off-topic ranting


The New York Times reports on a sexual harassment scandal at New York University, with a bizarre twist: a lesbian feminist philosopher, Avitall Ronell, has been found guilty of sexual and physical harassment of a gay postgraduate student. As is typical of these cases, the graduate student waited until he got his PhD and a job, and then went stone cold vengeful on a Title IX case, getting Ronell bang for rights and seeing her receive some significant penalties. That’s all par for the course for such a case, but in an interesting and unpleasant diversion from the script, we find that a letter was written to NYU, asking it not to punish Ronell at all. This letter rested not on the facts of the case but on her contribution to scholarship and the belief that her actions were inconceivable. The letter was signed by a bunch of literary theorists and feminists, for whom it is apparently too much to imagine that one of their own could abuse the power that accrues at the giddy heights of academia. This letter appears to have potentially been instigated by Ronell herself, which is going to have serious repercussions for Ronell down the track (retaliation is a very serious offence after a Title IX case, whether the case was settled on behalf of the claimant or not). For those of us who are familiar with academia, this is a depressingly familiar story of professors pulling together to protect their own and the (considerable) power of their office – for many academics (mostly but not all men) the right to fuck and harass your students is a job perk, not a temptation to be avoided; and for a great many academics of all genders and races, the right to exploit and academically harass your students is completely valid. What struck me as interesting in this latest scandal, though, is the presence of Judith Butler, queer theorist and originator of the nasty idea that gender is a performance. She appears to have started and signed the letter, including using her status as president-elect of the Modern Language Association. Judith Butler signed a petition not to convict a rapist in 2004 at University of California Irvine, and she was also present in last year’s transracialism controversy, where she was one of the signatories on the hateful letter to Hypatia to have Rebecca Tuvel’s article In Defense of Transracialism retracted on spurious grounds.

Seeing Butler’s name on the latest scandal reminded me that I wrote a blogpost about transracialism and about this scandal a year ago when it aired. In brief, in March last year a non-tenured female assistant professor at an American University, Rebecca Tuvel, published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia which basically argued that a) the process of becoming transgender is a real thing; b) transracialism has many similarities with the process of becoming transgender; c) if you accept the validity of transgender people’s self-identity, you should probably accept the validity of a person’s choice to be transracial. The article was clear, concise and well argued, very much in the spirit of Peter Singer’s work on vegetarianism and animal rights, or Bertrand Russell’s work on religion and war (I think she is an analytic philosopher and so are they, so that makes sense, though I don’t know much about these categories). For a certain class of American activist academics the implications of this work were terrifying: either they rejected transracialism out of hand for obviously dubious reasons, and were scared that Tuvel’s conclusions would degrade the rights of transgender people; or they didn’t really respect transgender rights, and wanted to stop the extension of transgender rights to transracial rights at any cost. This unholy alliance of idiots conspired to write a letter – with 800 signatories! – demanding Hypatia retract the article. In the process they traduced Tuvel’s reputation, embarrassed the journal and their own field, disgraced themselves, and and signally failed to engage with the substance of Tuvel’s work in any way, shape or form. In addition to all of these stupid failings, they also did their very best to destroy Tuvel’s career, which obviously was the worst consequence of all this bullshit.

So today, seeing Butler and her colleagues at work on this stuff again, I found myself wondering what happened to Tuvel after “that little unpleasantness” in May last year? So I did a search, and I was surprised and pleased to discover that she still has her job at Rhodes (I don’t know if she has been approved for tenure or not, or if it is even possible for an Assistant Professor to get tenure), she is still teaching (including the Freedom and Oppression component of Philosophy 101, haha!) and she lists her work on transracialism as her major research interest, so whatever happened over the past year appears not to have destroyed her passion for this interesting topic [1]. So it appears that any consequences of the brouhaha didn’t affect her work, which is great. I checked the status of her paper on the Hypatia website, and it has been cited 4 times already, though google gives it up to 33 citations. In either case this is excellent – getting 4 citations in the first year of publication of a paper is very good, especially in Philosophy. I think the Hypatia metrics are bodgy though because she definitely has been cited more times than that. In particular, I was cheered to discover that the journal Philosophy Today had a whole special issue responding to her paper. This is frankly awesome – very few academics at any level, no matter how original, get to have a whole journal issue devoted to dissecting their work, and to have this opportunity arise from a controversial work that nearly sunk your career is really good. It’s worth noting that in the wash up of the original scandal the issue is generally positive, including an article on the lack of intellectual generosity shown in the response to her work, and some discussion of its implications for various aspects of theory. Tuvel gets to write a response (of course), which means that she gets an extra publication out of her own work, and a bunch of citations – jolly good!

Tuvel’s response is also well argued and thorough, and written in the same plain and accessible style as the original. She begins by noting that the scandal had a significant effect on her psychological wellbeing, and goes on to criticize the establishment for its terrible response to her paper. She then makes a few points in response to specific criticisms of the notion of transracialism. She makes the point first that many critics of her article wanted it rewritten from their own framework:

Critics of my article commented often on how my paper should have been written, which seemed far too often to collapse into saying how they would have written my paper. But different philosophers ask questions differently; and different methodologies shed light differently. We owe it to each other to respect these differences and to resist the conviction that only one method can properly answer difficult questions.
I thought this at the time – Tuvel had apparently presented this work at a conference and received critical feedback from many of the scholars who wrote the retraction letter, and in the retraction letter it was noted that she did not incorporate any of those criticisms in the final article. Nowhere did they consider the possibility that they were wrong. This aspect of the criticism of her work at the time read as an attempt at gatekeeping or policing the content of work, to ensure not just that the conclusions were politically acceptable but that the methods did not stray from those that the crusty elders of the field had always used. One got the impression that the the “Theory” scholars and continental philosophers were horrified at an analytical philosopher just marching in and stating plainly what was true. Quelle horreur! as the Romans would say.
In her response Tuvel also gets a chance to address the criticism that she did not incorporate more work from “African American” scholars. Here she writes (referencing another writer contributing to the symposium):
Botts suggests that typical of analytic methods, my paper fails to engage lived experience when relevant. She further states that “continental methods are better suited to addressing philosophical questions based in the lived realities of members of marginalized populations (in this case, African Americans and transgender persons)” (Botts 2018: 54). However, my paper is a philosophical examination of the metaphysical and ethical possibility of transracialism, not of the lived experience of African American and transgender persons (or African American transgender persons). Not to mention that Botts ignores the lived experience most relevant to an exploration of transracialism—namely that of self-identified transracial people. Insofar as it considers Rachel Dolezal’s story, my article is indeed attuned to relevant lived experience. As Chloë Taylor likewise notes, my article “reflects on whether Dolezal’s experience of growing up with adopted Black siblings, of having an older Black man in her life whom she calls ‘Dad,’ of estrangement from her white biological parents, of being married to a Black man, might be sufficient for understanding her experience of herself as Black” (Taylor 2018: 7). Botts remarks that the relevant populations for my analysis would have been African American and transgender persons, but she does not explain why engaging the lived experience of these populations would be methodologically sufficient. After all, by comparison, one does not rightly suggest that philosophical explorations of trans womanhood must necessarily consult the lived experience of cis women.

This addresses an important problem when we demand the inclusion of specific lived experiences in philosophy or theory (or public health, though it’s rarer): whose lived experience, and how do we choose these experiences? As I remarked in my original post on this issue, America has an incredibly prejudiced, parochial and exclusionary view of race and gender, which essentially ignores the lived experiences of most of the world, and in my view specifically excludes the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist views of black Africans in choosing to name black Americans “African”, as well as ignoring the experience of women in almost all of the developing world. More abstractly, there are millions of competing lived experiences, and we can’t even know what all these experiences are, let alone access them. Certainly we should all strive to incorporate the opinions and voices of the people our work will affect, or the people about whom we are writing, but that doesn’t mean we can ever be complete in our coverage of these voices, or even know who they all are – we will always miss some. But Tuvel’s critics wanted her specifically to avoid the most relevant lived experiences, in favour of other voices and lives that are much more congenial to her critics (and from whose ranks, primarily, her critics were drawn). That’s not an especially scholarly alternative to what Tuvel did. In fact Tuvel brought an important additional factor to this debate, choosing to address broad concepts and frameworks analytically, using a lived experience as an example, rather than trying to build a broad theory from a few select voices. This is a much more effective way of doing this kind of work[2].

Tuvel further backs this point up with this important warning to critics of abstract reasoning generally:

All too often such imperatives border on an injunction not merely to engage sensitively and carefully but to defer to the concerns of black people—all the while essentializing them into a homogeneous group. Like any massively diverse group of individuals, however, black people are of many different minds regarding qualifications for black racial membership. Consider, among others, Adolph Reed Jr (2015), Camille Gear Rich (2015), and Ann Morning (2017)—all black scholars who have expressed more sympathetic positions on transracialism.

This is important to remember – we don’t just choose specific voices within a group, but we can also defer to them rather than engage with them. This isn’t how we should do theory. I think Tuvel is a prominent advocate for transgender and transracial people, but here she makes clear that when we advocate for them we need to not only be careful about whose lived experience we choose to privilege, but how we engage with it.

Tuvel follows this with a dismissal of an argument that people could self-identify as centaurs (which gives the heading of this post), leading to the kind of excellent statement that can only be found in the best journals: “Centaurs, however, are not an actual ‘human kind’ (see Mallon 2016)”. The reference here is: Mallon, Ron. 2016. The Construction of Human Kinds. New York: Oxford. It appears that the academy has dealt extensively with the nature of centaurs, and concluded they aren’t human. What about the lived experience of Actual Centaurs?! How are we to incorporate this into our work?! And has Mallon considered the possibility that centaurs aren’t just not a “human kind”, but actually don’t exist? It’s good to know that philosophy is covering the important issues!

I would also commend to everyone the section of Tuvel’s response on “Inclusive identities” and the last paragraph of her section on “Analytical Methodology”.  Here she attacks the notion that race should be biologically determined, or based only on ancestry, and makes the important point that a person with no allegiance to black people or culture can be considered to have a more valid voice on blackness than a white person raised in a black community (like Dolezal was) if they have “one drop” of black blood. These kinds of ideas have been used simultaneously to define and destroy indigenous communities over many years, and they are very very dangerous. I would argue that just from a practical political, bloody-minded point of view, it is much much easier to maintain a political campaign for equal representation of Indigenous peoples if you allow self-identification than if you demand arbitrary biological definitions of race. The imperial powers that sought to destroy Indigenous peoples can’t destroy a people whose boundaries they can’t police! [Well, they can – but it’s harder, and at some point they’ll have to deal with the Indigenous people in their own institutions].

This dive back through Tuvel’s post-scandal career has been reassuring – I’m very happy to see that the original signatories not only failed to silence her or damage her career, but actually gave her a boost by instigating an appraisal of her work that bought her a whole special issue of a philosophy journal. This also means that rather than driving her theories away, her critics have forced the philosophy mainstream to engage with them and take them more seriously, which is good for her, good for philosophy and great for all those people who are living transracial lives (who doesn’t want philosophers debating their right to exist!?) I bet her students are happy to be being lectured by someone so radical, and if her lectures are as clear as her writing and theorizing I imagine they are getting an excellent education. She will of course be always known as “that transracialism woman”, and of course it’s still possible that the scandal will affect her career progression even if it doesn’t affect her current status, but I’m glad that the resistance those letter writers received was sufficient to protect her and to support her. It’s a strong reminder that the academy always needs to police itself against the arrogance of its own elite.

As a final aside, Wikipedia reports that the associate editors of Hypatia who signed the letter were forced to resign; the whole brouhaha was referred to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which found that the journal had acted improperly; and subsequently the journal completely revised its procedures and forced all editors and associate editors to sign on to COPE guidelines. The Andrew Mellon Foundation also gave a grant to a university to develop a code of ethics for publishing in philosophy. So even though Tuvel wasn’t directly involved in any of this, her work can be said to have led to significant reforms in the world of feminist philosophy and philosophy publishing. Very few assistant professors can lay claim to such a legacy.

Also, I’m happy to see philosophers have categorically denied centaurs their humanity. Abominations, the lot of them!


fn1: Her publication record has not been updated, however, so it’s possible that she hasn’t updated her research profile, in which case this information may not be up to date. Assistant Professors are very busy and don’t always get to keep their profiles up to date!

fn2: It’s also essential when discussing the rights of people and animals with no voice: the unborn, the very elderly, animals of all kinds, the environment, the illiterate, increasingly criminals … If the lived experience of real people is essential to ground your philosophy, you’re fucked when the people living the experience can’t speak or write.

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No this really is not “the healthy one”

Today’s Guardian has a column by George Monbiot discussing the issue of obesity in modern England, that I think fundamentally misunderstands the causes of obesity and paints a dangerously rosy picture of Britain’s dietary situation. The column was spurred by a picture of a Brighton Beach in 1976, in which everyone was thin, and a subsequent debate on social media about the causes of the changes in British rates of overweight and obesity in the succeeding half a decade. Monbiot’s column dismisses the possibility that the growth in obesity could be caused by an increase in the amount we eat, by a reduction in the amount of physical activity, or by a change in rates of manual labour. He seems to finish the column by suggesting it is all the food industry’s fault, but having dismissed the idea that the food industry has convinced us to eat more, he is left with the idea that the real cause of obesity is changes in the patterns of what we eat – from complex carbohydrates and proteins to sugar. This is a bugbear of certain anti-obesity campaigners, and it’s wrong, as is the idea that obesity is all about willpower, which Monbiot also attacks. The problem here though is that Monbiot misunderstands the statistics badly, and as a result dismisses the obvious possibility that British people eat too much. He commits two mistakes in his article: first he misunderstands the statistics on British food consumption, and secondly he misunderstands the difference between a rate and a budget, which is ironic given he understands these things perfectly well when he comments on global warming. Let’s consider each of these issues in turn.

Misreading the statistics

Admirably, Monbiot digs up some stats from 1976 and compares them with statistics from 2018, and comments:

So here’s the first big surprise: we ate more in 1976. According to government figures, we currently consume an average of 2,130 kilocalories a day, a figure that appears to include sweets and alcohol. But in 1976, we consumed 2,280 kcal excluding alcohol and sweets, or 2,590 kcal when they’re included. I have found no reason to disbelieve the figures.

This is wrong. Using the 1976 data, Monbiot appears to be referring to Table 20 on page 77, which indicates a yearly average of 2280 kCal. But this is the average per household member, and does not account for whether or not a household member is a child. If we refer to Table 24 on page 87, we find that a single adult in 1976 ate an average of 2670 kCal; similar figures apply for two adult households with no children (2610 kCal). Using the more recent data Monbiot links to, we can see that he got his 2,130 kCal from the file of “Household and Eating Out Nutrient Intakes”. But if we use the file “HC – Household nutrient intakes” and look at 2016/17 for households with one adult and no children, we find 2291 kCal, and about 2400 as recently as 10 years ago. These are large differences when they accrue over years.

This is further compounded by the age issue. When we look at individual intake we need to consider how old the family members are. If an average individual intake is 2590 kCal in 1976 including alcohol and sweets, as Monbiot suggests, we need to rebalance it for adults and children. In a household with three people we have 7700 kCal, which if the child is eating 1500 kCal means that the adults are eating close to 3100 kCal each. That’s too much food for everyone in the house, even using the ridiculously excessive nutrient standards provided by the ONS.  It’s also worth remembering that the age of adults in 1976 was on average much younger than now, and an intake of 2590 might be okay for a young adult but it’s not okay for a 40-plus adult, of which there are many more now than there were then. This affects obesity statistics.

Finally it’s also worth remembering that obesity is not evenly distributed, and an average intake of 2100 kCal could correspond to an average of 2500 in the poorest 20% of the population (where obesity is common) and 1700 kCal in the richest, which is older and thinner. An evenly distributed 2100 kCal will lead to zero obesity over the whole population, but an unevenly distributed 2100 kCal will not. It’s important to look carefully at the variation in the datasets before deciding the average is okay.

Misunderstanding budgets and rates

Let’s consider the 2590 kCal that Monbiot finds as the average intake of adults in 1976, including alcohol and sweets. This is likely wrong, and the average is probably more like 3000 kCal including alcohol and sweets, but let’s go with it for now. Monbiot is looking to see what has changed in our diet over the past 40 years to lead to current rates of obesity, because he is looking for a change in the rate of consumption. But he doesn’t consider that all humans have a budget, and that a small excess of that budget over a long period is what drives obesity. The reality is that today’s obesity rates do not reflect today’s consumption rates, but the steady pattern of consumption over the past 40 years. What made a 55 year old obese today is what they ate in 1976 – when they were 15 – not what the average person eats today. So rather than saying “we eat less today than we did 40 years ago so that can’t be the cause of obesity”, what really matters is what people have been eating for the past 40 years. And the stats Monbiot uses suggest that women, at least, have been eating too much – a healthy adult woman should eat about 2100 kCal, and if the average is 2590 then a woman in 1976 has been at or above her energy intake every year for the past 40 years. It doesn’t matter that a woman’s intake declined to 2100 kCal in 2016, because she has been eating too much for the past 35 years anyway. It’s this budget, not changes over time, which determine the obesity rate now, and Monbiot is wrong to argue that it’s not overeating that has caused the obesity epidemic. Unless he accepts that a woman can eat 2590 kCal every year for 40 years and stay thin, he needs to accept that the problem of obesity is one of British food culture over half a century.

What this means for obesity policy

Somewhat disappointingly and unusually for a Monbiot article, there are no sensible policy prescriptions at the end except “stop shaming fat people.” This isn’t very helpful, and neither is it helpful to dismiss overeating as a cause, since everyone in public health knows that overeating is the cause of obesity. For example, Public Health for England wants to reduce British calorie intake, and the figures on why are disturbing reading. Reducing calorie intake doesn’t require shaming fat people but it does require acknowledgement that British people eat too much. This comes down not to individual willpower but to the food environment in which we all make choices about what to eat. The simplest way, for example, to reduce the amount that people eat is not to give them too much food. But there is simply no way in Britain that you can eat out or buy packaged food products without buying too much food. It is patently obvious that British restaurants serve too much food, that British supermarkets sell food in packages that are too large, and that as a result the only way for British people not to eat too much is through constant acts of will – leaving half the food you paid for, buying only fresh food in small amounts every day (which is only possible in certain wealthy inner city suburbs), and carefully controlling where, when and how you eat. This is possible but it requires either that you move in a very wealthy cultural circle where the environment supports this kind of thing, or that you personally exert constant control over your life. And that latter choice will inevitably end in failure, because constantly controlling every aspect of your food intake in opposition to the environment where you purchase, prepare and consume food is very very difficult.

When you live in Japan you live in a different food environment, which encourages small serving sizes, fresh and raw foods, and low fat and low sugar foods. In Japan you live in a food environment where you are always close to a small local supermarket with convenient opening hours and fresh foods, and where convenience stores sell healthy food in small serving sizes. This means that you can choose to buy small amounts of fresh food as and when you need them, and avoid buying in bulk in a pattern that encourages over consumption. When your food choices fail (for example you have to eat out, or buy junk food) you will have access to a small, healthy serving. If you are a woman you will likely have access to a “woman’s size” or “princess size” that means you can eat the smaller calorific food that your smaller calorific requirements suggest is wisest. It is easy to be thin in Japan, and so most people are thin. Overeating in Japan really genuinely is a choice that you have to choose to make, rather than the default setting. This difference in food environment is simple, obvious and especially noticeable when (as I just did) you hop on a plane to the UK and suddenly find yourself confronted with double helpings of everything, and super markets where everything is “family sized”. The change of food environment forces you to eat more. It’s as simple as that.

What Britain needs is a change in the food environment. And achieving a change in food environment requires first of all recognizing that British people eat too much, and have been eating too much for way too long. Monbiot’s article is an exercise in denialism of that simple fact, and he should change it or retract it.

This week the US Congress passed a set of censorship laws, commonly called FOSTA/SESTA, that aimed to prevent online sex trafficking but in practice work to shut down all forms of online sex work advertising. The laws were developed in the wake of claims that the website backpage was being used to buy and sell trafficked women, and basically make the website’s provider criminally liable for any sex trafficking that happens on the site. They do so by creating a trafficking exception to a section of a US law that exempts internet providers from being treated as media organizations. Currently under US law websites are treated as carriers, which means they aren’t responsible for the content of material that their users post online. This exemption is the reason that websites like reddit, craigslist and facebook can host a wide range of user-generated content with impunity.

In jurisdictions where sex work is illegal, sex workers use online resources like craigslist and backpage to advertise their services and screen clients. Many sex workers and porn stars who have a good community following also use Twitter and Instagram and other social networking services to manage their community and their client relationships, including organizing events and dates and discussing their work. But since the new law was passed all these websites have had to shutdown their services or warn users that any solicitation or discussion of business is now illegal. Craigslist has shutdown its personals page, which was often used by sex workers, and websites like Fetlife have had to put strict warnings on user content. Because they can be held liable under the new law for any sex work related content, they have had to tell users that no such content can be tolerated at all. At Fetlife this extends to consensual financial domination activities, and at Craigslist the only way they have been able to stop sex work related activity has been to stop all consensual dating of any kind. Because apps like Tinder are also sometimes used for sex work purposes, it’s also possible that these sites are going to have to toughen up their moderation and rules, though it’s unclear yet how they will do this or how serious the impact of the law will be.

The Cut has an overview of why sex workers disapprove of this law, and Vox has a summary of the history of its development and arguments about its impact. For the past few weeks sex worker rights organizations like SWOP have been providing advice to women about how to back up their online presence and what actions they may need to take to protect their online presence, potentially including self censorship. It is unclear at this stage what impact the law will have on online sexual activities outside of sex work, but it’s clear from Craigslist’s reaction that the effect will be chilling. For countries like the UK, Germany, Australia, Japan and Singapore where sex work is legal to varying degrees and women can safely and legally work in brothels or advertise publicly on locally hosted websites the effect may be minimal, but for women in countries like the USA and parts of Europe the impact will likely be huge. It will force women away from the internet and back onto the streets and into unsafe situations where they are unable to screen potential clients, cannot share information about dangerous clients, and cannot support each other or record client information for self protection. Sex worker rights organizations in the USA have been deeply concerned about the impact of these laws for months and worked hard to prevent them, but in the end the money and the politics was against them.

It is worth considering exactly why these laws were passed and who supported them. Although they were developed and pushed by conservatives and republicans, they were passed with bipartisan support and pushed by a coalition of christian conservatives and feminists. The advertising campaign was supported by liberal comedians like Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers, and after some reform it was also supported by major internet content providers and entertainment organizations like Disney. This should serve as a reminder that Disney is not a liberal organization (despite the complaints of some Star Wars fans that its liberalism wrecked the latest awful episode), and that in the American political landscape “liberals” are actually deeply conservative about sex and sexuality. In particular any feminist organization that supported this law should be ashamed of itself. This includes organizations like Feminist Current and other radical feminist groups that think prostitution is a crime against women, rather than a choice that women make. I have said before that this strain of radical feminism is deeply misogynist and illiberal, and is always willing to use state power to override the personal choices of women it sees as enemies to its cause.

These feminist movements need to recognize though that while tactically they may have scored a win, this strategy is very bad for women everywhere. Nothing angers a christian conservative man more than a woman who is financially and sexually independent, and sex workers are the model of a financially and sexually independent woman. Sex workers are uniquely vulnerable to legislative action and uniquely annoying to these legislators, but they’re just the canary in the coal mine. These christian conservative legislators want to destroy all forms of sexual freedom and they won’t stop at sex work. It’s unlikely that they’re shedding any tears over the fact that their pet law led Craigslist to shut down all its non-sex work dating functions – especially since they were especially well used by LGBT people. You can bet that they are already looking for ways to use some kind of indecency based argument to target a section 230 exception for LGBT people, probably arguing on obscenity or public health grounds; and I don’t doubt that ALEC and the Heritage Foundation are already wondering if there is a racketeering-based argument by which they can make a similar exception that can be used to target unions and other forms of left wing activism. It might trouble Feminist Current a little, but I doubt christian conservatives will be feeling particularly worried if Tinder has to shut down, and if this law makes it harder for consenting adults to fuck freely then conservative christians everywhere will be chuffed. Just as the 1980s alliance of feminists and christians distorted the porn industry and made it more misogynist and male dominated, laws like SESTA will distort the world of casual sex to make it more favourable to predatory men and less safe for ordinary women. Sex workers may always be first in the sights of christian conservatives but they are never last. Whatever your personal beliefs about paying for sex, supporting sex worker rights is always and everywhere better for women, better for LGBT people, and better for liberalism.

As a final aside, I would like to sing the praises of sex worker rights organizations. Their activism is strongly inclusive, and while their focus is obviously on protecting the rights of their sex worker membership, their viewpoint is always strongly liberal and aimed at broadening everyone’s rights. They’re strong supporters of free speech and free association, and they include everyone in their movement. As organizations they are strongly inclusive of all sexualities and genders, they are always aware of disability rights and the needs of people with disabilities, and they are opposed to any forms of restrictions on what consenting adults do. They are a consistent powerful voice for liberal rights, worker’s rights, and sexual freedom. These laws will likely restrict their ability to raise their voice in support of these issues, and that ultimately weakens all our rights. Sex worker organizations are a powerful voice for good, and sex workers are not victims, but an important part of our society doing a difficult job. Wherever you are in the world, you should support these organizations and the women, men and transgender people who do this job. Hopefully with our support they can overturn these laws, and through their work and activism broaden the scope for sexual expression for all humans no matter our gender or our sexual preference.

The media this week are exploding with news that a company called Cambridge Analytica used shadily-obtained Facebook data to influence the US elections. The data was harvested by some other shady company using an app that legally exploited Facebook’s privacy rules at the time, and then handed over to Cambridge Analytica, who then used the data to micro-target adverts over Facebook during the election, mostly aimed at getting Trump elected. The news is still growing, and it appears that Cambridge Analytica was up to a bunch of other shady stuff too – swinging elections in developing countries through fraud and honey-traps, getting Facebook data from other sources and possibly colluding illegally with the Trump campaign against campaign funding laws – and it certainly looks like a lot of trouble is deservedly coming their way.

In response to this a lot of people have been discussing Facebook itself as if it is responsible for this problem, is itself a shady operator, or somehow represents a new and unique problem in the relationship between citizens, the media and politics. Elon Musk has deleted his company’s Facebook accounts, there is a #deleteFacebook campaign running around, and lots of people are suggesting that the Facebook model of social networking is fundamentally bad (see e.g. this Vox article about how Facebook is simply a bad idea).

I think a lot of this reaction against Facebook is misguided, does not see the real problem, and falls into the standard mistake of thinking a new technology must necessarily come with new and unique threats. I think it misses the real problem underlying Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to micro-target ads during the election and to manipulate public opinion: the people reading the ads.

We use Facebook precisely because of the unique benefits of its social and sharing model. We want to see our friends’ lives and opinions shared amongst ourselves, we want to be able to share along things we like or approve of, and we want to be able to engage with what our friends are thinking and saying. Some people using Facebook may do so as I do, carefully curating content providers we allow on our feed to ensure they aren’t offensive or upsetting, and avoiding allowing any political opinions we disagree with; others may use it for the opposite purpose, to engage with our friends’ opinions, see how they are thinking, and openly debate and disagree about a wide range of topics in a social forum. Many of us treat it as an aggregator for cat videos and cute viral shit; some of us only use it to keep track of friends. But in all cases the ability of the platform to share and engage is why we use it. It’s the one thing that separates it from traditional mass consumption media. This is its revolutionary aspect.

But what we engage with on Facebook is still media. If your friend shares a Fox and Friends video of John Bolton claiming that Hilary Clinton is actually a lizard person, when you watch that video you are engaging with it just as if you were engaging with Fox and Friends itself. The fact that it’s on Facebook instead of TV doesn’t suddenly exonerate you of the responsibility and the ability to identify that John Bolton is full of shit. If Cambridge Analytica micro target you with an ad that features John Bolton claiming that Hilary Clinton is a lizard person, that means Cambridge Analytica have evidence that you are susceptible to that line of reasoning, but the fundamental problem here remains that you are susceptible to that line of reasoning. Their ad doesn’t become extra brain-washy because it was on Facebook. Yes, it’s possible that your friend shared it and we all know that people trust their friends’ judgment. But if your friends think that shit is reasonable, and you still trust your friend’s judgement, then you and your friend have a problem. That’s not Facebook’s problem, it’s yours.

This problem existed before Facebook, and it exists now outside of Facebook. Something like 40% of American adults think that Fox News is a reliable and trustworthy source of news, and many of those people think that anything outside of Fox News is lying and untrustworthy “liberal media”. The US President apparently spends a lot of his “executive time” watching Fox and Friends and live tweeting his rage spasms. No one forces him to watch Fox and Friends, he has a remote control and fingers, he could choose to watch the BBC. It’s not Facebook’s fault, or even Fox News’s fault, that the president is a dimwit who believes anything John Bolton says.

This is a much bigger problem than Facebook, and it’s a problem in the American electorate and population. Sure, we could all be more media savvy, we could all benefit from better understanding how Facebook abuses privacy settings, shares our data for profit, and enables micro-targeting. But once that media gets to you it’s still media and you still have a responsibility to see if it’s true or not, to assess it against other independent sources of media, to engage intellectually with it in a way that ensures you don’t just believe any old junk. If you trust your friends’ views on vaccinations or organic food or Seth Rich’s death more than you trust a doctor or a police prosecutor then you have a problem. Sure, Facebook might improve the reach of people wanting to take advantage of that problem, but let’s not overdo it here: In the 1990s you would have been at a bbq party or a bar, nodding along as your friend told you that vaccines cause autism and believing every word of it. The problem then was you, and the problem now is you. In fact it is much easier now for you to not be the problem. Back in the 1990s at that bbq you couldn’t have surreptitiously whipped our your iPhone and googled “Andrew Wakefield” and discovered that he’s a fraud who has been disbarred by the GMA. Now you can, and if you choose not to because you think everything your paranoid conspiracy theorist friend says is true, the problem is you. If you’re watching some bullshit Cambridge Analytica ad about how Hilary Clinton killed Seth Rich, you’re on the internet, so you have the ability to cross reference that information and find out what the truth might actually be. If you didn’t do that, you’re lazy or you already believe it or you don’t care or you’re deeply stupid. It’s not Facebook’s fault, or Cambridge Analytica’s fault. It’s yours.

Facebook offers shady operatives like Robert Mercer the ability to micro-target their conspiracy theories and lies, and deeper and more effective reach of their lies through efficient use of advertising money and the multiplicative effect of the social network feature. It also gives them a little bit of a trust boost because people believe their friends are trustworthy. But in the end the people consuming the media this shady group produce are still people with an education, judgment, a sense of identity and a perspective on the world. They are still able to look at junk like this and decide that it is in fact junk. If you sat through the 2016 election campaign thinking that this con-artist oligarch was going to drain the swamp, the problem is you. If you thought that Clinton’s email practices were the worst security issue in the election, the problem is you. If you honestly believed The Young Turks or Jacobin mag when they told you Clinton was more militarist than Trump, the problem is you. If you believed Glenn Greenwald when he told you the real threat to American security was Clinton’s surveillance and security policies, the problem is you. If you believed that Trump cared more about working people than Hilary Clinton, then the problem is you. This stuff was all obvious and objectively checkable and easy to read, and you didn’t bother. The problem is not that Facebook was used by a shady right wing mob to manipulate your opinions into thinking Clinton was going to start world war 3 and hand everyone’s money to the bankers. The problem is that when this utter bullshit landed in your feed, you believed it.

Of course the problem doesn’t stop with the consumers of media but with the creators. Chris Cillizza is a journalist who hounded Clinton about her emails and her security issues before the election, and to this day continues to hound her, and he worked for reputable media organizations who thought his single-minded obsession with Clinton was responsible journalism. The NY Times was all over the email issues, and plenty of NY Times columnists like Maureen Dowd were sure Trump was less militarist than Clinton. Fox carefully curated their news feed to ensure the pussy-grabbing scandal was never covered, so more Americans knew about the emails than the pussy-grabbing. Obviously if no one is creating content about how terrible Trump is then we on Facebook are not able to share it with each other. But again the problem here is not Facebook – it’s the American media. Just this week we learn that the Atlantic, a supposedly centrist publication, is hiring Kevin D Williamson – a man who believes women who get abortions should be hanged – to provide “balance” to its opinion section. This isn’t Facebook’s fault. The utter failure of the US media to hold their government even vaguely accountable for its actions over the past 30 years, or to inquire with any depth or intelligence into the utter corruption of the Republican party, is not Facebook’s fault or ours, it’s theirs. But it is our job as citizens to look elsewhere, to try to understand the flaws in the reporting, to deploy our education to the benefit of ourselves and the civic society of which we are a part. That’s not Facebook’s job, it’s ours. Voting is a responsibility as well as a right, and when you prepare to vote you have the responsibility to understand the information available about the people you are going to vote for. If you decide that you would rather believe Clinton killed Seth Rich to cover up a paedophile scandal, rather than reading the Democratic Party platform and realizing that strategic voting for Clinton will benefit you and your class, then the problem is you. You live in a free society with free speech, and you chose to believe bullshit without checking it.

Deleting Facebook won’t solve the bigger problem, which is that many people in America are not able to tell lies from truth. The problem is not Facebook, it’s you.

 

She was right all along!

Today I discovered a really excellent article discussing how American and Soviet scientists and intelligence operatives reported on the collapse of the Soviet Economy, at the Texas National Security Review wtf. The basic thrust of the article is to understand whether researchers in the US national security complex, and associated academics, missed the collapse of the Soviet economy that began around 1966, or whether they were actually predicting the fundamental economic challenges that would eventually bring the Soviet Union to revolution and implosion. Apparently in the 1990s there was a bit of a thing where major newspapers and some politicians accused the CIA and the academics in its orbit of having completely missed the fact that the Soviet Union’s economy was failing, and having driven the US to go into debt peonage in order to achieve massive economic growth that wasn’t actually needed. The article cites a few of these critics saying basically that if the CIA had accurately predicted the trajectory of the Soviet Economy then Reagan wouldn’t have had to build up huge deficits to finance a massive military and economic expansion. Putting aside how ludicrous this is on its face – conservatives don’t care about deficits, for starters, and Reagan was building deficits for a wide range of political reasons – the article dismisses this by showing that in fact the CIA and its fellow travelers did in fact predict the collapse of the Soviet economy, in remarkable detail, and this 1990s criticism is all just silly revisionism.

This wasn’t the part of the article that interested me though – in fact I thought the discussion about why this is important was the weakest part of the article. What I enjoyed was the detailed description of the stages of economic growth and collapse of the Soviet Union, and the description of how Soviet theorists and planners saw it coming from the 1970s onward but seemed powerless to stop it. It tells a detailed and interesting tale of an economic program that seemed so successful (to both American and Soviet observers) in the 1950s, falling into stagnation in the 1960s and then into ruin in the 1970s. It’s a detailed and well-researched description of an economic system falling apart, and it shows that actually the economic analysts of the West really had their finger on the pulse here, and their theories about how economies should work and what was wrong with the Soviet economy proved to be correct in the end. This isn’t just American triumphalism that you might expect from the Texas National Security Review wtf, because the author cites a bunch of Soviet theorists who basically saw all the same issues that the Americans saw, and were unable to come up with any solutions that could work. The story of how they failed to come up with solutions is in itself fascinating, and something I will come back to when I discuss the Chinese communist approach to the same problems these researchers identified. But first I want to ask – did Western Marxists of the 1960s to 1980s see any of these issues in the Soviet economy, and if they didn’t, what does that say about their much-vaunted economic analysis skills?

The rise and fall of the Soviet planned economy

The article divides the Soviet economy into two rough stages, the first lasting from I guess the 1930s or the end of the war up until 1959, and the second starting somewhere in the mid 1960s and running to the fall of the Berlin wall. The first period was characterized by what the author calls extensive growth[1], which appears to be the process of throwing bodies at basic problems like building roads and shit. This period was characterized by rapid growth and social engagement(?), and seems like the kind of period when central planning would be no hindrance, or possibly even beneficial to growth. This is the period of increased steel production, more coal in more burners, the kind of basic economic problems being solved by simple and robust methods. But by the 1960s the Soviet Union had solved these basic problems and had moved into a more complex economy characterized by skilled labour working on more difficult problems of distribution and production, and it could no longer function by simply investing in new plant and equipment. At this point both American and Soviet analysts of the economy noticed that it needed to move to a more mixed structure, and it required engaged and committed professionals rather than hard working industrial hands. Central planning failed at this point, and the social and cultural conditions in the Soviet Union began to hold back growth and achievement, because you can’t get skilled professionals to work for just money alone, and the other cultural and social rewards of engaging in the mixed economy just weren’t there. The economy by this point had also become much more complex and had become too complicated for proper central planners to manage, but the lack of monetarization and small scale innovation and markets prevented it from finding local and specific solutions to complex problems. Both American and Soviet theorists noticed this problem, with the Americans wondering if the Soviet leadership would make radical changes to unleash new energy and creativity, and the Soviet thinkers wondering how to do this and complaining that they weren’t able to come up with solutions to match the problems they had identified[2].

At this point the author also describes a bunch of other problems overwhelming Soviet society that were identified in the west and discussed: declining life expectancy, increasing infant mortality, rampant alcoholism, and endemic corruption. The corruption was seen as a response to the challenges of an economy that simply wasn’t working and the cultural and social barriers to progress, and the alcoholism and infant mortality were seen as signs of a deepening social malaise that simply couldn’t be solved by a planned economy. This part of the essay – which to be fair is a long way in – was powerful stuff to read. It’s a fundamental given of modern development economics that when life expectancy or infant mortality go in the wrong direction, you’re getting something very wrong. That should be a sign that you need to get off your arse now and fix whatever mess you’re facing[3].

What did Western Marxists see in all this?

To their credit it appears that Soviet theorists and planners from the 1970s onward saw the writing on the wall and were at least aware of the need for change, even if the political structures of their economy prevented them from effectively implementing them. But how did western Marxists study their model society and how did they react? While we know a lot of western Marxists went their own way – especially after Hungary and Czechoslovakia – we know that many of the western communist and socialist parties continued to support the Soviet Union for a long time. One of the few remaining claims for which the people of this time get any credit is that while its political prescriptions may have failed, Marxism provided a cogent and insightful analysis of the economic problems facing capitalism, and a definitive description of how economic crises arise and are resolved. Presumably then it would have been able to analyze the problems within the Soviet Union, and presumably at least some of these Marxists would have had better access to information and data coming out of the Soviet Union than did the CIA.

So what did they do with it? Did they see the crisis the way their Soviet colleagues did? I have dug around online and can’t find anything about Marxist critiques of Soviet economic ideas at that time except for this review of a book on Marxist critiques of Soviet economics, that suggests the book is not a comprehensive review of what was said and written in that time. I certainly can’t find any evidence of a famous critical review of the problems facing Soviet industry. One would think that at least in the post-Vietnam era, perhaps in the 1970s, some of the Marxists of the New Left would have been feeling liberated enough to consider critically whether the Soviet Union was going in the right direction. At this time left wing movements in the west had started looking to national liberationist movements in Africa and latin America for inspiration, and these movements were typically less economically and ideologically hidebound than the Soviet Union, though often still dependent on it for economic and military support, so one would think western Marxists would have been able to engage more critically with Soviet economic ideas through these movements. But I can’t see much evidence that they did. What were they doing during this time? Is there a cruel irony where Soviet theorists were applying western market economics to critique Soviet economic systems, while western Marxists were applying rigid Marxist principles and missing the entire point? Were CIA academics more closely engaged with Soviet economic data than the Soviet Union’s supposed allies in the American left? I can’t find any information about this online, and I’m wondering.

How did China learn from Soviet failure?

The article also mentions that Soviet leaders tied economic growth directly to the ideological success of their project. They figured that people would be willing to make political and cultural sacrifices to the revolution provided they saw economic progress, and could look forward to a future utopia, but from 1970 on the economy was stagnating and so they were offering the people decades of austerity and asking them to commit to a political program that offered no future. This fundamental bargain – freedom in exchange for development – seems to me to be at the heart of the Chinese political program, and to have been a huge success for them: basically, so long as everyone’s economic lot continues to improve, the Chinese communist party assumes that the population will tolerate limits on expression, political activity and assembly. It’s a deal that has worked for them so far, and it seems to be at the core of their political program. But it failed in the Soviet Union, so how did Chinese leadership respond to this?

This is another topic that is very hard to assess for a non-expert just using random internet searches. How did China respond to the Soviet Union’s stagnation? Is there a body of work, in Chinese, by Chinese planners and intellectuals, interpreting the Soviet Union’s failure in terms that could be used to improve China’s economic and social performance? Did the 100 Flowers movement or the Cultural Revolution stem from some recognition that Soviet ideological strictness was stopping economic growth and interfering with the basic bargain? I found this critical text from Mao that suggests Mao understood that economic growth cannot be about just industrial development, and that commodity exchange (i.e. free markets of some kind) are essential. But it’s very hard to read – this language is like nothing from standard public health text books! – and it obviously requires a heavy knowledge of pre-existing Maoist and Stalinist theory. For example, Mao repeatedly contrasts the Chinese communist party’s attitude towards peasants with the Soviet party’s, and finds Stalinist thought lacking on this issue that doesn’t make any sense to me.

But it seems to me that the Chinese communist party must have done something right. Under Mao they also went through a period of heavy “extensive” growth, but then under Deng Xiaoping they introduced market reforms that enabled their economy to adapt to its growing complexity, and it is now generally accepted that China runs a mixed market economy that has the flexibility to respond to new economic challenges while retaining the central planning that should, I guess, ideally be able to manage potential crises and balance competing interests. China has also not seen any period of stagnation in health markers – quite the opposite! – and seems to be much better at incorporating foreign capital and foreign ideas into its market (the original article makes the point that the Soviet Union found it very hard to import new technologies, and suffered in productivity as a result). So I wonder – was Chinese communism always more open to foreign ideas and to critical reinterpretation of basic principles? Did they see what was happening in the Soviet Union and think about alternatives earlier and more aggressively? In his Critique of Stalin’s Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR Mao repeatedly returns to the problem of commodity production, and seems to be much more open to market ideas than the Soviets (in his own words), but then at the same time I think he was presenting Stalinism as a betrayal of Marxism for being too westernized or something. So how was China interpreting Soviet struggles? China shows no signs of economic slow down or of economic failure, though of course it is increasingly vulnerable to crashes and crises of a capitalist kind, so it’s not as if it has developed a perfect mixed economy. Did Deng Xiaoping and his successors learn from the Soviet Union, and how? And if so why was their communism open to change but Soviet communism was not? For example, the article presents corruption as a fundamental and unresolved problem of the Soviet Union, possibly connected directly to its economic and political stagnation, but we know that the Chinese government has made fighting corruption an important symbol of progress and has genuinely tried to stamp out the worst of it. Why and how did they make these decisions, and to what extent were their policy ideas driven by reaction to Soviet failure, or to western criticism?

A final note

This has been a blogpost only of questions – I don’t know anything about these issues, but I find them very interesting. I think I have said before on this blog that I think China’s future progress offers a key challenge to capitalist market democracy. Until now the only real challenge to the orthodoxy of western capitalist democracy arose from the Soviet Union, and it was a dismal failure (as is its gangster successor). But if China can make one party non-democratic Chinese communism successful, then it will offer a real alternative to capitalist democracy. In the past I have said that China needs to negotiate a series of complex challenges but that if it does it may prove its system a viable alternative to capitalist democracies. I think it’s safe to say it has shown itself to be a much better alternative development model than Russian communism, which when you’re coming from the background Chinese communism was coming from is a pretty big claim to success. But now it has moved into the intensive development phase identified in the linked article at the Texas National Security Review wtf, the question is whether it will continue to adapt in the way it needs to to show that its political model can deliver the economic boons that its fundamental contract demands. This question is further complicated by the abolition of term limits and the possibility that Xi Jinping is becoming a new Mao[4], which could undo all the gains of the past 10 or 20 years and return China to a period of madness or Soviet scleroticism[5]. I guess also the lessons of Soviet history are less important to Mr. Xi than they were to Mr. Deng, and Mr. Xi faces an environment that is in some ways much less challenging (development is complete), but also much more challenging (Trump!) Are Chinese planners moving on from the lessons of Soviet failure to the lessons of capitalist failure?

I think it’s possible that we are seeing a new era of failure in American capitalist democracy, and there are many countries in Africa that are desperate for political and economic development models at a time when China is becoming increasingly assertive about the rectitude of its own model. By looking at how previous systems have learnt from their mistakes, perhaps we can see how the Chinese government will adapt to future challenges, and also how the American government will – or won’t – learn from its own litany of errors. How will this affect development in Africa, and how will it affect the response of the big economies to the fundamental environmental and economic challenges that threaten to destroy us all? I think we need to look to China for the answers to many of these questions, and in seeing how previous regimes learnt about their own and their enemies’ weaknesses – and how they failed to adapt – perhaps we can see where our current leadership are going to take us, and worse still – how they are going to fail us.

 


fn1: It’s possible that in reporting the author’s work I will significantly dumb it down, so if any descriptions of what the author wrote seem trite or simplistic please blame me, not him

fn2: These theorists were operating in the post-Stalin era, which I guess was freer, but I hadn’t realized so much self-critical work was allowed in the Soviet Union during Khruschev and Brezhnev. But it appears that there was no translation of critical thought into action, even where it was tolerated.

fn3: Modern America is facing a challenging problem along these lines, of declining life expectancy due to middle-aged mortality, increasing maternal mortality, and growing inequality in infant mortality. Is this a sign that America’s economy is going the same way as the Soviet Union?

fn4: I think he’s not, but if he does then I think this shows a fundamental and important instability in these one party systems, that they don’t just produce occasional madmen – they return to them. The madman could be the stable attractor in these systems. But if, for example, Xi goes through three terms, China continues to develop and liberalize and then he retires, what does that tell us?

fn5: Though it’s worth remembering that even under Mao China made huge progress, probably because it was in this extensive phase of development where progress is easy if you have strong central government and central planning

Nail them to the wall

In September 2017 Philip Morris International (PMI) – one of the world’s largest cigarette companies – introduced a new foundation to the world: The Foundation for a Smoke Free World. This foundation will receive $80 million per year from PMI for the next 12 years and devote this money to researching “smoking cessation, smoking harm reduction and alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers”, with the aim to draw in more money from non-tobacco donors over that time. It is seeking advice on how to spend its research money, and it claims to be completely independent of the tobacco industry – it receives money from PMI to the tune of almost a billion dollars, but it claims to have a completely independent research agenda.

The website for the Foundation includes a bunch of compelling statistics on its front page: There is one death every six seconds from smoking, 7.2 million deaths annually, second-hand smoke kills 890,000 people annually, and smoking kills half of all its long-term users. It’s fascinating that a company that as late as the late 1990s was claiming there is no evidence its product kills has now set up a foundation with such powerful admission of the toxic nature of its product. It’s also wrong: the most recent research suggests that 2/3 of users will die from smoking. It’s revealing that even when PMI is being honest it understates the true level of destruction it has wrought on the human race.

That should serve as an object lesson in what this Foundation is really about. It’s not an exercise in genuine tobacco control, but a strategy to launder PMI’s reputation, and to escape the tobacco control deadlock. If PMI took these statistics seriously it could solve the problem it appears to have identified very simply, by ceasing the production of cigarettes and winding up its business. I’m sure everyone on earth would applaud a bunch of very rich tobacco company directors who awarded themselves a fat bonus and simply shut down their business, leaving their shareholders screwed. But that’s not what PMI wants to do. They want to launder their reputation and squirm out from under the pressure civil society is placing on them. They want to start a new business looking all shiny and responsible, and the Foundation is their tool.

PMI have another business model in mind. PMI are the mastermind behind iQos, the heat-not-burn product that they are trialling with huge success in Japan. This cigarette alternative still provides its user with a nicotine hit but it does it through heating a tobacco substance, rather than burning it, avoiding much of the carcinogenic products of cigarettes. PMI have been touting this as the future alternative to cigarettes, and are claiming huge market share gains in Japan based on the product. Heat not burn technologies offer clear harm reduction opportunities for tobacco use: although we don’t know what their toxicity is, it’s almost certainly much lower than tobacco, and every smoker who switches to iQos is likely significantly reducing their long term cancer risk. What PMI needs is for the world to adopt a harm reduction strategy for smoking, so that they can switch from cigarettes to iQos. But the tobacco control community is still divided on whether harm reduction is a better approach than prohibition and demand reduction, which between them have been very successful in reducing smoking.

So isn’t it convenient that there is a new Foundation with a billion dollars to spend on a research platform of “smoking cessation, harm reduction and alternative livelihoods.” It’s as if this Foundation’s work perfectly aligns with PMI’s business strategy. And is it even big money? Recently PMI lost a court case against plain packaging in Australia – because although their foundation admits that smoking kills, they weren’t willing to let the Australian government sell packages that say as much – and have to pay at least $50 million in costs. PMI’s sponsorship deal with Ferrari will cost them $160 million. They spent $24 million fighting plain packaging laws in Urugay (population: 4 million). $80 million is not a lot of money for them, and they will likely spend as much every year lobbying governments to postpone harsh measures, fighting the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and advertising their lethal product. This Foundation is not a genuine vehicle for research, it’s an advertising strategy.

It’s a particularly sleazy advertising strategy when you consider the company’s history and what the Foundation claims to do. This company fought any recognition that its products kill, but this Foundation admits that the products kill, while PMI itself continues to fight any responsibility for the damage it has done. This company worked as hard as it could for 50 years to get as many people as possible addicted to this fatal product, but this Foundation headlines its website with “a billion people are addicted and want to stop”. This Foundation will research smoking cessation while the company that funds it fights every attempt to prevent smoking initiation in every way it can. The company no doubt knows that cessation is extremely difficult, and that ten dollars spent on cessation are worth one dollar spent on initiation. It’s precious PR in a time when tobacco companies are really struggling to find anything good to say about themselves.

And as proof of the PR gains, witness the Lancet‘s craven editorial on the Foundation, which argues that public health researchers and tobacco control activists should engage with it rather than ostracizing it, in the hope of finding some common ground on this murderous product. The WHO is not so pathetic. In a press release soon after the PMI was established they point out that it directly contravenes Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which forbids signatories from allowing tobacco companies to have any involvement in setting public health policy. They state openly that they won’t engage with the organization, and request that others also do not. The WHO has been in the forefront of the battle against tobacco and the tobacco industry for many years, and they aren’t fooled by these kinds of shenanigans. This is an oily trick by Big Tobacco to launder their reputation and try to ingratiate themselves with a world that is sick of their tricks and lies. We shouldn’t stand for it.

I think it’s unlikely that researchers will take this Foundation’s money. Most reputable public health journals have a strict rule that they will not publish research funded by tobacco companies or organizations associated with them, and it is painfully obvious that this greasy foundation is a tobacco company front. This means that most researchers won’t be able to publish any research they do with money from this foundation, and I suspect this means they won’t waste their time applying for the money. It seems likely to me that they will struggle to disburse their research funds in a way that, for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation do not. I certainly won’t be trying to get any of this group’s money.

The news of this Foundation’s establishment is not entirely bad, though. It’s existence is a big sign that the tobacco control movement is winning. PMI know that their market is collapsing and their days are numbered. Sure they can try and target emerging markets in countries like China but they know the tobacco control movement will take hold in those markets too, and they’re finding it increasingly difficult to make headway. Smoking rates are plummeting in the highest profit markets, and they’re forced to slimmer pickings in developing countries where tobacco control is growing in power rapidly. At the same time their market share is being stolen in developed countries by e-cigarettes, a market they have no control over, and as developing nations become wealthier and tobacco control strengthens e-cigarettes grow in popularity there too. They can see their days are numbered. Furthermore, the foundation is a sign that the tobacco companies’ previous united front on strategy is falling apart. After the UK high court rejected a tobacco company challenge to plain packaging laws, PMI alone decided not to join an appeal, and now PMI has established this foundation. This is a sign that the tobacco companies are starting to lose their previous powerful allegiance on strategy against the tobacco control movement. PMI admits they’ve lost, has developed iQos, and is looking to find an alternative path to the future while the other tobacco companies fight to defend their product.

But should PMI be allowed to take their path? From a public health perspective it’s a short term gain if PMI switch to being a provider of harm reducing products. But there are a bunch of Chinese technology companies offering e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking. If we allow PMI to join that harm reduction market they will be able to escape the long term consequences of their business decisions. And should they be allowed to? I think they shouldn’t. I think the tobacco companies should be nailed to the wall for what they did. For nearly 70 years these scumbags have denied their products caused any health problems, have spent huge amounts of money on fighting any efforts to control their behavior, and have targeted children and the most vulnerable. They have spent huge amounts of money establishing a network of organizations, intellectuals and front groups that defend their work but – worse still – pollute the entire discourse of scientific and evidence based policy. The growth of global warming denialism, DDT denialism, and anti-environmentalism is connected to Big Tobacco’s efforts to undermine scientific evidence for decent public health policy in the 1980s and 1990s. These companies have done everything they can to pollute public discourse over decades, in defense of a product that we have known is poison since the 1950s. They have had a completely pernicious effect on public debate and all the while their customers have been dying. These companies should not be allowed to escape the responsibility for what they did. Sure, PMI could develop and market a heat-not-burn product or some kind of e-cigarette: but should we let them, when some perfectly innocent Chinese company could steal their market share? No, we should not. Their murderous antics over 70 years should be an albatross around their neck, dragging these companies down into ruin. They should be shackled to their product, never able to escape from it, and their senior staff should never be allowed to escape responsibility for their role in promoting and marketing this death. The Foundation for a Smoke Free World is PMI’s attempt to escape the shackles of a murderous poison that it flogged off to young and poor people remorselessly for 70 years. They should not be allowed to get away with it – they should be nailed to the wall for what they did. Noone should cooperate with this corrupt and sleazy new initiative. PMI should die as if they had been afflicted with the cancer that is their stock in trade, and they should not be allowed to worm out from under the pressure they now face. Let them suffer for the damage they did to human bodies and civil society, and do not cooperate with this sick and cynical Foundation.

UPDATE: Dr. Monnat has left a comment pointing out that I made a major error in reading her methods (I assumed she used non-standardized rates but in the methods she specifies that she did). So I have removed one criticism of her paper and modified another about regression. This doesn’t change the thrust of my argument (though if Dr. Monnat is patient enough to engage with more of my criticisms, maybe it will!)

Since late 2016 a theory has been circulating that Donald Trump’s election victory can be related to the opioid epidemic in rust belt America. Under this theory, parts of mid-West America with high levels of unemployment and economic dislocation that are experiencing high levels of opioid addiction switched votes from Democrat to Republican and elected Trump. This is part of a broader idea that America is suffering an epidemic of “deaths of despair” – deaths due to opioids, suicide and alcohol abuse – that are part of a newfound social problem primarily afflicting working class white people, and the recent rapid growth in the rate of these “deaths of despair” drove a rebellion against the Democrats, and towards Trump.

This theory is bullshit, for a lot of reasons, and in this post I want to talk about why. To be clear, it’s not just a bit wrong: it’s wrong in all of its particulars. The data doesn’t support the idea of a growing death rate amongst white working class people; the data does not support a link between “deaths of despair” and Trump voting; there is no such thing as a “death of despair”; and there is no viable explanation for why an epidemic of “deaths of despair” should drive votes for Trump. The theory is attractive to a certain kind of theorist because it enables them to pretend that the Trump phenomenon doesn’t represent a deep problem of racism in American society, but it doesn’t work. Let’s look at why.

The myth of rising white mortality

First let’s consider the central framework of this story, which is the idea that mortality rates have been rising rapidly among middle-aged whites in America over the past 20 years, popularized by two economists (Case and Deaton) in a paper in PNAS. This paper is deeply flawed because it does not adjust for age, which has been increasing rapidly among white Americans but not non-white Americans (due to differential birth and migration patterns in earlier eras). Case and Deaton studied mortality in 45-54 year old Americans, differentiating by race, but failed to adjust for age. This is important for surprising reasons, which perhaps only epidemiologists understand, and we’re only figuring this out recently and slowly: ageing is happening so fast in high-income countries that even when we look at relatively narrow age categories we need to take into account the possibility that the older parts of the age category have a lot more people than the younger parts, and this means that even the small differences in mortality between say 53 year olds and 45 year olds can make a difference to mortality rates in the age category as a whole. If this seems shocking, consider the case of Japan, where ageing is so advanced that even five year age categories (the finest band of age that most statistical organizations will present publicly) are vulnerable to differences in the population. In Japan, the difference in the size of the 84 year old population to the 80 year old population is so great that we may need to adjust for age even when looking at narrow age categories like 80-84 years. This problem is a new challenge for epidemiologists – we used to assume that if you reduce an analysis to a 10 or 15 year age category you don’t need to standardize, because the population within such a band is relatively stable, but this is no longer true.

In the case of the Case and Deaton study the effect of ageing in non-hispanic white populations is so great that failure to adjust for it completely biases their results. Andrew Gelman describes the problem  on his blog and presents age-adjusted data and data for individual years of age, showing fairly convincingly that the entire driver of the “problem” identified by Case and Deaton is age, not ill health. After adjustment it does appear that some categories of white women are seeing an increasing mortality rate, but this is a) likely due to the recent growth of smoking in this population and b) not a likely explanation for Trump’s success, since he was more popular with men than women.

White people are dying more in America because they’re getting older, not because they have a problem. I happen to think that getting older is a problem, but it’s not a problem that Trump or anyone else can fix.

The myth of “deaths of despair” and Trump voting

Case and Deaton followed up their paper on white mortality with further research on “deaths of despair” – deaths due to opioid abuse, suicide and alcohol use that are supposedly due to “despair”. This paper is a better, more exhaustive analysis of the problem but it is vulnerable to a lot of basic epidemiological errors, and the overall theory is ignorant of basic principles in drug and alcohol theory and suicide research. This new research does not properly adjust for age in narrow age groups, and it does not take into account socioeconomic influences on mortality due to these conditions. But on this topic Case and Deaton are not the main offenders – they did not posit a link between “deaths of despair” and Trump voting, which was added by a researcher called Shannon Monnat at Pennsylvania State University in late 2016. In her paper, Monnat argues for a direct link between rates of “deaths of despair” and voting for Trump at the county level, suggesting that voting for Trump was somehow a response to the specific pressures affecting white Americans. There are huge flaws in this paper, which I list here, approximately in their order of importance.

  • It includes suicide: Obviously a county with high suicide mortality is in a horrible situation, which should be dealt with, but there is a big problem with using suicide as a predictor of Trump voting. This problem is guns. Uniquely among rich countries, the US has a very high prevalence of gun ownership and guns account for a much larger proportion of suicides in America than elsewhere – more than half, according to reputable studies. And unfortunately for rural Americans, the single biggest determinant of whether you commit suicide by gun is owning a gun – and gun ownership rates are much higher in counties that vote Republican. In America suicide is a proxy for gun ownership, not “despair”, and because gun-related suicide depends heavily on rates of gun ownership, inclusion of this mortality rate in the study heavily biases the total mortality rate being used towards a measure of gun ownership rather than despair.
  • It uses voting changes rather than voting odds: Like most studies of voting rates, Monnat compared the percentage voting for Trump with the percentage voting for Romney in 2012. This is a big flaw, because percentages do not vary evenly across their range. In Monnat’s study a county that increased its Republican voting proportion from 1% to 2% is treated exactly the same as a county that went from 50% to 51%. In one of these counties the vote doubled and Trump didn’t get elected; in the other it increased by 2% but Trump got elected. It’s important to account for this non linearity in analysis, but Monnat did not. Which leads to another problem …
  • It did not measure Trump’s success directly: In a first past the post electoral system, who wins is more important than by how much. Monnat used an ordinary least squares model of proportions voting Trump rather than a binomial model of Trump winning or losing, which means that meaningless small gains in “blue” states[1] had the same importance as small gains in “red” states that flipped them “blue”. This might not be important except that we know Trump lost the popular vote (which differences in proportions measure) but won the electoral college (which more closely resembles binary measures of win/lose). Not analyzing binary outcomes in a binomial model suggests you don’t understand the relationship between statistics and the political system you live in, i.e. your analysis is wrong.
  • It did not incorporate turnout: A 52% win for Trump can reflect two things – a change in attitude by 2% of the voters, or a non-proportionate increase in the number of people who chose to turn out and vote. If you analyze proportions (or differences in proportions) you don’t account for this problem. In addition, you don’t adjust for the overall size of the electorate. If you analyze proportions, an electorate where 52 people voted Trump and 48 people voted Clinton is given the same weight as an electorate where 5200 people voted Clinton and 4800 people voted Trump. If you use a proper binomial model, however, the latter electorate gets more weight and is implicitly treated as more meaningful in the assessment of results. A reminder of what is fast becoming a faustusnotes rule: the cool kids do not use ordinary least squares regression to analyze probabilities, we always use logistic regression.
  • It did not present the regression results: Although Monnat reports regression results in a footnote, the main results in the text are all unadjusted, even though in at least some states the impact of economic factors appears to eliminate the relationship with mortality rates. Given that people who own guns are much much more likely to vote Republican, and the main predictor variable here incorporated suicide, adjustment for gun ownership might have eliminated the effect of “deaths of despair” entirely. But it wasn’t done as far as I can tell, and wasn’t shown.
  • It did not adjust for trends: Monnat openly states in the beginning of the paper that “deaths of despair” have been rising over time but when she conducts the analysis she uses the average rate for the period 2006-2014. This means that she does not consider the possibility that mortality has been dropping in some counties and rising in others. A mortality rate of 100 per 100,000 could reflect a decline over the period 2006-2014 from 150 to 50 (a huge decrease) or an increase from 25 to 175. We don’t know, but it seems likely that if “deaths of despair” is an issue, it will have had more influence on electoral decisions in 2016 in counties where the rate has risen over that time than where it has declined. There are lots of policy reasons why the death rate might have increased or decreased, but whether these reflect issues relevant to Republican or Democrat policy is impossible to know without seeing the distribution of trends – which Monnat did not analyze[2].

So in summary the study that found this “relationship” between “deaths of despair” and voting Trump was deeply flawed. There is no such relationship in the data[3].

There is no such thing as a “death of despair”

This study has got a fair bit of attention on the internet, as have the prior Case and Deaton studies. For example here we see a Medium report on the “Oxy electorate” that repeats all these sour talking points, and in this blog post some dude who fancies himself a spokesperson for ordinary America talks up the same issue. The latter blog post has some comments by people taking oxycontin for pain relief, who make some important points that the “deaths of despair” crew have overlooked. To quote one commenter[4]:

I too am a long time chronic pain sufferer and until I was put on opiate medications my quality of life was ZERO. I’ve heard horror stories of people actually being suicidal because they can no longer deal with the constant pain. It took me two years before I realized I could no longer work as an account manager with a major telecom company. I was making decent money but leaving work everyday in pain. I finally started going to a pain management doctor who diagnosed me with degenerative disc disease. I had to go on medical leave and now am on SSDI. My doctor prescribed me opiates in the fall of 2006 and I’ve been on them ever since. I have to say, I totally AGREE with you. I don’t know how I would be able to manage without these medications. At least I’m able to clean my house now and now without being in horrible pain. I don’t know what I would do if suddenly I was told I could no longer be prescribed opiates.
Who is someone that will champion those of us who legitametly need these medications? Do we write to our senators?? I sure hope Trump takes into consideration our cases before kicking us all to the curb!

This person (and others) make the valid point that they are taking pain medication for a reason, and that they were in despair before they got hooked on opioids, not after. Unfortunately for these commenters, we now have fairly good evidence that opioids are not the best treatment for chronic pain and that they are very, very dangerous, but regardless of whether this treatment is exactly the best one for these patients they make the valid point that it is the treatment they got and it works for them. To use an Americanism, you can take the opioids from their cold dead hands. In stark contrast to other countries, a very large proportion of America’s opioid deaths are due to prescription drugs, not heroin, reflecting an epidemic of overdose due to legally accessible painkillers. It’s my suspicion that these painkillers were prescribed to people like the above commenter because they could not afford the treatment for the underlying cause of their pain, because America’s healthcare system sucks, and these people then became addicted to a very dangerous substance – but in the absence of proper health insurance these people cannot get the specialist opioid management they deserve. America’s opioid epidemic is a consequence of poor health system access, not “despair”, and if Americans had the same health system as, say, Frenchies or Britons they would not be taking these drugs for more than 6 months, because the underlying cause of their condition would have been treated – and for that small minority of pain patients with chronic pain, in any other rich country they would have regular affordable access to a specialist who could calibrate their dose and manage their risks.

The opioid death problem in America is a problem of access to healthcare, which should have been fixed by Obamacare. Which brings us to the last issue …

There is no theory linking opioid addiction to voting Trump

What exactly is the theory by which people hooked on oxycontin are more likely to vote Trump? On its face there are only two realistic explanations for this theory: 1) the areas where oxycontin is a huge problem are facing social devastation with no solution in sight, so vote for change (even Trump!) in hopes of a solution; or 2) people who use drugs are arseholes and losers. Putting aside the obvious ecological fallacy in Monnat’s study (it could be that everyone in the area who votes for Trump is a non-opiate user, and they voted Trump in hopes of getting the druggies killed Duterte-style, but the data doesn’t tell us who voted Trump, just what proportion of each area did), there are big problems with these two explanations even at the individual level. Let’s deal with each in turn.

If areas facing social devastation due to oxycontin are more likely to vote Trump, why didn’t they also vote Romney? Some of these areas were stronger Obama voters in 2012, according to Monnat’s data, but opioid use has been skyrocketing in these areas since 2006 (remember Monnat used averages from 2006-2014). The mortality data covers two election cycles where they voted Obama even though opioid deaths were rising, and suddenly they voted Trump? Why now? Why Trump and not Romney, or McCain? It’s as if there is something else about Trump …

Of course it’s possible that oxycontin users are racist arseholes – I have certainly seen this in my time working in clinics providing healthcare to injecting drug users – but even if we accept such a bleak view of drug users (and it’s not true!) the problem with this theory is that even as opioid use increases, it remains a tiny proportion of the total population of these areas. The opioid users directly cannot swing the election – it has to be their neighbours, friends and family. Now it’s possible that a high prevalence of opioid use and suicide drives people seeing this phenomenon to vote Trump but this is a strange outcome – in general people vote for Democrats/Labour in times of social catastrophe, which is why they voted Obama to start with – because he promised to fix the financial crisis and health care. There has to be some other explanation for why non-opioid using people switched vote in droves to Trump but not Romney. I wonder what it could be?

American liberals’ desperate desire to believe their country is not deeply racist

The problem is, of course, that Trump had a single distinguishing feature that no one before him in the GOP had – he was uniquely, floridly racist. Since the election this has become abundantly clear, but for Donnat writing in late 2016 I guess it still seemed vaguely plausibly deniable. But the reality is that his single distinction from all other GOP candidates was his florid racism. Lots of people in America want to believe that the country they live in – the country that just 150 years ago went to war over slavery, and just 50 years ago had explicit laws to drive black people out of the economic life of the nation – is not racist. I have even recently seen news reports that America is “losing its leadership in the movement for racial equality.” No, dudes, you never showed any leadership on that front. America is a deeply racist nation. It’s racist in a way that other countries can’t even begin to understand. The reason Trump won is that he energized a racist base, and the reason his approval remains greater than 30% despite the shitshow he is presiding over is that a large number of Americans are out-and-out fascists, for whom trolling “liberals” and crushing non-whites is a good thing. That’s why rural, gun-owning Americans voted for Trump, and if the data were analyzed properly that fact would be very clear. Lots of people in America want to believe second- or third-order causes like the rustbelt or opioids, but the reality is staring them in the face: it’s racism. Don’t blame people with chronic pain, blame people with chronic racism. And fix it, before the entire world has to pay for the vainglorious passions of a narrow swathe of white America.


fn1: I refuse to take the American use of “blue” and “red” seriously – they get scare quotes until they decide that Republicans are blue and Democrats are red. Sorry, but you guys need to sort your shit out. Get proper political colours and get rid of American Football, then you’ll be taken seriously on the world stage. Also learn to spell color with a “u”.

fn2: I’m joshing you here. Everyone knows that Republicans don’t give a flying fuck if an electorate is dying of opioid overdoses at a skyrocketing rate, and everyone knows that the idea that Republicans would offer people dying of “deaths of despair” any policy solutions to their problem except “be born rich” is a hilarious joke. The only possible policy intervention that could have helped counties seeing an increasing opioid death rate was Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, and we know republicans rejected that in states they controlled because they’re evil.

fn3: Well, there might be, but no one has shown it with a robust method.

fn4: I’m such a cynic about everything American that I really hope this commenter isn’t a drug company plant…

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