Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Why The Labour Party Is Like The Mafia


When the mafia used to start up protection rackets they had to strike a good economic balance. Suppose they were going to operate in an area with 50 bars and restaurants - how much should they charge the owners for 'protection'? If they charge too little they don't maximise profits, but if they charge too much they might drive the bar and restaurant owners out of business, which means no more revenue.

Sounds charming doesn't it? Well replace the word 'mafia' with the words 'Labour Party', and the words 'protection racket' with 'tax', and the words 'bars and restaurants' with the word 'electorate', and you've pretty much described how Ed Miliband and Ed Balls' Labour Party works with regard to taxation. While this is slightly different from a protection racket in that the benefits from taxation do extend out to taxpayers more than the benefits from 'protection' extend to bar and restaurant owners, the ethos isn't too dissimilar - the two Eds want to get as much tax out of the electorate as possible without reaching the tipping point of election-losing unpopularity.

If parties are not careful this often amounts to a game of cat and mouse between the establishment and the electorate, where the party in power tries to maximise their revenue without extracting so much from the electorate that there is a stasis or unpopularity. In the ways they can't maximise their revenue without being found out they try to maximise their voting potential. So if you're a party-voter, vote with it primarily in mind that if the party comes to power they are going to spend as much of your money as possible - so best look at the kind of things you think they'll spend it on, and how much in each area, and see if they closely match what you would spend it on.

Ed Balls has been behaving a bit like Don Corleone lately with his belief that the more he can extract for government revenue the better things will be. Someone in the Labour Party needs to put him straight.


It is a mistake though to think of the Laffer curve - which looks at the relationship between tax collected and the rates at which they are collected - as determining the rate of taxation that will raise the maximum revenue for the government. That's not what we should think of as the optimal tax rate - the optimal tax rate is the tax that raises the optimum revenue with the fewest negative spillover effects on the economy. To suggest that a healthy tax rate is one that maximises government revenue is like suggesting that a healthy conscription rate is one that maximises the number of soldiers in the armed forces, or that a healthy diet is one that maximises food intake. The true value of a tax rate or an army quantity or a healthy diet is one that proves most effective when considering all effects, not simply getting the most of something we can.

As things stand with the 45p tax rate, the tax gained from the top 1% is apparently at a record high. They earn 13% of the income but now pay 30% cent of income tax collected.  Even the top 0.1% (stress that's nought point one percent, not one percent) pay a comparably astronomical 14% of the total income tax paid, which is an increase by a factor of 140. Even the staunchest redistributionists can't be too unhappy with that, can they?

* Pictures courtesy of viralfilm and left foot forward

Sunday, 26 January 2014

What About The Smart-Suited Philanthropists?

Here's an anti-monopoly quote someone posted on Facebook - it's from a well known novel:

“Poverty is not caused by men and women getting married; it's not caused by machinery; it's not caused by "over-production"; it's not caused by drink or laziness; and it's not caused by "over-population". It's caused by Private Monopoly. That is the present system. They have monopolized everything that it is possible to monopolize; they have got the whole earth, the minerals in the earth and the streams that water the earth. The only reason they have not monopolized the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it.  Even as you think at present that it's right for so few people to own the Earth, the Minerals and the Water, which are all just as necessary as is the air. In exactly the same spirit as you now say: "It's Their Land," "It's Their Water," "It's Their Coal," "It's Their Iron," so you would say "It's Their Air," "These are their gasometers, and what right have the likes of us to expect them to allow us to breathe for nothing?" And even while he is doing this the air monopolist will be preaching sermons on the Brotherhood of Man; he will be dispensing advice on "Christian Duty" in the Sunday magazines; he will give utterance to numerous more or less moral maxims for the guidance of the young. And meantime, all around, people will be dying for want of some of the air that he will have bottled up in his gasometers".
― Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

The one good way the government regulates an economy is by anti-monopoly regulations (like those in the UK and USA). Monopolies are not economically efficient - they cause underproduction in order for the monopoly power to keep prices up, which is why it used to be good policy to enable increased production for small businesses.

What Robert Tressell didn't account for in 1914 is that when increased capital power creates a top-heavy wealth stratification it also generates improved prosperity for the poorest people in the world too (just about every country in the world is richer and more prosperous now than it was in 1915). That is to say, yes it's true that the rich are getting richer, but so are the poor as a result of it - and the reason this is happening is the progression-explosion that's occurred in the past 200 years, which has seen the diminution of subsistence level living, high infant mortality and widespread poverty being replaced with better health, wealth and prosperity not seen at any time prior to that.

Whenever I meet people who contest the proposition of improvement across the world in recent times, I like to ask them questions like these:

1) Would you rather go about making Sunday lunch for five guests in a 2014 kitchen or in a 1920s kitchen?

2) Would you rather need a heart operation in a 2014 hospital or in a 19th century hospital?

3) Would you rather have to travel urgently from London to Edinburgh on today's transport or on transport in the Victorian times?

4) Would you rather be a father in modern day Mozambique trying to feed his family or a father in 1850s Mozambique trying to feed his family?

5) Would you rather have the holiday options in a 2014 travel agent or the holiday options in a 1940s travel agent?

6) Would you rather have the number of people below the poverty line in 2014 or the number of people below the poverty line in the 1970s?

7) Would you rather be defended by the UK's 2014 armed forces or by the armed forces in the UK in 1813?

8) Would you rather be a woman, or a black person, or a homosexual in the Western world in 2014 or a woman, or a black person, or a homosexual in the Western world in the 1890s?

9) Would you rather have the knowledge of the world available to you in 2014 or the knowledge of the world available to you in 1913?

10) Would you rather have the working week of 2014 or the working week of 1873?

I'll bet that you chose the first option in each of the ten questions - and I could think of dozens more just like them from which you'd choose the contemporary option rather than opting for how things were in the past.

In fact, even if you just focus on some of the wealthiest people in history, I'd wager that any of the Kings or Queens from the York, Tudor, Stuart or even Hanover household would have willingly traded 90% of their wealth and power for 21st century knowledge, medicine, sanitation, roads, cars, worldwide travel, household goods, the internet and access to the knowledge and understanding of the world we have today.



* Picture is called "Stepping Out of Poverty" by Chiarra Palazzolo, a 7th grader from St. Theresa School

Monday, 20 January 2014

We Can't Always Resist, But Why?


Surprising confession time - I do make a point of watching the reality TV show Made in Chelsea. This surprises a lot of people; upon hearing this they are quick to say something like "I can't believe an intelligent, educated person like you, with so much sexual charisma, watches a programme with such stupid people in it". Ok, I made up the 'sexual charisma' part, but you know what they mean - it is expected that a program about vacuous people (albeit privileged people) would only appeal to equally vacuous people. The main reason I watch Made in Chelsea is that I find it an interesting social experiment - I'm peering into the lives of the kind of people who are not in my social milieu, and that is often an interesting thing to do.

But here's the main point - I'm clearly not alone - these programmes of plentiful vacuity, like Made in Chelsea, Towie, Big Brother, Jeremy Kyle, Celebrity reality shows, and so forth, and magazines covering the lifestyles of half-witted pop icons and pin-ups, are increasingly more popular - and this popularity shows no signs of abating. The Spectator, which isn't exactly known for its vacuity, has the kind of writers who think that the increasing popularity means we as a nation must be getting more vacuous too.

I'm not so sure - maybe the opposite is true; maybe it is because we are all getting smarter, more knowledgeable and more academically gifted that vacuity has become so popular. If you think about consumable products in terms of the usual economic course - an increase of something (oil, gas, timber) causes its price to go down not up, and this may apply to vacuity too - it is commanding a higher price because it is in shorter supply than ever before.

While we're on the subject of TV - the show hitting the headlines in the past week or two has been the controversial Channel 4 programme Benefits Street. It had all the things you'd expect from a show in which filmmakers recorded two years' worth of footage of people at the low end of the educational and socio-economic scale: it had deprivation, despair, criminality, drugs, drink, cigarettes, recidivism, illiteracy and hopelessness; it had people trying to play the system, people who had virtually no chance of getting a job, people who were financially better off not having one; but it also had charity, kindness, sympathy, helpfulness, support, love and friendship, as people empathised with each other's problems, and rallied together in spite of their plights.

It is ironic, of course, that in terms of socio-economic status, there is a night and day difference between the cast of Made in Chelsea and those featured in Benefits Street. If Made in Chelsea, Towie, Big Brother, Jeremy Kyle and Celebrity reality shows are examples of our increased fascination with vacuity by virtue of being a smarter nation on average, then shows like Benefits Street are examples of our increased fascination of a demographic that have had the double misfortune of a) being victims of a system that at present makes some people more rational for choosing the payout of being on benefits over the payout of getting a job; and b) of being caught in a lifestyle trap in which basic education, literacy, social skills, employment prospects and genuine hope seems to most of them like pie in the sky.

Clearly what they need more than anything is help, not demonisation - and by 'help' I don't mean swatting a few mosquitoes, I mean draining the whole swamp of stigmatisation and giving them the love and support to start anew.

* Photo courtesy of www.sofeminine.co.uk 

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Dawk-Watch & Hitch-Watch: A Theistic Analysis



When it comes to discussions about God, I've often been baffled at how it is that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, arguably the two most prominent atheist spokesmen in recent times, have got away with speaking so much nonsense for so long, while all the time enjoying adulation, approbation and lionisation by an ever-increasing group of followers and imitators.

So, finally getting round to it, I thought I'd go to Google-search to find what has been offered as their 'best' quotes against God, religion and faith, and show why they don't stand up to rigorous scrutiny.

As you'll see, Dawkins and Hitchens have ready-made methods for twisting meanings, distorting logic and fabricating the truth in a way that the more pliant and impressionable individuals don't seem to notice. To pick one common example, there is this little linguistic sleight of hand: simply pick the word of which you want people to disapprove - brainwash, faith (taken to mean belief without evidence), dictatorship, tyranny, barbaric, etc - and then describe the particular word in terms that your readers already disapprove of, apply it in blanket form to the thing you're attacking, and you'll find you have them on your side. Alternatively, simply pick a word you know people like - evidence, reason, freedom, science, etc - and apply it to your own agenda, and you'll have people believe you're offering a genuine progression that they are compelled to support (politicians do both these things all the time).

Let's start with a humorous observation. One of Richard Dawkins' well known quotes is this one:

"The take-home message is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism - as though that were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion. Voltaire got it right long ago: 'Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.'

True, but judging by the absurdities we are now going to see, are we to conclude that in endorsing Voltaire, Richard Dawkins could make his fans commit atrocities? Probably not - but although Dawkins can't make his fans commit atrocities, he certainly does help them with fallacies and misjudgements, as the following quotes from him will show. I've split the quotes from Dawkins and Hitchens into different sections.

The Dawkins Section

"Where does Darwinian evolution leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God's redundancy notice, his pink slip."

Notice what Dawkins does here; in conveying the power of evolutionary theory as an explanatory agent for the diversity of life on this planet, he offers a fact that has nothing to do with the issues surrounding God's existence or non-existence, and then he draws a conclusion that employs poor reasoning and absurdity in its imaginative failings. Biochemical evolution almost certainly explains all life on earth, from abiogenesis, through to the rich and diverse complexities of life we see after a few billion years of natural selection. But biological evolution doesn't imply that God has nothing to do - that's as silly as saying that filling a hotel with staff and guests implies that there was nothing for the planners and builders to do in constructing the hotel.

Biological evolution only explains the relatively easy part - that is, once we have the laws of physics, the mathematical underpinnings, and the informational platform, then biological life, once it gets going, is a relatively straightforward step by step cumulative selection process, certainly in comparison to creating a universe and designing the complex physical laws that act as a canvas for the colours and textures of evolution of life. The hard part is in explaining why the universe is made of mathematics, and why there is any mathematics at all, and why anything so complex exists in the first place. That Dawkins makes such a crass misjudgement in ignoring the hard part to point us to the easy part suggests to me he is either being insincere or he is engaging in out and out intellectual buffoonery. 

"One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding."

As it stands this is another meaningless statement. Only if he places the word 'sometimes' between the words 'it' and 'teaches' does the sentence have any bearing on reality - and even then it only amounts to the tautology of 'Sometimes religion teaches people to be satisfied with not understanding and sometimes it doesn't'. Dawkins really only means that one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it sometimes teaches people that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding. Yes, and one of the truly bad effects of going to school is that some pupils fail their exams due to general under-achievement and insufficient study. Does that mean schools are a bad thing? No.

Everyone knows the reason why. Many pupils achieve good grades because they are endowed with curiosity and diligence and they embrace learning. What does that say about schools? That they operate on a 'you get out what you put in' basis. That's just what one would expect of a religion too - 'you get out what you put in'. Religious teachers that teach adherents to be satisfied with not understanding are of course noxious, but equally there are many religious teachers, as well as religious precepts, institutions, and works of literature and non-fiction, that greatly enrich the mind and engender a greater creative intellect.

"Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."

Here's how Dawkins makes this statement work - he changes the word 'faith' to mean something that is generally thought to be bad (evading the need to think and evaluate evidence) and makes an appeal based on that fabrication (this is a popular trick employed by politicians too). If that were an accurate depiction of faith, then Dawkins would be right to criticise it, just as if my depiction of the historical record of Hitler was an accurate depiction of Martin Luther King then I'd be right to criticise Martin Luther King for Hitler's crimes. Hopefully, though, if I started criticising Martin Luther King on grounds that he invaded Poland, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, oversaw Nazi concentration camps, and was responsible for the death of millions of people, you'd rightly pull me up as being under a misapprehension.

Similarly, with Dawkins, faith is not what he paints it to be. Having faith says little about someone's willingness to evaluate evidence, as evidence for anything empirical is confined only to the classes of object that are part of the physical substrate (be they physics, biology, economics, and so forth). Having faith is to have an interpretation of reality as a whole - an interpretation that all things connected to the physical substrate are part of a much bigger Divine plan, and that through the Incarnation we can trust that God's plan is being played out. Faith has nothing to do with the kind of evidence Dawkins means when he uses the word.

"Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? That's not morality, that's just sucking up, apple-polishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky"

This is an example of a statement that has universal appeal, but in having such low-hanging appeal it really says nothing compelling at all. I don't know any believer in God who lives a life of such bereft and tremulous servitude that they would only do good because of gaining approval, Divine or elsewhere. There probably are religious people for whom this is the case, just as there are people who are ultra-servile towards other humans (North Korea being a good example). But most educated, thoughtful believers understand that morality is an evolved phenomenon (as is the need for approval), and that moral imperatives are both beneficial and necessary for human survival and fruitful co-existence, irrespective of whether one believes in God or not. That Dawkins peddles this distortion suggests either he doesn't understand why people believe in God or it suggests that he is trying to mislead people (perhaps a bit of both).

"There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point... The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it."

This is an example of a statement that contains a false dichotomy and also two false assumptions. The first false assumption is that to be a theist means living a childish life in which believers simply delegate all responsibility onto others in some puerile manner. That obviously isn't the case - theists have faith and trust in an all-powerful God, but as far as day to day living is concerned they understand that life is full of personal responsibility; and, of course, many take it upon themselves to go the extra few miles and campaign for social justice and global changes inspired by Christ's instructions.

The second false assumption is that it is 'infantile' to presume that 'somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point'. If we take out the overly-emotive word 'responsibility' we all know that it is other people that do give our lives meaning - there's nothing to be ashamed of in acknowledging this, and certainly nothing exclusive to theism here. We all rely on each other for love, friendship, knowledge, aspiration, a sense of purpose and so forth, even Richard Dawkins does. Place those two false assumptions together and you'll see Dawkins has created a false dichotomy.

"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference."

How does Richard Dawkins know what the difference would be between properties in a universe that is designed and properties in a universe that isn't designed? He can't know this, because if this universe is created then its properties that we observe are created properties, and if it isn't created then its properties that we observe are naturalistic. Dawkins, like all humans, has no conceptual wherewithal of any ontological distinction between the two types of universe.

As an illustration, if a dressmaker states that a particular piece of clothing has been sewn wrong, then her argument is rational because she has a clear idea of what the correct stitch pattern should look like. If we make the same claim regarding our universe - if we say that the universe is not fine-tuned, or that it was not created by a God, and has 'just the wrong kind of stitch pattern', then we must know what a wrong stitch pattern is in relation to a right one. As far as we know, nature could have brought about that same stitch pattern in a created universe or a naturalistic universe, so there are no grounds for such an assertion by Dawkins, as we humans have no information about God that allows us to conclude that only a certain stitch pattern is a God-created one.

Another point; Dawkins presumably doesn't really think that there is nothing but 'blind pitiless indifference' in his ontological enquiries; he presumably thinks that he has created meaning and purpose to his own life. Therefore, I presume he'll willingly admit that all humans are able to create their own meaning and purpose as well, which means that at the very least the universe has created billions of creatures who each have developed deep concepts of meaning and purpose, which goes to show that there is quite a bit more than blind pitiless indifference in nature, and that the question of whether those deep concepts relate to even deeper truths not yet understood is not a matter that has been resolved.

"So it is best to keep an open mind and be agnostic. At first sight that seems an unassailable position, at least in the weak sense of Pascal's wager. But on second thoughts it seems a cop-out, because the same could be said of Father Christmas and tooth fairies. There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies?"

This is the sort of emotional propaganda that seeks to manipulate readers by conflating two concepts as though they are one interchangeable entity - things that are genuinely believed to be real (like God) and things that are acknowledged by anyone above the age of 6 or 7 to be fantastical fabrications (like Santa Claus). Santa Claus is made up by parents for kids' enjoyment. Philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and arguments for and against God's existence amount to a long, broad and deep enquiry that has preoccupied human thinking for millennia, and continues to do so. I wonder if anyone has ever asked Richard Dawkins why he and his fellow cronies are not out there debating Santa Claus. If he tells you that that's an entirely different realm of discourse to philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and arguments for and against God's existence then you'll be entitled to ask what valuable point he thinks he's making by treating those two different things as though they are the same in the above sentence.

Of course, Dawkins thinks they (God and Santa Claus) are the same by being non-existent, but that is to commit the fallacy of begging the question, which is assuming the conclusion of an argument (that God does not exist) when that is the question being discussed and at the very heart of humans' life enquiry. It's as silly as saying that opium makes us tired because it has sleep-inducing properties, or smoking causes cancer because it has cancer-inducing properties. It is one thing to find a causal link (which we certainly have in the case of smoking and cancer) - it is quite another to foolishly assume a conclusion in the sentence before the causal links have even been found.

"I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world."

Or my own paraphrase: I'm against Richard Dawkins because he teaches his admirers to be satisfied with not understanding poor arguments. Or if we stick to his exact words we see they are so general as to be meaningless. Even if we ignore Dawkins' failure to define what it means to 'understand the world', what about all the religious people that understand the world better than Richard Dawkins, what does he suppose that religion taught those people?

Such generalisations are hopelessly misjudged, as any sensible person, theist or non-theist, would rightly repudiate the notion of being satisfied with not understanding the world. What Dawkins really means is, people who don't share my views don't understand the world as well as I do, which really only amounts to an unsubstantiated, ego-stroking statement that carries no weight, and not the least bit of decisiveness.

"The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite."

Notice the false assumption here - the wonder of science convinces us that the time we have for living is finite. Why does it? Being startled by science simply means being startled by discoveries about the physical universe, all of which amount to physical creatures making discoveries about other physical phenomena. Those discoveries say nothing about whether there is more to reality than the physical, so by definition they cannot inform us of whether our existence will be finite. They may indicate that our physical existence is ultimately finite, but the Christian faith also expresses that view, so that's not really saying anything against religious belief.

But there is a further point to consider. Although natural selection may have endowed us with the mental resources necessary for survival, reproduction, safety, status and learning - what strikes me as incredible about the human mind is that these aren't the things it finds most fascinating. It finds more fascinating the things that one might consider to be subsidiary facets to human life. In other words, it isn't the necessary things like food, water, oxygen, sunlight, or copulation that fill us with awe - it is the unnecessary things in our evolution like love, beauty, sublimity, music, poetry, literature, art, faith, the picturesque natural world and the astounding mathematical patterns in nature that really fill us with awe. They are the things we really wouldn't want to be without. Although we shouldn't diminish our appreciation for the natural world, it really does feel at times like we were created for another world altogether, and that this life is a disquisition attached to some greater narrative. 

Perhaps that is what the writer of Ecclesiastes means when he says that 'God has set eternity in our hearts'.  Not that we should fail to marvel at nature and enjoy this life, but that we should marvel and enjoy her in preparation for something even better. Either way, there are no grounds for using studies of a physical universe to project ideas about finitude.

Lastly, I want to comment on another common error that is often made by atheists - the assumption that God needs no defining and can just be talked about without recourse to clear definition of concepts and ideas. In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins made this classic error when he produced his popularly received seven point scale – a 1-7 valuation of the strength of belief or disbelief in God.  Here it is:

1.Strong Theist: : I am 100% sure that there is a God
2.De-facto Theist: I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God and I live my life on the assumption that he is there.
3.Weak Theist: I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.
4.Pure Agnostic: I don’t know about God’s existence or non-existence, so am undecided.
5.Weak Atheist: I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.
6.De-facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.
7.Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.

In stating where on the scale he sits, Dawkins says “I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7. I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” In other words, Dawkins is fairly unequivocally an atheist with not much room for change.  The reality is, his 1-7 scale exhibits the kind of flawed thinking that even nascent first year philosophy students would see as absurd.  Here’s what is wrong with the model.  As an indicator of strength of belief, the model is entirely meaningless because strength of belief is inextricably linked to whether one’s position is philosophically good or bad, and whether one has any reasonable justification for belief in God.  In other words, anyone can tell you where his strength of belief sits on a made up scale of 1-7, but it is only worth taking seriously if the person expressing the belief has a competent understanding of the subject and a good philosophical brain with which to reason. 

As well as the model failing to pay any regard to the competency of the person doing the grading, here’s what else is wrong with Richard Dawkins’ attempts to grade belief in God on a scale of 1-7.  The primary fault is that he didn’t even make the slightest mention of the fact that belief in God or gods is just about the most diverse subject out there, and that such an evaluation should be based on a hugely complex and varied mix of experiential protocols to which he’s given no consideration. It is not simply that the 1-7 scale must be brought to bear in consideration for every instance of conceived God or gods in the world (although that is still one criticism), because I assume the strength of belief for the Christian God would hardly be sensibly compared to, say, the Baha’i god, or one of the African rain gods. But even if we allow that to a rational and intelligent mind all the gods in the world have co-equivalence in being able to be rejected, the 1-7 scale is completely circular because it only gives expression of the rejection of the concept of God that each person has in their mental toolbox. Rejection of God by a man who has very little competence in the subjects of faith, theology, belief and philosophy has almost no meaningfulness.  

The truth is, there is not one unique 1-7 scale that Dawkins has created for us all to take a shot at, there has to be one for every single person in the world, because everybody’s conception, experiences, ideas and mental abilities are different. If Richard Dawkins realised this, he’d realise the ineffectuality of his 1-7 model. Even if we allow that one concept of God for every human is a bit excessive, it has to at least be acknowledged that an attempt to construct a scalar model of belief and treat is as a unique metric for philosophical returns is about as narrow-minded and parochial as it gets. What the Dawkins model does is treat people as though they all see religious belief in the same way and with the same ability, and it treats the ‘God’ concept as though it is homogenous in structure, when it’s about the least homogenous concept around.  

Now onto Christopher Hitchens…..

The Christopher Hitchens Section
Christopher Hitchens is a much slipperier customer - as you'll see from below he utters things that are so obviously true they hardly need saying (statements that just about any non-fundamentalist would agree with, theist or atheist), which thus makes them poor candidates for criticising religion. He then distorts reality to paint the kind of picture he wants, and then uses those distortions to argue in ways that everyone would agree with if his fabrications were accurate (this is another favourite trick of politicians). But it carries no more intellectual weight than if I were to get you to believe that living in Sweden comes with the same standard of living and life expectancy as living in Sudan, and then proceeded to tell you how Swedes are impoverished, desperate, repressed citizens in need of aid, investment and military intervention. You could only remain convinced for as long as I'd fooled you into thinking that Swedes have the culture, same standard of living and life expectancy as Sudanese citizens. Hitchens is good at this kind of manipulation - he must be - thousands of his admirers fall for it readily. The first case is a good example:

"Religious belief is a totalitarian belief. It is the wish to be a slave. It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep, who can subject you - who must, indeed, subject you - to total surveillance around the clock every waking and sleeping minute of your life"

Straight away you'll notice Hitchens employs the same trick as Dawkins frequently does - in using words like 'totalitarian', 'slave', 'tyrannical' and 'crime' he appeals to terms that everyone sees as negative and undesirable, and uses them to paint a metaphor-strewn Orwellian picture of religious people being slaves to a totalitarian dictatorship. In other speeches he regularly contradicts this tenor by saying that the comfort blanket of religious belief is wish-fulfilment, so I'm not sure which he really believes.

Is religion a totalitarian dictatorship that requires our fear and dehumanisation, or is it a positive doctrine to which we might naturally gravitate for escape and comfort? What about a man under a real life dictatorship who seeks divine comfort in mental escapism - I assume Hitchens doesn't think such a man would see religion as tyrannical. Maybe Hitchens really thinks - as I suspect he does - that we each create our own interpretations of religious belief. That being the case, he offers no explanation as to why his dark 1984-esque picture of religious belief is an accurate representation of the beliefs of the highly educated religious people in the world, many of whom being more cerebral than him.

"The essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey."

This is not only false - in fact, if one looks at totalitarianism on earth, and if we use Hitchens' favourite example of North Korea as a prime example, then just the opposite is true - totalitarian states make laws that are easy to obey; they just involve subjection to the totalitarian leader, which means being a dehumanised slave to an ignorant, repressive, manipulative, uncaring dictator who is usually a megalomaniacal abuser of human rights and largely morally unaccountable in his thoughts and deeds.

That's a horrible life for the serf and morally ignoble for the oppressors, but there is nothing profoundly difficult about the morals - what they severely lack is the kind of profound morality and intelligent self-examination that comes from constructing a better morality that's harder to obey.

I think Christopher Hitchens would have benefitted from thinking this through a bit more; for having done so he might have been led to consider more carefully why laws that 'are impossible to obey' are that way, and what kind of metaphysical consideration they actually prompt. If the concepts of goodness, kindness, love, grace, decency, mercy and forgiveness can be conceptualised at such a grand level that they leave us hugely wanting and accountable in our pursuits of an excellence that always remains out of reach, then this should leave us more curious about concepts of divine goodness, not less curious. If such highly sought concepts of goodness, kindness, love, grace, decency, mercy and forgiveness are examples of those laws that 'are impossible to obey' they are the opposite of totalitarianism, not the 'essential principles' of it.

"Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer."

To me that is the sort of pliable question that sounds intelligent but isn't really. I think Hitchens' question shows a lack of understanding of what religious belief entails, and also the overlooking of something that should be trivially obvious. The short answer is, the question is as meaningless as asking whether quenching thirst is better than feeding oneself.  It is true in most cases that there is no ‘statement’ or 'action' that a theist can make or do that others cannot, but that tells us nothing meaningful about the God debate, because a proper analysis involves much more than just the statement or action - it involves analysing the beliefs, intentions, humility, motive, and other psychological factors that do not come out in a mere action. Naturally we could name good moral actions taken by both religious and non-religious people that have produced the same results, but that does not tell us anything about what is directing the action, or whether the person is living a Godly life, and it certainly has no bearing on whether there is a God.

"On our integrity, our basic integrity, knowing right from wrong and being able to choose a right action over a wrong one, I think one must repudiate the claim that one doesn't have this moral discrimination innately, that, no, it must come only from the agency of a celestial dictatorship which one must love and simultaneously fear. Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it."

Hitchens often makes this kind of argument, but it is simply an example of him continually stating the obvious and appealing to a false dichotomy to which most theists don't fall victim. No sensible believer thinks that human decency, goodness and moral thinking derives from religion - quite the contrary - it is only when we are disposed to morality that theistic interpretations of God have any power at all. That Hitchens continually makes this desperate appeal as part of his regular repertoire suggests he's trying to blind his followers with spurious appeals to the ridiculous.

"What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence."

To express fully what is wrong with this statement would take a whole essay in itself. But briefly, it grossly caricatures religious faith to state that it is 'asserted without evidence', when, in reality, evidence is in the eye of the beholder, and different people accept and interpret different evidences differently. Maybe some people are too easily seduced by interpretations that shouldn't ever be offered as reasons for belief in God, but equally there are going to be lots of people whose psychological agitations predispose them to a scepticism that demands too much evidence, or the wrong kind of evidence. I suspect Christopher Hitchens' main problem is that he'd never thought through properly what evidence for God actually means, and how it might be different from the more simplistic evidence found in empirical science. Never once did I ever hear Christopher Hitchens tell us what he thinks good evidence is, what makes good evidence good, how belief in God differs from knowledge of the empirical world, and what he thinks would be satisfactory evidence for God.

"Philosophy begins where religion ends, just as by analogy chemistry begins where alchemy runs out, and astronomy takes the place of astrology."

The analogy of alchemy and astrology to their better counterparts is misjudged in relation to religion's relationship with philosophy. Philosophy doesn't begin where religion ends - religious enquiry is a key part of philosophy because the question of how we enquire is essential to what we conclude, and this is evidently true of Christopher Hitchens' anti-religion enquiries too. It appears to me that in saying "Philosophy begins where religion ends", Hitchens excuses himself from having to give the God debate a proper analysis. For a man who was so verbose on the subject, he said so few things of any profundity.

"The idea of a utopian state on earth, perhaps modelled on some heavenly ideal, is very hard to efface and has led people to commit terrible crimes in the name of the ideal."

Indeed it has - but this is only an appeal to the most obvious of human sensibilities. Of course it is reprehensible when people commit terrible crimes to pursue some kind of dastardly personal agenda, but Hitchens knows full well that the majority of people, both believers and unbelievers, unite in finding such behaviour shameful. His point is as banal as if he had said "The idea of high street banking based on some ideal of financial institutions for our capital is very hard to efface and has led people to become bank robbers".

Does Hitchens at least acknowledge that we are trying to achieve a better world, or that it is a conceivable goal to achieve a better world? If so, then I see no reason why the most excellent principles of goodness that we can summon up need not be our main driving force in the world.

"To believe in a god is in one way to express a willingness to believe in anything".

I don't know whether Christopher Hitchens was any good at arithmetic, but if we were to quantify the two sets (things believed in and things not believed in things), and then work out how many things there are that are believed in differently between theists and atheists, and then work out the number of things that both the theist and the atheist do not believe in, I am certain that the differences in the latter amount to a number much higher than the differences in the former.

Moreover, as I showed in my criticism of Richard Dawkins' belief-o-meter, the only God you find atheists rejecting is the kind of god (small g) that almost no sensible theist believes in anyway, so all Christopher Hitchens is saying is To believe in the kind of god I have in mind is in one way to express a willingness to believe in anything". Yes, well, given the kind of absurd caricature Hitchens creates as a god to reject, I can quite believe that people who can believe in such a god can believe in almost anything.

Final Thought
Dawkins and Hitchens repeatedly tell us why they think God does not exist with apparently witty and clever sound-bytes - but frankly the distortions, strawman caricatures and poor reasoning are so clumsy that it really beggars belief that so many people hold them up as spokespeople for reason and rationality on matters of faith. Here's my rule of thumb as a starting consideration for discussing God:

The God one accepts or denies is only likely to be as intellectually tenable as the intellectual tenability of the person holding those ideas. 
JK

If you want to think seriously about the existence of God - and it does require lots of serious thought - you can do much better than these two.


Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Minimum Wage Rise: Why It's A Bad Idea


The minimum wage debate has emerged again today, with current talk of adding 50p (or in some quarters, a £1) onto the current hourly minimum wage of £6.31. The Liberal Democrats are keen (as ever), largely because their economics sucks; and now David Cameron is keen(ish), largely because (I suspect) he wants to gain some popularity with working class voters. Vince Cable (as ever) shows there’s no end to his arithmetical incompetence by hoping that “the increase will be generous”. As I’ve explained comprehensively in previous Blog posts (specifically here, but also here), this is not to be advised, as every generous increase hits employers disproportionately; it hits small businesses even worse, and it is disastrous for the majority of low-skilled workers on whom the minimum wage has a prohibitive effect (an effect that no politician seems to pick up on).

Worst of all in this is the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who has conflated two kinds of madness by wanting the 50p added to the minimum wage, but also wanting people on benefits to work for those benefits. The latter idea isn’t entirely without merit at an intrinsic level, but when being endorsed alongside the endorsement of the minimum wage, it is preposterous in its lack of proficiency.

To see why the minimum wage is a bad thing, let's see why people think it's a good thing. In doing this we’ll then see the absurd inconsistency behind Iain Duncan Smith’s thinking. People think the minimum wage is a good thing because they think that making it illegal to work for less than £6.31 an hour helps unskilled workers in the labour market who aren’t, in their opinion, earning enough (I notice though they usually don't mind under 18s working for £3.21 per hour).  I know why governments allow £3.21 per hour for under 18s - it's supposed to encourage employers to take on youths and help youths start in employment. But that suggests that a young man of 18 needs the work more than, say, a man of 24 who can't find work* because his skills are only worth, say, £5.50 per hour in the employment market (bear in mind that an over-supply of unskilled labour reduces its hourly value).

Quite evidently, as even those with a basic grasp of arithmetic and probability could tell you - to make it illegal to work for less than £6.31 an hour doesn't help unskilled workers whose labour value is £5.50 per hour - it makes the situation harder for them and all those like them (people who far outnumber the beneficiaries of the minimum wage, by the way). To show how absurd it is, suppose the government imposed a mandatory car sales law; from now on it is illegal to sell a car for less than £3000. Jack has a car worth no more than £1500. Do you think he'd welcome the mandatory car sales law? The answer is obviously, no. But minimum wage proponents must, I assume, think it would help Jack because he'll get to sell a car for double what it is worth. In reality though, he won't be able to sell it at all - because the government's mandatory £3000 car-sales law won't make Jack's car be worth more than £1500, nor will it increase anyone's value of it. The law would effectively prohibit Jack from selling his car.

Similarly, the minimum wage doesn't make an unskilled worker whose labour value is £5.50 per hour more desirable or valuable to employers, it simply excludes those workers from the labour market. You may say that what it actually does is force employers to pay people more than they are worth, but labour rates of value are not set by governments, they are set by supply and demand - so in reality those being over-paid are costing the country more. Of course, I understand that we desire people to be paid more (I desire it too) but for every one person the minimum wage helps, it hinders tens of others by making it illegal for them to sell their labour in what is a free market that near-perfectly matches cost of labour with supply of labour and demand for that labour. The stark irony is that by imposing a £6.31 per minimum wage the government must think it's better for someone to be on the dole than working for £6.30 per hour. Somehow I don't think that's really helping all the people for whom that desire is realistic.

The minimum wage is sold as a positive thing because it is supposed to guard against slave labour - but ironically, now Iain Duncan Smith is introducing all these 'work for your jobseekers allowance' policies, he is the generator of slave labour. Does he really think that not allowing someone to work in Tesco's for £6.30 an hour and instead forcing them on the dole where he'll get them to work in Tesco's for their jobseekers allowance is better for them than letting them work for £6.30 an hour? If he does (and the above strongly indicts him on this) then he must be a good candidate for Britain’s most incompetent politician.

Moreover, the minimum wage doesn't actually stop people working for less than the value of £6.31 an hour - it only stops them ‘earning’ less than £6.31 per hour.  To see why, consider that I'm not allowed by law to hire a professional (currently) out-of-work painter to paint my fence for £6.30 an hour, but I'm allowed to do it myself, no doubt doing a worse job than the professional, and being worth less than £6.30 per hour for those skills (although ironically costing me more in time if my working salary in my day job is £15 per hour or £20 per hour). My friend makes cards and sells them for £2.00 each. She makes 3 per hour, which is a £6 hourly rate. The government doesn't stop her doing this - but if she wanted to work in her local card shop for £6.00 per hour the government wouldn't let her. This kind of madness must be exposed more ubiquitously.

The minimum wage is arbitrary in its ethical considerations because it only stops a small proportion of work below £6.31 per hour (I can paint, cook, etc - but I'll bet my painting and cooking is not worth £6.31 per hour to anyone else) and it restricts the thing that makes the free market most fruitful - division of labour in accordance with supply and demand. The benefits of a minimum wage are evident and obvious, but the costs are greater, and much less obvious, which is why you only tend to hear people talking about the benefits, and making out that those benefits alone amount to the policy being efficient. That’s like saying that a burglar breaking in your house and stealing your possessions by smashing your back window is good for you because it gets you to buy a new window with better locks.

Apparently George Osborne is reluctant to increase the minimum wage because it could “destabilise the labour market and damage the coalition’s record on job creation”. I hope, on this issue, his colleague David Cameron listens to him, because he is much more right than his somewhat timorous reservation suggests.

* Why this assumption is made is beyond me, as an unemployed person of 24 is probably in more desperate need for work and a career than an 18 year old.

** Photo courtesy of addictinginfo.com

Monday, 6 January 2014

What Made Us Bigger? Maybe You Weren't Expecting This....


After writing about fat tax in my last Blog post, there were a few comments suggesting that we don't have a nation of over-eaters - we, in fact, have a lot of depressed people turning to junk food, and that obesity is a symptom of psychological maladjustments.

I feel satisfied that I argued that that isn't the case by explaining the cost-benefit analysis related to eating bad foods - and, of course, one only need to look at the vastly increasing sales levels of beer, fast food, junk food and ready meals to see that consumption has been volitional. But to take it further I thought I'd consider what has caused this proliferation in appetite and consumption to gradually increase as it has.

When I was a young boy there was only one size of fries in McDonald's, and the same was true of milkshakes. Nowadays you can have 'medium', 'large', 'extra large, 'supersize' and maybe even larger (forgive me, I don't recall all the variations exactly, but you get the point - portions have grown). This leads to the inevitable 'which came first? - what we could call the 'Chicken' Supreme and 'Egg' McMuffin question. Did increased weight and big demand cause increased meal sizes, or did increased meal sizes cause increased weight and big demand? I'm not sure, but the former explanation strikes me as being more likely, as it doesn't seem probable that McDonald's would have just increased their portions on a whim to get us fat - much more likely that they responded to demand (perhaps there was an increase in two portions bought).

That being the case, though, what caused the cause - that is, what caused the increased weight that caused the surge in demand? Here's a plausible answer, which I'm not sure is right, but it might well be, judging by eating habits I've observed and things I've heard people say. My suspicion is that the primary cause of increased obesity is low fat foods. While that sounds counter-intuitive, I think it stands to reason - after all, we know beyond reasonable doubt that increased contraception is a catalyst in increased unwanted pregnancies, and that the introduction of low strength alcoholic drinks is a catalyst in increased binge drinking*, so it stands to reason that the same would apply to junk foods.

What's probably happening is that low fat or low sugar junk foods make it more rational to be overweight than high fat and high sugar foods. Here's why. If you buy a really high-in-fat meal like a lamb moussaka from Tesco's or a doner kebab from your local kebab shop, you've probably added as many grams of fat to your body that several bags of crisps or ready made pizzas would add onto you. Tom might not think it worth putting on those extra grams of fat for the pleasure of just one lamb moussaka or donor kebab, but if for the same amount of weight gain he can eat 3 ready made pizzas and 3 bags of crisps he might well think that those extra grams are worth it for the totality of pleasure that all that junk food brings. Suppose, though, that a lot of people would still rather eat more healthily that follow Tom's thinking - even 3 ready made pizzas and 3 bags of crisps might not tempt them. But then along comes low fat crisps and low fat pizza, along with low-fat desserts, low sugar soft drinks, and so forth. Then things change. Now the deal is; for a few grams of added fat, Tom can have a lot more pleasure, eating loads of low fat crisps, pizzas and desserts - and with this possibility in front of him there would come a point when he thought it worth the weight gain for such a lot of pleasure.

So, although it's rather counter-intuitive, I think, along with rising incomes, less exercise, more leisure time and possibly fewer smokers (these are all lateral factors, I'd say) the most likely explanation for increased obesity might well be an increase in available low-fat and low-sugar foods and drinks - amounting to a tipping point whereby many people have gone on to prefer a sustained weight-inducing indulgence with the pay-off of plenty of eating pleasure, and in the process being prepared to add a bit of weight around the hips, stomach and chin. 

* The reason being: contraception means safer sex, which means more people having sex, which then increases the number of unwanted pregnancies (apply this logic to low strength alcoholic drinks and the same applies)

** Photo courtesy of lifewithgreens.com

Sunday, 5 January 2014

If We Must Tax Fatness, Tax Fat People In Hospital, Not At The Supermarket

Christmas is over now – and like almost everyone else over the festive season, I’m sure you’ve indulged excessively in food and drink that’s bad for you - I know I have.

The current government is often banging on about fat people, and how it wants them slimmer because of all the extra strain they place on the NHS. Higher tax on junk food is one of David Cameron and George Osborne's favourite methods (as well as extra tax on alcohol).

To me it's obvious where they are going wrong - they are only looking at costs and ignoring benefits.  To see why eating unhealthy food and drinking alcohol obviously confers plenty of benefits in the form of pleasure, consider the disadvantages of them - they cost money, but they also cost you some of your health, your life expectancy, some energy, your figure, and they give you extra chins. But despite those costs being incurred, people still freely choose to indulge in them - and the reason is obvious; the pleasures of consumption outweigh (pun intended) all those costs.

So long as people have the freedom to make their own choices, then those people in the UK who are fat are those who have decided the pleasures outweigh the negatives. Alas, things aren't quite so straightforward. If the government does not tax obesity or subsidise it, then the number of fat people in the UK would be the right number (that is, it would be all those whose decisions were based solely on a cost-benefit analysis). Sadly, the government makes the mistake of doing both - it taxes people in the supermarket and it subsidises them in the hospital.

Because the NHS is free at the point of delivery (thanks to National Insurance revenue), obese people do not pay the actual value of their obesity - the cost of the NHS is diffused across the spectrum of all people, the heavy and the light. In fact, given that healthier people tend to be richer, the cost is actually disproportionately lopsided on the side of healthy people. In short, to a large extent (again, pun intended) those in good health are subsidising those who pig out on junk food.  

To compound the frustration, tax at the supermarket (increased VAT on junk foods) doesn't just penalise fat and unhealthy people, it penalises everyone - so that doesn't make things any fairer, as many healthy people enjoy the occasional bar of chocolate and a bag of crisps but pay extra for it due to a fat tax, aimed not at them, but at those they are subsidising in the hospital.

A much fairer way for David Cameron and George Osborne to tax obesity would be to implement the charge at the level of NHS protocols, whereby the State still pays for everyone's basic healthcare out of National Insurance revenue - but when metabolic disorders like type-2 diabetes occur due to over-eating or excessive junk food (or when liver failure occurs because of excessive alcohol consumption), that cost is then borne as a surcharge cost by the person who indulged excessively.

This has a benefit on top of the benefit of getting the obese people to fund their own indulgences - it gives those who value money over indulgence the incentive to cut down, and it also means that anyone who ends up obese has done so because they considered the newly implemented financial costs (as well as the other costs) to be worth it for the pleasures of their consumption. That really would result in a nation of happy eaters - fat and thin!

* Photo courtesy of LoveHR

Friday, 3 January 2014

Don't Nationalise The Rail Industry!

 
If you're a Brit reading this, it's a pretty safe bet to say you'd hate to see the NHS privatised, wouldn't you? I know what you mean - it's a wonderful thing, isn't it - national insurance contributions making health service free at the point of delivery. Although personally I wouldn't want to see it privatised in one foul swoop just yet, there aren’t many things I want to see remain in the hands of the government.

You see, in net terms even the health service would be more efficient if it were privatised (take Singapore's health service as the nearest case in point) with people able to keep their money instead of paying it in NI contributions. The NHS costs are so high primarily because it is so inefficiently used - and the reason it is so inefficiently used is because it’s free at the point of delivery, so there's no financial incentive to minimise one's health and well-being.

To give you an illustration, imagine the government nationalised all food and asked us all to only eat what we needed - we'd be a nation of severe overeaters (we are already, and that's when we pay for our food). That said, despite the health service ideal, where incentives are locked in place, we just don't have the collective wherewithal to optimise this model, which is why I favour a State-funded NHS.

In just about every other instance in the UK, in just about every decade, privatisation has proved far more efficient for the economy and for the taxpayer than services run by the government, or services too heavily subsidised – and that’s an almost ineluctable law in economics. The reasons are standard textbook stuff.  Privatised companies have a much greater incentive than government-run companies to spend efficiently and reduce profligacy.

Not only are governments wasteful (people generally spend other people's money more carelessly than their own) - they do business in accordance with party politics and political pressures from the electorate, as well as subsiding or bailing out failing industries. Furthermore, investment in the rail industry is more proficient when governments aid private companies rather than running it themselves, as economic management that extends long-term is not always good for point-scoring in general elections.

Shareholders are good agents for profit-inducement, which means you usually get better managers in the private sector. Where there is inefficiency, the best recourse is a takeover or switching to competing forces, not State bailouts which are so often inefficient, party-based and largely ideology-driven.

But most of all, increase in competition is proven to be the greatest catalyst for efficiency and improved services. Competition is hard in the rail industry (even these regional franchises don't entirely guard against monopoly power) - but the government needs to do more to engender competition, not take steps backwards to the old days of nationalisation.

Lastly, profits make for a tiny proportion of the rail industry's investors - for example, staff costs alone are about 25% compared with 3-5% profits. The politicians in favour of nationalisation fail at basic rationality when they allude to a public sector profit in one region as evidence for greater efficiency than the private sector in other regions (that’s as injudicious as saying that all restaurants should be nationalised because city hall’s restaurant makes more profit for local government than privately owned restaurants in the nearby high street).

And they fail at basic arithmetic when they count railway labour costs (always the headline-grabbing ‘jobs’) as part of the benefits rather than part of the costs. Those 25% staff costs are borne by the taxpayer in public sectors and by the company in private sectors - but it doesn’t end there – not only are they costs that are only borne by nationalisation – with government expenditure we have to include pension contributions, sick pay, holiday pay, human resources costs, and so forth that aren't factored into the balance sheet, they are costs that carry on through all employees’ working life and henceforth thereafter – and it is either disingenuous or plain incompetent to omit them from the enquiry.

No, while nationalisation has the occasional success story - this usually occurs when the State has come in to take over from a failing private sector firm (and please note: a bad private firm does not logically necessitate a slightly better public sector agent, it necessitates a much better private firm) – history has continually shown that it is not to be preferred to the much more efficient market of competition, enterprise and diversity.

 
EDIT TO ADD: As is usually the case, the measure of success is in the evidence. Here's evidence that the number of rail passengers has doubled in the times of privatisation, following years of decline under the State: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rail_transport_in_Great_Britain#mediaviewer/File:GBR_rail_passenegers_by_year.gif

* Photo courtesy of bbc.co.uk
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