive faculties and intuitions that have evolved to enable humans to keep in touch with aspects of reality (Blank Slate, 220). Individuals obtain obvious benefits from an ability to keep track of the relative frequency of events affecting their lives. A capacity to reason about the likelihood of different events helps them to advantage of favorable circumstances and to avoid harm.

Pinker points out that our perceptions of probability are prone to error, but Daniel Kahneman has a much more comprehensive discussion of this in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman points out that even people who have studied probability can be fooled into making errors in assessing probability when they are led to focus unduly on information that appears particularly pertinent and to ignore other relevant information. He gives the example of a cab involved in a hit and run accident in the city in which 85% of cabs are Green and 15% are blue. A witness identifies the cab responsible as Blue, and the court establishes that he would be able to identify colors correctly 80% of the time under circumstances that existed on the night of the accident. What is the probability that the cab is Blue? Most people say 80%, but the correct answer, provided by Bayes’ rule, is about half that (Loc 3005-3020). People tend to make a large error because they overlook the fact that a high proportion of Green cabs means that there is a good chance that the witness has mistakenly identified a Green cab to be Blue, even though his observations are accurate 80% of the time.

Kahneman notes that people are more likely to make errors in assessing probability when they “think fast” rather than analytically. However, it is not necessary to understand and apply Bayes’ rule to solve problems such as the one presented above. A simple arithmetic example can suffice. If there were 1,000 cabs in the city, there would be 850 Green cabs and 150 Blue cabs. If we had no more information, the probability of a Blue cab being responsible for the accident would be 15%. We are told the witness saw a Blue cab and would correctly identify 80% of the 150 Blue cabs as Blue (i.e. 120 cabs) and would mistakenly identify 20% of the 850 Green cabs as Blue (i.e. 170 cabs). The total number of cabs that he would identify as Blue is 290 (120+170). The probability that the witness has correctly identified a Blue cab is 0.414 (120/290) or 41.4%.

Kahneman also makes a point about causal stereotypes. He does this by altering the example to substitute information that Green cabs are responsible for 85% of the accidents, for the information that 85% of the cabs are Green. Other information is unchanged. The two versions of the problem are mathematically indistinguishable. If the only information we had was that Green cabs are responsible for 85% of accidents, we would assess the probability of a Blue cab being responsible at 15%. As before, if we evaluate the witness information correctly, it raises the probability of a Blue cab being responsible to 41.4%.

However, when people are presented with the second version, the answers they give tend to be much closer to the correct one. They apparently interpret the information that the Green drivers are responsible for 85% of the accidents to mean that the Green drivers are reckless. That causal stereotype is less readily disregarded in the face of witness evidence, so the two pieces of evidence pull in opposite directions.

Political partisans don’t have much incentive to make accurate assessments of the views of their opponents.

The potential for errors in fast thinking and the impact of cultural stereotypes may account for much of the error of partisans in assessing the views of their opponents, as shown in the above charts. People do not have a strong personal incentive to ensure that they accurately assess the views of their political opponents. Potential errors do not affect their income and lifestyle to the same extent as, say, errors in the probability assessments they make relating to personal occupational and investment choices.

In addition, political partisans may not even see any particular reason to be concerned that they may be misrepresenting the views of their opponents.

Reasoning along those lines seems to me to provide a straightforward explanation for the prevalence of partisan conspiracy theories. Research by Steven Smallpage et al (in an article entitled ‘The partisan contours of conspiracy theory beliefs’) suggests that partisans know which conspiracy theory is owned by which party, and that belief in partisan conspiracy theories is highly correlated to partisanship. The authors conclude:

“Many conspiracy theories function more like associative partisan attitudes than markers of an alienated psychology”.

Extreme partisans tend to promote theories that discredit their opponents. Perhaps that is the way we should expect partisans to play politics in a society where many people think it is ok to “bear false witness” because they believe everyone has “their own truths” and objective reality does not exist.

We do not have to speculate that partisans are deluded or crazy when they hold firmly to improbable theories about their opponents in the face of contrary evidence. They are more likely to be ignoring the evidence to demonstrate loyalty to their party and its leaders.  

However, that doesn’t offer us much solace. Some of the conspiracy theories currently circulating seem similar to the false rumors that governments circulate about their enemies during wartime. Extremists among political partisans may be circulating those rumors with the intention of promoting greater political polarization and a breakdown of the values that have hitherto made it possible for people with divergent views to coexist peacefully.

Is increasing polarization inevitable?

Much depends on the attitudes of the majority of people who currently disinclined to spread rumors that they believe to be false and likely to promote social conflict. If people with moderate views make known that they expect political leaders to disavow false rumors about their opponents, they can encourage that to happen. Leaders of the major parties have an incentive to try to attract voters with moderate views away from opposing parties. If leaders disavow false rumors, partisans will tend to echo their views.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Are you getting sauced?


It is about time greater recognition was given to the sterling efforts of Australia’s liquor licensing regulators. While some public health officials have become media superstars during the COVD-19 epidemic, the liquor regulators have gone quietly about their business of protecting us from ourselves.  Lack of public recognition for their efforts must be almost enough to drive them to drink.

The Australian Broadcasting Commission – your ABC (or is it our ABC, or their ABC) – is normally a strong supporter of government regulation, but when was the last time you saw the ABC praise liquor regulators for their efforts? Just about everyone that the ABC interviews says, “Aorta do something about that”, no matter what “that” is. The “A” in aorta is the government, of course. Someone should tell the government Aorta get the ABC to praise the liquor licensing regulators.

I can’t remember anything the ABC has done over the last 18 months or so to recognize the sterling efforts of liquor regulators. Liquor licensing regulators have to make contributions that are a long way beyond the call of duty before the ABC recognizes them.

The sterling efforts of the acting director-general of licensing of the Northern Territory (NT) were reluctantly acknowledged by Katrina Beavan and Steward Brash in an item published on 30 July 2019. The headline of the article gives an indication of the perceptiveness and courage of the acting director-general: “NT liquor licensing laws affect sale of household cooking products, vendors warned”.

The acting director-general deserves to be highly honored for making such a magnificent contribution to the welfare of citizens of the NT. Most liquor regulators would be inclined to turn a blind eye to the fact that some household cooking products contain alcohol. After all, regulators are human, and just about as lazy as the rest of us. Regulators could be expected to be particularly reluctant to rock the boat by upsetting food retailers and their customers.

However, the acting director-general wrote a letter to food retailers telling them that if they want to sell any product over 50 ml that contains 1.15 per cent ethyl alcohol or more, they require a liquor licence. Licensing inspectors followed up by visiting a range of stores in Darwin and Alice Springs, insisting that owners take offending items off the shelves.

Some of you might think that the acting director-general was being excessively zealous, particularly since the legislation specifically referred to “beverages”.  I can almost hear some of you saying that soy sauce is not a beverage. You wouldn’t drink it!

Well, you obviously haven’t heard of a “bloody geisha”? As cocktails go, a bloody geisha isn’t too bad in my view. It is more flavorsome than straight sake. I imagine that if you use enough soy sauce, you could reduce the amount of sake, and still get a kick out of it. Some people may even omit the tomato juice.

In my view, a strong case can be made that the acting director-general didn’t go far enough. Why not also specify that methylated spirits and turps must also be sold through liquor stores? You might point out to me that regulations to protect government revenue from sale of alcoholic beverages require metho to be adulterated to contain enough poisonous stuff (methanol) to make people go blind and to kill them. You probably think that the fact that metho kills people is a strong enough deterrent to stop nearly everyone from drinking it. However, that is odd argument. It implies that human nature is such that if you leave people to make choices for themselves, they will nearly always choose to stay alive.

You probably also want to tell me that when you say someone is “on the turps” that is just a figure of speech. You claim to know that mineral turpentine contains no alcohol. If I object, you will tell me that is a scientific fact.

Struth! You probably still think there is a real world out there and that we all tend to have common perceptions of reality. One day you will understand that we live in a post-truth world. Everyone has their own truth. Perceptions are everything. If you have any interest at all in protecting people from themselves, you will agree with me that to discourage people from “going on the turps”, mineral turpentine should only be sold in licensed liquor stores.

How does this story end? From what I can gather, the NT Licensing authorities subsequently backtracked on efforts to ensure soy sauce could only be sold in licensed liquor outlets. Nevertheless, the acting director-general deserves a medal for assiduous efforts in trying to protect NT people from themselves!

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Is Trumpism coming to Australia?


Over the last few decades, Australian politics seems to have become more like that of the United States. Politics in this country was once several degrees to the left of America, with the Labor party advocating socialism – and proposing extensive government ownership of business enterprises. However, in both countries the progressive side of politics is now focused on an environmental and affirmative action agenda, while the conservative side seeks to moderate those tendencies. Both sides seek to appeal, in different ways, to aspirations of people for higher material standards of living.

That was how it was before Trumpism came to America. Viewed from this side of the Pacific, American politics seems to have taken a bizarre twist. Given that Australians tend to follow social and political trends in America, does that mean we are also destined to experience Trumpism?

Before attempting to answer that question, it seems important to clarify the nature of Trumpism.


Salvatore Babones, an American sociologist now living in Australia, published a book a couple of years ago which sheds light on the nature of Trumpism. In his book, The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of ExpertsSalvatore argues that Trump is a populist rather than an authoritarian leader and that Americans have more to fear from the tyranny of experts. He suggests that twenty-first-century democracy is endangered by the tendency of the expert class to dismiss the moral right of less-educated people to have opinions that conflict with their own.

Salvatore makes the point that populism and authoritarianism are polar opposite strategies for political legitimation:

“Populists appeal to the innate common sense of ordinary people, while authoritarians appeal to tradition and the prestige of established institutions”.

Salvatore is not particularly flattering to former President Trump. He refers to Trump as a narcissist, in making the point that “you can’t be an authoritarian when the only authority you recognize is yourself”. He also refers to Trump as “a paranoid populist with a persecution complex”.

Salvatore claimed, “Trump will never be a hero to anyone but himself”. That assessment now seems to have been wide of the mark in the light of the extent of ongoing support for Trump, despite his unwillingness to accept the result of the 2020 presidential election. Trump now commands a sizeable support base of people who love him, view him as a source of truth and wisdom, and seek to please him. Trumpism seems to have developed into a personality cult, in some respects like Peronism.

It is important to remember that, like members of other cults, Trumpists are guided by moral impulses. They may be misguided, but most of them are good people.

The development of the Trump cult seems to be partly attributable to echo chambers in the social media (discussed here) but I think it is more strongly attributable to demonization of Trump within mainstream media. Trump attracted populist support by attacking the consensus wisdom of the expert class and disparaging anyone who disagreed with him. His opponents responded in kind by suggesting he is as an ignorant buffoon, bully, and admirer of tyrants. Trump’s strongest supporters have come to love him because they think he is unfairly maligned for expressing views they endorse.

The strength of the Trump cult is evident in its impact on the behavior of many conservative politicians. Until recently, American conservatives have had a well-deserved reputation of being principled supporters of the U.S. Constitution and the federal system of government. Nevertheless, many leading conservatives, who have hitherto been opponents of judicial activism, supported the unsuccessful efforts of Texas to have the Supreme Court overturn the presidential election results of Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin, on the grounds of procedural irregularities.

If those efforts had succeeded, the implications would have been far-reaching. John Yoo, an American legal scholar, has noted that “under Texas’s theory, any state could have sued any other in any presidential or federal midterm election over irregular procedures”. If the Supreme Court justices had been inclined to put political loyalties above legal principle, they would have undermined the federalism that is integral to the process of electing American presidents.

The strength of the Trump cult is also evident in the efforts of some conservative politicians in challenging the Electoral College votes when they were formally opened before a joint session of both housed of Congress on January 6. Those antics had no chance of succeeding. They only make sense in terms of pandering to Trump and his support base.

It is evident that Trump’s bizarre behavior following the election has opened up a deep rift within the Republican party between those who have regard to the Constitution and the conventions associated with orderly transfer of power following elections, and those who set no limit to the lengths they would go in pandering to the Trump cult. At the forefront of the first category is Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who supported Trump’s efforts to challenge the election results, but recognized Joe Biden as President-elect after the Electoral College confirmed that he had won the election. The latter category includes Senator Ted Cruz, who apparently still has presidential aspirations.

Looking ahead, an association with Trump and his support base is likely to be an ongoing electoral liability for the Republican party. Trump’s ability to get his supporters to cast a vote is more than offset by his apparent inability to avoid provoking other people to vote against him. Conservative politicians who oppose Trump will continue to be punished by the Trump cult.

The electoral future for the Republicans seems no more promising even if Trump leaves to form his own Patriots party. His electoral support is likely to be great enough to enable him to split the conservative vote and enable Democrats to win more contests.

Could a conservative populist wreak havoc in Australian politics?

I don’t think it would make sense to argue that Australians differ from Americans in fundamental ways that would make it impossible for something like Trumpism to happen here. I don’t have data on this, but it would not surprise me if the proportion of the population who think expert policy advisors ad career politicians have too much influence on government is as high in Australia as it is in America.

Over the years, a substantial number of Australian politicians have advanced their careers by thumbing their noses at the “ruling class” of politicians and expert policy advisors. It would not be beyond the realm of possibility for a person with such views to become prime minister of Australia. As I noted several years ago, former prime minister, John Howard was viewed as an outsider by the ruling class of policy advisors in Canberra. However, Howard was a career politician and could not be described as a populist.

The important point to note is that if a Trump-like populist was elected prime minister of Australia, she or he would not last more than a few months with popularity ratings as low as those of Donald Trump throughout most of his presidency. Australian prime ministers are elected by parliamentarians, and do not last long if they appear incapable of winning the next election. It is a desirable attribute of the conservative side of Australian politics that parliamentarians are able to change their leader as frequently as they wish, until they find one that voters think might be worthy of the role of prime minister for more than a few months.

Bottom line

Australia is fairly safe from Trumpism unless it becomes a republic, with an elected presidency like that in the United States. Recent events in the United States have convinced me that Australians would be wise to vote against any proposal to become a republic with an elected head of state.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Should we look forward to the Social Singularity?

The social singularity should not be confused with the technological singularity, which Wikipedia defines as the hypothesis that invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable change to human civilization.

The Social Singularity, as described by Max Borders in his recently published book of that name, relates to the way we (humans) organise ourselves in relation to each other. Max’s hypothesis is that at some point social organisation will be completely transformed as a result of mass adoption of secure networking technologies. When that happens some existing mediating structures will become obsolete, new forms of coordination will emerge and we will collaborate as never before.

What does that mean in terms that you and I can understand? The best place to begin is with the concept of subversive innovation. You might think it is tedious to begin an explanation by introducing another concept, but I promise to provide some concrete examples before long.

These days just about everyone knows what an innovation is. Most readers will be familiar with disruptive innovations that are making many goods more accessible and affordable. Subversive innovations “are those that have the potential to replace long-accepted mediating structures of society”. The mediating structures that Max is writing about include: hierarchical firms; group-think practices among the scientific establishment that have led to widespread acceptance of numerous findings that cannot be replicated; centralised education which views students as having “heads like buckets to be filled with information curated by central elites”; long-standing practices of financial intermediaries; mainstream media that once generated social coherence; and national governments.

Readers will already be familiar with some of the subversive innovations that are occurring. Some firms are replacing hierarchical command and control structures with decentralised systems in which self-directed individuals create order by establishing networks to achieve common purposes. The Internet has enabled informal networks of people, often including amateurs, who question scientific dogma e.g. the paleo-diet movement. Disruptive innovation has begun in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Long-established practices of financial institutions are being challenged by block chain technologies, and cryptocurrencies are enabling people to transact without using national currencies or financial intermediaries. The Internet has disrupted the role of mainstream media in generating social coherence - making it possible for populists to challenge political orthodoxy, but also reducing the potential for views to coalesce around a deeply flawed narrative.

The potential for subversive innovations to displace centralised government is in my view the most interesting idea in the book. We can already see this happening to some extent as innovating firms search out the weak joints in government regulation, particularly the regulatory barriers to competition that have enabled incumbents in various industries to prosper at the expense of the rest of the community. Think of how Uber’s ridesharing innovations circumvented regulations protecting incumbents in the taxi industry.

Max suggests that the potential for subversive innovations to displace centralised government will be enhanced by the advent of smart contracts in which a host of humans can act together to achieve a common goal without middlemen. The coordinating mechanism of smart contracts involves distributed ledgers, programmable incentives and blockchain secured tokens. Tokens can align the interests of producers, consumers and investors in ways that may have potential to enable many types of public goods to be produced privately by profit-seeking entrepreneurs. It doesn’t seem possible at this stage to provide a concrete example of how this might work. Perhaps it can be thought of as crowdsourcing on steroids.

Where might this take us? Max suggests that the potential for people to forge real social contracts - contracts they choose to enter voluntarily rather than the hypothetical social contracts of political theory - “could become the killer app of politics”:

"Communities of tomorrow will form entire systems of mutual aid through digital compacts that have nothing to do with borders or accidents of birth. … Humanity will upload important commitments into social contracts. Cosmopolitan communities of practice will form in the electronic ether. What remains on the ground—goods, services, and the relationships of flesh-and-blood neighbors—will be a far more localized phenomenon. The days of outsourcing our civic responsibilities to distant capitals are numbered."

What Max has in mind is polyarchy – competitive provision of goods that have been provided collectively. The basic idea is that if there is nothing intrinsically territorial about a system that provides goods like health insurance or education, you should be allowed to exit one system and join another without moving to a different system’s territory. You could take resources you were once required to pay in taxation and use them to pay for membership of another community or multiple other communities.

So, what reason do we have to think that governments might one day be willing to recognize the right of exit required to make polyarchy a reality?

Max notes that new constituencies are forming around the benefits of the sharing economy:

"Special interests that once squeaked to get the oil are confronted by battalions bearing smartphones. Citizens, fed up with leaving their prayers in the voting booth, are voting more with their dollars and their devices. Free association is now ensured by design, not by statute."

The Social Singularity mixes the author’s views on how things ought to evolve and how he expects them to evolve. Max acknowledges that he does this. The book offers readers an appealing vision of how the future could evolve and invites them to help make that vision a reality.

The book contains much that I haven’t written about in this short review. I should mention the link between the social singularity and spiral dynamics. Now I have mentioned it, I want to write more about it. Perhaps later!

I should also note before concluding that the title of the book, as presented on the title page, is The Social Singularity: A Decentralist Manifesto. Decentralization is a theme of the book. Max begins his chapter on the future of governance by quoting Vincent Ostrom:

“The fashioning of a truly free world depends on building fundamental infrastructures that enable different peoples to become self-governing”.

 In a post I wrote a few months ago I mused about how Ostrom’s vision of decentralisation of politics could eventually become a reality. If I ever write on that topic again there will be a reference to Max Borders and the concept of subversive innovations will feature prominently.

The Social Singularity deserves to be read widely and thought about deeply.


1. You might also be interested in a follow-up post on how human values may change as we approach the social singularity.

2. Simon Saval has drawn my attention to his excellent hand-illustrated guides for Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, and Ethereum which have been designed to help beginners understand the technology. If you are interested, please follow the link.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Is Steven Pinker too optimistic about the future of liberal democracy?

Steven Pinker’s aim in Enlightenment Now, The case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, is “to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century” and to show that those ideals have worked to enhance human flourishing.

In response to one of Pinker’s earlier books I was prompted to consider whether Enlightenment humanism is the coherent world view that he claims it to be. In this book Pinker makes clear that he views “the ideals of the Enlightenment” to be synonymous with the open society and classical liberalism.  He argues that four themes tie the ideas of the Enlightenment together: an insistence on applying reason to understand our world; use of the methods of science; humanism, defined in terms of a focus on the happiness of individuals rather than the glory of tribes, races, nations or religions; and the hope for progress through political institutions that are conducive to human flourishing. Pinker regards liberal democracy as “an Enlightenment-inspired institution” and “a precious achievement”.

In my view Pinker succeeds admirably in showing that for the last two and a half centuries application of those Enlightenment ideals has enhanced individual human flourishing. Much of the book is devoted to evidence of the massive progress that has been made in the quality of life enjoyed by people on this planet over that period. I recommend this book and Max Roser’s Our World in Data web site (the source of much of Pinker’s data) to anyone who needs reminding that ‘the good old days’ were not so great.

Turning to the future, Pinker is more of a hopeful realist than an optimist. He recognises that “the darker sides of human nature – tribalism, authoritarianism and magical thinking – aided by the Second Law of Thermodynamics” have potential to push us back. In an early chapter he points out that in a world governed by entropy and evolution, the default state of humankind is characterized by disease, poverty and violence. A large and growing proportion of humanity have been able to escape from the default state through ongoing adherence to the norms and institutions fostered by the Enlightenment.

As I see it, the prospects for further progress in human flourishing in the liberal democracies will be strongly influenced the effectiveness of this form of government in delivering economic policies conducive to ongoing productivity growth. Productivity growth will obviously be required if people continue to aspire to have higher disposable incomes, but it will also be required to generate the additional taxation revenue needed to prevent public debt spiralling out of control. That is because spending on social welfare programs – particularly health care and retirement benefits - is likely to rise as the proportion of elderly people rises. Resort to higher tax rates would be likely to have adverse effects on incentives to work, save and invest, and thus reduce productivity growth.

Pinker notes that with stronger safety nets in place, the poverty rate for elderly people in the United States has plunged since the 1960s and is now below that for younger people. However, generous safety nets have a down-side. People in the liberal democracies face traumatic adjustments in the years ahead if governments are unable to meet public expectations of ongoing funding of existing programs at current levels.

Pinker recognizes low productivity growth and “authoritarian populism” as potential threats to human progress but does not draw out the links between these threats. Most of the populists that he is concerned about do not strike me as being particularly authoritarian, in the sense of enforcing strict obedience to authority. Nevertheless, they are stasists, seeking to undermine the Enlightenment values that have enabled technological progress and international trade to contribute massively to human flourishing since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Pinker’s discussion of the recent causes of low productivity growth is adequate, as far as it goes, but he fails to emphasize the potential for additional damage to be done by populist politicians seeking to capitalise on fears of the disruptive impacts of globalisation and technological progress.  

Pinker makes the important observation:

A challenge for our era is how to foster an intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason rather than tribalism”.

He is scathing in his description of current electoral politics:

Here the rules of the game are fiendishly designed to bring out the most irrational in people”.

In support of this assertion Pinker cites: the rational ignorance of voters; the bundling of disparate issues to appeal to a coalition of voters with geographic, racial, and ethnic constituencies; and media that “cover elections like horse races, and analyse issues by pitting ideological hacks against each other in screaming matches”. He notes:

“All these features steer people away from reasoned analysis and towards perfervid self-expression”.

Pinker’s suggests that for public discourse to become more rational, issues should be depoliticized as much as possible. His discussion of the ways in which issues become politicised and proposals for depoliticization of issues was covered in my last post on the benefits of listening to opposing viewpoints. His discussion ends by noting that the discovery of political tribalism as an “insidious form of irrationality” is “still fresh and largely unknown”. He appeals to readers:

However long it takes, we must not let the existence of cognitive and emotional biases or the spasms of irrationality in the political arena to discourage us from the
Enlightenment ideal of relentlessly pursuing reason and truth”

Pinker may not sound particularly optimistic about the future of liberal democracy, but he may well be too optimistic. Unfortunately, in addition to the irrationality he discusses, we are also confronted by widespread failure to adhere to the norms of self-reliance and reciprocity that underpin liberal democracy. As explained by James Buchanan (see this post for the reference) failure of the liberal order is becoming increasingly likely as a higher proportion of the population becomes dependent on government and voters increasingly seek to use the political process to obtain benefits at the expense of others.  

We seem to be heading toward what might be described as a democratic tragedy. As noted in an earlier post, when interest groups view the coercive power of the state as a common pool resource to be used for the benefits of their members, the adverse impact of tax and regulation on incentives for productive activity is likely to result in outcomes that will be detrimental for everyone. The incentives facing individual interest groups in that situation are similar to those facing users of common pool resources in the absence of norms of restraint.

Perhaps, as more people come to recognize that liberal democracy is confronted by deep problems, efforts will be made to reform political institutions to produce better outcomes. It is not obvious how that can be achieved, but we should not allow ignorance to prevent us from seeking solutions.

In my view Seven Pinker is on the right track in urging people to be hopeful:

“We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing”.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Will paying for internet content raise productivity growth?

Productivity growth is important because the opportunities available to our children and grandchildren depend on it. As I write that I can almost hear some people saying: “Oh yeah, who needs more stuff?” It would be great if people who are satisfied with their current living standards didn’t have to worry about productivity growth. Unfortunately, even those people need productivity growth because their governments have already spent some of their future income on their behalf. Material living standards will depend on the income that remains after governments have taken away a slice (via reduced welfare payments and services or higher taxes) in order to service the public debts that continue to accumulate.

Some economists are worrying that the rate of productivity growth in high-income countries has declined since the turn of the century and is hampering recovery from the great recession in Europe and North America. In an article published by the Australian Treasury in 2013, Christine Carmody suggested that the substantial decline in productivity growth that has occurred in Australia might be related to a more general decline in productivity growth in other high-income countries. However, when I went looking for more recent OECD data on productivity to illustrate the slowdown I started to doubt whether it is a general phenomenon. The Figure below shows that in only about half of the countries covered by the OECD data was the rate of multifactor productivity (MFP) growth during the 2001 to 2007 lower than that in 1995 to 2001.

(Please click on graph for a better view.)

Multifactor productivity (MFP) measures the growth in value added output per unit of labour and capital input used. Labour productivity is sometimes still used in such comparisons but if we are interested in productive efficiency it makes sense to remove the impact of capital deepening (i.e. increasing capital per unit of labour).

After I saw the ambiguous OECD data I decided to take another look at Tyler Cowen’s book, The Great Stagnation, because that was where I had first come across the idea that all the low hanging fruit has been picked. As it happens Tyler’s book was about America and he did not rely on national productivity data to make his point. In fact he was highly critical of national productivity data. (Tyler relied heavily on data on median family incomes, which have growth slowly since the mid-1970s. Some analysis by Scott Winship suggests to me that there may also be problems in using that data to measure trends in productivity and earnings.)

Robert Gordon’s view that there has been a secular decline in productivity growth that is likely to continue is based on an examination of longer term trends in productivity growth in the United States. He notes that in the eight decades before 1972 labour productivity growth in the U.S grew 0.8 percent per year faster than in the four decades since then. He is sceptical of claims by techno-optimists such as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee that the global economy is on the cusp of a dramatic growth spurt driven by smart machines taking advantage of advances in computer processing, artificial intelligence, networked communication etc.

Tyler Cowen seems to be in broad agreement with what Bob Gordon writes about the past, but tends to agree with the techno-optimists about productivity growth in the future. There are other important contributors to this debate, including Joel Mokyr who makes the point that that the indirect effects of science on productivity through the tools it provides scientific research – such as searchable databanks, quantum chemistry simulation and highly complex statistical analysis - may, in the long run, dwarf the direct effects. The views of various contributors to the discussion have been summarised by Andrew Flowers in EconSouth.

In a recent article in the New York Times Paul Krugman made a useful contribution by suggesting that the productivity numbers are missing the benefits of new products and services. He wrote: “I get a lot of pleasure from technology that lets me watch streamed performances by my favourite musicians, but that doesn’t get counted in GDP”.

That point is, of course, not new. Australia’s Productivity Commission (with which I am still proud to claim past links) has recognized the problem of measuring the outputs of the information and communications technologies (ICT) industries - for example, see the staff paper on productivity concepts and measurement by Jenny Gordon, Shiji Zhao, Paul Gretton. The problems of measuring productivity of the internet were discussed at some length by Tyler Cowen in Chapter 3 of The Great Stagnation.

In order to answer the question I posed above I had hoped to point to some concrete evidence that content providers are finding effective ways to charge the users of their products. It seems all too obvious that it is happening with respect to a great deal of music, video and news, but I have not been able to find a summary of relevant information on the extent to which this is happening. Information such as that is usually easy to find on the Internet, but when I type in the words ‘revenue’, ‘internet’ and ‘content’ into search engines what comes up is a lot of information on models that firms can use to charge for content. Perhaps that is a sign of the times! The success of major sporting organisations in obtaining revenue from the entertainment they provide via all communications media seems to point toward a future in which consumers will pay for content directly and/or expose themselves to greater, and more personalised, advertising.

As people have to pay for more internet content it seems likely that will,of itself, make the productivity numbers for ICT industries look better, even though underlying productivity will not have improved and well-being of consumers may have declined. The potential upside of this return to old style capitalism is that as people pay for content there will be an increased incentive for firms to invest in providing content and to employ more people to produce content. 

Postscript 1:
Jim Belshaw has some related comments on his blog raising some questions about education, on-the-job learning and retention of corporate knowledge. My discussion with Jim in the comments section below has introduced me to the concept of productisation, which involves combining suitable elements to form something that is standardized, repeatable and comprehendible as product (a longer definition is provided in this abstract).  It has also prompted me to think more about the implications for productivity of ICT investment at the firm level.

The Productivity Commission’s research report "ICT Use and Productivity: A Synthesis from Studies of Australian Firms" published over a decade ago indicates that the rate of ICT uptake and effects on performance differ substantially across firms, even in similar circumstances. The differences were attributed to: differing technology and innovation strategies; availability of complementary skills; and differences in capacity to ‘learn-by-doing’. The Commission also suggests that differences between firms in their accumulation of organisational capital sets them apart from each other in their effective use of technology and in related innovation. 

A report by Ben Miller and Robert Atkinson entitled “Raising European Productivity Growth Through ICT” (prepared for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and published in June 2014) also draws heavily on firm-level productivity studies. The report cites many recent studies suggesting that investment in ICT has continued to have a strongly positive impact on productivity at firm level. The report argues that the regulatory environment in Europe has hindered the ICT investment needed to close Europe's increasing productivity gap with America.  

Postscript 2:
Noric Dilanchian has drawn my attention to a post by Timothy Taylor, the Conversable Economist, on a new OECD report entitled "The Future of Productivity". The OECD report seems to cover some similar ground to the report by Ben Miller and Robert Atkinson referred to above. I will read it properly and write more about it later. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Should the GFC be viewed as a 'balance sheet' recession of the kind Irving Fisher wrote about in the 1930s?

I have been feeling a strong urge to write about the economic policies of the former government of our resurrected prime minister, Kevin Rudd. Whenever I begin to write on this topic, however, what comes to mind is my grandmother’s advice that if you haven’t got anything nice to say, perhaps you shouldn’t say anything. It might be churlish of me to attempt to remind people that Kevin – whom so many people seem to revere as much now as in 2007 – has a record of achievement that is somewhat less than perfect.

Fortunately, not everyone has such qualms and some excellent articles about the economic policies of the Rudd government have appeared in the media over the last week or so. The best newspaper article I have read so far is one by Henry Ergas, entitled ‘Rudd’s Real Record’, published in The Australian last Saturday (July 13, 2013). Ergas reminds us, among other things, that in 2009 Rudd mounted a massive scare campaign about the severity of the GFC in an attempt to justify a splurge of poor quality government spending.

I recall how Janet Albrechtsen suggested in The Australian at the time that the GFC provided Rudd and his treasurer, Wayne Swan, with an opportunity that they were only too eager to grasp:
The Rudd Government finds itself at a very fortunate juncture. As Rudd’s treatise in the present edition of The Monthly reveals, he can blame capitalism for the coming government extravagance funded by taxpayers. Prepare for Rudd’s hubris-filled pitch on how he “saved” capitalism and why you had to pay for it.’

Whether we are prepared or not, we are now hearing Rudd’s hubris-filled pitch:
‘As you know, here in Australia, we deployed a national economic stimulus strategy, timely targeted and temporary, which helped keep Australia out of recession, kept the economy growing, and kept unemployment with a five in front of it – one of the lowest levels in the world.’

The hollowness of the claim by Rudd and Swan that the fiscal stimulus pulled Australia though the GFC has been demonstrated many times. For example, in an article entitled ‘Wayne Swan’s legacy of unrivalled incompetence’ in yesterday’s Financial Review (July 16, 2013), John Stone, former secretary to the Treasury, points out that the hubris of Rudd and Swan overlooks the strength of Australia’s fiscal position prior to the GFC, the role played by monetary policy, the underlying strength of Australia’s banks and the growth in China’s demand for our minerals.

John Stone’s article also raised the question I am intending to address here about balance sheet recessions. Stone suggests that the Australian Treasury had erred in seeing 2008-09 as another cyclical recession like that of 1991-92, rather than as a ‘balance sheet recession’ of the kind that Irving Fisher wrote about in an Econometrica article in 1933.

In my efforts to overcome my ignorance about the characteristics of a balance sheet recession I have managed to find an ungated copy of Irving Fisher’s article. Fisher suggested that in ‘great booms and depressions’ … ‘the big bad actors are debt disturbances and price level disturbances’, with other factors playing a subordinate role.
Fisher argued that it is the combination of over-indebtedness and price deflation that causes the depression:
‘When over-indebtedness stands alone, that is, does not lead to a fall of prices, in other words, when its tendency to do so is counteracted by inflationary forces (whether by accident or design), the resulting "cycle" will be far milder and far more regular.
Likewise, when a deflation occurs from other than debt causes and without any great volume of debt, the resulting evils are much less. It is the combination of both—the debt disease coming first, then precipitating the dollar disease—which works the greatest havoc.’

Fisher suggested:
 ‘it is always economically possible to stop or prevent such a depression simply by reflating the price level up to the average level at which outstanding debts were contracted by existing debtors and assumed by existing creditors, and then maintaining that level unchanged’.

That seems to me to be similar to the rationale for the quantitative easing policies adopted by central banks in recent years, following the failure of fiscal stimulus efforts. Lars Christensen, a market monetarist, has written more extensively about this similarity on his blog.

John Greenwood’s analysis, conducted in the spirit of Irving Fisher, suggests that some balance sheet repair has occurred in recent years in the countries most affected by the GFC, with greater progress having been made in the US than in the UK and least progress having occurred in the eurozone. 

An article by Max Walsh in today’s Financial Review (July 18, 2013), entitled ‘Rudd’s demands could exceed all expectations’, is another excellent article about the implications of the economic policies of the first Rudd government. Walsh refers to Rudd’s essay in The Monthly (February 2009) in which he sought to differentiate the economic ideology of the two major political parties in Australia. As might be expected, Rudd sought to portray his political opponents as extreme proponents of free market ideology, but he also portrayed the Labor party as being wedded to interventionism.

Kevin Rudd wrote: ‘Labor, in the international tradition of social democracy, consistently argues for a central role for government in the regulation of markets and the provision of public goods’. Max Walsh comments: ‘That’s a view that looks to be at odds with the deregulation and privatisation initiatives of the Hawke-Keating years’.

Viewed in that context, it seems to me that the most likely outcome of Kevin Rudd’s recent promise to pursue microeconomic reform ‘with new urgency’ will be further restriction of economic freedom and lower productivity growth. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Does the value of free speech depend solely on its contribution to democracy?

Several rationales for free speech were discussed in the Finkelstein report on media regulation, which was released in March last year. Incidentally, the report states that it 'must be attributed' as the 'Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation'.

Since the report discusses rationales for free speech in a chapter headed 'The democratic indispensability of a free press', it is obvious from the table of contents that Ray Finkelstein sees the rationale for free speech mainly in terms of its contribution to democracy.

I agree that free speech is the life blood of democracy but, as discussed in Free to Flourish, my prior conviction is that the rationale for freedom and democracy rests on their contribution to human flourishing. As I see it, a balanced account of the contribution of free speech to human flourishing would recognize that free speech – freedom of expression - expands the opportunities available to individuals in ways that are not necessarily associated with democratic institutions. It would note that democracy emerged as an outcome of a process intended to protect the rights of citizens (including their right to free speech). It would also acknowledge that the merits of democracy still depend on the potential of democratic processes to defend free speech and the other freedoms that provide the basis for human flourishing.

Defenders of Finkelstein could suggest that 'self-fulfilment and autonomy' and libertarian rationales for free speech are discussed in his report. However, the discussion of self-fulfilment focuses on the views of Katherine Gelber – a follower of Martha Nussbaum– who seems only prepared to defend speech 'that is constitutive of the formation and planning of one's life in ways commensurate with one's informed conception of the good'. Elitist nonsense! Who is to decide what constitutes 'an informed conception of the good'? Are adults who do not have 'an informed conception of the good' to be denied the right to speak their minds?  

Finkelstein's discussion of libertarian theories of the press is under the heading, 'Social responsibility: a theory of the press', so it is not surprising that libertarianism is given short shrift. From what I had previously read about the report, I was expecting that the idea of a free press would be assaulted on the grounds of monopoly, potential abuse or power etc. yawn, yawn. But, after going through all that, Finkelstein asserts that libertarian theory did not provide a workable solution to the challenge provided by broadcasting and that governments 'found it necessary to intervene …'. He adds: 'This amounted to a rejection of libertarian theory'.

Gulp!  So, why doesn't Finkelstein tell us what he thinks, rather than pretending that there was no workable solution other than regulating to control the activities of broadcasters? The workable market solution, as Ray and just about everyone must know, is allocation of the broadcast spectrum, like other scarce resources, to the highest bidder. Does the author have good reasons to believe that would not enable scarce resources go to their highest value use? If the Honourable Ray Finkelstein, QC, former judge of the Federal Court and former president of the Australian Competition Tribunal, thinks that the way government currently allocates the broadcast spectrum is better than the market solution, why doesn't he make the case?

Finkelstein's discussion of the 'search for truth' as a rationale for free speech raises discussion of the 'marketplace of ideas'. He seems somewhat pessimistic about the ability of people to discover truth, but nevertheless remains optimistic about the benefits of democratic discourse – subject to government regulation to ensure social responsibility. He ends up seeing a need to obtain a balance between demands that the media be accountable for exercise of its power and the need for the media to be free to hold governments to account.

I found that discussion to be peculiar. Once the concept of a market for ideas was introduced, it would be logical to expect some exploration of the nature of this market. There is mention of monopoly and competition in the rejection of libertarianism, but no discussion of contestability. Elsewhere in the report, the idea of the conventional media being increasingly exposed to competition from on-line sources is mentioned, as is public scepticism about the veracity of media reports, but the discussion of the rationale for free speech proceeds as though every media outlet has exclusive access to the minds of its customers.

Contestability seems to me to be at the crux of the issue of whether media proprietors and editors have power to exert undue influence on public opinion. The report provides some evidence of media outlets presenting false or misleading reports, but doesn't provide any evidence that these have gone uncorrected elsewhere in the media.

Overall, in my view, the Finkelstein report on media regulation provides an unbalanced account of the rationale for free speech. This part of the report seems to me to display an amazingly brazen degree of bias from an author who favours greater regulation to ensure balance in private media reporting. Some readers might be thinking that comment just reflects the fact that different people have different views of what reporting and analysis is balanced and unbalanced. That is a valid point to make whenever issues of balance arise. In this instance, however, I doubt whether many people who have some knowledge of the topic would view this report as providing a balanced account of the rationale for free speech.

In my last post, I promised to review In Defence of Freedom of Speech, by Chris Berg. Unfortunately, that will have to wait. I thought it would be a good idea to take a quick look at the Finkelstein report before writing my review – and got myself side-tracked!  

Sunday, October 7, 2012

How should we get started with self-publishing?

A guest post by Sarah Rexman:

Getting a book published can be a long, uphill battle. After facing dozens of rejections, you may start thinking that you just don’t have what it takes – that maybe you weren’t really meant to be an author after all. The reality is that much more than talent determines whether your book will be accepted by a traditional publisher, including market trends, the timing, and even the person who happens to pick up your book from the slush pile.

You don’t have to wait for all these elements to align and get accepted by a traditional publisher in order to be published. With the increasing popularity of e-readers, many authors are finding success publishing their own books and selling them to readers directly.

Here’s what you need to know about how to get started with self-publishing to realize your dream of becoming a published author:

Choose an Outlet

There are many sites that sell self-published e-books, including giants Amazon, Smashwords and Lulu. Each of these sites has a different user base and different rules for how to format, upload, and distribute content. They also offer different models for compensation, with different commission rates based on the parameters you choose for selling your book.

Take the time to get to know each of these sites and decide if you want to sell on one of them or all of them and what the advantages and disadvantages will be.

Format Your Book

Once you know where you intend to sell your book, you can figure out how to properly format it. Each site will have its own guidelines for formatting the book, and it may take you awhile figuring out how to get your book just right to meet those guidelines.

You will also need to design a creative cover for your book. If you aren’t able to design the cover yourself, you can hire a freelance designer to create one for you.

Get Reviews

Good reviews will help you build buzz around your book and sell more copies. You can get more reviews for your book by sending it to bloggers, book reviewers for local publications, and even to family and friends.

While it is OK to ask for reviews from family and friends, you should be careful not to influence the content of those reviews. If your readers suspect that your reviews are not honest, they may reject your book.

Market Your Book

In addition to getting good reviews for your book, you must also market it to build buzz and promote sales. You can start a blog, host contests in which you give away copies of your book, or even buy online advertising to promote your book.

Don’t stop at formal marketing. Be prepared to talk up your book to anyone you meet. Carry business cards with information about your book. The next time someone asks you what you do, tell them that you’re a published author and hand them your business card.

Publishing your own book is not a difficult process, but it will take the same kind of dedication it took for you to write your book in the first place. When you’re finished, you will be able to say that you are a published author and can find success on your own terms.

Sarah Rexman is the main researcher and writer for Her most recent accomplishments include graduating from Florida State, with a degree in environmental science.  Her current focus for the site involves researching updated websites.

Addendum by Winton

Sarah’s offer of a guest post on this topic came at an opportune time since I am currently considering publication options for the book I am writing.

Self-publishing seems to me to be an attractive option for the reasons Sarah mentions, but also because it gives authors greater control of the process. I recently learned that authors often don’t even have much say over the titles for their books when they use traditional publishers.

The main considerations for me in choosing a method of self-publishing are to obtain a professional-looking product, access to the main sites that sell e-books and a small print run, while containing costs.

Jim Belshaw had some relevant discussion on his blog a few weeks ago.  Jim suggested that it might be worth considering use of an aggregator, such Australian e-book publisher (AEP) to put content into the right form and arrange for its lodgment with the e-store.  As Jim says, a price has to be paid for this, but it makes things simpler. Since AEP offers a range of different services it would not be necessary to get them to take over the whole publishing exercise.

Another option I am thinking about is the use of Dpublishing, which has links to Dymocks book stores. Dpublishing seems to provide good guidance on formatting etc and makes it easy to also have a printed version of the book. The downside is that Dymocks does not have links to Amazon, so I would need to arrange separately to get the book in suitable form to be sold on Kindle.


In the end I decided to publish the book as a Kindle eBook at Amazon. My comments can be found in a later post.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

What implications does 'monitory democracy' have for the survival of democratic institutions?

I ended my last post promising to consider whether John Keane’s observation that we now have ‘monitory democracy’ has implications for the relationship between the responsibilities and effectiveness of government, and hence the survival of democratic institutions. Can monitory democracy be expected to move political systems towards or away from equilibrium between effectiveness of government and the responsibilities that government is expected to perform?

First, who is Keane and what does he mean by ‘monitory democracy’? John Keane is professor of politics at Sydney university and author of a major history of democracy, ‘The Life and Death of Democracy’ (2009), a book over 1,000 pages described by one reviewer as not ‘for the faint hearted’. (Unfortunately, I can’t claim to have read it.) In an article in the Griffith Review, Keane argues that from the middle of the 20th Century representative democracy began to transform into monitory democracy – a new historical form described by ‘the rapid growth of many different kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms’.

Keane’s list of power-scrutinising mechanisms includes: advisory boards, focus groups, citizen juries, talk shows, think tanks, consensus conferences, teachins, online petitions and chat rooms, public vigils, straw polls, summits, public planning exercises, public consultations, social forums and, of course, weblogs. About the only thing these inventions have in common is that they change the incentives faced by politicians and political parties. Keane suggests:
‘The central grip of elections, political parties and parliaments on the lives of citizens is weakening. Democracy is coming to mean more than elections, although nothing less. Within and outside states, independent monitors of power begin to have tangible effects. By putting politicians, parties and elected governments permanently on their toes, they complicate their lives, question their authority and force them to change their agendas …’

Monitory democracy is closely linked to the emergence of new communications media. In Keane’s terms, ‘monitory democracy and computerised media networks behave as if they are conjoined twins’. He observes:
‘The combination of monitory democracy and communicative abundance … produces permanent flux, an unending restlessness driven by complex combinations of different interacting players and institutions, permanently pushing and pulling, heaving and straining, sometimes working together, at other times in opposition to one another’.

In considering what implications monitory democracy might have for the survival of democratic institutions it seems to me to be worth recalling Joseph Schumpeter’s view, discussed here recently, that democracy is essentially a leadership contest in which the role of citizens ends after they have cast their votes.  The reality of democracy, as described by Keane, is light years away from Schumpeter’s view that democracy can only succeed if voters refrain from trying to tell politicians what to do after they have been elected.
How does monitory democracy actually impact on the balance between the responsibilities and effectiveness of governments?

Some of Keane’s comments suggest that monitory mechanisms might have a positive impact on the effectiveness of government. He points out that, ‘when they do their job well, monitory mechanisms have many positive effects, ranging from greater openness and justice within markets and blowing the whistle on foolish government decisions to the general enrichment of public deliberation and the empowerment of citizens and their chosen representatives through meaningful schemes of participation’. On the other hand, he suggests that nobody ‘should be kidded into thinking that the world of monitory democracy … is a level playing field – a paradise of equality of opportunity among all its citizens and their elected and unelected representatives’.

The combination of monitory democracy and communicative abundance is also likely to impact on voter rationality and the incentives for the major political parties to develop coherent policies to sell to the electorate. There is still a strong incentive for politicians to have regard to particular interests of voters, but it seems to me that their incentive to appeal to the reasoning powers of uncommitted voters may be diminishing. As Keane seems to imply, the new political environment may be discouraging uncommitted voters from taking an intelligent interest in policy issues:
‘Monitory democracy certainly feeds upon communicative abundance, but one of its more perverse effects is to encourage individuals to escape the great complexity of the world by sticking their heads, like ostriches, into the sands of wilful ignorance, or to float cynically upon the swirling tides and waves and eddies of fashion – to change their minds, to speak and act flippantly, to embrace or even celebrate opposites, to bid farewell to veracity, to slip into the arms of what some carefully call “bullshit”.’

This does not provide strong grounds for confidence that monitory democracy improves the effectiveness of government.

How does monitory democracy impact on the scope of responsibilities that governments are expected to perform? The discussion in a recent post about voter irrationality seems highly relevant. There is evidence that voters who say that politics is ‘not at all important’ to them are more likely than others to say that ‘the government should take more responsibility to ensure that everyone is provided for’.

On that basis, monitory democracy could be expected to thrust more responsibilities on governments than they can cope with effectively. This raises serious questions about the ability of democratic institutions to survive.

However, as more people perceive that existential threats are facing democratic institutions they might form new interest groups to foster norms of behaviour that might enable better outcomes to be achieved. Under favourable conditions monitory democracy might prove to be a system with self-correcting characteristics. If influential interest groups can form around the survival of some threatened species of animals, is it not reasonable to expect that stronger and more influential interest groups might form when social institutions that make a valued contribution to human well-being are seen to be threatened? 

I would like to draw attention to relevant comments by kvd and Jim Belshaw on Jim's blog. Jim now also has another relevant post: What would you nominate as the most asinine slogan?

In his comments below kvd has drawn attention to an article by Michael Pascoe entitled, 'Timid Governments Bow to Populism', SMH (9/7/2012). That article is well worth reading, as is the article by Thomas Friedman entitled 'The Rise of Popularism' NYT (23/6/2012) which is referred to by Pascoe. Please note the word used by Friedman is 'popularism'. It was only when my spell-checker objected that I understood why Friedman wrote: 'I heard a new word in London last week: “Popularism”.'

Neil Whitford is not faint hearted. He has read and reviewed 'The Life and Death of Democracy'.