The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Politics

The Propaganda Model

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In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman donned their media-analyst hats and proposed a fascinating and frightening concept of how journalism really works in western nations.

Most people’s conception of the media is that it is a force that power must in some way deal with. The newspapermen make their living by exposing government lies and deceptions; they are on the side of their readers, the general public, and not on the side of the powerful elites. Whenever the powers-that-be want to do something naughty, their first thought must be: how should we handle the media? This can either be done subtly, for example by deflecting interest elsewhere or trying to mask their plans as something else; or it can be done not so subtly, by closing down newspapers, torturing reporters and censoring broadcasts – but one way or another, the media must be dealt with.

The alternative, say Chomsky and Herman, is something they call the propaganda model.

In this alternative rendering, media is expensive, and requires the support of the powerful simply in order to exist; and, while it must at least keep up the image of covering stories in the real world, its primary function is to protect the people who pay for it through advertising.

Newspapers that consistently run stories that go against these commercial interests will lose money and eventually go bust, but this kind of macroscopic selection process will rarely happen. Most probably, canny editors will shelve stories from reporters who insist on reporting on the wrong topics, and journalists who don’t behave themselves will be moved somewhere from which they can’t do any damage.

All this sounds plausible, but difficult to prove. The most cited counterexample is Watergate: here, newspapers brought down the President of the USA, surely a demonstration that a free press really is free to take on whoever it likes.

What Chomsky and Herman argue is that Watergate was not the biggest story people could have reported on. Because two stories were unfolding at once: Watergate, that got the media attention, and COINTELPRO, which few people today have heard of, but which is infinitely more shocking and scary than a story about a politician lying to cover himself.

Why was COINTELPRO not more extensively covered? And why is it so little known today? Because to cover a campaign of terrorism, illegal surveillance and state-sponsored murder of political activists is something that is just not done.

And this is the scariest part of their thesis: that people in the media often don’t know that they’re protecting power. They are not lying to themselves. They believe every word they say. But if they were the kind of people who believed something else, they would not be working in the media. The whole system, from school to university to the inner halls of the media, has the effect of reinforcing the idea that there are some ideas that are simply not to be questioned.



This is laid out systematically in C&H’s Manufacturing Consent, which I confess I have not read, although Chomsky sketches the central thesis in many of his books – see Understanding Power.

A video of Chomsky arguing this with Andrew Marr can be found here.


Written by The S I

August 31, 2011 at 11:59 pm

A Common Tragedy

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The Tragedy of the Commons occurs when a number of people using a finite resource realise that they each stand to gain from taking more than their fair share. You know everybody else benefits from taking more, so that’s probably what they are doing; the more likely they are to be taking more, the more sense it makes for you to take more. And since everybody knows that it makes sense for you to take more… and so on, until the resource is depleted.

Fishers often know that their overfishing will lead to extinction of certain species of fish, and farmers often know that overfarming will leave the land infertile; but cessation is simply not feasible for them as individuals competition.

In a way the problem of short-term benefits outweighing long-term disadvantages resembles addiction. An chocoholic knows chocolate will make him fat; but it’s just too tasty to say no to! His willpower isn’t strong enough.

But our chocoholic friend has an option: he can employ a willpower-assisting strategy. He might not feel he needs chocolate just now, but can imagine a future point when the craving really sets in, when his willpower won’t be enough. So he acts now, while he can, and flushes the chocolate down the toilet, removing the temptation in advance. He enacts policy that anticipates future temptations. Sometimes people entrust this to others. “Don’t bring me any chocolate, I’ll only end up eating it.”

This is one solution to the Tragedy of the Commons. The consumers make a pact: they all agree to how much they can safely extract from the resource, and agree to be punished if they take more, even if ­– especially if ­– it later becomes profitable in the short term to do so. This leads to the creation of national parks, protected areas, one-child policies, fishing quotas and so on.

This kind of contract exploits a very human difference in our valuation of rewards depending on how far away in the future they are. Agreeing to protect a resource is easy when the resource is plentiful.

The trouble is that a sufficiently plentiful resource might not even be seen as a resource. What value do you place, for example, on air? Not much, until you start to see it polluted.

There was a time when the Earth was seen by most people as an infinite source and an infinite sink. Why regulate things that will never run out? It is only after we realise that something is in danger that it makes sense to protect it ­– but if the realisation comes late, and we see that the resource is actually scarce, then the short-term benefits of looting it faster than the other fella become very real to us indeed.

There is a time window between thinking something too free to regulate and thinking it too precious to regulate, and the window is often narrow. What have we missed it for? And what do we still have time to protect from our future, greedier selves?


This was written on a train having just finished The Logic of Life by Tim Harford, and with Dennett’s Freedom Evolves fresh in memory. Both very worth reading.

Written by The S I

August 25, 2011 at 11:59 pm

The Set of Everyone

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A few years ago, the abdominal ticking timebomb that was my appendix started to rebel against the system, and I was rushed to hospital. The offending organ was removed, and my life was saved. When I left the hospital, I did not receive a bill; the doctors didn’t give me a receipt for my bursting bits. Thanks to my country’s healthcare being publically funded, I was spared the unpleasant knowledge of the exact monetary value of my life.

But in a very real sense, I did pay for the operation. The tens of thousands of pounds my surgery cost were taken from me, a bit at a time, through taxation. My kamikaze appendix represented a return on my investment, since from birth to the moment I walked into the doctor’s office, this was money lost.

If the illness justifies the money I lost, would I have considered myself cheated if I never once got sick?

The problem is that we never know in advance that we will get ill. The money deducted from my income was spent on a probability. How likely am I to fall ill in the next year? In the next ten years?

A hypothetical situation: you know for certain that there is a fifty percent chance of catching a fatal illness in the next ten years. The illness is treatable, but the payment is expensive ­– and you have to pay it in advance.

You have two choices: you don’t pay, and hope you get lucky; or you do pay, but risk having spent your money on nothing. You decide to pay, just to be on the safe side. But ten years later, you are still in perfect health. You were lucky. Do you feel cheated? If yes, it is only because you are unaware of the other you, the probabilistic ghost of you, that could have been you.

Your decision to pay for treatment could be seen as paying for a probability, but it can also be seen as paying for a certainty ­­– the certainty of health for the set of all possible yous.

In order to act self-interestedly in an uncertain world, you need to consider not just who you are now, but who you might be later – and, by extension, all the people you might have been. It’s impossible to know which of the set of possible yous you will be in ten years time; it is in your interest to have a healthcare system that will take you in, whoever you happen to be.

I have no children, but someday I would like to. I have no idea what they will be like: boys or girls, healthy or unhealthy. But I know that I would want them to be born into a world where they are taken care of regardless of what bodies they were born into. I consider it the mark of a functioning society that the set of all possible mes, the set of all possible people everywhere, is looked after. It’s looking after Number One; but it’s doing so recognising that Number One being bigger than you are.


This is all very Rawlsian; google the Veil of Ignorance. The ideas of probability and certainty are derived from Taleb’s wonderful The Black Swan.

Written by The S I

August 15, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Cultural Engineering

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Should Scotland be independent? It’s a complicated question, and I don’t intend to address it here. What I want to ask is the same question, but with a shift in emphasis: should Scotland be independent?

Let’s say you have a large number of people in the north of the UK who want independence from the south of it. Where should you draw the line on the map? Perhaps you might divide the country into squares, poll each square, and then declare as your new proposed border that line north of which fifty-one percent of the population wants independence. That’s certainly one way of doing it ­– and to me it makes much more sense that simply assuming that the most natural and parsimonious way of carving up the country happens to coincide exactly with the border between Scotland and England that was drawn up in the 13th century.

For me, independence for Scotland makes little sense when compared with, say, independence for that group of people who tend to vote differently from the rest of the country. The area this group occupies might correlate with the region we call Scotland, certainly ­– might even correlate with it because it’s Scotland, because that is a specifically Scottish way of thinking ­– but simply to assume it seems wrong.

Of course what I’m missing is that Scotland is a distinct cultural entity. People in Scotland might feel Scottish, as opposed to British.

The feeling of nationhood is a real phenomenon, and not something to be ignored. The people who would gain from Scottish independence ­– members of a devolved government of a region of a United Kingdom who might see themselves as one day being the all-powerful government of an independent Rebublic of Scotland – know this quite well. They know they have a vested interest in cultural distinctiveness from England.

Scottish Gaelic is spoken by about 60,000 people in Scotland, a tiny percentage of the population. And yet it is the words “Fàilte gu Alba” that greet new arrivals at Edinburgh Airport, and all the signs on the Scottish Parliament have equal priority for English and Gaelic. Is this a generous move to accommodate the few thousand people who feel more comfortable conversing in Gaelic? Hardly. It is an attempt to remind us that Scotland is different from the rest of the UK. It is part of a drive to reintroduce and promote a language for Scotland.

The expressed goal is to ‘preserve’ a uniquely Scottish culture, one that has suffered from centuries of English oppression. And perhaps this is a worthwhile enterprise. But bygone cultures are never revived; they are only ever recreated, with modifications, to suit the present-day needs of those recreating it. Treat with suspicion those who say they are preserving some past golden age while installing computers in their offices. They are picking and choosing from what is available to them, and they are doing it because they plan to profit from it.

Written by The S I

August 11, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Corrosive — Apply With Caution

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In a recent post I said I thought markets are ‘corrosive’. I would like to be explicit about exactly what I mean by this.

In his excellent book The Undercover Economist, Tim Harford calls a perfect market “the World of Truth”, in which free competition always allows the price of a thing to be what people are willing to pay for it. It is impossible for a commodity to be overvalued, because competitors who are willing to sell it for less will do so, driving prices down as a result.

There are many reasons why perfect markets cannot exist in the real world – cartels, for example, or information asymmetry. Nevertheless, they are often seen as ideals to aspire to. They provide easy, non-coercive ways in which the creativity of thousands of people can be harnessed to solve problems. There are even people ­– scary anarcho-capitalist Walter Block is one – who would go as far as to say they can solve all problems.

His solution to sexual harassment in the workplace, for example, is not to inflict a moral code on people and tell them that sexual harassment in wrong. Rather, your wages should reflect the amount of sexual harassment you are willing to receive. If you are unhappy with being harassed a lot at £20,000 a year, you should quit and find a job with less harassment, or keep the level of harassment and ask for a raise. Acting in this way subjects harassing bosses to market forces; and if bosses find it hard to employ people at the wages they are willing to offer, maybe they ought to tone down the amount of harassment. In this way, a free market can arrive at a solution that is optimal for everyone involved, without an authoritarian moral code imposed on us someone who claims to know better.

Implicit in this is the theory that markets are morally neutral. Markets do not make judgements of right and wrong; they deal only in prices. Unfortunately, things are not so simple.

A study of childcare centres is revealing. Late pickups of children from childcare centres is a major inconvenience for the carers, requiring them to stay after work at a cost to themselves. Many centres decided to impose a fine on parents who were late. The cost was meant to disincentivise lateness through the power of markets.

The result was the exact opposite: late pickups increased. Why? Because parents stopped being ashamed of lateness. They saw the money they paid, not as a fine, but as daycare.

If there is no sense of shame to accompany it, fining people for littering has the power to turn beautiful scenery into expensive rubbish dumps. And fining construction companies for on-site deaths has the power to let the companies decide how many lives they can reasonably afford to lose.

Markets are not neutral. The decision to commoditise something is a moral judgement. And sometimes it is the wrong one to make.


Written by The S I

July 16, 2011 at 9:58 pm

A Degree in What?

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In recent years in this country there has been a proliferation in the number and variety of courses taught in universities. Many of my parents’ generation have been disquieted by this. Do we really need to have people with degrees in plumbing? Furniture making? Golf course management?

It’s an interesting question. Specialising in any subject requires study, but what is it that makes one specialism suitable for teaching in a university, and one not? What is it that makes a degree in English, psychology or physics seem reasonable, but a degree in motor maintenance seem unnecessary?

My own pet theory derives from a belief that universities and schools are institutions designed, intentionally or not, to protect the young from capitalism.

Some subjects do seem more suited to university study than others. What does this suitability correlate with? Is it perceived usefulness to society? Hardly. The differences in figures for employment in the first six months of graduating between English literature students and physicists tells us that these subjects are valued very differently by society, even though anybody could tell you that the place to get at good each of these subjects is in a university. A skilled plumber can command a much better salary than an English graduate, but few people seem to think that plumbing is something to study in university.

I also don’t believe suitability correlates with knowledge of one’s discipline. Does someone who spends three years studying English or physics know more than someone who spent the same time studying motor mechanics? I can’t believe it necessarily follows. I’m not even sure the question makes sense. I wouldn’t ask a hairdresser to calibrate a particle accelerator; but then, I wouldn’t ask a physicist to cut my hair, either.

The crucial difference, I think, is this: that a bad furniture maker can just about get away with making bad furniture, for less, and in so doing learn how to make good furniture, for more; but a bad physicist, or a bad specialist in mediaeval Dutch, is of no use to anyone. It is a question of apprenticeship, growth, and survival in a hostile world.

Capitalism is corrosive, and markets, though necessary and important, are dangerous places for the inexperienced to play. We do not throw children out onto the street to fend for themselves in the name of free markets. We protect them, educate them, to give them the skills they will need to make themselves useful. At eighteen, people leave school wanting to pursue different careers. In some of these careers, it is possible to start with nothing and learn the job on the go; in others, a few years’ more training is needed before the person is ready to start. Universities – all education, in fact – should be a safe haven where the young are able to develop the skills they need to contribute to society in future, without feeling the tidal forces of markets. It worries me that this may not continue to be the case.

Written by The S I

July 12, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Posted in Politics

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