Inoculation theory: Using misinformation to fight misinformation | The Conversation


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A shot of fake news now and your defenses are raised in the future?
funnyangel/Shutterstock.com.

John Cook, George Mason University

As a psychologist researching misinformation, I focus on reducing its influence. Essentially, my goal is to put myself out of a job. The Conversation

Recent developments indicate that I haven’t been doing a very good job of it. Misinformation, fake news and “alternative facts” are more prominent than ever. The Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year. Science and scientific evidence have been under assault.

Fortunately, science does have a means to protect itself, and it comes from a branch of psychological research known as inoculation theory. This borrows from the logic of vaccines: A little bit of something bad helps you resist a full-blown case. In my newly published research, I’ve tried exposing people to a weak form of misinformation in order to inoculate them against the real thing – with promising results.

Two ways misinformation damages

Misinformation is being generated and disseminated at prolific rates. A recent study comparing arguments against climate science versus policy arguments against action on climate found that science denial is on the relative increase. And recent research indicates these types of effort have an impact on people’s perceptions and science literacy.

A recent study led by psychology researcher Sander van der Linden found that misinformation about climate change has a significant impact on public perceptions about climate change.

The misinformation they used in their experiment was the most shared climate article in 2016. It’s a petition, known as the Global Warming Petition Project, featuring 31,000 people with a bachelor of science or higher, who signed a statement saying humans aren’t disrupting climate. This single article lowered readers’ perception of scientific consensus. The extent that people accept there’s a scientific consensus about climate change is what researchers refer to as a “gateway belief,” influencing attitudes about climate change such as support for climate action.

At the same time that van der Linden was conducting his experiment in the U.S., I was on the other side of the planet in Australia conducting my own research into the impact of misinformation. By coincidence, I used the same myth, taking verbatim text from the Global Warming Petition Project. After showing the misinformation, I asked people to estimate the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming, in order to measure any effect.

I found similar results, with misinformation reducing people’s perception of the scientific consensus. Moreover, the misinformation affected some more than others. The more politically conservative a person was, the greater the influence of the misinformation.

Response to misinformation about climate change.
Cook et al. (2017), CC BY-ND

This gels with other research finding that people interpret messages, whether they be information or misinformation, according to their preexisting beliefs. When we see something we like, we’re more likely to think that it’s true and strengthen our beliefs accordingly. Conversely, when we encounter information that conflicts with our beliefs, we’re more likely to discredit the source.

However, there is more to this story. Beyond misinforming people, misinformation has a more insidious and dangerous influence. In the van der Linden study, when people were presented with both the facts and misinformation about climate change, there was no net change in belief. The two conflicting pieces of information canceled each other out.

Fact and “alternative fact” are like matter and antimatter. When they collide, there’s a burst of heat followed by nothing. This reveals the subtle way that misinformation does damage. It doesn’t just misinform. It stops people believing in facts. Or as Garry Kasporov eloquently puts it, misinformation “annihilates truth.”

Science’s answer to science denial

The assault on science is formidable and, as this research indicates, can be all too effective. Fittingly, science holds the answer to science denial.

Inoculation theory takes the concept of vaccination, where we are exposed to a weak form of a virus in order to build immunity to the real virus, and applies it to knowledge. Half a century of research has found that when we are exposed to a “weak form of misinformation,” this helps us build resistance so that we are not influenced by actual misinformation.

Inoculating text requires two elements. First, it includes an explicit warning about the danger of being misled by misinformation. Second, you need to provide counterarguments explaining the flaws in that misinformation.

In van der Linden’s inoculation, he pointed out that many of the signatories were fake (for instance, a Spice Girl was falsely listed as a signatory), that 31,000 represents a tiny fraction (less than 0.3 percent) of all U.S. science graduates since 1970 and that less than 1 percent of the signatories had expertise in climate science.

In my recently published research, I also tested inoculation but with a different approach. While I inoculated participants against the Petition Project, I didn’t mention it at all. Instead, I talked about the misinformation technique of using “fake experts” – people who convey the impression of expertise to the general public but having no actual relevant expertise.

I found that explaining the misinformation technique completely neutralized the misinformation’s influence, without even mentioning the misinformation specifically. For instance, after I explained how fake experts have been utilized in past misinformation campaigns, participants weren’t swayed when confronted by the fake experts of the Petition Project. Moreover, the misinformation was neutralized across the political spectrum. Whether you’re conservative or liberal, no one wants to be deceived by misleading techniques.

Putting inoculation into practice

Inoculation is a powerful and versatile form of science communication that can be used in a number of ways. My approach has been to mesh together the findings of inoculation with the cognitive psychology of debunking, developing the Fact-Myth-Fallacy framework.

Denial101x lecture on debunking myths.

This strategy involves explaining the facts, followed by introducing a myth related to those facts. At this point, people are presented with two conflicting pieces of information. You reconcile the conflict by explaining the technique that the myth uses to distort the fact.

We used this approach on a large scale in a free online course about climate misinformation, Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. Each lecture adopted the Fact-Myth-Fallacy structure. We started by explaining a single climate fact, then introduced a related myth, followed by an explanation of the fallacy employed by the myth. This way, while explaining the key facts of climate change, we also inoculated students against 50 of the most common climate myths.

Denial101x lectures adhering to Fact-Myth-Fallacy structure.
Denial101x, CC BY-ND

For example, we know we are causing global warming because we observe many patterns in climate change unique to greenhouse warming. In other words, human fingerprints are observed all over our climate. However, one myth argues that climate has changed naturally in the past before humans; therefore, what’s happening now must be natural also. This myth commits the fallacy of jumping to conclusions (or non sequitur), where the premise does not lead to the conclusion. It’s like finding a dead body with a knife poking out of its back and arguing that people have died of natural causes in the past, so this death must have been of natural causes also.

Science has, in a moment of frankness, informed us that throwing more science at people isn’t the full answer to science denial. Misinformation is a reality that we can’t afford to ignore – we can’t be in denial about science denial. Rather, we should see it as an educational opportunity. Addressing misconceptions in the classroom is one of the most powerful ways to teach science.

It turns out the key to stopping science denial is to expose people to just a little bit of science denial.

John Cook, Research Assistant Professor, Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Echoes of the Past: Syria, Chemical Weapons, and Civilian Targeting

Everyone should read this as a reminder of the brutality that states may employ for political ends, whether Ethiopia (1935), Chechnya (1995), Iraq (1998) or Syria (2017). Chemical weapons such as sarin or mustard gas leave horrific injuries, but any deliberate targeting of civilians — such as bombing of hospitals and residential neighborhoods — should IMO be treated as a war crime.

Luke O’Brien is a U.S. Army officer assigned to Aberdeen Proving Ground and is currently a Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Graduate Fellow at National Defense University:

…..Perhaps the most notorious example of this from recent memory, however, was the Iraqi chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988, as part of the Anfal Campaign at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. This attack struck the small Kurdish village with both conventional and chemical bombs, including sarin, just as Assad’s forces would nearly 30 years later. The first attacks used normal high-explosive bombs, which both drove civilians into basement shelters as well as broke open the villages windows and doors. These initials attacks were then followed up with chemical munitions, which quickly filled the basement shelters and killed their occupants.

Such brutality was intentional. The attacks were intended to break the back of the Kurdish peshmerga militia by depopulating its support. Commenting on the matter at the time, Iraqi Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid bragged that he would “kill [all the Kurds] with chemical weapons.” The chemical bombardment of Halabja had its desired effect, with a stream of surviving civilians abandoning the town and fleeing to nearby Iran. This use of chemical weapons, moreover, had another added benefit: driving away civilians and insurgents who had become numb to the effects of conventional weapons…..

Read more at: Echoes of the Past: Syria, Chemical Weapons, and Civilian Targeting

No Plan? No Strategy? No Problem! Syria and Trump’s Russia Policy

Michael Kofman is an Analyst at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute:

….Past American attempts at coercive diplomacy with Russia have typically lacked actual coercion, and a theory of how to gain leverage over Moscow. It will be rather startling if 59 cruise missiles turn out to be the answer to this problem. Thankfully, the previous administration tested a lot of theories that didn’t work, from empty threats at the United Nations, to disproven assumptions on what influences Russian behavior, to narratives about quagmires. It would be best for Trump’s White House not to set us on this journey, mounted on that very same broken wheel (or one just as broken in a different way).

In a contest of wills, Trump needs a plan to establish coercive credibility rather than hoping to scare the Russians with expensive fireworks. The number one mistake previous administrations made with Moscow is that, rather than deal with the Russia that is, they all imagined a Russia that suited them more, and then tried to have relations with that imaginary country.

The reality is, this administration’s only current leverage with Russia is the notion inside the Kremlin that a cooperative agenda with the United States is still possible. That’s a dubious proposition which offers the U.S. some advantages. Russia still hopes that there are carrots the United States might offer, or at the least it could get respite in the current confrontation and consolidate gains. If the administration is able to drag out this perception, rather than demonstrating that the White House is rapidly reverting to classical archetypes that Moscow anticipates, then there is an opportunity to obtain concessions.

Given that a cooperative agenda between the United States and Russia is well-nigh impossible, where does that leave us?

Source: No Plan? No Strategy? No Problem! Syria and Why Trump’s Russia Policy Is Off to a Rough Start

Navigating Great Power Rivalry in the 21st Century

Michael J. Mazarr is senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and associate director of the Strategy, Doctrine and Resources Program of the RAND Arroyo Center:

The configuration of power in the international system is changing, which is precisely why revisionist powers such as Russia and China feel empowered to challenge American primacy. The United States and its great power rivals do not accept a common set of global rules. Moscow and Beijing are challenging the norms that Washington prefers, from non-aggression in Eastern Europe to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The ideological differences between the great powers are far less severe than they were during the Cold War, but the cleavage between the world’s leading democracy and its two foremost authoritarian powers is significant enough to be a source of conflict. And finally, more than 70 years after the last great power war, there does not appear to be any commonly perceived threat powerful enough to overcome these other factors and compel sustained cooperation. The focus of many great powers today seems to be on a opportunistic grab for influence rather than an urgent fear that disaster will befall them if they cannot find ways to coordinate their actions with others.

Efforts to form a great power concert are thus likely to prove unavailing; making concessions to Russia or China in hopes of drawing them into such a concert could well be more destabilizing than stabilizing. But managing these relationships — and doing so while preserving the greatest degree of stability possible — remains an urgent task for the United States…..

Source: Navigating Great Power Rivalry in the 21st Century

Robots Take Over | Susanna Koelblin | LinkedIn

From Susanna Koelblin:

First large scale shoe robot factory unveiled: Adidas will use machines in Germany instead of humans in Asia to make shoes

Adidas, the German maker of sportswear, has announced it will start marketing its first series of shoes manufactured by robots in Germany from 2017. More than 20 years after Adidas ceased production activities in Germany and moved them to Asia, Adidas unveiled the group’s new prototype “Speedfactory” in Germany. As of this year, the factory will begin large-scale production. What’s more, Adidas will also open a second Speedfactory in the U.S. in 2017, followed by more in Western Europe. According to the company, the German and American plants will in the “mid-term” each scale up to producing half a million pair of shoes per year.

Does this pose a threat to Adidas’s traditional manufacturing base in China, Indonesia and Vietnam? After all, labor in the region is becoming less cheap these days, and manufacturers are increasingly turning to robots. The current model in the apparel industry is very much based on sourcing products from countries where consumers are typically not based. In the longer term Adidas could even produce the shirts of Germany’s national football team in its home country. The shoes made in Germany would sell at a similar price to those produced in Asia, where Adidas employs around one million workers. Arch-rival Nike is also developing its robot-operated factory.

This development in the shoe area is just the beginning and will be leveraged to the apparel industry as well….

Robot factories will not restore former employment levels, with operations run by a skeleton staff. And low employment leads to low consumption. But new factories will require intensive capital investment. This may portend increased demand for capital in the future. With current high debt levels threatening the stability of the financial system, equity investors may be in short supply.

Source: Robots Take Over – The Apparel Production | Susanna Koelblin | Pulse | LinkedIn

Is the Donald long gold?

Don’t know if he is long, but Donald Trump is doing his best to drive up demand for gold.

From the FT overnight:

Donald Trump has warned that the US will take unilateral action to eliminate the nuclear threat from North Korea unless China increases pressure on the regime in Pyongyang.

In an interview with the Financial Times, the US president said he would discuss the growing threat from Kim Jong Un’s nuclear programme with Xi Jinping when he hosts the Chinese president at his Florida resort this week, in their first meeting. “China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t,” Mr Trump said in the Oval Office.

“If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.”

But he made clear that he would deal with North Korea with or without China’s help. Asked if he would consider a “grand bargain” — where China pressures Pyongyang in exchange for a guarantee that the US would later remove troops from the Korean peninsula — Mr Trump said:

“Well if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.”

Nothing like the threat of nuclear war to drive up the price of portable assets. Not that it would do much good if you are on the receiving end.

Spot Gold broke resistance at $1250 an ounce. Follow-through above $1260 is likely and would signal an advance to $1300.

Spot Gold

Theresa May had a calmer, less belligerent approach: “….encourage China to look at this issue of North Korea and play a more significant role in terms of North Korea … I think that’s where our attention should focus.”

What makes a good life?

What keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life? If you think it’s fame and money, you’re not alone – but, according to psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, you’re mistaken. As the director of a 75-year-old study on adult development, Waldinger has unprecedented access to data on true happiness and satisfaction. In this talk, he shares three important lessons learned from the study as well as some practical, old-as-the-hills wisdom on how to build a fulfilling, long life.

Hat tip to Barry Ritholz

Is the Coalition prepared to die defending the housing bubble?

I don’t always agree with David Llewellyn-Smith but love his pithy style. Here he takes the Turnbull government to task over their housing and immigration policies.

Cross-posted with kind permission from Macrobusiness:

….Because that’s what it looks like.

We all know that the Coalition hearts the housing bubble. Everything it does spells undying infatuation:

  • protecting property tax rorts;
  • focusing only on supply-side reform and even then doing pretty much nothing;
  • shelving any and all policy reform that might disrupt its smooth and burgeoning progeny, plus
  • running a staggeringly huge immigration program despite widespread economic damage.

It’s the last point that I want to focus on today because that’s the one where Coalition bubble-love rubber hits the road for its electoral prospects.

Since the WA election, Coalition polling has been devastated. A little bounce in Newspoll has been wiped out by landslides against the government in Ipsos and Essential polls. Moreover, the carnage has been just as apparent in the Coalition’s primary vote which has hemorrhaged voters to One Nation. The latter has been unaffected by the WA election despite doing less well than expected.

The major change in politics since the state result has been a commitment by One Nation to never ally with the Coalition again. The fringe party has realised that such pragmatism is lethal to its prospects.

This simple truth seems yet to have filtered through to the federal Coalition. As One Nation takes a material portion of its vote, and that vote refuses point blank to ally with it, there is ZERO chance of the Coalition winning a federal election ever again, and probably not at the state level either. While One Nation exists in this form, the Coalition has effectively ceased to exist as a political force.

One might have thought that the prospect of NEVER WINNING ANOTHER ELECTION might be enough to trigger some soul-searching in the party. And it has done a little. Do-nothing Malcolm has switched from toying with random ideas to deploying random ideas but it’s still all at the margins and is meaningless:

  • 18c reform won’t move the needle;
  • contradictory coal and hydro investment won’t move the needle;
  • a retrograde company tax cut won’t move the needle;
  • a supply-side housing affordability Budget won’t move the needle.

All together they might nudge it a little but it won’t be enough. Nothing like it.

Indeed, I’ll go so far as to say that the Coalition could do the following immensely popular policies and it would still get clubbed from office:

  • abolish negative gearing;
  • install gas reservation;
  • offer tax cuts.

The problem is that these are all cyclical fixes for what is a structural shift to One Nation driven by one very simple truth: Australians are done with high immigration.

That’s Pauline Hanson’s primary appeal. She makes little sense on other issues and is bat shit crazy on many. But her one great power, the one that vibrates deep in the bowels of every Australian that is marginalised by house prices, falling wages, can’t get a job, is fearful of Islam or just a bigot, or is just plain pissed off at the direction of the country, is the deep and legitimate truth that running a mass immigration program during a period of high unemployment is treasonous economics.

Thus there is only one policy shift that can change the Coalition’s fate and it is as plain as the nose on Pauline Hanson’s face: cut immigration and cut it hard.

Cutting immigration back to 70k per year or less would completely shift every electoral parameter as the Coalition:

  • finally had a housing affordability policy to put up against Labor’s negative gearing reforms;
  • finally had an environmental policy to put up against the immigration-hypocritical Greens;
  • could gut One Nation overnight and go to work on wiping it out by exposing the loons as weakening polls divide them.

This one policy shift would put the Coalition instantly in the running for the next election even if it were Do-nothing Malcolm that did it.

So, why does the Coalition suffer from such suicidal bubble-love that it can’t or won’t grab this lifeline?

  • many Coalition MPs are personally leveraged to the bubble so they’ve their own financial interests in mind;
  • as yesterday’s revelations about the MPs that prevented negative gearing reform showed, they are political hacks with terrible policy judgement;
  • they are bereft of the intellectual depth and corporate memory to contemplate alternative economic models. Cutting immigration to 70k would take pressure off eastern capital house prices enabling further rate cuts and a lower currency;
  • the Howard and Costello myths make this even worse,
  • and, the Coalition is closely wedded to the business interests in banking, retail and construction that benefit from high immigration even as the net result is negative for the wider economy.

I’ll add one more factor which appears increasingly important. Career politicians don’t care for their own political party or its nominal values as they used to. The dominant ideology of unglued self-interest comes with the wonderful fringe benefit of not having to take responsibility for anything. Contemporary Coalition MPs see party membership as a gravy train to private sector riches in board positions, lobbying roles and other forms of ‘control fraud’ in the very sectors that thrive on the bubble. So, for them, arbitraging the fate of the party for personal gain is all just a part of being a good liberal.

Backing self-interest used to work in political forecasting but does this rabble even have that in them?

The Chip on China’s Shoulder | WSJ

…..Fully 70% of Chinese television dramas have plots related to war with Japan, he tells us, and in 2012 alone 700 million imaginary Japanese were killed in Chinese movies. Mr. French’s findings on this count are ominous: “Up until the present day,” he writes, “East Asia has never proven large enough for two great powers to coexist peacefully.”

….he points to the enormous demographic shift under way in China as the population ages and birthrates fall far short of replacement. China is on course to have more than 329 million people over the age of 65 by 2050, while the younger, working-age population is set to plummet. The inexorable aging of the population will, Mr. French predicts, restrain the country’s ability to project power in the future. It will halve the size of the military-age population while saddling workers and the government with enormous expenses to care for the elderly. He suggests that the incredible pace with which China is currently trying to assert control over the South China Sea is driven by President Xi Jinping’s awareness that the country has a window of at most 20 or 30 years before demographics catch up to it and such an expansion becomes impossible.

China’s attempt to dominate East Asia (if not Asia) brings it into direct conflict with Japan. Expect increased militarization of Japan as China attempts to expand its sphere of influence. The Korean peninsula and Vietnam are simply sideshows.

Source: The Chip on China’s Shoulder – WSJ

Who controls the media? Google is about to find out

From The Age:

Google’s advertising crisis went global after some of the biggest marketers including AT&T and Johnson & Johnson halted spending on YouTube and the internet company’s display network, citing concern their ads would run alongside offensive videos.

The controversy erupted last week after the London-based Times newspaper reported that some ads were running with YouTube videos that promoted terrorism or anti-Semitism.

….Search represents the lion’s share of Google’s advertising revenue, which totalled $US79.4 billion ($104 billion) last year.

Google is about to discover who controls media. Noam Chomsky was right all along. The media is not controlled by shareholders — nor the Illuminati as conspiracy theorists would have us believe — but by advertisers.

No private media outlet is going to bite the hand that feeds and run material that offends its biggest advertisers. That explains why mainstream media, instead of being at the forefront, were the last to discover that tobacco smoking is harmful to your health. And still haven’t awoken to the enormous social damage caused by alcohol. Because Tobacco and Alcohol were (and in the latter case still is) some of the biggest advertisers in mainstream media.

Watch how quickly Google responds to the current furore by changing its censorship of offensive content.

Don’t Believe the Hype: China’s North Korea Policy is All Smoke and Mirrors

Dr. Van Jackson is an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, and author of the book Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in US-North Korea Relations:

Social media is abuzz with news that China’s Ministry of Commerce announced it will suspend coal imports from North Korea as part of U.N. Security Council sanctions enforcement for the North’s most recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests in violation of prior Security Council resolutions. So China is finally standing arm-in-arm with the United States and international community to actually do something about North Korea. That’s great, right? Wrong.

China’s suspension of coal imports is smoke and mirrors; an act of geopolitical misdirection. The United States is being played, as it has in the numerous past instances when China supported sanctions resolutions against North Korea at the United Nations only to fail to implement them….

….China’s “emotions” toward North Korea don’t drive its policy. China has a long tradition of paying lip service toward cooperation with the United States and the international community while largely failing to apply any meaningful pressure on North Korea, and for good reason: It doesn’t want a nuclear-armed neighbor on its border to become a nuclear-armed enemy. We ignore China’s enduring strategic interests in North Korea at our peril.

Source: Don’t Believe the Hype: China’s North Korea Policy is All Smoke and Mirrors

The Catch-22 in U.S.-Chinese Relations | Carnegie-Tsinghua Center

Paul Haenle served as the director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolian Affairs on the National Security Council staffs of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama prior to joining Carnegie:

When, at the no-necktie summit in California in 2013, Xi [Chinese President Xi Jinping] put forward the [strategic partnership] concept, he mentioned three foundational principles: no conflict and no confrontation; mutual respect, including for both countries’ core interests and major concerns; and win-win cooperation. The United States has long reiterated that the relationship should be based not on slogans but on the quality of the cooperation.

….But China’s call for respect for core interests has been a showstopper in Washington, seen as an indication that what China really seeks is U.S. concessions on areas of long-standing disagreement between the two countries.

Historically China has defined its core interests as including Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang (the Uyghur Autonomous Region) but these have lately expanded to include the South China Sea (9-dash line) and Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands administered by Japan.

Vladimir Lenin advocated: “Probe with a bayonet. If you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.”

Any attempt at conciliation would encourage further expansion.

Source: The Catch-22 in U.S.-Chinese Relations – Carnegie-Tsinghua Center – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The Road to a Free Europe Goes Through Moscow | POLITICO

From James Kirchick, author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age:

….The West wants peace and Russia wants victory. These desires are incompatible. Those who cherish liberal democracy and wish to see it endure must accept the fact that a Russian regime is once against trying to debilitate and subvert the free world. While Russia today may not be as conventionally strong an adversary as it was during the Cold War, the threat it poses is more diffuse. Russia is as much an enemy as it was a generation ago, and we need to adopt a more hardheaded, adversarial footing and mentality to defeat it. In a globalized world where the cancerous influences of Russian money and disinformation can more easily corrupt us than when an Iron Curtain divided Europe, and where the ideological terrain is more confusing than the Cold War’s rigid bipolarity, containing Russia presents different challenges than it did a generation ago, not the least of which is maintaining Western unity against a more ambiguous adversary skilled at fighting asymmetrically. We must steel ourselves once again for a generational, ideological struggle in defense of liberal values and open societies and avoid self-inflicted wounds. Never during the Cold War, for instance, was there such a traumatic break within the Western political alliance as Britain’s departure from the European Union—nor, for that matter, did an overtly pro-Russian leader ever capture the presidency of the United States.

Source: The Road to a Free Europe Goes Through Moscow – POLITICO Magazine

Michael Gove on Brexit, productivity and innovation

Interesting viewpoint on Brexit.  How the EU became anti-innovation, erecting barriers to entry which favor incumbents.

Gordon Gekko’s garden | On Line Opinion

A thought-provoking opinion from John Wright who lectures in philosophy at the University of Newcastle:

At the end of our street is a community garden. Many of the local residents have their own box in which they grow tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and so on. It works on a culture of trust and sharing. There is no fence around the garden. It is understood that if someone needs, say, a few carrots from a public box they are free to help themselves.

But recently, it has not been going well. Today I went down to get a lettuce from the box my partner and I had been tending, and its entire contents had gone. Inquiries revealed this had been happening to other people’s boxes. The problem is so widespread many have decided to pull out of the community garden altogether.

Of course, when compared to the great events that befell the world in 2016, this is hardly head-line news. But I also think it exemplifies, in a very simple way, factors that have led to some of the larger troubles of our societies.

….I’m sure we have all encountered people who take the view: “In this world, it’s each person for themselves. Only a mug would do something for the good of the community.”

Of course, it’s only a small number who take this view. But so many boxes have been cleared out that a lot of residents have given up and decided to withdraw from the garden.

What all this illustrates is just how fragile a sense of community, co-operation and the common weal can be, and how easily it can be replaced by: “It’s each person for themselves”.

Lately Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy catch-phrase, and Theresa May’s promise to “Put Britain First” in Brexit negotiations, have received a lot of media coverage.

What these attitudes reflect is a lack of community between states, not just individuals sharing a vegetable patch. For too long, some players in the international community have displayed a self-interested view, benefiting from the international community at the expense of others. Whether this be NATO members failing to meet their defense budget commitments, instead relying on the US security umbrella, or China and Japan furthering their own economic interests, running large trade surpluses while subverting the balancing mechanism of floating exchange rates, at the expense of their trading partners.

Similarly interest groups within states have furthered their own agendas at considerable cost to their fellow-citizens. Global corporations, for example, profited from offshore manufacturing without consideration of the millions of manufacturing jobs lost and ultimate hardship in their own country.

In his 1982 book The Rise and Decline of Nations, Mancur Olson highlighted the dangers of self-interest groups within society and how redistributive struggles, where insiders manipulate the system at the expense of productive efforts, can lead to economic decline. He attributed the rise of Japan and Germany after WWII, relative to the UK, to the absence of pressure groups in the former which were largely wiped out during the war.

Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” would similarly restore growth to the US. But pursuit of self-interest on the international stage, instead of strengthening the international community, is likely to achieve exactly the opposite.

Source: Gordon Gekko’s garden – On Line Opinion – 24/1/2017

How to survive the next four years

Donald Trump

We are entering a time of uncertainty.

Donald Trump started his presidency with a continuation of the confrontational approach that he exhibited throughout his campaign, with scant regard to unifying the country and governing from the middle. Instead he has signed off on two controversial oil pipelines that, while they would create jobs, have met fierce opposition and are likely to polarize the nation even further.

Subtlety is not Trump’s strong point. Expect a far more abrasive style than the Obama years.

Trump also signed off on constructing a wall along the border with Mexico. Again, this will create jobs and slow illegal immigration — two of his key campaign promises — while harming relations with the Southern neighbor.

Another key target is the trade deficit. The US has not run a trade surplus since 1975. Expect major revision of current trade agreements like NAFTA, which could further damage relations with Mexico, and a slew of actions against trading partners such as China and Japan who have used their foreign reserves in the past to maintain a trade surplus with the US. Floating exchange rates are meant to balance the flow of imports and exports on current account, minimizing trade surpluses/deficits over time. But this can be subverted by accumulating excessive foreign reserves to suppress appreciation of your home currency. Retaliation to US punitive actions is likely and could harm international trade if not carefully managed.

Apart from wars, Trump and chief strategist Steve Bannon also seem intent on provoking a war with the media, baiting the press in a recent New York Times interview:

Bannon delivered a broadside at the press…. saying, “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Bannon also said, “I want you to quote me on this. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States…..”

Trump and Bannon’s strategy may be to provoke retaliation by the media. One-sided reporting would discredit the press as an objective source of criticism of the new presidency.

On top of the Trump turmoil in the US, we have Brexit which threatens to disrupt trade between the UK and European Union. If not managed carefully, this could lead to copycat actions from other EU member states.

Increasingly aggressive steps by China and Russia are another destabilizing factor — with the two nations asserting their global power against weaker neighbors. Iran is another offender, attempting to establish a crescent of influence in the Middle East against fierce opposition by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and their Sunni partners. Also, North Korea is expanding its nuclear arsenal.

We live in dangerous times.

But these may also be times of opportunity. Trump has made some solid appointments to his team who could exert a positive influence on the global outlook. And confrontation may resolve some long-festering sores on both the economic and geo-political fronts.

How are we to know? Where can we get an unbiased view of economic prospects if confrontation is high, uncertainty a given — the new President issuing random tweets in the night as the mood takes him — and a distracted media?

There are two reliable sources of information: prices and earnings. Stock prices reflect market sentiment, the waves of human emotion that dominate short- and medium-term market behavior. And earnings will either confirm or refute market sentiment in the longer term.

As Benjamin Graham wrote:

“In the short term the stock market behaves like a voting machine, but in the long term it acts like a weighing machine”.

In the short-term, stock prices may deviate from true value as future earnings and growth prospects are often unclear. But prices will adjust closer to true value as more information becomes available and views of earnings and prospects narrow over time.

We are bound to experience periods of intense volatility over the next four years as hopes and fears rise and fall. These periods represent both a threat and an opportunity. A threat if you have invested on hopes and expectations rather than on solid performance. And an opportunity if intense volatility causes prices to fall below true value.

It will pay to keep a close watch on technical signals on the major indexes. As well as earnings growth in relation to index performance.

Also, keep a close eye on long-term indicators of market risk such as the Treasury yield curve and corporate bond spreads. These often forewarn of coming reactions and will be reviewed on a regular basis in future newsletters.

Factors that Could Derail Equity Markets | Bob Doll

Bob Doll

From Bob Doll at Nuveen Investments:

….Although we have a generally positive view toward the economy, earnings and equity markets, we think it is worth pointing out some possible risks given how quickly and how far markets have moved higher over the past month. To us, the main risk to equity markets is the surge in government bond yields and the rising value of the U.S. dollar. Higher bond yields could create a drag on equity valuations and a higher dollar could put pressure on corporate earnings.

If the current advances in yields and the dollar moderate, equity markets should not experience much damage ….we expect any equity market sell-off resulting from a possible yield/dollar spike to be short-lived.

We are also watching possible political negatives from Donald Trump’s presidency, such as escalating geopolitical turmoil, currency wars with China or anti-immigration/anti-globalization trends. Additionally, investors may become wary of improving sentiment and less attractive valuations.

….Unlike the period since the end of the Great Recession, market sell-offs have been brief and followed quickly by strong risk-on moves. As a result of this shift and a seemingly more solid economic and earnings backdrop, we think it makes sense to retain overweight positions in equities.

I am cautiously bullish. A lot of good could come out of Republican control of both Congress and the Senate, including a revision of the corporations tax code and a more cautious approach to globalization.

The dangers are high stock valuations, with the potential for a backlash if earnings falter or risk levels spike, and low business investment that could hurt future growth. I still consider a Trump administration an additional risk factor. Trump has made some solid appointments, like the highly-regarded Mike Mattis (pleased to see Michael McFaul, former Obama point man on Russia, supporting the appointment) but still has the potential to do some crazy stuff as Bob pointed out.

Source: Weekly Investment Commentary from Bob Doll | Nuveen

Trump the biggest positive and negative risk for growth, survey finds

From Zac Crellin:

The policies of a Trump administration are both the biggest downside and upside risks to the global economy, an international survey of companies by Oxford Economics has found.

While 38 per cent of respondent companies were hopeful for US growth to surge thanks to President-elect Donald Trump’s fiscal stimulus program, 27 per cent feared Mr Trump would instigate a trade war between the US and China….

Source: Trump the biggest positive and negative risk for growth, survey finds