Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Economics of Empathy

"How could they?"

That's most people's reaction to the various reports and allegations about the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961. Hopefully the truth (or as much of it as is possible after such a long period of time) will be revealed in due course.

But back to the question: "how could they?" Some attempts have been made at answers, focusing say on the 'Victorian' social policy ethos that endured in Ireland into the 20th century; while others see it as yet more evidence of a repressive, sexually-obsessed Catholicism that added a uniquely Irish edge to the cruelty inflicted on the young and vulnerable.

No doubt such views will form part of the final explanation (if there ever is one) when the different investigations are completed.

But I wonder will economics form part of the final explanation as well? Ireland wasn't the only country to treat its children cruelly in the past (especially orphans and those of single mothers). The UK's 'Home Children' programme saw more than 100,000 children (often against their will and without the consent of their parents) sent to the 'colonies' right up to the 1970s.  Sweden tried to 'solve' its orphan problem with compulsory sterilisation (to prevent any recurrence) also up to the 1970s. Religion and culture are only partial explanations for the past.

So again, how could they? We look back from our privileged position in a wealthy country with a growing economy and wonder why they did what they did instead of what we would do. But there's the rub: they didn't have the economic resources then that we now have (nor did the British or Swedish for that matter). The nuns and others in Tuam were making appallingly difficult decisions under extremely constrained conditions. At one point as many as five babies and children were dying every week during some of the more virulent infections in Tuam, while the local county council 'supported' the home to the tune of just £1 per week per child.

No doubt such conditions brought out the worst in some of those running the home (and similar institutions throughout the country), while they also brought out the best in others.

Would we have done things differently? Of course we would, or so we think. But what were the real options in Ireland (or Britain or Sweden) in the first half of the 20th century? An unmarried woman who became pregnant back then meant an extra mouth to feed in her family home without the financial support of the child's father (usually), and little or no prospect of her working outside the home (for reasons of stigma certainly, but also because in mainly rural societies there just weren't many such options).

So what were the state's options in response to the real pressures families faced in such situations? The 'affordable' one was to subcontract the care of the children - and sometimes the women - to the religious orders. They were low cost operations (run essentially on voluntary labour: the 'gift economy' preceded the 'gig economy' by some centuries). And so the state did, as it did also with the running of hospitals and schools. Not having colonies was another constraint, of course. The task of caring for the children was essentially outsourced to poorly trained, poorly resourced and poorly managed volunteers; well intentioned for the most part perhaps, though not all evidently, but clearly it wasn't enough.

So would we have done things differently? Faced with the same conditions I'm not so sure we would. Indeed, we still operate under resource constraints: we can't do everything we want to do for those who might benefit from more help, support, expertise or just money. And even when we increase the resources available it's not obvious how to solve the problem - as the ongoing saga of homelessness reminds us on a daily basis. Or hospital waiting lists or the treatment of asylum seekers.

Moreover, in the event of another recession or economic shock (and I'm sure you and I could imagine 2, 3 or 10 such scenarios in the not too distant future), then we might find even our current level of resources put under severe pressure - forcing us to make choices and hard decisions we thought we wouldn't have to make again.

But there's another problem - more resources may not be enough. As Paul Bloom points out in his book 'Against Empathy' (discussed recently on Econtalk), we may have reached the limits of empathy as the basis for settling and solving the social issues and problems that we face. He argues that 'empathy' is cheap (emotionally and even financially), and that what is needed instead is 'rational compassion'. Rather than feeling people's pain (and then moving on), we need to look at their situation compassionately but rationally and figure out the best way to help resolve their situation, if it can be resolved.

As Tuam and other revelations have revealed, the Economics of Empathy is not enough: it wasn't back then and it isn't now.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

It's Complicated

Via the UK Government's white paper on Brexit published today:

Maybe we should do a deal, and get the Germans to leave the eurozone instead? Ambrose agrees with Trump that Germany should stop running an illegal currency racket. Ireland (and Italy and Greece etc) is the mark, in case you're wondering.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Think Big

From 2004:
"To me it’s very simple: if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big. Most people think small because most people are afraid of success, afraid of making decisions, afraid of winning. And that gives people like me a great advantage."
The words of Donald J. Trump, President of the United States of America. Impressive.

The next 8 years are going to be extraordinary. Though not always in a good way. And not necessarily for a small island in the North-East Atlantic.

Time we began to think big too.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Children of the Millennium

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
William Wordsworth
That was Wordsworth on the French Revolution, although it's fair to say his ardour diminished somewhat as the blood toll rose. 2016's Brexit & Trump weren't quite the French Revolution (at least not yet), though I'm pretty sure the young aren't feeling the bliss right now.

My article in today's Irish Times.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

News of the Realm

Ben Hunt, channeling Sir Thomas Gresham - the Elizabethan economist - speculates that:
The fiat news business is booming. As a result, the counterfeit news business is booming, too. And if the history of fiat money and counterfeit money is any guide, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
Smartest thing you'll read about fake news ever. And that's the truth.

Meanwhile, on a slightly lighter note, a different kind of headline:

Culture In Which All Truth Is Relative Suddenly Concerned About Fake News

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Becoming Human

“And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.” Walter Wink

Via the Girardian Lectionary, inspired by the marvellous René Girard.

Happy Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2016

It's All Fake News

“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world?  Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy.  It was a disaster.  No one would accept the program.  Entire crops were lost. …The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was re-designed to this: the peak of your civilization.” Agent Smith, The Matrix
Someone once said about news stories that 'the issue is never the issue'. In other words, whatever you think the story is about, it's really about something else. That makes sense to me. The more I observe the bizarre twists and turns in story after story about Syria, Russian hacking, immigration and our very own housing crisis the more it becomes apparent that 'the issue isn't the issue'.

I'm not the only one, obviously. The 'surprise' of Brexit and then Trump is a sign that our primitive cerebrums are trying to wake up. Entire crops have been lost already... by the mainstream media as it struggles to convince us with fake news stories about fake news in our post-truth world.

But fewer and fewer will accept the program. It can only end in 'disaster'... just don't expect to read about it in the news.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Unmaking Money

I remember when I was a student at the LSE a lecturer talking, in hushed awe, about the Irish bank strikes in the 1970s and how a modern country somehow managed to get by without a banking system.

It seems to me we're witnessing something even more awe-inspiring  (though that might not capture the full horror of what is unfolding), as India runs an experiment in running a cash economy without any cash. Last week, November 9th, as the world was somewhat focussed on the election of Donal Trump as the next President of the United States, the Indian Government took advantage of the distraction to ban overnight the use of Rs500 ($7.50) and Rs1,000 ($15) banknotes. Banks and ATMs were closed as the Government replaced all the bank stocks of Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes with Rs100 notes. Apparently it's all to do with fighting terrorism: it alway is.

Except it seems they haven't supplied enough Rs100 and other notes: surprising that in a country renowned throughout the world for bureaucratic efficiency and streamlined administrative practices, not. The result - in an overwhelmingly cash based economy - is, shock horror, unfolding economic collapse. Who knew?

Maybe all those advocating the abolition of cash might want to learn some lessons fast, before it turns up in the economic text books as a case of 'how not to do things' in a modern (or modernising) economy.  Though  doing without banks might be an experiment worth rerunning...

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Closing of the Liberal Mind

"People who think their own opinions make them virtuous have the most closed minds of all." Peter Hitchens (in a despondent mood)
That's three out of three so far this year for me: I forecast there would be no Fianna Fail/Fine Gael coalition government; that the British would vote Leave; and that Donald Trump would be the next President of the United States (back in July as it happens). Only wish I'd placed an accumulator bet with Paddy Power...

So how did I do it? Was it some kind of Nate-Silveresque algorithm (though his own blew up alongside every other major pollster)? Or maybe I had my own private polls? Nope. My secret was (is) to try and see things as they are, not as I would like them to be. I know: not terribly special. In fact, as talents go it's one that was remarkably common when I was growing up. Though not so much these days it seems.

How did we end up in this state? One in which the mass media (or should that be the 'media en masse') has ended up a sad little echo chamber, virtue signalling its liberal credentials to one another even as, you know, reality moves on. Whose on the wrong side of history now?

What we have witnessed in 2016 is the acceleration of a phenomenon that has been gathering pace in recent decades. That phenomenon is the closing of the liberal, progressive, leftist mind, to the point that it no longer sees things as they are but only as they would like them to be. And despite their perennial rebellion they have failed to notice that THEY ARE THE ESTABLISHMENT; THE MAN; THE SYSTEM. And so they simply cannot comprehend it when the People reject the establishment by rejecting THEM.

Not all leftists have lost touch with reality, however.  Michael Moore - a reluctant Hillary supporter - intuited that Trump's election would be 'the biggest 'f**k you message ever recorded in human history'. And if you haven't seen the video, go see it now: it's right up there with Al Pacino's 'one more inch' pep talk in Any Given Sunday. I knew in my head Trump would win back in July, I knew in my heart he would win when I saw that video just a few weeks ago.

There's a bigger problem. I call it 'the closing of the Liberal mind'. Alastair Roberts calls it Liberal Obliviousness. Here he is on the liberal/progressive outlook during the election:
The troubling thing is the frequent unwillingness to attempt to believe better of their fellow Americans, to explore the possibility that perhaps many Trump voters are intelligent, well-meaning, and, yes, fearful people just like themselves, people who are actually opposed to misogyny and racism and only voted for Trump because they believed there was no other choice. The fact that such liberals seem to find it more reassuring to believe that an overwhelming multitude of their compatriots are irredeemably hateful and evil than it is for them to believe that a well-meaning and intelligent person might support an opposing candidate is immensely revealing. Perhaps it suggests that such people have more of an existential stake in the cocoons of ideological communities than they do in the world of social reality.
He continues:
While they flatter themselves that they are compassionate and open—they are standing for love!—their vicious vengefulness and hostility towards people, or the way that they sacrifice even the closest relationships on the altar of political and ideological differences, is truly terrifying. The other side isn’t just driven by different yet valid group concerns, or well-meaning but mistaken, or even compromised yet open to moral suasion. No, for so many they are evil and beyond redemption, a group that cannot be won over by reason, service, or love but can only be eradicated. 
Do read the whole thing.

What to do about it? How do we create a common dialogue based in reality rather than on psychological projection? Here in Ireland as well? Maybe it's self-correcting, a healthy backlash against Politically Correct doctrine that returns us to something more 'liberal' with a small 'l'. Successfully navigated such a turn might create a more 'inclusive' society, one which tolerates diversity of thought, not just diversity of religion, race or sexual orientation. We'll see. Like Bruce Charlton, I am filled 'with both hope and a dash of optimism' as we approach the end of 2016.

Though you'll have to wait a while longer for my 2017 forecasts.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Centenary Values

Below is the unedited text of my recent article in the Irish Times, part of their Centenary Conversations feature:

They say politics is downstream of culture, and culture is downstream of values. Politics changes on a daily basis; culture sometimes in a generation; while values change more slowly, if at all. In this centenary year we can observe these different patterns and pace of change in Irish society, and so reflect on where the stream of change might carry us in the future.

The commemorations and celebrations we have shared in 2016 have, as their touchstone, the 1916 Proclamation. Why? Its language is quite arcane and its subject matter somewhat dated: surely less than relevant to Ireland in 2016? Yet its words, and the wider discourse about 1916, has compelled us to think anew about our values and our culture, and even about our politics. Witness the enthusiasm with which thousands of children throughout the country composed their own proclamations on Proclamation Day earlier this year.

The power of this centenary year is ‘hidden in plain sight’ so to speak: it is a reminder of an extraordinary moment in time – ‘this supreme hour’ – which fused the past with the future, the dead generations with generations yet unborn. A moment when the course of history and the fate of destiny pivoted and took a different direction to that expected one hundred years ago in April 1916.

The ancient Greeks knew all about this. They had two concepts of time: chronos and kairos. The former – chronos – is what we usually mean by time, a single dimension linking the past to the present to the future. But kairos is different, it comes from an ancient Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment; a time in between, a moment in time when something special, something unexpected happens.

The 1916 Rising took place in kairos time – ‘she now seizes that moment’ – a fleeting intersection of opportunity and action. Yeats recognized kairos too in his immortal line ‘all changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born’. Right now, in this centenary year, some also sense a ‘moment’ to step back from the constant flow of chronos to once again adjust our course if we are unhappy with our future destiny as a nation. A chance to reconnect with kairos, even with beauty.

The centenary has captured our imagination in ways that were perhaps unexpected. There is a saying that ‘politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose’. Certainly the Rising was more poetry than prose – which is why the Proclamation still resonates with us a century later invoking, as it does, ‘the dead generations’, ‘cherishing all the children’, while calling us to our ‘august destiny’. Poetic indeed.

Yet much of contemporary politics appears ‘trapped’ in the present, and not just in Ireland. We had a general election at the beginning of this year in which 1916 barely featured beyond the usual bromides in speeches and press releases. It’s as if our politicians lack the capacity to reimage Ireland and the future by drawing inspiration from the past.

But, but… politics is downstream of culture, so it’s not surprising if our politicians are pre-occupied with the stuff of headlines, not proclamations. In a democracy we get the politicians we deserve. We have created a culture that values novelty over tradition and fashion over virtue, so we too are trapped in the present. We have become customers of the state, not citizens charged with our own sovereign destiny. We have forgotten, at least until now, our past and our duty to ‘give a vote’ to our ancestors, in G.K. Chesterton’s memorable phrase, to ‘the democracy of the dead’.

It comes back to values; it always does. Culture is downstream of values and one hundred years is enough time for values to change. But what are our values and how have they changed? Jonathan Haidt uses ‘moral foundation theory’ to distinguish between six distinct clusters of moral beliefs that shape our political and cultural values. To briefly summarize a substantial body of work, moral values can be said to cluster around: empathy, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Haidt finds that political liberals and progressives emphasize the first three clusters (empathy, fairness and liberty) almost exclusively; while social conservatives and traditionalists emphasize all six clusters, including loyalty, authority and sanctity. However, it is the moral virtues of loyalty, authority and sanctity that have been and remain the deepest sources of identity, purpose and meaning in societies and civilizations. Through them we ‘create’ tradition.

This leads to a genuine tension in a country like Ireland. Contemporary Irish politics – like the rest of Europe – is almost exclusively caste in the progressive mould, driving the current debate on issues such as inequality (fairness), repeal of the 8th amendment (liberty) and housing (empathy). But the centenary has also strengthened our sense of Irishness (loyalty), our connection with the men and women who founded the nation (authority), and our gratitude for their sacrifices (sanctity).

Post-2016 will we enter another general election with a different set of values and with different expectations? As always it depends: on events, on the economy and on the choice of policies and parties available to us. Look at what’s happening elsewhere: Brexit is all about values, not policies. Europe is entering kairos time: the confluence of Brexit, the fragmentation of the Eurozone and the refugee crisis are forcing a wider conversation about values, culture and destiny.

Richard Kearney recently observed in the pages of this paper that:

History is more than what has taken place and cannot be changed; it equally involves potential futures still dormant in the past.

There is something appealing, reassuring even about the idea of ‘potential futures’ waiting to be unearthed as we respond to the challenges of the present in preparation for the future. It suggests we don’t have to do it all on our own: our ancestors have our back. And we’ll need all the help we can get as we navigate our small nation through the turbulent times ahead.

The question, of course, is: who are ‘we’? As I stood with tens of thousands of others on the streets of Dublin on Easter Sunday, watching Capt Peter Kelleher read the Proclamation outside the GPO, there was a palpable sense of our nation coming together in a way we hadn’t for a very long time. Maybe this is our moment of kairos? Time will tell.

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