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Showing posts from 2016

14/12: Aleppo, humanitarian visas, & time for some game theory

I'm trying to get in the habit of blogging more regularly again. It's been a long time though - since 2012, basically - and I'm facing the problem that I now have a much higher standard for how sensible an opinion has to be before I'm willing to publish it. So I'm going to try doing a daily post about a few different things, not pretending to have a really well-developed take on any of them. (Daily once my holiday's over, anyway.)
I am a big disbeliever in writing things that have been written better (or even only as well) somewhere else before, just for the sake of it being me who wrote them. So this'll try to stick to stuff that you (typical reader of my blog; I know what you're like) wouldn't read if you didn't read it here. Short today - here goes...
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Aleppo is captured: Syrian government forces and allies have almost completed their capture of eastern Aleppo, which has been held by rebel forces for several years. The capture is extraordina…

Demonetisation in India

On the 8th of November, apropos of seemingly nothing, Indian PM Narendra Modi went on television and gave a live address, announcing that 500 and 1000 rupee notes would no longer be legal tender in India. This decision, he said, would be effective as of less than four hours later.
Needless to say, this isn't how this kind of transition is usually made. The UK is currently phasing out the old five pound note, over a period of eight months. Old Australian notes get withdrawn from circulation, but are all still legal tender. So it's pretty remarkable in its own right that the rupee 'demonetisation' is happening so suddenly. But that actually underplays the significance of Modi's move, which would be much less disruptive in the UK than it is in India. I've been half-following this story for the two and a half weeks since it started, and found it very difficult to understand why this was happening or what its consequences were. Yesterday I went to this panel in an …

The power of crayons: children's art, war, and politics

I have an article out this week in Lighthouse, an Oxford student magazine. You should grab a copy of the magazine, if you can; it's not available online yet. You can read my piece here. It's part of a symposium on the arts in international relations, and reflects on what children's art from zones of war and crisis can tell us about those disasters and about ourselves.

Did Trump matter?

At long last, you say, another blog piece about the aftermath of the election! I have consciously been dialling back the amount of coverage, particularly opinion pieces, that I consume, but I've still read way too much and become submerged in the internecine arguments everyone's been having for the last two weeks. I'm not going to reiterate stuff that I and probably you have read in a dozen other places, so this is going to be relatively short, but I have three thoughts.

Election night

A retrospective diary.


Tuesday, 9.20pm. I'm going to London, to watch with a friend I haven't seen for a while. Standing in the rain at the bus stop, I consider tweeting about whether the wretched weather is an omen. Not a good enough joke, I decide. It rains all the time. It has to be a good joke, because I don't believe it: she's going to win. We all know this.

Some other jokes are good enough. The bus diverts, and the driver's phone reads directions to him from Google Maps. Omen! The tube is delayed at a station, and the announcement admits to not knowing why. Omen! The joke is that it's ridiculous; as ridiculous as counting Halloween masks or yard signs. In a few hours people will be saying that Bill Mitchell - mask-counter-in-chief - has had a good night.

I get here about midnight, and Indiana and Kentucky have just been called for Trump. Not very exciting. None of us really know what's happening, because CNN doesn't really try to explain, but we know…

Banning boat arrivals

Three years plus a few months ago, shortly after Kevin Rudd replaced Julia Gillard as Prime Minister and Labor leader and shortly before the ALP was crushed at a federal election, Rudd announced a new refugee policy. No asylum seeker arriving by boat would ever be resettled in Australia.
A couple of days ago, in a policy move that's generating a lot more confusion and tea-leaf-reading than most, Peter Dutton apparently re-announced this policy. That's not exactly what happened, but I think it's the best way to understand it. Dutton was declaring that nobody who arrived by boat would ever be able to come to Australia on any type of visa, including family reunification or even as a tourist. This is an incredibly marginal, basically zero-impact policy change, and if the government really cared about doing this it could just do it. There's no need for fanfare, because the change is so minor. That's why it's better understood as an attempt to get the headlines sayin…

Dangerous questions

Last night Donald Trump was asked whether he'd accept the result of the election, and he refused to say. "I'll keep you in suspense", he said.

If you need someone to explain why this is terrible, you can read one of the many "I can't believe I'm having to say this" pieces that are out this morning about it. But the core problem is that Trump saying this makes it that much more likely that some of his supporters will resort to violence or intimidation on election day and in the days that follow, very probably targeted at people of colour.

It's extremely implausible that Trump is going to refuse to accept the result or lead any kind of agitation after the election. This is a guy who's publicly talked about what a nice life he can return to if he loses, and even mused about resigning immediately after being sworn in. He's going to become some kind of revolutionary leader? I can't see it. Even so, him saying this stuff makes violence aga…

Locker-room talk

Last week, video and audio was released of Donald Trump talking in 2005 about how being famous means you can treat women how you like, including kissing them without their consent or "grabbing them by the pussy", with impunity. There have been several cycles of outrage and apology since then, but Trump's first defence - and one he doubled down on a couple of days later in a presidential debate - was that this was just "locker-room talk", the kind of banter all men have when there aren't women around.

There's been a lot of outrage about this. There's no way this way of speaking about women is defensible, and it reflects a deeply ingrained attitude of objectification towards women in Trump himself and in the society that made him. 'Locker-room talk' is no defence because there is no defence. More than that, after a week of new revelations, we can be pretty sure that for Donald Trump this was not just locker room banter, because he appears to h…

Working out refugee policy

Australian refugee policy has a lot of moving parts, and it's easy to get lost in them. If you listened to the Guardian politics podcast this week, for instance, you might have heard some complaining about the lack of logic in Malcolm Turnbull pledging to accept 5000 refugees from Costa Rica, while continuing to refuse resettlement to the roughly 1200 refugees on Nauru and Manus Island. On the flipside, it's become a regular line on the right that we can't be too generous towards refugees without encouraging more to get on boats and so causing more deaths at sea.

Both of these arguments are confused and misleading. The reality is that Australia is fairly unique among countries in our relationship to the refugee crisis and policies responding to it. For the last year and a half, Germany has operated a generous policy towards asylum seekers which involves letting people who arrive at its borders enter the country to claim asylum, treating them quite well while their claims …

Hillary/Trump and political journalism

This is a blog, about politics, in 2016, so we're long overdue for something about Hillary Clinton and the media. I have started to get a bit disoriented about what the point of a lot of political journalism being written this year is.

Contrast two different types of writing about politics. (There are obviously other sorts.) On the one hand, people write about something - a policy, a candidate, a statement - is bad. This can come in a lot of different flavours and run a spectrum from quite even-handed and analytical to a full-blown opinion piece. But the core uniting feature is that the article (column, post, whatever) ends up enunciating something which the author themselves might take as a reason for voting one way or the other. On the other hand, you have horse-race analysis, where the writer asks who's winning, how a candidates' actions might play with the public, and so on. In theory, these pieces are united by being the kind of think a politician might be told by the…

Migrants and refugees in the Australian debate

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I have a hypothesis about the politics of immigration, which is that it doesn't have much to do with immigration policy - on either side of the argument. People don't really have a view about how much immigration there should be, and when you ask them whether there should be more or less, they express almost a pure attitude about culture, race, their economic situation, or whatever. One way to assess this would be to see how public opinion on whether there should be more or less immigration correlates with how much immigration is happening. You'd expect that when the level of immigration decreases, at least some people who'd previously thought there was too much immigration would think there was about the right amount, and so on. On my hypothesis that wouldn't be true.

It's not watertight, but it'd be interesting, and I wanted to write a post about it. Unfortunately I couldn't, because there is no consistent polling in Australia on immigration intakes. …

Economic anxiety and racism

Among the millions of words being spilled about Donald Trump, a lot recently have been spent on the question of whether his rise is spurred by economic deprivation, or just by a kind of status-seeking white identity politics. The catchphrase is 'economic anxiety': the disaffection and alienation felt by working class people who've been hurt by globalisation and deregulation.

Matt Yglesias is probably the most insistent proponent of the view that Trump's support has very little to do with economic problems faced by his supporters, and much more to do with their intense discomfort with growing racial and cultural diversity in the US. Mostly he's expressed this view by retweeting the racist rants of Trump supporters and sarcastically labelling them displays of economic anxiety. This week he's presented the case more fully, and a few people have responded. In good blogging style, I think they're all wrong. But the argument is important to understanding a much w…

2016 and anti-establishment anger

First Corbyn, then Brexit. First Trump, then Sanders. The last twelve months or so have seen an incredible rise of anti-establishment politics, as voters fed up with the old class of political leadership rallied around a series of unlikely figures promising radical change.

This has been enough of a trope in political coverage this year that I haven't bothered to find specific examples - I'm sure you've encountered plenty. The idea that these new movements on the left and right are basically of the same kind, channeling many of the same emotions in starkly different directions and responding to many of the same longstanding political and economic problems, has become a kind of conventional wisdom. It's also completely wrong, and very unhelpful to properly understanding the political dynamics of the US and the UK this year.

Labour's mess

Imagine you're in your office, and someone walks in and throws soup all over your desk. Then they shout at you: "someone with such a filthy desk isn't fit to work in this organisation! You have to resign!"

This is not a perfect analogy for the current mess in Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party. (If you feel like it, add some details so it satisfies you - I'd be amused to hear them.) But it's not really that far from the truth. And it seems to reflect extremely well the view that Corbyn, his team and most of his supporters have of the way things have unfolded.

The smugness of effective altruism

This post is much more of a rant than my usual ones. But stuff related to effective altruism has been increasingly annoying me, recently. So here goes.

Before I start, let's get some things clear. As I see it, the interesting core of effective altruism is three claims:
(1) When you give to charity, you should give to charities that use the money most effectively. (2) You should give more to charity. (That is, to highly effective charities.) (3) You should arrange your life so that you can give as much as possible to charity. I think the first two of these are pretty plainly true; I'm somewhat less convinced about the third. There is an interesting philosophical question about how inclusive 'you' has to be before the claims here become false, or more dubious. But that's not really the main point: you, reading this, should just find a list of effective charities, and when you earn money, you should give quite a bit of that money to the charities on the list.

That is:…

Brexit for the non-British

A few days ago I listened to the latest episode of The Weeds, a really interesting podcast from Vox, on which they discuss Brexit. Their discussion was interesting but ultimately not particularly accurate, which made me realise that if you don't regularly read a British media source you probably don't have a solid handle on what exactly has happened, let alone how or why. So here is my first venture into 'explainer journalism'!

Brexit and 'the economy'

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This post is significantly shorter than I'd originally planned, because the news cycle has... moved on a little. But I still want to say something about the post-referendum stockmarket crash which grabbed everyone's attention for a few days.

You may have heard that the vote to leave the EU caused Britain to cease being the world's fifth-largest economy, falling behind France. Maybe you read that the country lost more money in the day after the referendum than it could hope to save by not joining the EU. Maybe you think the last week has proved that 'Project Fear' about the economic consequences of Brexit was right all along.

No, no and no. I don't want to paint a rosy picture of the post-Brexit economy. Losing (easy) access to the single market will be bad for the UK; the financial sector will probably lose a fair amount of relative significance and the whole country will be poorer over the long-run thanks to less open trade - but in that sphere we're talki…

What did they think Leave was about?

The spectacle of people defecting from the campaign to leave the EU has been truly bizarre. Sarah Wollaston switched sides because she decided that the Leave campaign was lying about the amount of money Britain could spend on healthcare if it weren't in the EU. Sayeeda Warsi, a Tory member of the House of Lords, became too disgusted with the xenophobia of the campaign to stand, and so this week she switched sides as well.

At first glance this doesn't make sense. If you really thought the UK would be better off out, then it's hard to see why the Leave campaign's tactics would change your mind about that. If you think the Leave battle bus is covered in lies, then don't campaign with them, or don't campaign at all - but what does that bus have to do with what really matters, with the economy or sovereignty or immigration or whatever you want to focus on?

Warsi's explanation is a pretty decent one. Leave, she said, has become "small-minded, xenophobic and …

Why stop the boats?

I don't want to spend this whole election campaign writing angry posts about refugee policy. There are so many more interesting, and less repetitively awful, things to think about. But... you've gotta have at least one. So here we go.

There is no border protection rationale for the Pacific Solution, or Operation Sovereign Borders, or whatever we're now calling it. At the absolute peak of boat arrivals, the numbers were around 30 000 a year. (In no year did that many actually arrive, but nearly 15 000 people arrived on boats in the first six months of 2013.) In that year, net migration to Australia was 235 000. It's declined since, but is still comfortably clear of 150 000. And those are the net numbers, so the number of new immigrants arriving is higher than that. So the number of asylum seekers is much too small to have any real impact on unemployment, or welfare budgets, or culture, or really anything. You might want to have some short detention period for security r…

Anti-Semitism and bad faith

I don't have the personal experience or the historical knowledge of British politics to say anything especially insightful about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. But I'm going to tell a very limited story from my Facebook feed.

Among my Facebook friends, people have been talking about the relationship between criticism of Israel (or 'Zionism', if we must) and anti-Semitism for several years. Everyone recognised that criticism of Israel could take anti-Semitic form. But people, largely, only saw this connection playing out in really extreme cases. I have a very clear memory of a friend posting a status arguing against the idea that criticism of Israel could never be anti-Semitic, by citing actual attacks on Jewish people and vandalism of synagogues in London. Pretty soft conclusion, from the most strong and incontrovertible evidence anyone could ask for.

The only people who drew a broader connection, between strident anti-Israel politics generally and anti-Semitism, w…

A collection of bad reasons relating to Bernie Sanders

#1: a bad reason to vote for Hillary Clinton
This article has been pretty popular at least among my Facebook friends. It's pretty funny, and has the combination of decent-sounding argument with really cutting putdowns that makes for internet success, but... It's not a good argument at all.

The article basically says three things. One is that Sanders' political revolution isn't going to happen, because he hasn't attracted enough support from enough different demographics to apply the kind of revolutionary pressure he talks about. There's something pretty sketchy about not supporting a candidate and their strategy because you think not enough people support it. If you think the revolution would be good, if only it could happen, then get on board and help it happen! But even if you put that aside, the only reason this matters is that if there's no political revolution, the Sanders platform won't get implemented, thanks to an obstructionist Congress full of…

my life in pictures

I'm starting a new section of the site, where I'm going to blog about interesting things in my life rather than only about my opinions on things. Hopefully that will get me into the habit of posting more regularly, which should liven up this section of the site as well, sooner or later.

It's titled 'photos', because there are going to be lots of photos: I take a lot of photos, and it means you don't have to just read slabs of text where I write about myself. But there'll be plenty of writing alongside. You can get there here, or from the navigation bar by clicking 'photos'. Here's the first post.

What would Hillary do?

A strange thing about the 2016 Democratic primary is that Hillary Clinton is having to make a case. It's been observed pretty much everywhere that nobody was expecting Clinton to face much of a fight. But more than that, whatever fight she did face - from Jim Webb, or Martin O'Malley, or Andrew Cuomo - would basically amount to a series of debates in which she didn't make a fool of herself, stood firm on important issues, and let her mountain of experience, endorsements and donations carry her through.

Instead, there's a serious fight afoot, and the Clinton campaign is being forced to make a positive argument for voting for her. In some ways that's a silly thing to say: there are a stack of reasons to vote for Hillary - she has a vast amount of experience as a senator and Secretary of State, she has a long history of fighting for liberal causes, and has a suite of progressive policies. But these are only reasons in the abstract, reasons to vote for her over any Rep…

Why are we doing this again?

Last week, the High Court authorised the government to send 267 asylum seekers who are currently in Australia to the offshore processing centre on Nauru. 91 of them are children, including thirty-seven babies born in Australia. Keeping children in detention is horrific and incredibly damaging to their mental health. In the aftermath of the High Court decision there has been a surge of political pressure on the government to keep these refugees, and especially the children, in Australia rather than deporting them.

The most significant development is that Daniel Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, has written to the Prime Minister offering to settle the refugees in Victoria and accept all the costs of their healthcare, education, and so on. The Chief Minister of the ACT has made a similar offer, and the premiers of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania have also made somewhat more limited offers to help with the settlement of refugees. So you might think that, for Malc…