Monday, 26 June 2017

Character, Trust and Politics

Have you ever been asked for a character reference? I've written a few, once for a firearms licence, several for tenancy agreements, and many in professional references. Verbal references are now more common in these areas, but written character references have a second life through the reputation systems baked into all those websites we use.

It can be annoying right? Please tell us about your experience at XYZ hotel. How was your meal at ABC? How does LMNOP rate against all other filums of this genre?

Constant pestering to give feedback is the markets' response to a low-trust environment. Partly this is to guard against the risk of being conned by a scam artist, but character is also seen as vital to upside potential value, as shown by the commercial success of the "attitude is everything" concept.

Our view of someone's character develops over time through repeated interaction. Many of us are pre-disposed toward trusting others, especially if the other seems like "one of us" and therefore trustworthy. Unless there are tell-tale warning signs, we generally take people at their word, giving them a chance, an opportunity. This is my general approach anyway.

But if my trust is abused then it's all on, or all off, depending on the circumstances. Abuse of trust is a trigger that deserves a response, such as outright war (I'm going to actively punish you), or maybe just a freeze-out (I'm not playing/interacting with you any more).

This strategy is known in game theory as tit-for-tat. It's simple and effective and I strongly recommend it. You might also want to describe this strategy to people who have abused your trust, to help them understand that they need to offer something constructive if the previous equilibrium is to be restored.

Recent political and economic news highlights the role of character and trust. Here are a few examples.

Monsanto is being sued for misleading consumers about the effect of its flagship product: Roundup. Apparently, it says on the label that Roundup 
kills plants by targeting an enzyme that is not found in people or pets. The lawsuit claims that assertion is false, however, and argues that research shows glyphosate can target an enzyme found in gut bacteria in people and animals, disrupting the immune system, digestion, and “even brain function.”
This is a crucial point. If true, it would show that Monsanto has successfully used the "big lie" strategy for many years.

While we await the court's judgement on Monsanto, let's take a moment to consider another big lie strategy, this one being promulgated by the US government. I refer of course to the massive tax cut disguised as health-care reform, which for some reason needs to be done very quickly and in secret, but will be terrific, believe him. Trump is the sideshow in this one, since it is now abundantly clear that he has no fucking clue whatsoever, but while his mad antics distract large sections of the media the real business is being ruthlessly pushed through by the republicans. So he's a useful tool for the people who are actually in control of this stuff.

Speaking of useful tools, have you heard the latest claims about James Buchanan? No, not the USA's worst president, the nobel-winning economist of the same name, now under a cloud, though GMU economics graduates such as Eric Crampton are still defending him. There definitely were quite strong connections between the Mont Pelerin society and the fascist Pinochet regime in Chile so it'll be interesting to see what's in the new book. Meantime, my homework is to dig further into the concept of transitional dictatorship.

Closer to home, as the Todd Barclay scandal continues to afflict the PM and his team, thanks to the superb journalism by the new-entrant newsroom. Character is becoming an issue for the news media now, as the PM keeps changing his story and the absence of his predecessor's superb lying & bullshitting skills is really being exposed. I'm hoping that this whole thing might result in fewer future stories about "consummate politicians" whose primary skill is deception, but I'm not holding my breath.

Neither are the British. On the contrary, in the wake of woeful mismanagement and incompetence by the Tories, there are now regular eruptions of full-throated chants in support of Jeremy Corbyn. Compare this with the "lock her up" chants during trump's campaign: Hate vs Love and orchestrated vs spontaneous.

All of which reinforces a very basic point. If you need to bullshit the masses to win political power, that's probably because you're working against their interests.


  1. So because Buchanan may (but probably didn't, given that the claim comes from the discredited McLean) have had links with a regime you don't like, this is grounds for dismissing his work?

    You could apply the same logic to whole disciplines, and many scientists, and have to rule out everything they've done in their own fields due to their role as 'useful idiots' for Stalin, Mao, Castro, Chavez et al.

  2. oh no, Coker, I'm not dismissing his work at all. Far from it. I often cite bits of it.

    I cited this the question has been asked and his values probably do matter for a complete interpretation of his work. Economists often support projects they agree with and sometimes they get a bit carried away, as we have probably all done at least once.

    So Buchanan's social/political views are of legitimate public interest.