Wednesday 26 September 2012

Why are Scottish Labour attacking universal benefits?

It is extremely difficult to imagine what Scottish Labour leader Johann  Lamont
 is playing at. Is her attack on universal benefits inspired by neoliberal
 austerity fetishism? Or is it a crude attempt to stoke class envy?
Since Scotland gained a small measure of political autonomy in 1999 under devolution, successive Scottish governments have introduced several universal benefits (free bus passes for the elderly, free prescriptions, free eye tests) and maintained free university education, whilst tuition fees in England have risen to an incredible £9,000 a year "aspiration tax".

One could imagine that these Scottish universal benefits are relatively safe, given the fact that the fanatically right-wing Tory party are a minority element in Scottish politics, but you'd be wrong. The concept of Scottish universal benefits has come under attack from the Scottish Labour party, a nominally left-wing party, that has in fact embraced the neoliberal economic orthodoxy so thoroughly that they now sit far to the right of the centre ground Scottish National Party government.

The Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has decided to attack these universal benefits as "wrong" and "unaffordable".  The idea that entitlements like free bus passes for the elderly are "unaffordable" would be absolutely laughable, if it wasn't such a sickening case of myopic austerity fetishism. Especially given that the costs of benefits like these are many orders of magnitude smaller than the vast scale of banker bailouts and  socially and economically damaging Quantitative Easing windfalls for the extremely wealthy.

The argument that universal benefits are "unfair" is also a pretty absurd one, which seems to have the objective of stoking class-warfare, rather than any real social or economic substance. OK, so some wealthy pensioners might benefit from free bus passes and some rich people suffering from illnesses or disabilities might benefit from free prescriptions. However the cost of providing these free services to a minority of very rich people would probably be completely dwarfed by the cost of implementing a vast government redistributionist means-testing bureaucracy to exclude the rich from such benefits. Just look at Neo-Labour's Tax Credits system: Making sure the poor and ordinary have enough wealth to raise their children is a noble objective, but doing it through a huge redistributionist bureaucracy is absurdly wasteful. Instead of employing tens of thousands of people to administer an extremely complex means testing system, a few simple reforms (free universal nursery care for working parents, abolishing income tax for low earners) could have achieved the same results at much less cost.

An even more frightful idea than a Neo-Labour government designed redistribution system is the thought that these days Neo-Labour would probably choose a government backed private sector outsourcing deal with parasitic scum like G4S, A4E, Serco, Capita, Atos or Veolia instead. The current trend in the Labour party is to make the taxpayer fork out tens of £millions to one (or many) of these parasitic outsourcing companies in order to pay them  to deny benefits, probably for the flimsiest of excuses (earn naff all but live in your own house you paid for through 35 years of sweat and toil? Labour & Atos say F*ck you, no bus pass or free prescriptions). Think this is unlikely? Perhaps you've forgotten that Neo-Labour were the party that originally set up the disgusting Atos disability denial factories.

I can almost see it now, Scottish Labour ministers drooling at the thought of all the perks, kickbacks and corporate junkets they'll manage to blag as they negotiate a new range of benefits denial contracts with the parasitic outsourcing sector. Then once the contracts are signed it will turn out that these corporate profiteers will begin wringing such enormous profits out of denying wealthy and reasonably well-off pensioners their free bus passes, that it would actually have been cheaper to give every man, woman and child in Scotland a free bus pass and then burn a pile of cash the size of Arthur's Seat too.

If Labour want to position themselves alongside the Tories and Lib-Dems as orthodox neoliberal fanatics that oppose the very concept of universal benefits, that's their prerogative I suppose, but I can only see it losing them votes. The majority of Scottish people seem to be quite proud of their nation's efforts to retain a social safety net, whilst the Tories slash and burn benefits and services south of the border. Probably the most shocking thing about this attack on the concept of universal benefits is that it has come from a nominally left-wing party, pretty disgraceful stuff.

It is hard to even imagine what Scottish Labour think they are going to achieve by launching an outright attack on the widely approved Scottish social safety net. The obvious outcomes will be a lot of lost votes for Scottish Labour and many more people convinced to support the Scottish independence movement.

A thought experiment for plebs

Here's a little thought experiment for plebs like me and you.

Imagine you want to go through a vehicle gate with your cycle but two police officers have been instructed to not let people through. Instead of calmly finding another route or even politely asking if you could speak to their supervisor to clarify the situation, you launch into a foul mouthed, obscenity laden tirade at the police, threaten to use your influence to have them sacked and accuse them of being inferior in a particularly impolite manner.

You wouldn't be surprised to find yourself face down on the pavement with the aforementioned police officers kneeling on your back, reading you your rights and arresting you under the provisions of the 1986 Public Order Act or some such legislation.

This is exactly the kind of confrontation that happened between the Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell and two police officers that wouldn't let him through the vehicle access gate of Downing Street because he was on a bicycle. Mitchell was reported as saying:
"I'll have your fucking job for this." "Best you learn your fucking place." "Morons!" "You don't run this fucking government. You're fucking plebs."              
(Official transcript as reported by the Telegraph)
This confrontation has since been deemed "Pleb-gate" by the mainstream media, as is their way, adding the "-gate" suffix to any political scandal, no matter how trivial or unrelated to the original Watergate scandal. An annoying linguistic device that would retrospectively render the original Watergate scandal, "Watergate-gate". I actually think the press missed a great opportunity when they decided on "Pleb-gate", after all this incident was the ideal opportunity for the press to discuss the first ever "Gate-gate".

When asked about whether he used the word "plebs" in his angry tirade against the police officers, Mitchell came out with this particularly evasive response: "I am very clear about what I said and what I didn't say. I want to make it absolutely clear that I did not use the words that have been attributed to me." Either he did use the words attributed to him and he is lying or he didn't and the police officers are lying in their official report on the incident. Whichever way, somebody probably deserves to lose their job. Either the policemen falsified their notebooks, (extreme misconduct, especially in the wake of the revelation of falsified police testimonies about the Hillsbrough disaster) or Mitchell is lying through his teeth in a desperate attempt to save his political career.

Mitchell won't be forgetting Gate-gate in a hurry, thanks
to countless images and commentaries like this.
In my opinion the "you should know your place" and "I'll have your job" comments are far worse than Mitchell's arrogant and elitist use of the word "pleb" as a pejorative. It is no surprise at all that the Tory Chief Whip is a bully, after all, his job as Chief Whip is to bully rebellious Tory MPs into following the party line. The only surprising thing about his arrogant and elitist comments during this "Gate-gate" confrontation is that he allowed the Tory mask to slip so badly. It is obvious that this kind of superior attitude is rife amongst the toffs that run the Tory party, given their utter contempt for the suffering of ordinary people under their socially and economically destructive austerity agenda, however they are normally well practiced in masking their elitist attitudes in public.

Returning to the thought experiment for a moment: It is telling that had the person verbally abusing the police officers for simply doing their jobs been a "pleb" like you or me, the condemnation from the Tory ranks would have been universal. However in an attempt to protect one of their own, Tory and Lib-Dem politicians have been wheeling out the pitiful excuses. "He was tired", "he'd had a long and difficult day", "he challenges the way in which some words have been attributed to him" were amongst the feeblest of the excuses. Yet David Mellor went further and aired his absurd conspiracy theory that the police officers had invented the "pleb" comment in order to try and bring down the Tory government, an absurd accusation from a man that was part of the Thatcher government that used the police force so effectively as their own right-wing enforcement militia against the miners. Then colluded with them to cover up the culpability for the Hillsbrough disaster by smearing Liverpool supporters as drunken hooligans and attempting to besmirch the characters of the 96 deceased football fans by conducting alcohol tests on their corpses.

At your subsequent court appearance for breech of the peace and/or harassment, we know your word against the policemen's over exactly what was said would count for precisely fuck all in the eyes of the judge and jury, because we all know that police don't lie (unless they are making up insults to discredit their "social superiors" of course). Do you believe that you would be found innocent if your lawyer tried to mitigate by claiming "my client had had a long and difficult day"? I imagine that if you were lucky enough to get a fairly liberal judge (jury trials for offences like these having been abolished by Neo-Labour years ago), he might leniently give you community service and a suspended sentence, but you'd still be found guilty without a doubt. On the other hand, the chances of an establishment figure like Mitchell being found guilty are slim indeed.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the "Gate-gate" incident is the irony of Mitchell's parting shot at the police he had been insulting: "You haven't heard the last of this!" He called back as he cycled away.

The unintentional foresight of Mitchell's parting shot is glorious. Instead of being able to use his insider connections to have the police officers severely punished as he was insinuating, Mitchell has found himself at the centre of a huge political storm, with people from across the political spectrum (including "liberal lefties" like me) siding with the police, (an almost inconceivable thought given that "Gate-gate" happened just days after the truth about the 23 years of Hillsbrough lies had come out). There have been widespread calls for Mitchell to resign or to be sacked. Even if he survives this political shit-storm, his political standing and media profile has been permanently tarnished. It is hard to imagine a newspaper column or blog post being written about Mitchell anytime soon that doesn't bring up the word "pleb". 

The particular policemen involved in this incident certainly hadn't "heard the last of it" in fact they will probably remember the incident for years to come; the story of how they became front-page news for simply doing their jobs could perhaps make a great story for their grand-kids. However Mitchell will not be allowed to forget the day he let his bullying, superiority complex slip out. He "hadn't heard the last of it" either, in fact he'll certainly live to regret his arrogant display of obnoxious Tory elitism for the rest of his political career.

UPDATE: After 4 weeks of desperately hanging on to his position as chief whip, Mitchell eventually resigned.

Sunday 23 September 2012

What is neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism (often also written as neo-liberalism) is a very important, yet often misunderstood concept. To give a short, oversimplified definition: Neoliberalism is a small-state economic ideology based on promoting "rational self-interest" through policies such as privatisation, deregulation, globalisation and tax cuts.

People often boggle at the use of the word "neoliberal" as if the utterer were some kind of crazed tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorist raving about insane lizard-man conspiracies, rather than someone attempting to concisely define the global economic orthodoxy of the last three decades or so.

One of the main problems we encounter when discussing neoliberalism is the haziness of the definition. Neoliberalism is certainly a form of free-market neoclassical economic theory, but it quite difficult to pin down further than that, especially since neoliberal governments and economists carefully avoid referring to themselves as neoliberals and the mainstream media seem to avoid using the word at all costs (think about the last time you saw a BBC or CNN news reporter use the word "neoliberal" to describe the IMF or a particularly right-wing government policy).


The economic model that the word "neoliberalism" was coined to describe was developed by Chicago school economists in the 1960s and 1970s based upon Austrian neoclassical economic theories, but heavily influenced by Ayn Rand's barmy pseudo-philosophy of Übermenschen and greed-worship.

The first experiment in applied neoliberal theory began on September 11th 1973 in Chile, when a US backed military coup resulted in the death of social-democratic leader Salvador Allende and his replacement with the brutal military dictator General Pinochet (Margaret Thatcher's friend and idol). Thousands of people were murdered by the Pinochet regime for political reasons and tens of thousands more were tortured as Pinochet and the "Chicago boys" set about implementing neoliberal economic reforms and brutally reppressing anyone that stood in their way. The US financially doped the Chilean economy in order to create the impression that these rabid-right wing reforms were successful. After the "success" of the Chilean neoliberal experiment, the instillation and economic support of right-wing military dictatorships to impose neoliberal economic reforms became unofficial US foreign policy.

The first of the democratically elected neoliberals were Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US. They both set about introducing ideologically driven neoliberal reforms, such as the complete withdrawal of capital controls by Tory Chancellor Geoffrey Howe and the deregulation of the US financial markets that led to vast corruption scandals like Enron and the global financial sector insolvency crisis of 2007-08.

By 1989 the ideology of neoliberalism was enshrined as the economic orthodoxy of the world as undemocratic Washington based institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the US Treasury Department signed up to a ten point economic plan which was riddled with neoliberal ideology such as trade liberalisation, privatisation, financial sector deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy. This agreement between anti-democratic organisations is misleadingly referred to as "The Washington Consensus".

These days, the IMF is one of the most high profile pushers of neoliberal economic policies. Their strategy involves applying strict "structural adjustment" conditions on their loans. These conditions are invariably neoliberal reforms such as privatisation of utilities, services and government owned industries, tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, the abandonment of capital controls, the removal of democratic controls over central banks and monetary policy and the deregulation of financial industries. 


Neoliberal economic policies have created economic disaster after economic disaster, virtually wherever they have been tried out. Some of the most high profile examples include:
South Africa: When the racist Apartheid system was finally overthrown in 1994, the new ANC government embraced neoliberal economic theory and set about privatising virtually everything, cutting taxes for the wealthy, destroying capital controls and deregulating their financial sector. After 18 years of neoliberal government, more black South Africans are living in extreme poverty, more people are unemployed and South Africa is an even more unequal society than it was under the racist Apartheid regime. Between 1994 and 2006 the number of South Africans living on less than $1 a day doubled from 2 million to 4 million, by 2002, eight years after the end of Apartheid 2002 the unemployment rate for black South Africans had risen to 48%.*
Russia: After the fall of communism, neoliberal economists flooded into Russia to create their free-market utopia, however all they managed to do was massively increase levels of absolute poverty, reduce productivity and create a few dozen absurdly wealthy oligarchs who siphoned their $trillions out of Russia to "invest" in vanity projects such as Chelsea FC. Within less than a decade of being one of the world's two great super-powers, the neoliberal revolution resulted in Russia defaulting on their debts in 1998.

Argentina: Praised as the poster-boys of neoliberalism by the IMF in the 1990s for the speed and scale of their neoliberal reforms, the Argentine economy collapsed into chaos between 1999-2002, only recovering after Argentina defaulted on their debts and prioritised repayment of their IMF loans, which allowed them to tear up the IMF book of neoliberal dogma and begin implementing an investment based growth strategy which boosted the Argentine economy out of their prolonged recession. The late Argentine President Néstor Kirchner famously stated that the IMF had "transformed itself from being a lender for development to a creditor demanding privileges".

The Eurozone: The right-wing love to drivel on about how the EU is a "leftie" organisation, but the unelected technocrats that run the EU (the European commission and the European Central Bank) are fully signed up to the neoliberal economic orthodoxy, where economic interests are separated from democratic control. Take the economic crisis in Greece: The EC and the ECB lined up with the neoliberal pushing IMF to force hard line neoliberal reforms onto the Greek economy in return for vast multi-billion "bailouts" that flowed directly out of Greece to "bail out" their reckless creditors (mainly German and French banks). When the neoliberalisation reforms resulted in further economic contraction, rising unemployment and worsening economic conditions the ECB, EC, IMF troika simply removed the democratic Greek government and appointed their own stooge, an economic coup trick they also carried out in Italy. Spain and Ireland are other cracking examples of neoliberal failure in the Eurozone. These two nations were more fiscally responsible than Germany, France or the UK in terms of government borrowing before the neoliberal economic meltdown, however their deregulated financial sectors inflated absurd property bubbles, leaving the Irish and Spanish economies in ruins once the bubbles burst around 2007-08.
The United Kingdom: Here is a short article summarising how three decades of neoliberal policy have undone many of the gains made during the mixed-economy era.
The global orthodoxy

Despite this litany of economic failures, neoliberalism remains the global economic orthodoxy. Just like any good pseudo-scientific or religious orthodoxy the supporters of neoliberal theory always manage to come up with a load of post-hoc rationalisations for the failure of their theories and the solutions they present for the crises their own theories induced are always based upon the implementation of even more fundamentalist neoliberal policies.

One of the most transparent of these neoliberal justification narratives is the one that I describe as the Great Neoliberal Lie: The fallacious and utterly misleading argument that the global economic crisis (credit crunch) was caused by excessive state spending, rather than by the reckless gambling of the deregulated, neoliberalised financial sector.

Just as with other pseudo-scientific theories and fundamentalist ideologies, the excuse that "we just weren't fundamentalist enough last time" is always there. The neoliberal pushers of the establishment know that pure free-market economies are as much of an absurd fairytale as 100% pure communist economies, however they keep pushing for further privatisations, tax cuts for the rich, wage repression for the ordinary, and reckless financial sector deregulations precicely because they are the direct beneficiaries of these policies. Take the constantly widening wealth gap in the UK throughout three decades of neoliberal policy. The minority of beneficiaries from this ever widening wealth gap are the business classes, financial sector workers, the mainstream media elite and the political classes. It is no wonder at all that these people think neoliberalism is a successful ideology. Within their bubbles of wealth and privilege it has been. To everyone else it has been an absolute disaster.

Contrasts with libertarianism and minarchism

Returning to a point I raised earlier in the article; one of the main problems with the concept of "neoliberalism" is the nebulousness of the definition. It is like a form of libertarianism, however it completely neglects the fundamental libertarian idea of non-aggression. In fact, it is so closely related to that other (highly aggressive) US born political ideology of Neo-Conservatism that many people get the two concepts muddled up. A true libertarian would never approve of vast taxpayer funded military budgets, the waging of imperialist wars of aggression nor the wanton destruction of the environment in pursuit of profit. 

Another concept that is closely related to neoliberalism is the ideology of minarchism (small stateism), however the neoliberal brigade seem perfectly happy to ignore the small-state ideology when it suits their personal interests. Take the vast banker bailouts (the biggest state subsidies in human history) that were needed to save the neoliberalised global financial sector from the consequences of their own reckless gambling, the exponential growth of the parasitic corporate outsourcing sector (corporations that make virtually 100% of their turnover from the state) and the ludicrous housing subsidies (such as "Help to Buy and Housing Benefits) that have fueled the reinflation of yet another property Ponzi bubble.

The Godfather of neoliberalism was Milton Friedman. He supported the libertarian case that illegal drugs should be legalised, which is one of the very few things I agreed with him about. However this is politically inconvenient (because the illegal drug market is a vital source of financial sector liquidity) so unlike so many of his neoliberal ideas that have consistently failed, yet remain incredibly popular with the wealthy elite, Friedman's libertarian drug legalisation proposals have never even been tried out.

The fact that neoliberals are so often prepared to ignore the fundamental principles of libertarianism (the non-aggression principle, drug legalisation, individual freedoms, the right to peaceful protest ...) and abuse the fundamental principles of small state minarchism (vast taxpayer funded bailouts for their financial sector friends, £billions in taxpayer funded outsourcing contracts, alcohol price fixing schemes) demonstrate that neoliberalism is actually more like Ayn Rand's barmy (greed is the only virtue, all other "virtues" are aberrations) pseudo-philosophical ideology of objectivism  than a set of formal economic theories.


The result of neoliberal economic theories has been proven time and again. Time and again countries that embrace the neoliberal pseudo-economic ideology end up with "crony capitalism" and a massive upwards redistribution of wealth, where the poor and ordinary suffer "austerity", wage repression, revocation of labour rights and the right to protest, whilst a tiny cabal of corporate interests and establishment insiders enrich themselves via anti-competitive practices, outright criminality and corruption, and vast socialism-for-the-rich schemes.

Neoliberal fanatics in powerful positions have demonstrated time and again that they will willingly ditch their right-wing libertarian and minarchist "principles" if those principles happen to conflict with their own personal self-interest. Neoliberalism is less of a formal set of economic theories than an error strewn obfuscation narrative to promote the economic interests, and  justify the personal greed of the wealthy, self-serving establishment elite.

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* source: Naomi Klein "The Shock Doctrine" p215

Wednesday 19 September 2012

What is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is a a form of cognitive bias,which often manifests as an inability or unwillingness to spot faults in arguments with which we agree.

One of the classic examples of confirmation bias is the tendency to cherry-pick evidence. It has been repeatedly shown in experiments that people generally test hypotheses in a very one-sided way, by deliberately searching for evidence consistent with the hypotheses they find agreeable and neglecting evidence that conflicts with their worldview.

Another classic example is the persistence of discredited belief. Take the neoliberal theory of "trickle-down economics" as an example. Neoliberals argued that a minority of people should be allowed to develop extreme wealth so that the wealth would then trickle down to wider society. The economic evidence is absolutely clear that this effect never happened and that in fact the opposite is true; that allowing a minority to develop extreme wealth, massively widens the gap between the rich and the ordinary (because the wealthy elite often just hire tax lawyers to ensure that their wealth ends up stashed in personal accounts in tax-havens rather than allowing it to "trickle away" to wider society). Despite the wealth of concrete evidence that the trickle down effect is a myth, many people still believe in it because it suits their worldview and provides them with (pseudo) economic justification for their greed.

Everyone suffers from confirmation bias to a certain extent. It is always easier to spot errors in statements we find disagreeable than it is to find errors in statements we like.

"That seems wrong; in what way is it wrong?" is a perfectly natural though process, however on the face of it "that seems right, how is it wrong?" seems like an absurd though process. I believe that the fact that humanity has been able to recognise and develop the second state has been one of the key driving forces in human advancement. To give a crude example; the scientist that tends to critically appraise the commonly accepted model (that seems right, how is it wrong?) is far more likely to end up devising a groundbreaking and superior new model than the scientist that instinctively prefers models that form part of the established paradigm, and reserves their criticism for unorthodox ideas (That seems wrong; in what way is it wrong?).

It shouldn't matter whether we agree with a hypothesis or not; from an unbiased and objective point of view, the most important thing to consider should be whether the subject matter is rational and coherent. Is it backed by facts, logic, reason, empirical evidence? Or by simplistic generalisations, anecdotal evidence, unsubstantiated opinion, fallacious argument strategies?

In order to adopt a more rational, objective stance it is particularly important to strive to find errors in statements with which one generally agrees, since the mind tends to instinctively deconstruct disagreeable statements and blithely accept agreeable ones. In order to overcome confirmation bias and maintain objectivity one must actively strive to critique agreeable subject matter in a similar way to which we naturally tend to critique the disagreeable. If we give in to the natural tendency to subject disagreeable subject matter to much greater levels of scrutiny, we allow ourselves to create an increasingly subjective worldview.

Politicians and the media thrive on this human tendency to form subjective worldviews by providing a steady supply of simplistic justification narratives for their favoured policies. As long as they can get the basic narrative right, it doesn't really matter how much empirical evidence they go on to provide, since huge numbers of people will blithely accept an agreeable narrative because of confirmation bias.

To give an example: People generally don't like unfairness, so they find the idea that they must work hard whilst others laze around "scrounging off the state" acutely disagreeable.  In the UK the Tories and the right-wing press play up to this sentiment by grotesquely exaggerating the number of "benefits scroungers" any downplaying (or completely ignoring) the fact that their own favoured austerity policies have actually increased unemployment and under-employment by reducing the amount of demand in the economy. Once the "scroungers narrative" is set, it is almost impossible to make a reasoned counter-argument, since confirmation bias will allow those that find the "scroungers narrative" plausible, to blithely dismiss any facts and evidence as leftie "scrounger apologism"; thus the "blame the victim fallacy" becomes another example of the the persistence of discredited belief.

Once we realise that swathes of political debate and media commentary are fundamentally reliant on simplistic justification narratives, the confirmation bias effect and the subjective worldviews of the general public, it becomes extremely important to recognise that  the "agreeability" of political statements or media representations should be secondary considerations to their validity.

In the practical reality of day-to-day existence the maintenance of such a deliberately considered and objective stance is impossible. We cannot rationally deconstruct every statement we ever hear in search of methodological flaws so we often rely on heuristic judgements (rule of thumb, common sense, educated guesses, believing in testimony of previously reliable witness, personal opinion). I mean who would even want to brutally deconstruct their favourite piece of poetry,  cherished work of art, sentimental object or the words "I love you" in search of empirical validity?

It is extremely important to realise is when we are allowing ourselves to apply heuristic short-cuts and when we must apply rigorous objective analysis to avoid being misled. When a friend invites us around for dinner at 7.00 PM there is absolutely no need to subject their statement to rigorous critical appraisal, however whenever we read a newspaper article, listen to a politician speaking on the radio or watch an advert on the TV, it is much more important to apply critical analysis, even if we tend to agree with what is being said.

In order to maintain a more objective view of reality it is vitally important to read between the lines because what is omitted is often far more important that what is presented by the media as "objective fact"; to critically doubt everything that comes out of a politician's mouth, even if you find yourself instinctively agreeing with them at the time; or to carefully consider the tricks and techniques being used by the advertiser to incentivise us to pay for their products even if we instinctively want to buy them.

The more effort we expend on combating confirmation bias, the more natural it becomes to us,  however it will always be impossible to live ones entire life on a unbiased plain of perfect rationality and objectivity. This means that it is important to recognise when it is necessary to deliberately adopt a more objective and critical stance and also to be aware that we will continue to live most of our lives in a much more comfortable cloud of subjectivity, unsubstantiated opinion and heuristics.

We must recognise when we are allowing ourselves to adopt such a heuristic state, since a great deal of propaganda can slip through as we relax, peruse a seemingly lightweight magazine, read a crappy novel or watch a soap opera. "Soft media" is actually an ideal medium for propagating social stereotypes, facile generalisations, fallacious arguments and the like, precisely because most people choose to read a celebrity magazine or watch a soap opera as an escape from the hard world of critical analysis. Once we are in this relaxed, uncritical, heuristic state lazing around in front of the TV or comfort reading we are much less likely to subject the subject matter to painstaking objective analysis, meaning confirmation bias is more likely to allow subjective and distorted ideas to leak into our consciousness.

As a crudely oversimplified conclusion, I suppose I could say that: As we observe a subject matter, the first step towards avoiding confirmation bias, and the subjective distortions it creates, is to try to be aware of our own state as we are making the observation.

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Tuesday 18 September 2012

About an annoying anti-religious Facebook meme

Original version of the anti-religious Facebook meme.
Take a look at this anti-religious meme that is being spread on Facebook by a page called "Rationalist". As I write, the image has been liked well over 500 times and over 800 people thought it was so great that they decided to share it with all their social network friends.

Lets just skip past the appalling grammar in the second paragraph and the fact that it jumps between gender specific in the first paragraph and gender neutral in the second paragraph, to investigate exactly how rational the statement is. After all it bloody well should be rational if the originator is a page called "Rationalist" shouldn't it?

The first and most obvious flaw is that the whole statement is based upon a glaringly obvious false duality. People cannot be crudely divided into the mutually exclusive sets; "scientist" and "religious person" since many scientists are in fact religious. Believing in God and believing in the validity of the scientific method are by no means mutually exclusive.

Just in case you are uncertain about this false duality, here is a short list of just a few of the many Christians that have made notable contributions to science:

Roger Bacon: Franciscan friar that emphasised empiricism as the foundation of knowledge.
William of Ockham: Franciscan friar who worked on logic and physics and famously described the principle of parsimony that bears his name (Occam's razor).
Nicolas Copernicus:  A Catholic that introduced the heliocentric worldview.
John Napier: Protestant inventor of logarithms.
René Descartes: A staunch Catholic and a key thinker of the scientific revolution.
Blaise Pascal: Jansenist who did pioneering work in physics and mathematics.
Robert Boyle: Scottish chemist, physicist and inventor who argued that the study of science could improve the glorification of God.
Isaac Newton: Widely regarded as one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, however he actually produced a much greater quantity of theological papers than mathematical works!
Carrolus Linnaeus: Lutherian theologian and the father of modern taxonomy.
Gregor Mendel: The Augustinian abbot who is known as the father of modern genetics for his painstaking work on inherited traits in pea plants.
Michael Faraday: Glasite church elder and famous English physicist who did pioneering work in the study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry.
Louis Pasteur: Catholic inventor of the pasteurisation method and pioneer in the field of vaccination.
Max Planck: Observant Lutherian and founder of Quantum Mechanics.
Otto Hahn: Lutherian that won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of the fission of heavy atomic nuclei.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell: British Quaker and astrophysicist that discovered the first radio pulsars.

Devout people of other faiths have also made huge contributions to science too, however I've just offered this short list of some of the many notable Christian scientists in order to back my assertion that "scientist" and "religious person" are not mutually exclusive sets. Interestingly, Georg Cantor (the man that developed set theory) was a Christian mathematician that maintained that his mathematical views were intrinsically linked to their philosophical and theological implications and identified the Absolute Infinite with God.

Returning to the Facebook meme; another obvious flaw is the fact that it relies so heavily on facile generalisations. As I've said before, if your argument relies on simplistic generalisations, you're better off either keeping your childish ideas to yourself, or failing that, pursuing a career in right-wing politics.

The generalisations are painfully obvious. Many distinguished scientists have lamented that the sheer volume of academic reading they must do in order to stay at the forefront of their field has prevented them from reading other stuff that they would have liked to, such as work in other scientific fields, philosophy, mathematics, theology, poetry or even just a lightweight novel or two, whilst anyone that has ever had the chance to peruse a vicar's personal library has probably been surprised to find all kinds of unexpected non-theological works within their collection. This is not to assert that all scientists are completely locked into their own specific field or that all vicars are particularly widely read, just that the generalisation that all scientists are widely read is as facile as the idea that all religious people only ever read their one specific religious text.

Amended version of the anti-religious Facebook meme.
To me the most absurd thing about this bigoted anti-religious meme is the fact that it has been disseminated by a Facebook page called "Rationalist", when it is such an utterly irrational construct. It is such a display of abject prejudice and philosophical incoherence, I'd say that anyone that shares the image is brazenly displaying their own lack of intellectual rigour and rationality.

It always amuses me when obnoxious atheists try to smugly display their "higher rationality" by endorsing moronically simplistic anti-religious propaganda like this. When "shouty atheists" endorse such irrational and incoherent rubbish, it actually demonstrates a hell of a lot more about their own lack of critical faculties than it does about the failings of the religiously minded folk they are attempting to smear.

In conclusion: When "normal" people see a Facebook meme that annoys them, they either ignore it, or leave a critical comment. I'm certainly not "normal" so I created an amended version of the image with red text explaining how stupid I think it is in order to share via my Facebook page and then wrote a lengthy blog post about the subject.

See Also

Sunday 16 September 2012

Richard Desmond's brazen hypocrisy

The brazen hypocrisy of Richard Desmond

The pornographer Richard "porn baron" Desmond has repeatedly
stated that he hates being called a "pornographer" and a "porn baron".
In September 2012 the Irish Daily Star published topless pictures of a woman called Kate Middleton who happens to be married to some bloke called His Royal Highness Prince William Arthur Philip Louis, Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn, Baron Carrickfergus, Royal Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle.

The proprietor of the Irish Daily Star is a man called Richard Desmond who also owns a number of other newspapers, magazines and TV channels through his Northern and Shell company. Desmond was reportedly "angry", "furious", "disgusted", "horrified" and "profoundly dismayed" at the decision to publish the semi-naked paparazzi pictures. Within hours of the publication Desmond began taking measures to completely shut down the Irish Daily Star.

The first element of Desmond's hypocrisy is the fact that OK! magazine (published by Desmond's company since 1993) has contributed massively to the development of the paparazzi business by repeatedly publishing invasive paparazzi shots of celebrities and their children. To rail against the invasion of Royal privacy by the paparazzi (and the publications that chose to print the topless paparazzi snaps), is grotesquely insincere given that one of his own magazines is the world's most widely read publisher of invasive paparazzi photography.

The next element of Desmond's hypocrisy can be seen in his other business interests. Before he bought into the newspaper and TV businesses, he made £millions from pornography. Amongst the 45 pornographic titles he eventually offloaded in 2004 were magazines such as Asian Babes, Readers Housewives and Mega Boobs.

This is the kind of blurry long lens image Desmond is railing against. I'm
 sure he'd prefer it if people got their smut fix by paying a subscription
to his high definition pornography Television X channel instead.
Desmond has repeatedly stated that he hates being called a "pornographer" and "porn baron", however his Northern and Shell company still operates a number of pornographic enterprises. They may have moved away from the outdated print pornography model, but they have certainly embraced more modern porn platforms such as Pay TV and Internet porn with gusto. Northern and Shell operates a number of pornographic pay-per-view TV channels including RedHot TV and Television X.

A quick browse of the Television X website reveals that they provide content such as "double penetration", "teen sex", "cum swapping", "pissing", "interracial", "rimming", "old on young" etc. I'm no moral puritan (each to their own and all that), but to generate vast profits from severe sexual exploitation whilst vigorously condemning the publication of pictures of nothing more than a pair of boobs is an incredibly brazen display of hypocrisy.

One particular part of Desmond's condemnation of the publication of the Kate Middleton pictures really stands out. His claims that the pictures are "grotesque and totally unjustifiable" and that "there can be no motivation for this action other than greed."

I wonder what higher motivation than "greed" Desmond uses to justify his company broadcasting scenes such as women taking several penises up their rectum, old men pissing into the mouths of teenage girls and women spitting ejaculate into each others mouths? What higher purpose than "greed" could the broadcaster of such scenes be serving?

There is only one thing more revolting than the broadcasting of this kind of extreme pornographic smut itself, and that is seeing a man that purveys and profits from the dissemination of such smut taking such a high profile "moralistic stance" against the publication of some boobie pictures.

Desmond seems to be suffering from a strange kind of moral dissonance, where the rich and powerful elites deserve every protection from those that would be interested in seeing them partially nude (pictures that are no more shocking than an average day on the beach in Ibiza) whilst maintaining that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the extreme sexual exploitation of non-elite people in order to generate corporate profits. Operations like Television X and their website grossly exploit both the porn "actors" themselves and the dupes that pay up to £126 a year to access the kind of sexual content that can easily be found elsewhere on the Internet for free.

Not only do Desmond's companies disseminate extreme pornographic images, they often do it in breach of regulations that are there to protect children from accessing such extreme content. So in Richard Desmond's "moral world" the wealthy elite should be protected at all costs from those who would like to have a peek at their boobs but the protection of children from extremely explicit sexual content is just a tiresome regulatory burden that can be repeatedly overlooked.

There are many people working at the Irish Daily Star that had absolutely nothing to do with the publication of the Kate Middleton paparazzi pictures. Desmond is going to collectively punish them in a fit of moral puritanism, whilst he continues to generate personal profit from, and protect the jobs of those working for his smutty porn channels and websites, despite their history of non-compliance with broadcasting regulations. The man is a raving hypocrite who rails against the publication of paparazzi boobie pictures, whilst simultaneously running a company that publishes the world's most widely read paparazzi magazine and broadcasts extreme pornography.

See Also

Saturday 15 September 2012

A question about Pizza

Do I dislike Pizza?

An intriguing question to ask someone like me that mainly writes about politics, economics and theology. How did it come to be asked?

Well I was asked the pizza question by a guy called Caleb Cutler after I described Michael Gorbachev as a "corporate whore" for appearing in a Pizza Hut advert in the late 1990s. I made the comment in the context that it was a pity to see a great statesman of the 20th century reduced to the status of a celebrity pizza salesman. A sad spectacle in my opinion.

Caleb's written comment read:
"Ah so you don't like pizza? Got something against free enterprise?" 
So to answer his questions one at a time:

I actually really like Pizza, commercial pizza not so much, but it is usually edible so I wont complain. What I don't like is seeing one of the great statesman of the 20th century ending up hawking corporate pizza, given that I share Bill Hicks' absolute contempt for the advertising industry.

Another saddening aspect to Gorbachev's reduction to the status of a celebrity pizza salesman is the fact that his democratic mixed economy vision for Russia was hijacked by a pisshead called Boris who implemented a devastating neoliberalisation process at the behest of a bunch of American economists instead. The Russian free-market experiment was an absolute disaster. The neoliberal shock therapy session administered to post-communist Russia was one of the most obvious failures of neoliberal free-market ideology in a very long list of failures. The free market ideology managed to make Russia less productive and created more extreme poverty than the communist regime they so hastily replaced.

From this fire sale of state infrastructure and unregulated chaos there emerged a tiny minority of "winners" of course. Whilst millions of ordinary Russians were reduced to abject poverty, oligarchs like Roman Abramovich siphoned £billions out of the Russian economy to invest in absurd vanity projects like Chelsea FC and ridiculously over sized yachts.

What a warped view of the 20th Century would it take to simply ignore the fact that Russian neoliberal shock therapy ended up crippling the Russian economy, causing what was one of two great superpower less than a decade before to default on it's debts in 1998.

This brings me to the question about free enterprise, which is a lot more tricky than the question about pizza. Whether I have anything against "free enterprise" depends a lot on how "free enterprise" is defined doesn't it?

Should small businesses be free to compete on an even playing field with their competitors? Of course they should.

Should corporations be free to exploit their workers, destroy the environment, commit fraud, or use financial doping to eliminate their competition in the pursuit of vast profits and obscene executive pay? I don't think so.

I believe that the state has a vital role to play in protecting "free enterprise". If it takes the intervention of the state to ensure that there are several players competing in every sector in order to ensure competition and stimulate greater efficiency this is significantly better than allowing single enterprises to financially dope their way into markets, annihilate their competition through price fixing then exploit their monopoly position to maximise profits, going on to form international price fixing cartels with similar enterprises in order to eradicate market plurality.  If "free enterprise" is defined as a right to annihilate competition in order to maximise profits, this is actually an anti-competitive and inefficient economic ideology.

I believe in freedom to compete but I do not believe in the freedom to form economically damaging monopoly interests; the freedom to abuse information asymmetry; the freedom to form cartels; the freedom to corruptly influence governments and regulators; the freedom to profit on human suffering; the freedom to trade on insider information; the freedom to ruin the environment for insignificant economic gains; the freedom to debase the entire economic system for profit; or the freedom to use financial doping to destroy market competition and eradicate market plurality (Market plurality is a very important concept, I'll address this in a later post).

I actually believe that an efficiently regulated market can achieve much greater market freedom by the active stimulation of competition through progressive funding of infant industries. Adam Smith, the "godfather" of free-market economists also believed in infant industry protection, however free-market fundamentalists tend to completely ignore this aspect of his work, using the same selective reading strategies to read their favourite economics books as the fundamentalist American Christian right use to cherry pick passages from the Bible to justify anti-Christian attitudes such as intolerance and greed-worship.

In my opinion strong reliable and adaptable state sector is necessary to ensure a fair and level playing field. The state should intervene to support and protect infant industries. The state must also maintain the capacity to step in at short notice and intervene to prevent market failure, should the need arise. These measures are necessary in order to create a highly efficient and competitive private sector; a private sector best prepared to take entrepreneurial risk because progressive legislation would protect them from the risks of market domination by profit driven monopoly interests.

So in conclusion: I really like pizza, I'd much rather have a homemade one than a Pizza Hut one though. I don't have anything against "free trade", unless of course we are talking about the free-market, anarcho-capitalist definition of "free trade"; that corporations should have the absolute freedom to do whatever the hell they want in pursuit of profits, no matter what the harms they inflict on others in order to make them.

I don't believe in the anarcho-capitalist definition of  "free trade" because I believe in a social-democratic form of regulated free trade. However anyone that properly understands the right-wing libertarian position should also oppose the anarcho-capitalist definition of "free trade" given the importance of non-aggression in libertarian theory. The only people that would buy into this "deregulate everything, let corporations do whatever the hell they like" definition of "free trade" are economic illiterates that buy into absurd simplifications (private always good, state always bad) because they are incapable of actually understanding any kind of complex, pragmatic or even vaguely realistic economic theory.

See also


Friday 14 September 2012

How Quantitative Easing is bad for the economy

The Quantitative Easing wealth transfer: How Quantitative Easing is bad for the economy.

I do tend to write quite long and complicated articles on the assumption that those with short attention spans would be unlikely to engage with complex political and economic ideas no matter whether the article is short and punchy or long winded and precise. As soon as the "complicated word stuff" appears, many people automatically disengage, no matter what the length of the article.

However in this case I'll try to spell it out as simply and concisely as I can because I believe this particular financial matter is of such importance.

The issue is Quantitative Easing (if you don't know what it means here's my attempt to explain it in relatively simple terms & and here's the Wikipedia article).

After creating £375 billion to inject into the UK economy, the Bank of England released some incredible research that estimated that 40% of the economic benefit of their money creation exercises went to the richest 5% of the population. They also conservatively estimated that their policies had devalued British savings by £70 billion.

The National Association of Pension Funds estimate that the BoE's first £325 billion worth of Quantitative Easing policies had damaged pension funds to the tune of £270 billion.

It is quite clear from this evidence that Quantitative Easing polices have tended to transfer wealth from many millions of ordinary people with savings accounts and pension funds to the wealthy economic elite.

There are three main reasons that this kind of poor to rich wealth transfer is so bad for the economy:

1. Capital Flight: The first reason is quite obvious. The super-wealthy beneficiaries of QE are significantly more likely to hire pricey tax lawyers to siphon their wealth out of the UK economy into tax haven economies via complex tax-loopholes. They are also much more likely to invest their fortunes in the untaxed and unregulated global shadow banking derivatives casino. If the newly created wealth floods out of the UK economy into tax havens or the global derivatives market, the wider UK economy will not feel the economic benefit. Many people associate capital flight with poor and struggling economies, however richer economies suffer too, especially if they have lax tax collection regimes or have no capital controls to influence the flow of wealth in and out of the country.

2. Reduced demand: As millions of ordinary people witness the value of their savings and pensions stagnate and shrink in real terms (grow less than the rate of inflation), the rational response is for them to "tighten their belts" and cut their weekly expenditure in order offset their losses. If millions of people are incentivised to simultaneously cut spending, the amount of demand in the economy is reduced causing productive enterprises to suffer.

3. Poor fiscal efficiency: Fiscal efficiency sounds like a complex term but it isn't really. Fiscally efficient spending results in greater economic activity than the scheme cost to implement in the first place (strong fiscal multipliers include spending on affordable housing projects, Infrastructure improvement and Research and Development). Research by Owen M. Zidar has found that in America "a one percent of GDP tax cut for the bottom 90% results in 2.7 percentage points of GDP growth over a two-year period. The corresponding estimate for the top 10% is 0.13 percentage points and is insignificant statistically." Put simply, if poor people are given money they spend it and stimulate the economy. Given that Quantitative Easing transfers wealth from the poor to the rich, it should be seen as extremely harmful to the UK economy, since wealth is being transferred from people that use their wealth to generate economic growth at the national level to those that don't.

Zidar's results are specific to America, but the vast difference in fiscal multiplication between the richest 10% (who generate only 13 cents worth of economic growth for every extra Dollar) and the majority (who generate $2.70 worth of economic growth for every extra Dollar) is so resounding, that it is hard to imagine that a similar ratios do not exist for the UK economy.

The Bank of England's Quantitative Easing policies transfer wealth from millions of ordinary people that create demand and generate economic growth with their wealth, to the "idle rich" that use their wealth for their own benefit and create little economic demand with it. If British fiscal efficiency results are similar to results in the US, the long-term damage being done to the UK economy as consequence of the Quantitative Easing wealth transfer could already be extremely severe.

The wealthy economic elite (financial sector workers, capitalists, government officials, landed gentry etc)  are unlikely to worry about growing levels of poverty, falling economic demand and economic contraction caused by QE or to agitate for change, since they are the principal beneficiaries of the QE wealth transfer. If anything is to be done to oppose this economically damaging wealth transfer process it must be done from the grass roots and in order for that to happen, a hell of a lot more ordinary people need to be made to understand that the Quantitative Easing wealth transfer is extremely bad for them and extremely bad for their communities.

 Another Angry Voice  is a not-for-profit page which generates absolutely no revenue from advertising and accepts no money from corporate or political interests. The only sources of income for  Another Angry Voice  are small donations from people who see some value in my work. If you appreciate my efforts and you could afford to make a donation, it would be massively appreciated.

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What is ... Quantitative Easing?
How the Green party is miles ahead of the game on monetary reform
Who was to blame for the economic crisis?

The Great Neoliberal Lie
The "unpatriotic left" fallacy 
What is the point of the Labour Party?
Why bailing out RBS was a catastrophic mistake
The JP Morgan vision for Europe