Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #67

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Should lying politicians face court?

Political lying has been a hot topic on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years. Last week it emerged that Boris Johnson, former UK Foreign Secretary and favourite to be the next Prime Minister, has been ordered to appear in court for alleged lies told during the EU referendum. This is a fascinating development, politically and constitutionally, with repercussions far beyond Boris’s leadership bid.

Robert Saunders (no fan of Johnson) argues in the New Statesman that it is a bad precedent for political lies to be litigated in court. Unlike doctors or lawyers, he argues, politicians should be subject to electoral, not regulatory, accountability. But what happens when normal accountability mechanisms break down - such as in a referendum where the winners don’t have to implement the result or where Congress doesn’t want to hear what a Special Counsel is saying? Danny Finkelstein once argued that the electorate always get it right, but that seems a shaky premise these days.

Relying on the courts to arbitrate is tempting in the UK context because they appear to transcend politics at a time of hyper-partisanship. But this is not a stable equilibrium, as the US experience shows. The more power we give judges over politicians, the more political they will become. Remainers may want to see Boris humbled, but we should be careful what we wish for. 

Education, inequality and "back row kids"

I’ve written often about the new cultural divide in Western politics. One of best chroniclers of this phenomenon is Chris Arnade, a successful Wall Street trader turned photographer. He has a (beautiful) book out, Dignity, which documents people left behind in modern America - a group Arnade calls the “back row kids” (a framing that reminds me of Bagehot’s “exam passers vs exam failers” dichotomy). First Things has a great excerpt that captures his social critique, as well as his empathy for his subjects.

Arnade emphasises two themes. First, the role of religion as a source of stability and community in his subject’s lives. And, second, the role that elite education plays as gatekeeper to the (extreme) fruits of American capitalism. Arnade sees religious belief as one of the divisions between “back row” and “front row” kids, though there is evidence (but also counterevidence) that in fact upper class liberals in America live highly disciplined (even conservative, ironically) lives: more marriage, more fidelity, more churchgoing.

Arnade’s argument about education seems particularly important. Spend on education among America’s richest is skyrocketing. This superb Aeon piece on “inconspicuous consumption” makes a similar point: the new elite is less interested in flashy consumer goods and more interested in expensively signalling (and arguably reproducing) privilege through subtler spend on schooling, healthcare and culture. This trend has a troubling feedback loop - and Arnade is likely to become one of its most important commentators. 

Altruism and the dangers of over-optimising

Long time readers will know that I am an advocate of Effective Altruism (EA) - the idea that we can use reason and evidences to maximise the amount of good we do in the world. EA has spawned a number of impressive organisations that exist to help people achieve this - such as 80,000 Hours, which focuses on careers advice; Givewell, which recommends highly effective charities; and Open Philanthropy, which takes a venture capital-like approach to identifying high risk, high reward altruistic opportunities.

One of the things I find most admirable about EA is its openness to criticism. This week Christian Smith, a former analyst at Givewell, wrote an interesting critique of the approach to quantification that many EA organisations often adopt. It’s a good read if you’re interested in EA, but it also is an excellent explanation of concepts that are valuable if you ever have to deal with decision making in conditions of uncertainty (e.g. venture capital...)

The “Optimiser’s Curse” (similar to the better known Winner’s Curse) seems a particularly valuable mental model. The idea is that if you have to choose between projects where your estimate of their value is highly uncertain, the one with the highest expected value is disproportionately likely to be one where your estimate is too high. Smith suggests some ways to correct for this, but also notes that it’s difficult to eliminate. There’s good further commentary in this thread by David Chapman (previous coverage). Time for optimisers - and VCs - to start practising metarationality.

Quick Links

  1. Drowning in machine learning. Over 100 new ML papers are now published each day.
  2. Ultimate luxury. Who evades the most tax? (chart)
  3. Exercises in risk perception. What deaths people Google vs. what they actually die of
  4. Sorry, Elon. Why we're not going to live in space.
  5. Business model innovation. How (not?) to make money in pharmaceuticals. Extraordinary, if true.

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Until next week,