Britain Is a Total Mess Right Now

The day before the Brexit vote, Nick Clegg, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, wrote a piece titled "What you will wake up to if we vote to Leave..." It's astonishingly prescient and worth a read. Apparently not very many people believed him, though.

But he was totally right, and no one knows what the hell is going on anymore. The process of leaving the EU officially starts when Britain invokes Article 50 of the EU charter, but oddly enough, no one seems to be especially eager to do that. David Cameron, the caretaker prime minister, has announced that he doesn't plan to do this anytime soon, and Boris Johnson, the leader of the Brexit forces, seems to be OK with that:

Mr. Johnson offered no details about when or how Britain should invoke Article 50 — the formal process for leaving the European Union — nor did he lay out a plan for how Britain could maintain free trade with the European Union, the world’s largest common market, without accepting the bloc’s demand for the unrestricted movement of workers.

Meanwhile, the pound continues to fall and the financial community continues to panic. Tomorrow the Labor Party will hold a vote of confidence on its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, which he's expected to lose by a landslide. Scotland is threatening to secede yet again. And the EU is saying that if Britain wants to retain access to the common market, then they have to accept free immigration too:

If it wants access to the bloc’s single market, post-Brexit Britain must accept EU freedom of movement rules and the supremacy of the European Court of Justice, EU diplomats have warned ahead of a vital summit. The idea that Britain could have access under a European Economic Area style deal and impose border controls was a non-starter, diplomats said.

Well, who knows? Maybe that's just their opening negotiating position. But the Brexiteers are in for some serious trouble if it turns out that the price of access to the European market is the very thing that prompted their victory in the first place.

What a mess. And all for nothing.

OECD Report: Pure Math > Applied Math

Over at the Washington Monthly, Jill Barshay reports on the latest study comparing math instruction between nations:

Researchers looked at math instruction in 64 countries and regions around the world, and found that the difference between the math scores of 15-year-old students who were the most exposed to pure math tasks and those who were least exposed was the equivalent of almost two years of education. The research was based on how students answered survey questions that accompanied an international test, called the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA.

The result was surprising for two reasons. First, the PISA exam itself is largely a test of applied math, not equation-solving....It’s also surprising because many veteran educators recommend using real-world applications of abstract math concepts as a motivational tool. And the OECD doesn’t disagree. But real-world examples aren’t enough. Students still need to learn the broad concepts and the mathematical notation. In South Korea, for example, students get a big dose of both applied and pure math instruction and they score among the top 10 in the world.

I browsed through the report myself, and unless I missed something I can't say that these results surprise me even slightly. As the report notes, kids are tracked into different kinds of math instruction in most schools, and the brighter kids are therefore exposed to more advanced math than the others. That's both normal and necessary, and the only real question is whether it's done properly. If poor kids are tracked into less advanced classes at unfairly high levels, then we have a problem. Here's what the report says about that:

Across the OECD countries, socio-economic differences among students and schools account for around 9% — and some countries, as much as 20% — of the variation in familiarity with mathematics concepts.

That's surprising all right, but mainly because 9 percent is a pretty low number. I would have guessed higher. What we're primarily left with here is that some kids are better at math than others; those who are good at math take more advanced classes; and more advanced classes expose them to more abstract concepts. So where's the surprise?

As for the ability to solve real-world problems, there's no surprise there either. I doubt the difference is due to the kinds of math the kids are exposed to. It's due to the fact that some kids are better at math than others in the first place and have taken more advanced classes. The PISA exam may be a test of applied math, but obviously you have to know the underlying pure math too.

Finally, one related note: I've always wondered about the use of using real-world problems as a "motivational tool." The problem is that once you get past the level of basic arithmetic, real-world problems tend to be pretty artificial. There just aren't very many real-world applications of high school algebra or geometry, and I've often wondered if story problems only make that more obvious. In introductory algebra, for example, you often get problems about trains meeting or how much of a head start someone on foot needs to get somewhere before a car would. Those are so obviously non-useful, though, that they also seem non-motivational. If this is all you can do with algebra, why bother?

I don't think there's a good answer to this. Real life just doesn't require much in the way of algebra or geometry for most people. But I guess you have to try.

Supreme Court Sets a Limit on Anti-Abortion Laws

The Supreme Court has overturned HB2, a Texas law designed to all but eliminate access to abortion in the state:

One part of the law requires all clinics in the state to meet the standards for ambulatory surgical centers, including regulations concerning buildings, equipment and staffing. The other requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

“We conclude,” Justice Breyer wrote, “that neither of these provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes. Each places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion, each constitutes an undue burden on abortion access, and each violates the Federal Constitution.”

HB2 was an obvious TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) law. Its provisions do virtually nothing to protect women's health, but they do make it nearly impossible for most abortion clinics, especially those outside large cities, to operate. In the aftermath of the law's passage, the number of abortion clinics operating in Texas plummeted almost immediately.

It was obvious from the start that this ruling would split on partisan lines, with Anthony Kennedy as the tiebreaker. This means that probably the most important thing we've learned today is just how far Kennedy can be pushed. He's voted in favor of several abortion restrictions over the past decade, but this one went too far. In practical terms, that means abortion opponents have tested the limits of what they can get away with, and the Texas law represents the outer boundary.

More here from the majority opinions.

How Should We Talk About Racism?

Steve Randy Waldman picks up today on a brief Twitter disagreement from a few days ago. Here's (part of) his response to my contention that racism was at the heart of Britain's vote to leave the EU:

It may or may not be accurate to attribute the political behavior of large groups of people to racism, but it is not very useful. Those people got to be that way somehow. Presumably they, or eventually their progeny, can be un-got from being that way somehow. It is, I think, a political and moral error to content oneself with explanations that suggest no remedy at all, or that suggest prima facie problematic responses like ridiculing, ignoring, disenfranchising, or going to war with large groups of fellow citizens, unless no other explanations are colorable.

....It seems to me that the alleged “good guys” — the liberal, cosmopolitan class of which I myself am a part — have fallen into habits of ridiculing, demonizing, writing off, or, in our best moments, merely patronizing huge swathes of the polities to which we belong. They may do the same to us, but we are not toddlers, that is no excuse. In the United States, in Europe, we are allowing ourselves to disintegrate and arguing about who is to blame. Let’s all be better than that.

I don't have a good answer to this, and I've struggled with it for some time. On the one hand, the truth is important. If I believe that racism is an important driver of a political movement (Brexit, Donald Trump), then I should say so. It's dishonest to tap dance around it just because it's uncomfortable or politically unhelpful.

At the same time, it usually is politically unhelpful. Accusations of racism tend to end conversations, not start them—and, as Waldman says, implicitly suggest that our problems are intractable. What's more, there's a good case to be made that liberals toss around charges of racism too cavalierly and should dial it back. In fact, you can go even further than that. Politically, liberals might very well be off never using the R-word again.

So: should we tell the truth as we see it even if it rarely leads to any useful outcome? Or adopt softer language that skirts the issue but has a better chance of prompting engagement from non-liberals? I don't know. But speaking just for myself, I generally try not to ridicule or demonize "huge swathes" of the country. Instead, I prefer to put the blame where I mostly think it belongs. In the post Waldman is referring to, for example, I said this about Brexit:

At its core, it’s the last stand of old people who have been frightened to death by cynical right-wing media empires and the demagogues who enable them—all of whom have based their appeals on racism as overt as anything we’ve seen in decades. It’s loathsome beyond belief, and not something I thought I’d ever see in my lifetime. But that’s where we are.

People are people. To some extent, we're all prisoners of the environments we were raised in and the trials we've been through over the course of our lives. That might call for empathy and understanding as much as it calls for censure. But one thing it doesn't excuse is politicians and media personalities who very much know better but cynically appeal to racial sentiment anyway, either for ratings or for votes. Calling out these folks for appealing to racism—or even just tolerating it—is almost certainly useful. It might not happen fast, but eventually they can be embarrassed into cutting it out. It sure is taking a long time, though.

Hillary Clinton Is No Donald Trump

In the LA Times today, Barton Swaim argues that in this year's presidential election "we are faced with a choice between two pathologically dishonest candidates." He runs through a few of Donald Trump's seemingly bottomless supply of obvious lies, and then turns his attention to Hillary Clinton:

Clinton’s career offers a similarly dizzying array of bogus claims—(1) that she had known nothing about the firing of White House travel office employees in 1993, though she had orchestrated it; (2) that she deplaned in Bosnia under sniper fire; (3) that she was named for Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed Everest when she was 5; (4) that she was a fierce critic of NAFTA “from the very beginning” when in fact she worked to get it passed; (5) that she “did not email any classified material to anyone,” though of course she did, many times.

This is the sign of a pathologically dishonest candidate? Swaim rather easily found five clear and consequential lies from Trump's campaign this year, but not a single one from Hillary's. He had to go back more than 20 years to put together this list, and even so he couldn't manage to find five clear examples. #3 was a trivial recounting of a family story that apparently wasn't true. #4 is modestly misleading, but not much more. (Hillary was privately skeptical of NAFTA from the beginning, and became more public about it after she was no longer part of her husband's administration.) #5 is not a lie at all. It's true—unless you count a bunch of emails that were retroactively classified only years after she sent them.

So that leaves #1 and #2. I'll give Swaim both of them. That's two lies between 1993 and 2008—about as many as Trump tells each day before lunch. If Hillary is really pathologically dishonest, surely Swaim could have pretty easily found more examples more recently? Frankly, if Hillary really does average one lie per decade, it might very well place her among the most honest politicians on the planet.

This will come as no surprise, but here's the fundamental reason that Brexit won:

The younger the voter, the more strongly they voted to remain in the EU. The older the voter, the more likely they were to actually get out and vote. Eventually the kids are going to figure out how badly their elders are screwing them, and maybe then they'll finally muster the energy to cast a ballot. I wonder what it's going to take to make that happen?

(Preference via YouGov. Turnout via SkyData.)

James Fallows is in western Kansas around Dodge City, where many of the cities are majority Latino and full of immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Cuba, and more recently Somalia and Sudan. Here's what he says:

I can’t let this day end without noting the black-versus-white, night-versus-day contrast between the way immigration, especially from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, is discussed in this part of the country where it is actually happening, versus its role in this moment’s national political discussion.

....Every single person we have spoken with — Anglo and Latino and other, old and young, native-born and immigrant, and so on down the list — every one of them has said: We need each other! There is work in this community that we all need to do. We can choose to embrace the world, or we can fade and die. And we choose to embrace it.

I don't have actual data on this, but my sense from both the US and Britain is that the most fervent opposition to immigration—legal or otherwise—comes precisely from the regions where it's had the least impact. Here in the US, for example, immigration from Latin America has been heaviest in the southern sun belt states of California, Texas, Arizona, and a few others. And yet Donald Trump's "build a wall" narrative played well in places like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, all of which have relatively small Latino populations. Similarly, Brexit did best in the small towns and rural areas of England, the places that have the fewest immigrants and that depend the most on EU trade.

That's not to say that opposition to immigration is absent in places like London or San Diego. It's not. But these places mostly seem to have adapted to it and figured out that it's not really all that bad. It's everywhere else, where immigration is mostly a fear, that anti-immigrant sentiment has the strongest purchase. And that's why peddling fear is so effective.

Let Us Now Figure Out Who to Blame for Brexit

Brexit has passed, and now it's time to find someone to blame. Sure, you can go with the pack and blame David Cameron or Nigel Farage, but that's not much fun. Here are four plausible but not entirely obvious choices:

Ed Miliband

In order to keep peace within his own party, Prime Minister David Cameron promised a vote on Brexit in 2013. It seemed fairly harmless at the time: Cameron's Conservative Party was about 20 seats short of an outright majority in Parliament, so he was governing in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems opposed the referendum, and as long as they remained in the coalition, there would most likely have been no vote. To maintain this status quo, neither the Lib Dems nor the opposition Labor Party even had to gain any seats in the 2015 election. They just had to hold their own.

But Ed Miliband proved to be such a hapless leader of the Labor Party that he lost 26 seats in the election. This was just enough to give the Tories a bare majority, and that paved the way for Brexit.

Alternatively, you could blame Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who managed his party's coalition with Cameron poorly and lost an astounding 49 of its 57 seats in the 2015 election. But Labor was the primary opposition party and should have been able to pick up most of those seats, so let's stick with Miliband on this one.

Angela Merkel

For all the praise she gets, Angela Merkel has been one of the most disastrous European leaders in my lifetime. She's as responsible for Brexit as anyone I can think of, thanks to two catastrophic decisions she made.

The first was her insistence on punishing Greece following its collapse after the Great Recession. There's plenty of blame to go around on all sides for the Greece debacle, but as the continent's economic leader Germany held most of the high cards during negotiations over Greece's fate. Merkel had a choice: (a) punish Greece for running up unsustainable debts and lying about them, or (b) accept that Germany bore much of the blame itself for the crisis and that Greece had no way of rescuing itself thanks to the straitjacket of the common currency. The former was a crowd pleaser. The latter was unpopular and would have required sustained, iron-spined leadership. In the event, Merkel chose to play to the crowds, and Greece has been a basket case ever since—with no end in sight. It hardly went unnoticed in Britain how Europe treated a country that was too entangled with the EU to either fight back or exit, and it made Britain's decision to forego the common currency look prescient. And if that had been a good choice, maybe all the rest of "ever closer union" wasn't such a great idea either.

Merkel's second bad decision was more recent. Here is David Frum: "If any one person drove the United Kingdom out of the European Union, it was Angela Merkel, and her impulsive solo decision in the summer of 2015 to throw open Germany—and then all Europe—to 1.1 million Middle Eastern and North African migrants, with uncountable millions more to come." It's hard to fault Merkel for this on a humanitarian basis, but on a political basis it was a disaster. The barely-controlled wave of refugees Merkel encouraged has caused resentment and more all over Europe, and it unquestionably played a big role in the immigrant backlash in Britain that powered the Leave vote.

Paul Dacre

Paul Dacre is the longtime editor of the Daily Mail, and he's standing in here for the entire conservative tabloid press, which has spent decades lying about the EU and scaring the hell out of its readership about every grisly murder ever committed by an immigrant. In a journalistic style pioneered by Boris Johnson—who we'll get to next—the Mail and other tabloids have run hundreds of sensational stories about allegedly idiotic EU regulations and how they're destroying not just Britain's way of life, but its very sovereignty as well. These stories range from deliberately exaggerated to outright false, and they're so relentless that the EU has an entire website dedicated to debunking British tabloid myths from A (abattoirs) to Z (zoos). The chart below, from the Economist, tots up all the lies, and the Mail is the clear leader.

The EU is hardly a finely-tuned watch when it comes to regulations, but the vast majority of the outrage over its rulings is based almost literally on nothing. Nonetheless, the outrage is real, and it was fueled largely by Dacre's Daily Mail and its fellow tabloids.

Boris Johnson

Why Boris? After all, it was Nigel Farage, the odious leader of the openly xenophobic UKIP party, who led the charge to leave the EU. This is, perhaps, a judgment call, but I've long had a stronger disgust for those who tolerate racism than for the open racists themselves. The latter are always going to be around, and sometimes I even have a little sympathy for them. They've often spent their entire lives marinating in racist communities and are as much a victim of their upbringing as any of us.

But then there are those who should know better, and Boris Johnson is very much one of them. The usual caveat is in order here: I can't look into Johnson's heart and know what he really thinks. But he's had a long journalistic career, and an equally long history of tolerating racist sentiments. As a longtime Euroskeptic—though probably more an opportunistic one rather than a true believer—it's no surprise that he campaigned for Brexit, but in doing so he knowingly joined hands with Farage and his UKIP zealots, providing them with a respectability they wouldn't have had without him. He knew perfectly well that the Leave campaign would be based primarily on exploiting fear of immigrants, but he joined up anyway.

Johnson is hardly the only British politician to act this way, of course. But he's the most prominent one, so he gets to stand in for all of them.

Friday Cat Blogging - 24 June 2016

Here are the cultural references in this morning's four blog posts:

And here is Hilbert, one of the primary cultural references for Friday catblogging. How could you possibly walk by this and not give him a tummy rub?

Sure, Donald Trump Could Win. Here's How.

Paul Waldman asks: "In Britain, cultural resentments won out over stability. Can Donald Trump create the same result here?"

Sure. The odds may be against it, but of course Trump can win in November. Let's set the stage with the observation that both candidates start with about 45 percent support. Like it or not, that's where we are right now. Republicans could nominate Donald Duck and he'd start off with 45 percent support. Ditto for Democrats. That said, here's the most likely path to a Trump victory:

  1. Trump gets smart and dials back the cretinism a bit. It wouldn't take long for the #NeverTrumpers to fall in line. The key tells would be statements like "He seems to be finally growing into his role," or "He's right that we can't afford three or four Hillary nominees to the Supreme Court." A few weeks after you hear stuff like this, #NeverTrump will be relegated to the ash heap of history.
  2. Bernie Sanders remains bitter and fails to rally his troops, who remain convinced that Hillary Clinton is a corrupt, corporate shill. So they stay home in a funk instead of working to defeat Trump.
  3. The media continues its practice of giving Trump air time to spread wild lies whenever he wants. This is fairly likely since they still haven't internalized the corollary to the Lesley Stahl lesson: fact checks don't matter. Only the loud, confident assertion matters.
  4. Hillary's email troubles don't get resolved and continue to dog her throughout the campaign.

None of this relies on any kind of big external event, like a terrorist attack or an economic plunge. It just relies on Trump getting a little smarter and then a few things going his way. It could happen here.