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


"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.
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