Meat Life


Could you lie to this nice lady?

On 18th May 2019 Australia held a federal election, and the ruling Liberal/National Party (LNP) Coalition scored a victory over the Australian Labor Party (ALP) that was billed by most observers as an “upset” because opinion polls had in general been predicting a narrow ALP victory. The opinion polls predicted that the ALP would get a two-party preferred vote of 51.5% over 48.5% for the LNP, and would cruise to victory on the back of this; in fact, with 76% of the vote counted the Coalition is on 50.9% two party preferred, and the ALP on 49.1%. So it certainly seems like the opinion polls got it wrong. But did they, and why?

Did opinion polls get it wrong?

The best site for detailed data on opinion polls is the Poll Bludger, whose list of polls (scroll to the bottom) shows a persistent estimate of 51-52% two-party preferred vote in favour of the ALP. But there is a slightly more complicated story here, which needs to be considered before we go to far in saying they got it wrong. First of all you’ll note that the party-specific estimates put the ALP at between 33% and 37% primary vote, with the Greens running between 9% and 14%, while the Coalition is consistently listed as between 36% and 39%. Estimates for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party put her between 4% and 9%. This is important for two reasons: the way that opinion pollers estimate the two party preferred vote, and the margin of error of each poll.

The first thing to note is that the final estimates of the different primary votes weren’t so wildly off. Wikipedia has the current vote tally at 41% to the Coalition, 34% to ALP and 10% to Greens. The LNP vote is higher than any poll put it at, but the other three parties’ tallies are well within the range of predicted values. The big outlier is One Nation, which polled at 3%, well below predictions – and far enough below to think that the extra 2% primary vote to the Coalition could reflect this underperformance. This has big implications for the two party preferred vote estimates from the opinion poll companies, because the two-party preferred vote is not a thing that is sampled – it is inferred from past preference distributions, from simple questions about where respondents will put their second choice, or from additional questions in the poll. So uncertainty in primary votes of the minor parties will flow through to larger uncertainty in two-party preferred vote tallies, since these votes have to flow on. By way of example, a 1% difference in the primary vote estimate for the Greens (e.g. 9% vs. 10%) will manifest as a difference of 10% in the total number of two-party preferred votes flowing to the major parties. If the assumed proportion of those votes that go to the Liberals is wrong, then you can expect to see this multiplied through in the final two-party preferred vote. In the case of One Nation, some polls (e.g. Essential Research) consistently gave them 6-7% of the primary vote, when they actually got 3%. So that’s a 50% miscalculation in the number of preference votes that flow to someone from this party. This is a unique problem for opinion polling in a nation like Australia and it raises the question: Have opinion poll companies learnt to deal with preferencing in the era of minor parties?

The second thing to note is the margin of error of these polls. Margin of error is used to show what the range of possible “true” values for the polled proportion might be. For example, if a poll estimates 40% of people will vote Liberal with a 2% margin of error that means that the “real” proportion of people who will vote Liberal is between 38% and 42%. For a binary question, the method for calculating the margin of error can be found here, but polls in Australian politics are no longer a binary question: we need to know the margin of error for four proportions, and this margin of error grows as a proportion of the estimate when the estimate is smaller. For example the most recent Ipsos poll lists its margin of error as 2.3%, but this suggests that the estimated primary vote for the Coalition (39%) should actually lie between 36.7% and 41.3%. This means that the estimated primary vote for the ALP should have a slightly wider margin of error (since it’s smaller) and the Greens even more so. Given this, it’s safe to say that the observed primary vote totals currently recorded lie exactly within the margins of error for the Ipsos poll. This poll did not get any estimates wrong! But it is being reported as wrong.

The reason the poll is reported as wrong is the combination of these two problems: the margin of error on the primary votes of all these parties should magnify the margin of error on the two-party preferred vote so that in the end it is larger than 2.3%, so we should be saying that the two-party preferred vote for the Coalition that is inferred from this poll is probably wider than the range 47 – 51%. That’s easily wide enough for the Coalition to win the election. But newspapers never report the margin of error or its implications.

When you look at the actual data from the polls, take into account the margin of error and consider the uncertainty in preferences, the polls did not get it wrong at all – the media did in their reporting of the polls. But we can ask a second question about these polls: can opinion polls have any meaning in a close race?

What do opinion polls mean in a close race?

In most elections in Australia most seats don’t come into play, and only a couple of swing seats change, because most are safe. This election has definitely followed this pattern, with 7 seats changing hands and 5 in doubt – only 12 seats mattered in this election. Amongst those 12 seats it appears (based on the current snapshot of data) that the Coalition gained 8 and lost 4, for a net gain of 4. Of those 12 seats 9 were held by non-Coalition parties before the election, and 3 by the Coalition. Under a purely random outcome – that is, if there was nothing determining whether these seats changed hands and it was purely random, the equivalent of a coin toss – then the chance of this outcome is not particularly low. Indeed, even if the ALP had a 60% chance of retaining their own seats and a 40% chance of winning Coalition seats, it’s still fairly likely that you would observe an outcome like this. A lot of these seats were on razor thin margins, so that literally they could be vulnerable to upset if there was something like bad weather or a few grumpy people or a change in the proportion of donkey votes.

I don’t think polls conducted at the national level can be expected to tell us much about the results of a series of coin tosses. If those 12 seats were mostly determined by chance, not by any structural drivers of change, how is a poll that predicts a 51% two-party preferred vote, with 2% margin of error, going to determine that they’re going to flip? It simply can’t, because you can’t predict random variation with a structural model. Basically, the outcome of this election was well within the boundaries one would expect based purely on the non-systematic random error at the population level.

When a party is heading for a drubbing you can expect the polls to pick it up, but when a minor change to the status quo is going to happen due to either luck or unobserved local factors, you can’t expect polls to offer a better prediction than coin flips.

The importance of minor parties to the result

One thing I did notice in the coverage of this election was that there were a lot of seats where the Coalition was garnering the biggest primary vote but then the ALP and the Greens’ primary vote combined was almost as large or a little larger, followed by two fairly chunky independent parties. I think in a lot of elections this means that Greens and independents’ preferences were crucial to the outcome. As the Greens’ vote grows I expect it encompasses more and more disaffected Liberal and National voters, and not just ALP voters with a concern about the environment. For example in Parkes, NSW the National Party and the ALP experienced major swings against them, but the National candidate won with a two-party preferred vote swing towards him. This suggests that preferences from minor parties were super important. This may not seem important at the national level but at the local level it can be crucial. In Herbert, which the Coalition gained, two minor parties got over 10% of the vote. In Bass the combined ALP/Green primary vote is bigger than the Coalition’s, but the Liberal member is ahead on preferences, which suggests that the Greens are not giving strong preference flows to the ALP. This variation in flows is highly seat-specific and extremely hard to model or predict – and I don’t think that the opinion polling companies have any way of handling this.

Sample and selection bias in modern polling

It can be noted from the Pollbludger list of surveys that they consistently overestimated the ALP’s two-party preferred vote, which shouldn’t happen if they were just randomly getting it wrong – there appears to be some form of systematic bias in the survey results. Surveys like opinion polls are prone to two big sources of bias: sampling bias and selection bias. Sampling bias happens when the companies random phone dialing produces a sample that is demographically incorrect, for example by sampling too many baby boomers or too many men. It is often said that sampling companies only call landlines, which should lead to an over-representation of old people so that the sample is 50% elderly people even though the population is only 20% elderly. This problem can be fixed by weighting, in which the proportions are calculated with a weight to reflect the relative rarity of young people. This method increases the margin of error but should handle the sample bias problem. However, there is a deeper problem that weighting cannot fix, which is selection bias. Selection bias occurs when your sample is not representative of the population, even if demographically they appear to be. It doesn’t matter if 10% of your sample are aged 15-24, and 10% of the population is aged 15-24, if the 15-24 year olds you sampled are fundamentally different to the 15-24 year olds in the population. Some people will tell you weighting fixes these kinds of problems but it doesn’t: there is no statistical solution to sampling the wrong people.

I often hear that this problem arises because polling companies only call landlines, and people with landlines are weirdos, but I checked and this isn’t the case: Ipsos for example samples mobile phones and 40-50% of its sample is drawn from mobile phones. This sample is still heavily biased though, because people who answer their phones to strangers are a bit weird, and people who agree to do surveys are even weirder. The most likely respondent to a phone survey is someone who is very bored and very politically engaged; and as time goes by, I think the people who answer polls are getting weirder and weirder. If your sample is a mixture of politically super-engaged young people and the bored elderly, then you are likely to get a heavy selection bias. One possible consequence of this could be a pro-ALP bias in the results: the young people who answer their mobile are super politically engaged, which in that age group means pro-ALP or pro-Green, and their responses are being given a high weight because young people are under sampled. It’s also possible that the weighting has been applied incorrectly, though that seems unlikely to be a problem across the entire range of polling companies.

I don’t think this is the main problem for these polls. There is a 2% over-estimate of the ALP two-party preferred vote but this could easily arise from misapplication of preferences. The slight under-estimate of the LNP primary vote could come from inaccuracies in the National Party estimate, for example from people saying they’re going to vote One Nation on the phone, but reverting to National or Liberal in the Booth. Although there could be a selection bias in the sampling process, I don’t think this selection bias has been historically pro-ALP. I think the problem in this election has been that the fragmentation of the major party votes on both the left (to Green/Indies) and on the right (to One Nation, UAP, Hinch and others) has made small errors in sampling and small errors in assignment of preferences snowball into larger errors in the two-party preferred estimate. In any case, this was a close election and it’s hard for polls to be right when the election comes down to toss-ups in a few local electorates.

What does this mean for political feedback processes in democracies?

Although I think the problem is exaggerated in this election, I do think this is going to be a bigger problem in future as the major parties continue to lose support to minor parties. One Nation may come and go but the Greens have been on a 10% national vote share for a decade now and aren’t going anywhere, and as they start to get closer to more lower house seats their influence on election surprises will likely grow – and not necessarily in the ALP’s favour. This means that the major parties are not going to be able to rely on opinion polls as a source of feedback from the electorate about the raw political consequences of their actions and that, I think, is a big problem for the way our democracy works.

Outside of their membership – and in the case of the ALP, the unions – political parties have no particular mechanism for receiving feedback from the general public except elections. Over the last 20 years opinion polls have formed one major component of the way in which political leaders learn about the reception their policies have in the general community. Sure, they can ask their membership for an opinion, and they’ll get feedback through other segments of the community (such as the environmental movement for the Greens, or the unions for the ALP), but in the absence of opinion polls they won’t learn much about how the politically disengaged think of their policies. But in Australia under compulsory voting the politically disengaged still vote, and they still get angry about politicians, and they still have political ideals. If this broader community withdraws completely so that their opinion can no longer be gauged – or worse still, politicians learn to believe that the opinions of those who are polled are representative of community sentiment in general – then politicians will instead learn about the reception their policies receive only through the biased filter of stakeholders, the media, and their own party organisms. I don’t see any of the major parties working to make themselves more accessible to community feedback and more amenable to public discussion and engagement, and I don’t think they will be able to find a way to do that even if they tried. Over the past 20 years instead politicians have gauged the popularity of their platform from polls, and used it to modify and often to moderate their policies in between elections. Everyone hates the political leader who simply shapes their policies to match the polls, but everyone hates a politician who ignores public opinion just as much. We do expect our politicians to pay attention to what we think in between elections, and to take it into account when making policy. If it becomes impossible for them to do this, then an important mode of communication between those who make the laws and those who don’t will be broken or worse still become deceptive.

It does not seem that this problem is going to go away or get better. This means that the major political parties are going to have to start finding new mechanisms to receive feedback from the general public – and we the public are going to have to find new ways to get through to them. Until then, expect more and nastier surprises in the future, and more weird political contortions as the major parties realize they haven’t just lost control of the narrative – they aren’t even sure what the narrative is. And since we the public learn what the rest of the public think from opinion polls as well, we too will lose our sense of what our own country wants, leaving us dependent on our crazy Aunt’s Facebook posts as our only vox populi.

As people retreat from engagement with pollsters, the era of the opinion poll will begin to close. We need to build a new form of participatory democracy to replace it. But, and how? And until we do, how confused will we become in the democracy we have? The strange dynamics of modern information systems are wreaking havoc in our democratic systems, and it is becoming increasingly urgent that we understand how, and what we can do to secure our democracies in this strange new world of fragmented information.

But as Scott Morrison stands up in the hottest, driest era in the history of the continent and talks about building more coal mines on the back of his mandate, I don’t hold out much hope that there will be any change.

 

Are you young, American, living in America and scared about where your country is headed? Want to get out before it all goes down? Are you worried about getting shot at school or work, or by the police? Don’t think that the healthcare situation is going to get better or even stay as bad as it is? Have a pre-existing condition and don’t know how you’re going to be able to afford medicines after you turn 26 (or even now)? Are you worried about Roe vs. Wade and pretty sure your reproductive rights are going down the tube in the next few years? Noticed that the new Georgia anti-abortion bill includes ectopic pregnancies, so is actually gynocidal? Are you poor and doubt you’ll ever be able to get into a good university and make a decent career, but don’t want to be stuck in an Amazon warehouse the rest of your life because working class work no longer pays in America? Are you black and don’t want to get shot by the police, or Jewish and a little bit worried about where those Proud Boys are taking your country?

Do you need to get out? This post outlines two strategies for a simple and easy way to get out of the USA, for people aged 16-21 who are either finishing high school or finishing university, and not sure what to do next. If you’re confident that even if the Dems win the next presidential election things still aren’t going to get better, you might want to consider one of these two strategies. Both involve leaving America for Japan, and this post is to tell you how.

Strategy 1: English Teacher

Lots of young people don’t know about this, but there are lots of private English teaching companies in Japan that are always looking for staff from native English speaking countries to work in them. To get a job at an English teaching company in Japan you need three basic qualifications: you need to be a native speaker, you need a bachelor’s degree, and you should still be in possession of a face[1]. Most of the big English teaching companies do recruitment tours in the USA, but they usually also have open recruitment on their websites. You can find them pretty easily on google. For a company like Aeon you will go to a day-long recruitment seminar that doubles as an interview, and usually you’ll get a job offer as a result. You just need to turn up looking presentable, act like you care, and be willing to work with kids. You do not need to be able to speak Japanese or have any knowledge of Japanese culture (though knowing more about Japan than “manga!” and “geisha!” would be helpful probably).

Once you get the job the English teaching company will place you in a random city in Japan, pay for your airfare, and organize an apartment for you. This may be a share house or it may be a one room. You’ll get paid probably 200-250k yen per month (about 1800 – 2000 USD) and will have to pay taxes and health insurance from that. Health insurance is affordable, and it covers everything: no pre-existing condition exemptions or any shit like that. It starts from the day you arrive in the country. Usually the company will help you set up bank account, phone etc., so even if you don’t speak Japanese you’ll be good to go. Once you arrive and get settled you can save a bit of money and after a few months you’ll be in a position to move somewhere you like, or change companies to a better one. If you speak Japanese because you were lucky enough to study it at high school you can maybe shift to a better job. But the key thing is you’ve landed in civilization, and you’ll be safe.

The salary isn’t great but it’s enough to save money if you don’t do dumb-arsed things, and you will be able to make occasional short trips in Asia on that salary. Japan is not an expensive country and especially if you aren’t in Tokyo or Osaka it’s a super cheap place to live. The working conditions at teaching companies aren’t great (typically some evening and weekend work, and your days off may not be guaranteed to be Saturday and Sunday) but they don’t have at-will firing over here and even though you’re foreign you have all the employment rights of a local, including unemployment benefits after a minimum period of time in the job. English teachers are generally considered to be the lowest of the low among foreigners living in Japan, for reasons you’ll understand within minutes of meeting your colleagues, but it’s better to be the lowest of the low in Japan than to be middle class in America. So do it!

If you’re a high school student this option isn’t open to you (these companies require a bachelor’s degree) but you can aim for it: they don’t care where your degree is from so you can attend a local low-cost uni (I believe you guys call this “community college”?) and still get accepted when you graduate. See my special notes for high school students below.

There are also similar companies in China and Korea (see my notes on other Asian countries below). There is also an Assistant Language Teacher program where you work in schools, which is apparently a little more demanding to get into. Google is your best friend here!

Strategy 2: Japan government scholarship

The Japanese government runs a large scholarship program for students from overseas, called the Japan Government Scholarship, also known as the MEXT scholarship or Monbusho scholarship. This is available for all education levels: undergraduate, masters or PhD. You apply through your embassy (the US website is here) about now. The scholarship pays your university fees, a monthly living allowance, and a return airfare. You can apply for this for your undergraduate studies, so you apply from high school and go straight to university study in Japan. Unless you are planning on studying certain topics (e.g. Japanese literature) you don’t need to be able to speak or read Japanese: they set a Japanese test during the application process but this is used to determine what level of training you need, not to screen you out. The amazing thing about MEXT scholarships is that they’re not very competitive – not many people know about them and not many people want to move to study in Japan – so even if you don’t have a stellar record you still have a chance. Also they don’t discriminate on race or economic background, as far as I know, and it’s a straight-up merit-based application. The allowance is not great – I think about 100k yen for undergrads and about 150k for postgrads – but you’ll get subsidized uni accommodation and won’t pay tax, so it’s perfectly viable. If you go for Masters you need to find a supervisor who teaches in English and isn’t an arsehole – this is a big challenge – but you can do it if you try. One big benefit of the MEXT scholarship at postgrad is you get a year as a “research student” during which you don’t study in the department you’ve chosen but instead just learn Japanese. You can get really good at Japanese this way if you pay attention. Another great thing is that once you’re in the MEXT program it’s easier to go to the next step – so you can go from undergraduate to masters to PhD. Theoretically you could go from 1st year undergraduate to the end of a post-doc on Japan government money, which would put you in Japan for 11 years and probably stand you in a good position for a permanent faculty position, which are like hens’ teeth in the USA but quite common here. ALSO, if you do undergraduate study here you have a very good chance of being able to get a job in a Japanese company when you graduate, probably quite a good one, and build a career here.

The application period is usually about now so get busy!

Special notes for high school students

Note that if you’re finishing high school you can target all of these strategies now. Apply for the MEXT scholarship and if you don’t get it, go to a local community college or whatever they’re called. Target one where you can study an Asian language, either Chinese, Korean or Japanese. Then apply for MEXT again at the end of your undergraduate, and if you don’t get it apply for an English-teaching company in whatever country you studied the language for. You can use this English teaching job as a base to find a job in whatever field you actually want to work, because you’ve got four years of language training under your belt and so should be able to speak the local language reasonably well. If this falls through you’re still okay because no matter how shit your degree was at that community college, a second language is a skill you can take to the bank. You can probably then find an okay job in a US company targeting that country. This means you’re still trapped in a failing state, but at least your attempt to get out didn’t doom you to work at Starbucks (though who knows, four years from now maybe America won’t have any industry except Starbucks).

Remember, if you get the MEXT scholarship you’re going to graduate from university with no debt, proficient in a second language, and with a full career path in Japan likely right there in front of you.

Notes on other Asian countries

Most Asian countries have the English-teaching option available – for sure you can get to China or Korea if you don’t want to go to Japan, and they all have approximately the same requirements. All three countries now have functioning health insurance systems and you won’t get shot in any of them. They’re all aging and need young people, and at least in Korea as well as Japan Americans are generally still viewed well (for now; this is changing). Obviously there are some issues about personal freedom in China and if things continue to go south in the US-China relationship you might not feel safe from reprisals from the government. Other countries like Thailand, Vietnam etc. also have English-teaching jobs but I’m not sure about the pay and conditions – you might find you can’t save money in these countries and it becomes a kind of trap. I don’t know. But any of the high-income Asian countries are good places to teach English.

China also offers scholarships for overseas students through the CSC. The Chinese education system is very good and if you get a degree at a good Chinese university you’re probably getting a better education than you’d expect in any American uni. I don’t know if the CSC offers scholarships to Americans (since, let’s face it, you guys suck) or what the long-term consequences of that will be for your career in either country, but it could be worth investigating. You might also want to consider Singapore, which has excellent universities, but I have no idea how it works.

A note on the long-term risks of English teaching

You can make a life time career as an English teacher in Japan but it won’t be well paid and you’ll remain permanently lower middle class, which is not a big deal over here (Japan is an equitable country) but also not the best working life to pursue. But most importantly, if you spend more than a few years as an English teacher straight out of uni, your employability in your home country will take a nose dive, because you have no skills or experience relevant to a real job. So you need to make an exit plan if you want to return to the west. One option is to get an English as a second language (ESL) masters (you can do this online) and try to move into teaching English at uni, which pays slightly more and has a bit more prestige, but is a slightly riskier career (it can mean a permanent career as an adjunct, which is tough). Another option is to try and jump ship to a real company using whatever skills you’ve got but this can take time and may not lead you to a good place. If your Japanese is good you can maybe shift to being a standard office worker, but if you have no Japanese you need to bear in mind that English teaching is a trap if you do it for more than a few years. Bear in mind that Japan is aging fast, the pool of available workers is dropping in size, and as time goes on opportunities for foreigners here (even foreigners with weak language skills) are only going to grow. Also contrary to what you’ve heard (see below) Japan is becoming more and more open and welcoming to foreigners, even under supposedly militarist Prime Minister Abe, so things will just get easier as time passes. It’s worth risking for a year or two to try and build an escape plan, and if it doesn’t work out what have you lost? Just be ready to jump out if you see that trap closing before it’s too late.

Why Japan?

I’m recommending this escape plan because I know Japan: I live here and I know it’s a good place to live. You’ve probably heard that it’s expensive, treats foreigners badly and is very inward-looking. None of this is true. You’re not going to experience much racism at all, if you’re a woman you’re not going to get sexually assaulted on the train, and it’s not an expensive place to live. Rent is affordable even in Tokyo on an English teacher’s wage, your health insurance is fixed at a small proportion of your salary and is always affordable, food is good and cheap, and you can live a good life here even on low wages. You can’t live an American life of huge housing, a car, an assault rifle and all the home-delivered pizza you can eat but that’s a good thing, not a bad thing: those are the reasons your country is killing the planet and itself.

If you live in Japan you will be safe, you will be healthy, and you’ll be able to build a life for yourself even on a low income. If you want to live here long term you’ll need to learn the language (which is boring and bothersome to do); you may find that as a foreigner you are not going to be able to ascend to the peak of your career here no matter what it is. It may be hard for you to buy a place here either because your low salary precludes saving a lot of money for a deposit, or the bank won’t loan you money if you don’t have permanent residency. You won’t be able to afford to go back to America a lot unless you get out of the English teaching trade, and you will be restricted to short visits to nearby Asian countries. You’ll probably have to work hard and if you choose the wrong company after university (or the wrong post-graduate supervisor) you’ll be bullied and overworked. These are risks of moving here! But you’ll definitely have healthcare, you’ll have no risk of being shot by either crazy white guys or police, if you’re a woman you can walk safely at night no matter what time or how deserted the streets, and no matter what you earn people will show you the respect you deserve as a human being. And the government is not going crazy, nor will it.

So if you’re young and scared and worried about your future in America, and you really want to get out, consider these two strategies, and get out while you still can.


fn1: Actually I’m not sure if they care about whether you have a face. But just to be sure, apply now before some lunatic gets a chance to shoot you in the face.

Dhaka by night

I’m currently on an extended work trip to Bangladesh, teaching a couple of intensive seminars on epidemiology and related topics in Dhaka. This is the second time I have come here, and I plan to write a separate post soon on my impressions of this country – there is a lot to say about it. For those of you who don’t know, Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country of 170 million people neighbouring India, and is very poor. It is currently ranked 136th out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index, putting it in about the bottom third of national wealth globally. Per capita GDP is about 1,800 USD, with huge inequality. Although the government of Bangladesh is angling to have the country ranked as a lower middle-income country it is still very poor, with no serious functioning health insurance system, limited skilled employment and a weak industrial sector outside of an extremely well-performing garment sector. Even the Tuk-tuks are imported from India. Bangladesh is something of a success story in health, outperforming expectations for its HDI and in particular making huge gains on maternal and child health. Nonetheless, life here is tough for all but its wealthiest residents. For example a basic garment worker job, which is a sought after thing here, pays about 80USD per month. I learnt this from my local colleagues, who are running a project on the health of these women, and I also helped interview a senior researcher position for a local organization, which was looking to pay a person with a master’s degree and several publications about $500 per month. It’s not a rich place! In particular there is a very large population of unskilled and/or illiterate young people, who are not able to engage in the garment sector or any higher-paid work, and for whom employment opportunities are limited. So it is that these people go to quite outrageous lengths to earn money, including some quite entertaining scams. Here I report on two, one of which I was told about and one of which I and my colleagues almost became entangled in.

Dhaka city centre, with metro works (I think)

The Elephant Man

I took a few hours after work this week to visit a tailor that my colleague Doughty S recommends. This tailor could make me a tailor-made suit, three shirts and a pair of trousers for a mere 170 USD, so is probably worth the two hour slog I had to endure to get there, and the 3 hour slog home. Did I mention that traffic in Dhaka is insane? Traffic in Dhaka is literally insane. It’s exhausting, depressing and soul-destroying, a problem of many cities in developing nations, and about this I will write more in my report on Bangladesh. At one point, driving relatively fast for the time of day, we passed an elephant standing by the side of the road, eating grass from a building site while its rider lounged about atop its broad back. It wasn’t huge as elephants go, but it was still big and more to the point I have never in my life seen an elephant just ambling along in public doing its thing. So I naturally declared “elephant!” and tried (and failed) to get a photo from the car that was suddenly and perversely actually moving for once.

My colleague Doughty S informed me that this elephant wasn’t a working elephant in the sense that it lifts and carries and drags things like an elephant should; rather, it was an essential participant in a money-making scam. Basically the dude on top of the elephant will manoeuvre it in front of your car, forcing you to stop, and then refuse to move the elephant until you pay him. Since it’s an elephant, you probably aren’t going to try and hit it; and if you’re in Dhaka traffic you probably won’t be able to outmanoeuvre it; and you can’t reach the dude to punch him since he’s on an elephant. It’s really a quite foolproof way of extorting a bit of money from passing motorists. So the scam unfolds, but on this occasion we were fortunate enough to be on the opposite side of the road, so no elephant extortion came our way.

Doughty S also told me that the same people who ride the elephant also sometimes have a box with a snake in that they threaten to curse you with unless you cough up some money. But I think we can all agree the elephant scam is way more elegant.

The Sand Gang in action

The Sand Gang

This is a devilishly cunning plan that seems worth far less than the effort and risk required to pull it off, but you have to admire the chutzpah of its architects. I spent two days at a resort town, Cox’s Bazar, during the break between seminars, to unwind a little and get some beach air. Cox’s Bazar is a kind of peninsula, with a single road heading south along the beach side, and over a line of hills the Rohingya refugee camps. The Rohingya fled violence in Myanmar to camps near Coxs Bazar, and there is now a huge industry of aid groups and Bangladesh army tending to their needs[1]. Most of the aid workers stay in Coxs Bazar, and every morning they drive along the road south to the camp. However, recently the government closed a 200m section of road near the hotels for repairs, and now there is no road south from the southern part of the town. Rather than head north and around, the aid workers drive onto the beach in their white SUVs and use the beach as a short cut, as do all the locals who live in the southern stretch of Coxs Bazar. It’s ridiculous that there is only one road and that it has been closed now, but this is Bangladesh so everyone just rolls with the punches.

So, when our time came to do a little beach tourism our driver took us onto the beach – me, Doughty S, his wife and child, in a rundown old van without seatbelts, along the beach and up to the part of the beach where we are to rejoin the road – where we found a couple of cars bogged down, and a queue of cars waiting to get up the hill. You can see the scene pictured above. We sat here for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes waiting our chance to drive up the hill but it seemed every time we tried to gun the engine and go up the hill someone let a tuk-tuk down in front of us, or someone cut in, or a group of people got in our way. Doughty S got out of the car and went up to direct traffic, and we watched as various cars floundered and then got pushed up the hill of sand by gangs of eager men. Eventually a gap appeared, our driver took a risk, and even though a woman in a sari and a tuk-tuk nearly cut us off we gunned up the sand hill, the driver throwing the car left and right with ferocious energy until we bounced up a huge lump and onto smoother, firmer sand, then onto the road where Doughty S rejoined us.

Doughty S reported to us the real story of the floundering cars: a kind of local syndicate of young men had set up a scheme where every time a car attempted to take the hill at speed someone would step in front of it, or they would direct a car coming in the opposite direction into its path. They made sure that children were the ones stepping in front of the car, so that it was guaranteed to slow down, though not so carelessly as to make it stop entirely. Its power gone the car would then hit the bank and flounder, and then the men would offer to push it out for a small fee. The fee was about 30 taka (30 cents or so) for a Tuk-tuk, up to perhaps 100 taka for a car like ours. Many of the drivers were not locals or were not used to driving on sand, and were easy marks; somehow the UN vehicles were never affected by this scam, and neither was the military truck that was just rolling away when we arrived. They obviously knew how to select their targets. Doughty S also told us some drivers suspected the sand gang had sabotaged the road to start with, undermining the sand bank.

Dhaka traffic comes to the bazar

By the time we returned from our tourism trip, the sand gang had also managed to expand to the other slope near our hotel, where I witnessed the traffic jam above. When you see a picture of Bangladesh traffic it is important to remember it’s not just a throng of cars; it’s also a cacophony of horns, because everyone uses their horn all the time for everything, and even the small jam pictured above was raising an enormous racket. Needless to say, we jumped out here and walked the rest of the way to our hotel.

Libertarian dreams

There is a cyberpunk air to Dhaka, in the sense that there is no smooth and ordered government-run system and everything is a chaotic mesh of competing businesses and money makers. There are no traffic lights or traffic police, no road rules, most of the time not even any lanes, and in the chaos of the traffic it’s every man for himself. With a weak state and a populace with limited work opportunities and not much money there is a big atmosphere of scamming, grift and graft. Funnily enough despite this lack of oversight no enterprising soul has managed to set up a toll road, or offer some advanced business plan that can cut through the dust haze and klaxon roar to somehow make money distilling all this essence of chaos down to pure profit. It just remains barely controlled chaos, mostly held together not by profit motives so much as by the common decency people usually show each other despite their situation. It’s a bit of a cliche to tell libertarians that if they want a world without a government they should move to Somalia or something, but I think for your everyday Bangladeshi worker that’s pretty much what they face: undiluted libertarianism. Out of pocket payments for healthcare and rubbish disposal, a completely uncontrolled transport system with very little public investment, a government sector where everyone accepts that services are purchased not given, and some dude with an elephant making a living (of some dubious kind) by extorting motorists. This is the reality of unimpeded libertarianism: the elephant man and the sand gang. If you want to see where it takes you, come and enjoy the traffic in Dhaka… but look out for the elephants!


fn1: The Rohingya are a sad story but I don’t get the impression that anyone here resents them. The Bangladesh army set up camps early, and have done what they can given their resources, and the town is generally welcoming of the aid workers and happy to take their money. Bangladeshis I speak to are universally proud of the social harmony in their country, “unlike India,” and don’t consider for example Hindus or tribal people (who apparently live around here) to be lesser people. The government wants to send the Rohingya back but seems willing to not force them while they are still at risk, and although it’s not a pleasant situation everyone seems to be doing what they can. I wonder if the Rohingya have elephants …?

The new documentary Fyre, available on Netflix, describes the events surrounding the collapse of the infamous Fyre festival in 2017. The collapse of this festival gained worldwide notoriety because the festival was billed as a super luxury elite event full of models and influencers and famous people, which only the very rich could afford, but which ended with the “elite” guests having to camp in the dark in emergency response tents and eat soggy sandwiches before they fled home. It was covered extensively in the media and was often covered as a kind of disaster for the instagram age, a festival as fake as the world we build on social media, and a moral story about the collapse of truth in an era of influencers and instafame. It was a particularly attractive FUBAR because it involved rich people being scammed out of their money for what on its surface appears to be a completely vainglorious and shallow status symbol event.

I think a lot of that narrative was either untrue or a pernicious interpretation of the evils of social media. This documentary goes some way to helping to clarify what really happened and helps us to understand who some of the real victims and real villains were, but I think ultimately it fails because it does not go far enough or deep enough, and to some extent it is complicit with the scammers. It has three key flaws: 1) it fails to really contest the accounts of the organizers; 2) it does not give much of a voice to the guests; and 3) it does not offer any deeper commentary on the social media aspects of the SNAFU. I want to talk about each of these three problems and give a little opinion about what this festival tells us about social media and scams, again returning to my old saw that there is nothing new about the evils of social media, and no special skills are required to understand and deal with the problems social media creates.

First though I would like to say that although this documentary is flawed it is worth watching: it will give a much more detailed understanding of what happened and help to put the events into their proper perspective. I did not know, for example, that the organizer of the festival had been involved in a previous scam with all the same players; that a website and twitter account started to debunk the festival long before it happened; and that a great many of the attendees were not the super rich. Some of these points are not really clarified or explored properly in the documentary, but if you watch carefully and pay attention you can see these facts.

The first problem of the documentary is that it is highly dependent on footage of the entire project planning that was taken by the organizers themselves. I don’t know why they filmed themselves but it appears that the boss of the whole thing, Billy McFarland, has something of an obsession with filming his work – even at the end of the movie when he is on bail and living in a penthouse running a new direct mail scam he is filming himself doing it, which is weird. But it seems to me that in order to get this footage the documentary makers had to treat many of the organizers with kid gloves, which gives many of them the opportunity to provide self-serving and I suspect highly biased accounts of their own responsibility for the disaster. Four figures in particular – Carolla the financer, an old guy who has backed Billy McFarland for too long and has 30 years’ showbiz experience, the key guy responsible for logistics and the key guy responsible for booking acts – are up to their necks in the scam and it’s just not believable that they weren’t part of it. When one of them says that Billy would keep going away and finding new investments, it’s obvious that he is scamming new investors and they must know – and sure enough it turns out that he has been lying egregiously in documents to investors. Other people not so close to Billy were quick to get out when they realized the shitstorm that was coming, and one guy who saw right through it was able to get direct photos of the development of the festival and could clearly see it was going to be an omnishambles, yet these four couldn’t see it? Some of them, in particular Carolla and Ja Rule, were involved in Billy McFarland’s previous business, Magnises, which was clearly and obviously a scam, so it really stretches credibility when they tell the documentary makers that they didn’t know what was going on and kept not seeing the wood for the trees even when it was really clear what was going to happen. It’s very clear that Billy McFarland has a powerful effect on these people and is good at keeping them disoriented and confused, and he is always ratcheting up the chaos and demands so that they don’t have time to get clear-headed perspective on the damage he is doing. It is also really clear that he has found typically devious ways to keep them entangled in his dramas so that not only they but a lot of people who depend on them will be damaged if they back away; but these people have been around Billy McFarland long enough to know that this is his shtick, and to find ways out. There is a story in here about how incredibly dangerous people with personality disorders are when they have access to money and authority; but there is also a moral tale about the importance of not enabling these people, and of ultimately being willing to take the risk of walking away from them. This documentary shows in the end that when you enable the disordered leadership in order to protect those around you, all you really do is set those people up for a bigger fall when the narcissists’s schemes finally collapse. There’s a definite cautionary tale for Trump’s America in this documentary, but unfortunately by not properly challenging the stories of Billy’s fellow travelers the documentary fails to draw the proper lessons about the dangers of sticking with a leader with personality disorder.

The collapse of Fyre festival was a social media spectacle that was turned into a morality play about millennial idiocy by the media, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there were real victims of this farce. The documentary makes a good case for the low-paid workers of the Bahamas and the businesspeople who were left out of pocket on the island by the scammers, but it does not put much time into the feelings and experiences of the guests who paid to come to the festival and got scammed. It even manages to broadcast Billy McFarland’s point (made through Ja Rule) that nobody got injured or died. Nonetheless, the people who attended this festival turned up to an island far from home and got dumped on a fake beach in the dark with nowhere to stay except damaged tents with sodden mattresses, barely any food, and no idea what to do to get home. A large number were locked inside the airport without food and water for a night while the authorities tried to figure out a way to get them off the island. The fact that they were rich beautiful people doesn’t lessen the fear and hardship that they had to endure for a day or two while they found a way out of this scam – they were poorly mistreated. The documentary finds a couple of customers who were willing to speak on camera about their experience, and it uses a bit of social media footage of other victims, but it does manage to build up an image of these people as wealthy people who were paying for an elitist experience. It even shows a clip of a beautiful girl (possibly one of the influencers who was supposed to get free villa accommodation, though the documentary is careful not to reveal who the people in the social media clips are) saying that the “private” plane was “worse than the lowest class in economy”, which makes her seem kind of snobby from her tone. On twitter today I have been seeing people saying that what these people were really paying for was exclusivity, buying an experience that no one else could have, but I did not get that impression from the documentary: they were pretty clearly paying for the experience of a party on a beautiful beach, and paying for a luxury experience. Everything was marketed as a luxury experience and that’s what the guests were paying for. They weren’t necessarily driven by a desire for exclusivity. After all, they knew lots of other people were going to be there and fundamentally, like with any festival, wanted to go there and share the experience with those people. Any music event is never about exclusivity – you go to live events so you can share the experience with other people. But worse still, this documentary slides over the possibility that actually a lot of people weren’t that wealthy, and had actually been scammed out of real hard-earned money, not disposable income. You can’t tell from the people they interview, or from the prices they display on the documentary screens, but the lowest price tickets were between $500 and $1500. It’s not beyond a person on a normal income to spend a large chunk of their savings on this festival, so that they can have this experience. Looking at the people on the social media footage the documentary shows, and judging by their clothes and reaction, a lot of these people were not throwing away a casual weekend’s cocaine money to drink champagne off models’ tits in an exclusive villa: they were dumping a large portion of their hard-won savings on a chance to enjoy their favourite music in a geodesic luxury tent on a beautiful beach. Now, I have experienced a really enjoyable music festival on a secluded beach (the San-in Beach Party), and it really is a very nice experience, and to do it in luxury on a beach in the Bahamas is something that a lot of people would consider worth burning their savings on. It’s well-established that millennials, knowing they can’t afford a house or a stable retirement, choose to spend what limited savings they can scrape together on experiences like this. No matter how much David Brooks might sneer at their ephemeral spirit, it’s no reason to scam them of their hard-earned cash. That’s not exactly Robin Hood stuff is it? But by carefully avoiding investigating these peoples’ backgrounds, and not trying to do any deeper investigation into who went and why, the documentary falls into the usual traps that bedevil any attempt to explore modern youth culture, and makes it seem once again like a bunch of entitled millenial trustafarians got what they deserved.

Finally, the documentary does not properly explore the central role of social media in the debacle, and what the implications of that might be. The Fyre festival’s initial hype was built up by a bunch of influencers – perhaps 400 – all posting a picture of a blank orange tile to their instagram accounts at the same time, with a link to the Fyre page, where people could see videos of these influencers cavorting in the sea. It was a masterfully done advertising campaign, that used the viral power of instagram and other social media to multiply the value of each user’s post. But let’s not be coy about how this worked: they sank an enormous amount of money on this advertising. The documentary reports that the top girl in the influencer group they gathered, Bella Hadid, was paid $250,000 for that one post. They set up a website that was basically just a collection of movies, and then through a very well designed visual campaign they got a lot of people interested in their product. The documentary reported that in the aftermath of the Fyre farce the US government introduced new rules for social media stars, requiring them to indicate when they’re being paid to advertise product, and the documentary suggested that their behaviour had been duplicitous. The documentary also suggested that they should have done due diligence on the product they were selling, but this point was rebutted by some of the people involved who pointed out – fairly, I think – that these girls are models not scientists, and it’s not their job to vet the quality of a good they’re paid to advertise – that’s what regulatory authorities are for. Fundamentally what happened here is that Billy McFarland paid them to market a scam that neither they, the buyers, any of the contractors in the Bahamas, or apparently any of his colleagues, recognized was a scam. I don’t think under these circumstances these girls are the first people who should be blamed.

More importantly, none of what this advertising campaign did was new. It girls have been around since Audrey Hepburn (Holly Golightly was a classic It-girl), and in the era of the big people magazines girls like Paris Hilton were huge news, without ever making a single social media post. The fact that you can be an it-girl on Instagram doesn’t change anything, and although Bella Hadid is more ubiquitous in the feeds of her followers than Paris Hilton might have been, she is no less ubiquitous in popular media than Paris was. I am old enough to remember the Paris Hilton era, and let me tell you, there is nothing that Instagram could teach her about how to get rich and famous by being nothing and doing nothing. Yes the Kardashians’ famous-for-fame-itself lifestyle and business model is repulsive, but so was Paris Hilton’s. Similarly the problem of these girls advertising products without announcing they’re paid: it may shock my younger reader(s) to learn this, but a mere 20 years ago all the Hate Radio stars in Australia – Alan Jones, John Laws, that repulsive dude in South Australia, and the racist pig in Western Australia – were all advertising products all the time on the radio without telling you they were paid. They had a conversational tone in which they told you personally that they used this car oil, and never once mentioned that this conversation was paid for. This scandal blew up in the late 1990s and you should have seen the entitled whining they did when they were forced to admit on air that they were paid to make their endorsements. Now as far as I know, the late 1990s was approximately 60 years after the widespread adoption of radio. So it took approximately 10 times as long for the authorities to wise up to payola on the radio as it did for them to crack down on these pretty young things on Instagram. I’m sure that their haste to crack the whip on those girls has nothing at all to do with their age and gender … and of course all the top 40 charts and bullshit rankings on MTV and radio charts are still completely bought and paid for by the music industry, but we should worry that occasionally a model will slip in an unannounced endorsement on Instagram… No, as I have said before, the problem here is not social media – it’s you. Indeed there were even social media accounts dedicated to revealing the truth about Fyre but they didn’t take off – because nobody cared about the truth. If you cannot tell that a party on a remote island in the Bahamas where you get to cavort with models in a villa with a private plane for a couple of thousand bucks is smoke and mirrors, you won’t be saved by seeing that scam advertised on tv instead of Facebook. And if a slimy con artist decides to lie to you that he has villas for 5,000 people on that beach when in fact there are no houses on the entire island, it doesn’t matter if he does it on TV, Instagram or a message written in the sky – he’s a liar and a con artist, and the problem is that he lied. Unfortunately, while this documentary does make clear much of the way in which he built his lies, it also glosses over the simple fact that the world is full of liars and rubes in favour of the easy lure of social media panic, and schadenfreude at rich people getting duped.

So, watch this documentary if you want a more detailed account of that fateful party and the garbage fire it became, but don’t let yourself be fooled by the easy targeting of social media and rich entitled millenials. The story of Fyre is as old as the story of liars, and our natural faith in the honesty of our fellow humans. Whether you lie to someone’s face, on tv, on Instagram, or on stone tablets, a lie is a lie: and Fyre was a bonfire of stupid, vicious lies that left a lot of people hurt. Let’s hope we’ve all learnt from it, and that this documentary will help us all ensure it does not happen again.

They’ve taken the throne
They’re under my skin
Patience won’t be the end of me
They’re thick as thieves

Beware little girl,
The world’s full of bad men
Beware little boy,
The world’s full of bad men

Bad Men, the Eden House

Trump’s latest disgusting faux-pas, in which he told a 7 year old girl that Santa isn’t real, is surely the final and definitive proof that he is a genuinely horrible human being. Not horrible in the sense that his policies are disgusting – we all knew that – but in the sense that he is just a really awful person. Telling a 7 year old girl that Santa isn’t real is something that General Bison would do – it’s comic book super villain stuff, real people don’t do it. But Trump did. This is the latest in a long and enlightening series of episodes which show that he is just a disgusting person. He is a philanderer who takes pride in it and openly admits that he is using power to get what he wants; he cheats on his wife and breaks laws he thinks don’t matter to cover it up; he hates dogs; he claims to love his country but can’t draw the flag or remember the words to the national anthem; he hates Christmas or funerals because they aren’t about him; he made his name on the illusion that he is a tough boss who fires people who fail him but cannot bring himself to actually fire anyone; he feels a natural affinity for autocrats and murderous dictators; he will change all his opinions on a dime if someone tells him they like him; he judges women entirely by their appearance and men purely by how much they posture; he has been bankrupt four times and thinks that is clever; he lies about how rich he is; he doesn’t care at all about the truth of anything except the one truth that he is important; he is 71 years old but cannot shake hands like an adult; he doesn’t understand time zones or know the names of many foreign countries; he dodged Vietnam on the basis of “bone spurs” that were diagnosed by one of his father’s tenants; he is racist, sexist, and vulgar; he eats his steak well done with ketchup. This man hates dogs. He is an awful human being. If you were to look for a way to teach a young man to be a good man, you could show him Trump’s life works and tell him “don’t be like this” and you would be guaranteed to be setting that young man on a good path. It’s so telling about Trump that the only time he has told the truth in the past year is when he is telling a 7 year old girl that Santa isn’t real.

Trump isn’t the only such horrible man in our lives at this time though – we are ruled by them. Brett Kavanaugh is a horrible man, a stinking alcoholic who obviously did what he was accused of doing, and covered it up with bluster and lies and aggrieved tears; Newt Gingrich and all the other men who pressed the impeachment on Bill Clinton have been pushed out of their positions because of sexual misconduct, and are awful men (one of them was Kavanaugh, who devised a slurry of intrusive sexual questions for Clinton but cried when much milder questions were directed at him); Ted Cruz endorsed Trump after Trump insulted his wife and father; Paul Ryan lied about his marathon times, and has made a career as a “serious political thinker” while serving up only flim-flam joke policies to the American public; Mike Pence refuses to be alone with a woman who is not his wife. But they aren’t just an American phenomenon: Boris Johnson once tried to have a journalist beaten up for publishing bad things about him, is a serial philanderer and a joke; Michael Gove is an idiot and a liar; Tony Abbot ran a vicious misogynist campaign of abuse against Julia Gillard and would have brought the entire edifice down around him if he thought it would help, and he told a politician once that he would give them anything “except his arse” if they would make him prime minister. Then there is the cavalcade of dodgy christian fundamentalist politicians in America who adopt a “broad stance” in men’s toilets, or traffic in women, or offer up the worst apologia for rape and sexual assault;  the Australian Nationals politicians who have been revealed to be grubby philanderers as they ponce about the country talking about “family values” and voted against gay marriage because it would “damage the sanctity” of an arrangement they were cheerfully traducing; and let’s not forget the conga line of sexual abusers and rapists in the media, the Les Moonves’s and Harvey Weinsteins and Roger Ailes’s who determine what we read and what we see. And can you look at Mark Zuckerberg and not think that beneath that jeans- and t-shirt exterior beats the heart of a determinedly evil man?

We live in a time when we are ruled by awful men.

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when our politicians either didn’t parade their failed virtue in front of us, demanding that we ban abortion or sex outside of marriage or child rape while they did it – they either didn’t do it, or left those policies vaguely undefined. There was a time when politicians had basic human decency, and would behave well around others even if their policies were unpleasant. John Howard’s policies were atrocious, he wasted 10 years of Australia’s best economic growth on buying votes from middle class Australians, and he instituted the modern policy of abuse of asylum seekers, but he would never tell a child that santa isn’t real and he never sexually assaulted anyone. Paul Keating was an arrogant prick but he genuinely cared about the rights of the poor, of working people, and of Aboriginal people. His policies might not always have helped the people he cared about but he tried – and he at least had a sense of humour. John Major may have squandered the chance to achieve a Tory follow-up to Thatcher’s economic policies, and he may have presided over growing inequality and ill health, but he was a bland and tired man who never raped anyone. It’s a low bar but let’s repeat it: John Major never raped anyone. His successor face-fucked a dead pig.

Where did these awful men come from? Slate attempts to offer something of an explanation for them, defining them as the Old Boys, but their explanation is too focused on America (of course). It doesn’t explain the horrors of Boris Johnson in Britain, Scott Morrison in Australia (or Barnaby fucking Joyce!), those eastern European wannabe despots who are despicable and awful nobodies; it doesn’t have much to say about Erdogan, though perhaps he isn’t actually awful (how old school to only be politically evil, and not also personally despicable!). How is that so many of the men who rule or want to rule the English speaking world are so awful? Not just that their policies are traditionally right wing but that they themselves eschew the basic principles of being a decent man? Is there something wrong with the protestant English-speaking world, that throws up these horrific men? Is there something unique to the democratic systems of the English-speaking world? I wonder if perhaps the winner-take-all nature of our political systems encourages these men, and that perhaps explains why democracies that require coalition-building don’t have them. So they don’t appear in France, Germany, New Zealand, or Japan, because in those systems you have to be able to be liked by people who disagree with you – perhaps then it’s telling that in the one time Australian politicians had to negotiate a coalition the awful man lost and the supposedly bland woman won.

I also wonder if it is something about the right wing of politics? After all, it’s usually the right that attracts the racists and sexists and secret hitlerophiles, so maybe that’s where the awful people go? But that doesn’t explain Kevin Rudd, who kept his awfulness under a bushel until he had power and then burnt so bright before Gillard extinguished his awful light. It doesn’t explain Blair, the hideous vampire. It doesn’t explain Mark Latham, who broke a taxi driver’s arm and spent his early dotage ranting in right-wing journals about all the labour party members who (thankfully for labor and the country) dumped him before he could apply his unique taxi-side negotiating skills to the country. The jury of course is out on Xi Jinping, about whom rumours of womanizing in his youth circulate but who finds it very easy to maintain a squeaky clean image, either because he is or because he controls the media with an iron fist.

So how did we get to be ruled by all these awful men?

I wonder if there is something buried in democracy, some awful bug, which makes it vulnerable to these shoddy personalities, these narcissistic vultures. Or at least if the kind of first past the post, winner-takes-all democracy of the English-speaking world is ultimately as vulnerable to takeover by narcissistic, personality-disordered thugs as any dictatorial system. Maybe it takes 20 years longer, but maybe it’s just as inevitable? Or maybe it’s not true that you should leave people’s personal properties out of your calculation of their political worth. Maybe the personal really is political, and if a politician is personally awful then they will be politically terrible. In my youth there was a strong principle that you don’t bring people’s personal life into politics. But perhaps Trump is the antithesis of that principle: we should absolutely judge politicians by their personal behavior, because they will never be better than they are personally when they are in power. Or maybe something has changed over the past 20 years in our culture, so that people are no longer capable of being better politically than they are personally. If so then you need to make sure that the people you vote for have sterling personal qualities, because if in the past the responsibility of leadership caused people to rise above themselves, it appears that these awful men take the opportunity of leadership to debase themselves. If power corrupts, what hope do we have if all of our leaders are already deeply, awfully corrupt?

I don’t know what the reason is but I do know this: we need to get rid of these awful men. Our civilization cannot survive if we allow these awful men to have any influence, anywhere in our society. We need to drive them out, retire them, get them away from anywhere where there is a lever of power. We don’t know what the systematic problems are that enable these awful men to seize the levers of power, so let’s settle on a simpler program: don’t work with them, don’t help them, don’t vote for them, don’t aid them or abet them. Get them out of power, everywhere.

Let’s build a world where we are not ruled by awful men.

Stay sleeping, gentle giants

Today we are hearing reports that Japan will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 2019 and resume commercial whaling. These reports are being greeted with some dismay but I wonder if they actually herald the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling.

The reports suggest that the Japanese whaling fleet will stop hunting in the Southern Ocean and restrict their whaling activities to Japan’s territorial waters. On its face this suggests that the fleet will be able to easily and comfortably catch as many whales as it wants, but there’s a problem with this: Japanese people don’t like whale meat, and whaling is only profitable if it is heavily government subsidized. But when the whaling fleet switches from a dodgy “research” program to a commercial whaling program, will the government still subsidize it? I wouldn’t be surprised if the subsidy gets withdrawn and whale suddenly has to compete on price and quality with beef and fish. I suspect then that commercial whaling will become unsustainable very quickly. Furthermore, many areas where whaling could be conducted will put it in direct competition with whale watching tourism (for example in Kochi, Okinawa and some areas around Hokkaido). This political battle played out for years in Iceland, and although the whale watchers finally lost it took a lot of work by the whaling organization to make that happen.

In the past a large part of the reason whaling was supported by the government was its political appeal in a few important rural electorates, but over the past 10 years there have been repeated efforts to reduce the political power of rural electorates, with electorates merging and being rebalanced so their effective vote is closer to parity with urban areas. This means that the government is under less and less pressure to support rural money-sink projects like whaling, and in an era of straitened finances where the boutique demands of a couple of rural electorates conflict with the growing and critical problem of aging in rural areas, I suspect the government will very quickly find it convenient to slash that subsidy (or not transfer it) and leave the whaling towns to sink or swim on their own. It’s worth remembering that one un-subsidized similar operation, the annual dolphin hunt, is not financially successful on the basis of the meat consumed – the main profits from that hunt arise from selling captured dolphins to aquariums (many of them international). With no such secret market to support it the whale hunt may well not be profitable, unless the operators can somehow convince Chinese people to eat whale meat.

This decision also removes much of the international embarrassment that Japan faced from whaling. Until last year, when the Sea Shepherds admitted defeat in their conflict with the whaling fleet, Japan endured an annual parade of shame on the global stage as its tiny pointless whaling fleet hunted endangered animals in international waters while being chased by an aggressive foreign fleet that sometimes had surprising victories. It was defeated in the international courts and forced to change its plans, and it only defeated the Sea Shepherds after militarizing its whaling fleet. In contrast, moving to commercial whaling in Japan’s territorial waters and leaving the IWC incurs a one-time PR hit, because the Sea Shepherds won’t be able to operate in Japanese territory, and so there won’t be annual vision of this conflict. It also removes all political disputes with Australia, which despite its small size remains an important trading partner for Japan and a good international friend, and with whom they disagreed on pretty much only this issue. It also strips the whaling program of all its nationalist political baggage, since it will be removed from the public eye, and potentially opens it to political conflicts within Japan over less politically-charged and more prosaic issues of budgeting and industrial strategy.

This decision also makes me wonder if prime minister Shinzo Abe has not been playing his nationalist base very well. Since he came into office he has implemented new programs to encourage women in work, increased annual migration numbers and relaxed rules on who can come here, made better friends with China, and now he’s stripping the whale hunt of all its nationalist overtones. His apology on the 70th anniversary of the war was actually an expansive improvement on previous apologies, and although there have been some restrictions on international aid Shinzo Abe has adopted a fairly radical global health program that puts the end of war, and international engagement, at the centre of Japan’s development programs. His introduction of this global health policy linked it to Japan’s violence towards women in the second world war, with an implicit rebuke of people who denied the comfort woman issue (which he also almost settled with the Koreans). So I wonder what his nationalist base have actually got out of him? Sure there have been some mild changes to the constitution to enable group self defense, but the most likely short term result of them will be that Japan ends up fighting in a war as an ally of South Korea (should that horrific scenario come to pass). Besides this mild concession, I cannot see that the nationalist wing of Japanese politics have gained a single thing from Abe. He doesn’t even visit Yasukuni Shrine anymore! I think Abe may have presented the world with a text book example of how to play to a nationalist base while implementing policies they don’t want, and stealing them of all their thunder.

So let’s hope that this decision causes the whaling issue to slide out of view, and then bankrupts the whaling fleet and forces them to be converted into expensive, high-class whale-watching ships. There’s a precedent for this: the first Sea Shepherd ship was a converted Japanese whaler. I hope that in the years to come the Sea Shepherds will be able to say that the Japanese fleet’s victory in the battle for the Southern Ocean was pyrrhic, and that the Sea Shepherds won the war.

Today’s Guardian reports that Theresa May had to suddenly jet off to Europe to plead for new concessions on her Brexit deal, as the wreckers and traitors in her party circle and prepare for a leadership challenge. Within a day of her postponing the meaningful vote in parliament, Europe’s leaders are in the press singing from the same song sheet, that there will be no renegotiations or concessions, and although they’ll offer “explainers” to help her politically, they are preparing for a no-deal brexit. This is not the first time that the UK leadership have had their efforts rebuffed – David Davis failed to enforce multiple red lines – but it is a stark example of the challenge of managing an independent foreign and trade policy when you run a middling-size country with a fading service economy. This is Britain’s first example of what “take back control” really means.

I think a majority (or at least a large minority) of Britons either grew up after the UK entered the union or were too young to remember what life was like before EU membership. For most Britons, the last time their nation had full “control” of its foreign and trade policy it was an empire, with considerable power and influence globally and large captive markets in the colonies where it could rely on economic support. Naturally, if your history as an independent nation was one of imperial smash-and-grab policies you will have a rose-tinted vision of the benefits of full “control”. But modern Britain is not an empire and never will be, and it would be wise for Britain’s brexiteers to consider what it really means to “take back control” when your nation doesn’t have a huge population and is not an industrial giant. The reality is that as of next year Britain is going to be a nation of 60 million people with a hollowed-out industrial base, a weak agricultural sector and a limited natural resource base. What does it mean to “take back control” for such a country? Fortunately, we have examples, and it might be wise for Britain’s brexiteers to look at how those exemplars of independence achieved success.

I grew up in a country that was not part of any union and had to make its own way in the world, Australia. In order to be a successful independent modern nation Australia went through a 15 year period of reform, starting with Hawke’s Labor party grabbing power in 1983 and ending with the imposition of the GST in 1998. During that time we saw waves of reform. Universal health coverage was introduced (1984), labour reform happened (1983 – 1991), superannuation reformed (the mid-80s and early 90s), tariff barriers were removed, sclerotic industries were modernized and reformed (e.g the dairy industry), education reform was constant and oriented towards making it an export market, the relationship between federal and state governments was modernized and changed, migration was loosened and reformed, tax reform happened in several steps, and through it all we had a long, difficult and often frustrating conversation about the extermination and dispossession that underpinned much of our economic success. We also saw a shift in perspective from our old colonial masters to Asia, with sometimes fraught and complex negotiations with our Asian neighbours. By 1996 commentators spoke of the Australian people’s “reform fatigue”, a phrase I remember well, and this constant shifting of the ground on which older Australians grew up is part of the reason the electorate was described as waiting for the Labor party “with baseball bats” in the 1996 election. Most of these reforms were hugely important and successful, and from 1996 we had 20 years of uninterrupted economic growth. Even reforms that seemed largely cultural and not necessarily economic probably had a role to play in this complete modernization of Australian society – it’s unlikely for example that Aboriginal people would have stood quietly by and let the mining and resource boom of the 2000s happen on their land if they had not been given significant concessions in land rights in the 1980s and 1990s, and it’s unlikely that we would have been as ready to engage with Asia as we are if education had not been modernized with an Asian focus in the 1990s.

Australia also built its post-war success on migration, and I think now something like 20% of Australians were born overseas, with nearly 40% having been born overseas or having a parent born overseas. Our population grew rapidly from 1950 to 2000, and is nearly double what it was 70 years ago, with that increase heavily supported by migration. We also had to make significant concessions to international reality. For example, we outsource our defense policy to the USA and act with them in all their wars, even the illegal ones, and we have supported the One China Policy for practical reasons since the 1970s. When you have a population of 24 million people and rely for your economic wellbeing on trade with big Asian neighbours, you can’t afford to be too assertive in your foreign policy, and you also can’t afford big ticket domestic defense items like, say, Trident, or aircraft carriers. With the advantage of remoteness and the benefit of limited tariff barriers and huge quantities of natural resources we don’t need to worry about defense too much, so long as we keep trading without too many qualms about who we’re selling to. This isn’t a luxury that a nation like Japan or Germany can have, since they have large geopolitical rivals with bad histories quite nearby. Australia has long since given up on expecting to be a major player in the world stage, and where we exert influence we do so through soft power and being likable. Is this something that the UK wants to do?

Singapore is another country that has made it as a successful independent nation, but probably not in a way that is politically compatible with Brexit fever dreams. Something like 80% of Singaporean housing is government-owned, and there are strict rules on ethnic composition of housing blocks and other public amenities, along with strict censorship, to ensure that racial harmony is a fundamental part of the Singaporean way of life. Singapore also has a very large immigrant population, low tariffs, and an atmosphere of competition with other nations and social cooperation internally that the UK won’t be able to develop overnight. Singapore has often been touted as a model for Britain’s independent future, but it’s unlikely to be one that is palatable to the British voter, with its very large transient migrant population, heavy state investment in industry, housing and infrastructure, extremely long working hours, heavy censorship and strict rules to protect racial harmony.

Canada is another successful independent nation, but it has the agricultural and natural resources benefits that Australia has, is neighbour to a huge and dominant economy that is very culturally connected, and also built its economic success through migration. I have a friend who just got permanent residency (with his Japanese wife) in Canada without ever living there, and moved there to be on welfare payments while he looked for work. That’s not a migration model that will please Brexiters (his skin is quite brown!) and probably not a model that will be very attractive to potential migrants once Britain’s economy slumps. Canada also benefits from having no viable external enemies, a long cultural tradition of getting along with each other, and heavy state investment in e.g. health and welfare. It also has bears.

Japan is a nation that has been successful without migration, but it has a very large population (twice that of Britain), is very close to some very big trading partners, and succeeded with the help of major foreign support when it was rebuilding its (very large) industrial base after world war 2. Japan also, like Britain, has a weak agricultural sector and no natural resources. But Japan’s economic and international political success is built on a range of factors that would not appeal to the brexiteers. First and foremost it has a huge national debt and a bipartisan policy of using government money to fund infrastructure, bailouts, and industrial support. It has always maintained a strong industry policy, and tight relations between industry and government. It has a German-style approach to labour relations, in which workers are partners in business and government and disputes are resolved through compromise and consensus, and Japanese industrial leaders often have to tighten their belts with their workers in exchange for not having to put up with combative unions. Japan also has a constitutionally-mandated policy of pacifism, and invests heavily in overseas aid to ensure it maintains a strong connection in the region. Furthermore, Japan is a nation heavily committed to the international order, trying always to work through the UN and multinational agreements rather than being truly independent. Japan doesn’t pick sides or moralize, and is an exemplary global citizen. As a result of its lack of migrants Japan is also ageing, and is opening its borders to migration rapidly.

Something that many of these countries have in common is a commitment to social harmony. To varying degrees they have tried to prevent major outbreaks of social disorder or disruption – Australia does not have France style yellow-jacket demonstrations, and for example while Australia had 20 years of domestic environmental activism that was often quite confrontational, the end result was always some form of compromise to maintain the peace. Part of maintaining social order requires a commitment to equality, which is very strongly observed in Japan and Canada, and to various programs that may (as in the case of Singapore) require heavy government investment in order to ensure that there is a minimum standard of living for everyone. This is also not something that the Brexiters seem particularly happy with.

It seems clear to me that “taking back control” for Britain is going to require some difficult and unavoidable choices, that the British people won’t be happy to make. Cutting back on migration will mean that British people have to work harder and pull together in ways they aren’t used to; going independent will mean burning money on defense or outsourcing it to a great power or lowering expectations about Britain’s international assertiveness; being an open trading nation will require political compromises with trading partners that will stick in the craw of many of Britain’s elder statesmen; maintaining social harmony and a united front is going to demand sacrifices of everyone. But most of all, British people are going to have to come to terms with the reality that they don’t have much clout at all on the international stage, and that until they can develop some industries that foreigners want to buy, build some goodwill outside of the EU, and establish an independent voice that has some actual value to people they haven’t traditionally had much connection to, they aren’t going to be taken seriously globally. Theresa May’s hapless trip to Europe is a harbinger of what awaits them when they “take back control,” and as someone who grew up in a nation that has had to navigate difficult currents over dark waters, I would ask two questions of the British: do you want this, and are you ready for it? Because from what I have seen over the past year, you don’t and you’re not.

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