Monday, 27 October 2014

And so it begins

Just over a month since the election, and National are making the labour laws on things like tea-breaks more “flexible”. This doesn’t mean the workers will be able to flex them, obviously. Only the employer. Oh, but it’s all right, they can only take your tea-break away if you agree to it. No coercion there. After all, it’s not like they control your weekly wage or can hold the veiled threat of dismissal over your head or anything, is it?
I can see how they’ll argue it from here. It’ll be “Let the market sort it out” – the idea that if you don’t like the conditions your employer offers you can go find another job somewhere else. It’s Economics 101. And, like Economics 101, it ignores the fact that labour supply is negatively elastic. People work more hours when their pay is low, so they can be sure they’ve got enough cash to cover their needs; they take time off when it’s high and they can afford it. That means the employer gets more work out of them by offering less in exchange for it, which means that the law of supply and demand will always push wages and conditions straight down to the bottom. I’ve argued this before, more than once. It is something that those who run this country, and those who vote for them, urgently need to understand.
What’s the alternative? For now, I’ll settle for keeping the government-mandated regulations we have, or used to have, on what wages and conditions are acceptable. In the long term, however, the problem is that while “flexible” very easily (as here) becomes a weasel word for “exploitative”, it does refer to something real as well. Different workplaces operate under different constraints. No one size fits all. So if the market won’t fix the problem, what will? Dare I suggest democracy might? I don’t mean democracy via parliament, I mean direct democracy. I mean workers owning equal shares in the company, setting company policy, voting executives in and out.
Yes, if you are the kind of person to whom a company is something you own rather than something that tells you what to do, this would be a bit of a shock to the system. By all means argue against the idea. But let’s be clear: what you stand to lose is neither more nor less nor other than your personal power over a bunch of other people’s lives. If you think that makes you sound like the bad guy, you might want to think very carefully about that. Don’t come complaining to me. You hold your employees’ well-being, present and future, in the palm of your hand. You don’t want that? Give it back to them.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The “context” doesn’t always make it better

When Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism wrote this post about being an atheist but not working against religion, I started drafting a reply. But that was three weeks ago, and other things have taken up my attention in the meantime. Then Sam Harris posted this complaint about having his words (from The End of Faith) taken out of context in an image meme. And he provided what he considered to be the necessary context. The thing is, the context doesn’t actually make him look much better. I do think that religion in general is something that should be opposed, and some day I’ll get around to explaining why. But it is much more important that Sam Harris’s kind of atheism be opposed. I’ll give you the full passage, with the offending sentence in bold. Content note: violence, casual reference to torture, fear tactics targeting a non-Western religion.
The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:
Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.
What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.
The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

Note on the above:
We do not have to bring the membership of al-Qaeda “to justice” merely because of what happened on Sept 11, 2001. The thousands of men, women, and children who disappeared in the rubble of the World Trade Centre are beyond our help – and successful acts of retribution, however satisfying they may be to some people, will not change this fact. Our subsequent actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere are justified because of what will happen to more innocent people if members of al-Qaeda are allowed to go on living by the light of their peculiar beliefs. The horror of Sept 11 should motivate us, not because it provides us with a grievance that we now must avenge, but because it proves beyond any possibility of doubt that certain twenty-first-century Muslims actually believe the most dangerous and implausible tenets of their faith.
Sam Harris, The End of Faith, cited by the author in On the Mechanics of Defamation
I hadn’t read The End of Faith before. Otago University’s copy is housed in a special collection of books on religious topics which for historical reasons is outside the campus and bothersome to get to. If I had read this passage before now, I would have held Harris in much lower esteem than I did up until he blogged it. Honestly, I’m mystified as to what part of the “context” he provides is supposed to make it any better to suggest it might ever be OK to kill people for their beliefs. Granted that a person’s beliefs motivate their action to an extent that nothing else does; still, belief in turn is contingent upon circumstances, as the gratuitously horrifying analogy Harris himself opens with should have demonstrated (what would have been wrong with Steven Pinker’s illustration of the same point, “Your car is being towed”?). One way belief can change is through rational conversation, albeit usually some time after the fact, but I can think of no strategy better designed to close the doors on rational conversation than to suggest you might be justified in killing your interlocutor for their beliefs. A more common reason for belief to change is that the new belief makes better sense of the believer’s life experience than the old one, but if the old one is “Westerners are evil and must be destroyed”, then a pronouncement like Harris’s is only going to confirm it.
There was a time when it was generally accepted that it was reasonable to kill someone for their beliefs. Then people changed their minds about that, and there’s a reason why that change of mind was called “the Enlightenment”. Yes, I know that Europeans used the gains they enjoyed from killing each other less to consolidate their power and go and harass the rest of the world. Nevertheless, Enlightenment sceptics didn’t go around killing Christians. Or suggesting killing Christians. Or saying it would be ethical to kill Christians if they couldn’t capture them. Considering what Catholics and Protestants as groups at that time earnestly believed they needed to do to sceptics, as well as to “witches” and each other, by Harris’s standards the sceptics’ conduct was needlessly and indeed foolhardily restrained. Does Harris – does anyone – think civilization would have been better advanced if they’d taken up arms?
Harris might answer that those are pragmatic considerations, bearing on the wisdom of saying that it’s ethical to kill some people for their beliefs rather than on whether it’s true. Harris and I have different views of what constitutes the ethical, of course. I agree with him that the basic measure of goodness is subjective well-being. And my view on subjective consciousness allows at least the theoretical possibility of aggregating and comparing well-being across multiple subjects (Harris’s view, that consciousness is irreducibly and unfathomably mysterious, would rule this out). But ethics is not just about what circumstances would, in theory, be best, if only they could happen. It’s about what actions on our part will bring about the best result. For this purpose there is no getting around the fact that you can’t measure well-being in practice. You have to factor your uncertainty, and other people’s uncertainty about you, into your calculations. In the end it works out to maximizing trust and minimizing fear. If someone is actively trying to kill you or other innocent people, killing them might in many tragic cases be the best you can do; but attacking first creates fear, not trust, and is therefore unethical. I can’t quite believe that actually needed saying.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Why my gender sometimes embarrasses me

I want to be clear right from the get-go: this post is addressed to men. I have no intention of adding to the internet’s glutted store of earnest male advice to feminists about the delicate intricacies of men’s sexual feelings. They’ve heard it all before, a million times. No, I’m facing the other way. Men need to understand why their sexual feelings don’t impose any obligations on women. I doubt I’ll convince any MRAs or rapists. My target audience is guys who sincerely believe that mostly the genders are treated pretty much equally in our society, give or take a few institutional holdovers from the past. And I’m hoping (or wanting, at least, I’m not terribly optimistic) to reach some of those who draw the conclusion that all this “free and willing consent” stuff was thought up by angry lesbians who just don’t understand men’s Needs. Well, I understand men’s Needs, and I say free and willing consent is a moral necessity.
So there’s a secret group on Facebook, based at my place of work, where male students get signed up to share nude photos of their partners that the partners haven’t consented to have shared. That isn’t consent, if you’re wondering. That is sexual assault. What had me facepalming, though, was that apparently they framed this as a way to show “respect and appreciation” for women. At which, let me tell you, all the women I’ve heard mention it simply boggle. It’s unbelievable. You don’t show respect for someone by displaying their body to strangers without their consent. Well, it would be unbelievable, that is, if I hadn’t met similar attitudes before.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Special votes are in

And it looks like the Greens have gained a seat and National have lost one. This means National no longer have an absolute majority. However, Act, i.e. David Seymour, is likely to support their changes to the Resource Management Act and the employment laws and pretty much everything else they want to do, so I’m not celebrating very hard.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Don’t ask questions if you don’t want the answers

Back in August I blogged about a lecture on the “obesity epidemic”. Since then (under the roar of the election) it’s become clear that the scientific consensus, at least within the Health Sciences Division of the University of Otago, is that
  • Obesity is a major contributing cause of a lot of health problems, most especially Type 2 diabetes
  • The Body Mass Index (BMI) is a reasonable measure for most people, as long as you use a bit of common sense about people with high muscle mass
  • What determines your BMI is a simple matter of calories in minus calories out; where complications arise is in what determines calories in and calories out
  • However, shouting at people to eat less and exercise more accomplishes little to nothing
As I think I’ve said before, the scientific consensus is not always right. For about half a century after somebody thought up the idea of continental drift, the scientific consensus was that it was silly. Now it’s the underlying explanatory theory of geology, or rather plate tectonics, which explains why continents drift, is. However, the scientific consensus is always a better bet than politically-motivated maverick hypotheses. So I’m sorry, I can no longer endorse arguments against fat-shaming which rest on the BMI being nonsense, or weight being unrelated to diet and exercise, or weight being irrelevant to general health. Not until you show me well-evidenced scientific studies showing that (as it might be) weight is a confounder for the effects of diet and exercise, or something.
I think it is reasonable, however, to draw the conclusion that the free market is failing horribly to distribute food in anything like an optimal manner. The human brain’s appetite networks are not calibrated for a world where you can get fat and sugar on tap and you don’t have to walk ten kilometres a day if you don’t want to. We who live in developed countries consume more than is good for us and expend less energy than is good for us. That’s not so much a matter of us being wealthy – these effects hit the poor in unequal developed countries hardest – as of us being urbanized, industrialized, having work schedules that rely on pre-processed foods which give us a quick hit of energy to the brain. Meanwhile as people continue to starve in undeveloped countries, supermarkets throw food away by the tonne on the pretext of it not being “fresh”, and then prosecute people who retrieve it. I don’t believe most of the scaremongering that goes on around genetically engineered foods (because science, again) but I don’t think they’re going to solve nutrition poverty in the undeveloped world. Those GM supercrops are just going to end up in Western supermarket dumpsters.
So capitalism is not doing what it’s supposed to. But the one alternative to capitalism that anybody’s seriously tried in the past couple of centuries, that of course being communism, did even worse. That’s partly because queuing is not such a great system of goods distribution either, but it’s also in large part because they let their politics dictate their agricultural science. Crops were supposed to grow stronger if planted close together, out of class solidarity, you see. It didn’t work out. Can we please start letting the evidence drive our thinking, instead of the other way around?