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Judging Johann

Dear God he’s even more stupid than I thought

The book builds up to Hari’s ultimate theory for why we have all these attentional problems: it’s capitalism itself! Our blinkered focus on economic growth, Hari writes, puts us in a rat-race that ruins the workings of our brains. We should abandon the idea of growth, he argues, and aim for what the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel calls a “steady-state economy”.

Yeah, OK, looking around for a guru to lead you through the intricacies of economics, fair enough. But how stupid do you have to be to go pick Hickel?

Ooooh, squeal like a stuck piggie, Johann Hari is back!

I realised then that I needed to understand what was really happening to him and to so many of us. That moment turned out to be the start of a journey that transformed how I think about attention. I travelled all over the world in the next three years, from Miami to Moscow to Melbourne, interviewing the leading experts in the world about focus. What I learned persuaded me that we are not now facing simply a normal anxiety about attention, of the kind every generation goes through as it ages. We are living in a serious attention crisis – one with huge implications for how we live. I learned there are twelve factors that have been proven to reduce people’s ability to pay attention and that many of these factors have been rising in the past few decades – sometimes dramatically.

I wonder whether it’s going to turn out to be capitalism to blame?

Your focus didn’t collapse. It was stolen.

Looks promising, doesn’t it?

Today, about 35% of workers feel they can never switch off their phones because their boss might email them at any time of day or night. In France, ordinary workers decided this was intolerable and pressured their government for change – so now, they have a legal “right to disconnect”. It’s simple. You have a right to defined work hours, and you have a right to not be contacted by your employer outside those hours. Companies that break the rules get huge fines. There are lots of potential collective changes like this that can restore part of our focus. We could, for example, force social media companies to abandon their current business model, which is specifically designed to invade our attention in order to keep us scrolling. There are alternative ways these sites could work – ones that would heal our attention instead of hacking it.

Ooooh, yes!

I think that given this uncertainty, we can’t wait for perfect evidence.

We might in fact get there, yes.

We need to stop blaming ourselves, or making only demands for tiny tweaks from our employers and from tech companies.

Yes, bless the little cotton socks on Minnie Mouse. It is tear power from the corporations, abolish capitalism, and the world will be a better place. Who the hell could see that conclusion coming from Hari?

Ho hum, Johann Hari doesn’t change, does he?

The leopard is not changing his shorts:

At first, I thought this was merely a quirk of rats, until I discovered that there was — at the same time as the Rat Park experiment — a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War. Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.

But in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.

Stanton Peele was pointing this out 25 years ago. I read him pointing this out 20 years ago. Wonder if Hari mentions him in his new book? Be fun if he didn’t, wouldn’t it? And no, I’m not buying it to find out.

Hmm, according to search inside, he doesn’t. Now isn’t that lovely? Hmm, and hmm again.

I wonder what a detailed comparison would show us all. Of course, it could just be that search inside isn’t very accurate…..

Johann Hari resurfaces

And he’s getting some things right for goodness sake! More on this later elsewhere.

One thing though:

The author used to be the Independent’s star columnist, a prolific polemicist and darling of the left, until his career imploded in disgrace when it emerged in 2011 that many of his articles contained quotes apparently said to him but in fact lifted from his interviewees’ books, or from previous interviews by other journalists. Worse, he was exposed as a “sockpuppet”, or someone who anonymously furthers his own interests online.

I’m pretty sure that “Keith” here at Forbes is in fact Hari. And there’s one or two more on pieces of mine around I think.

In defence of Johann Hari

I see from Twitter that this is apparently something for me to read.

Further, that Sunny actually refused to publish it: actual evidence of editorial standards no less.

The essential trope is that Johann\’s a lefty and should therefore be forgiven. Heart\’s in the right place therefore transgressions can only possibly be minor.

This amused though:

And yes, some of his economic statistics are occasionally wrong.

One way of putting it: it\’s actually rare to find one which is correct.

On tax evasion, too, he played no small part in the creation of UK Uncut – one of the most exciting activist groups set up in response to Cameron’s axe-wielding frenzy – taking the now-famous story of Vodafone’s 6bn pound tax rip-off from the pages of Private Eye, and writing about it in his column, later publicising the very first action on his twitter stream, telling people to look out for the famous ‘orange umbrella’.

For example, there never was a £6 billion tax bill and Vodafone didn\’t rip anyone off.

But, you know, he\’s a lefty and his heart\’s in the right place so that\’s OK then.

I missed this earlier on Johann Hari

The most important point is that, while you could make a political criticism of Hari, and many people have done so, over the years, what’s done for him is professional criticism. Namely, not his opinions but his basic journalistic standards. In fact, more so as the criticism has centred on the technical journalistic side. Tim Worstall has been saying for ages that Hari’s economic writing was wrong not just ideologically but in terms of basic facts, but that was easily dismissed on the grounds that Tim is one of these mad free marketeers and he would say that, wouldn’t he?

If I can get it back to the top of my pile of things to do there might even be an e-book on this point.

Johann Hari\’s defence doesn\’t work

Oh this is lovely. Johann Hari\’s defence doesn\’t actually work.

However, when interviewing someone, a journalist uses skill and labour in recording quotes accurately and selecting those most appropriate for publication. So the quotes in an interview are protected by copyright. If any are to be used by another publication then the fair dealing defence would have to be used and the copyright owner, possibly a competitor, would have to be credited.

So, let us review the situation.

1) Hari\’s found using things not actually said to him as part of his interviews.

2) Hari\’s defence (which isn\’t a bad one) is that he\’s providing an intellectual portrait. And to do this it\’s entirely just and righteous to use clips and quotes from earlier writings because, after all, writers do spend some time in their own writings making themselves clear. Speech is always more confusing than considered writings, after all.

3) Ah, but. Some of those clips and quotes come not from original writings by the interviewee, but from other interviews conducted by other journalists. In which case, those carefully considered quotes are copyright of those journalists, not the interviewee.

4) As copyright, there\’s still the fair use exemption. But the use of that requires acknowledgement of the source even if not a request for permission to use the quote.

5) Hari\’s fucked.

I will admit to not really caring very much about all of this. My objection to Hari is that he\’s simply ignorant about economics yet he insists on writing much about economics. Such as this.

In which we examine a claim in a Johann Hari column

Hungary kept on pursuing sensible moderate measures, instead of punishing the population. They imposed taxes on the hugely profitable sectors of retail, energy and telecoms, and took funds from private pensions to pay the deficit.

Stealing peoples\’ pensions is \”moderate\” in HariLand.

So when in 2001 the IMF found out the Malawian government had built up large stockpiles of grain in case there was a crop failure, they ordered them to sell it off to private companies at once. They told Malawi to get their priorities straight by using the proceeds to pay off a loan from a large bank the IMF had told them to take out in the first place, at a 56 per cent annual rate of interest. The Malawian president protested and said this was dangerous. But he had little choice. The grain was sold. The banks were paid.

The next year, the crops failed. The Malawian government had almost nothing to hand out. The starving population was reduced to eating the bark off the trees, and any rats they could capture. The BBC described it as Malawi’s “worst ever famine.” There had been a much worse crop failure in 1991-2, but there was no famine because then the government had grain stocks to distribute. So at least a thousand innocent people starved to death.

At the height of the starvation, the IMF suspended $47m in aid, because the government had ‘slowed’ in implementing the marketeering ‘reforms’ that had led to the disaster. ActionAid, the leading provider of help on the ground, conducted an autopsy into the famine. They concluded that the IMF “bears responsibility for the disaster.”

Unfortunately the Action Aid report seems to be no longer on their site. However:

The worst famine in fifty years has resulted in several thousand deaths in Malawi in early 2002. An in-depth report by Action Aid Malawi places blame on a complex combination of technical failure and political mismanagement. The report calls a \”fallacy\” rumours that the IMF caused the famine by ordering the government to sell its grain reserves; both the Bank and the Fund had a hand, however, in the growing indebtedness of the agency responsible for the reserve, and recommendations to reduce the reserve which were based on inaccurate information on crop yields.

BTW, that 56% rate of interest?

That was the domestic rate of interest on Treasury Bills in Kwacha. And inflation was 57%. Thus the real rate of interest was -1%.

So, do we get to conclude that Johann Hari is a lying toerag?

I think we do, yes. Even the BBC disagrees with him.

Johann Hari tries economic history

And fails, badly.

Here’s what we learned during the Great Depression, when our view of economics was revolutionized by John Maynard Keynes. In a recession, private individuals like you and me, perfectly sensibly, cut back our spending. We go out less, we buy less, we save more. This causes a huge fall in private demand, and with it a huge fall in economic activity. If, at the very same time, the government cuts back, then overall demand collapses, and a recession becomes a depression. That’s why the government has to do something counter-intuitive. It has to borrow and spend more, to apply jump-leads to the economy. This prevents economic collapse. Instead of spending a fortune on dealing with mass unemployment and economic break-down, with all the misery that causes, it spends the money on restoring growth. Keynes called it “the paradox of thrift”: when the people spend less, the government has to spend more.

Wherever it has been tried, it has worked. Look at the last Great Depression. The Great Crash of 1929 was followed by a US President, Herbert Hoover, who did everything Cameron demands. He cut spending and paid off the debt. The recession grew and grew. Then Franklin Roosevelt was elected and listened to Keynes. He ramped up spending – and unemployment fell, and the economy swelled. Then in 1936 he started listening to the Cameron debt-shriekers of his day. The result? The economy collapsed again. It was only the gigantic spending of the Second World War that finally ended it.


No, Herbert Hoover did not cut spending and he most certainly did not pay off the debt. He ran budget deficits as he massively increased federal spending. It\’s true that Roosevelt did more of this than Hoover had done but it just isn\’t true that Hoover balanced the bedget and most certainly isn\’t true that he either reduced spending or paid pof a single penny of the national debt.

However, there is another example from the 30s that could be used. The UK experience. Here there was no large public deficit, in fact, taxation and spending were kept broadly in line with each other. According to the Keynesian prescription, this should have meant that the UK had a deeper recession than the US and a longer one.

The thing is though, it didn\’t. The recession in the UK was shallower than that in the US, was shorter, recovery came sooner and so did economic growth surpassing that of the previous peak.

What the UK did do is come off the gold standard and allow the pound to depreciate. What the UK government is currently doing isn\’t actually all that far from what the UK government of the 30s did. Devalue, (at least try to) keep some close connection between tax and spend, so as not to run huge defiits and thus increase the national debt.

One of the things you need to know about economic history is that there is indede this lovely Keynesian theory. It\’s just that when you look at the economic history of the 1930s, there doesn\’t seem to be any empirical support for it. The US, which followed the prescriptions of the theory, had an entirely shite time of it, the UK which rejected the theory had a dreary but OK time of it.

We were bust when we beat the Nazis. We were bust when we built the NHS.

Quite true. But having gone bust beating the Nazis and while building the NHS, Major Atlee was running budget surpluses. One of the very few times we really have actually been paying off the national debt, as opposed to just not increasing it very fast…..

Young Johann is of course quite free to make his comments…..but facts are sacred you know.

No Johann, not quite

The same predictions are made about every disaster – that once the lid of a tightly policed civilization is knocked off for a second, humans will become beasts. But the opposite is the case. It sounds grotesque to say we should see reasons for hope as we watch in real time while the earth is shaken six inches on its axis, tsunamis roar, and nuclear power stations teeter on meltdown. But it is true. From this disaster, we can learn something fundamental about our species. It should guide how the Japanese authorities behave today – and kill off right-wing ideologies based on the belief that humans are inherently selfish tomorrow.

That in extremis humans are hugely cooperative is true.

That when not in extremis humans are not so is also true.

Thus we need to base our plans, our designs for society, on a sound footing. Assume cooperativeness in extremis, not so in not.

The right is right about everyday life so we should be organising daily life upon those principles.

As an analogy, we all know that at the end of the night, when the beer goggles are firmly in place, when hormones are running rampant, that the fat chick can get laid.

But we don\’t therefore conclude that fat chicks can get laid any time they want to.

Extreme environments change behaviour, d\’ye see?

Does Johnann Hari actually read his own columns?

I walked around the neon warrens of the West End – through the theatre-throngs, and past the fancy fashion stores – with two volunteers from the charity the Simon Community.


I couldn’t find a single person in the field who believes Cameron’s claim that volunteers will make up the difference – or even get a tenth of the way there.

That\’s pretty good, using the evidence of volunteers to prove that volunteers don\’t exist.

Now it\’s history that Johann Hari doesn\’t understand

This statement rather surprised me:

But let\’s step back a moment and look at how all this came to pass. The bishops owe their places in parliament to a serial killer. Henry VIII filled parliament with bishops because they were willing to give a religious seal of approval to him divorcing and murdering his wives – and they have lingered on through the centuries since, bragging about their own moral superiority at every turn.

Yes, I know that \’Enery fixed the numbers of Lords Spiritual but I hadn\’t realised that he\’d increased them.

Wikipedia might not be the most accurate of sources but:

Early in England\’s history, Lords Spiritual—including lesser clergymen such as abbots—outnumbered Lords Temporal. Between 1536 and 1540, however, Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, thereby removing the seats of the abbots. For the first time and thereafter, Lords Spiritual formed a minority in the House of Lords.

Yes, that accords more with what I had floating around at the back of my mind. Henry reduced, not increased, the numbers of Lords Spiritual.

Some will see this as trivial but accuracy is important, don\’t you think?

In 2008, his successor, Rowan Williams, said it would be helpful if shariah law – with all its vicious misogyny, which says that women are worth half of a man – was integrated into British family courts.

Err, no he didn\’t actually. He said rather that given that Christians insist upon let outs from the unitary system of law on religious/moral grounds (like, for example, religious types not being forced to perform abortions, nor even train to do them while qualifying as a doctor or nurse) then how can we, should we, adapt or provide similar let outs for other relgious and moral traditions?

And given that it was part of a series of letures about Islam in English Law, sharia was an obvious example for him to be using. I\’m not hugely in favour of the beared wonder but that really is a smear from Hari.

Oh, and just for giggles, he says that Iran and the UK are the only places with churchmen, as of right, in the legislature. Not so: Isle of Man has the Bishop of Sodor and Man in the upper house as of right. And as one of 11 members, he\’s 9% of it, as opposed to the roughly 3% of the Lords (26 out of mebbe 800).

Erm, Johann?

There is an obvious medium-term solution: break our addiction. The technology exists – wind, wave and especially solar power – to fuel our societies without oil. It would free us from our support for dictators and horrific wars of plunder like Iraq. It\’s our society\’s route to rehab – but it is being blocked by the hugely influential oil companies, who would lose a fortune.

Umm, this isn\’t quite true you know.

The technology to power our societies without oil doesn\’t exist. That\’s actually what the problem is. If it did exist then we\’d all quite happily be using it: that we\’re not shows that it doesn\’t.

Sure, we can get some power from these technologies: but not as much as we currently use and at higher prices than we currently pay. Do note that all of the various \”proofs\” floating around, the Greenpeace, WWF, Green Party etc plans all start with \”we can cut energy consumption by 50%\” ….which while it might be something we either desire to do or will have to do is not the same as saying we can power our current societies in this manner. And the doubling/quadrupling of energy costs necessary will also rather change our societies.

The truth is we can power \”a\” society without oil, but not our current one. Not yet.

As tio the insitence that we\’re not doing this because of the power of the oil companies that\’s just infantile nonsense. For decades BP was the largest investor in solar power, Shell runs wind farms and so on. That we\’re not already running not on oil isn\’t because of the oil companies, it\’s because of us: we don\’t want to use half the energy at four times the price.