Being a Talking Head Means Never Having To Say You Are Sorry

One of the features of modern society that both amazes and disturbs me is how people who have already proved themselves incompetent in some domain get trotted out as respected experts. Many of the military and diplomatic whizzes who helped blunder the U.S. into Iraq were subsequently invited onto TV shows to discuss whether the surge was a good idea. Bob Shrum, with his zero for 8 record as a presidential campaign manager, repeatedly gets asked his opinion about presidential elections. How much it would please me for an interviewer to ask Shrum “Bob, you are really skilled at losing elections, what does Hillary Clinton really need to do right now in order to be defeated?”, or for a TV show host to ask an alleged military expert “General, you gave terrible advice on Iraq, and I wonder what terrible advice you have on Afghanistan”.

But instead, it’s all reverence, knowing nods of agreement and warm thanks for your insight, sir. It’s bad enough that prominent people are not held to account for their mistakes, but the fact they are lionized later as if they had succeeded really sticks in my craw.

As Ryan Cooper notes, economic policy has been one of the arenas in which failure just doesn’t stick to people’s reputation like it should:

For the last generation and more, serious people in suits bearing white papers about economic development have been one of the greatest threats to world prosperity. It was serious, sober technocrats, sporting elite education and wide experience, who laid waste to Russia after the collapse of the USSR. Similar people created the eurozone — now an economic disaster area suffering through a crisis worse than the Great Depression.

Rather dispiriting, but a small dose of justice has come from Daniel Hannan’s video regarding the upcoming “Brexit” ballot initiative. The political and business figures who are leading the campaign for Britain to remain part of the EU are largely the same people who said that not joining the Euro would be an economic disaster. For those of you keeping score at home, Britain is enjoying rising wages and its lowest unemployment rate in 7 years, while the Eurozone struggles on with more than double the British unemployment rate. The British Euro devotees never apologized for the lousy advice they gave in the past (and no doubt never will), but at least they get their comeuppance herein.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Under the Skin

It’s October again, which means that we’re kicking off another month of horror-themed movies here at RBC! The first in the series is a new interpretation on the alien femme fatale story, in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.

The action begins with a motorcyclist bringing a lifeless woman to the back of his van. There, his accomplice, a naked woman played by Scarlett Johansson, takes the victim’s clothes for herself. Already five minutes in to the film, and very little has been explained yet, nor will it for much of what follows. Instead, viewers have to divine who the characters are, and what their motivations may be, based on the smallest fragments of information.

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 00.39.30

So, when the woman starts driving the van around the streets of Glasgow with the intent to seduce men and bring them back to her home, we believe we may have a grasp on what she’s about. We’d be wrong. Once inside her home, we learn that its interior is nothing but a pool of immaculate black oil, into which the woman’s suitors descend and are consumed during their pursuit of her. It’s not clear what happens to the men once they are submerged in the oil until half way through the film. By that point, the woman has amassed a sufficient number of victims that one of them notices another suspended in the mysterious black fluid. Upon reaching out to his fellow captive, he finds that the other man disappears into nothingness, leaving only skin behind.

Consequently, much of the first half of the film is devoted to trying to decipher who this protagonist is, what’s happening to the men she seduces, and why she’s doing it. Answers to any of these questions remain elusive. Therefore, you might just settle on thinking of her as an alien simply to make things easier on yourself. Yet one of the remarkable successes of Under the Skin is that we learn to invest in and sympathize with her all the same, despite all this not-knowing. Continue Reading…

A Primer for Americans on Corbynmania

v218-Jeremy-Corbyn-Get-v2 Many of my American friends have asked me what’s going on with the UK Labour Party leadership election. Hence this primer on the state of play.

After the Labour Party’s shock drubbing in the 2015 election, Ed Miliband resigned as leader. The usual internecine fight that losing parties go through broke out: One faction said the party was not centrist enough and another said it was too close to the center and too far from its traditional roots. The former group are known as New Labour or Blairites (e.g., Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and of course Tony Blair himself). Andrew Rawnsley’s massive book is the essential resource if you want to understand New Labour in depth, but in short New Labour explicitly rejected the socialist left, made peace with the market and neoliberalism and was handsomely rewarded for these changes by British voters (Labour were in power from 1997-2010). In their eyes, Milliband lost because he positioned himself too far to the left, and the party will therefore not get back in power unless it goes with someone closer to the center, like Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall.

Rubbish! says the Socialist wing of Labour, whose negative views of New Labour I related in a prior post that quoted Ian Martin’s dyspeptic, hilarious take on the 2010 Party Conference:

Labour’s message to the electorate is clear – austerity is the new reality but we’re nicer than the Tories. Berks. I hate Labour more than I did when Blair was in charge, squinting into the distance, joshing with America, socialising with the Murdochs. At least he believed in neo-liberalism. The current Loyal Opposition half-believe, but also half-yearn to reconnect to the movement that sustains them, which is half-decent of them I must say. The first clear chance for years to differentiate themselves, to renounce austerity and commit to a genuine Labour manifesto, sod the Mail, renationalise, reunionise, tax the rich, protect the poor, FIGHT FOR THE WORKING CLASS WHICH IS TECHNICALLY THEIR FUCKING PURPOSE and all they can offer is the Vegetarian Option.

In the eyes of old Leftists like Martin, Labour must return to its Pre-Thatcher era values and policies. And to the shock of New Labour, the traditional left has found a champion who is electrifying the party’s grassroots: Jeremy Corbyn (photo above). You can read a bit about his policies here, which reject the essentials of Blairism in favor of the more socialist policies that Labour embraced during the first 90 or so years of its existence. Corbyn is demonstrating the truth of the same political principle as did Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland: If you passionately articulate a clear political message without equivocation and associated Westminster-speak, many formerly disengaged people come out of the woodwork to support you. What can’t be overlooked about Corbyn is that while he is a greybeard who makes aging Labour members nostalgic for their youth, his message is also resonating with a new generation of young leftists who have been alienated from politics until now.

Despite the vein of discontent he has tapped, Corbyn only has a chance of winning because of a major change in the leadership election rules. Previously, Members of Parliament (MPs) had significant control over who became leader. Now they only get to form the list of candidates on which all members of the party then vote (and in that establishment-controlled phase, Corbyn just barely scraped by). The grassroots members are thus in control from here on out, and many of them are looking for someone like Corbyn who speaks to the hearts. A parallel that Americans might appreciate is what happened in the Democratic Party between the 1968 and 1972 elections: New nominating rules meant that former political bosses were overthrown and a wave of new faces with challenging views crashed the party. Of course their hero, George McGovern, got crushed, and that could happen to Corbyn as well if he ever leads his party in a national election. But based on the Labour members I have talked to, many of them would rather lose with someone like Corbyn than win with a New Labour leader.

The Secret World of David Copperfield

Rooks Here is a good trivia question for bibliophiles: What is the full title of Charles Dickens’ classic novel David Copperfield? The answer, believe it or not, is “David Copperfield: The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (which he never meant to publish on any account)”.

An even lesser known fact is that there is an actual place called Blunderstone Rookery. It’s located about 60 miles southeast of London, and the carefully selected rooks that are raised there have won many prizes from British birders over the years. I strongly recommend it as an offbeat, sadly overlooked, tourist spot for Dickens fans, not only for the extraordinary number of birds but also for the library at Blunderstone House, which has an astonishing collection of old Dickens editions.

article-2205444-1516AED9000005DC-681_964x651 I myself am a collector of such editions, and over the years have gotten to know Blunderstone’s librarian, Dr. Arnold Humber, a retired Oxford Don who divides his time between producing some of the nation’s best birds and collecting old books. Dr. Humber is also a voracious consumer of modern literature, and I rely on him to tell me what on the current best seller list is worth my time. Indeed, every time I see him I always ask the same question:

Have you bred any good rooks lately?

Negative Achievements in Politics

John Adams, Master of Inaction

John Adams, Master of Inaction

In recent years, the British economy has been the jobs engine of Europe, enjoying falling unemployment, rising wages and good growth. No doubt many politicians will claim credit based on what they did, but I wonder if any credit will go to someone who helped by not doing something.

I speak of Gordon Brown, who refused Tony Blair’s wishes to join the Euro. No matter what British politicians had done since, it’s hard to see how Britain would currently have half the Eurozone’s unemployment rate if Blair had prevailed. By declining to take action on the Euro, Brown aided his country to a greater extent than he did with many of the policies he actually implemented.

But we don’t generally credit politicians for things they didn’t do, even when their inactions had more benefits than their actions. How many people when listing the achievements of President John Adams would for example mention his not launching a full-scale war with France over the XYZ affair? Yet he might have saved our nascent republic in the not doing so.

It’s not cognitively easy for voters to deal with counter-factuals, and the hero’s narrative that the media loves only works when the hero changed history through some great deed rather than standing pat. That’s probably a bad set of incentives for legacy-hungry politicians because sometimes the advice from the theater holds: Don’t just do something, stand there.

Disseminating Sobriety Monitoring of Alcohol-Involved Offenders in the U.K.

I have collaborated for a number of years with the London Mayor’s Office to expand swift, certain and fair approaches to criminal justice supervision. Our team worked with Parliament to pass a law in 2012 that allow judges to mandate sobriety for alcohol-involved criminal offenders on community supervision. That law allowed us to mount a pilot in South London which has produced encouraging results: Monitored offenders, who wore a bracelet that could detect their alcohol use, were 50% more likely to complete supervision successfully than offenders receiving typical supervision.

Boris Johnson wants to roll the program out across London and the national government wants to expand it throughout the U.K. Terrific. But a word of warning to UK police commissioners and judges who have heard of the pilot and think that slapping a sensor bracelet on an alcohol-involved offender will do the trick (forgive me please for quoting a prior post):

Alcohol-sensing technology is not by itself 24/7 sobriety. The media focuses heavily on the fascinating technology involved in the alcohol-sensing bracelets that offenders will wear. But 24/7 sobriety doesn’t even require the alcohol-sensing bracelets. Indeed, most of its implementation in South Dakota was done via twice a day in person breathalyzation. Detecting alcohol use is essential for 24/7 sobriety to work but the heart of the program is the criminal justice system responding swiftly and certainly when drinking occurs.

Nick Herbert, MP, who helped us get the 24/7 sobriety law passed when he was Minister for Justice and Policing, puts his finger on the principal challenge:

The key principle in disposals like this is certainty: offenders need to know that a breach will result in instant and decisive penalty. Our criminal justice system resists such practice.

What this means for all the innovative judges and policy departments in the U.K. who want to do this is that making this program work will require more than technology. It also requires a systematic effort to start responding rapidly and consistently to infractions (A lot of work at first, but it gets easy quickly as the word on the street spreads that supervision requirements are taken seriously).

If you want to learn more about why this is so and to see the evidence behind these programs, my talk at Policy Exchange is online here.

To Save Westminster


The glorious Palace of Westminister, home of the British Parliament, is falling apart (remarkable photos here) and simultaneously sinking into the underlying clay-rich earth. An independent report places the cost of repairs at £3.5 Billion. Presuming the planning fallacy holds, the actual costs will be even higher (for example, one wonders if the cost estimate considers the likelihood that digging under the foundation will uncover historical/architectural treasures that have to be preserved).

Matthew Flinders is not interested in restoring the building for the government’s use:

The Palace of Westminster should be a museum, not the institutional heart of British politics.

… it is dark and dank. It is as if it has been designed to be off-putting and impenetrable. It is ‘Hogwarts on Thames’ which is great if you have been brought up in an elite public school environment but bad if you did not. It has that smell – you know the one I mean – the smell of private privilege, of a very male environment, of money and assumptions of ‘class’. It is not ‘fit for purpose’ and everyone knows it.

Flinders sees an opportunity to redesign politics along with creating a new, differently designed building to house those who practice it:

if we really want to breathe new life into British democracy then the dilapidation of the Palace of Westminster offers huge opportunities. The 2015 General Election is therefore something of a distraction from the more basic issue of how we design for democracy in the twenty-first century. Less MPs but with more resources? Less shouting and more listening? A chamber that can actually seat all of its members? Why not base Parliament outside of London and in one of the new ‘Northern powerhouses’ (Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle, but definitely not Leeds) that politicians seem suddenly so keen on?…let’s be very un-British in our approach, let’s design for democracy – Let’s do it! Let’s rip it up and start again!

I agree with Flinders that physical spaces shape our behavior, our emotions and how we treat each other. Indeed, that is precisely why I do not want Parliament moved to some antiseptic modern office building in Sheffield. The Palace of Westminster and the spot on which its predecessor structures stood are sacred democratic ground. This is where a land ruled through Divine Right of Monarchs evolved to become one of the world’s leading democratic societies. The building itself does not belong to the politicians inside it but to the British people, and it should therefore be a beautiful, awe-inspiring place worthy of their greatness. And I want their elected officials to walk by the statues, the windows, the crypts and the carvings that convey the weight of history and with it the current generation’s comparatively small role in it (As President Obama says “We just try to get our paragraph right”). To wipe out that history will lead politicians to think that history starts with them, and that’s a perilous concept for democracy.

Dementia and Criminal Responsibility

A remarkable legal case unfolding in the U.K. raises intriguing legal and ethical questions about dementia and the assignment of guilt. A Labour party grandee, Lord Greville Janner, will be tried for pedophilia. Nine men have come forward with allegations that Janner sexually abused them when they were children.

The assaults were alleged to have occurred 30-50 years ago. Janner, now 86-years old, was diagnosed with dementia 6 years ago and has been judged incompetent to participate in his own defense. The court will thus take the unusual step of holding a “trial of the facts” in which evidence is heard and conclusions about its credibility drawn, but no declaration of criminal guilt will be made and no criminal sentence can be given.

There is ferocious debate underway about whether Janner’s high position in the Establishment led to a cover up at the time the abuse was occurring, and also over whether it violates human rights to try a person for terrible crimes when they cannot defend themselves. Those are very much debates worth having, but my own mind keeps dwelling on a different point.

My friend and fellow RBC blogger Mark Kleiman makes a case against extremely long criminal sentences (e.g., 30 years of incarceration for murder) by arguing that when enough time has gone by, the person who is behind bars is no longer really the same person who committed the crime. If one can make that case in general, I would think it would apply even more to someone who is demented. That is, even assuming that it is known in advance that someone who is now demented committed a crime while they still retained their faculties, is it fair to punish them if a disease has erased much or all of their personality, memories and identity?

I took care of patients with dementia when I worked in hospice, and watched grieving relatives (spouses and adult children) slowly come to terms with the fact that while their loved one’s heart was still beating and lungs still functioning, the person they knew and loved was gone. The person who was a good spouse or parent was not really there to thank, the person who was a poor spouse or parent was not really there to blame.

I would think courts would have to come to terms with these realities too. It wouldn’t mean that whatever the accused did wrong in their life was morally acceptable, rather that the perpetrator is no longer with us and therefore beyond the reach of punishment.

p.s. Some commentators have asserted that Janner’s dementia is faked, pointing to a 1991 fake (and egregiously mishandled) case involving convicted fraudster Ernest Saunders. Given that Saunders was 56 at the time and Janner is 86 (i.e., risk of dementia over 200 times higher), and that neurological scanning technology has come a long way in the past quarter century, and that Janner has been examined by 4 medical experts and Saunders was diagnosed by one, that’s a facile comparison. But in any case, it’s not relevant to my ethical question: If someone truly is demented, should we still punish them for what they did when they were intact?

The Trials of British Psephology

The 2015 UK Election wasn’t just a nightmare for the Liberal Democrats and Labour, it was also a disaster for British psephologists. In the closing weeks of the election, all the major pollsters repeatedly predicted a hung parliament, with the Tories and Labour netting approximately the same number of seats. In the wake of Conservatives’ stunning victory, pollsters have been defending their methods and trying to determine how they got the election outcome so wrong.

My initial reaction to the pollsters was sympathetic. 2015 was an unusual year: There were more parties than ever with a credible shot of winning seats, the rise of Scottish nationalism was a novel and powerful force, and the number of homes still using ye olde telephone landline was at an unprecedented low. But then I found the video below, showing that in a much simpler election landscape the pollsters muffed the catch in eerily similar fashion in 1992, again failing to predict the Conservative majority that the voters delivered.

I don’t claim to know the full explanation for these polling errors, but this candid admission by Damien Lyons Lowe, head of Survation, suggests that rational herding is part of the problem. This is his description of the poll Survation completed on the eve of the election:

Survation Telephone, Ballot Paper Prompt:
CON 37%
LAB 31%
LD 10
Others (including the SNP) 6%

Which would have been very close to the final result.

We had flagged that we were conducting this poll to the Daily Mirror as something we might share as an interesting check on our online vs our telephone methodology, but the results seemed so “out of line” with all the polling conducted by ourselves and our peers – what poll commentators would term an “outlier” – that I “chickened out” of publishing the figures – something I’m sure I’ll always regret.

Courtiers and tweetstorms

We have been here before, Keith: a densely connected and hyper-gossipy society where every word can be used against you, those who speak rashly like Sir Tim Hunt come to a rapid social end, and cruel words are used as deliberately as daggers. It was the courts of Renaissance Europe: those of Henry VIII, Cathérine de Médicis, Philip II, and Alessandro Borgia.

Recently I brought up Holbein’s portrait of the English courtier Richard Southwell, a sidekick of Thomas Cromwell who rose to be Master-General of the Ordnance under both Mary and Elizabeth. The portrait shows exactly the kind of man who thrives in such a régime; a man who gave evidence in a treason trial against a childhood friend, the Earl of Surrey.

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1536

Shakespeare had the number of men like Richard Southwell:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sonnet 94

Tell me: would you want for a colleague, superior, subordinate, friend, or spouse a person who never spontaneously made a stupid and prejudiced remark?