Trolls (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

I’ve decided that life is too short for me to deal with any more trolls. From now on, I’m following the same zero[1] tolerance policy regarding blog comments as I do on other social media. Snarky trolling comments will lead to an immediate and permanent ban from my comment threads.

More generally, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to look at the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ and what remains of the Republican intellectual class is the light of my experience as a blogger.

Put simply. the IDW and others are trolls. Their object is not to put forward ideas, or even to mount a critique, but to annoy and disrupt their targets (us). As Nikki Haley observed, a few months before announcing her resignation as UN Ambassador, it’s all about “owning the libs

Once you look at them as trolls, it’s easy to see how most of the right fit into familiar categories. They include
* Victim trolls: Their main aim is to push just far enough to get banned, or piled-on, while maintaining enough of an appearance of reasonableness to claim unfair treatment: Christina Hoff Sommers pioneered the genre
* Concern trolls: Jonathan Haidt is the leading example. Keep trying to explain how the extreme lunacy of the far right is really the fault of the left for pointing out the lunacy of the mainstream right.
* Quasi-ironic trolls: Putting out racist or otherwise objectionable ideas, then, when they are called out, pretending it’s just a joke. The alt-right was more or less entirely devoted to this kind of trolling until Trump made it acceptable for them to drop the irony and come out as open racists.
* Snarky trolls: Delight in finding (or inventing) and circulating examples of alleged liberal absurdity, without any regard for intellectual consistency on their own part. Glenn Reynolds is the archetype in the US, though the genre was pioneered in UK print media by the Daily Mail’s long running obsession with ‘political correctness gone mad’
* False flag trolls: Push a standard rightwing line, but demand special consideration because they are allegedly liberals. Alan Dershowitz has taken this kind of trolling beyond parody
From what I can see, the latest hero of the Dark Web, Jordan Peterson, manages to encompass nearly all of these categories. But I haven’t looked hard because, as I said, life is too short.

I’ve used US examples here, but most of them have Australian counterparts. Feel free to point them out.

fn1. Not quite zero. Commenters with a track record of serious discussion will be given a warning. But, anyone who wastes my time will be given short shrift

Brexit: this is it?

Since the Brexit referendum was hailed by many as representative of a new force in global politics, it’s of interest even on the far side of the planet, and I’ve watched the slow-motion train wreck with appalled fascination.

So, as far as I can tell, the Brexit deal Theresa May has come up with is pretty much the super-soft version. About the only immediate change it will produce is a return to blue passports in place of the EU burgundy, which, it appears, were always optional. And, it appears, the new passports will be printed in France.

All that assumes that the deal will go through. In this context, I’ve been struck by a lot of commentary supporting the deal on the basis that a second referendum isn’t feasible due to the timing requirements of the Referendums Act. Am I missing something here? Isn’t Parliament supreme? And given that this issue has consumed British politics for the last two years or more, can there really be any significant ambiguity about the possible choices articulated by May today: her deal, no deal or no Brexit?

Feel free to comment on these or any other aspects of the issue.

Armistice Day

It’s 100 years since the Armistice that brought an end to fighting on the Western Front of the Great War. Ten million soldiers or more were dead, and even more gravely wounded, along with millions of civilians. Most of the empires that had begun the war were destroyed, and even the victors had suffered crippling losses. Far from being a “war to end war”, the Great War was the starting point for many more, as well as bloody and destructive revolutions. These wars continue even today, in the Middle East, carved up in secret treaties between the victors.

For much of the century since then, it seemed that we had learned at least something from this tragedy, and the disasters that followed it. Commemoration of the war focused on the loss and sacrifice of those who served, and were accompanied by a desire that the peace they sought might finally be achieved.

But now that everyone who served in that war has passed away, along with most of those who remember its consequences, the tone has shifted to one of glorification and jingoism, exemplified by the proposal that current and former military personnel should have priority boarding rights in air travel.

In part, this reflects the fact that, for countries like Australia, war no longer has any real impact on most people. As in the 19th century, we have a small professional army fighting in faraway countries and suffering relatively few casualties. Tens of thousands of people may die in these conflicts, but the victims of war impinge on our consciousness only when they seek to come here as refugees, to be turned away or locked up.

In the past, I’ve concluded message like this with the tag “Lest we Forget”. Sadly, everything important has already been forgotten.

Update I haven’t heard Scott Morrison say much that I agree with. But his observation that “War is always a failure of our humanity” was one of the better responses to today’s centenary, and gives me some hope that the lessons of the Great War have not been totally forgotten.

Time to join the generation game? Definitely

A little while ago, I partially recanted my long-standing rejection of the idea that “generations” are a useful way of thinking about such issues as political attitudes. The UK elections showed a very strong age effect, reflecting the way that the politics of nostalgia, represented by Brexit, appeal to the old and appal the young.

The same appears to be true of “Make America Great Again”, at least according to the exit polls. In every racial group, there’s a clear cohort effect, with the younger cohorts favouring the Democrats.

& Exit poll results, by age and race

The Republicans had majority support only among whites over 45.

The age effect would probably be a bit smaller if education and urban/rural location were taken into account, but it’s still striking.

Regarding the political implications I said last time

If current demographic trends continue, and nothing else changes, the political right will be doomed by demography to permanent minority status. That’s possible, but one-party dominance has rarely lasted long in the countries I’m talking about. And, as Stein’s Law has it, if a trend can’t continue, it won’t.

So, a long period of leftwing success would presumably produce a political realignment in which culture war issues are no longer a dividing line. On the other hand, if leftwing governments are elected and fail to deliver on their promises (or worse, implement their promises and fail disastrously) their support among currently young cohorts may be replaced by permanent oppositions.

Of course, this assumes that democratic processes survive long enough for these demographic processes to do their work.

Most favoured customer status

One of the things that annoys about the neoliberal era is the constant advice to “shop around” for the best deal for services we could once assume were fairly priced, like electricity or banking services. A crucial feature of this is that you can’t do this once and for all.  Loyal customers are routinely punished by being left on unfavourable deals while new customers are offered better terms.

It struck me that we could get substantially better outcomes from markets if all firms were required to extend to existing customers any offer made to new ones.* That would greatly reduce churn and wasteful sales efforts, hopefully leading to a reversal of the increase in retail margins we’ve seen in areas like electricity.

This would be the equivalent of Most Favoured Nation status in trade policy, which ensures that all members of the World Trade Organization receive the same treatment. Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on Most Favoured Nation status refers only to an anti-competitive version of Most Favoured Customer status, where MFC status is extended only to selected customers.

I’m a bit ambivalent about suggesting ways to make neoliberalism work better, especially as it is now in retreat, but I think it will be around for a while yet, so reforming obvious failures seems like a worthwhile idea.



* I can imagine a case for some limited exemptions, for example, for “try before you buy” deals.

Yet more High Court absurdity

In the latest Section 44 news, it’s being suggested that three more MPs or candidates may be ineligible, two because they are doctors and one because they hold shares in a pharmacy business which is a partner in a Linkage project with the Australian Research Council.

For those who aren’t in the research business, the Linkage program involves research which is jointly funded by the ARC, a University and an industry this case the pharmacy business. That is, the crime allegedly committed by this MP consists of (indirectly) giving money (or support in kind) to a government program, in the hope that the resulting research will be useful to their industry in general or to society as a whole. (Work done for the private benefit of a particular business would not normally be eligible; it would be undertaken as a consultancy). On this basis, a volunteer at (say) the Commonwealth could be disqualified for using government resources.

Doubtless, the defenders of the High Court will rush to say that no such nonsensical inference can be drawn. But, if they had a shred of intellectual honesty, they will admit that, before this nonsense began, no one had ever contemplated the absurdities we have already seen.

The other defence that used to be offered was that MPs with s44 problems should have checked the rules. It ought to be obvious by now (but probably won’t be, given the human propensity for bloody-minded adherence to a fixed position) that no-one can check on the rules. Suppose you are, say, a bank clerk, and the local council banks at your branch. On a literal reading, which is the only kind on offer from this High Court, you would seem to be doing business with the government, and would be forced to quit your job rather than taking leave. Your case is even worse if your employer converts you into a contractor with a business that might continue while you served in Parliament.  Perhaps, based on past precedent, the court would let you off, but perhaps not.

There’s no easy way to fix this. Perhaps people will get sufficiently tired of this nonsense that the massive obstacles to a referendum might be overcome, but I doubt it. The only encouraging sign is that, so far, every member disqualified by the mischief-makers on the Court has been re-elected. Perhaps a few more pointless by-elections will produce some popular resistance.

In any case, the real problem is with the High Court’s entire approach to constitutional interpretation, based on the same kind of literalism that Garfield Barwick used to subvert the taxation system in the 1970s. Barwick was slapped down by changes to the Acts Interpretation Act, but Parliament can’t, I think, tell the Court how to interpret the constitution.  The only solution would be to replace existing justices as they retire, with followers of Lionel Murphy who would start from the commitment to a democratic government and strike down any interpretation (such as the disqualification of most of the population from election) that is inconsistent with that.