On disagreement

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

S.G. Tallentyre, The Friends of Voltaire

Disagreements have been with us for as long as people have had opinions, which is to say for as long as there have been people. What is interesting about this historical moment is that thanks to the Internet we can now disagree with people on the other side of the world. Indeed, disagreement has now become a spectator sport on a scale never seen before.

There are broadly three ways one can react to an opinion with which you disagree, You can just shrug, if it’s not something you care about that much. I may think you’re wrong to claim that Sergeant Pepper is the best Beatles album, but frankly I’m not that bothered about it. As my grandfather used to say, “Everyone’s entitled to their own stupid opinion.” Even with social media, I suspect that a lot of shrugging still goes on, but of course the replies that are never posted are effectively invisible.

Alternatively you can try to persuade the other party that they are wrong. This very, very rarely works, but people often try. Abuse certainly never works, although it’s a popular approach. Reasoned argument supported by evidence will very occasionally work, especially if the other party has not decided in advance that this the hill they will die on. But it is surprising how attached people become to their opinions.

Some opinions, indeed, have the character of religious faith. You will never talk someone out of such a tenet. Faith is generally proof against reason, and trying to argue someone out of their beliefs will only irritate them. The best you can do is try to understand what the emotional payoff is for the true believer, and come up with something else that will give them something similar, but this is not always possible.

A conventional economist, for example, will never abandon their faith in endless growth, because it promises that everyone will have goodies forever (everyone probably being defined as the well-to-do, a group that not coincidentally tends to include economists). Since the universe is not in face a limitless sweetie-shop, there is nothing that can deliver that promise, and if that’s what you need to hear then only a fairy-tale will do.

This leads us to the third response to disagreement, which basically means tying someone to a stake and setting fire to them, either literally or metaphorically. If someone finds your view too painful to hear, this is what you will get. The Internet has inevitably led to a great deal of this sort of thing. For some reason, it never occurs to people that they don’t have to read things that they find upsetting. Or else they actually enjoy being upset. I get the impression this is quite common.

After all, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of righteous indignation? Many people feel powerless in their lives; industrial civilisation tends to make us all over-dependent on institutions and corporations over whom we feel we can exercise no control. What better outlet than to take it all out on some individual who is – according to our lights – wrong? By attacking them, we identify ourselves as being not wrong, and therefore exempt from such attacks ourselves.

Typically we also proclaim ourselves as belonging to some group. This is something social primates find satisfying, for excellent reasons that have nothing to do with whatever the notional point of disagreement du jour happens to be. But it is not, in any useful sense, argument.

Those wishing to discredit a point of view sometimes do so by pointing out that some bad person also holds, or held, that view. There was an example of this a few years ago where the Heartland Institute sought to discredit climate change by putting up a billboard stating – correctly – that this opinion was shared by Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber. Now I am not personally acquainted with Mr Kaczynski, but I would be prepared to claim that he would also agree that 1 + 1 = 2, and yet nobody so far as I know has argued that this undermines the basis of arithmetic.

Of course this a silly example, but there is a lot of this kind of thinking about at the moment. There are plenty of people prepared to claim that because person X has some attribute that they find obnoxious, nothing said or done by person X can have any value. Take slave-owning. I don’t know about you, but I’m against it. Does that invalidate the political thought of Thomas Jefferson, or the philosophy of Plato, or for that matter the mathematics of Euclid? The entirety of classical civilisation was built, as a practical matter, on slavery. Nevertheless there are still things of value it can teach us.

Because virtue is increasingly identified with group membership, it becomes impossible to bring any nuance to the discussion. As President George W. Bush so memorably put it, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” But a person can be right about some things and wrong about others. In rejecting an opinion one need not reject the entire person. Indeed, doing so is the most certain way to guarantee that they will not change their view. We must always remember to distinguish the person from their opinions.

Social media might almost have been designed to foster groupthink. (Maybe it actually was, given that it is really a way of harvesting marketing data, and marketeers love segmentation.) People often complain that society is becoming polarised, that people are speaking past one another, that consensus is impossible on almost anything. I don’t believe this is a coincidence.

Of course participation in social media is optional, and it is a perfectly reasonable choice to opt out. I have done this myself. Partly this is is because I suffer from hypertension, but also I would hate this kind of thinking to contaminate my personal relationships – by which I mean the actual human beings with whom I interact in the real world. I want the freedom to agree to disagree.

It will be interesting to see what difference, if any, will be made to this by Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter. Readers of this blog will be aware that I have some fairly major differences of opinion with Mr Musk; it is unlikely, for example, that he and I will ever see eye to eye on the future of electric vehicles. His avowed motive in buying Twitter, however, is to make it a place where all opinions may be freely expressed – a notion which many people seem to find strangely horrifying. Free speech used to be a pillar of liberalism not so long ago.

It would be nice to think that people might grow up a little, given more exposure to diverse opinions. I’m not holding my breath. What worries me is that Twitter will simply start censoring a different set of opinions instead, and we will be back to where we were. We shall see.

You are, of course, perfectly free to disagree with all of this in the comments below….

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On rationality

Of all the ways of defining man, the worst is the one which makes him out to be a rational animal.

Anatole France

As a culture, we are unusually fond of rationality. I blame the ancient Greeks. Economists are very keen to stress how rational everyone is, all of the time, and yet this flies in the face of absolutely everybody’s actual experience of being human and being around other humans. If people really were rational, there would be no $647 billion advertising industry, Las Vegas would be a slightly green patch of desert in the middle of nowhere, and nobody would smoke, drink, fall in love, read fiction, or go to the movies. The world would be a very different – and frankly duller – place.

Of course people do act rationally quite a bit of the time. It’s a rare and newsworthy event when someone deliberately drives on the wrong side of the road, for instance. We can all manage simple calculations of short-term self-interest, because people who can’t tend to get weeded out of the gene pool pretty quickly. Where we struggle is taking longer-term decisions and/or in choosing well in complex scenarios.

A simple example. I am a type 2 diabetic, and also rather overweight. Nevertheless I will still eat things that will make those problems worse, because I enjoy eating them. It’s not at all rational to do this. No amount of chocolate mousse is worth having your foot amputated for. And it isn’t that I don’t know this. Very few obese people are obese because they don’t know what foods make you fat. Rational beings would not have this issue. Look in the street and see how many you can spot.

All this would just be a charming eccentricity of our culture, like the ancient Egyptians worshipping cats, except that it gives us some huge individual and collective blind-spots. One of these is the popular belief that so long as we are given the full information about (say) climate change, we will all do the Right Thing™. This in spite of the fact that I already know everything I need to know about doughnuts – you can actually see the sugar, for goodness’ sake – and yet I still eat them sometimes. The recent Netflix movie Don’t Look Up is largely about this illusion, and I can recommend it as a corrective.

Another popular belief is that the people in charge are rational and well-informed and will therefore do the Right Thing™ when they are making decisions. If you have a sufficiently narrow definition of what is rational, then they are indeed, at least most of the time, rational. The problem is that this leads them to do incredibly stupid things. Given certain assumptions, for example, ghost flights are a rational solution to the problem of airlines losing their slots at airports due to a lack of passengers during the pandemic. At least, they’re a rational solution if you ignore the wasted fuel and the pollution caused by flying aircraft around for no reason other than to satisfy the criteria for keeping a slot. It would have been much better to have suspended the requirement for these flights altogether, but apparently this solution was not on the table.

Again, cutting down the Amazon rain-forest to feed beef cattle is a rational solution if all you care about is feeding (and exporting the meat of) beef cattle. The impact on biodiversity, the climate and indeed atmospheric oxygen is a mere “externality” – economics-speak for “someone else’s problem.” Except, of course, it will be everyone’s problem in due course. This is capitalism doing what it does best: screwing up the planet, one rational decision at a time.

It isn’t really that surprising that people are like this. We can’t hold a comprehensive model of the world in our heads that would allow us to make truly enlightened decisions, for the same reason that snakes can’t tap-dance: from an evolutionary perspective, it isn’t necessary. To a very large extent, we are chimpanzees. We’re quite smart chimpanzees in some ways, but we aren’t that smart. The selection pressures on us have tended to favour individuals who can spot immediate short-term threats and opportunities and act accordingly.

This is not, however, the same thing as being rational. To be truly rational, one would really need to have access to much more information than we actually have, or indeed could cope with if we had it.

The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife. Trin Tragula — for that was his name — was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.

“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.

And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Fortunately we don’t have to depend exclusively on our rational capacities to navigate the universe. We have emotional responses, which have a bad press but which can also serve us pretty well sometimes. The fight-or-flight response has been keeping people alive since well before there were modern humans, and no rational calculation is involved in that.

There is also such a thing as intuition. This is not something we like to talk about in Western culture. It’s all a bit woo-woo. You can’t take it seriously. Damn it, it’s not rational! Still, most people on the planet even today openly subscribe to a view of the world that isn’t rational, and so did most people in the past. Notoriously, there are no atheists in foxholes, and the proportion of us in literal or metaphorical foxholes is only going to increase in the coming years and decades.

If you want to read a truly in-depth exploration of how people actually think, I can highly recommend The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. If, having read that book, you still imagine that human beings are rational, I have a bridge you might want to purchase.

Logic is great, as far as it goes. The problem with it is we can’t take it all that far. If we’re going to cope with life as it is, let alone as it’s going to be, we are going to need all the tools in the box. I’d say the time to start getting familiar with those tools is round about now.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the end of politics

Man is by nature a political animal.

Aristotle, Politics I.ii

When Tony Benn retired from the House of Commons in 2001, he said he was doing so in order to spend more time on politics. Certainly the body which is supposed to represent the mass of the population has increasingly detached itself from reality over the years. In part this is a result of the electoral system in the United Kingdom; today’s “safe seat” is essentially a pocket borough with good PR, that is to say whoever is nominated by the party that owns the seat will be elected regardless of their fitness for the post.

This sort of thing was supposed to have been done away with by the Great Reform Act of 1832, but something so convenient to the governing classes was always likely to find its way back sooner or later. In the years of agitation leading up to the passing of that Act, Thomas Love Peacock wrote the satirical novel Melincourt in which an orangutan is elected to the House of Commons by these means. Surveying the current government, I’m not sure an orangutan wouldn’t do a better job.

A good deal of nonsense has been written about the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom. It’s generally supposed to be a good thing, although it’s noticeable that when we gave constitutions to various bits of the Empire as they gained independence we always gave them something in writing. It does have the issue that there is no clear way of resolving issues that arise.When I was younger, whenever there was some knotty constitutional problem the cry would go up “Let’s ask Norman St John-Stevas!” but as he died in 2012 we would need to hold a seance.

So it is not definitively unconstitutional that the Prime Minister and his most senior minister are now convicted criminals, having broken their own laws. It is hard to square the Prime Minister’s claim that he wasn’t clear about the meaning of those laws with the fact that he was appearing nightly on national television to explain them to the rest of us. If he did know what they meant, then he knew he was breaking the law and therefore his statements to the House of Commons that he wasn’t were, to put it baldly, lies. Even if he misled the House unwittingly, he is supposed to correct the record, which he has not done.

It is usually considered a resigning issue for politicians to lie to the the House. Or at least, it used to be. But it doesn’t seem to be written down anywhere, apart from in the Ministerial Code which has already been broken with impunity by other ministers (I’m looking at you, Home Secretary). Meanwhile, Mr Johnson has a majority in the House of Commons and as far as he is concerned he can just carry merrily on.

The written constitution on which we are now relying to sort this out is that of the Conservative Party, which he leads. That does include a mechanism whereby he can be removed from that job and therefore from his office. But it depends entirely on Conservative MPs, who are not on the whole the kind of people you would want on an ethics committee. (Imran Ahmad Khan MP is merely the latest example.) It’s fair to say that they will be moved largely by self-interest rather than any high-minded desire to save democracy.

Not so very long ago, Anthony Eden resigned as Prime Minister just on suspicion of having misled the House over the Suez Crisis. Today, apparently, the Right Honourable Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson MP feels no qualms about remaining in office.

I’m not saying this, incidentally, because I believe a Labour government would solve all our problems. The most that can be said for such a government is that it would probably do very little, which might be a small improvement on a government that intends to send asylum seekers to Rwanda and to suppress meaningful political protest. First, as Hippocrates is supposed to have said, do no harm. But I am under no illusion that they would respond meaningfully to the many crises of our day, even if they were to be elected, which still seems unlikely even now.

The deeper issue is that the UK system has long ceased to furnish us with competent governments who had the interests of the governed at least somewhat at heart. It never really did, if we’re going to be honest, but at least we used to have Ministers of the Crown who could string a sentence together. Now the system has zero incentive to deliver politicians who actually represent the electorate at large.

Nor is this uniquely a British problem. Where in Europe will you find such a government today? Where, indeed, in the wider industrialised world? Leonard Cohen sang in “Anthem” of “the widowhood of every government” and you can see what he meant. Calling yourself a democracy doesn’t make you one, as witness the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is a truism that government is only possible with the consent of the governed; nowadays this is apparently taken as a given. It will be interesting to see how far this can be pushed without serious blowback. I suspect we are going to find out, and sooner than we would like.

Ancient Chinese thinkers developed the notion of the Mandate of Heaven to explain the otherwise inconvenient fact that every so often the divinely-ordained emperor was given the heave-ho and another dynasty rose to power. I am no expert, but it seems to me that more than one government in the industrial world has now lost that mandate.

I say this with some sadness, because I don’t think what will immediately replace the current order will necessarily look very pretty, nor will the transition to it be smooth and painless. I also say it with apprehension, because current issues with food supply are likely to get worse, not better, next year. High food prices are of course a classic precursor to violent uprisings, as was seen in France in 1789, Russia in 1917, and more recently the Arab Spring. Many of those same countries in the Middle East and North Africa are already feeling the pain from the current war in Ukraine.

The systems of government we have in place are not designed to provide us with leaders who can cope with this kind of thing. Justin Trudeau’s abject handling of the Canadian truckers is par for the course. Back in the late 1960s and 1970s there were various coup plots in the United Kingdom against the Wilson government, not all of them confined to Wilson’s fevered imagination. We may well be heading into a period of history that will look like the 1970s on steroids, not least because of increasing inflation.

I don’t know what the actual inflation rate in the UK is right now, but even based on the official numbers it ain’t going down. Food is going up; fuel is going up; energy is going up; the cost of accommodation is going up. As has been said before, that which is not sustainable will not be sustained.

This won’t be the end of politics, of course. As Aristotle said, politics of one sort or another will always be with us. What will end is the kind of politics we are used to. Time will tell what will replace it, but you wouldn’t bet against Caesarism. And then all bets are off.

The original Casar.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On denial

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded

Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed

Everybody knows that the war is over

Everybody knows the good guys lost

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

That’s how it goes

Everybody knows

Leonard Cohen, “Everybody knows”

There is rarely much point in telling a person that they are in denial. Such a person will, after all, probably deny it. What may sometimes be more useful to observe what is being denied and think about the consequences of its being true. After all, just because those in power are ignoring something won’t make that thing go away.

Denial is one way in which people respond to something which is the case but which they really, really wish were not the case. For example, it’s probably fair to say that the majority of people in the industrialised world are in denial about their own mortality. They know they’re going to die, they just don’t want to think about it. Governments and other institutions can behave in the same way, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

As ever, I’m going to speak here about the UK because that’s the example I know best, but I strongly suspect the UK is not unique in this regard. I’m sure my non-UK readers will be able to find parallels in their own countries – comments are more than welcome. We certainly have no monopoly on stupidity.

Something that is becoming painfully apparent, even amongst people who haven’t previously been paying much attention, is that the current arrangements by which most people in the UK get most of the food are – well, let’s just say fragile. There is at present a shortage of diesel fuel across Western Europe. This makes it expensive to fuel fleets of lorries to haul goods across the country, including food, as well as to operate tractors and other farm machinery. Freezers and refrigerators are also getting more expensive to run, as the price of electricity goes up. Private cars likewise, both fossil-fuel and electric.

None of this is good news either for industrial agriculture or for the supermarket model which we presently rely on to feed the bulk of the population. The artificial fertilisers on which our agriculture depends rely on natural gas to feed the Haber–Bosch process by which it is manufactured. Even the plastic packaging beloved of supermarkets will be getting more expensive, where these rely on a petroleum-based feedstock, as most plastics do.

So, in plain terms, the majority of people who are used to being able to drive cheaply to a supermarket to obtain their cheap industrially-grown food will no longer be able to do so. This is an issue today, but it has been coming for a long time. Plenty of people have been trying to draw the government’s attention to it since at least the 1973 oil crisis.

And what has been the response of successive UK governments? Sweet Fanny Adams.

You might have thought that someone might have imagined what the consequences of this might be. In the 1970s, after all, we still had recent memories of the Second World War, when the country was largely thrown back on its own resources due to the U-Boat blockade. In those days, titanic efforts were made to avoid starvation, and those efforts were pretty successful. The threat was immediate and obvious, and there had moreover been a similar effort by Germany in the previous war, so there was no difficulty in noticing that there was a problem.

There is likewise a problem now and in the medium-term future. Yet nothing is being done to try and wean us off the current model, to encourage localised food production by methods less dependent on oil, or to break up the effective monopoly on food supplies held by the supermarkets. Almost nobody in the UK knows how to work with heavy horses, for example, and even if the skilled workers were available the horses aren’t. Neither is the machinery, outside of a few museums.

Again, organic agriculture exists merely as a niche. Likewise farmer’s markets (once upon a time, that was what all markets basically were). Most people can’t afford to obtain their food this way, for a number of reasons, partly to do with the ludicrous cost of accommodation in most parts of the UK and also with the relentless driving down of wages which has been going on for the last thirty-odd years. Those things could be addressed by governments prepared to do so. But of course there is some political pain associated with doing that, and the food riots will happen in some future government’s term of office, so they do nothing.

I think a good deal of denial works in a similar way. The pain of accepting the facts, and especially the consequences of the facts, is immediate and clear. The rewards for actually facing up to the facts are nebulous and uncertain. Nobody in politics gets kudos for preventing food riots. You can get kudos for making food riots stop, but of course that’s much easier to do when the mechanics of actually feeding people are in place.

The trouble is that there are no quick fixes for this stuff. It takes time to change over your entire food infrastructure. 1940s Britain was a far more agrarian society than 2020s Britain is, and they barely managed it on an emergency basis. The supermarkets were so successful in the 1960s and ’70s just because they promised that we would never have to go through all that again. Alas, like so many of the promises of industrialism, it was only good for so long, and so long may not be that much longer.

There are plenty of other areas where people are in denial, of course. The whole renewable energy/electric vehicle fantasy realm is a case in point. We need to face the fact that electricity is largely going away. You can still get a lot of useful work out of water, wind and solar – water-mills, windmills and solar water heaters have immense potential – but wasting so much energy by generating electricity instead of using it directly is nuts, purely from a thermodynamic point of view. You really don’t want to be using solar PV to power your immersion heater.

Here I think the mental block is to do with the myth of Progress and the associated idea that the past has nothing to teach us. After all, the ancient Greeks had water-mills. The again, the ancient Greeks were pretty smart. If you can get over the fact that you can’t control it from your iPhone, you might well decide that a water-mill is a pretty neat idea if you have heavy work to do (like grinding grain) and you don’t want to use muscle power.

No doubt we all of us have our blind-spots. The trick is to find them and eliminate them as far as we can. Conventional wisdom is never quite as wise as people think it is. That’s especially the case now, as established certainties become less certain right across industrial culture. Not all well-known facts are actually true. If we want to cope with reality, we need to start by seeing what it is. You can pretend otherwise, of course. It’s your choice.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the war in Ukraine

War is hell.

William Tecumseh Sherman

Industrial civilisation treats war the way it treats everything else: as an industrial process, and as a money-making opportunity. War has always been a horrible business, but these days we have the technology to make it more horrible for more people, so of course we do. And of course those of us who are not directly involved still get to see a lot of it; back when Tolui Khan wiped out the city of Merv in 1221, supposedly killing 700,000 people in the process, nobody was filming it on their phone.

Nevertheless it still seems to have come as a surprise to a lot of people how horrible the current war in Ukraine is turning out to be. I’m not sure what they were expecting. Perhaps they thought that wars don’t happen in Europe any more, although the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia weren’t that long ago. They surely can’t have imagined that war in general had become a thing of the past. After all, there are plenty of them going on around the world today, even if we tend to ignore most of them – this Wikipedia page contains an extensive list.

Of course there is a political angle to this. People in the West need to be told that this war is somehow uniquely horrible, seeing as how it is an act of aggression (unlike, say, the second Iraq war) perpetrated by the uniquely evil Vladimir Putin, who is therefore to blame for absolutely everything. They also need to told that the Russians will lose in the end, because good always triumphs over evil, except when it doesn’t. The International Criminal Court wasn’t sitting in 1221, but even it it had been I rather doubt that Tolui Khan would have appeared before it, any more than George W. Bush or Tony Blair have, or King Salman of Saudi Arabia will.

The war in Ukraine, like most wars, should never have been necessary. Like everyone else, I hope it comes to an end as soon as possible. I shall be very surprised, however, if it ends in abject defeat for the Russians and Vladimir Putin doing jail time. For one thing, he holds too many cards in the theatre where the war is really being fought, the economic theatre. There’s a lot of noise being made about the sanctions being applied to Russia, when to a large extent Russia will simply route around them. Take Russia’s expulsion from SWIFT, for instance. The consequence of that has been to undermine the US dollar’s status as the global reserve currency, as Russia make arrangements to sell its oil and gas in roubles, for example to India.

Confiscating yachts is not going to change the bald facts that Russia exports a lot of stuff that other countries need – wheat, ammonia, nickel, and of course oil and gas – and those countries are going to do what they need to obtain those things one way or another. Those who refuse to play ball will have to go without, and there are already issues with diesel fuel in Europe; Germany is said to have only forty days’ supply. Without Russian gas, Europe will have a hard time generating its electricity, despite US promises to teleport sufficient LNG across the Atlantic. (There are neither the tankers nor the terminals to accomplish this feat by conventional means.) As far as I am aware, the price of oil has been comfortably over $100 a barrel since the war began, over $130 at times, and some analysts expect it could hit $150. This is not good news for oil importers.

Even before the war, of course, it was already over $90, because the thing about oil is they’re not making any more of the stuff, and the high-quality, easily-extracted oil has now mostly gone up in smoke. If the war in Ukraine focuses minds on this issue, then it might conceivably have some positive results as well as all the death and suffering. I wish I felt more optimistic about this.

Whatever happens in Ukraine, though, even if the forces of supposed righteousness prevail, there will be considerable disruption to the existing economic order. And I see very little from Western governments that suggests they will be in any way prepared to cope with it. It may very well turn out that the real winners of this war will be India and China.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On being a modern employee

Live the behaviours!

An actual manager at my step-daughter’s workplace

Before the media became obsessed with how evil Vladimir Putin is, there was a fair bit of hot air given to the phenomenon known as the Great Resignation. This is not, as one might suppose, some sort of renaissance of Stoicism in which large numbers of people have become reconciled to the evils of modern life. Rather it is an unprecedentedly high rate of job resignations, notably in the US and Europe but also seen elsewhere in the industrialised world. In this week’s post, I’d like to look into this phenomenon, as it is still apparently ongoing even though it has ceased to feature much in the news.

Originally it was blamed on the Covid-19 pandemic (remember back when that was a thing?) – as was everything bad that happened before we realised that everything was actually Mr Putin’s fault. Certainly that was a precipitating factor. When it broke out, various governments brought in schemes that boiled down to paying people in non-essential jobs to stay at home (with a pay-cut, naturally; a healthy 20% in the case of the UK scheme). It may well be that some of those people, given time to reflect on their lives, actually did so and concluded that they might be well-advised to do something else with them. It is clear that not all of the resignations were simply due to health reasons, and they certainly weren’t the result of people taking better jobs in a resurgent economy, given that the economy has not been especially resurgent.

But why would people with jobs not want to keep those jobs? After all, getting a job is what you do, for most people. Even quite rich people feel obliged to have a career, which is just getting a job only made to sound nicer. (It’s a bit like the well-known distinction between going insane and becoming eccentric.) And why are other people not queuing up to take those jobs that have unexpectedly become vacant? After all, doesn’t everyone want a job? Lots of people need two or three of the things these days, just to get by.

Well, maybe some of the people who find this surprising need to acquaint themselves with life as it actually is in the modern workplace.

I’m going to try and illustrate this by means of a case-study, based on my step-daughter’s current employer. (By the time you read this, they may very well be her former employer.) I’m going to refer to them as Acme Foobar Retail, for the very good reason that they’re called something else in real life and I’m not a big fan of being sued. Their core business is selling foobars over the counter, but she actually works for a subsidiary, which I’ll call Acme Frobnicating. (Yes, that’s a made-up word. See previous reference to being sued.) This is an appointment-based service, which allows individuals to come in and have their foobars frobnicated by trained frobnicators, because with today’s fast-paced lifestyles not everyone has time to do it themselves.

Now the management of Acme Frobnicating know absolutely nothing about the nitty-gritty of frobnicating, except that you can make money from it. All they care about is getting clients through the door in largest possible numbers, getting their foobars frobnicated as quickly as possible, and moving on to the next. Like so many things in modern life, this is a completely rational view, provided your only window on reality is Microsoft Excel.

For the actual frobnicators, though, it’s different. They actually care about frobnicating and they want their clients’ foobars to be as well-frobnicated as possible. To be clear, this is not intrinsically a McJob. Rather it’s a calling, and people go into it genuinely wanting to make a difference.

I think you can probably see where this is going.

No malice is required to make this situation untenable for the frobnicators,. The decisions are being made by people with no clue as to what their decisions entail. Worse than that, the decision-makers actively avoid finding out what their decisions might entail. They are afraid, I strongly suspect, that decisions that will make things better in the real frobnicating world will make things look much worse in Microsoft Excel world, and that is the world in which they are judged. Because the managers’ managers look no further than that. It’s all about the bottom line.

But although malice is not required, it is nevertheless present in bucketfuls. For no apparent reason, it turns out that Acme Foobar Retail, or at least the branch where my step-daughter works, is a pit of scorpions. The mentality reminds me strongly of a cult. If you work there, you may not have contact with any other branch of the business. (My step-daughter used to work at another branch.) You will comply with the whims of management. You will not have time off, except at times that the management deems convenient, that is at times when nobody wants to have their foobar frobnicated, which turns out to be never, because of course their business model is predicated on an endless stream of people who want to have their foobar frobnicated. If you do have time off, you will naturally still be on call, because why wouldn’t you be? And you will never, ever, bother management with the troublesome details of actual frobnicating, because they don’t need to know about that stuff.

Is this typical of the modern workplace? I don’t claim to know, but I would happily wager that it is typical enough to explain many of the resignations were are seeing today. After all, why would anyone subject themselves to this kind of petty tyranny if they had any alternative? And people are creative enough to find alternatives.

There is no labour shortage today. What there is is a shortage of gullible idiots. Except, perhaps, amongst the managerial classes. Maybe a few of them might want to shut down Microsoft Excel and look out of the window. There’s quite a lot going on out here nowadays.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On spring

In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of civilisational collapse.

Alfred Lord Tennyson (slightly amended)

As I write these words, it’s the Spring Equinox up here in the northern hemisphere. From today onwards, the days will be longer than the nights. The clocks will be going forward. The birds are singing, the flowers are opening, and people are traditionally starting to cheer up after the long dark winter.

Except that 2022 is a bit less cheerful than usual. It’s not just that the weather is weird – although it certainly is weird, with simultaneous heatwaves at both poles – or that there’s a major war happening in Eastern Europe. There are multiple serious issues besetting industrial civilisation right now. The price of oil, the life-blood without which globalism cannot function, is well over $100 a barrel, has been for months, and is showing no signs of decline. (Even before the Ukraine crisis it was north of $90, a fact which was not exactly on every front page.)

Vladimir Putin is the current object of media hysteria. It is remarkable how swiftly and completely he has eclipsed the Covid-19 pandemic as the monomaniac centre of attention. I am pretty sure I can remember a time when more than one thing was allowed to be happening in the world, but this has apparently ceased to be the case. Anyway, all the things that go wrong that we used to blame on the virus can now be blamed on Mr Putin instead.

If this strikes you as irrational, then you are correct. Many of the issues that are coming down the pike have nothing to do either with Covid-19 or Mr Putin or indeed the Tooth Fairy. For example: take food. Industrial agriculture depends heavily on artificial fertilisers. The major ingredient for these is ammonium nitrate. A lot of this is manufactured in China, and China has started to restrict exports of it, reserving its production for domestic use (weirdly, they prefer to feed their own people rather than make money). This started happening last year.

This is going to have a big impact on this year’s harvest. A lot of countries in the Middle East and North Africa rely on importing wheat from Russia and/or Ukraine, and they may be in for a second edition of the Arab Spring as bread prices are forced up – this is already happening. But it will be worse next year. I can’t imagine Ukraine will be bringing in a bumper harvest in 2022. We will discover the hard way that however much money you have you can’t buy something that ain’t there.

Or nickel. A lot of nickel comes out of Russia. It’s required for many industrial processes, such as the manufacture of stainless steel and of course batteries. You can’t magically replace it with cryptocurrency or tweets from Elon Musk or anything else; for the stuff we need nickel to do, you need actual physical nickel. The price of nickel has been going all over the shop, to the extent that the London Metal Exchange felt obliged to cancel an entire day’s trading recently. It’s one of those natural resources on which we depend and yet nobody really talks about it.

Or natural gas. Europe is heavily dependent on this both for direct use and indirectly for electricity generation. Much of that gas is imported from Russia. I don’t need to tell you which way the price of that is going. This is not happy news for energy-intensive industries – aluminium smelting, for example. Still, it’s not as if we use aluminium for anything important.

Or there’s the obvious knock-on effects of the price of oil. There are fishing fleets in Spain that are not sailing because they can no longer make money. Spain is also in the grip of a nationwide transport strike, with lorry drivers protesting the cost of diesel, which in turn is having adverse effects on the rest of the economy (those fishermen who have been going to sea can no longer dispose of their catch, for example). Unless you live in Spain, you probably haven’t been reading about any of this in your local paper.

Another issue for the Spanish fishing industry, incidentally, is the shortage of sunflower oil for canning purposes. The immediate cause is the Ukraine war, as sunflower oil production is largely centred there, but the larger cause is the mindset that assumes that the place for all of your eggs is automatically in the one cheapest basket. This brilliant thinking has led to the concentration of so much of US agriculture in the Central Valley of California, which is struggling with a multi-year drought, Again.

With expensive fuel, the world gets bigger again. Importing everything from the other side of the globe becomes a less attractive business model. Where businesses are operating on tight margins, like the Spanish fishermen, quite a small price rise can be fatal. At the risk of stating the obvious, the price rises we are seeing now are not small. And there’s not much prospect of this improving.

So we’re looking forward to a world in which multiple essential items – wheat not least among them – are going to be scarce, expensive, or downright unobtainable for many people. At the same time, their incomes are going to be squeezed still further, in the aftermath of the forgotten pandemic. This is how revolutions start, especially given the absence of even semi-competent political leadership in large parts of the world. (Biden? Johnson? Macron? Scholz? Hello, anyone at home?)

I fear particularly for the United States, a country riven by many divisions which have only deepened over the last few years, which continues to be addicted to oil (as George W. Bush so memorably put it), and which is also well-provided with heavily-armed people with military training. But violence could erupt almost anywhere. The extreme measures used again the Canadian truckers recently are a case in point. My own country, the UK, could very easily kick off.

Spring is traditionally a time of hope. I’m finding it quite hard to be hopeful about this year, or next. Still, in the immortal words of the late George Michael: “You gotta have faith.”

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

Book review: Guns, Germs and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (Vintage, 1998), ISBN: 978-0099302780

I want to approach this book by means of its subtitle. Specifically, I want to contrast its subtitle with that of another classic text. This may seem perverse, but bear with me. The subtitle of this book is – or rather was originally; it has changed since the first edition, perhaps revealingly – “A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years.”

Now I do admire the sheer cheek of this. It’s deliberately provocative. Obviously it isn’t really such a book, because such a book couldn’t possibly be written, and if it could it would be much, much longer than this, even if it was short, because 13,000 years is a long time, and everybody is a lot of people. At one level Diamond is aware of this, and I don’t hold that against him. Perhaps it was his publisher who came up with it. But at another level, he really does appear to suppose that this is that book, or at least a synopsis of it, and that is where we part company.

The other subtitle I’m thinking of is that of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: “A study of economics as if people mattered.” It’s equally provocative, of course. But I think the main thing I have against Diamond’s book is that, ultimately, for him people don’t matter at all. Which slightly begs the question of why his book exists at all, but we’ll get onto that.

Other critics of this book have taken issue with particular details, and this was probably inevitable. After all, there is a lot of detailed archeology which the book skips merrily over, not all of which has dated especially well, which of course isn’t Diamond’s fault. The pyramids, for example, are blithely put into the category of “public works advertising state power” (Chapter 14, “From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy,” p. 285 in my copy). I am not an Egyptologist, and I don’t even play one on TV, but even I have a hard time swallowing that Diamond can really assert such a superficial account with a straight face.

There’s a version of the human story that we all get taught, and it goes something like this. In the beginning, we were all hunter-gatherers, living in small groups, and it sucked (spoiler alert: it probably didn’t). Later, some bright spark discovered farming, and everything got much better (spoiler alert: it definitely didn’t) because that meant we could become more numerous (because that has to be a good thing, right?) and also because we had surplus food we could support people who didn’t produce food (because that also has to be a good thing). And that took us on a smooth trajectory to the paradise we live in today, where half the world is starving and we have the Department of Work and Pensions. Hoorah!

I’d love to say that Diamond’s book is the antidote to all this. In some ways it is, or tries to be. Diamond’s field-work as an ornithologist has led him to spend a lot of time in New Guinea, which has made him a kind of amateur anthropologist. He often recurs to New Guinea in the book, and those are often the most valuable passages, because they stem from his own lived experience. He is by no means an uncritical cheerleader for the modern lifestyle, as witness his 2013 book The World Until Yesterday, which is even subtitled: “What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” – it’s just that from this account we’re lumbered with it, apparently everywhere and forever.

Diamond sets himself the question of why it is that the people of Western Europe – not, on the face of it, either the smartest, wisest, or materially well-endowed people on the planet – were able to subdue so much of the rest of the world. This is a reasonable question, and he gives it his best shot. But I am reminded of the work of a justifiably forgotten English essayist of the eighteenth century, Soame Jenyns. If anyone remembers him today, it is probably because of the righteous stomping his work received at the hands of Samuel Johnson: that he maintained that whatever is, is right. This, ultimately, is Diamond’s thesis too.

For essentially his explanations are entirely mechanical. There is no room for human agency in any of it. He occasionally weeps crocodile tears over, say, Native Americans being deliberately given blankets infected with smallpox, but it’s just the way it is. The Aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania were still using stone tools when Europeans arrived, so ultimately it was fine for them to be exterminated. (British officers had a wager on how many human bodies a musket ball could pass through, so in order to resolve it they lined up a bunch of Tasmanians and fired a musket ball through them and counted the corpses. Sad, but you know, kind of inevitable.) Diamond tries very hard not to be racist about all of this, but it’s pretty cold comfort for the losers.

The mechanistic basis of his world-view is betrayed in his account of religion. For Diamond, religion is just a manifestation of what he terms “kleptocracy.” With touching faith, he seems to imagine that as human society progresses, there is less room for kleptocracy. (Sweet summer child! Does he truly know nothing of the corporate world?) But there’s also no room in his account for actual spiritual experience. Even if he has no direct knowledge of this, it seems strange to me that he has heard nothing of it from his friends in New Guinea, to say nothing of friends closer to home. It’s not so much an omission as a gaping void. After all, an awful lot of those people in the last 13,000 years have been religious, one way or another. They can’t all have been idiots.

This is history without the ethics. It isn’t, actually, history at all. History is not just about what happened, but what might have happened instead. Otherwise it’s basically just physics. In Diamond’s universe, what happened is the only thing that could have happened, because for him it really is all just physics. (Not quantum mechanics, of course, because that would be embarrassingly non-deterministic. Newton for the win!) Resistance is useless.

For Diamond, it would appear that everyone in the world is doomed to end up buying their groceries online, because that’s just the way things are. We’ll all be ruled in every tiny detail of our lives by faceless bureaucracies, because that’s just the way things are. In fact, we’ll all be living in some version of the USA, because that’s just the way things are. Is that what he wants, on some level? Judging from this book, I think perhaps it is.

Well: sod that for a game of soldiers. Luckily for us, the laws of physics (ha!) will render this version of the world unfeasible, and possibly sooner than we may think. Diamond may have written a history of the last 13,000 years, but it will take far less time than that for it to appear – well, dare I say dated?

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On values in the sphere of politics

Liberal democracies must defend their values….

Andrew RawnsleY, The Guardian 27/2/2022

So who are these liberal democracies, and what are their values? It’s easy enough to list the states who routinely self-identify as liberal democracies: the United States of America (which is a republic, not a democracy; the framers of its constitution explicitly wished to avoid creating a democracy); the United Kingdom (which is an oligarchy with some window-dressing); the members of the European Union (well, most of them); Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

What interests me here is the question of values. Now most of us, it’s true to say, have two sets of values. There are the values that we profess to have, and the values that we actually live by, as shown by our actions. Of course there’s usually a lot of overlap between the two sets – I not only say that murder is wrong, but I abstain from going around murdering people – but perhaps only saints manage to walk the talk without exceptions.

When it comes to political regimes, however, there is often much less overlap. The values espoused by the Soviet Union, for instance, were far more pleasant than the reality it inflicted on its citizens. Likewise, the values which the liberal democracies claim to espouse are not often evident in their foreign policy – or even in their domestic policies, as Canada has recently shown us.

Police in Ottawa supporting the right to free speech.

I’m mostly going to talk about the UK government here, because that’s the example I’m most familiar with, but I imagine you can find plenty of parallels with your own government’s behaviour, wherever you happen to live.

Consider the international equivalent of murder, which is the invasion of one country by another. This is topical at the moment, given the unpleasant events occurring in Ukraine as I write this. What is less topical are the equally unpleasant events occurring in Yemen. Only one of these is currently being loudly deplored by Western governments. Why is that? After all, both the Russian Federation and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are major exporters of petroleum. Is Saudi Arabia a shining beacon of liberal values? I don’t think so.

Britain sells lots of arms to Saudi Arabia. In the quarter following the decision to resume exports of arms in 2021 (after a brief episode of pretending to give a damn), £1.4 billion quid’s worth of sales were authorised by the UK government. Given that the Saudis have been trying to bomb Yemen into oblivion since 2015 and still haven’t succeeded, I’m not sure that they’ve been getting their money’s worth. The Russians, on the other hand, make their own.

When Britain formed part of the “coalition of the willing” assembled to invade Iraq, a good deal was made of how unpleasant Saddam Hussein was. We might have taken that into consideration when the West installed him as leader of Iraq, so that he could fight another war with Iran. The reality is that he was welcome to gas as many Marsh Arabs as he liked until he started to think he could formulate policies of his own based on oil revenue. As soon as he wanted to sell Iraqi oil in a currency other than the US dollar he had to go.

Indeed, choosing your own path is rarely a good career move in international politics. Look up what happened to Salvator Allende, for example. It sometimes seems to me that what the liberal democracies really have against Vladimir Putin is that he won’t do what he’s told. If only he would let us pillage his country freely as we used to in the good old days of the 1990s, we wouldn’t really care what he did domestically. Alas, he has nukes, so we have to pretend to be at least a little bit nice to him.

The UK will probably be hoping that nobody is paying too much attention to what we do domestically, for that matter. Legislation is currently making its way through Parliament that will effectively criminalise public protest. I grant you this is pretty milk-and-water stuff compared to the drastic emergency powers recently taken by Justin Trudeau to suppress the truckers’ protest in Canada, but it still isn’t the sort of legislation we would normally approve of in other countries.

The fact is that most, if not all, of the self-styled liberal democracies are becoming ever less liberal and less democratic. They are effectively oligarchies, and behaving like oligarchies. I might have more respect for them if they were at least honest about it. The good news is that I can’t see this state of affairs continuing for much longer. Now that we have reached the point where even Canadians are taking to the streets the writing is surely on the wall.

Oligarchies fail because they pursue policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many, and the many are – well – many. As the Canadian truckers have reminded us, they also do all the stuff we can’t get along without. Even oligarchs need to eat. Yes, the elites have the machinery of repression at their disposal, and as we have seen that are eager to upgrade it, but that machinery may not be as effective as they imagine. Even Trudeau found it expedient to abandon his emergency powers before they were voted on by the Canadian Senate.

I don’t suppose we will ever see a world in which governments really pursue what the late Robin Cook called “an ethical foreign policy.” We may however get one where governments have to be a bit more careful about what they do because they are actually answerable to the people they govern. But that’s a long way off, and as the proverbial Irishman said, “I wouldn’t start from here.”

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.