Thursday, July 30, 2015

Labour's Lost Love

Apparently the Labour Party plans on winning the next election with the support of Ashbourne Annie. Good luck with that. While I'm sure there's more than a few voters out there who would appreciate help with their childcare costs, it's hard to see it being a big vote winner for Labour. And if it does looks like one then expect it to figure in more than a few manifestos.

But Labour's decline in Ireland has little to do with childcare costs or the Ashbourne Annies of this world. It goes a lot deeper than that. Recent analyses of Labour's performance in the UK shed some light on the decline. The problem for Labour in Ireland as in the UK is that it has lost its soul. Here's Luke Bretherton on the topic:
But if any meaningful language and vision of change is to emerge within the Labour Party, it needs to develop a way of talking about love and sin. To do this it needs to focus more on organizing and less on policy and procedure. It needs to be more populist and less progressive. To romance the electorate it must learn again to speak in the idioms of ordinary people. Rather than impose on them brittle schemes of social engineering, it needs to draw on the traditions and customary practices of the people it wants to represent in order to discover ways of forging a common life - a life that cares for the heart and soul, not just the market and the state. 
Admittedly that's not the sort of insight you'll get from a focus group in Ashbourne, or anywhere else for that matter. Modern political parties - on the left and on the right - are entirely managerialist in nature and simply offer to be better bureaucrats than the opposition. No wonder people are disengaged from politics.

Ironically, the left, including Labour, is a victim of its own success. The left replaced the politics of class identity and solidarity with the politics of cultural Marxism. The result was the destruction of much of the social capital and networks that had existed outside of the state and the market and had sustained the historical labour movement in the past. As Bruce Charlton observes:
What we have seen instead has been the near complete destruction of civil society in the West - and the process has bee all but un-remarked and un-noted as a general phenomenon. Almost all forms of human association have been brought under control of the state, most are irrelevant, participation in civil society is very low and feeble, many churches, professions social hobby groups been severely weakened or become extinct. 
Funnily enough, some on the left are beginning to notice that they've taken a wrong turn. John Milbank argues that Labour needs to differentiate between being 'market friendly' vs 'business friendly', recognising that the market economy - with its crafts and guilds which gave rise to the labour movement - predates the capitalist economy. While Chris Dillow thinks Labour needs to lose the blinkered view that only the State or the Market can solve all our problems: again, there are lots of social and economic alternatives that could restore the civil society that used to exist.

Indeed, such a project of restoration might unleash youthful energies that go far beyond the humdrum of politics. The always quotable Camille Paglia has this to say about today's young:
We have a whole generation of young people who are clinging to politics and to politicized visions of sexuality for their belief system.  They see nothing but politics, but politics is tiny.  Politics applies only to society. There is a huge metaphysical realm out there that involves the eternal principles of life and death. The great tragic texts, including the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, no longer have the central status they once had in education, because we have steadily moved away from the heritage of western civilization. 
It might be a hard sell to Ashbourne Annie, but it might just strike a chord with a lot of people who used to support Labour, until they realised that Labour no longer supported them.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Jarrow II

Next year sees the 80th anniversary of the Jarrow March at the height of the Great Depression in England in the 1930s.  Some 200 men marched over 26 days from Jarrow to London in October 1936, to draw attention to the devastating impact of economic collapse on their town and community and to seek support from the British Government. It was a complete failure.

But after World War II, many attributed the new spirit of social reform to the memory of Jarrow and other protests like it that galvanised the country to never again allow such suffering in its midst.

I have a suggestion for the Greeks: pick 200 (or maybe '300' would be more appropriate?) to march (or lead a motorcade) from Athens to Berlin, taking in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic along the way: a distance of some 2,900 kilometres.  Calling on the support of political parties and communities in the countries they pass through who in turn are opposed to 'perpetual austerity' in order to forge a new consciousness across the European Union about what is happening and what needs to be done.

It might take longer than the march from Jarrow to London, but the fruits might come sooner too.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Where is Martin Luther when you need him?

The ugly just got uglier - via The Automatic Earth:
The structure of the EU itself guarantees that Germany will always come out on top. But they can only stay on top by being lenient and above all fair, by letting the other countries share some of the loot. 
To know how this works, watch Marlon Brando, as Don Corleone, talk to the heads of the five families in the Godfather. You need to know what to do to, as he puts it, “keep the peace”. He’s accepted as the top leader precisely because the other capos understand he knows how. 
The Germans have shown that they don’t know this. And therefore, here comes a prediction, it’ll be all downhill from here for them. Germany’s period of -relative- economic strength effectively ended this weekend. The flaws in its economy will now be exposed, and the cracks will begin to show. If you want to be the godfather, the very first requirement is you need to be seen as fair. Or you will have no trust. And without trust you have nothing. It is not difficult. 
Germany will never get a deal like the EU has been for them, again. It was the best deal ever. And now they blew it, and they have no-one to blame but themselves. And really, the Godfather metaphor is a very apt one, in more ways than one. Schäuble could never be the capo di tutti capi, no-one would ever trust him in that role. Because he’s not a fair man. But he still tries to play the role. Big mistake. 
The people here in Greece are being forced to pay for years for something they were never a part of, and that they never profited from. The profits all went to a corrupt elite. And if there’s one thing Don Corleone could tell you, it’s that that’s a bad business model. Because it leads to war, to people being killed, to unrest, and all of that is bad for business.
Though in fairness to Wolfgang Schäuble he did actually make the Greeks an offer they could have accepted, according to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard:
In an odd way, the only European politician who was really offering Greece a way out of the impasse was Wolfgang Schauble, the German finance minister, even if his offer was made in a graceless fashion, almost in the form of diktat. 
His plan for a five-year velvet withdrawal from EMU – a euphemism, since he really meant Grexit – with Paris Club debt relief, humanitarian help, and a package of growth measures, might allow Greece to regain competitiveness under the drachma in an orderly way. 
Such a formula would imply intervention by the ECB to stabilise the drachma, preventing an overshoot and dangerous downward spiral. It would certainly have been better than the atrocious document that Mr Tsipras must now take back to Athens.
It may be too late for Tsipras to go back and ask him for more details, but the chances are the Greeks may well refuse the Don's offer anyway.

I mentioned before that Europe needs a second Reformation.  Rather than seeking a better Don Corleone (a dubious ambition to say the least) we would be better seeking a second Martin Luther, willing to speak truth to power almost 500 years after the last one. Though it's unlikely he'll be a German this time round...

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Democaplypse Now

The only distinction that democracies reward is a high degree of conformity. Ambrose Bierce
Steve Keen thinks we are all turning Japanese, or as he puts it more starkly:
We are now in an era of permanent debt-deflation, countered only by government deficits…
The 'We' by the way is most of the developed democracies in the world. In the presence of crushing levels of personal debt - and absent high enough inflation to reduce their share of nominal GDP - then we're up 'Greek Creek'. Even The Economist has started channelling Steve:
So if inflation has been hard to achieve and default looks like a risky option, then stagnation (or near-stagnation) ends up being the outcome. That has been the case in Japan, where sluggish economic growth has been the norm since its asset bubble burst in the early 1990s. But stagnation only postpones the problem. Japan has faced less pressure than most, since it owes money mainly to its own citizens—it does not have to worry about foreign creditors. Yet even Japan has tired of the situation: Abenomics was designed to get the country out of the trap by generating more growth and inflation.
Greece is but a leading indicator of what the rest of Europe will have to face. With one of Europe's fastest ageing populations coupled with unaffordable pension commitments then more debt (private or public) is the last thing the country needs to escape its euro-denominated chains.  

An orderly exit from the euro is Greece's 'least worst' option right now. And if they have any sense they'll introduce the Drachma as a parallel currency before the exit is complete. By the way, we should do the same in Ireland as part of our own Anti-Fragile strategy. Always good to have options.

As usual, Nigel Farage isn't afraid to speak truth to power:

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Morality Tales

The unfolding Greek drama provides a teachable moment, via Interfluidity:
Among creditors, a big catchphrase now is “moral hazard”. We cannot be too kind to Greece, we cannot forgive their debt with few string attached, because what kind of precedent would that set? If bad borrowers, other sovereigns, got the idea that they can overborrow without consequence, if Spanish and Portuguese populists perceive perhaps a better deal is on offer, they might demand that. They might continue to borrow and expect forgiveness, and where would it end except for the bankruptcy of the good Europeans who actually produce and save? 
The nerve. The fucking nerve. Lenders, having been made nearly whole on their ill-conceived, profit-motivated punts, now fear that if anybody is nice to somebody who doesn’t deserve it, where will it end? I’d resort to that cliché about chutspa, the kid who murders his parents then seeks leniency ‘cuz he’s an orphan. But it’s really too cute for the occasion. 
For the record, my sophisticated hard-working elite European interlocutors, the term moral hazard traditionally applies to creditors. It describes the hazard to the real economy that might result if investors fail to discriminate between valuable and not-so-valuable projects when they allocate society’s scarce resources as proxied by money claims. Lending to a corrupt, clientelist Greek state that squanders resources on activities unlikely to yield growth from which the debt could be serviced? That is precisely, exactly, what the term “moral hazard” exists to discourage. You did that. Yes, the Greek state was an unworthy and sometimes unscrupulous debtor. Newsflash: The world is full of unworthy and unscrupulous entities willing to take your money and call the transaction a “loan”. It always will be. That is why responsibility for, and the consequences of, extending credit badly must fall upon creditors, not debtors. There is one morality tale that says the debtor must repay, or she has sinned and must be punished. There is another morality tale that says the creditor must invest wisely, or she has stewarded resources poorly and must be punished. We get to choose which morality tale we most use to make sense of the world. We do, and surely should, use both to some degree. 
Read the whole thing.

With the FT reporting that, come Monday, Greek banks may 'bail in' their customers via a haircut of 30% of deposits over €8,000 (because all the larger depositors removed their money weeks and months ago), then the teachable moment will drive its lesson home good and hard.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Wrong Vision

"What discords will drive Europe into that artificial unity—only dry or drying sticks can be tied into a bundle—which is the decadence of every civilisation?" A VisionWilliam Butler Yeats
The bundle of sticks Yeats was referring to back in 1937 was of course the fasces, an ancient symbol that subsequently gave us the word fascism, then on the rise in Europe. Today, Europe's decadence - and Greece's tragic demise - is now tied up in another artificial union that is sure to fall apart.

Greece - and the rest of the European Union - should have spent the past five years helping Greece depart the euro. Instead, the artificial unity has been preserved at all costs, and to Ireland's shame we have been playing the part of Germany's loyal Rottweiler in the negotiations, ignoring Germany's own history of debt forgiveness.

The Greeks are far from blameless in this sorry saga: after all, they still manage to spend 2.2% of GDP on defence, far above the EU average and enough to pay for much of the pension and other spending they are now obliged to cut. Though it may be the price of keeping the Colonels happy.

Someone - a Greek as it happens - once said that there is no such place as Greece. The Greek mindset is in a sense 'pre-nationalist': more focused on regional, party and tribal loyalties. Hence the general antipathy to paying taxes. A bit like Ireland until at least the 1980s come to think of it.

But Greece - and the rest of Europe - deserves better than this shoddy treatment of a people whose ancestors gave us much of what makes us Europeans. There's only one thing a bundle of dry sticks is good for, as Yeats witnessed only a few short years after penning his prophetic words.

HT The Archdruid Report for the Yeats quote - I hadn't come across it before.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Happiness of Science

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. Robert Jastrow

I hope it's not a leading indicator (of the inverse kind) but there seem to be an awful lot of articles about the science of happiness recently. Whether it's 'well-being', 'happiness', 'quality of life', or 'life satisfaction' it appears that scientists are determined to come with a definitive formula for happiness at the level of individuals and even entire countries. I wish them well.

Social scientists have led the quest, though an awful lot of what they add involves slightly suspect analyses based on correlations between existing data series that were never designed to measure well-being or happiness in the first place. Case in point: Boston Consulting Group's Sustainable Economic Development Assessment or SEDA. Well-being is linked to an amalgam of indicators and sub-indicators under the headings of economics, sustainability and investment. Like a great many similar composite measures the choice of indicators seems to be partly a matter of what is readily available (and reasonably up-to-date) overlaid with a narrative about why a particular combination of indicators and themes best explains (or even predicts) a variable such as well-being or satisfaction. This despite the fact that many of the composite indicators are highly correlated with one another and don't really add an awful lot by way of explanation once the impact of, say, GDP per capita is taken into account.

The World Happiness Report does go further, using Gallup poll data from 156 countries (including answers to the Cantrill Ladder question which asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0, then to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale). The report then uses regression analysis to establish what explains the differences between countries in their Cantrill Ladder averages, finding that it's a function of variables such as GDP per capita, life expectancy, and answers to other poll questions about social support, corruption etc. Ireland ranks 18th, by the way, well below Israel in 11th place - go figure.

More recently, a major study on quality of life in Europe - based entirely on surveys - showed that variation in overall life satisfaction across Europe can be explained by a range of factors, including subjective perceptions of finances, environment, health etc. Only problem is all the subjective perceptions are highly correlated. A simple regression analysis of the average data for all the countries in the survey shows that subjective satisfaction with accommodation 'explains' more than 80% of the variation in life satisfaction, ignoring all other factors. Correlations again.

But leave it to the medical profession to get to the heart of the matter: according to the Mayo Clinic science tells us that purpose, gratitude, living in the moment and being with loved ones is the true source of happiness. Who knew? And yet, and yet... I can't help feeling that much of what passes for the science of happiness is unhappy science. If nearly half the scientific literature may simply be untrue (and that's according to The Lancet), then we need to take happiness findings with a large dose of skeptical salt. Even Daniel Kahneman, the grandfather of happiness research, thinks that 'a train wreck is looming' for the behavioural sciences never mind the 'hard' sciences because of shoddy research methods.

But it goes beyond research methods and mundane correlations. There's a worrying ideological slant to much of the research. Jonathan Haidt - himself a self-described liberal - thinks that academia's liberal bias is killing social science. Take some of the studies referred to above. The World Happiness Report doesn't mention religion once as an influence on happiness (though the word pops up twice in the title of referenced articles). The EU report on quality of life doesn't mention religion at all (despite long expositions on the meaning of life), though in fairness the word 'spirituality' does appear once in a footnote. The EU report does, however, have lots to say about GPG - or Gender Pay Gap. Which is odd because, despite numerous references to the evil of GPG (and the even more remarkable failure of entrepreneurial business people to set up 'women only' businesses to take advantage of the apparent gap), it doesn't explain why it adversely affects quality of life and life satisfaction in Europe (possibly because the same report tells us that women have a slightly higher life satisfaction than men?)

In fact there is considerable evidence for the hypothesis that religious people are happier on average than non-religious people, and it appears to have something to do with, well, religion. But that doesn't fit the 'liberal frame' and so is completely ignored. Which is a pity really, as it would make for a better science of happiness, and even for more happy scientists wishing to avoid the disappointment Robert Jastrow anticipated.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Establishment Won

One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny. 
Bertrand Russell

Sometimes history is just 'one damned thing after another', and sometimes something historic happens. Last week's referendum result on same-sex marriage certainly falls into the latter category. While it's a little early to tell precisely just how historic the result was - from the vantage point of one week later - I think we can begin to discern some interesting consequences.

History is written by the victors, and even at this early stage the story of what happened is taking on a discernible, even predictable narrative. As with most rights-based political campaigns - from Civil Rights in the United States to ending Apartheid in South Africa, and even to divorce and abortion here in Ireland - the Narrative usually follows an arc from hostile, even violent rejection by the Establishment to ultimate triumph by a group of passionate and brave idealists in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It's an appealing narrative because, much of the time, it's actually true.

Which brings us back to last Friday's referendum. It would appear from the re-telling that the Yes campaign began facing seemingly insurmountable odds, with little in the way of support (beyond the entire political system, the mass media, both the multinational and public sectors and a few dollars more) while taking on the combined might of the Iona Institute and, er, John Waters. It was a close run thing, but the Yes campaign finally prevailed and the Establishment lost.

Except that the Establishment won. The purpose of all politics is power - for good or ill - and if we apply the 'power test' to last week's referendum then we can safely say that the result strengthened the Establishment rather than weakened it. Yes, but 'who' is the Establishment you are asking? Let's say who it isn't first. It isn't the Catholic Church, though they were certainly once part of the Establishment. But the Narrative demands a Loser and obviously it suits many to portray the Catholic Church as the biggest loser last week. Even a lot of Catholics (both inside and outside Ireland) think that. However, anyone who thinks the Catholic Church is still part of the Establishment in Ireland must have recently arrived in a time capsule from the 1970s: things have changed a bit since then.

The Establishment in Ireland today comprises - in no particular order - the main political parties, state organisations (national and local), representative bodies, the Gardai, large corporations, various supra-national institutions such as the EU, the Social Partners etc.  In a word, all those calling for a Yes vote in the referendum. The Establishment won: congratulations.

Brendan O'Neill - once again - has a particularly interesting perspective on how the politics of same-sex marriage actually strengthens the state:
What we have here is not the politics of autonomy, but the politics of identity. Where the politics of autonomy was about ejecting the state from gay people’s lives — whether it was Stonewall rioters kicking the cops out of their bars or Peter Tatchell demanding the dismantling of all laws forbidding homosexual acts — the politics of identity calls upon the state to intervene in gay people’s lives, and offer them its recognition, its approval. For much of the past 50 years, radical gay-rights activism was in essence about saying ‘We do not need the approval of the state to live how we choose’; now, in the explicit words of The Politics of Same-Sex Marriage, it’s about seeking ‘the sanction of the state for our intimate relationships’. The rise of gay marriage over the past 10 years speaks, profoundly, to the diminution of the culture of autonomy, and its replacement by a far more nervous, insecure cultural outlook that continually requires lifestyle validation from external bodies. And the state is only too happy to play this authoritative role of approver of lifestyles, as evidenced in Enda Kenny’s patronising (yet widely celebrated) comment about Irish gays finally having their ‘fragile and deeply personal hopes realised’.
As a small aside, the Establishment also 'won' the other referendum too: no point letting inexperienced youths get hold of the Presidency (power again), better to leave these things to their elders and betters don't you think?

They say about referenda, and not just in Ireland, that often voters 'answer the wrong question'. So when the No side won the first Lisbon referendum, the explanation was they were answering the question 'Is the Government doing a good job' rather than 'should the Treaty of Lisbon be ratified?' We got the answer 'right' second time round of course. But sometimes people also say Yes to a different question than the one they're being asked. A lot of people voted Yes last week to the question 'Would Ireland be a better place if we didn't discriminate against gay people the way they were often cruelly discriminated against in the past'? Naturally most people answered Yes; so would I to such a question. But that wasn't the question.

The remarkable thing in hindsight is that the No campaign got 38% of the vote: 734,300 in total. All the opinion polls prior to the vote - and I mean ALL - were wrong about the size of the No share. Not just out by a bit, but out by more than double the error in the recent UK election polling debacle. So while there has been understandable speculation about the newly awakened political activism of the young generation, I'm not so sure. What nobody seems to be pointing out is that they went and did what the Establishment was urging them to do by voting Yes. I thought the young were supposed to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, not do its bidding? And then there was the result of that other referendum: so much for a newly awakened generation of political activists seizing the reigns of power.

That nearly 4 in 10 voted against the Establishment is quite remarkable and in most democracies would be seen by one opposition party or another as a golden opportunity to rally a significant number of voters to an alternative platform. But not in Ireland apparently, even (or especially) if you are Fianna Fáil. There's Renua of course (strap-line: 'The Same, Only Nicer'), then again, maybe not.

But back to history and its making. What is truly historic about the times we live in is the speed with which Irish culture and social values are changing. Some of it is about virtue signalling, but the speed and nature of change goes much further. The introduction of same-sex marriage won't change much on its own. As I said about the introduction of civil partnerships nearly six years ago, the number of gay couples availing of their new-won rights will be trivially small in the scheme of things (both numerically and as a share of all marriages/civil partnerships). Though I don't doubt its importance to the happiness of those gay couples who will avail of marriage.

Rather it is the wider impact of change that matters in the long run. Ireland is progressing rapidly (perhaps more than others) from what Charles Taylor describes as a 'Secular 2' society (the modern concept of the secular as 'areligious') to a 'Secular 3' society (a post-modern age which sees an explosive 'supernova' of contested beliefs: religious, irreligious and anti-religious).  As James KA Smith describes it, the secular is haunted. Ireland is no exception.

In a way, last week's referendum result marked the moment Ireland became 'just like everywhere else': apparently no longer weighed down by a heritage of sexual, religious and cultural repression. Witnessing the celebrations of the Yes campaign, James Matthew Wilson wrote about the Irish:
But, finally, they take joy in becoming what, it seems, they were always meant to become. An unexceptional country floating somewhere in the waters off a continent that has long since entered into cultural decline, demographic winter, and the petty and perpetual discontents that come free of charge to every people that lives for nothing much in particular.
I'm not so gloomy, but I see some of what he portends. Though there is a more immediate problem: we may be losing the shared vocabulary of political discourse necessary to sustain a healthy democracy (secular or otherwise). Assuming we can find any politicians willing to join in the discourse. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, surveying the same contested political landscape in the United States, notes that:
The biggest problem we face as a culture isn’t gay marriage or global warming. It’s not abortion funding or the federal debt. These are vital issues, clearly. But the deeper problem, the one that’s crippling us, is that we use words like justice, rights, freedom and dignity without any commonly shared meaning to their content. 
We speak the same language, but the words don’t mean the same thing. Our public discourse never gets down to what’s true and what isn’t, because it can’t. Our most important debates boil out to who can deploy the best words in the best way to get power.
Back to politics and power again. The Establishment always wins.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Virtue Signalling

Ireland's referendum to redefine marriage is nearly over. The campaign will - I suspect - be pored over for years to come in relation to social change advocacy and resistance to same.

But I think it will also be remembered for the extraordinary way in which the campaign became a platform - albeit for the Yes side - to very publicly signal one's voting intentions, secret ballot be damned. So a lot of 'Tá' badges and stickers, 'Níl' badges not so much. Kim would certainly approve.

I recently came across a name for this, it's called Virtue Signalling and has been used to describe the surprise outcome of the recent UK election and the emergence (if that's the right word) of the 'Shy Tory' voter. According to James Bartholomew, virtue signalling is all about using what you say and how you say it to indicate to others that you are 'kind, decent and virtuous', and those with whom you disagree are the very opposite.

So in the UK, attacking the Daily Mail, Nigel Farrage and the Conservatives is all about signalling that you are nice because they are nasty. Bartholomew laments:
There was a time when Britain had a form of Christianity in which pride was considered a sin. Maybe that is part of why some of us find all this virtue signalling obnoxious. It’s just showing off. For some of us it is both ridiculous and irritating that people who say that they hate Ukip actually believe they are being more virtuous than others who visit the sick, give money to charity or are kind to someone lonely. But the widespread way in which people now proudly boast suggests there is no shame, no reflection. And because of this lack of awareness, it is more common. Twitter lends itself very well to virtue signalling, since it is much easier to express anger and scorn in 140 characters than to make a reasoned argument. Russell Brand is perhaps the ultimate incarnation of modern virtue signalling. He is bursting with anger and outrage. My goodness he must be good!
Robin Hanson, who has practically made a blogging career out of writing about signaling (the American spelling), recently defined signaling/signalling thus:
More generally I call a message “signaling” if it has these features: 
It is not sent mainly via the literal meanings of words said.
It is not easily or soon verifiable.
It is mainly about the senders’ personal features, perhaps via association with groups.
It is about sender “quality” dimensions where more is better, so senders want others to believe quality is as high as possible, while others want to assess more accurately. Such qualities are not just unitary, but can include degrees of loyalty to particular allies. 
Cheap talk cannot send a message like this; one cannot just say such a thing, one must show it. And since it cannot be verified, one must show it indirectly, via how such features make one more willing or able to do something. And since willingness and ability track costs, these are “costly” signals.
This is one reason why celebrities - from Colin Farrell to Russell Brand - are now feted for their opinions on everything from same sex marriage to global warming, it signals group association and encourages others to do the same.

But there is a darker side to all this, experienced in every totalitarian country. Frank Furedi observes (also in the context of the recent UK election) that the opposite of virtue signalling - the spiral of silence - has been with us since long before twitter and Facebook:
The pressure to conform and the fear of social isolation can lead to what the German social scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann identified in 1974 as a ‘spiral of silence’. According to this theory, people’s assessment of the opinions held by the majority influences and modifies the way they express their own views. Some individuals feel anxious about expressing sentiments that differ from the consensus outlook, as expressed in the political and media realm, and it is thought that, ‘prompted by a “fear of social isolation”’, some are ‘less likely to express their own viewpoint when they believe their opinions and ideas are in the minority’. Typically, the fear of negative social sanctions influences the way people express attitudes about numerous morally charged ‘threats’, such as foreigners, crime or terrorism.
Coming back to the referendum, Brendan O'Neill thinks the 'spiral of silence' in Ireland has become something of a vortex. As he sees it:
Irish opponents of gay marriage aren’t only encouraged to feel shy — they’re encouraged to feel shame... Heaven help anyone who says No to this flinging open of marriage to same-sex couples. For the extent to which Ireland’s political and media elites have lined up behind gay marriage ahead of the referendum is nothing short of breathtaking. I’ve racked my brains, and I can’t think of any other political issue in Europe in recent times on which the consensus has been so suffocating, and so hostile to dissent. 
There’s a profound irony here: Ireland’s political class calls for a Yes vote to prove that Ireland has moved on from its intolerant religious past, and yet some of that old intolerance is being rehabilitated by the very people backing gay marriage. They shush dissent and demonise their opponents as effectively as any priest used to do, only in the name of Gays rather than God. Backing gay marriage has become, in Irish Independent columnist, Eilis O’Hanlon’s words, a way for influential people to ‘identify [themselves] as members of an enlightened elite’, ‘kindly metropolitan liberals versus nasty Catholic conservatives’. This referendum is now only ostensibly about gay marriage: more fundamentally it has become a means for a new, PC, post-traditionalist elite to distinguish itself from the allegedly hateful and gruff inhabitants of Ireland’s more rural, old-fashioned communities.
Signalling again. But with an added viciousness that lands us in an Orwellian world in which - as Edward Feser explains - those who disagree with the new orthodoxy are no longer tolerated... in the name of tolerance!

Where it goes from here is anyone's guess. It does also depend on the outcome, of course.  Fianna Fáil (the gift that keeps on giving... to Fine Gael) have missed their last opportunity to secure and expand their core constituency in Ireland which would have followed if they had taken a pragmatic, perfectly reasonable (in the eyes of many) stand against redefining marriage (for any number of reasons: 'it's too soon', 'let's wait and see' etc etc). But they didn't, and the rest - including Fianna Fáil - is history. Needless to say, that's the very expensive version of signalling, and best avoided if possible.

So back to the outcome: do exercise your dearly won democratic right to vote, whichever way you intend voting. Go vote even if the privacy of the voting booth affords no signalling value - after all, there are more important things in a democracy that hopes to remain one.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Cashing Out

Despite our improving fortunes here in Ireland (and they are improving), a lot of commentators I read on trends elsewhere seem increasingly gloomier. Dan Ariely thinks American consumers are so psychologically fragile that even a minor shock could trigger a major panic. While Tyler Cowen thinks the Great Stagnation is morphing into a Great Reset meaning things will never return to 'normal'.

Add to that a growing number of stories about controls on holding and using cash (most recently in France), surcharges on cash withdrawals in Greece, still looming debt problems (including our own), as well as negative interest rates and you begin to wonder just how real is the recovery?

Plainly there is more at play than just a very slow recovery after a very harsh recession. Whether you think that globalisation has gone into reverse, or that the EU experiment has run its course and is now exhausted (or on the brink of something much worse), it does seem that new ideas are required.

Fortunately there are plenty out there: from using bitcoin to launch a new Greek currency to Croatia cancelling the debts of its poorest citizens. Bernard Lietaer has long championed the benefits of currency diversity (mono-currency unions are dangerously vulnerable, just like mono culture agriculture). He believes that the problems we face will demand the (re)introduction of alternative and complementary currencies similar in scale and diversity to those that emerged in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

Of course, the Central Banks and the Tax Authorities weren't too keen on the idea back then; they won't be much keener in the years ahead. But they - and we - may have no choice given the challenges that lie ahead, whatever the near term prospects for Ireland.
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