Sunday, 25 November 2018

Take Our Test

The Guardian's 'How populist are you?' online test has provided much fun, not least the revelation that respondents, and presumably the paper's readers in particular, are in aggregate closer in their thinking to Pablo Iglesias than Emmanuel Macron on a four-quadrant chart that maps left/right against populist/non-populist. However, I wouldn't place too much value on this because the questions are so transparently ideological that I suspect even Ed Miliband would find himself cast towards the left-populist corner. If you answered 'Strongly approve' to the free market and free trade questions, but 'Neither agree nor disagree' to all the rest, you end up slightly to the right of centre on the political axis and in the middle of the populist axis. You are apparently a centrist, even though you may be a free market fundamentalist. If you strongly agree that politicians need to listen to and engage with the public, but that government serves special interests, doesn't necessarily improve the lives of the people and keeps information from them, then you are most definitely a populist. Your views on conservatism versus socialism, plus emblematic issues such as renewable energy, church authority and gay marriage, will then determine whether you are of the populist left or populist right.

Stripping out the questions intended to place you on the traditional left-right spectrum, the definition of populism that emerges is one centred on a cynicism about representative government and a lack of respect for the political class. In other words, you have failed to adopt a realistic attitude about the practical limits of representative democracy. This indicates that the underlying paradigm is still essentially that of the neoliberal, scolding 1990s. In keeping with that quiztastic, self-actualising era, your reward for answering these questions is to be matched up with your "ideal" politician. Given that the positioning of these epitomes on a biaxial chart is based on the opinion of the quiz-setters (and their thinking isn't explained in sufficient detail to critique), this is no more reliable than being told that the pop star you most resemble is Taylor Swift because you think people should be paid a decent wage. Laughably, both Barack Obama and Emmanuel Macron are positioned slightly left-of-centre. The extremes are occupied by Bernie Sanders on the left, and Donald Trump and Matteo Salvini on the right (poor Luigi Di Maio still doesn't get a look in).

No attempt has been made to position current British politicians, though Nigel Farage is predictably included as a reference point because of the unwritten rule that says he must always be on the panel. A possible reason for this omission is that Jeremy Corbyn would have ended up in the sweet spot of the aggregate responses, much to the chagrin of the paper's editorial team. For a laugh, I answered the questions as I thought Tony Blair would and ended up next to Angela Merkel in the non-populist centre-right. Significantly, the aggregate response also clusters on the populist side of the dividing line, which suggests either that populism has reached pandemic proportions or the definition of the term is so generous as to be near-meaningless. I suspect it's the latter. Evidence in support of this came as the week progressed and the Guardian started to link populism to conspiracy theories. In among the routine madness of crowds, we find a mistrust of authority (including that of journalists) as an indicator of a conspiracist mindset. Predictably, social media is also put in the frame, despite being as effective in debunking conspiracy theories as promoting them. Presumably the aim is to suggest that non-centrist politics is founded on unreason, and that incidentally you should rely more on newspapers.

The problem with this approach (or at least the way it has been presented) is that it fails to provide a typology of conspiracism, in particular the distinction between malign paranoia, benign fantasy and healthy cynicism. For example, a belief that the government is secretly working to replace the native population with Muslim immigrants (le grand remplacement - a conspiracy theory with its roots in traditional French antisemitic fears of Jewish integration) is clearly malign. In contrast, a belief that extra-terrestrials have contacted Earth but the government has covered it up is benign, being essentially harmless, while habitually distrusting journalists is both rational and empirically justified. The result is that perfectly reasonable opinions are deemed illegitimate, thus: "The most widespread conspiracy belief in the UK, shared by 44% of people, was that 'even though we live in what’s called a democracy, a few people will always run things in this country anyway'”. Given the tenacity of the British establishment and the self-replicating nature of the politico-media class, such a view seems relatively uncontroversial.

There is an obvious irony in the Guardian's hyperbolic approach to populism, not least its belief that this is a hitherto hidden dimension that explains the reality of contemporary politics - a classic conspiracist trope. In suggesting that populism is a coherent political theory, rather than just an opportunistic affectation or a rhetorical manner, and in giving prominence to all those stories about Steve Bannon's coordination of the nationalist right, it seeks to construct a unified enemy where there is little more than hot-air and grift. The academic studies that the Guardian has relied on are not publicly available, as far as I can determine, though the limited explanations of their methodology suggest that they've treated populism in practice as a style of political rhetoric that is adopted by a broad and fluctuating set of parties, including those of the centre. Likewise, the research into a belief in conspiracy theories doesn't clearly support the strong linkage the newspaper makes with populism, despite its careful segmenting of the data between remainers and leavers in the UK and Trump and Clinton voters in the US. As with the various theories of Russian involvement in Brexit, there is a lot of fervid speculation that the data doesn't really justify.

The various commentary articles linked to the populism series play fast-and-loose with history and the particularities of national politics. For example, John Henley says of Austria, "the Freedom party, a far more straightforward far-right movement founded by a former Nazi in 1956, won more than 20% of the vote for the first time in 1994 and is now in government, as junior coalition partner, for the fourth time." This is the conventional thumbnail sketch of the FPO outside Austria, emphasising its Nazi roots and its current closeness to power, but it's one that eschews context. The FPO was not created ex nihilo but evolved out of the VdU (Federation of Independents), which was founded in 1949. Though it targeted former Nazi Party members (who had been barred from voting in the first postwar election in 1945), its ideological heritage was the National Liberal camp of Austrian politics, which was opposed to both clericalism and socialism (it was the "third way" of its day), a tradition that goes all the way back to 1848. The FPO first tasted power in coalition with the Social Democrats in 1983. In the late 80s it turned to the right under Jorg Haider, after which it typically entered coalition with the conservative OVP. It has danced around the centre.

Henley describes the membership of Syriza as "radical leftwing populists". This ignores that the party is (literally) the Coalition of the Radical Left, whose participants are a mix of socialist, Marxist, workerist and ecological groups. In other words, typical of both Greek and wider Southern European leftist traditions. While Syriza undoubtedly employed populist tactics in its critique of the Greek state and political establishment, these were in no sense novel either for the left particularly or for Greek politics generally. Indeed, as with the leftist Podemos in Spain and the essentially liberal M5S in Italy, Syriza's "populism" is little more than the embrace of social media and a vocal disrespect for the established parties of the centre. Talking of Italy, Henley's take on the country ignores the historic decline of the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party after 1989, which was about changes in society more than just corruption or mismanagement, and fails to note that the reaction to the failures of Berlusconi's centre-right and the neoliberal centre-left, embodied in the "unlikely coalition" of M5S and La Lega, is in many ways a return to the traditions of Italian liberalism.

The degree to which the current populist moment is an expression of the frustrations of the political centre, rather than an uprising by the politically marginal, is one of the Guardian's blind-spots. Consider this: "Mainstream Nordic parties have long resisted forming coalition governments with rightwing populists, but have been forced to give ground in Norway, where the Progress party has been in government coalitions since 2013, and Finland, where the small Blue Reform party – an offshoot of the populist Finns – is also in coalition." Oddly, centrist parties in Northern Europe rarely feel "forced" to enter coalition with leftwing parties, even when the latter aren't populist. Matthijs Rooduijn, the political sociologist the Guardian has relied on for much of the comparative data, thinks the absence of leftwing populism in Northern Europe is "possibly because the generosity of the Nordic countries' welfare systems makes a radical leftwing message less relevant", while the strength of leftwing populism in Southern Europe reflects their weaker economies and the greater impact of the financial crisis.

This suggests that contemporary leftwing populism (if it can be said to exist) is essentially material, which makes it hard to see how it possesses sufficient common characteristics with rightwing populism to allow both to be analytically lumped together. A key point Rooduijn makes is that in Eastern Europe "populism generally did not bob up at the fringes of the political spectrum, but in the centre. Parties such as Fidesz in Hungary, and Law and Justice in Poland, started their political lives as mainstream parties". This isn't peculiar to Eastern Europe. Just as Berlusconi's populism was an attempt to modernise the mainstream Italian right in the neoliberal era, so UKIP under Farage sought to force change on a Conservative Party reluctant to acknowledge the widespread Euroscepticism of its membership (UKIP might be embracing the far-right now, but the majority of its support returned to the Tory fold after the EU referendum). Likewise, Emmanuel Macron secured the French Presidency through a classic populist campaign in which the failings of the establishment and an appeal to patriotic republicanism were front and centre.

The truth is that populism is both a flexible, perjorative term employed by liberals to defend the political establishment from "outsiders" and a style of rhetoric opportunistically embraced by those same liberals. That Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and Matteo Renzi tell us that Europe needs to "curb immigration" in order to defeat the populists makes the second point. That the Guardian's series on populism appears to have been designed in part to try and rehabilitate these "centrist heavyweights" reinforces the first. There is no populist theory, in the sense of a coherent body of political thought, merely a populist practice: a series of rhetorical tropes that can be deployed as easily by governing parties as by those in opposition. The rise of populism since 2008 is less the eruption of a dormant tendency within the polity than a failure of the political centre to control popular anger by pointing it in time-honoured fashion at the poor and the marginal. Focusing on populism shows that centrists remain keen to avoid the left-right axis and material concerns. Focusing on immigration shows their determination to once more direct popular anger against the disadvantaged.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

The Beginning of the Endgame

The failure of the Tory ultras to trigger a leadership challenge to Theresa May was all-too predictable. Their chance to move against her came and went in the first quarter of this year, between the initial Joint Report in December, which introduced the concept of the backstop, and the Prime Minister's letter to Donald Tusk in March, which reaffirmed it. The resignations of Davis, Baker and Johnson in July over the Chequers statement, which set the course for maximum alignment with the EU, showed the ultras to be a busted flush. Their earlier hesitation has proved costly because it has allowed the Prime Minister to yoke her own position to the passage of the Withdrawal bill. Tory MPs keen to avoid a no-deal outcome know that dethroning her would risk calamity, hence the ultras are struggling to get the 48 letters needed to trigger a leadership vote. With little chance of an ardent remainer committed to a referendum re-run or an ultra committed to no-deal entering Number 10, May is probably the only viable option for the majority of her party's MPs, so a leadership contest held now is likely to reinstate her. Had the ultras pushed harder ten months ago they would have had a better chance of convincing their colleagues that a change of course was feasible in the time remaining. You could never accuse May of being artful, but her dogged persistence has managed to shut down the alternatives.

If she is defeated in the Commons on the Withdrawal bill might May agree to a second referendum? I doubt it. Pragmatically, she knows that a second vote wouldn't secure either her government or her continued leadership of the Conservative Party. Psychologically, it would be an admission that she had failed to carry out the instruction of June 2016. What friendly voices refer to as May's "grit and determination" is the product of two factors: a lack of imagination (all too evident during the negotiations) and the narcissistic trap of a belief in her own ability to achieve set goals. To quote David Runciman citing Eric Pickles, "She takes a position and then she sticks to it, seeing it as a matter of principle that she delivers on what she has committed to." For example, her "hostile environment" policy is best understood not as innate xenophobia but as a logical if callous attempt to achieve the unreasonable 'tens of thousands' target for immigration committed to in the Tory manifesto. Given her emphasis this week on the ending of free movement as the signal achievement of her deal, not to mention her rehabilitation of Amber Rudd, it looks like she is still determined to hit that target. It is highly unlikely there will be a second referendum while she is Tory leader because that would require her to admit failure in her appointed task of delivering Brexit.

A referendum would need a change in Tory leader or a change in government, but even if one of those happened before March a second ballot doesn't necessarily follow. There is currently no Commons majority for a particular referendum choice. A "people's vote" that was seen as a re-run of 2016 would risk an abstention campaign by disgruntled leavers. Even if remain won with more than 17.4 million votes, the result would be declared illegitimate by many Brexiteers, particularly if turnout was down. This would be a genuine crisis of democracy. A ballot with three options, even if it allowed preference ranking, would not be seen as decisive by many. If a referendum does happen, it is more likely to be a straight binary choice, either between remain and a clearly-understood leave option, or between that leave option and no deal. The former wouldn't be acceptable to leavers if the option was May's deal, their argument being that this was a botched negotiation producing a Hobson's choice. The latter would be a logical progression from 2016 (we voted to leave, now let's vote on the manner of our leaving), and would satisfy the original demand for a popular vote on the terms of departure, but it would clearly not meet the objective of remainers who want to reverse the 2016 result. I don't see a second referendum coming about in the current parliament and I doubt any backbench attempt to add an amendment to that effect to the Withdrawal bill would succeed.

So what are the chances of a general election? Though the DUP might well oppose the government in an initial vote of confidence they might also abstain in the second vote required to trigger a general election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, thereby avoiding the risk of helping to propel a believer in a united Ireland to Number 10. As its stands, the most plausible route to an election is if May, having been obliged by the Commons defeat to return to the EU27 (she has a short window for this), tables a revised Withdrawal bill that is also defeated (this assumes the Labour right don't finally play their "country before party" card). Given that we would then be imminently facing the prospect of crashing out without a deal by default in March, she might decide to seek an extension of Article 50 to secure more time for negotiation. The EU27 would probably see this as pointless: they would struggle to cede more ground and suspect that no deal negotiated by May will pass in the Commons. The one circumstance under which I think they would agree an extension would be if May made the ultimate sacrifice and committed to a general election to break the domestic deadlock. That implies her admitting that she had failed - a big ask - but it has the virtue of allowing her to feel that she had done her constitutional duty.

Though there is little political affinity between the EU's mostly centre-right governments and Corbyn, they might calculate that a Labour administration could produce a deal. Various centrists have dismissed Labour's claim that a re-negotiation would be possible in the three months between a snap general election in December and the March deadline. Their reasoning is that there simply isn't enough time and that the EU27 have no reason to change their stance. This assumes that the last two years of dither and incompetence were a reflection of the complexity of the Withdrawal Agreement. In fact, the formal agreement is limited to only three substantive issues: money, citizens' rights and the Northern Ireland border. The first two were resolved months ago. The contortions the government has gone through to keep the DUP onside till the last possible moment have resulted in aspects of the future trading relationship being brought forward into the Withdrawal Agreement scope (specifically the political declaration addendum), most notably the idea of a UK-wide customs union with the EU. That was a significant concession by the EU27.

A new government (let's assume a Labour one) could reach a new agreement with the EU within a relatively short space of time by the simple expedient of agreeing to the EU's original terms: Northern Ireland to remain within the EU single market and customs union and the UK to commit to a future relationship based on the menu of established options outlined by Michel Barnier last December. While this would be presented by Brexiteers and unionists as abject surrender, it simply means acknowledging that Northern Ireland is a special case (which the UK conceded with the Good Friday Agreement) and that the future relationship between Great Britain and the EU would be consistent with precedent. This would also be more acceptable to the EU27 members, some of whom are already expressing reservations about the concessions made to the UK. Such an agreement would defer the haggling over the specifics of the future relationship (limits on state aid, freedom of movement, agriculture and fisheries, the status of Gibraltar etc) to the transition period, which the EU have already indicated they would extend. It's not without its flaws, but it's a credible stance.

How might a general election before March pan out? It seems unlikely that May would lead the Conservative Party into it, not just because her Brexit strategy would have failed but because of the traumatic experience of 2017. Though a party contest just before a popular vote would complicate matters, it is hard to imagine May successfully insisting that she stay on to provide "strong and stable" leadership. A Tory campaign led by a Brexit ultra and fought on no deal would almost certainly crash and burn, and I doubt Boris Johnson arguing for a vague "Canada super-plus" that would be tantamount to no deal would make much difference. A remainer standing on a platform similar to Labour's (i.e. de facto EEA membership and a customs union) would be an implicit admission that the last two years were wasted, not to mention an invitation to vote Labour for other reasons, such as ending austerity or abolishing tuition fees. Between those two options there would only be a rehash of May's rejected deal. Though pundits have long derided Labour's failure to open up a large lead in the polls, the movement in recent days suggests that Tory support has been buoyed by a determination to give May a chance to deliver an acceptable Brexit, but that the deal on offer doesn't look like one.

The increasing likelihood of a general election and a Labour government under Corbyn has triggered centrists. While the FBPE crowd has started to suggest that the chaos of a looming no deal will bounce the country into a people's vote, commentators like John Harris have started to accuse the Labour leadership of wishing for creative destruction: "While some of us have been spitting feathers about the deceptions perpetrated by rightwing leavers, Jeremy Corbyn has seemed barely interested. Is there some kind of awful equivalence between the rightwing Brexiteers, who see national crisis as the ideal seedbed for a free-market utopia, and leftwingers who think socialism is similarly best assisted by disaster?" Coming from someone who built a career indulging "legitimate concerns" the idea that he has been spitting feathers over leaver deceptions, most of which were either directly or indirectly linked to immigration, is a bit rich. To make matters worse, Harris reverts to patronising the British public for incorrectly diagnosing the country's problems and blaming the EU for the evils of Conservative rule: "In an awful instance of irony, the misery and resentment sown by the deindustrialisation the Tories accelerated in the 1980s and the austerity they pushed on the country 30 years later were big reasons why so many people decided to vote leave".

There is nothing ironic about this. Even pragmatic remain voters recognise that the EU is not a progressive project and that it's policies on the free movement of capital played a key role in the deindustrialisation that affected Western Europe in the 80s and Eastern Europe in the 90s. It surely hasn't escaped Harris's notice that the ECB has been pushing a policy of austerity throughout the Eurozone. His suggestion that left and right are united by some Horseshoe Theory of Chaos is sixth form stuff, but it allows him to avoid asking what Corbyn has been spending his time talking about since he became leader, which has often been austerity and under-investment. On Sunday on Sky News the Labour leader said: "I have discussed with Michel Barnier the communities that have seen no investment since the end of the miners strike - nothing from new infrastructure. Communities are likely to be against the institutions that have failed to deliver it for them". Instead of noting Corbyn's insight - that for many people the EU is more associated with Thatcherism than the Erasmus Programme - the sages of centrism promptly derided the Labour leader for failing to spot metal signs celebrating EU infrastructure funding dotted around the country.

A trope of recent commentary is that Britain is once more suffering because of  an intractable "Irish question". In reality, there hasn't been an Irish question in Britain since 1922, though there has certainly been a British question in Ireland. Like the vogueish "English question" that surfaced after the Scottish Independence referendum, this manoeuvre has historically been deployed to transfer responsibility for the failings of the UK state onto the people. John Harris's claim that the Northern working class were gulled by duplicitous rightwingers into rejecting the warm embrace of the EU is another variation on this, and a continuation of an intellectual heritage that goes all the way back to Plato's belief in the people's lack of judgement and vulnerability to demagogues. The brutal strategies of deindustrialisation and austerity were not the work of some marginal chancers but the ruling consensus of the politico-media class. I have no idea whether we'll get a snap general election or a second referendum, or whether Theresa May will be able to cobble together enough votes to get her deal through Parliament, but I sense we are approaching a wider endgame than just the withdrawal phase of Brexit.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

So Far So Good

The reports that leading European clubs are considering a breakaway league and that Richard Scudamore is to get a £5 million "farewell bonus" barely constitute news. The G14 group, or whatever they're called these days, has been mulling over the idea of a super league for almost as long as the snouts have been in the Premier League trough. That these stories have competed for airtime with Wayne Rooney's recall to the England team simply tells us that domestic club football is once again suspended for an international break, which means wall-to-wall tedium barely alleviated by the shake-out of the UEFA Nations League group stage. But that at least means it's a good time to review Arsenal's progress over the season to date. We're a third of the way through and it looks like it's shaping up to be a tight race. Manchester City and Liverpool look the most likely to be in at the death, though Chelsea have also been impressive, quickly adapting to Maurizio Sarri's somewhat un-Italian style. The top three are marked by compactness, an aggressive press and fast transitions. Tottenham are a little off the pace and have become increasingly reliant on a defensive style to eke out results. They're beginning to look more Argentinian.

Arsenal sit fifth with 24 points, 8 behind Manchester City at the top but only 3 shy of Tottenham in fourth. With games against sixth placed Bournemouth and Spurs to come next, we are in a healthy position but not one remarkably different to previous seasons, despite the overall positive vibe that Unai Emery has brought to the club. After early defeats to City and Chelsea, we put together a decent winning run. That has sputtered in the league recently with three draws, though the 1-1 against Liverpool at The Emirates Stadium was certainly encouraging. Being held by Crystal Palace through two penalty concessions was less pleasing, while we were lucky to get a point at home to an impressive Wolves team. Overall, most Arsenal fans are happy at what looks like gradual progress, albeit helped along with a few dollops of good fortune. We are nowhere near approaching Emery's finished article, but it is possible now to see the direction of travel. What was most impressive about the game against Liverpool was the positional and tactical intelligence on display. We went toe-to-toe and wouldn't have been flattered if we'd nicked the win.

24 points represents a slight improvement on last season's opening tally of 22 (which was followed by 20 and 21 across the other two thirds) but is two wins short of a title-challenging 30. That the top three are still unbeaten at this stage is good news for Arsenal as they have so far drawn most of their head-to-heads. This has kept them all within striking distance and will likely produce more tight encounters as the season progresses. Though City look the best of the bunch, I doubt they'll get near the 100 points they achieved last season. If 90 points is a more realistic target for the champions, then finishing close to 80 might be enough to get into the top four and Champions League qualification. That's Arsenal's realistic target during the transition between managerial regimes, and it will probably come down to the two matches against Spurs. The positive here is that they are struggling to score enough goals (20 to our 26) but are doing well because of a parsimonious defence (only 10 conceded in 12 games). The clever money will probably go for low scoring draws.

Our problem, as was the case last season, is that we are still conceding too many. 15 to date is decidedly mid-tabelish, though it actually represents a small improvement on last season when we conceded 16 in the first third and 51 in total (i.e. an average of 17 a third). At the other end of the field, 26 goals scored is better than Liverpool's 23 and only marginally worse than Chelsea's 27, though a long way short of City's 36. However, it's a real improvement on the opening phase of last season when we only scored 22. In the middle and final thirds we scored 24 and 28 respectively, the last lot boosted by the injection of Aubameyang's goals after January. While there remain questions about how best to accommodate both him and Lacazette in the same team, it is not unreasonable to hope that we can get over 80 goals by the end of the season for the first time since 2010. If so, our final position will depend on tightening up in defence over the remaining two-thirds, which is a combination of better players and better coordination.

Given the number of injuries we have sustained in that department, being harsh on the defence at this stage is perhaps unfair. Leno has proved more than capable of stepping up as the number 1 goalkeeper in Cech's absence. He has his own strengths and weaknesses - an excellent shot-stopper but not yet commanding on crosses - but his relative comfort with the ball at his feet clearly suits Emery's style and there has been no sign of a lack of confidence among the defenders in front of him, which hasn't always been the case with young Arsenal goalies. Bellerin and Holding are clearly improving under the Spaniard's tutelage and Sokratis has been unspectacularly solid. Mustafi is still prone to a rick, Lichtsteiner is clearly no more than a back-up (and amusingly appears to have inherited the angry-man-shouting-at-clouds role left vacant since Flamini's departure) while Kolasinac has gone backwards, though presumably due to injury rather than coaching. I'm hopeful that the return of Monreal and Koscielny will improve the defence further, though given their ages we probably still need to invest in a couple of younger defenders, possibly as early as January, unless Mavropanos (also currently injured) can progress quickly.

The midfield looks a lot better with the addition of Lucas Torreira who is not just a tenacious tackler with good positional sense but has shown his ability to play attacking balls into the final third of the pitch. Xhaka is still capable of a mistake, but it is noticeable that these are now mostly errors of judgement with the ball (which he sees a lot of) rather than daft tackles, which is surely as much down to Torreira's presence as Xhaka's own continuing development. That said, we are fouling more as a team this season, which I'd attribute to a more aggressive press rather than a conscious desire to play dirty (we've yet to get a red card, which is a positive). Matteo Guendouzi has been callow at times but hugely impressive overall. Ozil has been inconsistent - though the occasional highs justify the occasional lows, for my money - but I suspect this is as much about the whole team settling into Emery's new system as it is a reflection of the German's state of mind following his acrimonious retirement from international football. His wearing of the captain's armband recently suggests some renewed determination on his part.

Aaron Ramsay is clearly going to leave the club, possibly as early as January if a suitor wishes to beat the summer rush for his signature. I think this is a shame at a personal level - he has always been future club captain material - but probably makes sense footballistically, to use a Wengerism for old time's sake. Emery has decided to deploy the Welshman's gung-ho style as a way of changing the shape of the attack in the later stages of games, which suggests the manager isn't convinced Ramsay can prosper as a starter in a midfield based more on positional discipline and accurate, progressive passing. In this environment, Emery is surely right to invest in game time for younger players such as Guendouzi, Alex Iwobi and Emile Smith Rowe. Mkhitaryan has been as inconsistent as Ozil but he does bring intelligence to the pitch and he certainly hasn't done worse than Alexis Sanchez, so I still think we got the better of that particular deal. The problem is that he isn't as reliable a provider as the German and at 29 he isn't going to get any faster and start terrorising opposition full-backs.

Up front Lacazette has continued to impress (he's now had a recall to the French squad), while Aubameyang has continued to knock in the goals. Emery isn't likely to break with the current conventional wisdom on team shape and go with a traditional 4-4-2, so the Gabonese international is likely to have to continue with a wide berth. He has the pace to make that work, though against teams who sit deep it means his ability to turn a defender usually just presents him with another defender, which isn't necessarily the case in the centre where his quick feet and movement can open up a sight of goal. I like the combination of the two but I think Emery needs a batter balance across the forward line, which probably means finding a right-sided attacker faster than Mkhitaryan who can stretch the opposition defence and create more channels for Aubameyang and Lacazette. Danny Welbeck's unfortunate injury makes that more pressing. In conclusion, it's a work in progress and it would be foolish to make predictions for what will remain a transitional season, but I think Arsenal are pretty much where I thought they would be at this stage. As they are more likely to improve than get worse (fingers crossed), a top four finish is within our sights.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Why Don't We Have a Job Guarantee?

Basic income is often derided as impractical despite the evidence of success in past (albeit limited) trials and the willingness of governments to conduct further experiments. In contrast, the job guarantee is advocated as being more realistic (because closer to our belief in the value of work), and tends to enjoy more favourable coverage in the media, yet it has never been successfully trialled let alone implemented. Why is this? One explanation is that basic income experiments are often limited in scope to the unemployed, reflecting an ideological assumption about the desirability of integrating them into the labour market or bypassing the perceived disincentives of traditional welfare. In other words, schemes sold as basic income trials are often no more than attempts to reform existing unemployment benefits in a "market-friendly" way. A universal basic income (UBI) trial would need to address a full cross-section of society (the majority would be employed) and would necessitate a parallel tax and benefits system. In order to gauge pro-social benefits and the wider effects on the labour market, such a trial would need to run for longer than a couple of years.

The problem then is one of scale and the same challenge has historically limited the opportunity for a job guarantee (JG) system to be trialled. It's worth emphasising at this point that temporary job creation schemes, such as India's rural employment guarantee, or those aimed at the young or long-term unemployed in developed nations, are not job guarantees in the sense that the term is used by JG advocates. The chief feature of the JG is that it provides a permanent option that any adult can choose rather than being a temporary, counter-cyclical programme or a targeted relief. This make it particularly suitable for unemployment black-spots in an otherwise buoyant economy - for example, where a large plant closes or a major employer goes bust in a small town. When a worker is laid off by the private sector, she can immediately get a job provided by the public sector (this may actually still be a job operationally in the private sector, in that the provision of work projects may be outsourced, but her wage is paid by the state). Once the private sector starts hiring again, the worker would be incentivised to move back by the prospect of better pay and a better career fit.

The traditional arguments against the JG are essentially critiques of government: the enormous cost and potential for waste, the state's managerial incompetence and the crowding out of the more dynamic private sector. The solution to government is usually "the market", but this suffers in the case of a JG because the actual jobs market has already passed judgement in the form of unemployment, which leads some on the right to insist that the only solution to worklessness is to abolish minimum wage levels and severely reduce benefits to price labour back into the market. This has proven socially disastrous when tried. While the anti-government argument is plausible its material significance is rarely assessed. There is plenty of waste in the private sector and the social benefits of maintaining local communities may be considerable, so all of these imputed downsides might be tolerable given the upside benefits of employment and demand stimulus. A more honest criticism would be that capitalism still requires a "reserve army" of the unemployed, whether to maintain its political power (per Michael Kalecki) or to guard against inflation in the interests of rentiers (the NAIRU concept).

A key macroeconomic argument in favour of a JG is that it is a form of automatic stabiliser, maintaining aggregate demand in a recession and unwinding naturally through the labour market during a recovery. In counterpoint to this, JG sceptics fear that the system could become too attractive, thereby making labour "sticky" - i.e. reluctant to move into the private sector when vacancies arise, which would drive up the cost of labour for the private sector and so impede any recovery. The automatic stabiliser then becomes a fetter. While JG schemes often propose payment of the minimum wage, this could still make them more attractive than many private sector jobs because of a less stressful working environment or because of better fringe benefits. For example, schemes proposed in the US would provide access to healthcare, which is significantly better than what most minimum wage jobs in the private sector provide, though some advocates admit that this is intended to force the private sector to offer comparable benefits. In the UK, the NHS means that employment benefits would not be as great a differentiator (though they might be in the case of childcare). Even so, there would still be the possibility that some workers would prefer tidying-up public gardens to delivering pizzas.

The implied dynamic is that workers smoothly move between regular employment and the JG of their own volition, but for this to happen they must generally consider a JG job a second-best alternative to regular employment but must also be prepared to upgrade from the JG as soon as regular vacancies become available. The wage paid for a JG job must be sufficiently attractive to prevent recourse to residual benefits (assuming these are still available for hardcore refuseniks), while also being sufficiently unattractive to ensure almost no one would stick around once there were employment opportunities in the private sector. This implies both a significant differential between unemployment benefit and the JG, and between the JG wage and the minimum wage available in the private sector. The former is easily achieved (there would be widespread support to be parsimonious with those who refused to work) but the latter less so. In an era when low-wage private sector employment is precarious and fringe benefits have largely disappeared, the JG wage would have to be significantly lower to prompt workers to leave the security of a JG job.

One way round this is to make the JG wage variable, turning it up to the minimum wage level during periods of high unemployment and turning it down during periods of private sector jobs growth. But this assumes that labour is largely fungible and ignores the possibility of differential employment growth across sectors and geographies. If construction is expanding, should we reduce the pay of retail workers currently on a JG scheme? If London and the South East is booming, should we reduce JG wage rates in the North to encourage mobility? An answer might be to make rates variable by sector and location, but that is potentially destabilising for workers (it undermines the concept of a "guarantee") and may even end up producing sub-optimal behaviour, such as encouraging people to move to high unemployment areas to guarantee a liveable JG wage. The suspicion is that a JG can only work if it is both parsimonious (to encourage movement back to the private sector) and coercive (to prevent mass non-cooperation in the face of low pay). This might be one reason why it has never been fully trialled.

There has recently been a tendency to consider a basic income and a job guarantee as complementary rather than as alternatives: "the only cost-effective policy for comprehensive welfare is a combination of a modest basic income with job offer by local authorities below the minimum wage." In effect, the basic income would be parsimonious - enough to live on but not enough to flourish - making the JG wage sufficiently attractive to maintain employment, while the differential between the latter and a minimum wage job would encourage a speedy return to the private sector. This appears to combine the best of both worlds: security from destitution, meaningful employment and incentives to re-enter the labour market. A more progressive interpretation of this idea is that "Pairing a job guarantee with a UBI would mitigate the risk that the 'guarantee' would transmogrify under political pressure into a punitive workfare program. Pairing a UBI with a job guarantee would mitigate the risk that we neglect the broader project of integrating one another into a vibrant society, that we let a check in the mail substitute for human engagement".

Leaving aside the assumption that a UBI is anti-social (most basic income advocates emphasise its pro-social benefits), I'm not convinced that a basic income safety net would make the JG less coercive, even if it is no longer technically workfare as the entire income is not dependent on cooperation. The problem is that most of the unemployed would be obliged to accept JG jobs because the basic income would be insufficient, but those jobs are unlikely to be of high calibre because they would be paid at a much lower level that the worst jobs in the private sector. They won't be intrinsically rewarding or entail training in marketable skills. This is by design - the aim is to keep any viable minimum wage jobs in the private sector - but the result is more likely to be demoralising make-work jobs with little social benefit. There is also the challenge of preventing JG jobs being covertly used to service the private sector at a cost below the minimum wage. Given the public sector's reliance on outsourcing, drawing a clear line between public and private jobs is hard at the best of times. If the JG system was highly devolved, as most schemes propose, there would be obvious scope for corruption and abuse.

While basic income has remained conceptually consistent over the years, but has been given salience by the growth in precarious work and fears of technological unemployment, the job guarantee has had to reinvent itself to keep up with contemporary concerns. One significant change in JG advocacy is the move away from the idea that it will discipline labour (by institutionalising the reserve army of the unemployed) towards the twin ideas that it will embolden private sector workers in an era of weak unions (because they have an alternative) and provide upward pressure on private sector wages and employment benefits (to encourage mobility). This reflects both the growth in wage inequality and (more locally) the prominence of healthcare as an issue in the US, though there are clearly easier ways to address both problems than using the JG as a Trojan Horse (e.g. reversing anti-union laws and implementing universal healthcare). This latest iteration assumes that JG jobs would be relatively attractive, but the whole premise of the JG as an automatic stabiliser is that they would be sufficiently repellent to avoid sticky labour. It's not obvious that this fine balance can be struck, given the difference across sectors and geographies, while the notion of JG pay rates being selectively varied to address differences and encourage movement into the private sector undermines the idea of an automatic mechanism.

The job guarantee remains a superficially attractive idea that plays to our beliefs that work is intrinsically beneficial, that welfare should entail some quid pro quo, and that maintaining the calibre of labour for the benefit of the private sector is the responsibility of the public sector. All are dubious beliefs, in my view, but they are clearly commonly-held. Despite this broad acceptance, proposals for a comprehensive job guarantee system have invariably dwindled into marginal or targeted schemes that look remarkably like workfare or make-work. This probably reflects the dominance of the anti-state argument: a fear that a comprehensive job guarantee system would disrupt the "natural" labour market and lead to the harmful expansion of the public sector. Schemes that attempt to mitigate this fear through public sector jobs that would be non-competitive with the private sector ignore that the boundary between the two is not permanently fixed. Capital will not support a JG system that is in any way attractive to workers, or that restricts its ability to extract rents from the public sector, even if it helps support aggregate demand. As Michael Kalecki noted, it's about power.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Idiot Summer

An Indian Summer is a brief reappearance of warm weather after the first frost. This week has felt like a less welcome reprise of the political silly season, when the news is dominated by chaff during the parliamentary recess. An idiot summer, perhaps. Despite the high theatre of a budget, and despite the best efforts of the usual suspects to revive that feelgood hit of the summer, "Labour at war", more ink appears to have been spilt over the inanity of a supermarket magazine editor losing his job for being disobliging about vegans. That the week has closed with a report that David Cameron is "bored shitless" and considering a return to the House of Commons (the views of prospective voters on the matter seem to be irrelevant) suggests that British politics is becalmed as we all await the coming storm of the Brexit denouement. I could add to this pile of non-stories the rumour that Twitter is thinking about retiring the like button, but instead I'm going to treat it as an excuse for a slightly more serious discussion about our attitudes towards digital property and the antisocial behaviour known as "blocking".

Noah Smith made the point that the like button is not only a handy way of signalling approval, or acknowledging a reply without cluttering up people's feeds, but it is also the only structural support for positivity on a platform that for many is blighted by what he describes as "ambient negativity". What particularly caught my eye was his suggestion that "From conversations with Twitter employees assigned to stop abuse, it seems to me that their main worry isn’t the negativity or threats on the platform. Instead, what frightens them most is the idea that Twitter might be used to create echo chambers, where like-minded people aren’t exposed to contrary viewpoints". The problem with this interpretation is that there is no lack of evidence that online echo chambers are a myth. Jack Dorsey may well subscribe to that myth, but it seems obvious to me that this is because it provides a useful justification for seeding timelines with "alternative viewpoints" - in other words, over-riding the user's own curatorial control to promote recommended (and possibly sponsored) content.

My own view is that Twitter is the best mass-use social media platform currently available, largely because it is the one that most closely approximates real world interactions in all their messy glory. For me, the relentless jeering, preening and snark is evidence of the platform's humanity. For many these characteristics are evidence of its irremediable vulgarity and subversion of social norms, but it is important to remember that those critics are talking about the manners of its users (i.e. the common herd) rather than the technology. Noah is clearly a fan of Twitter, as evidenced by his frequent use (155k tweets since 2011) but his suggestions on how to improve it are an uneasy combination of reasonable changes to usability and a questionable reinforcement of restrictive property rights. He makes three proposals: first, if you block a user, his tweets should no longer be visible to third parties in the replies to your tweets; second, users should be able to lock individual tweets, closing them to replies and so preventing a pile-on; and third, there should be an option to view a list of other users who have quote-tweeted you recently.

The first is retrospective blocking. Users who you block will not only be prevented from reading your tweets in future, but their replies will be removed from your historical threads. Deleting those replies outright would be easy enough to do, but that would mean erasing the blocked user's own "speech", which would be an infringement of their intellectual property rights. Preserving the replies but suppressing their appearance in a particular thread would be technically costly to achieve because it depends on a particular intersection of two user IDs that has to be dynamically checked. It also raises the same "airbrushing" problem associated with the call for an edit button. If a third party quote-retweeted the reply of a subsequently blocked user to your tweet, should that historical record also be amended so rendering it meaningless? The second proposal enables Twitter to be used for broadcasting (you can potentially do this already if you set up a random code as a muted word and include this in the tweet body - this doesn't prevent replies but you won't see them in your notifications). The third proposal is essentially a canned search to support those who wish to block disobliging quote-tweeters (you can already see quote-tweets by searching for "[handle] -from:[handle]").

The root issue is one of property rights. At present, any user has the ultimate sanction over their own tweets of deletion, but Noah's proposal would extend this to deleting the tweets of others where they are linked (as replies) to yours. The assumption is that a respondent partially cedes his own rights when he adds to a thread that you originated. Noah justifies this by a parallel with blog owners who can control comments to a post, however this isn't persuasive because in the case of a blog there remains only the one instance of the post. With Twitter, a retweet or quote-retweet creates a new instance not only of the tweet but effectively of the thread. It is also moot whether ownership of an entire thread vests with the author of the original tweet or whether that ownership becomes multiple once others post replies. To turn Noah's parallel on its head, a blog owner can delete hostile comments but she cannot prevent the commenter from incorporating the post into another medium (e.g. a screenshot on Instagram) for disparaging quotation. Selectively turning off replies is reasonable, just as it is when a blog owner chooses to turn off comments  on a particular post (though I think muting should be sufficient on Twitter), but I'm not persuaded of the need to selectively prevent retweets.

My own prescriptions for Twitter head in a different direction, away from the sanctity of property. Twitter isn't built for closed networks and can only realistically prosper as a public medium, so its design ought to privilege public rather than private rights. If you want to exert greater control over your statements and the responses to them then you should stick to a blog. For example, while I would retain the ability to mute users I would drop the ability to block them (I've never blocked anyone, but then I am both obscure and devil-may-care). Allowing users to block others at will, often for the most trivial or arbitrary reasons, is performative authoritarianism (that some users seem to get a thrill out of telling their followers that they have blocked someone strikes me as unhealthy and akin to the bullying that they otherwise decry). I don't object to being muted (we have a right to speak but not a right to be heard) but I do object to being told that there are statements in a de facto public realm that I have been explicitly barred from seeing (for the record, I can only think of one person who has blocked me - and I'm still not sure why he did it - so this is a theoretical concern more than a practical one).

There is a general consensus that online harassment and bullying is anti-social, but this is sloppy thinking. Such behaviour is actually social, just as mobs are by definition social entities. The reason we should object to bullying and harassment is that it aims to isolate individuals from society, in the same way that the playground bully seeks to isolate his victim from the sympathy of the crowd. The real anti-social behaviour is blocking, as it seeks to reconstitute society in the image of the individual. To emphasise again: everyone has the right to ignore arseholes (or even the mildly annoying) online, just as you could avoid someone in the offline world, but none of us has the right to impose our own view of who constitutes an acceptable public. You take the public as you find it. Just as the demand for an edit button is a retrograde attempt to control history that has the result of degrading the online "memory" of other users without their permission, so erasing the visible speech of those you have blocked is simply the petty exercise of the power of a tyrant and the digital equivalent of the oubliette.