Sister blog of Physicists of the Caribbean in which I babble about non-astronomy stuff, because everyone needs a hobby

Thursday, 4 April 2019

On the edge of chaos

As I near the end of Stephen Pinker's Enlightenment Now, the meaning of one his peculiar phrases has at last become clear to me. Progressives, he says, hate progress. What he means by this is that they hate the real-world kind of progress, which tends to be incremental. They would prefer their own variety of revolutionary progress that sets the whole world fully to rights in one fell swoop. They forget that incremental, largely hidden changes are working a quiet transformation that's bringing wealth, education and freedom to billions of unremarkable lives. In short, they hate Pinker's preferred kind of progress and want their own instead.

Neither approach is without merit. Revolutionary zeal is undeniably appealing, but largely unrealistic and liable to disappoint with its over-reaching rhetoric. But what Pinker often forgets about incremental progress is just how hard-won it has been. Achieving the smallest kind of moral victory - women's suffrage, gay rights, black rights - requires tremendous effort and often bloodshed. It feels as though we're perpetually on the edge of chaos, that what we rail against is not so much the current state of the world as how perilously close it feels to sinking into the abyss.

Pinker, of course, refutes this, saying that the underlying forces propelling the world forward are larger currents in the flow of history, and that any setbacks that do occur will tend to be minor and soon overcome. He has a point. And yet this article belies at least to some extent the reality of contemporary politics as being indeed on the edge of chaos. For many decades, it has seemed as though liberal democracies were a remarkably stable form of government, that all the sound and fury of political theatre mainly signified nothing. And usually, when the voting is done and the policies enacted, all the angry voices fade like so many echoes in the wind. People profess to care about the issues far more than they actually do; they use hyperbole to engage and enliven, but its routine application cheapens debate and undermines issues of genuine import (hilariously exemplified when a Liberal Democrat MP once compared the dangers of wheelchair grannies to the threat of the Luftwaffe).

Genuinely important issues are certainly a lot rarer than political debate would have you believe - but they do, unfortunately, exist. I'm sorry to keep going on about Brexit of late, but it is one of those issues, and we appear to be very much in the endgame and the outcome is still unforeseeable. Right now, in the thick of the moment, it appears quite impossible to see which way the wind is blowing. It may well be that the whole thing is abandoned or a face-saving compromise reached that limits the damage. But it appears equally plausible that entire thing could collapse into ruin, or that even if Brexit itself was implemented in a non-disastrous way, that would not stop the political currents that led us to the brink. Perhaps Pinker is right and they are not currents so much as turbulent eddies carried along in the larger flow of history - I hope so. But this greater process, when you're caught in the middle of it, when you have a very real sense that your entire lifestyle has come under serious threat*, is very, very hard to see. That's something Pinker would do well to recognise.

* I depend on the right to live and work in the Czech Republic. The Czech government has committed to protecting the rights of British workers until the end of 2021 provided the UK government does the same. The UK's official position all but endorses this, but there was no compulsion for either side to do this. Indeed, the Brexit campaign brought into clear focus just how many people do not understand freedom of movement.

That's my prelude. On to the article :
Seriously, the United Kingdom, the world’s fifth-largest economy — a country whose elites created modern parliamentary democracy, modern banking and finance, the Industrial Revolution and the whole concept of globalisation — seems dead-set on quitting the European Union, the world’s largest market for the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour, without a well-conceived plan, or maybe without any plan at all. 
Both Conservative and Labour members of Parliament keep voting down one plan after another, looking for the perfect fix, the pain-free exit from the E.U. But there is none, because you can’t fix stupid.
Yes. Nevertheless, there are varieties of Brexit far worse than others. At this late stage, I believe it's important for all sides to lay out their preferences if they are compelled to make an ugly choice.
We’re living in a world that is becoming so interconnected — thanks to digitization, the internet, broadband, mobile devices, the cloud and soon-to-be 5G wireless transmissions — that we are becoming interdependent to an unprecedented degree. In this world, growth increasingly depends on the ability of yourself, your community, your town, your factory, your school and your country to be connected to more and more of the flows of knowledge and investment — and not just rely on stocks of stuff.
That's it exactly. To have useful knowledge in a rapidly-changing world, we must continually update. We cannot simply amass a great number of books and declare ourselves the winners. We must continue to adapt to an ever-changing world by managing the flow of ideas and the people who propose them.
Keeping your country as open as possible to as many flows as possible is advantageous for two reasons: You get all the change signals first and have to respond to them and you attract the most high-I.Q. risk-takers, who tend to be the people who start or advance new companies. The best talent wants to go to the most open systems — open both to immigrants and trade — because that is where the most opportunities are. Britain is about to put up a big sign: GO AWAY.
The freedom of movement enabled by the EU ought to be its most cherished accomplishment. Its economic benefits cannot be divorced from its political ideology. Once you have freedom of movement, any restrictions inevitably send a signal that immigrants are now less valued and less welcome. There was never any threat of immigrants stealing jobs (impossible - you cannot steal a job, you can only compete for it) or benefits. Most immigrants arrive, start working and therefore immediately paying taxes, and then they leave. They receive far less in benefits than natives because they tend to spend their dependent years (of youth and old age) in their original countries. Thus they come over here, enrich our economy, and go home again. I say this as an immigrant myself.
[The government is] being led by a ship of fools — a Conservative Party bloc that is now radical in its obsession with leaving Europe and a Labour Party that has gone Marxist. If the people here can’t force their politicians to compromise with one another and with reality (there’s still a glimmer of hope that this might happen), there is going to be a crackup of the British political system and some serious economic pain. This is scary.
I've made my objections to Corbyn often enough that I'll not restate them. I stand by my concerns. Right now there is simply no other option than to accept the brown-coated little despot as leader. Before we can even contemplate the next crisis, we must lurch ourselves through the present one. If that means doing a deal with the devil, then so be it.

To re-iterate my main point, it's the total uncertainty that is worrying. It is truly remarkable how Brexit has rendered the political system, always dynamically unstable but somehow able to keep itself upright, almost entirely and farcically impotent. The risk of collapse appears credible (I don't mean civil anarchy, that only happens in movies - I mean a Parliament that remains in a protracted state of paralysis). While fortune's wheel is ever turning, often allowing remarkable recoveries from ruinous calamities, sometimes things do just turn out as disasters. Eventually, of courser, we will recover. But on what timescale ? With the current set of politicians, and a media so incapable of rational insight that they attack and support anyone and anything on the flimsiest bit of information, it's very hard to see a positive way forward in the immediate future. Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps May and Corbyn will agree something tolerable to sufficient numbers that the nay-sayers will once again signify nothing - I hope so, but the risk that they will not appears entirely credible. Progress, my dear Pinker, is not an inevitability.

Opinion | The United Kingdom Has Gone Mad

The problem with holding out for a perfect Brexit plan is that you can't fix stupid. LONDON - Politico reported the other day that the French European affairs minister, Nathalie Loiseau, had named her cat "Brexit."

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