Sunday, April 23, 2017

by Dr Marie-Hélène Labbé

In an interview with U.S. television channel CNN, broadcast on Monday 26 October, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he was sorry for Iraq war mistakes , referring to the 2003 intervention in Iraq, during which he was George W. Bush’s main ally. “I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong. I can also apologise, by the way, for some of the mistakes in planning, and certainly our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once we removed the regime”. This dramatic confession was taken up by the Telegraph and by various British tabloids. It may well signal open season with regard to responsibility: who manipulated whom? Who lied? The senior politicians, who wanted war at any price? The intelligence services, who did not do their job properly? The military, who incurred significant losses but who were ill-equipped and poorly trained because the decision to go to war could not be disclosed while the U.N. option was still officially being pursued?

Blair made the decision in favour of military intervention in Iraq alongside the United States “on a wing and a prayer”; without a great deal of reflection, and more on emotion than on judgement, but with the hope that he would nevertheless succeed, despite knowing himself to be ill-prepared. This is a paradox that continues to shape Blair’s attitude. He has consistently maintained, both during the Chilcot hearings and afterwards, that it was necessary to rid the world of a bloody tyrant and that he did not regret it. He reiterated this on CNN on 26 October.

Perhaps, but a decision to go to war is no ordinary decision. It commits an entire government, involves the armed forces, and requires some thought to have been given to the aftermath. Blair and his inner circle, however, did none of this. It was this combination of the messianic and the off-key, even improvisational, that so shocked the British people; particularly as he was swiftly castigated by British military victims, by the general officers discredited for their role in the Basra fiasco, but above all, for the subsequent neglect and then collapse of Iraq. While the emergence of ISIS is not, strictly speaking, the direct result of the U.S.-British intervention in 2003, that intervention nevertheless paved the way and gave Islamic State its leading figures. Implementing a decision taken so lightly could not fail to be a challenge in a region as complex as the Middle East, and in a country ravaged by tribal rivalries and religious conflict and bled dry by twenty-five years of Western wars and economic sanctions.

More serious, however, is that this decision was based on a lie. We now know that Blair knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when he stood before Parliament, and that the reasons that he presented to Parliament for the legality of the war did not, therefore, hold. President Bush knew this too, as did his advisors. And yet they have not been punished for it. Nothing: not the slightest reprimand, not the most minor of sanctions. Bush and Blair were even re-elected in 2004 and 2005. The Iraqi War did indeed take place, but the mission is far from complete, contrary to Bush’s bold:” Mission accomplished” on 1 May 2003 . Wellington said that “a great country cannot wage a little war”. The United Kingdom has painful experience of that fact. Winning the war against Saddam was not a challenge. Establishing peace and building a strong and viable State, on shifting and uncertain foundations: this is the real challenge. And neither the United States not the United Kingdom has risen to it.

The coalition’s failure, then, is blatant and there would be nothing shocking – it would, rather, be morally right - for those responsible for that error to be held accountable to the people who elected them.

There would appear, as publication of the Chilcot report approaches, to be mounting apprehension among two groups of people. The first is Sir John Chilcot himself, as he may be accused by those incriminated in the report - surprisingly, given the years that have passed – of failing to allow them sufficient time to respond. The second is the witnesses: firstly, because they may break the pact of silence that had bound them together since the hearings began six years ago; witnesses such as Clare Short, Blair’s Minister for International Development, who declared the first draft of the report to be “very poor and as big as War and Peace ”. The second reason for this apprehension, however, is that the various parties are seeking to lay the blame at each other’s doors. The military accuses the politicians of a lack of preparedness, and fears charges under the Human Rights Act or other international procedures. Senior officials within the intelligence services have already written their memoirs – in which they have recorded their own truths. These, for now, are kept quietly private, but would certainly be made public if these officials were criticised, and if the politicians responsible – read, Blair – were to be cleared of any wrongdoing. Until 26th October, the most senior politicians - Brown, Blair and Straw – seemed unaffected, without apology or regret. They became highly prized advisors, for whom the Iraq war was a distant memory. Things might change dramatically for them. By publicly apologising on 26 October for the invasion of Iraq - and shifting the responsibility onto the intelligence services - Tony Blair has opened up a Pandora ’s Box of cascading liability. The Chilcot report will be transmitted to the Prime Minister the week of 18 April and, following the PM’s clearance, it will be published. It will in all likelihood be dangerous.

Dr Labbé is Visiting fellow at Durham University. She is the author of “Le traumatisme irakien” to be published in February 2016 by the Presses universitaires de Paris Sorbonne.

by Erin Nash

Dr Ha-Joon Chang

Last week, we were pleased to welcome Dr Ha-Joon Chang to speak as part of our CHESS/GPI Seminar Series in Philosophy, Economics and Public Policy. Dr Chang, a leading development economist and a prominent critic of ‘intellectual monocropping’ in economics, has been teaching economics in the Faculty of Economics and through the Development Studies programme at the University of Cambridge for more than two decades.

Chang commenced his presentation by noting that the most illuminating aspect of mainstream economics today is that economics is not limited to the study of anything in particular, including the economy. Economics is defined by its tools of analysis (mathematical models, mostly involving optimisation and equilibrium), rather than it’s object inquiry. The prevalence of this view is why so many popular economics books of recent years, such as Freakonomics have claimed, to be about "everything" or, sometimes with more modesty, “almost everything”.

Defining economics this way, in terms of its methodology and tools rather than its object of inquiry, goes a long way to explaining why the current landscape within economics has become dominated by just one school, neoclassical economics, with its set of core principles and assumptions – that individuals are perfectly selfish, perfectly rational, and able to create perfect markets by acting in their own interests. Plausible competing theories have been ignored; and we are suffering for it, claims Chang.

Consequently the key thesis of Dr Chang’s presentation was that economics warrants a pluralist approach, as no economic school, theory or methodology is globally superior to any other. Part of the self-image of many academic and practicing economists today is that economics is a well-established and settled science. But it is not, Chang emphasised. Dr Chang doesn’t believe it’s possible for economics to ever be a science in the way physics is, and so he isn't looking for a formula: fundamentally, he argues, economics is politics, and thus we shouldn't be thinking in terms of an ideal answer – the discussion should never close and the diversity that already exists needs to be preserved and propagated.

He explained that there are at least nine major schools of economics, possibly more if you include some minor schools or split bigger schools into sub-schools. Those nine schools are Austrian, Classical, Marxist, Institutionalist, Developmentalist, Behaviourist, Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Schumpeterian. Each school contains many different economic theories, methodologies and tools which all have strengths and weaknesses and something to contribute to economic problem solving, depending on the context. Hence Chang’s ideal that we recognise that none of these ideas are sacred, nor worthless. He insists that you can pick and choose from each and even mix them to understand our complex reality from different perspectives and to create new, innovative solutions.

It is for these reasons, Dr Chang is an outspoken advocate for curriculum reform in academic economics and in helping the average person in society to have a deeper understanding of economics. His latest book, Economics: The User’s Guide, aims to do just this, and contains a chapter upon which this presentation was based.

by Anna de Bruyckere

Dr. Tobias Henschen, research fellow at the Zukunftskolleg at the University of Konstanz, gave a talk in the Birley Room in Hatfield College that proved a worthy end to the 2014 CHESS/GPI seminar series in Philosophy, Economics, and Public Policy. Henschen is a philosopher and economist speaking to us about causal epistemology and non-cognitive values regarding modelling for policy purposes.

Henschen’s point of departure is his observation that structural modelling constitutes the main methodology of those social scientific practices that produce results with the purpose of informing public policy making. Structural models are systems of linear equations representing the co-variation of variables. These variables can be endogenous or exogenous. In other words, for some variables, the values are explained by reference to the values of the other variables within the model. For others, this is not so; their determinants fall outside the model.

Congenial to an interventionist account of causation such as James Woodward’s, Henschen takes a structural model “to represent a stable and autonomous mechanism if the value of Y changes as a result to an intervention on the value of X.” He labels such an account as objectivist, as “it assumes that stable and autonomous mechanisms exist, that we can identify them, and that we can manipulate them for policy purposes.”

He notes the widespread confidence in the possibility of obtaining evidence for interventionist causal claims regarding the relations between variables of structural models. Such evidence is to be obtained methodically such as through randomized control trials (RCTs), analyses of natural experiments, and all sorts of statistical independence tests.

Henschen argues that the confidence placed in our usual practices of gathering empirical evidence for claims about causal relations is not warranted. The main problem consists in the fact that evidence will always remain inconclusive, in the sense that we can never be certain on its basis that the value of Y changes as a result to a change in the value of X. It remains, on principle, always possible to question the assertion of the existence of a causal relation: any evidentiary propositions that the proponent will bring into the debate can itself be debated. This is so because whatever kind of evidence the proposition is based on, its establishment will come with its own assumptions that either opponents can show to be violated, or the proponent cannot show to have been met.

More specifically, all methods of producing evidence rely on strong background assumptions which economists rarely have proper grounds for. In particular, these assumptions cannot be defended on statistical grounds. Pointing to the overwhelming centrality of number crunching in evidentiary economic practices, Henschen holds that other kinds of evidentiary reasoning, such as based on historical or institutional or otherwise qualitative data, cannot carry the same consensus-forming force. Hence, this principled lack of conclusive statistical support for evidentiary propositions and their methodical assumptions is highly detrimental on Henschen’s view—as statistics are the only means to bring about consensus among economists.

For that reason, Henschen holds that objectivist accounts of causation (such as the interventionist account) are unsatisfactory: regardless of their metaphysical value, they come with an epistemology that is beyond our epistemic capacities. Consequently, Henschen proposes a subjectivist variant of an interventionist account of causation to save the legitimacy of model-based policy: “a definition of causality in terms of the subjective belief that the value of a dependent variable would change as a result to a change in the value of an independent variable.”

In the absence of conclusive objective evidence for such beliefs, Henschen further argues that these beliefs are at least partly determined by non-epistemic values, where the meaning of ‘value’ seems determined as exactly this absence of conclusive objective evidence. He draws on Hempel’s account of the influence of values on scientific activity, scientific knowledge, and scientific method, respectively. On Henschen’s account, empirical evidence does still play a (large) role in the development of subjective beliefs about causal relations between variables of the model (and, supposedly, the real world target the model is meant to elucidate). RCTs, natural experiments, statistical independence tests, and the like are joined by value judgments, group interests, and ideological commitment in order to determine social scientific policy makers’ beliefs that a policy intervention on variable X of magnitude a would produce a change in the value of dependent variable Y of magnitude b.

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