Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Dalai Lama and me

Everyone knows you shouldn’t take internet personality tests seriously, but I don’t know any other easy way of measuring how rightwing I’m becoming, so every so often I take the Political Compass test. You answer a questionnaire and it rates you on two scales: libertarian-authoritarian and socialist-capitalist. Then it puts you on a graph with various other people like Stalin, Silvio Berlusconi and Nelson Mandela so you can see how you compare. I don’t think they got Stalin to take the test though, so putting him in the socialist/authoritarian quadrant must have been an educated guess. What puzzles me is that no matter how rightwing I feel like I’m becoming, it always plonks me firmly in the libertarian socialist corner next to the Dalai Lama. I’m not surprised about the libertarian thing but I’m puzzled about the socialism. It’s not like I want to collectivize the means of production or put a 99% income tax on the top 1% or anything like that anymore. I’ve got three explanations for why they still count me as such a leftie.

One is that the test is badly designed. They either ask unrevealing questions or have a lousy algorithm for turning the information into an assessment of how rightwing I am. I think the second is more likely: the questions look divisive enough to me.

The second is that you just can’t tell how rightwing someone is by getting them to fill in a questionnaire. When I first took Simon Baron-Cohen’s empathy test and landed deep in the autistic zone I was a bit taken aback, but then it was pointed out to me that asking people whether they can read minds isn’t a foolproof way of finding out if they can. Maybe political views are like that: people assess their views on the basis of slogans like ‘free trade is fair trade’ and shibboleths like abortion, but this assessment might not be borne out by the positions they take on specific issues when they arise.

The last explanation is that I’m really not that rightwing, and that’s because becoming more pragmatic with age just can’t make you that rightwing. I think there are three reasons to support economic liberty which are often conflated, although it’s not clear to me they even overlap. One advantage is that free markets are often the most efficient way of getting the people what they want and need. Another is that economic freedom is a kind of freedom. The third is that capitalism distributes more goods to the most productive people. It seems to me that only the third is particularly up for debate in terms of its factual basis, but the only one I place much value on is the first. I’m not much fussed about who is most deserving, and much as I like Robert Nozick I’m willing to restrict people’s economic freedom a fair bit if it gets the needy what they need. If banning me from paying you £2 an hour to serve fast food is what will raise most children out of poverty then I’m happy to take the hit. The arguments from efficiency, freedom and desert really are distinct, and as far as I can tell they’re quite independent of each other and only one is much good. So why do we keep voting for such rightwing people?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

All quiet on the Curry front

Sorry if you've been looking for my posts about Curry's paradox from a while back. I've taken them down because I'm writing a paper about that sort of thing, and taking them down seemed a good idea.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Robo economicus

A common criticism of economists is that their theories work if people behave like perfectly rational preference-maximisers but not if they behave like people. My understanding is that this criticism is a load of baloney, because economists are well aware that people don’t always behave as homo economicus would, it’s still a useful idealisation with genuine predictive and explanatory power, and economists study how much and in what ways the idealisation differs from the reality. Perhaps I’m wrong about this. I doubt it though, because if the criticism was justified then the rational thing would be to write a paper pointing it out and scoop the Nobel prize, and nobody’s done that.

This said, economists do seem to be better at explaining things than they are at predicting them, and maybe if people behaved more like the idealisations then economic behaviour would be easier to predict. My suggestion is that we make a lot of artificially intelligent robots that really do behave like that, give them a bunch of money and release them into society.

Part of the beauty of this is that economies would become more predictable. The other part is that we could programme the robots to have the preferences we have but aren’t rational enough to maximise even when we have the means to do so. If we want more hospitals built, we could entrust their construction to corruptible, fallible humans, or to incorruptible, infallible, single-minded robots. The hospitals would be built as efficiently as possible, and as an added bonus the robot would be delighted.

I’ve long wondered why the government can’t stimulate the economy by pumping a load of money into international development, so the world gets developed by the invisible hands of the profit motive instead of by the sporadic largesse of the notoriously self-obsessed, myopic and capricious general public. I’m sure there’s a reason we can’t do this, or we’d have done it. But even if governments can’t create a market for that sort of thing, I don’t see why a rampaging rabble of rich rational robots couldn’t. It that pays the piper calls the tune.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The problem of transobject identity

Yesterday I finished reading the first volume of David Armstrong’s Universals and Scientific Realism for the first time. It’s fun, interesting and short. I recommend it, even though some of the arguments probably aren’t the kind of thing you can get away with nowadays. Armstrong is dealing with the problem of how different things can be the same in some respect, and he argues that nominalism, Platonism and trope-theory either don’t explain what needs explaining or lead to explanatory regresses. Since these are bad things, he adopts a theory of immanent universals, which are repeatable things which crop up in different objects. If two particulars are both negatively charged, that’s because there’s a thing, negative charge, which is in both of them. I wouldn’t say I was convinced, but he makes the case pretty well.

Now, when I was reading it, I noticed a parallel between the problem Armstrong is addressing and the problem of transworld identity. Armstrong wants to know how different things can share properties, and the problem of transworld identity is about how different possible worlds can share inhabitants. Some issues in one debate have corresponding issues in the other, and this gives rise to analogies between the positions. I think at one point Armstrong even calls the thing he’s trying to explain ‘generic identity’.

Transworld identity gets explained by the worlds having either strictly identical things in them, or suitably similar things in them. Generic identity gets explained by particulars having strictly identical universals in them or suitably similar tropes. The ‘no explanation needed’ positions are magical modal realism, which reifies worlds but not possibilia, and ostrich nominalism, which reifies objects but not properties. (Both were named by their opponents.) Another parallel is that people disagree about whether particulars are bundles of properties or something besides their properties, and they also disagree about whether worlds are fusions of their inhabitants or something besides their inhabitants. The bundle theory of particulars is typically most plausible to trope theorists, and the fusion theory of worlds is typically most plausible to counterpart theorists.

When you spot a parallel between two debates it can help you in at least two ways. One is that the analogy can help us understand the more mysterious debate better. Our thinking about time became clearer when we realised it was a bit like space, and our thinking about modality became clearer when we realised it was a bit like time. I’m not sure whether we’ll be helped much in this way here: space and time really are quite like each other, whereas the relationship between a world and its inhabitants seems quite unlike the relationship between a thing and its properties, at least if the bundle theory isn't right.

The other way analogies between debates can help is more promising though. There’s some pressure to hold analogous positions in analogous areas, because a good argument for one position will often correspond to a good argument for the other. This way of killing a large number of birds with a small number of stones is particularly useful for people like me who like to make their minds up about things. For example, shortly after I came round to counterpart theory about de re modality I came round to stage theory about persistence. I’ve never really had a view about property ontology before, but maybe now I should have another look at trope theory.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How can this possibly be legal?

One of the measures which is standardly used to prevent corruption is making people in positions of power declare their interests. For example, if a politician is deciding which company gets a government contract, and the politician works for one of the companies in the running, they have to declare it and the decision may be delegated to someone else. If they don’t declare it and get found out, they get into trouble. It is fairly obvious that a system lacking this feature would be open to abuse.

One thing which seems to be allowed, however, is for a politician to take a job with a company after having used the power entrusted to them by the electorate to benefit said company. Private Eye reports on this sort of thing all the time. They call it the Revolving Door. I can’t see any principled reason to think that undeclared future interests compromise the integrity of the politicians involved much less than undeclared present interests would.

It seems to me that it would be pretty easy to put a stop to it. You say that politicians giving contracts to companies have to declare an interest or either face trouble or not take a job with the company for, say, five years. And if people keep waiting out the time limit and then immediately taking jobs with companies they’ve helped, we smell a rat and extend the time limit. But perhaps I’m missing something and a rule like this would be impossible to put into practice.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Epistemic virtue

I watched Sherlock when the BBC repeated it recently. It’s a reimagining of Sherlock Holmes set in the present, and it’s a lot of fun, even for someone like me who’s ordinarily a bit of Holmosceptic. Anyway, two of Sherlock’s most striking traits are that he’s very good at gathering evidence and inferring what’s what, and that he’s a sociopath. I’ve lately been wondering about epistemic virtues, and it seems that there’s a case to be made against the obvious position, and that the obvious position entails that we should be just like Sherlock.

The obvious position is that we should proportion our credences in P to the probability of P given our evidence. The hard work is all in working out what this amounts to. You have to say where your prior probability distribution should come from, what counts as evidence, how to deal with apparently non-propositional evidence, and so on. There is also an issue about actively seeking out evidence. Maybe we should make exceptions when not proportioning our credences to the evidence will enable us to get more evidence, so our beliefs will better approximate the truth in the long run. A stock example is when the fount of all knowledge can only be reached by jumping a chasm which you’re more likely to clear if you believe you will. But it seems that the action in epistemic virtue theory is in finding out how to emulate Sherlock when it comes to gathering evidence and making proper inferences from it. We don’t expect to have to emulate his sociopathy.

Lately that’s what I’ve questioning. When a friend, spouse or what have you tells you something, you are in many circumstances supposed to believe what they say. Suppose your wife tells you she was stuck at the office until 3am and slipped in a large puddle of beer on her way home. You could add that she has said this and that she came home stinking of beer when it was already getting light to the rest of your evidence and update like a good Bayesian, but perhaps this is one thought too many. Sometimes there are conflicts between being a good husband and a good Bayesian, and skill at resolving such conflicts is one of the things distinguishing the epistemically virtuous from the rest of us.

I don’t know what people whose day job it is to think about this sort of thing have thought about it, but I can see three natural responses. One is to say that belief isn’t voluntary and all this talk about epistemic virtues is wrongheaded. I’ll put that to one side. Another response is that the epistemic virtues and the virtues of personal concern aren’t the same and can conflict. I’m quite sympathetic towards that, but if it’s true then parity of reasoning would suggest that favouring our friends isn’t any more morally virtuous than believing our wives is epistemically virtuous. The last natural response is to say we’re called upon to practise a kind of doublethink, where we separate our credences as rational inquirers from the credences which rationalise our behaviour and which we profess to have. We can’t do this with the conflicts between morality and friendship because we have only one set of actions, but with credences it seems almost feasible.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Who can you trust?

Regular readers will know that not so long ago I read and very much enjoyed Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which is about the influence of genes on human psychology. That isn’t my area of expertise, but he seemed to be on the level. His reasoning was mostly reasonable and his evidential claims were backed up by sources which sounded reputable enough. The first half of chapter 18 was about psychological differences between the sexes. He argued that there was strong evidence that some psychological traits are correlated with sex and some evidence that genetic differences between men and women contribute to these correlations. As I say, he seemed to be on the level and know his stuff, so I believed him.

Last week I got some conflicting signals, though. I read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, and I enjoyed that a lot too. Fine’s book is about the claims made about psychological differences between men and women, both by scientists and popular writers drawing on the work of scientists. I suppose if I was summarising its claims in bullet points, I’d pick these: 

  • There isn’t as much evidence for psychological differences between the sexes as a lot of people make out.
  • A lot of the research into this sort of thing is done very badly.
  • A lot of the popular writers either misinterpret or wildly extrapolate from what evidence there is, and sometimes just make things up.
  • The hypotheses getting tested tend to be based on stereotypes.
  • There’s no shortage of places to look for non-genetic explanations for the differences that have been found.

Fine seemed to be on the level just as much as Pinker did, and what she said was largely pretty persuasive. Since she went into far more detail about this specific issue than Pinker did, I suppose my credences are currently balanced in her favour, and my trust in the other 20½ chapters of Pinker’s book is correspondingly undermined. Mostly though, I just don’t know what to think. Fine goes into far more detail about the methods of the research she disagrees with than those of the research she uses to support her positive claims, so I’ve no way of knowing that I won’t read another book in a few months’ time which critiques that just as severely. If she had gone into as much detail about it all it would have doubled the length of her book though, so I can kind of see why she didn’t.

I like reading non-fiction, and I particularly like reading science books pitched at about the level Pinker’s and Fine’s books are pitched at. But I sometimes wonder why I bother. I’m trying to learn but if what I end up believing depends on which persuasive-sounding books are entertainingly written and easy to get hold of, then I’m not learning at all; I’m just making myself an unwitting vehicle for the memes I happen to get infected with. That’s no good. If all I’m going to learn from reading non-fiction is that scientists disagree with each other just as much as philosophers do and nobody really knows anything about anything, then maybe I’ll just read PG Wodehouse all the time.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sensual quantification

I used to think that belief ascriptions – things like ‘Lois thinks Superman can fly’ and ‘Lois thinks Clark can fly’ – were very interesting and important, and that if we had a good account of them then we’d understand a lot of other things better. I still think puzzles involving coreferring names are interesting and important, but nowadays I tend to think their apparent failure of substitutivity in belief contexts is a bit of a red herring. Nonetheless, this post is about belief ascriptions.

In Ted Sider’s discussion of Mark Richard’s theory of belief ascriptions, he raises a problem. He considers these two inferences:

A1:      (i) Twain is a famous author and Odile believes that Twain is dead.
            (ii) Therefore, x(x is a famous author and Odile believes that x is dead)

A2:      (i’) Twain is a famous author, and Odile does not believe that Twain is dead.
            (ii’) Therefore, x(x is a famous author and Odile does not believe that x is dead)

Both inferences look okay to the untutored eye, and Sider says we ought to allow that either both are valid or neither is. Richard’s semantics for belief ascriptions validates A1 but not A2. I’m not quite as down on this as Sider is, but I agree it looks bad. The reason Richard gets this result is he wants to say that Odile can believe that Clemens is dead without believing Twain is dead, if she doesn’t know ‘Clemens’ and ‘Twain’ are two names for the same person. A lot of people want that result. It leads to trouble when quantifying in though, because ‘x’ in (ii’) takes an object as its value rather than a name. Twain and Clemens are the same object, so if Clemens satisfies ‘Odile believes x is dead’ then Twain does. One way of looking at this is that even if names have sense as well as reference, variables don’t. The sense of ‘Twain’ is needed to make (i’) true, and since it’s lost when you existentially generalise it as (ii’), (ii’) isn’t true.

One response is to say that A2 is valid, but if Odile believes Clemens is dead then (i’) isn’t true after all, because names don’t have sense any more than variables do. Believing Clemens is dead just is believing Twain is dead, because Clemens being dead just is Twain being dead. It does look a bit struthious, but plenty of people go that way. I’m sympathetic to it myself.

Another response says that A1 and A2 both commit a fallacy of equivocation. Following Frege, we say that in belief contexts a name doesn’t refer to its bearer; it refers to what is normally its sense. So in each of (i) and (i’) ‘Twain’ appears once referring to Twain and once referring to the sense of ‘Twain’. The inference is as bad as this:

A3:      (i’’) I cashed my cheques as the bank and then spent all afternoon fishing at the bank.
            (ii’’) Therefore, x(I cashed my cheques at x and then spent all afternoon fishing at x)

These two responses agree with Sider that A1 and A2 are equally valid. It’d be nice though if there was a way of making them both valid and allowing that Odile can believe that Clemens but not Twain is dead. I won’t do that, but I’ll try to go one worse, and to let (i) and (i’) entail these respectively:

(iii) There is a famous author who Odile believes is dead.
(iii’) There is a famous author who Odile does not believe is dead.

Those sentences, or sentences like them, are presumably the ones driving the intuitions anyway. To make this go through, we follow Frege on the references of names in belief contexts, and introduce a quantifier s ranging over senses, and a reference function R taking senses to the referents they determine. Now we analyse (iii) and (iii’) as:

(iv)  sx(R(x) is a famous author and Odile believes that x is dead)
(iv’) sx(R(x) is a famous author and Odile does not believe that x is dead)

Now we’d like to make the inferences logically valid, rather than valid in whatever sense this inference is:

A4:      (i’’’) Twain is dead.
            (ii’’’) Therefore, x(x is a name with five letters and the referent of x is dead)

For all we’ve said so far the connection between the sense of the first occurrence and reference of the second occurrence of ‘Twain’ in (i) is purely a pragmatic phenomenon, so the inference to (iii) is like A4. That isn’t what we’re after. We could complicate the semantics by taking the sense as the semantic value and covertly applying R to it outside of belief contexts but not inside them. That’d make the inferences logically valid, but the strategy wouldn’t generalise to iterated belief contexts like in ‘Odile believes that Elodie believes that Twain is dead’. (That’s because these contexts demand a hierarchy of senses going up, whereas iterations of R only allow a hierarchy of references going down.) So I’ve tried to go one worse but I’ve actually gone two worse. I’ve analysed (iii) and (iii’) differently from the way Sider and Richard did, and I’ve made the inference pragmatic instead of logical. This probably means you don’t need a primitive sensual quantifier with its own inference rules; you just define it as an objectual quantifier restricted to senses. This doesn’t constitute a grand success. Perhaps it’s a good thing I don’t think belief ascriptions are a big deal anymore.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Truth and the PWTP principle

In 'Bare Particulars' Ted Sider says that particulars, not properties, should wear the pants. In the context in which he says it, I think he’s right. He says that the proposition that you’re sitting is true because you’re sitting, and you instantiate the property of sitting because you’re sitting. Those cases seem pretty clear-cut. You could presumably have a coherent conception of reality according to which things were the other way round, but that isn’t the way we normally think.

Sometimes you want to say that the abstracta are wearing at least some of the pants. I’ve got a prime number of arms because two is a prime number and I’ve got two arms. The reason the number two gets to do some work here is that we’re talking about primeness, and primeness is a property of numbers. There’s a related property which my arms have, namely the property of being a prime number of arms, but this property is derivative from the property of primeness, which belongs in the realm of abstracta. This seems an unproblematic violation of the principle.

Now a lot of people seem to think that the property of truth, as applied to utterances, inscriptions and beliefs, is a derivative property, like the property of being a prime number of arms. Consider this sentence-token:

S          Snow is white.

It’s not obviously barmy to think that S is true because it expresses the proposition that snow is white and that proposition is true. On the other hand, it’s also not obviously barmy to think that S is true because it says that snow is white, and snow is white. But if ‘says’ means ‘expresses’, and ‘that snow is white’ names a proposition, and that proposition is true because snow is white, then these two views aren’t really in conflict. The second view has just used different words and followed the explanation a bit further.

However, I also don’t think it’s obviously barmy to think that S is true because the subject refers to snow and the predicate expresses the property of being white and snow is white. We haven’t talked about a proposition at all there, and I don’t think we need to. We’ve talked about a property, and I’m not sure how to avoid it, but I’m not too concerned about that. The important thing is that the proposition isn’t doing any work.

So there are two ways of looking at truth as applied to utterances and inscriptions. (I think similar considerations apply to beliefs, but I’ll stick to more obviously sentence-like things at the moment.) On one view, truth is primarily a property of abstracta, and utterances are only true derivatively. On the other view, utterance-truth isn’t derivative in this way: it’s a non-derivative property of concrete things down here in the world. I’m much more inclined towards the latter view, but I don’t know how to go about arguing for it, so I won't do that. The point is that these are two pretty different ways of thinking about truth and the role of propositions, and I don't know which is the right one.

*ADDED 11/02/2014*

Since I wrote this post, I've come across complaints elsewhere that the 'wearing the pants' metaphor might be sexist, or heteronormative, or cisnormative. I've used it here because Sider used it, and I've come across it used by philosophers in conversation a fair bit. But I do see the point, and if anyone's been offended by it here, then I'm sorry, and when I'm choosing metaphors in future I expect I'll try to avoid this one.

Monday, May 30, 2011

It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world

The other day my fellow grad students and I were having a chat about which living philosophers were defending the most out there views, and we came up with a top ten. Of course their real views are probably not so crazy once you understand them properly, but philosophers all like to stare incredulously at one another from time to time. It's fun. So here they are, starting with the craziest:

1.      Donald Baxter (instantiation is identity; so are most other things)
2.      Graham Priest (loads of contradictions are true; noneism is parsimonious)
3.      Terence Parsons (so Meinongian the cogito doesn’t work)
4.      Takashi Yagisawa (concretist about impossibilia)
5.      Peter Unger (no ordinary objects, ex-sceptic)
6.      Michael Bench-Capon (see below)
7.      David Benatar (coming into existence is a harm)
8.      Kit Fine (funny ideas about essence, time and vagueness)
9.      Meg Wallace (plurality of one world, irreducibly tensed properties might be parts)
10.  EJ Lowe (seriously old school metaphysics)

It’s obviously a parochial list drawn up by a bunch of primarily analytic philosophers, and I don’t flatter myself that my inclusion wasn’t partly due to a desire to include one of our own. Nonetheless, they chose me rather than another of our own for a reason. Here are some of the main offenders:
  • I’m a moral nihilist, in that I think everything is morally permissible, but I’m also an aesthetic objectivist, in that I think some things are objectively beautiful and others are objectively ugly.
  • I’m a counterpart theorist about de re modality, although I’m not a genuine modal realist, I think things have essences and I’m really strict about what counterpart relations are admissible.
  • I’m a stage theorist about persistence through time.
  • I think composition’s identity, not in the way that helped Baxter to the top spot, but not in the innocuous way David Lewis thought it was either.
  • I’m pretty sympathetic to Ryle and Wittgenstein in the philosophy of mind, and sometimes refer to central state materialism (with deliberate abusiveness) as ‘brain-body dualism’.
  • I’m a raving Millian in the philosophy of language, to the point that I think there aren't any analytic truths, and probably aren’t any a priori truths either.
  • I’m epistemicist about vagueness.
  • I’m sympathetic to dialetheism as a solution to the semantic paradoxes.
  • I think a sentence can be false, or even true, without expressing a proposition.

One of the reasons I’ve got funny ideas is that I’m very quick to form opinions: I tend to view philosophy as concerned with finding ways to think about things, and I’d rather have a slightly unsatisfactory way than no way at all. I haven’t been picking these views out of perversity though. They really seem like the sensible ways to think about the subject matters in question. Perhaps I’m just being neurotic and actually there’s nothing especially crazy in my repertoire, but if I do have a penchant for thinking things which by most accounts are neither true nor even plausible, is this something I should worry about?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dry spell over

Regular readers will know that I occasionally go through phases of writing poetry. Some of my friends know that once I even went through a phase of writing songs. I haven’t written anything decent for ages, and until this morning it had been quite a long time since I’d written anything at all. But this morning I wrote this:


There are places you can pay
To hide your stuff away
Where supply never outstrips demand for floorage
But there’s one thing they won’t hide
And that’s who you are inside
So it’s odd this industry is called self-storage

Not very good, is it? I tried developing it into a four-chord song, but I couldn’t get that to work at all. One of the reasons it doesn’t work (as a poem) is because it really ought to be called ‘Self-Storage’, but that’d give away the punchline. I’d call it ‘Untitled’, but I hate things being called that. The only titles I hate more than that are ones like ‘Untitled (Bowl of Fruit)’ and so on. Another problem is that most of line four and all of line five is deliberate clunking sixth-form poetry cliché, a device I've used more effectively in the past but which doesn't add much here. The other main defect is that "floorage" was chosen more or less solely because it was the least terrible rhyme I could think of for "storage". But although this one doesn’t work, it’s nice to be writing anything at all after such a long dry spell. I’ll let you know if I write one that doesn’t suck.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Yes please

Tomorrow my country is going to have an election. There will be some local and regional elections depending on where you live, but the really big one is the referendum on changing the way we elect people to the more powerful of our houses of parliament. (The other house is staying unelected.) Currently we have a First Past the Post (FPTP) system, and tomorrow we’re voting on whether to stick with that or change to Alternative Vote (AV), which is what they use for the House of Representatives in Australia.

Under both systems you say which candidate you like best, and under AV you can also put the others in order, so if your favourite candidate doesn’t have a chance of winning you still get a say. AV doesn’t completely eliminate the scope for tactical voting, but there’s much less of a dilemma between voting for your favourite and trying to influence the result. That dilemma’s pretty commonplace under FPTP. It’s not the only reason I’ll be voting for AV, but it’s one of them. Other reasons are that FPTP makes two-party politics more likely and creates more safe seats, that under AV it's even harder to win if most people hate you and that if the voters get to say more at the ballot box then the parties have to work more to influence what they say. For example, consider someone who pretty much always votes Labour. The politicians can more or less ignore her, because Labour are more or less guaranteed her vote and the others haven’t a hope. Under AV the other parties can work for her other preferences, and Labour can’t ignore her either because she’d be less reluctant to put someone else first if she could still put Labour second. Other things being equal, the more information the electorate can supply, the more work the politicians have to do. That means more accountability, and accountability is the reason democracy is better than all the other systems we’ve thought of. Unless you’re a big believer in the wisdom of crowds.

AV isn’t my favourite voting system, but I like it a lot better than FPTP, and that’s what we’re being asked about tomorrow, because the Tories are scared of asking us whether we’d rather have proportional representation, and nobody who counts has thought of this system yet. So tomorrow I’m voting Yes to AV, and if you’ve got a vote I’d like you to do the same.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

How to become top nation

I listen to Radio 5 Live quite a lot, so one of the things I know about my fellow citizens is that quite a lot of them don’t like immigration. David Cameron, who I’m on the record as disliking already, recently made a speech on the subject, because we’ve got an election coming up. I didn’t listen to it but read quite a lot of what claimed to be a transcript here. He didn’t seem to say anything remarkable. I think he said he liked good immigration but not mass immigration. It’s good to know that our leader is a lover of the good, but since I haven’t ruled out mass immigration as being just what this country needs, I'm sad to see he has.

Some people think we’ve got a distinctive culture worth preserving, and that preserving it is possible if but only if we seriously curb immigration. I’m not going to talk about that today. The other thing is that a lot of people think Britain is too crowded. They say it’s a small island. Well, it’s not that small: Great Britain is the ninth largest island in the world, and if we really do fill it up there are always Northern Ireland, Anglesey and so on. It is quite crowded though: while the UK is only about the 33rd most densely populated country, many of those above it are pretty small. But this seems to me beside the point. Scotland and Wales aren’t very crowded, and there’s plenty of room for more urbanisation even in England. I’m from Wirral, and I think it’d be really cool if Wirral became as densely populated as Singapore, with skyscrapers towering over Greasby and Heswall. There’d be all the kinds of amazing things you get in cities like art galleries, lambananas and vibrant music scenes. When people asked me where I’m from they’d have heard of it, and when people asked each other where the Coral are from they wouldn't say Liverpool. Cities are amazing. What kind of country wouldn’t like another Barcelona?

One argument I sometimes hear is that if there were more people there wouldn’t be enough jobs to go round. I've never understood this. People do jobs, and people create jobs. They earn money and spend money. The Belgians aren’t rolling in cash because the money is shared among so many fewer people, and British people don’t eat five times more than Americans. That isn’t the way it works, and it’s unsurprising that that’s not the way it works.

America is the place to look for an example of what immigration can do. People came to America because it’s a great place to live, and that’s why its population is so big and how it got to be top nation. Canada is even bigger and has loads of natural resources too, but most of it is a ghastly place to live so people mostly only populated the nice bits and Canada didn’t get to be top nation. Japan’s a lot more powerful than it’d be if it was only as densely populated as France, and people take a lot more notice of Singapore than they do of Kiribati, although they're about the same size. People come to cities because they’re great, and this makes them even greater. People want to come to Britain because it’s great, and the more people come the greater it’ll be, until eventually we’re top nation and people are drawing cartoons of the US President as a poodle on our leader’s lap instead of the other way round. London didn’t get to be great by shutting everyone out once it reached the size of Bognor Regis. They spread the word that the streets were paved with gold, and now it’s one of the greatest cities in the world. More of the same, please.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Women's football update

Yesterday Spurs got dumped out of the Champions' League, but it hasn't all been doom and gloom for the beautiful game. This may be an important week for women’s football, which regular readers will know I’ve long thought should get more support. Yesterday was the first day of the inaugural season of the Women’s Super League, which is the most professional women’s league my country has ever had. And as we all know, if you want something done well, you should get a professional. The WSL is receiving about three million pounds of investment from the Football Association, and everyone seems pretty pleased about it. Or at least, women seem to be pleased about it. Jose Mourinho and David Beckham don’t seem to have been asked.

The hope is that the WSL will be more competitive than the Women’s Premier League, which has been dominated by Arsenal for ages. The FA investment is being shared around so more clubs will be able to pay more women to be at least semi-professional. That’s a step in the right direction, though it’s still way off what goes on in the US. A more competitive league should increase standards all round, but Arsenal are still top of the WSL at the moment, of course. So we probably won’t win the World Cup this year, but maybe we’ll win Canada 2015. But we probably won't win that either, because we're really not putting very much money in. Sponsors don't seem to have been that taken with it and as a result the WSL is getting a lot less financial support than was initially hoped. So I'm pleased, but I'm only a little bit pleased. I still think we should give this a try.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The sheriff of Nottingham

My country, like most countries with a welfare system, pays people not to work. This is perverse on the face of it, because we want people to work. We do check up on the people we pay not to work to see that they’re trying to lose their position as non-workers, but the biggest stigma attaches to people who commit the heinous crime of supplementing the income they get from not working by contributing to the economy a bit on the side. Those people are benefit frauds, and we run ad campaigns telling their neighbours to rat them out. But since not working isn’t something we value, it’s odd that we pay people to keep doing it and prosecute people who take the money but don’t treat their economic inactivity as a full-time job.

Of course I know how this situation arose. We don’t want anyone to go hungry or homeless but we’re too stingy to feed and house people who could pay for it themselves if we cut them loose. This leads to some people in work making little more (and sometimes a bit less) than people who don’t work. It seems unfair but it’s a price we’re willing to pay for our stinginess.

One way of looking at the current system is like this: we work out how much somebody needs to subsist, and pay that to everyone. Then we have a tax band of 100% on a worker’s first earnings up to the subsistence level. Of course when you look at it that way it seems to discourage work and disproportionately tax the poor. We counterbalance the economic disincentive by forcing people to attempt to find work, even work where all or nearly all of the pay will be taxed at 100%, on pain of prosecution or removal of their subsistence wage. It’s an ugly system.

What I’d like to see is the government paying a subsistence wage to anyone who claims it, even Richard Branson and Prince Philip. Since it goes to everyone, you wouldn’t have to pretend to find work if you wanted to live off just that, and you wouldn’t have it taken away if you worked, so there wouldn’t be the current economic incentive not to. If you lost your job you wouldn’t have to claim benefits you weren’t claiming before, or which people in the workforce weren’t getting, so I suppose there’d be less stigma attached. It’s also worth pointing out that sometimes people would benefit from what other people would spend their time doing if they didn’t have to work. There’d be more economically unviable art produced, for example. Some would be good, and if you didn’t like it you wouldn’t have to consume it. I suppose it’d improve the lot of the children of single parents, too.

Note that this shouldn’t distort the market at all. It’d change the market, of course: everything changes the market. But it shouldn’t create any inefficiency in the economic sense, because unconditional benefits don’t disincentivise exchanges which would otherwise take place and benefit both parties, because they’re unconditional. It should make the market more efficient in the obvious way that people wouldn’t have an incentive not to work, and also in a less obvious way because there wouldn’t be the same humane imperative to have a statutory minimum wage, the alternative to low-paid work not being starvation. If you wanted someone to join Alarm Clock Britain you'd have to pay them what they thought their time was worth, since they could afford not to take the job.

I suppose some people would be horrified by the idea on the grounds that the world doesn’t owe us a living. But it’s worth looking beyond the slogan to see whether this is what we really think. We already provide education up to age eighteen and most healthcare for free, even to people who could afford to pay for it themselves. We don’t charge people who can afford to pay, and we don’t cut people off from these services for not seeking work. I’m only suggesting we apply the same treatment to food and shelter that we already apply to education and healthcare. (And policing, firefighting, military protection of the national interest, drainage, roads, streetlighting, snow management, the coastguard...) Some people think there are things people deserve just for being human. I can’t remember what the term for such entitlements is at the moment, but I’m sure there is one.

So why aren’t we doing this? It isn’t because nobody has thought of it, because it’s not a new idea. I’m not economically literate enough to know which calculations to do to find out if we could afford it, so perhaps we can’t. I guess it'd be expensive, but so are the NHS, the school system and the armed forces. I’m also aware there’d be issues with children, immigrants, and the children of immigrants if a country implemented the policy unilaterally. But that doesn’t explain why we’re not even doing something a little bit like it, like cutting the de facto tax band from 100% to 80%. If I’m right that the current system is almost equivalent to a national subsistence wage and a 100% tax band for the poorest workers, then it's both economically inefficient and brutal towards the poor. And since we live in a democracy, we could do something about it.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cutting the apron strings

My country is a monarchy, and I dislike this very much. I seldom hear our national anthem without shuddering, especially when they get to the second to last line. It’s a very silly national anthem, because it isn’t about the country. I’m actually quite a patriotic fellow for someone as beardily Guardian-reading and keen on forming a United States of Europe as I am, so it’s irritating to have this family of buffoons (most of them are buffoons) as a focus of my fellow countrymen’s patriotism. But what irritates me even more is that the arguments for abolishing the monarchy can seem so flimsy.

One argument says that the monarchy still isn’t a constitutional irrelevance, and having a constitutional relevance accountable only to a revolution is dangerous. In a sense it’s true that they’re still constitutionally relevant because various notionally royal powers like being able to declare war without parliament’s agreement or being able to decide when lifers are released from prison are de facto wielded by ministers. We could change this without abolishing the monarchy, though. One also occasionally hears that the Queen would get some real power in the event of a constitutional crisis, but it seems to be a belief exclusive to people who write letters to the Telegraph and I’ve never seen any evidence for it.

Another argument is that the monarchy is a waste of money, what with all the money we pay them directly and the money we spend on moving them around and protecting them from Gavrilo Princip. Of course this seems like money down the toilet, but some people think that they make more than they cost because of their effect on tourism. It’d be a shame to abolish the monarchy to save money if it turned out to be a false economy. Perhaps some proper research should be done into it, instead of monarchists and republicans asserting what they would like to be true on the basis of no evidence at all.

The other problem with them is that they’re a nuisance and a national embarrassment, running around saying un-PC things, not taking their socks off in the Golden Temple and torpedoing any architectural projects that would look out of place on a chocolate box. They make us look like idiots, and there's nothing we can do about it. But people accept that sort of thing from their children, as I don't think I'm the first to point out. We let them have a go at doing various jobs, make foreign businessmen shake their hands and say 'hello Andrew, haven't you got big!'; we support them financially, we won’t shut up when one of them gets married, and when one dies they are mourned. Now I don’t feel at all paternal towards the royals and wish they’d go away, stop asking us for money and never darken our doors again. I don't care when they get born/married/killed any more than I care about these things happening to anyone else. They are, lest this sound callous, not my children. But a lot of people seem fond of them, and if enough people want some collective children then that’s what a democracy can be expected to provide.

Another argument says that there is a useful constitutional or at least ambassadorial role to be played by a proper head of state, and we’re missing out on this by only having a pretend one. I expect this is true. Other countries want to talk to our head of state whether she’s a proper one or not, so perhaps it should be someone we’ve elected and given some real power. (Perhaps there’s something to be said for according people respect in a non-arbitrary way.) And some countries’ heads of state do have real power, even if it’s only for resolving constitutional crises. What are the alternatives? Is everywhere with a proper head of state wasting their money? Or are we missing out? I don't see how we can both be right. So maybe there is a case for cutting the royals loose, in spite of my fellow countrymen’s unexplained fondness for them.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


It’s seldom comfortable siding with the ex-mistress of a knight of the Garter, but a couple of days ago I was listening to Nicky Campbell’s radio show and that’s what happened to me. A man called Delroy Grant had just been convicted of some serious crimes and Campbell had taken this as a cue to have a nature/nurture debate. I’m currently reading and very much enjoying Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which is about the genetic contribution to human psychology, so naturally I was interested.

Edwina Currie was on the show and thought that some people were born bad, and a psychologist called Martin had called in saying she was wrong and that people’s psychology resulted mostly from childhood experiences. Here’s some of what they said:

Martin: ‘Our states of mind aren’t born in us; obviously our brains are very ready to take on eighteen years of experience but... our brains are learning machines.’
Nicky tries to say something
Edwina: ‘No, Nicky, no, Nicky, we readily accept these days that we have blue eyes or brown eyes because we’ve inherited them...’
Martin (talking over her): ‘But that is genetic... there’s no evidence...’
Edwina: ‘...our hair colour, our height... yeah but how can it be so obvious that our physical characteristics are one way and then say the genes that control our mood, our attitudes...’
Martin (talking over her): ‘Genes don’t control our psychological characteristics.’
Edwina: ‘...oh but they do! My goodness of course they do!’
Martin: ‘You’re not an expert in this area; you’re a politician!’

They carried on for a while, and UK readers can listen to it here if they’re quick. (Edwina comes in at about 43:50.) Now I’m not taking sides here in the debate about whether violence begets violence or whether people with a genetic tendency to be violent beget people with a genetic tendency to be violent. What I didn’t like was that Martin seemed to be using his position as an expert to dismiss the other side of a genuine controversy. (I don't want to misrepresent Martin, and he did go on to admit that genetics did affect psychology in some cases, but this is how it came over at the time.) He asked Edwina for some evidence, but he’ll already know about the evidence from studying twins and adopted children and what have you, and what’s more he’ll know why he doesn’t think it shows that genes control psychological characteristics and why some of his colleagues do.

Now if I was calling in to Nicky Campbell’s show to talk about philosophy I wouldn’t dream of representing it as the expert view that moral statements attempt to state facts, that conceivability doesn’t even nearly entail possibility or that there's nothing more to the meaning of a proper name than its syntax and its referent, even though I think all these things. If Edwina said that it was obvious that ‘Clark Kent’ and ‘Superman’ weren’t synonymous I wouldn’t dismiss her as a mere politician. I’d know full well that plenty of experts disagree with me and agree with her.

The point of listening to experts is that they know what the state of the debate is. They know what’s controversial among people who know and what isn’t. They know what's a sensible way of approaching a question relevant to their field. If someone exploits the fact there aren’t any other experts around to push a controversial line then they’re misrepresenting their expertise and abusing our trust. If that’s how they behave then people won’t trust them, and if we can’t trust experts then we’ll benefit a lot less from having them around. Nobody wants public debate to be conducted exclusively by ill-informed laypeople trading ill-informed opinions, but if experts aren’t careful not to misrepresent things then that’s what we’ll be left with.