Sunday, June 26, 2016

A lesson to Andrew Marr and the BBC

One of the things I've always admired from the UK is the BBC. This admiration has been eroded during the recent referendum campaign by the impartiality of the network between clowns and experts. This morning, the first edition of the Andrew Marr Show in BBC1 after the Brexit referendum, has been a clear and shameful example. In the section of the program devoted to commenting the headlines in the newspapers, Mr. Marr interrupted Polly Toynbee from The Guardian because she was mentioning the obvious lies of the Brexit campaign (the money "saved" from exiting the EU, the control of immigration...). He felt obliged to interrupt a prestigious journalist such as Mrs. Toynbee and tell her that the Remain campaign had also lied. She replied something like "here we have the BBC, on the one hand this, on the one hand that..." She should have been much tougher. The BBC should be first committed with the truth, and any objective, not impartial, observer, will akcnowledge that the amount and significance of lies in the Brexit side have been enormous. As Paul Krugman always denounces about the US media, it is not acceptable that they (especially collectively owned media) behave with impartiality between, for example, creationism and evolution. Andrew Marr should learn a lesson from journalists in the competing network ITV when they interviewed the soft fascist leader Nigel Farage and were appropriately tough on him for his lies. Populist referenda are so poisonous that they can even destroy the reputation of institutions that have done so much for democracy like the BBC.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Rodrik, his trilemma and the morning after

Since Paul Krugman has almost "copied" the title of my first post today, I can't help but write a second one (will he copy this one?). Contrary to what Dani Rodrik himself seems to argue in a post some days ago, the victory of Brexit in the UK's referendum is not a victory of democratic politics, but a victory of the nation-state. I don't know about Nigel Farage (does he?) but Boris Johnson and Michael Gove do not want to abandon an integrated global economy. If they claim to be the great defenders of the sovereign nation-state and want Britain to be successful in a world with free trade, the piece of Rodrik's trilemma that has to be abandoned is democracy. And it is. First, this referendum has been a mockery of democracy, as it is very well explained in the blog "Stumbling and Mumbling". Second, it is not clear what specific project has won this referendum. Now it seems that Boris Johnson is not in a hurry to start negotiations to leave the EU. Oh, you didn't know? Yes, negotiations are needed and leaving the EU is not automatic. What will happen in between these negotiations or at the end? Will Boris Johnson reach a new agreement to half-stay in the EU and call another referendum? I thought that "neverendum" was only an option for losing secessionists, but I'm not so sure now. A vote for soft fascism cannot be a victory of democracy, as argued by the blog "Notes from a Broken Society:"
Yesterday’s vote to leave the EU is a leap into the unknown. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the winning side hasn’t a clue what happens next.  No exit strategy, no negotiating brief.  Only a vague perception that “we have taken our country back”, and a lot of noise and fury about immigration;  a vote distinguished by its virulent anti-intellectualism and an apparent belief that actually to know about a subject somehow disqualifies one from having a legitimate opinion on it.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The morning after in the UK

There is a wonderful book ("The Morning After") by journalist Chantal Hebert about what would have happened in Canada in case the secessionists had won the referendum of 1995 in Quebec. To write the book, she interviewed all the main leaders involved in that referendum campaign, and the conclusion was that nobody had a clue about how to manage a "leave" vote. Those in favour of independence were uncertain and divided about how to proceed and how to implement the hypothetical "will of the people." In the event, the "remain" vote prevailed by the narrowest of margins, the stock markets and the Canadian Dollar went up and the liberal federalists little by little recovered their political hegemony. Well, now Chantal Hebert can compare her hypothetical exercise with the real thing. The United Kingdom is today experiencing its day after. By a narrow margin, they have decided to leave the European Union. The leaders of the "leave" campaign, which include from fascists to apparently civilized conservative politicians, claim that they want to keep trading freely with the European Union countries. But unfortunately during the campaign they have not explained how will they manage to negotiate a free trade agreement with a club they just have decided to leave, or how long will it take them to reach such agreement. Meanwhile, the "remain" vote has won in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and leaders there are asking for their right to separate from a non-EU United Kingdom. The pound has descended in a few hours to the lowest level since 1985 and credit rating agencies are suggesting that they may downgrade their evaluation of British debt. Other national-populist leaders in European countries, including Marine Le Pen in France, have not yet asked for a similar referendum in their countries probably because they have not waken up yet. Turmoil in the very short run, huge uncertainty in the long run. Congratulations, Mr. Cameron. (I wrote this while listening to Nigel Farage on TV: it's scaring).

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Homage from Catalonia to the tolerant Britain (a love letter)

My first flight was to London when I was 12. I fell in love with the parks and with ethnic diversity in the streets. In 1999, I remember the day when I was selected for a fellowship at the London Business School (LBS) as one of the happiest in my life. Before that, I had spent six weeks at Oxford, where I met giants of academic economics like Colin Mayer or John Vickers, while I was doing my PhD in Florence under the supervision of another English professor, James Dow. I did not become friends with any of them, but I admire them not only for the professional excellence, but for their honesty, tolerance and willingness to help in an effective way (that is, making you better). Of course, all this was possible because of the European Union budget and research programs. Then in London, I had the pleasure to work and have fun with excellent co-authors and friends like Paul Levine, Jon Stern and Neil Rickman. I also wrote the speech in Spanish of another great British economist, David Currie, when the construction of his house in Sitges (near Barcelona) was completed. All these friends are not exceptions. There is a long history of open-minded, tolerant, pro-European Britain. Not only Churchill wanted to see the United States of Europe, but the British federalists of Lionel Robbins were hugely influential in the Italian federalists of Spinelli that did so much to promote the idea of a united Europe. London, Oxford, Cambridge are much more open and tolerant than any city or region I lived in my life (perhaps with the exception of Berkeley). While I was in London and later, the deans of my institution (the LBS) where Canadian or American, and the managers of the national football (soccer) team were either Swedish or Italian. Nobody asked about your nationality or your origin. Apparently, next to this Britain that I know and I love, there is another Britain, the Britain of the demagogues and the opportunists, and the Britain of the fearful and vulnerable to cinicism (every society, as any individual, has a dark side). It is a mistake to think that a European Union without Britain could be better because it would make faster progress towards unity. A post-Brexit EU would be weaker and poorer not mainly economically, but politically, culturally and socially. And it would have to confront the precedent of a huge victory for the nationalists and populists supported by Trump and Putin. Catalonia and Spain have nothing to teach the UK about tolerance. I chose this title because one of the heroes of tolerance, the British writer George Orwell, wrote a book decades ago with the title "Homage to Catalonia," where he explained his experiences with the many British that came to Spain to fight for freedom against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Dear friends: thanks for everything, I hope you prevail tomorrow.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Soccernomists to the rescue of europhile Britain

Since the consensus of economists in favour of the UK remaining in the European Union has not been enough apparently to convince a majority of voters, "soccernomists" are coming to the rescue. "Soccernomics" was the best book on soccer before "Soccermatics." The two authors of the former book, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, have written nice pieces about how good the EU has been for soccer and soccer fans in the UK, especially in England. Simon Kuper writes today in the Financial Times (no free access apparently), and speaks about "the dark Europe-hating id of the Brexit campaign" but also of "a hidden subterranean English europhilia" especially present in the majority of football fans that enjoy how much better the English league has become thanks to Europe. Stefan Szymanski has a post with similar arguments in his blog and writes:
"English clubs and fans benefitted from being able to raise the standard of play in England, a fact that I have argued has led to a better standard play at the national team level. If you are one of those who think the national teams will do better with fewer foreign players take a look at the evidence.The march of the Premier League to global dominance has been a function both of openness to talent and openness to investors – bolstered by Britain’s membership of the EU. It’s possible to argue that Britain outside the EU could be even more open- but it is evident that a large fraction of support for the Leave campaign is motivated by anti-immigration sentiments which are hardly likely to make Britain outside the EU a more inviting place for foreigners. (...) My father was an immigrant from Poland- a soldier in 1939 who managed to escape, join the British army, marry a British wife and become a British citizen. It wasn’t so easy for Poles (or Hungarian) immigrants in Britain in the 1950s, just as it wasn’t easy for immigrants from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean in the 1960s, or Greek Cypriots and Ugandan Asians in the 1970s. And no doubt it wasn’t easy for Jewish refugees at the beginning of the 20th century, or Huguenots, or any other wave of immigrants in British history. But ultimately, I believe the British value of toleration has led ultimately to acceptance and integration. Britain has always been a country of migrants, and that for me is what helps to make it Great Britain.The diversity of Britain has always been for me one the greatest sources of pride in my country- whether in sport or any other dimension of life. Brexit would make us less diverse and so far poorer in ways that are much more important than the merely financial."

Thursday, June 16, 2016

In memory of Jo Cox

I received this text and with no more to say, I join in this sad day the tribute to Jo Cox and all those who defend her ideas:
Dear Avaaz community,

I've just been told that Jo Cox has been killed. 

She was a mother, a campaigner, an MP, an advocate for the voiceless and those in poverty, and a passionate fighter for people and principles. She was close to many on the Avaaz team, and my friend. 

I can't imagine, in these tears, how to honour her, but then yes I can. It's through love. Jo was passionately campaigning for Britain to stay in Europe. Not just because it is smart, or advantageous. But because she spent her life caring for Syrians, and Africans. She was a beautiful light of love for all people, for humanity. The man who took her life, stabbing her and shooting her over and over, screamed "Britain First". Somehow it's not surprising, in an awful way, that her life would be taken by that kind of hate, that kind of selfishness. Because it was to fighting that darkness that she devoted her time on this earth. 

Our instinct is to come together at times like this, share our love for each other. I think Jo would want that. But she would also want us to fight, to pick up the banner that the brutal murderer made fall from her hands, and carry it forward. In a Britain that risks growing nastier, smaller, less honest, and more selfish, to pick up the banner for love, for Great Britain, for the country that is great enough to love immigrants, and love all people. This is what Jo would have wanted, and why I say we fight, with love, for the world Jo fought for -- the world we all want. 

Let's share our love with each other, and pledge, for Jo and all of us, to carry her banner of love forward:

With love,
Ricken, with Jo's friends Alice, Emma, Luis, Fadi, and Alex, and the whole Avaaz team

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Brexit is a Pandora's box

Watching today the talkshow "The Andrew Marr Show" in the BBC, I realized that just the existence of the referendum is big victory for those in favour of leaving the EU. By the existence of the referendum, they have the right to a balanced presence in the media. That is why experts and elected politicians have the same TV time than clowns, demagogs or worse. Everybody calls the plebiscite "the Brexit referendum" and not the "friendship referendum," for example. A dangerous nationalist like Nigel Farage can present himself as worried about the spread of the extreme right in Europe (and find this an argument to vote for the extreme right projects of people like him). In Catalonia, the national-populists find an insult to be compared to Farage. They all believe that the dangerous populists are the others. We have been focusing too much on the economic arguments. But actually people like Farage do not care much about the economic arguments ("so what?" he said today). In fact, these are not the most important arguments. The most important thing is the type of world that we are building if people like Boris Johnson or Farage prevail. Think of what comes next if they prevail: what will happen in Scotland? What will happen in Northern Ireland? This is what Bill Clinton wrote in the New Statesman: "In a tumultuous world, marked by slow growth, excessive inequality, massive refugee flows, and sectarian violence, it’s tempting to believe we can reduce our exposure and increase our personal and economic security by turning inward and keeping the world’s problems out. We’d all like to have the benefits of global interdependence without the burdens. However, because there are disruptive forces we cannot escape, co-operation and collective action are much more likely than withdrawal and isolation to produce prosperity and security. For a nation as large, diverse, and successful as the UK, there is no escape from the growing pains and contradictions of the 21st century world. It is also important not to minimise the benefits of EU membership to the UK. For example, I was honoured to support the peace process in Northern Ireland. It has benefited from the UK’s membership in the European Union, and I worry that the future prosperity and peace of Northern Ireland could be jeopardised if Britain withdraws." 

Horizontal inequality, identity politics and the evolution of political dimensions

Progressive thinkers have small differences concerning the realtionship between identity politics and the potential multidimensionality of politics. Scholars like Roemer have been well aware that dimensions such as religion and ethnicity can be manipulated by the rich to make the poor vote for them. Krugman believes that sometimes a focus on horizontal inequality is a lesser evil: "Horizontal inequality is the term of art for inequality measured, not between individuals, but between racially or culturally defined groups. (Of course, race itself is mainly a cultural construct rather than a fact of nature — Americans of Italian or even Irish extraction weren’t always considered white.) And it struck me that horizontal thinking is what you need to understand what went down in both parties’ nominating seasons: It’s what led to Donald Trump, and also why Hillary Clinton beat back Bernie Sanders. And like it or not, horizontal inequality, racial inequality above all, will define the general election.You can argue that it shouldn’t be that way. One way to think about the Sanders campaign is that it was based on the premise that if only progressives were to make a clear enough case about the evils of inequality among individuals, they could win over the whole working class, regardless of race. In one interview Mr. Sanders declared that if the media was doing its job, Republicans would be a fringe party receiving only 5 or 10 percent of the vote.But that’s a pipe dream. Defining oneself at least in part by membership in a group is part of human nature. Even if you try to step away from such definitions, other people won’t." 
In his article, Krugman gives the example of the US as a place where the salience of dimensions evolve because of the intended efforts of politicians, but also for demographic or evolutionary reasons (political scientist Riker argues in "Liberalism versus Populism" that there is a natural evolution of political issues, and he gives the example of slavery in XIX century US). Milanovic in has last book has as one of his final ten questions about what will be important for income inequality in the immediate future this question: "why it is wrong to focus exclusively on horizontal inequality?", and he has a previous less known piece on the determinants of ethnicity becoming salient in politics as opposed to income. The late historian Tony Judt has an article summarizing his views on the bad influence of identity politics for socialdemocracy and ends up saying: "Being “Danish” or “Italian,” “American” or “European” won’t just be an identity; it will be a rebuff and a reproof to those whom it excludes. The state, far from disappearing, may be about to come into its own: the privileges of citizenship, the protections of card-holding residency rights, will be wielded as political trumps. Intolerant demagogues in established democracies will demand “tests”—of knowledge, of language, of attitude—to determine whether desperate newcomers are deserving of British or Dutch or French “identity.” They are already doing so. In this brave new century we shall miss the tolerant, the marginals: the edge people. My people."

Thursday, June 9, 2016

"The Hidden Wealth of Nations," by Gabriel Zucman

At least 8% of GDP is hidden in tax havens, and the amount has been increasing in the recent past. Economist Gabriel Zucman reaches this conclusion after comparing national foreign accounts of several countries. The book "The Hidden Wealth of Nations" not only describes the large magnitude of this problem, but it also proposes solutions. These include the automatic exchange of information between countries about financial investments (and trade sanctions if a country does not comply), the creation of an international register of all financial assets, and the payment of taxes by multinationals according to the country where they sell their products instead of the country of incorporation. Zucman also hints at the need of changing some aspects of our institutional architecture, for example about European Union countries better coordinating their threats to some of their member states, such as Luxembourg, and some external ones, such as Switzerland. As argued by this economist, "economists share some of the responsibility for the sense of mystery that still surrounds tax havens. Academics have for too long shown little interest in the subject, with some notable exceptions. But progress has been made within the past ten years, and we may rightfully hope for important advances in the near future. The fact remains that most of the progress in understanding tax havens achieved up to now—remarkable progress in many respects—can be credited not to economists, but to a certain number of pioneering nongovernmental organizations, journalists, political scientists, historians, jurists, and sociologists. The approach I adopt in this book differs from these earlier ones; it complements them and in no way claims to eclipse them. The originality of my approach is that it is based foremost on statistics. I do not look at individual cases. Though they are indispensable in raising awareness, even scandal, individual case studies are of little help in guiding action. You will not find either oligarchs or African dictators, venal bankers or great money-changers of the city of London here, except in the numbers. This work focuses on an analysis of data and their implications, while respecting their historical context, distinctiveness, and limits."

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The populist and the intelligence

Not all the people that support parties that are not "mainstream" are irresponsible populists. Some of them have good reasons to behave politically the way they do. And some of them are able to articulate their reasons in a respectful way. But not all of them. A few days ago I had to listen to the criticisms of one of these populists in a dinner with several people. He spoke with a lot of self-confidence, arguing that publishing a political book (something I've done recently with two other authors with a book in Spanish) was something old fashioned and ineffective, because people (especially the young) "do not read books any more." He reminded me of a sentence I heard from Donald Trump in a rally on TV: "I like the poorly educated." Now, after reading an article in The New Yorker about the fraud that the Republican candidate sponsored as a so-called "Trump University," I understand better why he likes the poorly educated. Education and books are old fashioned. Well, then long life to the cave men and women that keep reading and writing them. These are a couple of fragments of the article by John Cassidy in The New Yorker (entitled "Trump University: It's worse than you think"): "Following the release, earlier this week, of testimony filed in a federal lawsuit against Trump University, the United States is facing a high-stakes social-science experiment. Will one of the world’s leading democracies elect as its President a businessman who founded and operated a for-profit learning annex that some of its own employees regarded as a giant rip-off, and that the highest legal officer in New York State has described as a classic bait-and-switch scheme? If anyone still has any doubt about the troubling nature of Donald Trump’s record, he or she should be obliged to read the affidavit of Ronald Schnackenberg, a former salesman for Trump University. Schnackenberg’s testimony was one of the documents unsealed by a judge in the class-action suit, which was brought in California by some of Trump University’s disgruntled former attendees. (...) So will Trump University be the thing that brings Trump down? In a post forThe New Republic, Brian Beutler argued that it will be “devastating” to him. On my Twitter feed, some people reacted more skeptically, pointing out that many of Trump’s supporters appear oblivious to any criticisms of him, and that Clinton isn’t necessarily the ideal prosecutor. It is also worth recalling that, in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, another populist businessman, served as Prime Minister four times despite a list of allegations against him that included bribery, tax evasion, sexual misconduct, and having ties to the mafia. One thing is clear, though. If the revelations about Trump University don’t do any damage to Trump, it’s time to worry—or worry even more—about American democracy."

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Comparing apples with a bunch of Boris Johnson shaped bananas across countries

The very small minority of economists in favour of Brexit keep working hard on showing us the miracles of a non-European Britain, in spite of the lack of attention paid to them even by their campaign leaders. But qualified representatives of the great majority of economists have an easy and fun job at showing their inconsistencies. For example, Johan Van Reenen and his co-authors have shown that trade disarmament to compensate for the costs of Brexit is both bad politics and bad economics. Their conclusions of a review of the so-called Minford model are clear. According to this model, prices paid by UK consumers for manufacturing and agricultural goods would fall by 10 per cent under Britain Alone: "The 10 per cent number does not come from looking at the actual level of tariffs, which are only around 3 per cent. Rather, it comes from looking at the differences in guesstimated producer price levels between the UK and some other countries using data that is 14 years out of date, and arguing that these higher prices are entirely due to EU trade barriers.
This is really far-fetched. Cross-country price differences are due to a number of factors, particularly different tastes and quality. For example, say Europeans put a higher premium on high-quality clothing compared with Americans. It will look like Europeans are paying more for their clothes, but in reality, the higher average prices simply reflect a different mix of purchases. He ends up comparing apples with a bunch of Boris Johnson shaped bananas across countries." Brexiteers try to surround their prejudices with an aura of science. When they are sober, they even try to convince us that they love Europe (similarly the Catalan secessionsits usually say that they "love Spain"). The Economist says that "BREXITEERS rarely hesitate to profess their love of Europe. Daniel Hannan, a campaigning MEP, stresses that he speaks Spanish and French. Sarah Vine, a journalist married to Michael Gove, the anti-EU justice secretary, points to her husband’s penchant for a glass of Bordeaux: I love Europe!”This is the conclusion of the Bagehot column in the magazine: "The result in 2016 is a large moral, economic and political stake in the success of the mainland, the dominant institution of whose common civic life is currently—like it or not—the EU. To be “pro-European”, really, is not to have a passion for Beethoven, or to be able to conjugate a passé simple. It is to possess a concern, both selfish and munificent, for an old continent that encompasses Britain now as in the past. “Love Europe? Make the EU better.”