Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Rebellion, Revolution, Reformation

Xavier Marquez makes an interesting point in relation to the Russian Revolution 100 years ago this month, namely that:
"...great revolutions have a “fractal” quality, where “social order breaks down on multiple scales simultaneously,” from the family to the town to the city to the national government and across many social institutions. I’ve always found this idea quite useful for thinking about what distinguishes a simple revolt (where a normative breakdown is restricted to say, the national government institutions) from a big revolutionary upheaval. It certainly applied to the Russian revolution, where everything – family norms, clothing, architecture and arts, cities and town planning, public monuments, religion – seemed to be up for negotiation simultaneously."
In contrast our own Easter Rising, the centenary of which we commemorated last year, was more of a rebellion than a revolution: the rulers changed - the rules not so much.

Which brings us to the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago today when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg (apparently he didn't, but it's a memorable image, though nowadays his theses would be the perfect length for twitter...).  The Reformation was neither a rebellion nor a revolution, but arguably its consequences over the long run evolved from those of rebellion to those of a revolution. The Reformation's contemporary champions argue that the world we live in today is very much a consequence of the Reformation's reforms; while its critics likewise argue that the world we live in today is very much the unintended consequence of the same Reformation!

One measure of the Reformation's consequences (intended or otherwise) is the parlous state of Catholicism in Europe today. The 2016 results from the European Social Survey (ESS 8) have been published today and they paint a fascinating picture of religiosity in Europe some 500 years after there Reformation (n.b.: for the sake of transparency, my own company conducts the fieldwork for ESS in Ireland).

Based on preliminary findings for 16 countries (mainly Europe, but also including Israel and Russia, with findings for 6 more countries to be published next year), we find that just one in four European adults describes themselves as belonging to the Catholic Church. In Germany, where it all started, the percentage of adults belonging to the Catholic Church is a little higher at 30%. However, Protestantism hasn't done so well in the intervening period either. Again among the 16 countries in the first results for 2016, only 14% of adults identify as belonging to a Protestant denomination.  Though a somewhat healthier 28% of Germans belong to a Protestant denomination.

But the big trend is not in the share of the different Christian and non-Christian religions, rather it is the growth in the share of those who don't belong to any religion or denomination: 43% of all adults in the 2016 results compared to 38% in 2006 (albeit for a larger number of countries).

Here in Ireland, 500 years on, we still remain predominantly Catholic (73% of all adults in 2016, not much changed from 75% in ESS 2006) - though the percentage not belonging to any religion or denomination has also grown (from 20% in 2006 to 26% ten years later). Ireland's rebellion is in the past, while we continue to be buffeted by various revolutions elsewhere (political, sexual, cultural and technological).

Most Catholics nowadays recognise the legitimacy of many of the complaints levelled by Luther 500 years ago (he was, after all, a Catholic priest belonging to the Augustinian order, so he knew a thing or two about the issues that drew his ire).  Indeed, a growing number think we need another Reformation if Christianity is to have a future in Europe (and beyond).

My guess, for what it's worth, is that the next 50 years will see a 'fourth R' - Reaction - make itself felt due to the unprecedented ageing of Europe's population and the unsustainable economic, environmental and cultural consequences that will follow.  Ripe conditions for rebellion and revolution as well of course, and maybe even further reformation.






Sunday, September 24, 2017

Basically Wrong


Those of a Lutheran or Catholic persuasion were treated today to the parable of the generous vineyard owner (Matthew 20:1-16), the one in which the owner pays the same wage to those who worked for an hour in his vineyard as those who worked all day.  The parable isn't about wages and incentives per se (the Girardian Lectionary explains the bigger picture, as usual); however, as an employer, I can't help thinking 'good luck getting anyone to show up for work in the vineyard tomorrow morning' every time I read the passage.

The same goes for the vogue idea of a Universal Basic Income. The idea has lots of support internationally across the political spectrum, and has been consistently championed here by Social Justice Ireland, with even Mark Zuckerberg coming out in favour of it.  Depending on which flavour you go for, UBI or BIG (Basic Income Guarantee) entails giving a regular amount of money unconditionally to every adult, paid for (possibly/maybe) by replacing existing social welfare payments and (possibly/maybe) means testing those with incomes from, well, jobs.  Plus a tax on robots, of course.

Much of the contemporary appeal is in response to the AI Apocalypse: if there are going to be fewer and fewer jobs in the future then the only way to sustain a consumer-spending based, capitalist economy will be to give the spending power directly to consumers.

The economic case for and against UBI continues to be debated: and will be for some time to come as a number of trial experiments in some countries and regions run their course.  I suspect something like it will be scaled in one or two countries in the next ten years or so, though even then there will remain considerable uncertainty about the economic, political and social impact for any country that embraces it fully.

Of course, you could argue that we've run a variation of this experiment in Ireland already: we have one of the lowest levels of labour force participation and highest ratios of households without incomes from employment in Europe. The negative impact of prolonged absence from the workforce on the psychological and even physical wellbeing of the long-term unemployed should give everyone pause for thought about 'expanding' that particular experiment.

But perhaps the biggest objection UBI as a solution to the problem of technological unemployment and even rising income inequality is that there are plenty of simpler, well proven alternative policies that would be less 'risky' to implement. Take job creation, for example. As Charles Hugh-Smith observes, we all want to live in a prosperous society and the best way to achieve that is to create conditions of abundant work and a low cost of living:
For work to be abundant:
It must be easy to start a business.
It must be easy to operate the new business.
It must be easy to make a profit so the business can survive the first few years and,
It must be easy to hire employees.
All of these things are getting harder, not easier in Ireland. As for a low cost of living, that isn't going to happen while Ireland (and most other nations it would seem) is gripped by The Cost Disease. Rising costs of housing, education, health and public services appears to be rampant across the developed world through an unholy combination of bureaucracy, lobbying, over-regulation, financialisation and all the other things that happen when powerful groups use their power to the detriment of the common good.

So making it easier to create jobs, and more affordable to take them, seems to me a fairly basic step to take before going down the Basic Income route. Nor is it just about business and job creation.  There's another solution to poverty and inequality that could do with a little more support: marriage.  Some have called it The Sequence, and it reflects the common sense observation that those families comprising parents who got employed before getting married before having children are significantly less likely to experience the problems of poverty, educational under-achievement and other social and economic ills.  It's not a panacea of course (nor is UBI for that matter), but it has just a little more in the way of a proven track record in modern societies than 'free money'.

Maybe there is a Catholic (and Lutheran) angle to all this after all. Pope Francis observed in his encyclical Laudato Si:
We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. 
The real challenge of the future will not be how to pay for a post-human economy, rather it will be how to create meaningful sources of work that enable us all to be fully human. Perhaps a future in which we all own our own vineyard.




Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Point And Screech

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. Alexis de Tocqueville
Does anybody know a good medium? I'd like to let Alexis know I've found another country: our own little sceptic isle, of course.   Poor old George Hook, he was finished as soon as he apologised. George belongs to a generation who believe in the court of public opinion. Unfortunately for him, we now have a kangaroo court of public emoting, and there's no attorney for the defence.  Our democracy of opinion has, according to James Poulos channeling Paul Virilio, been replaced by a 'democracy of emotion'.  So to apologise to the kangaroo court is to plead guilty, and there is no reduction of sentence for plea bargaining.

Nowadays there appear to be two types of response to 'unacceptable' opinions: the first is 'point and sneer', the other is 'point and screech'.  Neither is particularly edifying (think Donal Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers), but both responses are quite effective at shutting people up: which is the whole point of course. 'Independence of mind and real freedom of discussion' don't come into it.

When even our Taoiseach manages to take a break from fixing the health crisis, the housing crisis and the Garda crisis to join in the chorus of opprobrium against George then clearly something is happening to the nature of public discourse in this country (and in others). The best contemporary guide to the new democracy of emotions is Byung-Chul Han, a Korean born German philosopher.  Han refers - very unphilosophically - to the 'shitstorm' as a description of what George is going through, namely the swarming of 'point and screech' hatred via digital and social media:
The individual acts of virtual outrage composing the shitstorm — the carping message board comment, the nasty tweet, or the backbiting post on Facebook — are not a prelude to engagement, but instead an occasion of “immediate affective discharge” in an environment that “favors symmetrical communication.” This means, in essence, that online condemnation responds less to the dialogic criteria of suasion than to the base pleasure of dealing a cheap shot — in many cases, under cover of anonymity — with no concern for whether the target is a stranger, a celebrity author, or the president of the United States.
But the problem with the shitstorm - certainly when it comes to bigger issues like, say, the health crisis, the housing crisis and the Garda crisis - is that it changes nothing:
Outrage... draws attention efficiently but lacks the stability and constancy required for successful intervention in the public sphere. Masses marshaled to the purpose of public shaming lack a commitment to a course of shared action. Outrage is an end in itself, and its targets are inevitably granular, so that the power relations that structure individual grievances at their core persist through the shitstorm unaltered.
What George Hook said was a clumsy, fatherly attempt at the 'stranger danger' talk many parents have given their young daughters, basically: 'avoid the scumbags' (his own word for the rapists in the news item he was discussing). But the shitstorm wasn't about scumbags, it was about George apparently blaming the victim, which he didn't. Which highlights something else about the moral panics that seize the media with increasing frequency, namely that: the issue is never the issue.  In other words, the furore over what Hook said or didn't said isn't about the crime of rape, rather it is about shutting up another 'right winger' with unacceptable views on same-sex marriage, immigration and a host of other, 'polygraph tests' for thoughtcrimes these days.

There were 2,549 sexual offences last year in Ireland according to, ahem, Garda statistics. An increase of 8.6% on the previous year. Did any of Hook's critics have anything to say about the dangers this highlights for women in Ireland in 2017? I didn't hear or see it. Instead, we were told that Hook's point of view was harmful to women on the grounds that it might discourage some women from reporting rapes. That's a point worth discussing (really discussing, not name-calling): but what's even more important to discuss is the harm done to women by rape - shouldn't that be the main issue? Specifically how to ensure that women are empowered to minimise the risks they face in a society in which sexual offences are on the increase?

Women (and men) would be better advised to listen to the advice of personal safety experts like Gavin de Becker - describing in life-saving detail what women should do to get out of dangerous situations in conversation with Sam Harris - than the 'point and screech' ad hominem attacks of the Irish commentariat caught up in the latest shitstorm.  But then if we did that, 'the power relations' might actually change, and who really wants that?

PS: transcript of what Hook said (ht Dave Cullen)




Monday, September 4, 2017

Reflections


"If I were another person observing myself and the course of my life, I should be compelled to say that it must all end unavailingly, be consumed in incessant doubt, creative only in its self torment. But, an interested party, I go on hoping." Franz Kafka

It's ten years since I started the Turbulence Ahead blog.  I haven't had as much time in the past year or two to keep posting (did someone mention a recovery?), which has been a source of some frustration.  Not least because over the years the blog has become a handy 'archive' of my own thoughts, insights and ideas as they have evolved, informed by those I read and respect.  And maybe it has even provided the occasional contribution to debates that matter to me and to Ireland.

So I'll keep on posting from time to time, and go on hoping.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Reality Cheque

The UK's Office for National Statistics has just published a handy guide to the cost of running the kingdom, especially all those 'less-than-self-sufficient' regions outside of London and the South East of England.

It turns out that total public sector expenditure by the British Government in Northern Ireland was £26 billion in 2015/16. Fortunately (for the English taxpayer) a lot of that was then recouped by way of taxation on all those public sector wages etc. So total net public sector expenditure in Northern Ireland was 'just' £10 billion in the same period.

Which provides some useful context to the recent flurry of North-South Delusions about the prospect of a United Ireland post-Brexit.

£10 billion is about €11.5 billion in real money. It's also more than the Republic of Ireland will spend this year on Education, Defence and the Environment combined.  Only Health and Social Protection cost more that the UK Government's net subvention to Northern Ireland.

Now maybe we could afford it if the EU (and remainder of the UK) chipped in a few extra quid/euro to see us through the transition. Though by the time we had 'levelled up' UK social welfare payments to our own rates we might just need more than a few quid...

Would I like to see a United Ireland? Yes I would, and a pity it was ever partitioned in the first place. But that was then, this is now.

Would I be willing to pay a great deal more income tax to fund it? Hmmm. What was the first question again?









Monday, May 22, 2017

Blog Cuttings #6

John Milbank on how populism is essentially the rejection of liberalism:
And here one has to say that the vox populi may intuitively grasp the obvious, even though it has mostly eluded the educated. And this is that the conflict now between an economically liberal right and a culturally liberal left is in many ways a sham. For it is not an accident that the right have been winning the economic war and the left the cultural one. 
In deep reality it is liberalism - the cult of the unrelated, freely-choosing individual - that has been winning both wars in a cunning two-pronged assault of conscious enemies who are secret allies. This triumph involves above all the notion that that there is no common shared sense of the human good; the good is just whatever we happen diversely to prefer. But now the massed expression of a common view about, at least, a local good life is interrupting all this.
It's not the next Hitler we should fear, but the next Caesar.

Or as RR Reno puts it, we are witnessing the return of the strong gods, even as our elites double down on the post-war strategy of disenchantment.

Meanwhile Ben Hunt thinks the West's major political parties are going through a secular bear market (sell you shares now?). Which is one reason why political entrepreneurs are disrupting what are the equivalent of old style media companies: you just need a spare billion or two (or rich backers) to succeed. It's the politics (and economics) of Westworld.

Remind me how that ended?






Monday, May 1, 2017

North South Delusions

"The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know." Blaise Pascal

The list of Cognitive Biases is already very long, but I feel the urge to add another. I call it the 'Reasonable People Bias' which describes arguments based on the presupposition that 'reasonable people agree...' or 'reasonable people believe...' or 'any reasonable person would accept...' followed by whatever point the person wishes to make. The assumption is that everybody in a policy discussion sees the world the same way through logical, reasonable (liberal, agnostic) eyes. Breaking news: they don't.

We see this in the recent flurry of speculation about a United Ireland. It's there in Christopher Kissane's article in today's Irish Times, and in Kevin Meagher's book 'A United Ireland - Why Unification is Inevitable and How it Will Come About'. Both suffer from the Reasonable People Bias which involves the following set up:

- Brexit dooms the UK to turmoil and fragmentation
- Northern Ireland needs to jump into a United Ireland/European Union before it's too late
- The Unionists/Loyalists will see reason when they realise this is the best outcome once proper assurances are in place etc etc

All very reasonable... and all very wrong.

You would think after Brexit and Trump (and close scares in the Netherlands and France) that people might have realised that 'reason' doesn't have quite the same sway it used to have. I pointed this out in the run up to the Brexit referendum, drawing on Scott Adam's model of the Persuasion Stack, which looks like this:


Brexit was a vote driven by Identity. Right now, all the Reasonable People are trying to persuade Unionists at the level of Reason. That's if they're even trying - most of what I hear sounds more like talking over the heads of Unionists.

Now if the monologue/dialogue about a United Ireland continues at the level of Reason then there will only be one of two outcomes: either A) nothing will change (because its a lousy way of persuading people), or B) the people who feel strongest about their Identity will enter the fray and the Reasonable People won't know how to handle them.

Given the depressing group think that seems to perpetually grip Irish mainstream media (wrong on Brexit, wrong on Trump... wrong on a United Ireland?) I suspect we'll end up with option B, and it won't be pretty. But maybe I'm just not being reasonable?











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.


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