Saturday, 18 February 2017

When You State It Like This, The Minimum Wage Doesn't Seem Quite So Lovely, Does It?

My local newspaper has a feature that looks to name and shame businesses that are finding ways to get around paying the full minimum wage to employees. The people that should actually be named and shamed are the short-sighted politicians that impose this law on people trying their best to run a business and people doing their best to find work.

I wonder if anyone has ever thought of the minimum wage the other way round, from the perspective of a law against the employee rather than the employer. That is, not of it being illegal to pay someone less than £7.20 an hour, but for it to be illegal to sell your labour for any less than £7.20 per hour. When it’s stated that way round it emphasises the point a bit more of how much of an infringement on our liberties the minimum wage law is.

When you think of Tom, Dick and Harry getting out of bed, eating their breakfast, all ready and willing to go out to their £6.50 an hour jobs - jobs they enjoy - but suddenly being disallowed to go to work because the government decides to slap an extra 70p on their legally mandated price floor, it doesn't sound anywhere near as positive, does it? To compound the point, have a look at this typical supply and demand graph.
An illustration much like the one above ought to make it clear. The equilibrium point is the point at which the supply and demand curves cross - which basically means that it's the one price where the quantity supplied and the quantity demanded are equal. Suppose the graph represents a 25kg sack of potatoes, and the equilibrium price is £6 per sack. That means that if the market price is not at the equilibrium - say at £8 per sack - then the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied would not be equal.
The same is true of wages. Suppose the equilibrium price for a gardener is £6.50 an hour. If a government sets the minimum wage at £7.20 an hour then as you can work out from the demand curve, demanders (that is employers) would want fewer gardeners, while suppliers (gardeners) would want more of their labour sold, thus creating disequilibrium. Thanks to this government price floor the suppliers are now not able to sell all the labour they want to. Not only that, but of course, demanders are not happy either because they cannot buy the quantity they would like to, as they prefer a price of £6.50 an hour to hire a gardener, not £7.20.
The result: supply and demand for gardeners is at a disequilibrium, and the country has fewer gardeners. What I didn't tell you is that Tom, Dick and Harry are gardeners - or, at least, they were until the former chancellor hiked up the minimum wage an extra 70p an hour, and sent Tom, Dick and Harry, and lots more like them, to the job centre - where there'll join the thousands of other people who are already there, and have been for a very long time having never had a job, because said chancellor has made it illegal for them to sell their labour at the supply and demand equilibrium point.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Brilliant Pavement Art....

When it comes to art, I inhabit a funny, possibly solitary, odd-duck world - a world in which the works of Escher are among the finest of the 20th century, and a world in which, in true Emperor's New Clothes fashion, nobody ever got to tell the likes of Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning how overrated they were. For the record, it's also a world in which I have quite a lot of time for Salvador Dali, but not much time for Pablo Picasso.

Anyway, personal tastes aside, the reason for this rather unconventional Philosophical Muser Blog post is simply to enjoy these awesome pavement art creatons, which I think are wonderful, and I hope you do too!


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

It Would Be More Surprising If Employers Are *Not* Discriminating Against Muslims

A couple of days ago I saw a feature on the BBC News channel on discrimination against Muslims in the job market - Is it easier to get a job if you're Adam or Mohamed?:

"A job seeker with an English-sounding name was offered three times the number of interviews than an applicant with a Muslim name, a BBC test found. Inside Out London sent CVs from two candidates, "Adam" and "Mohamed", who had identical skills and experience, in response to 100 job opportunities. Adam was offered 12 interviews, while Mohamed was offered four."

The reports conclude that there is 'Significant discrimination' going on in the job market against Muslims. The BBC feature also showed that Muslims are the minority group that find it hardest to obtain employment - a fact that is creating all kinds of social problems in areas with high concentrations of Muslims.

With my economist hat on, I don't find it in the least bit strange that Muslims are being discriminated against in the labour market. Quite the contrary, it would be stranger to me if they weren't being discriminated against, because if there is one thing we ought to be discriminating against it is people's views and beliefs.

I have shown before on this blog how the market weeds out unfair discrimination and how it is foolish for an employer to discriminate on factors that don't affect someone's ability to do a job. But that's just another way of  saying that it is wise to discriminate on factors that do affect someone's ability to do a job. That's why we don't see blind lifeguards and people in wheelchairs working on the top of cranes.

Ah, but hang on, being a Muslim doesn't preclude someone from doing a job, does it?

No it doesn't, not usually, but hang on yourself - we are talking about a more subtle kind of discrimination here - one that I can fully sympathise with. Imagine you're an employer and you're shortlisting for five candidates for an interview based on application forms and CVs. You have 4 shortlisted already and the fifth is between an applicant called Adam and an applicant called Mohamed. All other things being equal, it is perfectly understandable why a prospective employer would pick Adam over Mohamed.

That's not to say that Mohamed would always be worse than Adam - in fact, there may be instances where, in not picking Mohamed, the employer has omitted the strongest candidate of all. But you must understand that picking job candidates is not an exact science, it is a probability estimate that occurs in a fast-paced world with lots of asymmetry of information.

Knowing that Adam the non-Muslim and Mohamed the Muslim are equally qualified, the prospective employer knows that as a broad cross-national probability estimate, Adam provides less of a risk of being a worse employee than Mohamed. Like I said, not always, but all the employer is interested in at this stage is picking the people who he or she thinks constitute the best candidates to be good work colleagues with as few barriers as possible to doing the job.

Unfortunately for Mohamed, he lives in a world in which people's views and beliefs ought to be scrutinised, and judgements ought to be placed on that scrutiny. One should feel no differently about a scientologist, an astrologer, a member of the BNP, a young earth creationist, and so on - not that these views and beliefs always maketh a bad candidate, but simply that they increase the probability of doing so.

They do so on the basis that if you're sort of person to believe things that are obvious to everyone on the outside as being nonsense, or have views that are obvious to everyone on the outside as being socially toxic, you are likely to be the sort of person susceptible to all manner of bad thinking and dodgy beliefs (I've elaborated on how Islam falls into that category numerous time before on this blog).

So while Mohamed may sometimes be the best candidate for the job, he has an increased probability of missing out on an interview due to the socio-cultural stigma of being a Muslim in a place like the UK. And that's because, even if the probability is low, as long as all other things are equal, a prospective employer ought to factor in Islam into the consideration of who to shortlist for the interview. For example, Mohamed may be less preferable than Adam because being a Muslim, he might have a religious needs that disrupt his work more than Adam (going out to pray during the day for example), he might have a troublesome attitude towards female colleagues, he might be disruptive by being overly preachy, he might be more susceptible to other extreme beliefs, he might be politically toxic to the work atmosphere, and although hopefully unlikely, there is perhaps a slim chance that he might be a radicalised Muslim or go on to become one in the future.

The point is not that all Muslims are like this (obviously!!) or even that the things I described are highly representative of Muslims in the UK (they are probably not!!) - it is that in the landscape of employers choosing prospective employees they are going to pick candidates for an interview that have the lowest probability of being bad workers and bad colleagues. And in a straight shoot out between an unknown candidate called Adam and an unknown candidate called Mohamed, it is easy to see why prospective employers would opt for the former over the latter, thereby making the BBC's discriminating statistics unsurprising.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

A Libertarian Paradox?

A friend, Tim Reeves, recently came up with what he claims is something paradoxical about libertarianism:

"They claim the market should work for itself as government can't understand its inner workings (which is probably true) and yet how do libertarians know the market will work if no human mind can understand it?"

I've been tentative about the so-called libertarian brand before, but for now let's stick with the populist understanding. While I have sympathy with Tim's interpretation, I don't think his paradox is as much of a paradox as he thinks.

Before I explain why, let me first say that I can think of a couple of elements of libertarianism that could be loosely be thought to be paradoxical. One such example is that libertarians desire the shrinking of political influence to a fraction of what it is now, but in being so averse to the state they may lack the political clout to influence from the inside. Another example, although admittedly a looser paradox, is that the freedoms libertarians welcome involve embracing a society open enough to contain many elements it finds to be inimical to the values it espouses.

But Tim's enquiry regarding how libertarians can know the market will work if no human mind can understand it doesn't strike me as being much of a conundrum, because in being asked to understand how the market works we are only being asked to understand that the market is society's aggregation of individual decisions by buyers and sellers made by people for whom those decisions brought about a mutual benefit.   

That is to say, while Tim is quite right that the free market is too vast and complex for politicians to understand its inner workings, it doesn't follow that because of this libertarians are on dodgy grounds assuming the validity of their position, because all us pro-market people are trying to say is that a free market in action must, by definition, be a system working for its agents, because it is quite simply the accumulation of activities that work for those agents.

There may well be unpleasant things in society that result from free market transactions, and concomitant power laws that cause discomfiture to certain socio-cultural groups, but us pro-market people are not primarily selling the qualities of the market per se - we are trying to advocate the freedoms from which things like the market operate more fruitfully.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Truthseeking Wheat From The Truthseeking Chaff

Suppose you meet someone for the first time. A way to impress them might be to talk intelligently at them for a while, reeling off a litany of impressive knowledge and reasoning. But while you might impress, you wouldn't learn much from the other person. On the other hand, you could meet that person and spend your time listening and learning, forgoing opportunities to impress them with your own conversational gifts.

Ideal conversations are probably about half and half - with both agents having roughly equal listening and talking time. While on my day I could make an impact on an interlocutor with some impressive knowledge and reasoning, I find what generally happens when I converse with a stranger is that I tend to allow the conversational output to be largely about the other person, because I want to 'soak up' as much new knowledge within that brief window as possible.

Here's why. Suppose you get chatting with a stranger and the chances are you won't get to do it again any time soon. Yes you could impress them by talking intelligently at them for a while, but equally you could use the opportunity to learn something from someone who knows more about a subject than you. Any stranger is going to have areas of knowledge that surpass yours, be it knowledge related to their job, their hobby, or simply a keen interest of study.

Consequently, then, if you and I meet as strangers, there's a good chance that I'll be highly interested in something you know about that I can add to my knowledge stock - be it plumbing a bathroom, working as a solicitor, your superior sporting talent, your experiences in a foreign country, an author you've read that I haven't, or numerous other areas of knowledge you have in which mine is less prodigious.

Being willing to soak up other people's expertise is a rewarding pursuit, and well worth resisting the temptation to predominate a conversation. And don't worry about not getting your chance to express intelligence - taking an interest in others and asking sharp and incisive questions will give exhibition to an intelligent mind at work.

For further consideration, there's another element to this. Being better informed isn't a panacea against being wrong. Given that even well informed people have faulty reasoning, it is not a good assumption to say "You are well informed therefore you're probably right". A better question to pursue would be "If I knew as much as you do on the subject, would I agree with your conclusions?". If your interlocutor says 'yes' it may show confidence that they think they can back up their position. If on the other hand they say 'no' it may well be an indication that they hold that view for different and possibly fragile reasons.

Suppose Jack and Jill disagree on five things. In four of the five cases Jack says that if Jill knew as much as he did on those subjects she would agree with him. But in the other case Jack admits that if Jill knew as much as he did on that subject she'd still disagree with him. On which of these scenarios do you trust Jack the most: on the four cases in which if Jill said 'show your work' there would be enough to convince her Jack was right; or in the one case where if Jill said 'show your work' there would not be enough to convince her Jack was right? In all probability it would be the former.

It has to be said though, there is a difference between evidence showing someone to be wrong and that person actually changing their mind. For example, it would very easy to provide the scientific evidence to show that evolution is a fact, but that doesn't mean a young earth creationist would change their mind when presented with it. It would also be very easy to provide the economic evidence that import tariffs are bad for the economy, but that doesn't mean a politician will suddenly stop supporting them. Bias and self-interest are powerful tools of motivation even in the face of contra evidence.

It's very likely is that if a person believes something that is not true, and doesn't appear very bothered about the evidence connected to showing the falsity of the belief, their reasons for believing it are motivated by very strong and influential non-empirical factors, like being part of a cult or wishing to deceive large swathes of the population. This is why in any consideration of truths and facts, open, honest, rigorous dialogue that presents evidence and the weight of arguments from both sides is always going to be the best course of action.

That is why, if anyone disagrees with me about anything, I am always enthusiastically wishing to debate openly about it, and have all the arguments from both sides laid out like a buffet on a dining table. My experience tells me that the 'buffet' standard is a pretty reliable standard for separating the genuine truth seekers from those who believe what they want to believe irrespective of truths and facts.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Best Way To Be Right Is To Not Mind Being Shown You're Wrong

One of the kindest things a regular reader once said to me was how consistently he thinks I get things right. "The thing about your blogs is that you're just so damn right about everything". Let me assure you, I always try. And the secret, as I'll explain, and as the title indicates, is in not being afraid of being wrong. You'll usually notice something reassuring about genuine truth-seekers: if someone shows them they are wrong about something, or offers them a better way of looking at things, or imparts some wisdom that comes from superior reasoning skills, they never mind having these things pointed out.

Genuine truth-seekers are more likely to rigorously explore both sides of the argument, and only opt for the position they think makes most sense, and best conforms to reason, logic and evidence. Because the truth is, throughout your life, every time you're open enough for someone to show you where you're wrong is equally a time when you've been given the opportunity to be right about something new.

Suppose you were brought up in the Bible Belt in America and you used to believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old, that humans do not share a common ancestor with other apes, and that the eye is too complex to have evolved. Then in a particularly enlightening day someone manages to show some good evidence why all three of those propositions are false.

In being shown to be wrong, you have learned at least three new things - the real age of the earth, the process by which natural selection can bring about eyes through a cumulative ratchet process (I once blogged about this here), and how our understanding of DNA demonstrates common ancestry (I once blogged about this here). Being shown how the old you was wrong ought to be positively embraced, because it also shows the new you how you are right.

It's not that difficult in life to be self-assured in your views and argue with confidence in debates, exposing your opponents with all the aplomb of a sniper picking out targets. You just have to follow these guidelines: be wedded to facts and truths, not emotional feelings or in-group biases. Also, don't seek security in the consensus - it doesn't mean these people are right just because there are a lot of them.

Consider bookmakers as an illustration. Bookmakers' odds are about probability of outcomes before the event. They are, in a sense, the pre-fact likelihood of future facts - asking who will win an upcoming horse race, presidential election or football match. The odds a bookmaker offers on a sporting event are not based on a general public consensus, they are based on the consensus of a proportion of the population that knows about sporting probability, and on the behaviour of people who are willing to bet money on these outcomes.

The bookmakers don't always get their odds right, but on average you'll find they do - where on average means over the long term they get a lot more right than they get wrong. That the betting public get on average a lot more wrong than right means the bookmakers stay in business.

Learning how to be right is a bit like this - it's about playing the long percentage game and not being taken in by any fads or hyperboles. It is about mastering methods of thinking that can hold you in good stead in front of any proposition. Of course, in a civilised society it is often good that our democratic views are implemented - be they views on which party should govern us, whether we should be in or out of the EU, and so on - but that should not be confused with empirical investigations.

Just because the majority of people think we should not frack or that London needs rent controls doesn't matter one jot if there are good logical and evidential reasons why the consensus is wrong. “Have you ever noticed when you’re driving that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” observed the comedian George Carlin. It's a nice bit of awareness-raising, because one thing you must forever keep at the forefront of your consciousness is that in being human you see the world through a series of you-centred biases, and those biases shape how you think, the views and beliefs you have, and how you formulate arguments.

I wish everyone always had that at the forefront of their minds, because instead of thinking everyone wrong and themselves right about everything, they could perhaps consider more readily that they might, in fact, have plenty to learn, and plenty of ways in which a change of mind will be good for their arsenal of reasoning. I’m not immune to that criticism either – it’s always good to be self-critical, however confident you are that you’re right.

I think the thing that gives me such confidence when I write as I do is in part because I’ve thought about these things a *lot*, and always tried to put myself in the place of the opposition and argue well for their side of the argument (a good tool to use in any debate). But the other major factor, in my view, is that I really don’t care what the results are as long as it’s true, logical, evidential, and conforms to reason.

I have no need for denial, no dog in any fight, no in-group or tribal affiliation, and no concern for whether what’s true is thought true by the majority, by some people, or by hardly anyone – I’m only interested in what is correct. If a genie appeared and showed me where I was wrong about x or y I’d be genuinely fascinated and delighted at this fresh illumination. That’s the only way to be, and why, as the title suggests, the best way to be right is to not care about being wrong.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

It's Amazing That This Isn't Happening In Football

A truth almost universally acknowledged is that getting things right is better than getting things wrong. Therefore when people either deliberately increase their chances of getting things wrong, or deliberately deny themselves a better opportunity to get things right, one ought to stop and ask why. There are many examples of this in society – one of which is in football, where in every match that takes place the people governing the game deliberately increase the chances of their officials getting things wrong.

I am talking here of the ridiculous notion of referees not having access to video replays of important, potentially game-changing, season-defining events during a football match. For decades now, key penalty appeals (either by fouls or handballs inside the box), free kicks just outside the box, offsides when the player is through on goal, and tackles that may or may not be a red card offence have been given or not given on the basis of the referee’s snap judgement, when quite often the video reply shows that the decision was a mistake.

Hand-balls, shirt-tugging, disallowed goals when the player was onside, fouls in the box – you name it, there are hundreds of occasions each season where teams get decisions they shouldn’t and don’t get decisions they should. Not only does this cause no end of frustration and injustice, it also imposes costly externalities on the sport, where the stakes are high and the outcomes often vitally important.

They’ve sorted out the ‘Did the ball cross the line?’ problem, with goal line technology that can verify one way or the other. That they don’t do the same for offences inside the penalty box, key offside decisions, bad tackles and so on is absurd. All that would need to happen is this. When such a key incident occurs, the fourth official and/or the referee get to watch the replay thoroughly and then make what will usually be the right decision. If the replay provides clear evidence one way or the other then the right decision can be made. If it’s still inconclusive then the officials get to make a decision, but at least they'll have the benefit of reviewing it more carefully rather than being disadvantaged by having to make on-the-spot judgements.

The only possibly plausible argument I've heard against this idea is that it will take some of the drama out of the game by increasing the number of stoppages. I don't think this is necessarily true. Many stoppages will simply replace current stoppages where the players surround the ref and complain of a wrong decision. But even it were true, it strikes me as strange to argue that a few stoppages are not a price worth paying for referees getting most of their decisions right.

Furthermore, this needn't come at the expense of drama at all. The replays could be shown on the big screen in stadiums at the same time that the officials are watching them, engendering apprehension and anticipation before the decision is made. There would surely be no less drama with this happening. Moreover, it could even be the case, like in tennis, whereby the ability to contest a decision is limited to three opportunities, meaning there is importance in choosing your disputes wisely.

Whichever way you cut the cloth, it remains one of the most absurd things about football that the game continues to be played with such a trivial attitude towards increasing the likelihood that matches will be officiated as correctly and fairly as possible. There is certainly the technology and capacity to do so, and I fancy that future generations will become quite accustomed to video replays being a key part of the drama during the matches. They will probably also look back on us and wonder why it took us so long for it to be implemented.
And while we are on the subject of video replays, here's what else I'd love to see - an end to the pathetic play-acting we see too often from wimpish drama queens. If a video replay shows a player has gone down like sack of spuds when he's been hardly touched, or clutches his face in pain when video evidence shows he was only gently brushed on the ear or chest, I'd like to see him receive a ban, where he can spend a few games on the side-lines thinking about what a conniving sissy he is.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Humanity's Next Great Leap Forward

Recently I watched a programme on the BBC called Storyville: The Cult That Stole Children. It was another one of those documentaries about a cult leader - this time a delusional, narcissistic bint called Anne Hamilton-Byrne - who led a brainwashing sect that left its members with all sorts of scars and traumas in adulthood.

The maltreated children of the sect were dressed in matching outfits, had identically dyed blonde hair, were isolated from the outside world, and regularly beaten, starved and injected with LSD under the leadership of this awful woman and her husband.

Whilst under the thrall of Anne Hamilton-Byrne, the sect members exhibited something that is generally true at a wider societal level - and that is that unless you can extricate yourself from the proximity of the group, you are unlikely to change your prejudice unless a large proportion of your group members do so likewise.

This is because your group’s culture, ethos, tribal connectivity and goals are paramount to its (and your) identity. Therefore your group is definitely on the right side of the argument and all opponents are on the wrong side. Anybody that wishes to undermine your group, even with evidence and good reasoning, is seen as a threat to the group's structural integrity, and consequently will be written off as a crank with which group members shouldn't identify or associate.

This wisdom has wider ramifications in other socio-political areas, because as long as in-group tribalistic associations remain the driving force for many of the extreme and absurd ideas people have, the likelihood of any individual in the group seeing sense is lessened.

One of the great leaps forward that humanity still requires - hopefully to be aided by our modern day access to the entire world's knowledge - is the freeing up of the individual from the unhelpful collectives that taint and retard his or her thinking, and the bringing about of rational pursuits that stand or fall on their own empirical merits.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that I cannot think of a single group that has been beneficial to its members and closed itself to what is true, factual and rational in favour of being hermetically sealed by the discourse of its leadership.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

The Apparently Extreme Nature Of Facebook Unfriending

Okay, not all instances of Facebook unfriending are a bad idea. If you are concerned about security, or confidentiality, or the person is regularly being an arse on your threads, or if there are past romantic links, or if they've really hurt you deeply in a way that is beyond repair, then yes, there are conditions under which unfriending is probably advisable.

But it has to be said, those cases are the minority of cases for unfriending. In the majority of cases when people unfriend, they do so for reasons that when examined more closely turn out to be quite illogical. Off the top of my head, here are the most popular reasons I think people unfriend Facebook friends, in no particular order:

1) They are self-absorbed pests who keep clogging up your newsfeed with annoying or irrelevant posts several times a day.

2) They keep making rude or annoying comments on your posts.

3) The person has views and beliefs that you find ignorant, odious or down right repugnant.

4) They are part of a religious group or political group you dislike and want nothing to do with.

5) You have a cull and unfriend all the people you don't really know, or know but don't keep in touch with.

6) You sense you've amassed too many friends to keep up with, and even though they have value to you, you figure that your list should be reduced to just the most important few dozen or few hundred people.

7) It's bad for your brain to have too many people in your social circle - and Robin Dunbar, he of the Dunbar number fame - the theory that there are putative cognitive limits to the number of people with whom folk can maintain stable social relationships - believes this applies to social media too.

8) They keep sending annoying requests your way - game requests being the worst, as we all know.

Despite being popular reasons for unfriending people, I think I can make a good case for why people may want to think twice about doing so for those reasons. Let's take them in turn.

Number 1, they are self-absorbed pests who keep clogging up your newsfeed with annoying or irrelevant posts several times a day. Simple answer: unfollow them so their posts no longer appear on your newsfeed. They will become invisible to you except when you choose to check out their activity every now and then.

What about number 2: they keep making rude or annoying comments on your posts? You have two choices, neither of which involves unfriending. You can ignore them - after all, even though they're posting annoying comments on your posts, they are at least getting to read your views, which might plant seeds of good in their mind for later. Plus, even annoying people may sometimes make observations that are worth reading. Or if that doesn't appeal you can hide your posts from their newsfeed so they can no longer comment.

Number 3 and number 4 amount to a similar problem, and therefore have the same solution. Those who have views and beliefs that you find unpleasant, and/or are part of a religious group or political group you dislike and want nothing to do with can simply be unfollowed. Unfollow them but don't hide your posts from them - that way, you spare yourself their unpleasing posts but they get to see yours and hopefully may learn something or benefit from what you have to say.

Numbers 5, 6 and 7 are also quite similar in nature, so again the solution applies to all three cases. Just because you have lots of friends that you don't know well or keep in touch with, that again doesn't mean you need to unfriend anyone. Simply fix your settings so you only see the posts of people you want to see, but don't hide your posts from anyone who isn't guilty of number 2 above. You decided to be friends with them in the first place, so there must have been a time when you saw value in having weak tie friendships on Facebook. Customised groups and privacy settings are useful, and you can even set up close friends on Facebook to ensure that select posts, or most posts if you prefer, are shared with only a very specially chosen few if that's what you want.

As for number 8, that's really easy - block all requests from them, then apply all the above to whatever situation remains.

With the ability to hide anything you don't want to see from others, and hide from others anything of yours you don’t want them to see, unfriending someone seems like something a lot of people do rather too hastily, particularly bearing in mind that those who are not of your mindset or to your liking needn't necessarily be robbed of the ability to read the copious amounts of wit and wisdom you put out there.

Except for those extreme circumstances I mentioned, like the person is Rolf Harris or something, when you unfriend someone, what you're basically saying is, your online significance is so unimportant to my life that I won't even allow you to be a forgotten entity hidden from my newsfeed, and me from yours - not even qualifying for the 'You can be a number on my friends list but totally off my radar in every other way' status.


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Hostages Falling In Love With Their Abductors

Libertarians are always going on about making the state smaller and the economy larger. A regular reader (and personal friend) asked a while back whether this was a realistic desire, given that, in his view, the state and the economy are inevitably yoked together. What the question really points to is another question: are the state and the economy inextricably conjoined because they have to be, or is it merely the case that the majority think this has to be the case?

Economist Adolph Wagner certainly thought so – he came up with a law that went on to be known as "The Law of Increasing State Activity" - or Wagner's Law as it was also more popularly called. Wagner's Law states that as the economy develops over time, the activities and functions of the government increase. As progressive nations expand their economic growth, the proportion of money that goes into the public sector grows too, and this is largely due to the electorate's perceived need for increased state activity, increased administrative costs and an expanding welfare sector.

I have a hunch that Wagner's Law will continue to play out in the short term, but longer term the morbidly obese state will get swallowed up by its own gluttony and then begin to decay. And just like when a parent pulls a splinter out of their child's finger, I think the people will have to wise-up and help the state go through its initial pain in order to help with the necessary decline. The main reason for this is to help promote the understanding of what a rough deal we get from the state overall.

In the market of trade, I am going to give you money and you are going to plaster my walls - that is a mutually beneficial exchange of money for services, and it involves free choices. The relationship we have with the state is not of this kind - we are compelled to consent to the state's laws and regulations, or else we have to leave its geographical jurisdiction. Unlike the plastering job, it isn't a contract we signed because we agree to all its costs and benefits - it was one we had to sign to carry on living in the place of our birth. There is no analogous relationship in the free market. No plasterer or newsagent or car salesman ever assumes on your behalf that you want these things and that you will pay for them or else go to prison.

The principal retort to this line of thinking is that the state doesn't just take our hard earned money - it gives us services in return. True, it does - but I don't get much of a say about which services the state provides - for I can conceive of numerous services the state provides that the private sector could provide more cheaply, more efficiently and only to those who want them. I expect to pay for a plasterer if I need one, or give money to a car salesman when I need a new car. But I wouldn't choose to live in a system whereby I have money taken from me to pay for trains other people use or rent subsidies because the government has artificially inflated housing prices.

In this system I have to fund my own preferred mode of transport to work (not to mention all the other concomitant taxes associated with car ownership) plus subsidise other people's rail journeys. A market system would see costs of travel more closely linked to types of travel for the consumer - and ditto numerous other services that are currently funded for across the wider population.

What you have to remember is that while all these public services may be proximally funded by the state, they are distally funded for by the market transactions throughout society. Some services may be better off with some state involvement for the time being (though not necessarily indefinitely), but the idea that there are not plenty of services that could be more efficiently funded and performed by letting us keep more of our money and spending it on more freely made consumer choice-driven decisions is remiss.  

You only have to think that the historically unprecedented progression-explosion in well-being, living standards, reductions in poverty and economic growth had virtually everything to do with trade and competition and very little to do with state-spending programmes (a truth that's compounded by the fact that any successful state interjections during that time were themselves paid for by the fruits of trade and competition in the first place).

Not only does the state force us to obey all its strictures by threatening to incarcerate or deport us if we don't obey, it also runs on an engine of economic oppression whereby it protects its existence and fattens up its own stomach by the self-serving rules it creates to achieve this. The misdemeanours for which the state punishes its citizens most readily are the misdemeanours that subvert its own authority and compromise its own bounty.

Consequently, then, we shouldn't be surprised that Wagner's law continues to be hold its water - nor that our authorities have gradually been shaping its citizens and its media to embrace the narrative that it exists for our own good and that we need to do our bit to perpetuate its gluttony.

The plasterers, the newsagents and the car salesmen justify their existence for our own good only by the continued provision of goods and services that bring value to our society. Except for the important services it provides, particularly for the elderly and the vulnerable, the state does not. In fact, given that the market is the state's biggest rival in competition for efficiency and value, it is no surprise that it looks to create a narrative that undermines its rival. The state tries to engender a nationwide Stockholm Syndrome through fear, distortions and parent-like manipulations, until the majority of its population blithely accedes to the theory of its own legitimacy.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Oh This Is So Ludicruous

Over the weekend, the consistently clueless Nicola Sturgeon bemoaned the possibility of a post-Brexit UK being a 'low tax, de-regulated' economy; and then on Sunday's Andrew Marr Show, Jeremy Corbyn lambasted the Chancellor's consideration of making post-Brexit Britain a tax-friendly nation in competition with the EU if we don't get a good deal (most prominently by drastically cutting corporation tax).

When are people like Corbyn and Sturgeon going to learn some of the basics - that low tax, lightly regulated economies are exactly the kind of economies that see prodigious economic growth by encouraging more outside investment, and by making it worthwhile for entrepreneurs to work hard in our nation?

The reality is, they are getting their reasoning backwards: what they think would be doom and gloom for Britain would actually be a liberatingly positive thing. Take corporation tax. While it would be better if it was removed altogether (as I explain in this blog post), cutting it would be a significant step in the right direction because it would make the vast majority of the population better off (including the working poor). 

The reason why is easy to understand for anyone who understands economics, because the issue is all about who picks up the cost of corporation tax. Quite simply, the burden of corporation taxes falls either on the employees of the company, or on the customers, as shareholders will see to it that the cost is not borne by them. Company profits are revenue minus expenses, and there's no way the shareholders are picking up expenses they can pass on to others.

Alas, due to the fact that much of the electorate believes the same thing about tax and regulation as Corbyn and Sturgeon, there is almost no selection pressure on these politicians to grasp the fact that a tax-friendly, more lightly-regulated economy will not only help Britain thrive, it will help the economy grow to pay for the services they are saying are 'in crisis'. Corbyn and Sturgeon, by contrast, want to preside over an economy in which neither of those things happen.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

There Isn't Really An Instinct To Preserve Our Species

It's a commonly held view that we humans have an instinct to preserve our species. It's common, but I think it is misjudged - we do not have an instinct to preserve our species, we have instincts that when aggregated make the perseveration of our species more probabilistic. That's a different thing.

Certainly we as a species are very mindful of ecological and environmental issues, and most of us do not look favourably on the wilful destruction of our planet. But these actions that increase the likelihood of preservation of our species are not undertaken because we have an 'instinct' to preserve our species - they are a part of our relinquishment of personal liberties for the good of society and for the time being a well established government. This is often referred to in philosophy as ‘the social contract’ – and provides justification for nations being governed by a central State. 

The social contracts of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke have ingrained in our psyche the view that order and decency can be created and developed through systems that are legitimated by the human consensus for a collective contract. In other words, our instincts are for co-operatives - be they market exchanges, rule of law or democratic representation - and it is because of those co-operatives that we are able to behave in a way that makes preservation of our species realistic.

We can make the point clearer regarding why I don't think we have a preservation of species instinct by comparing such a thing to instincts we do have. If we take the word ‘instinct’ to mean something most natural to the emotions, such as something that elicits feelings of pleasure or fear, as in our instinct for food or sex, or an instinct for fear in a dangerous situation, then we can certainly say that no analogous instinct of preservation exists. A farmer who relies upon his crops and livestock for a living does not have the same instinct to preserve them as he does an instinct to make love to his wife. It seems very evident to me that we do not have a desire to preserve our species in that way. 

When a man desires a woman, the desire becomes a reified desire; he can see what he wants and he can see how he can get what he wants. But the desire to preserve our species doesn't occur that way - in fact, it occurs in just the opposite kinds of situation. When one thinks about posterity, one is not in a raw animalistic mood; one is usually in a reflective mood, pondering the future generations and what might become of them. And the later feeling seems to me to be quite a departure from the former instinct. The best we can say is that we are impelled to think mindfully of future generations, for their well being, and for their future. 

Although we can make rational decisions to save and plan for our futures, it seems to me that if instincts are at play it is a more reasonable argument to say that we are impelled, by temptation, to instinctively think of the here and now. One of our most natural inclinations is to live the best life we can - and apart from perhaps our own family, not care too much about future generations. Our caring about future generations is not like an itch we are desperate to scratch or a sexual desire we are desperate to have gratified, it is more akin to a socially contracted rationalisation program designed to subvert our most parochial instincts for the here and now. It is the learned behaviour that we practice because it makes us a little less like our instinctual selves.

Are you convinced yet?
And if I still haven't managed to convince you, I think I can now do so by putting forward the following question. If this generation were told that they had to go without earthly pleasure - that is, they had to make sacrifices that would render their lives deeply boring and uneventful, but in return, all future generations would prosper profusely; how many men and women of this present age would undertake such a position with unadulterated pleasure? I think the answer is very few. Some good natured and kind hearted souls might think the sacrifice worth making, but it seems clear that if this feeling was part of their natural instinct, they would meet the prospective sacrifice with a rawer sense of enthusiasm from the start. Any so-called ‘natural instinct’ towards the preservation of the species is preservation with regard to family, not the human species as a whole.  

I fully acknowledge that the preservation of posterity is, ultimately, more important than any individual’s personal desires or preferences. But strong and weak ties are chronological too - we only think about the preservation of our unborn grandchildren and great-grandchildren in an abstract way - in fact, the further into the future we go the more diluted our desire actually is.

Of course, because of how markets work for the collective as a result of individuals pursuing their own improved well-being, the mechanism is already in place to increase the likelihood that that future generations have a better life than we have - but I am certainly not talking about our deepest and rawest individual instincts here. The human desire for the preservation of the species is really the collective result of individuals instinctively caring to look after themselves and their families.

If you were asked to die in order to save the lives of future generations, you might well acquiesce and do so dutifully; your compulsion to do so would be one of moral rectitude or moral incumbency. But only a fool would say that it was part of your instinct to do this. The first emotion you feel, the very first one, would be one of doubt, reluctance and apprehension. All we are really doing is arranging certain types of compulsion and hierarchically ordering them by a system which judges them by their distance of proximity from our moral suasions. If we are sick, our natural instinct is to get better, if we are hungry, our natural instinct is to eat, if we are in danger, our natural instinct is to be safe. In hierarchical terms, any instinct to preserve the species would be rather low down, certainly below most other spontaneous impulses.

Our desire to preserve the species is really more like a desire for better coastal barriers during the aftermath of the tsunami, or the desire for better policing after a spate of street crimes, or a desire for better transparency when politicians lie and misbehave. The desire for the preservation of the species is more like those desires; it exists because the need to think of future generations is a constituent part of the wider social contract to which our conscience enjoins us.  

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Another Instance Of The Wrong End Of The Job Market Stick

On the radio the other day, the perpetually confused Polly Toynbee was exclaiming how ‘disgraceful’ it is that people like doctors, nurses and teachers are paid so little in comparison to sports stars. Jeremy Corbyn bemoaned the same thing yesterday, and after I commented on Facebook, a friend remarked that in his experience a lot of football fans are disgusted at the players' wages and wished soldiers earned more instead. 

How can it be, Toynbee and Corbyn groaned, that those that save lives and educate our children earn just a fraction of those that kick a football around a field or whack a tennis ball over a net (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist)? Ignoring the fact that even if footballers earned less it doesn't mean soldiers would earn more, I will now make a quick comment on this matter.

As you may know, I agree with the part about sports stars being overpaid (although incidentally, they are in the minority – most highly paid people are probably not overpaid). Where Polly and Jezza are missing the mark though is in not understanding why it is, in fact, a good thing that doctors, nurses and teachers are nowhere near as well paid as sports stars.  

To explain why, let me ask a question. Would you like to live in a world in which a teacher or nurse is paid the same per week as the likes of Wayne Rooney and Andy Murray? Already you should be starting to see the problem – there wouldn’t be enough teachers and nurses to go round. In other words, it’s good that we live in a world in which a large number of people can be teachers or nurses and a relatively small number can be professional footballers or tennis players.

It’s precisely because caring for the sick and educating our young are far more important than ego-driven sports competitions that we ought to be thankful that teachers and nurses are in more abundant supply than professional sports stars - and that, for this very reason, their marginal revenue productivity is of a more affordable nature than a sports star whose talents are relatively rare.

Monday, 9 January 2017

A Better Way To Tackle The Social Care Crisis

In the past day or two, a few unsettling headlines that show the NHS in a bad light have got everyone arguing again about who in Westminster is going to save the day by giving it the spending it deserves (the reality is far scarier as I blogged about here). This has followed recent political deliberations from politicians and political commentators alike about whether a council tax rise is the answer to our social care funding crisis. It is not; in fact, raising council tax to fund the social care crisis is a bit like trying to get rid of a stray cat from your back door by throwing tuna chucks at it.

One of the big problems in the UK is that the government spending is far too large. Coupled with the fact that the burden of public sector spending (on health, education and pensions, as well as on social services) is rising faster than the tax that can be generated to pay for it, this amounts to a big problem that's only going to get worse.

The main reason this problem has been allowed to get out of hand, not just here, but right throughout Europe, is because there is not enough of an incentive for politicians to curb their spending. And the reason for this is that the tax burden falls disproportionately on a small subsection of the population, whereas the voting habits fall on a much wider proportion of the population. For example, the bottom 50% of earners are only picking up about 5% of the total tax bill, so their motives to desire increased public spending are out of kilter with the viability of that spending.

A good way to lessen this problem would be to introduce a tax reduction program whereby the tax bill is distributed more evenly while at the same time reduced as a whole. So, for example, if there was a cap on how much the highest earners could be taxed measured up against the average tax, the incentives to oppose dodgier costly government spending projects would be heightened, as would government revenue to pay for the increasing social care costs (the costs that aren't picked up by the clients themselves). It would also help if we sorted out this little problem I blogged about a few years ago.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Social Butterfly Effect: Six Degrees Of Facebook Separation

Facebook is a place that throws up all kinds of interesting previously unknown connections - like how the girl your cousin's best friend used to date is now married to a guy you are now team mates with in the pool league; or how your old English literature teacher has a child for whom your ex-work colleague now babysits. In a world that's complexly and intricately interconnected, we sample those connections very sparsely. But why is this so?
One explanation is that the butterfly effect in physics also occurs in the social world too - in that single events and actions engender causal links that spread out way beyond the immediacy of our perceptions, and probably eventually everywhere. A woman who crashes her motorbike into a car in London probably eventually has a knock on effect (pun intended) somewhere in China, where a Chinese businessman chooses restaurant A over restaurant B and probably eventually changes the nature of a board meeting in Chicago.
It's just that the vast majority of these links on the causal chains are invisible to us. Naturally, when we do notice a connection we focus on it and block out a lot of background noise and extraneous data not relevant to the connection.
I have a suspicion, actually, that pretty much everything anyone does in terms of an event or action is part of a causal nexus linked to everyone else's events and actions, rather like trillions of bees flying around, where all bees bump into some other bees (which indirectly causes further bumping) but not others. To apply that analogy to human societal interaction, we sometimes are reacquainted with past bumps via a succession of other bumps, but we notice because we never pay attention to all the other bumps that are not in our chain of connection.