It is Wednesday and I have a long trip by plane and road to Victoria where I am speaking at a major business conference in the mountains outside of Melbourne tomorrow morning. So only a few things today that I have been thinking about. Remember the 2010 film – Inside Job – which documented how my profession had become corrupted by the financial services sector into producing, allegedly, independent research reports extolling the virtues of deregulation etc and not admitting they were being paid for by the beneficiaries of the propaganda masquerading as research. It shows how corruption runs deep in the economics profession to accompany the incompetence that mainstream macroeconomists display. Well, I have been following an unfolding story about how Uber has decided to draw on that corrupt tendency for their own gains. It is not a pretty story. And then we have the so-called social media trend of cancel culture which is meant to be about matters of principles but leave the proponents caught up in a rather dirty pool of hypocrisy.
Uber and the economists
The Pro-Market story (December 5, 2019) – Uber’s “Academic Research” Program: How to Use Famous Economists to Spread Corporate Narratives – is the third in a series from the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago that traces “Uber’s uncompetitive” practices.
I wrote about my concerns for Uber in this blog post – Why Uber is not a progressive development (August 16, 2016).
It turns out that the company has to rig the market environment it operates in order to stay afloat.
The third article traces the way that “Uber’s ‘academic research’ program” appears to be a legitimate exercise in independent academic research of the type that gets through the peer-review process, but, is, in fact, “highly problematic” promotion of:
… important Uber PR claims: that Uber’s growth was driven by major productivity advantages; that the regulations Uber evaded significantly reduced traditional taxi productivity; that Uber’s drivers have higher earnings and greater job satisfaction than traditional taxi drivers; that Uber has created billions in annual consumer welfare benefits; and that any regulatory limits on Uber’s operating practices would significantly reduce driver welfare.
The Stigler Center researchers have found that Uber established support to academic researchers to investigate the taxi market to evalue the impact of Uber’s entry.
The company hired “well known, often brand name economists” to conduct the research, in the same way, the financial sector hired high-profile academic economists to ‘research’ their sector, knowing full well that the research was never independent nor really research at all.
Uber has since held out this so-called “independent research” as unbiased evidence of its efficacy.
The ‘research’ was then filtered through and “widely publicized by pro-Uber columnists and think tanks in non-academic channels such as newspapers and internet blogs”.
This allowed Uber to transform narrowly stated journal claims into much broader, tweetable claims (“academic research proves Uber produces big benefits for drivers”) aimed at the same mainstream press and policymakers who Uber’s overall PR narratives had been targeted at.
The research was not verifiable as “other economists would not have access to Uber’s proprietary data or its research funding.”
The first principle of research integrity is that the data must be available for other researchers to validate the results.
The pliant media also was dragooned into the scam:
Just as Uber knew the mainstream press was largely pliant and uncritical about its overall PR narratives, it knew that none of the reporters or policymakers reading the simplified claims would have the time or ability to scrutinize the claim, or to determine whether it was actually supported by the original paper, or to evaluate the claimed independence of the original analysis.
The Pro-Market story then runs through the journal articles that appeared as part of this propaganda exercise.
I will leave it to you to check if you are interested.
1. Top names in the field – Judd Cramer, Alan B. Krueger, Jonathan V. Hall, Peter Cohen, Robert Hahn, Steven Levitt, Robert Metcalfe,
2. Top ranked journals – NBER Working Papers, American Economic Review,
None of the … papers actually analyzed their nominal subjects (comparative taxi operating productivity, the labor market for taxi drivers, changes in consumer welfare since Uber’s entry, or factors affecting driver welfare). None of the papers provide readers with any of the relevant pricing, service, utilization or wage/working conditions data.
The four papers failed to mention anything about Uber’s massive losses and subsidies, which invalidate all of the stated conclusions since data about a company that is billions away from breakeven cannot reflect sustainable productivity breakthroughs or permanent welfare enhancements …
the papers only look at very-short term Uber-only data from a single time period. Most of the Uber data used is inappropriate, including the use of gross driver revenue instead of data on true driver take-home pay, and the use of extremely short-term data to measure longer-term supply or price elasticities.
All of the authors claim that the alleged improvements are all due to the superior economics of Uber’s business model (e.g. innovative technology, scale effects) but the papers provide no objective evidence substantiating any of these claims.
Cancel Culture hypocrisy
I was heavily criticised by some progressive elements for my recent trip to Japan where I met and worked with senior figures in the conservative Liberal Democrat ruling party. I also met with the major progressive voices. I took no funds from far right figures nor met with them. All events were public.
The criticism was largely based on ignorance of the facts.
In fact, as a life-long educator, I clearly form the view that most of the distasteful things we read or hear from others are the result of ignorance and a lack of education.
These things are clearly manipulated for ideological and political purposes by others but at the root of the problem is a lack of education.
Education is the path to a more enlightened, tolerant and inclusive society.
That is the driving principle I have always operated on.
Which is why the relatively recent trend on social media that is variously called – Cancel culture or Call-out culture – is disturbing to say the least.
Everyday, progressives are out there on Twitter and elsewhere publicly shaming others for being racist, sexist, mysoginist, anti-semitic, transphobic and more.
The way that Jeremy Corbyn was vilified as a Jew hater was outrageous in fact but highly damaging to his electoral prospects.
My own friends have been accused on social media of holding horrendous views as a result of one reference they might have made or whatever on social media.
I, personally, have been accused of being a fascist for quoting someone who pointed out that Nazi Germany grew faster than other nations in the early 1930s, which was plain fact, not some elaborate defence of the horrible system of National Socialism.
This goes beyond disagreements about how monetary systems operate or whatever.
This syndrome involves people pontificating on a daily basis which humans are worthy and which are not and shaming and vilifying those deemed unworthy.
It resonates with the Spanish Inquisition.
Imagine having to check the complete history of anyone who you were choosing to quote for any aberrant things they might have done in the past, even if the quote was something quite removed from the contentious identity issues that provoke this cancel culture?
When I was young, the debate was whether you could listen to Wagner given Hitler’s predilection.
Someone said to me the other day, who hasn’t seen a Woody Allen movie.
And so on.
The point is that cancel culture is anti-education.
Sure, there are some sociopaths that are probably beyond educative rehabilitation.
But mostly humanity just struggles along in a cloud of misinformation and ill-formed views.
Construal is a process in cognitive linguistics that tells us we can hold completely different (contrasting) views about the same phenomena depending on the framing and language used to talk about it.
If progressives really believe in the basic good of humanity and the need for collective action, working together to educate each other and help each other out of that cloud, then cancel culture is not going to be the way forward.
But it also exposes a deep hypocrisy.
I haven’t seen to many Tweets in the last week from those who actively vilify others as being promoters of transphobic ideas criticising Bernie Sanders’ acceptance of Joe Rogan’s endorsement.
If cancel culture is valid, where is the outrage?
Why, for example, is a Person X, who is unimportant in the scheme of the American presidential race, vilified and cancelled, but Joe Rogan, who can bring a lot of supporters to the Sanders’ campaign not?
Especially, when it would be hard to find someone who has done more to downgrade and abuse the status of those in the LGBTQ community, than Joe Rogan.
Rogan has far-right figures on his show (for example, white nationalist Stefan Molyneux).
He has had anti-feminists, homophobic speakers, and various other hostile elements on his show.
At one point, he referred to a Black neighbourhood as the – Planet of the Apes.
I could go on.
So how can anyone in the Sanders’ campaign accept his endorsement? Where is the cancel culture operating here?
It is not, because there is a bullying element to the culture. If someone matters (Rogan) for some political venture, then pragmatics enters the picture. Apparently, then tolerance of the shocking things he has said is the go.
This tolerance is usually dressed up in terms of viewing the person as broadly reasonable and helping them move beyond their nasty views. I have seen Rogan described as “broadly liberal”. That seems to be sufficient to move beyond his statements that some might find abhorrent.
But cancel culture parades its virtue as being about principles.
In philosophy, students study the on-going conflict between principles and pragmatism.
I accept that it might be true – in practical terms – that electing Sanders over Trump will benefit the US. And so we get the strategy that promotes the end over the means.
This is an age old dilemma.
Socialists use to say that if Stalin created a worker state through oppression wasn’t that worth it.
The problem is that path dependence operates – the means change the path.
If you gain power to create a utopia by indulging in slaughter doesn’t that demean the utopia.
These are all things we discussed in our philosophy and political science classes.
But they are real issues.
Does the Sanders’ Campaign demean its ultimate purpose by dealing with Rogan?
My view is that education should be our guiding light and the cancel culture is bound to reveal its hypocritical tendency because at times we are assuredly better off being forgiving and adopting pragmatic strategies.
But if you believe in declaring one person abhorrent for alleged transphobia and cancelling them in the public sphere then you surely have to cancel Joe Rogan, which means accepting no succour from him ever for anything.
I think educating him is the better approach as with others.
GIMMS Events, London and Manchester, February
Please support the following events:
1. February 20, 2020 – I will speaking in London about the recent political events in the UK and how an understanding of MMT is essential to rebuild a progressive political force in Britain. Criminologist Steve Hall will also talk and will focus on the current rise of populism in the West.
The event will be at the Unite the Union (Diskus Theatre) in central London and will run from 13:30 to 17:00.
For – Details.
2. February 21, 2020 – The same show moves to Manchester.
The event will be at the Barnes Wallis Building (The Harwood Room) at the University of Manchester and will run from 13:30 to 16:30.
For – Details.
This is a teaching seminar exclusively and will suit those who want to build their understanding of macroeconomics from an MMT perspective.
For more details – MMT Masterclass, London.
There are still vacancies available.
Music from J.J. Cale
I had a fairly long journey ahead to day to speak at a major business conference outside of Melbourne and so I needed some really nice sounds to be in my ear while I thought about things.
The version I bought was from his 1972 album Naturally, which re-released the song after Eric Clapton had made it a big hit in 1970.
I like the original slower version from J.J. Cale, which is not to say I don’t like Eric Clapton’s version as well.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.