It’s nearly a cliché, but it still resonates with me. People accuse each other of living in “bubbles” – and when they do so, the accusation usually has bight. But the people who make the accusation are merely living in different bubbles. We all are; and it helps us if we realise it.
A bubble is a small, self-contained world which contains its own atmosphere, protected by a nearly invisible wall, which lets those inside see the wider world outside, and maybe pretend that they are fully part of it. And every so often the bubble hits an obstacle in the outside world, and bursts. Suddenly those inside are subject to a catastrophic shock.
As a metaphor it describes a describes an intellectual process. We sustain ideas by protecting them from the vicissitudes of what is going on in the real world around us, discounting facts that challenge them, seizing on ones that support them – and a similar process goes on with those that we consort with – we prefer people who support our view and avoid those who don’t. As this bubble existence continues our strength of conviction is increased by this process. Until one day, maybe, the idea can’t be sustained and it’s all over. Actually the bubble rarely bursts so dramatically in real life – though we always fancy that other people’s bubbles will.
What bought on this reflection? Reading Saturday’s Guardian I reached the “Comment & Debate” section, and there were two articles on the same page which seemed to sum up what I think of as the Guardian’s bubble – one that persists in believing that austerity economic policies are a fraud and a failure. One was by Robert Skidelsky – U-turn for the better – a direct attack government policy, while welcoming the apparent softening of it in favour of more infrastructure investment. The other was from Jonathan Freedland – Balls has the rare political right to say: I told you so – praising Ed Balls, and especially that he was amongst the first to criticise austerity. I didn’t read either article, but just harrumphed and moved on.
Still, this is a blog, not a Twitter feed, and I owe it to my readers to actually read the articles before passing comment, and I did so today. Mr Freedland’s doesn’t fit my bubble pattern. He clearly inhabits the bubble, agreeing with Mr Balls’s analysis of the economy, but this only affects one non-critical sentence in the piece. The article makes perfect sense politically, even if you don’t happen to agree with the economics; it’s a good article, in fact. Mr Balls has been written off, but he’s winning.
But Professor Skidelsky produces pure bubble fare. He does report the government logic more fairly than some, merely to dismiss it with this: “This is discreditable nonsense. But it has an air of plausibility.” Actually precisely what I think of the professor’s article. To me the give-away was this sentence: “If the [infrastructure] spending had not been cut, the deficit would now be smaller, because the economy would be larger.” This is either a suspension of the laws of arithmetic, or shows an astonishing faith in in the multiplier effect of this type of spending – for each 1% of extra deficit spending you need to add 12% or more GDP as a whole to sustain this argument. By substituting “debt” for “deficit” it may be somewhat more sensible (you need less than 2% growth for each 1% spend -at the most optimistic) – but it still heavily depends on the multiplier idea. This is an area of ongoing debate amongst economists – and yet Professor Skidelsky presents it as an accepted fact. And without it the rest of his argument starts to fall apart.
Professor Skidelsky is not a fully trained economist (though neither am I), and I think it shows in his writing; his main claim to credibility is that he wrote an authoritative biography of Maynard Keynes. But plenty of fully fledged economists agree with him – but that does not make this argument less contentious.
Or less wrong. From my bubble. Because I clearly inhabit my own bubble. One in which the Government’s economic policies are making the best of a bad situation, and, separately that the Liberal Democrats will not be annihilated for a generation. A more neutral observer would not share either conviction.
Why do we live in such bubbles? It’s just very hard to stay on the fence the whole time, or to change your mind every few days with the next piece of passing news. The only way to do it is by not really caring. But really it helps to have some self-awareness about this – and this is the only way to appeal to those outside your bubble.
The Guardian is a better newspaper than many. But what is the point of giving such prominence to purely polemical articles like Robert Skidelsky’s? They need more serious comment, like that produced by Jonathan Freedland, which do not insult their readers’ intelligence just to give the members of their particular bubble something to cheer at.