My Iowa caucus predictions

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I have two.

Firstly, the press will overreact to the result on the Democratic side. The indications are that Clinton will either be run close by Sanders or even be defeated by him. If that happens expect journalists and pundits to start talking as if that indicates she is in real danger of not winning the nomination.

In reality, anything less than a crushing victory for Sanders is a strong indicator that he won’t be triumphant. As the chart below – which I’ve stolen from FiveThirtyEight – shows that Iowa is prime Sanders territory. There are only two states that have more of the white liberals that constitute his base: his home state of Vermont and the next event in the primary calendar New Hampshire.

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After Iowa and New Hampshire, he will then have to compete in the much less favourable territory. If he does well in Nevada or South Carolina then that would be significant. Sanders doing well in a state tailor made for him to do well in would not be.

On the Republican side, my prediction is that whatever the outcome in Iowa the race will remain turbulent.

If Rubio were to win or come close in a state where ‘anti-establishment’ candidates like Trump, Cruz and Carson have dominated the polls, that would set him up with a clear path to the nomination. But that possibility seems remote.

If either Trump or Cruz can win decisively then they may be able to put an effective halt to the other’s bid. But the ‘establishment’ candidates already expect to do badly in Iowa and won’t be in any hurry to begin rallying behind a candidate they think will take the party to electoral disaster. I would therefore expect at least one of them to go on fighting even if they appear to be losing badly.

I therefore predict that come Tuesday the Democrat contest will look more exciting than it really is, while both the perception and the actuality of the Republican race will be of a brutal fight with plenty of time still on the clock.

 

Bernie Sanders: he’s not the messiah, he’s a very muddled guy

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Bernie Sanders has the aspect of an old testament prophet. Most politicians make great play of showing that they have a life outside politics. But Sanders’s furious insistence that the nation has become corrupt and must amend its ways is largely unleavened by such frivolities.  The messenger is the message and he apparently intends that it be taken most earnestly, for if he is not heeded pestilence awaits.

The response from the Clinton campaign is essentially that Sanders is a false prophet. They’ve taken his dramatic sounding proposals and begun to unpick them. Suggesting, for example, that his plan to break up the big banks neglects issues like shadow banking.

Their scepticism is lent support by a report from Kenneth Thorpe, an economist at Emory University. As Dylan Matthews reports for Vox, Thorpe advocates the US introducing a single payer healthcare system. That would mean Americans paying for their healthcare through taxes rather than insurance premiums. His preference for such a system is in part due to the fact he believes it would be much cheaper than the current mixed system.

Bernie Sanders also supports a single payer system and argues it would save America a substantial amount. Yet Thorpe appears sceptical about this proposal. He has released a paper suggesting that Sanders has overstated the savings he can find by $1.1 trillion.

That’s politically significant because while a single payer system might be expected to reduce total healthcare spending, it nonetheless requires an increase in government spending. That spending has to be paid for through extra taxes. So if someone says Sanders is overestimating the savings of a single payer system by $1.1 trillion, then by extension they are also saying he is underestimating the tax rises he’d need to introduce $1.1 trillion.

The efforts to introduce such a system in Sanders’ home state of Vermont floundered on the political infeasibility of raising taxes enough to make it work. Thorpe’s report indicates that Sanders has yet to find a way to avoid the recurrence of this problem.

Now at this point you might be wondering who to believe Sanders or Thorpe? Let me answer that question with a quote from Matthews’ reporting:

Sanders assumes $324 billion more per year in prescription drug savings than Thorpe does. Thorpe argues that this is wildly implausible. “In 2014 private health plans paid a TOTAL of $132 billion on prescription drugs and nationally we spent $305 billion,” he writes in an email. “With their savings drug spending nationally would be negative.” (Emphasis mine.) The Sanders camp revised the number down to $241 billion when I pointed this out.

That reflects terribly on Sanders’ team and their policy making. It’s hard to decide what is worse:

a) that they included an assumption that’s arithmetically impossible. It’s like an individual budgeting to save $324 a year by cancelling a gym membership that only cost $241.

or

b) that by their own implicit admission they  were wrong by an amount that was – at least – the equivalent of the GDP of Belarus.

or

c) that the budgeting for a central policy proposal was so flimsy that they are making corrections amounting to tens of billions of dollars because of a single email from a journalist.

Now there’s nothing wrong per se with amending policies. For example, Barack Obama opposed an individual mandate during the 2008 primary but then included one in Obamacare. Apparently the negative response to his plans from experts convinced him to change stance. But what Sanders is doing is rather different. Most obviously, it’s amateurish. More important, however, is that it’s not so easily rectified. Obama’s path was clear: include an individual mandate in the law after all. Sanders by contrast would a large amount of additional tax revenue in addition to plans that are already .

I submit that this is a telling error, which points to a broader problem with Sanders’ candidacy.

He is asking Democrats to believe that American voters who generally punish parties for choosing a candidate far from the mainstream, will this time reward them with such enthusiasm that it will trigger a “political revolution”. And that he will then achieve radical change within a system of government specifically designed to prevent it. This is not implausible in the way the US having negative spending on medicine is. Nonetheless, it is an extraordinary claim demanding extraordinary evidence.

An appropriately compelling case has not been forthcoming. His strategy seems to be predicated on winning back low income white voters, the Democrats haven’t actually lostIt also seems to wish away the high probability that Republicans will retain control of the House and therefore be able to sink his legislative as they have Obama’s. Nor does his single minded focus on income inequality seem well suited to an election where voters appear less concerned about economic security than the regular kind of security.

Perhaps he would be better off running for Governor of Vermont rather than President. In the laboratory of America’s most liberal he might be able to concrete results that other states and the Federal government could replicate. But the prophet Bernie wants to be America’s saviour rather its John the Baptist. He would need to perform miracles to fulfil his chosen role and he’s not shown that he can. Therefore, the appropriate response is doubt rather than faith.

A Eulogy for Moffat’s Dr Who

Dr Who has never been better than it is now.

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This is my second post this week about Steven Moffat’s tenure as Dr Who showrunner and the controversy that surrounds it. The first dealt with the charge of sexism both in his writing and in his public comments and mounted a defence of him that conceded his critics were mostly correct.

Today I’m moving from this moral argument to discussing the merits of his run on Doctor Who as art and entertainment. Here I feel able to offer a far more fulsome defence.

I realise that puts me in a minority and the weight of opinion among viewers is that the show got worse when Moffat replaced Russell T. Davies. Before I unfurl my argument against that position, please allow me to acknowledge it has points in its favour.

The Davies era has a lot to commend it. For starters, it brought the Dr Who back. It has some indisputably great episodes like Blink and Midnight. It also had a vibrancy that the show’s struggled to regain since. And Tennant’s charisma allowed the show to blast past points where the writing and directing were rather weak.*

Conversely, what has come since has had its flaws. Moffat’s difficulty writing convincing female characters is lamentable not only in and of itself but because it prevented him nailing certain arcs, in particular River Song’s. And while Smith is an impressive actor and a capable Doctor, he wasn’t the right muse for Moffat. This may be why the show felt very tired by the time Smith’s final series ended. Fortunately, the 50th anniversary and Capaldi’s arrival rejuvenated it.

Nonetheless, for my money Moffat’s tenure – and especially the two series with Capaldi in the lead – are Who at its best. They represent the show rising to the challenge of existing during ‘the golden age of television’. It became bolder, darker and more ambitious. That arguably made it a worse fit for casual family viewing on a Saturday evening – which may partially explain falling domestic audiences. But the swing to that roundabout was that it became a true global hit. And the two most recent series are the first time one could objectively argue the show matched up to the best Sci-fi and fantasy TV produced in the US.

The most obvious sign of this was Moffat allowing story arcs to become more complicated. Indeed, it’s arguable that the Davies era series did not have proper plot arcs at all. Character arcs yes; the Doctor and the companions evolve in ways that can only be fully perceived when one views a series as a whole. But there’s little sense of a plot growing across multiple episodes. True there would often be some hint as to the two-part finale written into earlier episodes. But oblique mentions of ‘Torchwood’ or ‘Harold Saxon’ are foreshadowing rather than narrative developments for the simple reason that they don’t actually develop.

Moffat’s decision to move away from that approach and embrace more densely textured arcs is the most frequently criticised aspect of his work. It is probably true that it alienates occasional viewers. But if a writer assumes that their viewers are invested in the show – watching it regularly and paying attention – then they can repay that investment. The arcs allowed for mysteries that had time to mature and could be mulled over between episodes. There’s also the gratifying moment when – like a gymnast landing gracefully after an impossible pirouette – Moffat ties what look like a mess of random threads into a convincing and surprisingly neat bow. That was true even of the otherwise disappointing series 7. The finale on Trenzalore brought together the ‘impossible girl’, ‘great intelligence’ and ‘name of the Doctor’ storylines in a surprisingly natural, economic and affecting way. And then on top of all of it provided a cliffhanger to lure us into the 50th anniversary.

That hints at another strength of the Moffat era: reliability. While Smith was the Doctor there were a fair number of bad episodes – indeed the one with the pirates is arguably the worst of all – but when it really counted the episodes would be good. The first one would start as you hoped it would go on, mid-season cliffhangers left you intrigued, and finales ended on a high note. Contrast that with, say, a muddled load of nonsense about the Daleks dragging planets through space in order to power a bomb that destroys the universe. And in the Capaldi era things have gotten better still: they’ve stopped making bad episodes. Sure there are mediocre ones like Kill the Moon but they all have something to like about them.

And that’s not the only way the show has improved recently. It’s become more experimental, trying out everything from one handers to episodes that play in cinemas. Not only is this ability to regenerate itself – geddit! – essential for a show going into its tenth season but these high concept episodes are often the most impressive. OK, Sleep No More didn’t really work but look back to Blink or Midnight, or more recently Heaven Sent. I look forward to seeing how the status quo is upended in Moffat’s final series.

Equally important has been the shift in tone. For all their success, Davies’s series often mistook goofiness for charm, and melodrama for emotion. Moffat’s Who has a more otherwordly feel: more like rich, resonant and dark fairytales than anything else. Sadder and scarier, with a more elusive appeal that was all the greater when you found it.  Which, if you ask me, is what the tales of travellers through space and time should be like.

 

*It’s not really a point that needs making for the argument I’m making here but Davies was commendably committed to equal on-screen representation. The show has become lamentably whiter, straighter and more male since Moffat took over.

The very partial redemption of Steven Moffat

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We learned last week that Steven Moffat is stepping down as Dr Who showrunner. Many Whovians couldn’t be happier about this fact. John Elledge in the New Statesman notes that:

In online geekdom, the reaction to Friday’s news that the next series of Doctor Who would be his last was reminiscent of the bit at the end of The Return of the Jedi, where all the Ewoks start dancing. A substantial chunk of the fandom wasn’t just happy Moffat was going, they were crowing: it was less like a TV writer changing jobs and more akin to the fall of a dictatorship.

Cleary the nub of this is that many people think the show has gotten worse since Moffat took over showrunner. But if that was all there was to it then I doubt the criticisms of him would be quite so ardent and personal.

Elledge’s theory appears to be that the problem is that Moffat comes across as prickly and condescending in public appearances. That probably doesn’t help but I think that’s not quite it. Being able to warm to someone who’s prickly and condescending is after all a precondition for being a fan of a show whose central character is an often overbearing god like creature.

More important is probably the sense that Moffat is a mysoginist whose female characters are ill served by his writing. My defence of him on this point is going to be very half hearted indeed.

I’m not prepared to follow Elledge in dismissing Moffat’s habit of making comments about women that are some combination of boorish, demeaning and stupid simply as a communication error. It is that but it’s also a substantive problem. Someone in a position of power both in the workplace and in popular culture should be not be saying things like:

There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.

You tend not to find anything that crude in his writing. Nonetheless, a kind of ‘everyday sexism’ permeates his work. Taken individually his female characters are admirably strong and capable. But taken together they start to look like a collection of either fantasies or jokes rather rounded human beings. And it’s rare for them to attain the depth or complexity of their male counterparts.

Compare, for example, Rory and Amy. His character is very well drawn and it’s genuinely moving to see the steal emerge from inside a man who initially seems a bit of a wet blanket. But despite having more screen time and a bigger role in the plot Amy has nothing like that. She’s as generically feisty in her final episode as in her first.

The most credible defence of Moffat that can be offered on this point is that:

…you can genuinely see him responding to his critics. He didn’t cast a female Doctor (and thank god, given how he writes women); but he did cast a female Master, and he’s repeatedly established that a female Doctor would make perfect sense within the fiction.

The change goes broader than that. Writing female characters remains one of Moffat’s weaknesses but he has definitely gotten better of late. Clara’s initial arc was terrible: she was little more than a problem to be solved. But in the next two series she was given space to develop to the point where she was as near to the Doctor’s equal as any human is ever going to be. She can pass for him, call him out when he’s in the wrong, and eventually sets off in a TARDIS for adventures of her own. Most importantly by having Clara’s exit flip the dynamics of Donna’s, Moffat acknowledged that the show has often mistreated its female characters. Sure you can dispute whether Moffat is in any position to lecture Russell T. Davies on feminism, and he still screws ups with things like giving Clara a controlling dick of boyfriend who no one ever seems to notice is a controlling dick. That kind of thing is undoubtedly a step backward but it seems like there have been more steps forward in Moffat’s recent work.

There’s of course, no one individual empowered to forgive sins against women. And if there was it would not be a man. And there’s certainly an argument that he doesn’t deserve it. The women in his stories have gotten better but that doesn’t make them good. He’s arguably only done that under pressure of public slating. And I have no idea whether he’s making the same kind of efforts as an employer and a public figure that he is as a writer. Nonetheless, any evaluation of him does at least need to acknowledge these efforts.

 

Alcohol is pretty bad for you…

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I am currently under doctor’s orders not to drink, so I’m in the mood to ruin everybody else’s enjoyment with a review of the dangers of alcohol to health and society. As soon as I started researching this blog, I realised that this would end up being a huge piece, so I have decided to pick out some interesting facts about alcohol that you might not already know.

virgin martini “I’ll have a virgin martini. Shaken, stirred… Oh what’s the point?”

The original idea for this blog came about after Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the British Labour Party. In an attempt to smear him, the media described him as a “tee-total vegetarian”. Vegetarianism is the most common non-religious dietary requirement, though comprises only around 5% of the British population. The health benefits of vegetarianism are complicated but usually correlate with slight increases in life expectancy and slightly increased…

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Liberalism for pessimists

Human wickedness is a better argument for liberalism than human goodness.

Liberals will often explain their liberalism by citing their optimistic view of human nature. Take this view propounded by liberal luminary Millicent Fawcett:

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Or more recently this view by Nick Clegg:

Underpinning… [the liberal] attitude towards power is a particular liberal attitude towards people – a belief that most people, most of the time, will make the right decisions for themselves, their family and their community. A belief in the dispersal of power only makes sense if sustained by this optimism. There would be little point in dispersing power from governments to citizens, families and communities if you did not think they have the capacity and capabilities to put that power to better use than governments themselves.

If as Clegg suggests this kind of optimism about human nature actually was a prerequisite for being a liberal then I would not be one. That’s partly a function of my personal religious beliefs. I’m a Christian of a somewhat Calvinist bent. That means it is an article of faith for me that all human are impregnated with original sin and in need of divine redemption. But you don’t need to share my theological outlook to find human beings a frightening bunch.

The most obvious illustrations of this are the almost unimaginable atrocities of history: the Nazi gas chambers, Stalin’s Gulags or the Khmer Rouge killing fields. The latter of which saw soldiers executing children by smashing their heads of children against trees – shooting them would apparently have wasted bullets. Thus the human beings we are supposed to be optimistic about are capable of building a society in which ammunition was precious but human life was disposable. One could perhaps dismiss this as the work of abhorrent monsters rather than ordinary people but that is to give ourselves too much credit. In the wake of the Holocaust psychologists begun doing controversial research that suggested that randomly chosen volunteers could with alarming ease be encouraged to cause pain or dehumanise others. This shouldn’t come as a terrible surprise; generally when we see an opportunity for people to behave awfully without consequences, we see at least a minority of people behaving awfully. The persistent failure of criminal justice system to punish sexual violence means that shockingly high levels of sexual violence persist. The shield of anonymity online allows for all kinds of hate to be spewed. And anyone who’s worked in a customer service job can relate tales of how beastly people can be when they know you are not allowed to argue back.

Now clearly I am focussing here on the negatives. Humans are capable of great kindness and generosity, and they should be treasured and encouraged. But they should not be expected. Our lighter side is unreliable: more likely to apply to some people than others, subject to our blindspots and often overwhelmed by our worse instincts.

There’s simply no reason to think of goodness as our default. In his excellent book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the Harvard psychologist makes a convincing case that the terrible things humans are not evidence of the corruption of our true nature. Rather they arise from that nature. For example, he shows that in the kind of tribal societies we are often misty eyed about are probably the most violent that have ever existed.  Inhumanity is sadly a very human thing.

Nor is it only others we can screw over; we are quite able to hurt ourselves. On everything from smoking to obesity to saving, we make objectively poor decisions.

Generally, the people who share my scepticism about human nature will incline to authoritarian politics. The usual implication that’s drawn from the idea that people are corrupt is that they need a strong state to prevent them indulging that corruption. And there’s some truth to this. Pinker suggests that the existence of a state reduces violent deaths by somewhere between 75% and 90%. So a preference for authoritarianism over anarchism is prudent.

But they are not the only options. There is also liberalism. It’s necessary because there’s a central flaw in using fallibility to argue for authoritarian politics. The state that’s supposed to contain human fallibility is itself composed of fallible humans. Given the power of the state they can turn tyrannical and/or engage in all kinds of venal profiteering. The best solution we have is not as anarchists suggest to take away the state’s top down power but the liberal one of balancing it with power that comes from the bottom up. Hence the state is made democratic and mechanisms introduced that force it to respect human rights and the rule of law.

As a result, I would suggest that the divide between liberals and authoritarians is not between optimism and pessimism. Rather it is that liberals recognise that everyone is fallible. By contrast, in order to justify giving the state so much arbitrary power, authoritarians tend to wind up assuming that there is a special class of people – be it an aristocracy, priesthood or fuehrer – who have some degree of immunity to that fallibility. I would suggest that both the track record of supposedly special people given power and the fact of our shared humanity strongly suggest that this is a misguided notion.

Irving Kristol once quipped that a conservative is “a liberal who’s been mugged by reality”. But as we’ve seen there’s a hard headed case for liberalism. What makes for authoritarianism is not scepticism about humanity but selective optimism that gives some the right to rule over others. The central liberal insight is that power is dangerous – whoever has it.

 

Afterword: this post is largely inspired by Judith Shklar’s essay the Liberalism of Fear