Beware simple slogans as the answer to complex problems

Chris Johns: the rise of anxiety has propelled people toward those who peddle certainty

Even before the coronavirus, the complexities of the modern world gave rise to heightened anxiety.

Even before the coronavirus, the complexities of the modern world gave rise to heightened anxiety.

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Complexity and uncertainty are the twin devils facing anyone who tries to run anything, be it a family, a business or a country.

One diagnosis of the evisceration of the middle ground of politics in many countries is on a psychological theme: even before coronavirus, the theory goes, the complexities of the modern world were giving rise to heightened anxiety such that the appeal of populists of both right and left, offering simplistic solutions via slogans, were becoming attractive.

That diagnosis, of course, is itself an over-simplification, and falls into the trap laid as a consequence of the search for easy to understand explanations of complex phenomena.

Extremism

The political middle shrank, for example, in Northern Ireland for all sorts of imperfectly understood reasons, anxiety being just one of them.

The triumph of the middle ground in the rest of Ireland, at least historically, and maybe for only a short while longer, is a counter example, the reasons for which are equally debated.

I think there is a lot in that psychological explanation of the rise of extremism. But it is not enough. Another explainer is the role played by media.

We know all about the ways in which social media anonymity and self-referential bubbles can push people to the edges of the political spectrum. Most of us know someone who only a few years ago was mildly centre right or left but are now devotees of critical theory or paid-up members of a far right conspiracy theory such as Q-anon.

What has happened? Ross McCarthy, chair of small firms lobby group Isme, interestingly (and correctly in my view), points to the role played by traditional as much as social media: by pandering to political flat-earthers rather than presenting robust challenge, newspapers and television fertilise their growth.

Dynamics

Think Ukip in Britain, Sinn Féin and the DUP on this island. Anyone interested in the weird contemporary dynamics of modern American journalism should read this week’s resignation letters of Andrew Sullivan of New York Magazine and Bari Weiss of the New York Times. Truly, we live in a world where the anxious retreat ever further into their bunkers.

The simple slogans of Brexit are colliding with the complexity of its delivery. Implementing departure from the EU is proving to be both fiendishly difficult and very expensive.

Britons learned something this week from the government that originally talked about “the easiest and quickest trade deal in history” and the associated cash benefits. Now they are told about the billions it is going to cost and the existence of vast “Farage garages” in Kent, where lorries subject to customs checks are to be parked. The British have been warned, in official documents, about all of this and more besides.

There is, for example, every chance that mobile phone roaming charges are due for a comeback. That will present another small problem for this country: older readers will recall the annoyance of UK roaming charges when travelling near, but not across, the Border.

Simplicity

Simplicity can be seductive. When discussing the spread of Covid-19, everyone now talks knowledgeably about the R number. I wonder how many of us have read just one of the countless statistical papers written about its uses and abuses; about when it is useful and when it isn’t. How many of us know about the difficulties of its estimation – or, indeed, that when we hear R quoted, it is but an estimate.

Whether or not we are so seduced is a matter of personal choice. Which way we go may well depend on our own levels of anxiety.

In his Nobel Prize-winning lecture Friedrich Von Hayek famously talked about the “pretence of knowledge”. I’d put it more simply: it’s much more fun to claim that the solution to Ireland’s housing crisis is “to build more houses” than to dig deep into the reasons why we do not do this.

The last thing anyone is allowed to say is, “I don’t know”.

Many people clearly cannot handle the psychological trauma that results from admitting that the explanation of complex problems is hard and solving them is harder still.

Better to be that bar-stool bore who possesses all the answers. Every business manager is aware that his employees know better than he does how to grow the firm, every politician has to confront the simple fact that everybody knows better than she does how to fix the health service.

Frailties

Our new Cabinet would be excused sighs of exasperation when it is told, repeatedly, that there are just a few obvious and easy things it should do to transform the economy.

Anyone who ever tries to do something, anything, knows that vested interests, human frailties and unforeseen consequences lie in wait for those who try to elicit change. It’s hard enough identifying priorities: we all have our own favourites.

I would join those who have long argued that fundamental tax reform – including simplification of a system designed only to mystify even practitioners – has the potential to be transformative. But tax reform is boring and complicated. It proves next to impossible in many countries. So it’s obviously hard. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. But we don’t and we won’t. Explain that.

In the world of the financial economist, particularly the forecaster, one of the most overused phrases is “things are particularly uncertain now”. For once, that might actually be true. JK Galbraith once wrote about “the Age of Uncertainty”. I’d add “and Anxiety”. Beware simple slogans.

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