Making policy for the reality invariant

I like to call a lot of voters reality invariant. I’m definitely not saying they’re stupid, just that their opinions are reflections of their internal world, and are invariant to reality. Policy makers are treating these signals as true statements of their view of the world and want to change the world to satisfy them. Because some people are reality invariant this is doomed to fail. This is my suggestion for the converse of the Lucas critique.

The Lucas critique says that policy made using past observations won’t be effective. If you change policy from that which produced the predictions you’re using to change policy, the policy change won’t work as expected. Imagine FIFA is corrupt (!) and a team bribed it to make headers worth double, because in past competitions it would have advantaged them. Because rules change in a predictable way any previous advantage might vanish as other teams adjust their playing style.

In contrast, voters being reality invariant mean policy changes won’t work because people don’t care about policy. If you make policy to change a real outcome people say they care about but don’t, then a effective policy won’t be successful. You’ll change the targeted outcome, but not please voters. This can be misinterpreted as failing and so policy must double down on reality, even as the reality invariant remain oblivious.

One of the most obvious is immigration. For many people around the  world national immigration controls are not an issue. Around 10% of people think it is an issue at any one time. In the UK, that figure is around 45%.



This is despite British people agreeing with the rest of the world about their local area. Britons think that immigration is a huge problem nationally, but if everyone went and visited each other they would find out it isn’t.



For over a decade tighter and tighter immigration acts have been passed to the point where the immigration question has been solved. Short of Ukraine or Turkey joining the EU, or the UK leaving, immigration controls cannot get any tighter. And yet the British public are still not satisfied. [1]

It’s that second graph you should worry about if you’re a policy maker. The British don’t care about immigration. They care about the perception of immigration. British politicians have been very effective at reducing immigration. Only 1% of those who want to enter do so. The public don’t care.

They’re reality invariant. You can change reality but it will have no effect on their voting habits or opinions. You can lament the rise of spin, and I do!, but there’s a reason it’s so important. We’ve reached the effective limit of immigration restrictions and the public are still not satisfied.

Inequality is another area where people are reality invariant. Various policy changes have turned the US into a more unequal country, even as European states have held of the worst excesses of liberalisation. The FT have results of a survey that shows nobody understands how unequal their country is. Americans believe their country is more equal than it really is, and Europeans think their countries are more unequal than they really are.

“The results of the study suggest that, in the political debate on income distribution, it is often not the facts that count but [perceptions],” says Professor Michael Hüther, director of the Cologne-based IW economic institute, which carried out the research.


In Hungary belief in widespread poverty is supporting the growth of Jobbik and Hungary’s slide into fascist politics. In America belief in egalitarianism prevents help going to the poor. The voters are reality invariant, they are discussing how they feel about reality, not reality.

Crime is the most famous example. Fear Of Crime™ is a major issue. Crime just isn’t.



The reality invariant voter looks at this and sees fiddled numbers. By 2007 crime was the number one concern for British voters, briefly displacing “immigration” before being engulfed by “the economy.” Despite violent crime falling in half, fear of crime continued to increase.

War is the last area I want to briefly touch on. War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, until it’s useful for absolutely anything. Intervening somewhere is a very bad idea, until it isn’t:

It doesn’t matter, how many times your Yazidis get off the mountain without significant UK aid or an entirely theoretical artillery seige of Bengazhi with rapacious house-to-house murders turns into an actual, person-killing, NATO-supported, civilians-running-everywhere seige of Sirte.  There’s always some compelling reason why this war, this intervention, this bombardment, is radically different to all the other invasions and occupations and airstrike campaigns, and why the horrible news always means that there’s no time for rational thought this time before we start blowing that shit up.

I’ve come to you with a problem, and a snappy term to describe it. Traditionally this is where a writer would offer a solution. But not me. Lucas didn’t have a solution, he had a critique. I am also merely pointing out that policy is today being made foolishly. The assumption of policy makers that changing reality will have the desired effect is based on a faulty model. It is a very rational model, but the model is wrong nonetheless. Lots of the public are reality invariant, and you can’t make policy presuming they’re not.


[1] As Chris points out, the reality is that these policies kill and kill intentionally and purposefully. But this is also a reality most people ignore.


In Memorandum

It is always difficult to blog about a child dying. Gabrielle Price died last month, I understand there’s a small chance that some of Gabrielle’s friends may find this site and I would like to make clear that I mean no disrespect by discussing her tragic death.

What I would like to take aim at is the disgraceful speculation which has followed her  death. Most notably, scaremongering in the gutter press, such as The Daily Mail and The Sun and cheap moral populism from papers such as The Telegraph.

From the BBC we know that the events of the night of her death included: the arrest of a 17 year old man and 39 year woman on charges of possessing and supplying drugs; drug taking at a party and the death of a 14 year old girl. Further details emerged that the drugs in question were Mephedrone, a legal high, and Ketamine, a horse tranquilliser.

This is all that was known that this point. However, bastion of investigative reporting that they are, it appears that The Sun found “a neighbour” and The Mail found multiple “neighbours” to come forward to claim that:

[T]he student had taken the clubbers’ drug [mephedrone] – which can be bought legally – mixed with illegal ketamine

Of course following Gabrielle’s death The Daily Mail made it quite clear that “a post-mortem examination had failed to pinpoint the cause of death and that toxicology reports had been ordered to establish what the girl had taken.” Sadly this did not stop their cynical attempts to capitalise on her death.

The Daily Mail helpfully put its idle speculation in speech marks and I am sure this was of much consolation to the girl’s family. Likewise The Sun’s “tasteful” headline was also written with the “best” of intentions.

Of course a subsequent article left little doubt about what The Mail had decided had happened to Gabrielle Price. “Mephedrone menace: The deadly drug that’s cheap, as easy to order as pizza… and totally legal.”

Disgracefully, The Telegraph claimed that “Miss Price’s death is not the first harrowing account of the devastating effect the drug can have.” As reported in The Argus Gabrielle Price died of natural causes so it most certainly is “not the first harrowing account” it is not an account of a drug related death at all.

Teenager Gabi Price – whose death triggered fears over the dangers of ‘legal highs’ – died of natural causes, a coroner has revealed.

A pathologist’s report showed the 14-year-old died of broncho-pneumonia following a streptococcal A infection.

Mephedrone is not a controlled substance but has effects similar to ecstasy and cocaine, it was originally manufactured by a “legal high” company called Neorganics in Israel but was discontinued in 2008 when Israel made Mephedrone illegal. Production has since shifted around the world, with much of it now produced in China. It is available over the internet for as little as £7 a gram, and that includes Royal Mail recorded delivery.

Since Gabrielle’s death interest in the drug has surged as has the incidence of dreadful newspaper articles bemoaning those that take, sell or fail to regulate legal highs.

I certainly do not want to engage in the same proselytising here. While I hope my own views on drugs and drug use have been made clear elsewhere this is neither the time nor the place to advocate one drug policy regime over another.

As Professor Nutt discovered it is difficult to discuss drugs in anything other than the most derisory terms. Our press have meekly followed – as well as helping to create and enforce -this rule in the articles discussed above but in doing so they have descended to out right speculation and evidence free moralising.

What this death offered was a chance to be be honest and nothing more; nobody was forced to write an article with any more detail than that which was put up by the BBC, linked to above. As has become clear Gabrielle’s death was linked to drugs only by proximity and hearsay but this did not stop a string of articles in the quality and gutter press taking advantage of the circumstance of ther death.

I can see at least three reasons why this may have happened. First of all, paper’s staffing levels have dropped significantly while they have maintained a similar word count to a few decades ago. On top of the erosion of fact checking and real investigative journalism, this means that personal tragedies which can be given a wider angle have become essential to creating a full newpaper at the expense of journalistic integrity. See Flat Earth News for more on this.

The angle given to this story, that of the menace of drugs, has become something which is guaranteed to increase sales and hence revenues. Provocation has become one of the most important ways to sell papers. For example, every Express front page has this element, but this stands out for me.

Lastly there is of course the moral certitude of those working and running these papers that means they thought they already knew what had happened before the coroner or Sussex Police. It turns out their “spcualtion” was incorrect yet don’t expect to see correspondingly sized retractions, or any retractions.

My heart goes out to her family – I am truly sorry that her death has became a good way to sell papers and a talking point for illiberal reaction.

Shorter BBC: Chief Drug Adviser sacked for truth telling

Long BBC:

Drug adviser sacked for comments

Woman smoking


Proff Nutt criticised the reclassification of cannabis

The UK’s chief drugs adviser has been sacked by home secretary Alan Johnson after criticising government policies.

Professor David Nutt had been critical of the decision to reclassify cannabis to Class B from Class C.

He accused ministers of devaluing and distorting evidence and said the drugs classification system was being used in a “political way”.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which he headed, is the UK’s official drugs advisory body.

Shorter BBC: Chief Drug Adviser sacked for telling the truth. And we don’t want the truth anywhere near our drugs policy, now do we?

Even shorter BBC: Chief Drug Adviser sacked for being better at his job than the home secretary was at hers.

If this is true then it is a slap in the face for anyone who thinks that policy should be based on evidence.

It seems experts are now expected to give the evidence they are asked for and to say “Thank you, sir. Can I have another?” when their evidence is ignored and they are rudely slapped down.

Selected Reading 19/07/09 UPDATED

I’ve just spent a fantastic afternoon at the races. I won a magnificent total of £5.60 from the £18 I put on… so maybe some more practice necessary. It’s Sunday and time for some selected reading.

That’s your fill for now. Happy blogging guys!

UPDATE: Fantastic article from Cath Elliott at LibCon on The BNP’s lies in Norwich North

If you do nothing else today…

…ask your MP to sign this. Below is a statement showing solidarity with the legally elected Government of Honduras. It only takes 30 seconds and it’s available here.

Signatories already include 30 parliamentarians, Red Ken, Trade Union Secretaries and various Musicians, Playwright and Academics. Shouldn’t your MP be on it too?

ZelayaWe totally condemn the military coup and kidnapping of the democratically elected President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya.

On Sunday 28 June, President Manuel Zelaya Rosales was kidnapped, removed from his home by force, rendered incommunicado for several hours and expelled from his country.

Soldiers also seized Honduran Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas and the Ambassadors of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

The military and coup conspirators are trying to suppress popular demonstrations and news by blanket military presence, curfews and intimidation of reporters. President Zelaya was working to free his country from decades hunger and poverty.

This military coup is an illegal attempt to use armed force to overturn the course of democracy and social progress chosen by the Honduran people at the polls.

We call upon every government in the world to demand the restoration of the democratically elected President of Honduras and to pledge not to recognise the illegal government put in power by a military coup.

Lessons from Portugal: You need to go Further

There’s a very interesting post at LibCon discussing the last 8 years of Portugal’s experiment with decriminalising Drugs. Unfortunately it appears that this post has missed the mark on the most important concern for any drug policy: the supply chain.

Drug Wars For a post which repeatedly reaffirms its liberalism, it appears to take quite a dim view of drug use. As is made clear, the post avoids moralising on whether drug use in itself is good or bad, and I understand that from a public health point of view, reduced drug use, like reduced drinking or smoking, is a good thing. However, I think that rather too little attention is given to what can be called “global public health” than is warranted. For example, the public health that comes from not being kidnapped and murdered. [1] A fair drugs policy cannot only look at the law and order, public health and morality of a one country’s citizens, it must look to all of those who would be affected.

Our Own Doing

The major problems associated with drug use in the West are largely of our own doing, and spring from our own hypocrisy. Probably not you or I personally, but the hypocritical system which various Governments have imposed, and to which we pay tax. We have decided to pick and choose what we control, and as you can see, we have not been consistent or fair.

Drug Harm Lancet

The Portuguese approach appears far better than our own. Rather than our own method of treating drugs as a Criminal Justice issue they are treated as a Public Health issue. Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction are set up and made of three people – a social worker, legal advisor and medical professional – supported by technical experts.

Police refer drug users to these panels and they are then not dragged through the Criminal Justice system. Simultaneously, a range of public health initiative were introduced, including drugs education, rehabilitation and drug treatment programmes. Although the Cato Institute study reviewed at LibCon is not particularly compelling the worst that can be said of Portugal’s efforts is that they have only been slightly better than our own, the best is that it has greatly reduced herion use and HIV transmission.

However, the countries which are worst affected are not lucky enough to be able to chose their position, like the Portuguese. They have had it thrust upon them by our stupid Governments and our vainglorious desire for drugs, regardless of the human cost. It is for the sake of the people living where drugs are produced and trafficked that we need to condemn the Portuguese method.

Afghanistan, The Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela, and Vietnam

El Universal began counting drug war executions four years ago. In 2007 over 2,700 people were executed in Mexico by drug gangs, by 2008 this had doubled to 5,612 people.

Although the efforts of the police in Portugal were shifted to tackling drug trafficking and smuggling, the fact that the Drug trade in Portugal remains illegal spells disaster for Mexico and the other dozen or so major drug producing countries.

So long as the drug trade remains illegal it will remain in the hands of murderous criminals. Unless demand drops to near zero there will be a profit to be made supplying drugs and if these drugs are illegal then violence is absolutely unavoidable.

This is where the countries listed above fall, unavoidably entwined in our drug use. No amount of harm reduction or violent crackdown will have an appreciable affect where it is most needed if it does not reduce demand. There is only one guaranteed method to improve the lives of those most adversely affected.

Legitimise the Supply Chain

Legalise, regulate and control. Without legalisation the supply chain will permeate violence through everything it touches. Without regulation and control there is no way to know what effect drugs would have on society at large.

A price can be set which would deter use but also undercut dealers. If a balance is struck there will not be a significant change to how affordable drugs but there will be a huge change in how it is supplied. Pharmacies would flourish and turf wars would terminate.

A legitimate market would be created not only removing millions from a criminal enterprise, but empowering as many in registered productive enterprises.

The problem with Portugal is that it is only treating a small part of a much large problem. I am sure that Martin Robbins agrees with some of the points I have made, but really feel that the discussion of drugs policy in this country is incredibly Myopic.

[1]I was going to post a specific story but I feel my point is better illustrated by the stream of google results available.