The best things I’ve read recently (19/08/15)

The fallacies of multi-taskers, Republican voters and Francis Fukuyama.

Multi-tasking: how to survive in the 21st century by Tim Harford

There is ample evidence in favour of the proposition that we should focus on one thing at a time. Consider a study led by David Strayer, a psychologist at the University of Utah. In 2006, Strayer and his colleagues used a high-fidelity driving simulator to compare the performance of drivers who were chatting on a mobile phone to drivers who had drunk enough alcohol to be at the legal blood-alcohol limit in the US. Chatting drivers didn’t adopt the aggressive, risk-taking style of drunk drivers but they were unsafe in other ways. They took much longer to respond to events outside the car, and they failed to notice a lot of the visual cues around them. Strayer’s infamous conclusion: driving while using a mobile phone is as dangerous as driving while drunk.

Less famous was Strayer’s finding that it made no difference whether the driver was using a handheld or hands-free phone. The problem with talking while driving is not a shortage of hands. It is a shortage of mental bandwidth.

Yet this discovery has made little impression either on public opinion or on the law. In the United Kingdom, for example, it is an offence to use a hand-held phone while driving but perfectly legal if the phone is used hands-free. We’re happy to acknowledge that we only have two hands but refuse to admit that we only have one brain.

Regicidal Republicans (the Economist)

…while Republican voters are exceedingly angry and mistrustful, their lynch-mob rage is selective. Mr Carson could hardly be less fiery (though he primly disapproves of many things), yet he is surging. And the same conservative activists who disbelieve the establishment on all fronts are startlingly willing to give outsider candidates like Mr Trump, Mr Carson or Ms Fiorina, the benefit of the doubt. So highly trusting are rank-and-file Republicans that—to the despair of pundits and fact-checkers—they shrug when Mr Trump refuses to provide any details about how he would handle foreign affairs, breezing that once he is president: “I will know more about the problems of this world”. Nor do they seem fussed to be told that Ms Fiorina’s time as a CEO was marked by massive job losses, after a bungled merger. A fourth anti-establishment candidate, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, seems able to tap into this mood of strangely extravagant trust, by playing up his credentials as a serial rebel and critic of party leaders in the Senate.

Republican primary voters are not in a revolutionary mood, then, but a regicidal one. They think their rulers are corrupt, inept and mendacious, if not actually treasonous. But they are at the same time ready to swoon before new rulers promising to fix America in an instant. The key credential required to earn that trust is a lack of experience. Will those outsiders disappoint their followers in their turn, triggering a still deeper loss of public trust? Probably. This is going to be a bumpy year.

It’s Still Not the End of History by Timothy Stanley and Alexander Lee (the Atlantic)

If liberalism is to survive and flourish, it has to be rescued from Fukuyama’s grasp and from the perils of historical determinism. It has to be defined and defended all over again. This of course raises the question of what liberalism actually is—and it’s notable that so many liberals skip this step in debate as though it was unimportant. In a recent issue of Foreign Policy dedicated exclusively to reevaluating Fukuyama’s legacy, the unresolved problem of “the liberal identity” was conspicuous by its absence. Article after article foundered in their attempts to defend liberal alternatives to populism or socialism precisely because they offered no satisfactory post-Fukuyama understanding of liberalism. But it is impossible to defend liberalism against its critics without making it clear precisely what it stands for. Skeptics can hardly be won over if liberals can’t tell them what they are being won over to or how it differs from the uninspiring mess created by Fukuyama and his continuators.

Tim Harford fisks Ed Miliband’s energy policy

TBH, I don’t think the downsides would necessarily be that great but as Harford observes the benefits certainly wouldn’t be very substantial either

What exactly do you think is wrong with a freeze?

Let’s start by acknowledging that this is economically a sideshow. If he is lucky, Mr Miliband’s 20-month cap (why 20 months?) will delay a price rise of 10 per cent or so. Energy spending comprises 5 per cent of the basket of goods used to calculate the consumer price index. So Mr Miliband will, on an optimistic view, postpone (not prevent) a 0.5 per cent rise in CPI. That will help some people but is trivial compared with what he might do with the tax or benefit system.

But it’s still something – so what’s the downside?

The first downside is that it makes UK energy policy look capricious, confrontational and juvenile. That matters because this country urgently needs new electricity generating capacity. If suppliers don’t expect to get the revenue they need to cover their costs, they won’t invest. It’s alarmist to suggest that Mr Miliband will simply scare them away and the lights will go out, but it’s reasonable to expect that they will need more convincing in the wake of his little pep talk at the Labour party conference, which can be summarised simply as: “Your customers vote and you don’t, and I’ll never forget that.” He has achieved the remarkable feat of damaging the country before becoming prime minister; most party leaders wait until they win an election before they start screwing it up.

Mr Miliband isn’t really very scary. Is that the only problem?

He is also ignoring climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions means conserving energy, and generating it using nuclear power and renewables, both of which are probably more uncertain and more expensive propositions than oil, gas and coal. Because of this, prices are rising as a matter of policy – policy that began under the last Labour government, in which Mr Miliband was, I seem to recall, the energy secretary.