Monday, April 30, 2012

Lourdes Treatment and Resuscitation Option

Satyajit Das resorts to metaphors:
As with the sovereigns, the LTRO does not solve the longer term problems of the solvency or funding of the banks, which now remain heavily dependent on the largesse of the central banks. It is government sponsored Ponzi scheme where weak banks are supporting weak sovereigns who in turn are standing behind the banks – a process which can be best described as two drowning people clinging to each other for mutual support.
Lifebelt required... or a miracle.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Still Happy After All These Years

My company has been tracking the emotional mood of the nation every month for the past three years. Despite the ups and downs of the economic cycle, the nation's emotional cycle has proven considerably more resilient (except for a wobble back in November 2010 when the IMF came calling).

Here's the nation's 'Emotional MRI' from April 2009 to April 2012:

Full results available here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Call to Inaction

Some perspective from Mathew Barrett:
The deeper we entangle the challenges of the 21st century with apocalyptic fantasy, the more likely we are to paralyze ourselves with inaction -- or with the wrong course of action. We react to the idea of the apocalypse -- rather than to the underlying issues activating the apocalyptic storyline to begin with -- by either denying its reality ("global warming isn't real") or by despairing at its inevitability ("why bother recycling when the whole world is burning up?"). We react to apocalyptic threats by either partying (assuaging our apocalyptic anxiety through increased consumerism, reasoning that if it all may be gone tomorrow, we might as well enjoy it today), praying (in hopes that divine intervention or mere time will allow us to avoid confronting the challenges before us), or preparing (packing "bugout" packs for a quick escape or stocking up on gold, guns, and canned food, as though the transformative moment we anticipate will be but a brief interlude, a bad winter storm that might trap us indoors for a few days or weeks but that will eventually melt away).

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Morality's Return

Morality has a big future ahead of it. That's according to Jonathan Haidt, who gave a fascinating talk on the theme at the RSA recently. Haidt - a self-described liberal atheist - has developed Moral Foundations Theory, which identifies:
...six clusters of moral concerns—care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation—upon which all political cultures and movements base their moral appeals. Political liberals tend to rely primarily on the moral foundation of care/harm, followed by fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression. Social conservatives, in contrast, use all six foundations. They are less concerned than liberals about harm to innocent victims, but they are much more concerned about the moral foundations that bind groups and nations together, i.e., loyalty (patriotism), authority (law and order, traditional families), and sanctity (the Bible, God, the flag as a sacred object).
He notes that:
the “liberal progress” narrative ...derives its moral force primarily from the care/harm foundation (concern for the suffering of victims) and the liberty/oppression foundation (a celebration of liberty as freedom from oppression, as well as freedom to pursue self-defined happiness). In this narrative, fairness is political equality (which is part of opposing oppression); there are only oblique hints of fairness as proportionality. Authority is mentioned only as an evil, and there is no mention of loyalty or sanctity.
Obviously the liberal progress narrative has been in the ascendent in the West in recent decades. The dominant ideology of Political Correctness is nothing more than Liberal/Left Morality writ large. But of course it is only a partial morality as it ignores three other foundations of morality: loyalty, authority and sanctity. Foundations that only Conservatives perceive, but that the Left sees as 'immoral': "Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia."

Sometimes observing the Left's morality, made manifest in Political Correctness, it can appear to be a form of 'Moral Aspergers Syndrome', i.e.: it manifests itself as hyper-sensitive with regard to some aspects of morality (e.g.: the treatment of minorities), and hyper-indifferent to other aspects (e.g.: sexual promiscuity). But by rejecting loyalty, authority and sanctity - and with it the assumption of a natural order and purpose - then we end up with the situation described by James Kalb:

If there is no natural order and purpose, because nature lacks those features, the meaning and order we impose on the world will be our own arbitrary inventions. There is nothing to draw on that can make them otherwise. At the level of politics, that means tyranny. Nothing has an intrinsic order and meaning, so those in power invent their own and force them on everything, silencing anyone who spoils the fun by pointing out the emperor’s nakedness. Hence totalitarianism, which is not so much government by terror as government that recognizes no standard outside its own will and purposes: Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato (“Everything within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”).
Political Correctness is already moving rapidly towards a unique form of moral totalitarianism (reported daily at Political Correctness Watch), with the result that a new social contract is emerging:
Also hence liberalism and its consequences. Liberals note that if no purpose makes special sense then all purposes must be equally good. The obvious result, since there’s nothing but force and fraud to say which purposes should prevail, is a war of all against all that ends only when one faction wins and forces its preferences on everyone. To avoid that result, liberals propose an alternative: we want our own purposes to be accepted as worthy of support, simply because they are our purposes, so we agree to say that all other purposes are equally worthy. The result is a social contract that takes equal freedom as the highest standard, and makes giving everybody what he wants, as much and as equally as possible, the highest political goal. 
The technocratic liberal state expresses that contract. It tries to give everybody what he wants, so it is thought to promote all good things, and outside itself it sees only war, oppression, and ignorance. Liberals believe it delivers on its promises, to a large and increasing extent, so they find it monstrous and incomprehensible to reject it. Since it is based on equality and technological thinking, it is considered the only legitimate and rational form of political association. It is therefore, people believe, our duty to spread it throughout the world, and in our own society to develop its principles and apply them in an ever more detailed and comprehensive way.
It seems to me that the Liberal/Left morality meme - focused exclusively on care, fairness and liberty - has been around a long time. A recent In Our Time podcast about The Quakers got me thinking that they were the ancestors of today's ideology of Political Correctness, with their focus on legalism, anti-authority stance and campaigns against slavery and gender discrimination - though they probably wouldn't have welcomed the demise of Christianity that has gone with it...

Nevertheless, the same social psychology Haidt draws on has shown that in times of stress, uncertainty and peril people's values become more conservative, i.e.: loyalty, authority and sanctity start to matter more. I'm guessing that the future is going to be a lot more conducive to conservative morality than to liberal morality the way things are going...

Monday, April 16, 2012


Someone in Britain's Office for National Statistics thought it would be a nice idea to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic by doing a 'that-was-then-this-is-now' statistical retrospective of British society.

The findings? Births down, marriages down, divorces up.

Looks like flooding in the fifth compartment... only it's a debtberg that will sink RSS Britanic.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Metaphor of the Week

Goes to Charles Hugh Smith, who observes that:
We are like passengers on the Titanic ten minutes after its fatal encounter with the iceberg: we can't believe this grand ship could sink, so we do nothing while it is still possible to influence our fate.
Were the doomed passengers gripped by loss aversion?

Are we?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Young Mechanical Turks

I have seen the future and it's mechanical.

Amazon Mechanical Turk to be precise. In the future there will no longer be jobs - never mind careers - instead there will be Human Intelligence Tasks: HITs for short. I registered as a Mechanical Turk Worker to see what 'work' - or HITs - is available. For example, I can earn $4.75 for writing a 250-300 word article. Or I could translate 10 words from Amharic into English for $0.15. Most HITs pay closer to the latter than the former, by the way.

Amazon Mechanical Turk is a leading example of the Freelance Future I blogged about recently. Another is Demand Media - or the 'answer factory' as Wired called them. Demand Media have applied the HIT model to the creation of content. Again, no jobs - just 'Human Creativity Tasks'.

There are several key drivers of the HIT future:

  • The economy: with fewer jobs around (and there'll be fewer before there are more again) then the supply of willing Mechanical Turk Workers will expand enormously in the years ahead.
  • The workforce: more people with more qualifications means more people who work with their brains rather than their brawn, perfect for human intelligence tasks.
  • Technology: you can now set up and operate a business serving a global marketplace from your kitchen, and you don't need to employ anybody. Just become a Mechanical Turk Requester and wait for the queue to form of bright young (and not so young) things willing to work for you and, as it says on the website, you 'pay only when you're satisfied with the results'.

On the last point, The Futures Company have published a fascinating report on the future of work which notes that:
Over the next ten years, it will become easier to tell what employees are doing, but harder to tell them what to do, as the four horsemen of data, devices, screens and sensors enable greater monitoring of the workforce. It will be possible for a postal delivery company to track the movement and behavior of one of their drivers to anticipate when she should (or shouldn’t) be taking a break; it may even be possible to watch employees through their screens using bio-directional screens that integrate depth and position detecting cameras with displays.  
There could be productivity gains from pervasive surveillance which are of mutual benefit to employees and employers, for example remote supervision, or ‘spellchecker’ like devices which give feedback on task completion and performance.
If you think that all sounds a bit creepy, then what about employers demanding the Facebook passwords of prospective employees to see just what sort of people they really are?

Perhaps it is no wonder that today's youth are putting making money and being famous ahead of 'meaning' in terms of their life ambitions, as illustrated below:

Faced with a future of unprecedented uncertainty we should not be surprised. In a world of Mechanical Turk Workers there will be every incentive to stand out - to win the HITs - and eventually to step off, once you've piled up sufficient financial resources. Assuming you can.

Though right now the future belongs to the Requesters.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Gender Neutered

From the department of 'careful-what-you-wish-for' comes a German Bundesbank study which finds that:

"Employing a higher proportion of female board members significantly increases risk taking."

Oops! But don't worry, it has nothing to with that nasty testosterone stuff. It's a lot simpler:
"Our exploration of the underlying mechanism suggests that this result is mainly attributable to the fact that female executives have less experience than their male counterparts."
Okay, admittedly the study was confined to banks and other financial institutions (where we know everything is carefully controlled and safely regulated). But it makes you wonder, would appointing inexperienced women to fill a gender quota for TDs be such a good idea?

Especially since appointing inexperienced men to the job of running the country hasn't exactly worked wonders for our national fortunes these past few decades...

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Freelance Future

Europe is failing its youth. And not just Europe - in the United States, one in four young people have moved back in with their parents on account of the economy. Our young people face a radically different future to that of any generation of young people before them.

By 2020, it is estimated that more than half of all workers will be 'free agents' - or freelancers - moving from 'job' to 'job', or from assignment to assignment. Careers will be a thing of the past (as they are for many already).

Young people - all of us perhaps - are facing into a qualitatively different type of uncertainty about the future. Will Davies set out an interesting perspective on uncertainty on his blog Potlatch recently. He notes:
Many people, including economists, are prone to say that there are two types of situation, those which involve risk (and can be subject to probabilistic calculation) and those which involve uncertainty (and can not be subject to such calculation). This is entirely wrong. Knight's argument was that all situations involve uncertainty, as an existential fact of human life. But we have various pragmatic responses to it, including the construction of risk models, which succeed to varying degrees. Other pragmatic responses to uncertainty involve seeking to actively reduce it, through forms of concerted action and co-operation.  
...The dice are loaded. It's not that life is unfair, which is something that most adults should be able to handle; it's that it's unfair in unfair ways. Liberalism, whether of a Rawlsian or a Hayekian variety, is something we might be able to stomach, if things really were left to chance (be it via the veil of ignorance or market spontaneity) but the dominant view, post-2008, is that they're not. 
In considering a future and better economic policy paradigm, we need to consider the political status of uncertainty. Possibly we need to find appropriate spheres for liberal, tragic and comic perspectives on the future, and not confuse the three. Uncertainty won't disappear, but it will be distributed in certain ways.
The problem for your young people is that they carry an unfair share of uncertainty: no defined benefit pensions for them... Not that they'd care, of course, but ultimately they will face decisions - for example to get married, have children, buy a home - that carry with them not only the usual degree of uncertainty, but also an added layer of economic uncertainty characteristic of the freelance future.

So while the future is uncertain, the consequences of uncertainty are, well, a little more certain: a population implosion for one, and a disengaged, dis-enfranchised population of men for another.

Maybe those defined benefit pensions aren't so secure after all...
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