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Doing Good Better

A friend of mine recently recommended William MacAskill’s 2015 book “Doing Good Better” – I read it last week, and very highly recommend it to any of my friends that care about their impact in the world.

The book aims to help people think rationally and holistically about how to have the most positive impact: through one’s work, through donating to worthwhile causes, and through influencing others.  It provides frameworks for choosing between different ways to make a difference.  Real examples help make the book enjoyable, and show how this kind of thinking is valuable (as well as challenging).

To be honest, I often dislike books and talks on philanthropy, feeling that they are more certain of their logic and values than they deserve to be.  What I particularly liked about “Doing Good Better” was its honesty in the face of the very many uncertainties.  MacAskill is far more interested in helping you rationally achieve your goals than using emotion and guilt to persuade you.  By offering frameworks that you could apply to your skills, values and assessments, he recognises that you may come to different conclusions to him or other people – that is to be expected.

The key message from the book is that although assessing outcomes is difficult and your temptation to not think too much and just go with your heart is understandable, thinking rationally can lead to outcomes orders of magnitude better than what you might otherwise do.  And if you do it properly, it won’t lead you to becoming cold-hearted and thinking that charity is a waste of money – the best opportunities out there are unquestionably worthwhile.

Being very interested in decision theory, I also enjoyed some of the encouragement to think more rationally.  For example, people considering a career in medicine often mistakenly consider the average good that a doctor does, rather than trying to assess the marginal good that they will do as one extra doctor in the system.  Likewise, a charity may have a great track record addressing an important cause, but if it can’t effectively use additional donations you are better off donating elsewhere.  Many people underestimate the significant value of seeking neglected opportunities.

Even though MacAskill’s goal is more to teach frameworks than specifics, the examples did teach me quite a bit that I didn’t know (and correct some of my misapprehensions), particularly about environmental issues (he also talks draws examples from global health and poverty).  There were a few places in the book that I disagreed with how he weighed values – but that didn’t detract from the book – after all, its intention was to provide frameworks for thinking about things rather than “the answers”.

The chapter on thinking rationally about your career was extremely good (not surprising given his involvement in https://80000hours.org/) – so even if you’re less concerned about philanthropy at this stage of your life, I’d still consider the book worth reading on the basis of this chapter.

I hope my friends that read it find it useful and enjoyable.

The market for books and news

Almost all my reading these days is done on a Kindle, and I miss being able to lend or give books to friends (a book voucher isn’t the same).

For news, I like to read and share good articles.  I’m prepared to pay, but I certainly need the ability for friends to be able to read the articles I share without signing in.

Both the market for ebooks and news share some characteristics:

  • A significant cost of creation of the content for the creator, in terms of time and expertise
  • A low or zero marginal cost of each incremental
  • Variable quality (and not always easy to judge)
  • People’s consumption depends on culture and habits

I’d love to see society increase the value of content created and consumed, but our market system seems to be struggling, and I’m not sure what the answer is.

Paying for content creation via advertising doesn’t seem to be working.  We’re getting better at filtering it out, and it seems to drive towards maximising page views rather than value.

Member supported / crowd-funded does seem to work in a lot of cases, and I particularly like that these often allow ‘pay what it is worth for you’, reducing inequality.  Though personally, I don’t like the messages pressuring me into giving, or the feeling that someone else is free-riding off my generosity.

Hard paywalls work in some cases, but they reduce consumption.  Also, I still fear that many other people may be accessing the content without paying.

I do like soft paywalls (for example letting people view a certain number of articles each month), or memberships that create a sense of common ownership.   

I’m sure there is more than one solution, and I hope to see more discussion and more innovation as we explore what is possible.

Tips for Singing in a Choir

There are many choirs out there that share certain characteristics: they are made up of 20-150 mostly amateur singers (sometimes lightly auditioned, sometimes not at all), they spend a number of rehearsals learning one or more pieces, before performing them (usually from the score).  

One of the great thing about these kind of choirs is that they welcome members of a wide range of musical ability and experience – somehow, when you put them together for enough rehearsals, they produce something that an audience can enjoy.

I have enjoyed singing in choirs like these for the past 25 years, and over that time I’ve picked up a few tricks that I find useful in learning my music – hopefully some others might find them useful.

Big Picture

  • You’re not expected to be perfect.
  • A big part of learning a piece of music is getting the music line and the words ingrained in your memory, so they come naturally.  Everyone is capable of doing this; don’t feel bad if it takes you a bit longer than other people.
  • If you can, take the time to look at your music and/or listen to a recording between rehearsals – you will learn much faster.
  • Your score (sheet music) is going to be an enormous help in learning the music.  Look after it, and write notes in it (in pencil – make sure you bring one!).
  • Try not to miss rehearsals (and try to be on time – warm-ups do make a difference).
  • Enjoy the process of learning music and singing!

In Rehearsal

  • If you’re not feeling confident, sit next to someone that is confident (a lot of choirs have a section leader who can help).  Or if the person next to you is putting you off, subtly make a point of being next to someone else next rehearsal.
  • This is the tip that I struggle with most – but try to stay focussed during rehearsal.  If the conductor is rehearsing another voice part, don’t check your phone or chat to your neighbour, ideally follow look at the part where you’re about to come in.  
  • Don’t worry too much about making mistakes – rehearsal is designed for trying your best, and working out what you do and don’t know.  You won’t learn as fast if you’re scared to get things wrong.  (and it should go without saying that you shouldn’t laugh if other people make a mistake!!!)
  • Don’t expect to get everything right the first time.  I tend to prioritise knowing which bar I’m in over getting the exact rhythm right, rhythm over notes, and notes over words.
  • That said, once you’ve been through it a couple of times, if you are still struggling with a section of the music, it is worth asking the conductor to go over it – some bits of music are unintuitive, and hearing them played on the piano can help a lot.

Listening to the music between rehearsals

  • You can really benefit from listening to both midis and/or full recordings between rehearsals, to get your brain familiar with how the piece goes.
  • Midis recordings play just the notes, making it easier to get the note that you’re meant to sing.  Often you can get ones for each voice part – for example, ones with the tenor part highlighted which can be really helpful.
  • Youtube often has midi recordings, and you can often find them on https://www.stmaryssingers.com/all-titles.html, http://www.cyberbass.com and http://www2.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Main_Page .
  • There are a few apps that take midi files and allow you to play back pieces.  For example, I swear by an ios app called learnmypart that lets you upload and play midi files, adjusting the balance (eg highlighting your voice part) and speed, and even looping over a section that you find tricky.
  • Full recordings are excellent for getting a sense for how the piece is meant to sound.
  • I find Spotify and youtube great for finding full recordings of most pieces that you’ll sing.  
  • And obviously many pieces are available on CD.

Your Score

  • Only write in your score using a 2B or HB pencil (particularly important if the score is borrowed).
  • If you’re score has unhelpful markings left over from a previous singer, it is worth taking the time to erase them, otherwise they’ll keep confusing you.
  • Mark in which line of music is for your part.  Obviously it often isn’t hard to work it out as you go, but anything that saves you half a second over a page turn is worth doing:
    music_find_line
  • I often mark in the note that my next line starts on, so at the end of one line I know whether to go up or down (in this example, the next note for the tenors was an f):
     music_next_note
  • In places whether the rhythm isn’t obvious, it is often helpful to write in the beats.
    music_count
  • One of the challenges in reading music is knowing where to get your note from, either from your own part earlier or from another voice part.  It is worth circling a note that you can use:music_find_note
  • Anywhere that tends to catch you out, make a note of it.  For example, if there’s a spot where you’re always tempted to come in early, circle the rest.   If there’s a place where you need to sing higher than you’d think, mark it in.  If you come in at the very start of the next page, write it in.
  • If there are places where you have to avoid speeding up or slowing down, write a note.  Or just put in a symbol to watch the conductor.
    music_instructions
  • If there are dynamic markings you keep missing, circle them.  
  • Mark in any other instructions your conductor gives you (eg breath instructions, pronunciation tips):
    music_dynamics
  • If you’re new and feeling a bit lost with notation, feel free to ask the person next to you.

I hope some of this is useful – but whatever happens, don’t stress – singing is meant to be fun!

The books I’ve read in 2016

Some people seem to be interested in the books I read, and I always love hearing about what other people read.  So I’ve decided to put together a list of books that I read in 2016 – at least the ones I’m not too ashamed to own up to having read …

Red Notice, by Mike Browder, about his adventures in Russia’s corporate world, and his fight for justice.

Other People’s Money, by John Kay.  One of my top 3 for the year, and I wrote about it here.

The Penguin Lessons, by Tom Michell.  A true story, about a young man teaching in Argentina, and his adopted penguin – I enjoyed it.

Into the magic shop, A neurosurgeon’s true story of the life-changing magic of compassion and mindfulness, by James Doty.  Excellent in places, though a bit cliched at times.

The Sense of Style, by Stephen Pinker.  A wonderful antidote to stuffy grammar books that teach you rules to follow, this book explains (with good examples) what it is that makes some writing easy to follow, and other writing incomprehensible.  

Utopia for Realists, by Rutger Bregman.  This short book looked at a number of economic ideas that I’m very interested in, most notably basic income and the future of work.  I wanted it to be wonderful, the book that I could give to everyone I knew, but unfortunately I found it merely pretty good.

Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul, by Bill Hybels.  Written by an American Pastor, with a very spiritual element (so not aimed at everyone), but have some thoughtful insights, and clever ways of thinking about things that most people struggle with at times.

Let’s Stay Together – Denis MacShane, and EU Referendum: a guide to voters, by David Torrance.  I read these two books in the leadup to the referendum – the first intentionally pro-Remain, and the second attempting to present both sides.    

On Rock or Sand, a collection of essays edited by Archbishop John Sentamu, about the future of Britain.  Some of the collection were excellent (particularly the one on how our Parliament could be improved), I wrote about it here.

On the Move, by Oliver Sacks.  His childhood memoirs delving into the world of chemistry, Uncle Tungsten, is one of my all time favorite books, so when I heard this neuroscientist’s adult memoirs had been published around the time of his death in 2015, I was keen to read them.  A fascinating character with an incredible way of noticing things that no one else noticed.

All That is Solid: How the Great Housing Disaster Defines Our Times, and What We Can Do About it, by Danny Dorling.  This is focussed on the UK property market, and really got me thinking.  I might not agree with 100% of what he was arguing, but he was right on a lot, and I learned a lot.

PostCapitalism, by Paul Mason.  I didn’t find it as good as his shorter pieces.  I wrote about it here.

Saving Capitalism: For the many, not the few, by Robert Reich.  This is also in my top three for the year, I wrote about it here.

You are not so Smart, by David McRaney.  I’m fascinated by how we think, and how we get things wrong, so I felt I should read this book which has got very good reviews.  I did learn a few new things, but most of it covered ideas that I was already familiar with.  

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by JK Rowling.  I couldn’t justify queuing for weeks, or paying £500 for the a scalped ticket, so I read the screenplay – and loved it.   I will hopefully get a chance to see it on stage one day.

Back to the Future of Socialism, by Peter Hain.  Written around the time of the 2015 election, this looked at the British Labour party, its record and its ideals.  I wrote about it here.

His Dark Materials Trilogy, by Philip Pullman.  I’m not really into fantasy, let alone fantasy aimed at children, but a friend persuaded me to read this – I at least get what the fuss (good and bad) is about.

The Return of the Public: Democracy, Power and the Case for Media Reform, by Dan Hind.  Interesting historical perspective, insight and ideas.  

Ethics in the Real World, by Peter Singer.  An excellent collection of articles, compiled over the years, but still relevant today.  I don’t agree with him on everything (apparently I’m not a consequentialist), but I do agree with him on a lot, and he does a great job of explaining his thinking.

Things to make and do in the fourth dimension, by Matt Parker.  One for the maths geeks, I’m afraid.  

The Wealth of Humans: Work and its Absence in the 21st Century, by Ryan Avent.  A very good book, this only just missed out on being in my top three for the year.  It considers, in a clear and rational way, how labour and capital are rewarded, and how this calculation has changed over time, particularly in light of technology, globalisation, and corporate know-how.  Highly recommended.

The Joy of Tax, by Richard Murphy.  I had considered reading this for a while, but had been put off by some bad reviews.  In the end I’m very glad did read it, the positives did outweigh the negatives, and I will be quoting examples from the book for some time.   (I note that it focusses primarily on the UK system, but would still be relevant for those in other countries.)

Politics: Between the Extremes, by Nick Clegg.  Another one that only just missed out my top three, I was left with a much greater appreciation for the challenges our MPs face, particularly those in the centre.  Highly recommended.  

The Globalization Paradox, by Dani Rodrik.  I loved this, and it made by top three (though you’d need an interest in economics to enjoy it).  I wrote about it here.

The Undoing Project: A friendship that changed our minds, by Michael Lewis.  The story of behavioural psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who contributed so much to our understanding of our irrationalities.  I wrote about it here.

 

Now onto 2017 – I’ve got a decent list of books I want to read, but I’m always grateful for suggestions.

Kahneman, Tversky, and Christmas

One Christmas day, back when I was twenty, my dad gave me a copy of Peter Bernstein’s “Against the Gods – the Remarkable of Risk”. I had just finished my second year of a Maths / Commerce degree, so it wasn’t that surprising a gift, but I still don’t think anyone could have predicted just how much the ideas in the book would influence my life.    

I can’t recommend that book highly enough to anyone starting off in the world of statistics or finance: Bernstein captures the origins of probability, statistics, gambling and finance, bringing to life the personalities, the ideas, and the intellectual debates.  This isn’t a textbook, but you’ll learn more from it than most textbooks.  It still has pride of place on my bookshelves, on a shelf dominated by people first brought into my life by this book: Laplace, Bayes, Keynes, Savage, Kahneman, Tversky, and Thaler.

The years haven’t dimmed my interest in the questions of how people make assess risk, value outcomes and make decisions.  Obviously at work, surrounded by traders and risk managers, these questions have always been at the front of our minds.  And there were always a few decision geeks like myself, sharing examples of how our thinking could let us down, but the examples seemed quite contrived to outsiders.  

But 2016 seems the year that questions of rationality and decision making became widespread, with the general population questioning how so many ‘other’ people can be so ‘dumb’, voting a certain way or thinking that the public would vote a certain way.  I am optimistic that 2017 will be a year in which we start to get some more good answers to these questions of how and why people act under uncertainty, and how they should (and for the record I don’t believe the ‘experts’ are always right).  

Anyway, Christmas being a time of reminiscence, it is appropriate that I finished another book today, about two of the characters I first discovered 18 years ago in ‘Against the Gods’: Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.  These psychologists were among the first to explore how we really make decisions, particularly uncertainty, noting consistent biases that earlier researchers ignored, and in doing so created the foundations of behavioural economics, as well as having significant impact on the fields of medicine, public policy, and the military.  Tversky passed away in 1996, while Kahneman is still contributing (and wrote ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ in 2011).

Their partnership was the subject of the very recent book, ‘The Undoing Project: A friendship the changed our minds/the world’, by Michael Lewis (the best selling author whose book ‘The Big Short’ was turned into a successful film).    As with any book by a popular author about a topic you know well, I had my fears, but I felt I owed Kahneman and Tversky too much respect to ignore whatever insight I might gleam from a book about them.

The technical content was good, well explained.  For anyone not familiar with their work, and with even a remote interest in the area, it would be worth reading it for that alone.  If you know their work, you aren’t going to get put off by it, but it won’t teach you much you didn’t know.

My favorite example from the book is the ‘Linda’ problem, an example where the audience is told:   Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken and very bright. She majored in philosophy.  As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

The audience is then asked whether it is more likely that:

  1. Linda is a bank teller, or
  2. Linda is a bank and is active in the feminist movement

Despite the latter being a special case of the former, most people respond that the second is more likely, on account of the job description feeling more ‘representative’ of her.  

The book described Kahneman explaining to an auditorium of University of British Columbia students: “Do you realize you have violated a fundamental rule of logic?”, to which a young woman shouted from the back of the room, “So what! You just asked for my opinion”.  

There were some funny personal anecdotes, like the one of 12 year old Tversky diving off a 10m board before he knew how to swim (he asked an older kid to pull him off the bottom after he landed), or the story of Tversky’s first trip to the US, and his excitement at his first time landing in an aeroplane (despite being an experienced paratrooper in the Israeli Air Force).

On the other hand, I felt conflicted on the more personal content – about Kahneman and Tversky’s personalities, and the tensions inherent in their relationship.  Yes, it helped me understand them, and often you have to be a bit messed up to see what everyone else has missed.  But it occasionally felt like I had been reading their personal letters, and hearing their innermost anxieties, and it all felt a bit too soon for that.

So, all up, it was a slightly odd mix of a book, good description of their theory, interesting history of what Israel was like in the 1950s and 60s, academic feuds, and personal anxieties (and a weird first chapter that really didn’t belong, unless possibly you were expecting the sequel to Moneyball).  But all up, a worthwhile read.

The Globalization Paradox

I recently finished Dani Rodrik’s 2012 book “The Globalization Paradox”, which I found excellent: as an economic history of globalization, as a critique of the theory that has underpinned economics over the past 30 years, and as a guide towards a more sustainable version of globalization.

The central idea of the book is that there will always be tension between globalization, democracy and national self-determinism.  While many economists and technocrats seem happy to advocate the giving up of national sovereignty (and I suspect they’d be happy to give up democracy too), Rodrik questions the viability and sustainability of that approach.  That isn’t to say he is anti-globalization – he just argues that whatever globalization we have must be built on national democracy, otherwise individual countries won’t enforce the global market’s rules and outcomes.  

This is a perspective that I’ve been gradually coming to myself, watching Brexit, and the collapse of global trade agreements.  Unfortunately, it is a view that is often drowned out, both by nationalists who refuse to accept that globalisation can be good for a country, and globalists who just assume, without question, that globalisation must be good for the country.  Rodrik helpfully clarifies the conditions under which globalisation will help a country, with many examples from history.

I enjoyed the history – both of 18th and 19th centuries (for example the British East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company, and also the differing approaches between the Northern and Southern states of America), and also the 20th century with war, depression, economic miracles and basket cases.  Rodrik writes with an engaging style, and has the advantage that he isn’t trying to convince us of any absolutes, just that things are a bit more complex than you might have heard from the orthodox economic version of history (or any version that blames everything on a bunch of malevolent bankers and politicians).
So what next?  Rodrik is clearly impressed by the balance achieved within the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement, which provided ways for countries to interact, while allowing plenty of room for countries to take into account their individual circumstances and to meet the demands of their own citizens.  Obviously the world has moved on since then, and he isn’t arguing for us to blindly copy the solutions from 1944.  But it does show a precedent for the kind of balance that can be achieved: we can strive for a future in which nations consciously and sustainably interact.

The Limits of Logic

I suppose it is inevitable, being alive in 2016, that I’ve had a lot of thought-provoking conversations this year.

Perhaps unlike many people, when I think about political issues, I am as fascinated by logic as I am of substance (I blame that on having done a Masters in Philosophy of Science!).  I am more inclined towards being intellectually honest than being right or convincing.  I don’t say that to boast – there are definitely times when being more confident in expressing my gut feelings would have led to better outcomes.  

Since so many people seem a bit perplexed at how others could possibly believe the things they do, I thought it might be useful to outline some of the reasons I’ve encountered why our beliefs are generally less logically convincing than we might think:

  • Ambiguous Language
  • The Questionable Power of Evidence
  • The Uncertainty of the Future
  • Differing Values

Ambiguous Language

One source of conflict relates to the language we use, and our definitions.  Quite often, when debating political issues, we use evocative, emotive language, which unfortunately can be ambiguous and carry baggage that we may not intend. It can make sense if we’re trying to rally the loyal troops, but it is going to be unhelpful if we’re trying to clear up a disagreement.

Examples of such terms from discussions I’ve had this year have been “racist”, “socialist”, “free market”, “establishment”, “Christian”, and “foreigners”.  If both people happen to mean the same thing by the language, that’s great, but we shouldn’t assume that will be the case.  

In these cases, I find it best to avoid loaded terms, and stick to simpler terms that say exactly what you mean, and be as generous as possible in interpreting what the other person is saying (asking questions where necessary).  Feel free to explain to the other person why, though you agree with the person’s intention, you feel that their words convey a message they don’t intend – they may choose to reword.

The Power of Evidence

I’ve heard a lot of concern raised about people’s unwillingness to accept evidence, and willingness to believe ridiculous things.

For many people, the way they seem to consider information is as follows:  if it backs up your desired argument, it should be considered proof; if it contradicts your desired argument, it should be ignored (either as a lie or as inconclusive).

In fact, I think of evidence as much more complex.  There is a spectrum of kinds of information.  Some can prove or disprove a point, but most information (particularly in politics) is a lot less conclusive, either for or against an argument.  It can be a useful exercise to ask yourself what information might be considered overwhelming evidence (both for and against) –  I’d suggest that if we’re honest, most non-trivial statements are just about impossible to prove, even with lots of data.

The Future is Unpredictable

The biggest struggle I face when debating politics is that none of us know what is going to happen.  With such an uncertain world, it is a rare decision that would prove optimal in every possible scenario.  

For example, I’ve heard some people who suggest that it is pointless to talk about the downsides of Brexit because it hasn’t happened yet.  This makes no sense – most of decision-making relies on making decisions under uncertainty.  

Decision theory tells us that we can deal with this uncertainty, by considering each outcome, and its probability.  While I agree this is sensible, I’m not sure that we can ever get our head around the infinite range of possibilities and their probabilities, let alone agree on them.  Inevitably we will end up making simplifications, ignoring certain outcomes.  

For example, with Brexit, I’ve been in several conversations where it has become clear that the other party thinks that a recession is more or less likely than I do, that the EU will be more or less generous, or that the prospects for the EU are better or worse than I think they are.  Even if we do our best to state our assumptions, there will be a point where we have to agree to disagree.

This is particularly relevant when the outcomes our significantly influenced by one person.  In the case of Trump’s election, we are all forming views of how he might carry out his role.  I’m not sure that there can ever be an objective view on how likely (probabilistically) he is to act different ways.

Differing Values

Another challenge in reaching consensus is that everyone has beliefs and values that they largely take for granted, that they perhaps cling to more strongly than others people do.  

Maintaining beliefs of this kind is natural, and I would even say helpful, particularly when faced with complex situations which don’t have clear cut answers, for example when considering political and social questions.  It is a lot easier to follow instinctive rules and habits (eg be nice, follow the rules) than to work out every question from first principles.

While it is possible for us to have fundamentally different values, in practice I find these cases rare, at least with the people I talk to.  Far more common in my experience is when we both share values, but prioritise them differently.  For example, the vast majority of people I know want to prevent harm, deter cheaters, improve outcomes, allow freedom – but how they weigh these up against each other, and which they are willing to question, still allows huge room for argument.

The challenge is to make the effort to understand what the other party values (noting that we will most likely value it too, even if less strongly), but to highlight the tradeoff.  Sometimes this will resolve the question – our friend might recognise that their instinct leads to a worse outcome.  But even if it doesn’t resolve the question – for example if the other party is happy with a tradeoff that I’m not comfortable with, at least we’d have a better understanding of where our disagreement is really coming from (rather than an assumption that the other person is evil!).   

 

To conclude, I certainly don’t want to discourage my friends from their convictions, nor to deter them from standing up for what they believe is right.  But I hope that by occasionally taking a step back, and realising things aren’t as absolute as we tend to think, they might be more effective at bridging the divide, and ultimately convincing people

Thoughts on the Labour Party

I’ve been thinking a lot about party politics, and in particular about the UK Labour party, which is currently embroiled in conflict.

My take on the history: The years of Blair/Brown Labour government (1997-2010) were far more successful politically at the time than in hindsight, particularly due to the financial crisis and the Iraq war.  Since losing power, Labour has struggled to clarify its message (whether to work within the neoliberal consensus or to reject it) or its target audience (the enthused left or the centre-ground), with the result that it came across as unfocussed and insincere in the 2015 general election.  Enter Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran challenger of the neoliberal consensus, who is authentic and speaks inspiringly (at least if it is a topic that you and he are already convinced of).  In 2015, in an attempt to engage the membership, Corbyn was nominated to the leadership and won a landslide.  Since then, he has struggled with a media biased against him, the EU referendum (which he was never going to be able to sell with conviction/passion, given his Euroscepticism), questions about his ability to work with his cabinet, and many who are unconvinced that he could ever lead the party to a general election victory.  Against that, he still has the support of huge numbers of members, particularly in the light of far less inspiring/authentic alternatives (eg Owen Smith).

My opinion is that the conflict appears worse than it is.  There’s a huge amount of ground that the vast majority of Labour MPs, members, voters and potential voters (enough to easily win a general election) agree on – most notably, that the neo-liberal consensus won’t work going forward, and that the solution isn’t state socialism or anarchy.  There are a few emotive historical disagreements (Trident, the war in Iraq, the EU referendum), but I feel that the majority of members are prepared to put those disagreements aside in order to focus on the bigger picture.   There are definitely questions about how the party is run (as there are in any party), and definitely moments where some individuals have acted badly (a few unacceptably so).  But, most of the heat of battle seems overdone – most people who are voting against Corbyn support the bulk of his message, and most people who are voting for Corbyn genuinely want to positively impact this country and agree that winning seats is the best way to do that.

I expect Corbyn will win, and things will cool down again.  MPs will be able to return to focussing on competently arguing for a better way of doing things, a message that will resonate with core members and increasingly with a wider audience.  A new leader may emerge in future who can enthuse the core members, or Corbyn and his MPs may find a way to work more productively together, particularly with the challenge of the Brexit campaign behind them.  I don’t expect a general election until 2020, and a lot will have changed by then in the public mind and in the media landscape – we will have had 10 years of Conservative rule, and the economy won’t be in good shape, and Labour will have had time to clarify its message.  So I certainly think there is plenty of reason to be optimistic.

 

Book Review: Back to the Future of Socialism, Peter Hain

While thinking about the Labour party, I have been reading “Back to the Future of Socialism”, by former MP Peter Hain, which I’d recommend for anyone interested in the challenges of politics, particularly in the UK.  Written in 2015, it takes a good look at the challenges facing the world today, and the need for a strong Labour party with a commitment to addressing those challenges.

The title is a reference to Crosland’s 1956 book “The Future of Socialism”, which had a very similar remit.  Unfortunately I suspect a lot of people will be put off by this title.  While Hain is promoting socialism, he makes very clear that his kind of socialism involves as much decentralisation and individual liberty as possible, just with laws and institutions architected with a much greater emphasis on the common good.  I expect most people (even those who would never voted Labour) would support this vision, though reject socialism thinking of it as State Control and anti-liberty.

But the substance of the book was extremely good, considering a wide range of topics (eg housing, education, jobs, health, aging, the environment, internationalism, devolution), discussing them in light of changes in the past 60 years, and the challenges and potential solutions for the future.   As with any political argument, it was sometimes easier to agree with his diagnosis than his cure, but I’d certainly support much of his thinking.  And I particularly appreciated the history that he used to illustrate his points (especially his assessment of the Blair / Brown years).

Some of the practical advice around how Labour should practically do things differently was particularly interesting – the crucial need to win councils, earn respect for competence, and to engage both core members and the wider public.  It was written before Corbyn’s election as leader, and doesn’t mention him – I’d be interested to hear how he might update his advice in light of that.

If I had a criticism, it was that the book took too partisan a view.  I have no problem with condemning the worst stereotypes of Conservative ideology (eg blind trust in the market, rampant individualism, blindness to society and inequality), but Hain seemed to be accusing all Conservative governments and voters of these things (and Liberal Democrats too, for joining the Coalition in 2010).  He made some excellent arguments which I’m sure many Conservative voters and MPs would be open to, and even accept, but put them in a book they’d be unlikely to want to read.

But if you can get past that (or don’t have any problem with Tory bashing), it will certainly get you thinking about the problems we face, with a useful blend of pragmatism and big picture.  

Questions around Apple’s tax bill

On Tuesday this week, the European Commission announced that Apple’s tax arrangements in Ireland were illegal, and that it consequently owed EUR13billion in back-taxes from the past 15 years (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/aug/30/apple-pay-back-taxes-eu-ruling-ireland-state-aid)

Not surprisingly, it has provoked outrage from some corners, and lots of bold statements about things are meant to work.

While I don’t pretend to know the specifics, and both Apple and Ireland have said they will be appealing the judgement (I suspect successfully), I did have some thoughts on several of the wider issues raised in the claims.

Can rules be changed retrospectively?:  Many (particularly in the business community) are uncomfortable with the idea of changing rules retrospectively.  In fact, our justice system has always had the notion that not all contracts are enforceable, for example those made under duress, or those involving an illegal action, and I would be happy to include rules and contracts that are grossly against the common good.  It would take some work to get the balance right, and ensure these powers weren’t used unfairly, but I hope that recognition of these powers would lead to companies doing a better job to ensure that their arrangements are not just ‘legal’ but also not against the common good.  

Sovereignty of a country’s tax affairs:  The case has raised the question of whether a country has total control of its tax affairs.  Firstly, we need to appreciate that countries competing with each other to win companies and wealthy individuals by lowering taxes and offering ‘sweetheart’ deals can end up hurting everyone.   Under these circumstances, it seems reasonable for countries to disincentivize other countries/companies from doing that, and it does happen (eg US taxation on its citizens’ overseas income, or sanctions against tax havens).  However, when you look at what steps they can take, their options aren’t unlimited, and in the case of Apple, the EU may have overstepped the mark in thinking they can force Ireland to retrospectively change their tax rules.

Providing an unfair advantage to one company (or industry): There are lots of instances where governments provide favorable treatment to one industry, or even one company.  I can see that there is a cost of this, in terms of fairness (both perception and reality) to other companies/industries and to the public, and I would want to make sure was only done where the benefits clearly outweighed those costs.  

What is a fair rate of tax?:  There was a time when the this question didn’t make any sense – of course any individual or company would pay as little tax as they could.  I am pleased that society is starting to assert its desire for a fairer system, and companies are being criticised where they can’t justify their tax contributions (within each country they operate).  Yes, tax affairs are complicated, and occasionally the public outrage is misinformed, but I believe the scrutiny is a positive force.  Interestingly, Apple subsequently announced that it will begin repatriating funds next year (and paying tax on it – this has also been a point of contention) – I guess they know how important it is becoming to be perceived as paying a fair rate of tax.

Recent reads on the future of capitalism

I’ve recently finished two books on a similar theme, Saving Capitalism, by Robert Reich (Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor), and PostCapitalism by British journalist Paul Mason.  I had read quite a few good articles by each of them, so I was eager to read their books.

If there was a book that I wish everyone would read right now, it would be Saving Capitalism.  Very readable (you don’t need an economics degree), and not too long, it highlights the extent to which governments influence how effectively markets work, the last 50 years of changes that have weakened their ability to deliver wealth and opportunity to all, and how the system can be improved.

The book provided a good historical (mostly US) perspective on a range of topics: private property ownership (including patents), constraints on monopoly power, contracts, bankruptcy and law enforcement, the factors that determine the price of labour, the sources of political influence, and the harmful effects of excessive inequality.  For example, this telling insight (which ties into my last blog post):

“Capitalism, alas, depends on trust.  Without trust, people avoid even sensible economic risks.  They also begin thinking that if the big guys can get away with cheating in big ways, small guys like them should be able to get away with cheating in small ways – causing even more people to distrust the economic system.  Moreover, people who believe the game is rigged are easy prey for political demagogues with fast tongues and dumb ideas.” 

The thing I particularly liked was that he rarely overstepped the evidence, never put the problems down to one guilty party or action.  He recognised that the current situation was brought about by many people, mostly doing what they were allowed to do, without any sense of maliciousness.  And similarly, he recognised that there is not one single solution, but many things that would all contribute to improving outcomes for all.  So highly recommended.

 

PostCapitalism was a much tougher read.  In essence, it tries to make the claim that the economics behind our market system cannot handle the fact that an increasing proportion of the goods we buy are free to reproduce, and we consequently need a replacement to capitalism.

Unfortunately, the first two thirds of the book consisted of a lot of fairly dry analysis of crisis economics (not just Marx), the history of labour, and the labour theory of value.  Some bits were interesting, but I was lost in places, and often didn’t know if I was being told something because it was true, or because I was about to be told it wasn’t true.

The final third was much more relevant, including a final chapter that examined how we could bring about a transition towards a system better suited to our new reality (including many of the same suggestions as Saving Capitalism).   But I did wonder how many of its conclusions were dependent on me accepting the first two thirds of the book.

It would be nice to think that over the next year or two, as I reflect on economics required to make markets function, I will start to appreciate just how significant Mason’s points are – but unfortunately I’m not there yet.