Sunday, May 21, 2017

Bad Deal Or No Deal

Consider these two statements:
  • Eating no bread is better than eating any mouldy bread.
  • Any bread at least as good to eat as no bread is not mouldy.

To avoid ambiguity, let’s put them into Mickey Mouse first order logic:
  • (x)[[Mouldy(x) & Bread(x)] → Better(eatingNoBread,eating(x))]
  • (x)[[Bread(x) & ¬Better(eatingNoBread,eating(x))] → ¬Mouldy(x)]

The two formulations are equivalent: they are both false iff there is some mouldy bread the eating of which is no worse than eating nothing. But there’s a difference of emphasis. The first formulation is something you might say if you were taking an uncompromising line on bread: if mouldy bead is all there is, you’d rather have nothing. The second formulation is something you might say if you were taking a compromising line on mouldiness: it can’t be mouldy or you wouldn’t recommend eating it at all. But a difference in emphasis is not a difference in commitment. Asserting either commits you to the same things.

Now, the government’s line on the Brexit negotiations is apparently that no deal is better than a bad deal. People take this as meaning that they’re taking an uncompromising line on deals, and they take it to embody an attitude of cavalier intransigence. But consider these two statements:
  • Reaching no deal is better than reaching any bad deal.
  • Any deal at least as good as no deal is not bad.

And in MMFOL:
  • (x)[[Bad(x) & Deal(x)] → Better(reachingNoDeal,reaching(x))]
  • (x)[[Deal(x) & ¬Better(reachingNoDeal,reaching(x))] → ¬Bad(x)]

The second formulation seems to embody an attitude of roundheaded compromise. Don’t criticize this underwhelming deal, they say, because it’s better than nothing. But the two formulations are formulations of the same commitment. In the mouldy bread case the speaker enjoys a certain amount of latitude because of whatever vagueness and subjectivity there is in the word “mouldy”. In the Brexit case the speaker enjoys latitude because of whatever vagueness and subjectivity there is in the word “bad”.

Now with the mouldy bread case, the speaker is at least committing themselves to something. That’s because some bread is determinately mouldy. Suppose the only food available is determinately mouldy bread, and you say that eating no bread is better than eating any mouldy bread. Half the party eats the bread, against your advice, and half the party goes hungry. One half has a better time and you are open to praise or criticism as a result.

Now consider the Brexit case. While we don’t have a whole party to divide up into people taking your advice and people not taking it, we can still compare the actual world with our dimly assigned probability distributions over the space of counterfactual situations. But the government can always evade criticism, whatever consensus history arrives at on the relative merits of no deal and the available deals. Obviously the government are also the people taking the decision, unless they lose the election, and so they could be open to criticism for taking one option if history judges that other available options would have turned out better. There’s no escapting that. But the particular claim that no deal is worse than a bad deal is entirely hedged.

Take any deal you like. If we decide that it’s worse than no deal, the government says it’s bad and takes the credit for being right. If we decide that it’s better than no deal, the government can just say that it wasn’t a bad deal. Similarly, nobody needs to praise the government however things turn out either. If history judges that the available deal was worse than no deal, the opponent can say that of course there are some deals worse than no deal, but there are plenty of bad deals better than no deal too, and if we’d been able to get one of those then the government would have turned it down and been wrong to do so. The word ‘bad’ and the associated concept are flexible enough that nobody ever needs to admit they were wrong about whether no deal is worse than a bad deal. The government shouldn’t be criticized for taking a bad line; they should be criticized for empty, commitment-free rhetoric.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The After Dinner Circuit

It was recently reported that Barack Obama is getting paid $400,000 to give a speech to a Wall Street bank. Obama’s a great speaker, but a lot of people seem to think nobody’s $400,000 great, and so the transaction smacks of corruption. The thinking is that the bank must be getting more than just a speech for their money.

Now, I don’t know if it’s true that the speech alone isn’t worth that much to the bank. There’s a lot of money flying around in banking, and the stakes are high. Maybe if people come to your dinner rather than your competitor’s dinner, you might get a big deal that makes the money back. Or maybe hosting dinners with Obama attracts employees that could otherwise only be attracted with those enormous banker’s bonuses that we love reading about.

But let’s suppose that the speech isn’t worth that much to the bank, and they’re getting something else. Or maybe it is worth it to them but they're still getting something else, because that's how the after dinner speech market works. One possibility is that Obama made a shady deal where he did the bank some kind of regulatory favour while he was in office, on the understanding that they would pay him $400,000, which they are now laundering as a speaking fee. I think that's unlikely, but it’s beyond the scope of this blogpost to persuade you to agree with me that it's unlikely.

What I think is much more likely is that there’s a general understanding that Wall Street banks, and other big businesses, are willing to pay massive speaking fees to politicians after they leave office, and that they offer the gigs to politicians who are friendly to Wall Street and so on while they’re in office, and that on some level this influences the way politicians govern. This kind of thing is insidious and I can see it affecting basically everyone to some extent, without anyone doing anything they could be prosecuted for. That’s not ideal.

What can we do about this? One thing we could do is demand that politicians declare future conflicts of interest. If you’re taking a gig in the medium-to-near future that would constitute a conflict of interest if you had it now, then you need to declare it as if you had it now. I don’t see that it makes sense to have laws or strong norms about present conflicts of interest while relying on the honour system for future conflicts of interest. But let’s assume that’s not going to happen. What can individuals do?

Some people think Obama shouldn’t take this kind of gig. He should set an example, he needs to go high where other people go low, and so on. Even if his governing wasn’t influenced by the prospect of lucrative speaking gigs, he needs to extinguish any suspicion that it was.

Some other people think Obama should take the money. Everyone takes the money, and it’s unfair to demand he make all the sacrifices, especially when the new president brazenly doesn’t care about all his own conflicts of interest and spends government money at his own businesses all the time.

Here’s what I think. It’s too late for Obama. Whatever influence the speaking fees had on his presidency, they’ve had it already. We know he wasn’t planning to eschew the speaking fees, and changing his mind now won’t change whatever decisions he took during his presidency. If he was running for future office, things would be different. But he probably isn’t, and so it’s too late. Obama showed a lot of things were possible, but he can’t show that saving politics from the after dinner circuit is possible. And if he had been planning to do this, regulating Wall Street on the merits and to hell with the speaking fees, then he should have said something about it sooner. Like, when he was in office, or even before that.

It’s not too late for everyone. If you’re in office now, or you’re running for office in the future, and you don’t want politicians to be influenced by the prospect of future speaking fees, pledge not to take them. Or if you aren’t willing to go that far, then at least pledge not to take the really big fees. It’s simple, it’s easy for people to understand, and it doesn’t rely on backwards causation.