Monthly Archives: May 2017

Some Thoughts on the Election

I am convinced that the path we’re currently on isn’t socially or environmentally sustainable.  My primary objective in taking an interest in politics, is the hope that my vote and my interest can help get us onto a more sustainable path, one that maximises people’s chances to flourish, both now and in future generations.  

Many of you will be thinking that this wish directly implies that I should vote for Labour or the Greens.  I’m much less convinced.  Though many Green and Labour policies naturally appeal to me, I believe that all parties are capable of recognising the benefits of making the system more sustainable.  Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the changes I’d like to see are ultimately made by the Conservatives.

In this respect, I was pleased that both the Labour and Conservative manifestos went further towards recognising the social sustainability challenges that we face than they had before.  The Conservatives didn’t go far enough, and quite a few policies in both manifestos could have done with some more thought and discussion. Both had some proposals that I disagree with.  The environment was largely ignored.  But I do praise them for trying, and I do believe that these views are genuine.

My hopes were raised, and then came the response from their opponents and the media – highlighting the ‘losers’ from any change, ignoring any benefits.  Yes, I get that this is politics, and I get that is what gets readers engaged.  But when I’m looking at who I want to be governing, and who I want to be representing me in Parliament, particularly with such big challenges ahead, I want it to be a party that shows a willingness to listen and to talk honestly to the whole country.  And no party is filling me with overwhelming confidence.

I get why Theresa May is promoting ‘strong and stable’ leadership – I don’t like chaos any more than anyone else.  But in a complex world, it is often difficult to tell the difference between ‘strong’ and ‘brittle’.  I have moments when I’m convinced that May could be a good strong leader if she gets a decent majority, and other moments when it fills me with dread.  But I am similarly unsure how strong or good a leader Corbyn would be.

The Conservatives, Lib Dems and SNP wanted to make this election all about Brexit, but Labour seem to have ensured attention was on everything except Brexit.  I wish that by voting a certain way I could undo last year’s referendum, but can’t.  The only way I can see of avoiding Brexit is the government negotiate a truly dreadful deal, and I’m not prepared to hope for that. Intriguingly, the financial markets (ie the pound) seem to have decided that the best bet for the closest relationship with Europe is a comfortable Conservative majority (eg https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/may/26/ftse-reaches-record-high-as-uk-opinion-poll-spooks-sterling ).

Probably the one area where I do have strongly partisan views is on austerity and social spending.  I am not alone in thinking that the austerity of the past 7 years has been a failure.  I believe the bulk of the cuts will have far bigger long term costs than they’ve saved us.  in the Health portfolio, I realise that there are difficult decisions to be made, but I don’t recall ever seeing such mismanagement as we’ve seen over the past 2 years.  My take on it is that it is ideological – a desire to cut costs without considering evidence or consequences, and without recognising that the system cannot work without the goodwill of doctors and nurses.  I’m not totally convinced that Labour would have run things wonderfully or efficiently, but I can’t believe they could have done a worse job than the current government.  

Obviously it is much easier to argue for more spending than to say where it should come from.  We need to make our government sustainable over the longer term.  But at the moment most people (including those at the top) feel the tax system is unfair.  We’re going to need to do more talking about how tax and redistribution should work.  Blindly raising taxes on those that already feel things are unfair will just create resentment and them to feel justified in restructuring their affairs.  We need to ensure we’re doing it in a way that the majority of people feel that their contributions are necessary to ensure a country that they want to live in.  

In these uncertain times, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of having good people in parliament, and I think it is even more important than which party they’re in.  Assuming that all members of a party are as bad as each other doesn’t make sense, and over the past year some of the most effective opposition to the government’s worst policies has come from Conservative MPs.  So if you’ve got a good candidate, I’d encourage you to consider supporting them irrespective of their party.

Finally, I’d like to make a comment on how we talk about our politicians.  After the tragic shooting of MP Jo Cox last year, there was a bit of a move towards treating politicians with a bit more respect and understanding (eg http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/17/jo-cox-was-brave-so-are-most-mps-lets-show-them-more-respect/) .  Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have lasted.  I shouldn’t have to point out that politicians are people, not perfect or altruistic, but mostly hard-working people who want the best for their constituents, and indeed for the whole country.  I wish we could stop demonising and abusing them (in particular, sexist or racist abuse towards politicians is still unacceptable), and be more thoughtful in our criticisms – otherwise we shouldn’t be surprised if we get the politicians we deserve.

Doughnut Economics

I came across Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics – 7 ways to think like a 21st century economist (UK) (US) in a Guardian review last month, and have now finished it.

I’d recommend it to just about anyone as a very readable overview of the economic challenges facing the world, why economics has struggled and will increasingly struggle with these challenges, and how our thinking can adapt to tackle these challenges.

The book’s central idea is that economic activity should neither be minimised or maximised – there is a sweet territory (the doughnut) below which society will not sustain and above which the planet will not sustain.  At present we suffer risks on both sides.

2360

(Source: Kate Raworth and Christian Guthier/The Lancet Planetary Health via the Guardian)

The seven changes in thinking that the book proposes are:

  1. Change the goal – from GDP to the Doughnut (genuine sustainability)
  2. See the big picture – from a stand-alone market to an embedded economy
  3. Nurture human nature – from rational economic man to socially adaptable humans
  4. Get savvy with systems – from mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity
  5. Design to distribute – from ‘growth will even it up again’ to distributive by design
  6. Create to regenerate – from ‘growth will clean it up again’ to regenerative by design
  7. Be agnostic about growth – from growth addicted to the right level and kind of growth

Obviously none of these are crazy, and most people would fundamentally agree with them, but Raworth does a great job of talking through the implications of these assumptions.

The book was full of interesting history of how economics came to be the way it is, how many of the standard assumptions have been acknowledged as questionable even by their original authors, and why they’ve continued to be held – this is helpful to understand if we want to change our thinking.

Overall I really enjoyed the book, and found it very reasonable, acknowledging the many uncertainties and willing to criticise views on the left as well as the right.  I can see it appealing to many of my friends with more conservative as well as those with more progressive views, so highly recommended.

Doughnut Economics – 7 ways to think like a 21st century economist can be found on Amazon (UK) (US) and no doubt many other bookshops.

Brexit – deal or no deal

One of my major frustrations when it comes to politics are the ambiguous statements – where both sides are arguing over different interpretations.  It feels so unnecessary – I wish we could make an effort to be a bit more specific, so that we can focus on where we actually disagree.  

For example:

No Brexit deal is better than a bad Brexit deal

Everyone seems convinced they know what it means – but they don’t agree.  Here are a few interpretations that I’ve heard people make:

    • Leaving the EU without an alternative to the default WTO terms is better than the technically worst possible deal – true, in my opinion, though they’d have to be almost inconceivably bad (maybe one where we agree to become slaves?)
    • Leaving the EU without an alternative to the default WTO terms is better than the likely deal the EU would offer us (ie us not getting our way in negotiations) – questionable
    • Leaving the EU without any trading / movement rights is better than the technically worst possible deal  – again, technically true, but both are highly unlikely in my opinion
    • Leaving the EU without any trading / movement rights is better than the likely deal the EU would offer us (ie us not getting our way in negotiations)  – I believe untrue
    • In order to get a reasonable Brexit deal we have to be able to ensure we could survive no Brexit deal  – I’m really not sure, sometimes negotiating from a position of strength helps and sometimes it hurts
    • It doesn’t really matter if we get a deal or not –  clearly untrue
    • We shouldn’t make much effort to get a deal – clearly untrue
    • We shouldn’t (literally) kill ourselves trying to get a deal – clearly true (I haven’t actually heard anyone arguing this meaning, but thought I’d include it for completeness).

So next time you’re going to argue over whether no Brexit deal is better than a bad Brexit deal, please make clear which one you mean.  And if you’re going to disagree with someone, it might be worth checking that they actually mean something you disagree with.

Hypocrisy

I have started attending some of the talks organised by The Forum for European Philosophy, and last Tuesday attended a panel on “Hypocrisy”.  If I’m honest, hypocrisy isn’t a topic I had given too much thought to, but it does seem to be a criticism that is increasingly made of those in leadership, so it is worth thinking about.

Talking to a handful of my friends shows that very few people have a working definition of hypocrisy, which in itself is interesting.  Dictionaries tend to define it along the lines of: “The practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case”, but it is worth noting that in practice people tend to use it more broadly – for example not needing the individual to actually claim or even promote the higher standards.  

Based of the dictionary definitions, hypocrisy has two components:

  • the claim to have higher moral standards, or at least the promotion of particular standards
  • and the act which betrays those standards.  

Some people, tend to focus on the two separate components: criticising the moral arrogance, and the bad actions.  If I’m honest, this is my natural inclination – and the charge of hypocrisy itself is downplayed.  In particular, if someone claimed a standard that I didn’t agree with, and then didn’t follow it, I wouldn’t want them to change their behaviour to be in line with their ‘bad’ standard.

But enough others emphasise the combination that makes up hypocrisy, that it is important to try and understand this.  

I can think of a number of fundamental reasons to dislike hypocrisy (beyond our dislike of the separate components):

  • When practiced by leaders, hypocrisy often indicates the individual can’t be trusted and is undeserving of their position.
  • More generally, hypocrisy is a form of deception and cheating.  These undermine a functioning moral order.  By tolerating it, we ourselves weaken that system (and conversely, by condemning, it we are promoting that system).

I suspect that these reasons to condemn hypocrisy are deeply ingrained, and have arisen through evolution, along with our aversion to cheating (see for example Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind).  [One of my favourite experiments shows that in games, people will not only incur a cost to punish cheaters, but they will incur a cost to punish those that don’t themselves punish cheaters!]

I suspect there are some more pragmatic reasons that people care about hypocrisy (some a result of people’s innate aversion to it):

  • We may not like someone’s actions, but may feel unable to insist on them acting by our standards.  It does feel fairer to criticise them if they themselves have argued against for these standards.
  • Similarly, if someone is arguing for standards that we consider inappropriate, we can undermine them by highlighting that they don’t follow them.
  • Given the impossibility of anyone being entirely consistent, and the public’s deeply ingrained dislike of hypocrisy, it makes an easy accusation for leaders we dislike

While I do value a generally functioning moral system that allows us to cooperate within our society, and feel it is appropriate to condemn forms of cheating (including hypocrisy), this can be taken too far, particularly in today’s divisive political climate.  When criticising a leader we already dislike for some inconsistency, I do feel we would be wise to consider whether we’d feel so critical if a leader we liked acted similarly (or indeed do we share similar faults).  

And where possible, I believe we would be better to focus our attention on the inappropriate standard or the action.  And if neither of these are that bad, there is probably a better place to direct our anger.