Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Am I a benefit fraudster?

Campaigning is finally getting going in New Zealand in preparation for September’s general election. In the weekend, Metiria Turei, the co-leader of the Green Party and my first choice for Prime Minister, admitted that back in the ’90s she lied to Work & Income New Zealand (WINZ) in order to get enough money to keep her young child fed. The context was that she was announcing a new Green Party policy on the social welfare benefit intended to ensure that no-one has to go through the same thing again.

After five years I am still grateful every day to have a part-time, seasonal job that gives me – most of the time – enough money to save that I don’t have to go back on the benefit. (Living with a partner who bought her house before the pricing bubble is also a critical factor, and I don’t express my gratitude for that often enough either.) I’ve previously been employed as the editor of a very small monthly student magazine which then went out of circulation due to the present Government making student association membership opt-in instead of opt-out in their first term; I loved that job too, but even with full membership the students’ association couldn’t afford to pay me enough to live, and I had to supplement it with the sickness benefit and, for two of those years, the student allowance.

I didn’t start out on the sickness benefit. I borrowed my way through university hoping to become an academic, but I suffered depression and sleep disorders and couldn’t cope with the energy demands of graduate study, so I ended up on the unemployment benefit. Back then, and I think it’s only gotten worse since, that meant you had to apply for two different jobs per day and bring proof of it in to regular meetings with your case-worker. That was how I discovered that I have a social anxiety condition. I physically couldn’t do it. I had to get counselling later for the terror I came to feel just opening the automated e-mails I’d signed up to with lists of job vacancies. Besides, given my life history then, I didn’t believe anyone would ever want me to work for them, only “believe” is far too weak a word. I just wasn’t a person who could persuade someone to employ them, with the same certainty as that I wasn’t a person who could get pregnant and give birth.

That caused a misunderstanding which nearly lost me my benefit, actually. I had a blog back then on LiveJournal which was mostly me saying “Sorry, nothing to blog about today,” but one day I wrote something along the lines of “Oh well, back to pretending to look for work tomorrow,” and was very shortly called in for an urgent meeting with my case-worker. I managed to explain to her what I really meant that time. But the unemployment benefit had a strict time limit, and despite the mandatory “how to get a job” workshops they sent me to, I eventually ran over it. I got called in again and told I was going to lose my dole. I had prepared a bunch of counter-arguments to present, but instead I had a shutdown and couldn’t speak and I think I sat there sort of rocking and crying silently, which was when my case-worker referred me to the sickness benefit instead.

The process of getting the sickness benefit was slightly more complicated, but considerably more pleasant, than getting the unemployment benefit. You needed six-monthly medical certificates, which involved regular doctors’ visits, but doctors unlike WINZ staff are kind to their patients and will generally take your word that you’re not lying about your symptoms. (Some WINZ staff have worse attitudes than others, but all of them work in a system which rewards suspicion and punishes empathy.) You do have to be getting assistance with your condition if assistance is available, and that’s how I ended up getting referred to the graduate clinical psychology student who diagnosed me with Asperger’s syndrome – as it was still called in 2005 – and the succession of students who helped me learn ways to overcome some of the difficulties the condition presents.

Here’s the thing, though. To get the sickness benefit your doctor had to explain on the reapplication form, every six months, how your condition prevented you from working in full-time employment. I would tell them that I still suffered from depression and that I had time management issues. These statements weren’t false, but they also weren’t the real reason why I couldn’t get work. There wasn’t an option on the form for “This person is able to work but their social disabilities and anxieties prevent them from applying for jobs anywhere near as often as they would have to in order to stand a chance of actually landing one.” My depression is mild enough that I can keep it at bay nearly all the time without pharmaceutical assistance, which I know is better fortune than many people enjoy. With counselling I’ve learned to manage time well enough that I actually reliably turn up for the beginnings of lectures, an improvement which would astonish anyone who knew me as a student.

So what do you think? Should I have been kicked off the sickness benefit because the difficulties my condition actually caused fell between the cracks of the official criteria? Does that make me a benefit fraudster? Or is the problem an overly harsh, strict, and dismissive social welfare system? What does that imply for other welfare beneficiaries in New Zealand? We have a growing problem with poverty; what does this experience say about its causes? I think I have a pretty good idea. And I have a pretty good idea who to vote for this September.

Monday, 17 July 2017

A philosophical quibble to upend the global order

One thing I like about philosophy is how often I can find real-world applications for it. I guess that’s because it’s so abstract, compared with, say (to pick another of my interests), zoology. It is very unlikely that I will ever find a use for my knowledge that elephants have two distinct charging behaviours, one when they’re charging to threaten and the other when they intend to kill. Cats and dogs and rabbits just aren’t the same. On the other hand, it’s a rare week when I don’t have to think about essentialism, or game theory, or survivorship bias, or some other concept at the intersection of philosophy and mathematics, for some reason or another.

Recently I came across a singularly important philosophical paradox. Oh, its importance isn’t instantly obvious. To be honest, at first glance it looks footling, one of those little quibbles that just go to show philosophers need to get out in the fresh air a bit more. I’ll take you through it first, but let me assure you: the deepest, most fundamental question in global politics for the last thirty years hangs on the resolution to this paradox. But I have to tell you what the paradox is first, before I can explain how. It’s called the Mere Addition Problem, or alternatively the Repugnant Conclusion. Here to explain it is the philosopher Julia Galef (whose work I regret not discovering years ago):

In case you scrolled past that without playing it, the problem is the three contradictory premises, all of which seem reasonable, but which can’t all be true. Galef phrases them as follows:

  1. Creating new people with lives worth living doesn’t make things worse.
  2. Increasing total and average happiness makes things better.
  3. A smaller number of very happy people is preferable to a larger number of unhappy people.

Consider three possible worlds. First, a world with a small number of very, very happy people. Second, a world with that same number of very, very happy people, plus a similar number of other people who are just kind of contented, but not actively unhappy. Third, a world with the same total number of people as the second world, who are all just a little bet less happy than the very-very-happy people but a whole lot happier than the kind-of-contented people. Now according to premise (1), the first world is no better than the second world. According to premise (2), the third world is better than the second world. But that means the third world is also better than the first world – a larger number of less happy people is better than a smaller number of very happy people – which contradicts premise (3). Look, it all makes sense with Galef’s visual aids, I promise.

This is called the Mere Addition Paradox because all you’re doing with premise (1) is “merely adding” people to the world, who just happen not to be as happy as the people already in it. It’s called the Repugnant Conclusion because, if you go through the same reasoning several times over, you end up concluding that a world with a vast population so unhappy they have just one thing keeping them from suicide is better than a world with a tiny population whose lives are healthy, fulfilling, exciting, and blissful. Mind you, given only those premises, it is possible to cheat our way out of the paradox, because there are a couple of additional premises which are necessary for the Repugnant Conclusion to follow:

  1. The law of transitivity applies to goodness.
  2. There is no threshold of happiness (above the zero point of “I’d rather be dead”) at which this logic stops working.

I say “cheat our way out” because, although we can avoid the Repugnant Conclusion if either one of these is false, either way we end up not making much sense. To falsify premise (5), we would not only need to quantify a threshold of happiness below which the logic did stop working; we would also need to specify which of the other premises broke down at that threshold and why. So that gives us a whole lot of extra work figuring out how to quantify happiness, and gets us no closer to a solution than we already were.

Premise (4) looks more promising at first sight. “The law of transitivity” is a jargony, technical sort of term; it looks like it means something complicated and esoteric. Actually all it means is the simple rule that if Thing A is better than Thing B, and Thing C is not better than Thing B, then Thing A must also be better than Thing C – in whatever sense we might be using the word “better”. So, for instance, if democracy is better than absolute monarchy, and military dictatorship is not better than absolute monarchy, it follows that democracy is better than military dictatorship. If solar power is better than gas, and coal is not better than gas, it follows that solar power is better than coal. If Wonder Woman is better than Batman v. Superman, and Suicide Squad is not better than Batman v. Superman, then Wonder Woman is better than Suicide Squad. If teriyaki beef is better than cheese-on-toast, and baked beans are not better than cheese-on-toast, then teriyaki beef is better than baked beans. Without a rule like that, we’d have to compare every possible pair of alternatives independently to determine which was the better of the two. It would be impossible to generalize about what makes one thing better than another, and hence meaningless to compare hypotheticals like the made-up worlds in the Mere Addition Problem. Any attempt at reasoning about values would boggle. Premise (4) stands.

Let me now clear up a further red herring – an attack on the problem which does make a certain amount of sense but doesn’t remove the Repugnant Conclusion. It goes “I’m not a utilitarian. Morality isn’t the same as maximizing happiness.” I, for instance, think morality is about maximizing trust rather than happiness. The reason this doesn’t work here is that the Mere Addition Problem is about goodness rather than morality. These two concepts are related but not the same. Morality is an intensely practical matter; it poses questions of the form “What shall I do?” If I answer “Earn people’s trust,” well, the way to do that is to consistently do good for other people, so I’m still left asking “What counts as ‘good’?” – which is the question that the Repugnant Conclusion raises problems for.

If you don’t make the subtle distinction between goodness and morality, you might think you had found another way to disarm the Repugnant Conclusion: “Creating worlds and manipulating people’s happiness by way of experiment is deeply immoral anyway.” I’d be inclined to agree. You, the Manipulator of Worlds, might personally know that you would never intentionally use your power to create misery, but you can’t reasonably expect your subjects – who live or die, rejoice or suffer, at your merest whim – to have the same certainty. By holding that power at all you create a situation in which you cannot be trusted. But the Repugnant Conclusion doesn’t in fact depend on the supposition that you (or anyone) are responsible for the existence of the world, its people, or their happiness. The unfortunate language used, of “creating” worlds and “adding” people to them, is not necessary to the Problem. As long as the posited worlds and people could conceivably exist, we’re still faced with the question “Which one would be better?”

So we’re back to Galef’s three premises. Which one is wrong? I’m going to eliminate premise (3) from the get-go. If the words “good” and “better” mean anything at all, then a world with a small happy population is better than a world with a large miserable population. Premise (3) is true. The Repugnant Conclusion is false. To call misery better than happiness is to talk nonsense. If that’s goodness, give me evil.

There remain premises (1) and (2), and this is where things begin to get political. I maintain, and will demonstrate, that the great global political question of my lifetime comes down to which one of these premises is false. I believe that policy-makers have chosen the wrong one, and that the disasters of recent decades – global warming, the financial crisis, Donald Trump – are all partly, and some entirely, consequences of that choice.