Thursday, 4 September 2014

God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens, a review

After my last entry, a review of a book written by a heathen, I thought it would be fun to make my next entry also a review of a godless sinner book, especially given world events. Let us not waste time discussing the "no true Scotsman" fallacy when it comes to Israel's foreign policy or the ambitions of ISIL and get straight to the review.

Usually I am reluctant to use any labels that identify me with the other unbelieving, non-religeony types and find popular atheism often alienating and divisive as well as damn right hoity-toity; I hope it was clear in my last entry that I am particularly keen to distance myself from Richard Dawkins' particular brand of atheism for example. I once saw a t-shirt in rough trade that said "Too stupid for science? Try religion" yet I feel the words "science" and "religion" could easily be reversed there; people put faith in scientists and clever-sounding-people without really understanding what they're getting at (appeal to authority) whilst I have met plenty of clever people who are also religious. So to my great relief, "God is not Great" by Hitchens is not a foot-stamping book of scientism full of strawmen that I frequently see lobbied at religious (i.e. bringing up dinosaurs when many believers do not actually subscribe to "creationism" at all) but rather a critical assessment of religion in history and an evaluation of how religious literature was compiled.

Hitchens introduces the book with a couple of anecdotes from his religious schooling before exploring a wealth of atrocities committed in the name of religion which was a bit like shooting fish in a barrel; you don't need to tell me that bad things have been done by religious people - just take a look at the news - but I guess it was interesting to hear about some things I wasn't already familiar with. When religion is not killing people directly, Hitchens explores how it can have a deleterious effect on health drawing on incidents such as when Muslim clerics in Nigeria declared a fatwa against the polio vaccine. What really comes across from these chapters is that the late Christopher Hitchens dedicated a large part of his life to criticising religion because he genuinely cared and saw the harm it does. This is really important as I feel the motivation of some prominent atheists is just to win arguments and make religious people look stupid.

Several chapters are dedicated to examining the scholarly integrity of religious texts and Hitchens makes the case that the holy books of the Abrahamic religions are all inconsistent, works of plagiarism that have been tampered again and again over time. I won't lie, for a simpleton like me these chapters were fairly difficult to read. Hitchens was a smart man and I found myself using the dictionary several times over but at least I learned lots of new words. One thing he said perhaps made me call into question the validity of these chapters in that he claimed that there is "little or no evidence for the life of Jesus" - even a smelly heathen like myself has always understood Jesus to have existed, perhaps it was drummed into me by teachers but Wikipedia (please forgive me) references several texts saying that "The theory that Jesus never existed at all has very little scholarly support". So who knows?

My personal favourite chapter was "The "Case" Against Secularism" where he explores the horrors committed under regimes with no religion such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. As someone who believes that religion is responsible for a large amount of evil in the world I was keen to get some good comebacks for when people ask me "but what about Hitler?" Hitchens details eloquently how the Catholic church was complicit in Hitler's rise to power and how the vatican helped Nazi criminals escape the Nuremberg trials providing them with contacts, money and documents. As for the Soviet Union, Hitchens postulates that the cult of personalities that spring up under such regimes are attempts to replace religion with "infallible leaders who are an infinite source of bounty" as opposed to negating it. It might have been the case that such states were only possible because they suppressed existing religious beliefs, so the worship came out in other forms, as opposed to actually educating the population and encouraging scepticism and a more organic process of abandoning religion.

Overall it was an interesting read, though I struggled with large swathes of it. I found his argument that religion is entirely man-made extremely convincing, but I will leave you with this quote from his book.

"The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species."

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

richard dawkins ramble

Ah Richard Dawkins, the great keyboard warrior of our time. Today he is causing controversy on Twitter by discussing varying levels of rape for seemingly no other reason than winding people up a bit. Is Dawkins a misogynist? I don't doubt that; here you can see Martin Robbins criticising Dawkins' less than female-friendly reaction to a girl complaining about sexism in the sceptic community. If Dawkins is bad, his fans are worse, who can be found on Twitter uttering phrases such as "I despair for the stupidity of humanity!". As notable theoretical physicist Peter Higgs says, Dawkins is somewhat of a fundamentalist, and he draws followers who are adherents to the worst kind of scientism, an appeal to authority which is basically "but a scientist said so, it must be right". The comments on that Martin Robbins article, for example, is full of fanboys telling the author that his writing is complete gobshite, but none of them really seem to have a reason why.

So last month I went to visit my sister up in Durham and during the 1,838,373 hours I spent on the coach getting there from London, I finished Jurassic Park and needed to borrow another book for the way home. On my sister's bookshelf filled with mostly undergraduate anthropology textbooks, "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins was probably the only one which would have been interesting for someone who isn't a course-mate of my sister, so I did something radical and picked it up - and now I kinda feel like writing a review:

This book surprised me. The first thing to note is that the title "the Selfish gene" is somewhat of a misnomer and Dawkins acknowledges this in the foreword (I usually skip these and I'm glad I didn't). I assumed and I'm sure many others have assumed too, that the book was about a particular gene that makes people selfish, as opposed to what it is about - that genes in general want to ensure their survival and are responsible for certain behaviours that maximise an individual's fitness. As Dawkins points out in the foreword, The Immortal Gene might have been a more appropriate title.

The other day I read an article about altruistic kidney donation in the Guardian which stated "Yet perhaps the most common criticism of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is that it failed to explain adequately the altruism that we encounter in everyday life, let alone gestures such as kidney donation to unknown strangers." and you have to wonder if the journalist has actually read the book. The Selfish gene is not so reductionist as to try and explain every single action through genes - saying failure to explain genuine altruism is a major criticism of his book is akin to saying the biggest fault of the television series Come Dine With Me is that it doesn't tell me how to work my food processor. I hope the point I am making is clear. Richard Dawkins stresses throughout that the book is not a justification for acting selfish, instead that we can and must learn morals. Additionally, he points out in the end notes that if we were under complete control of selfish genes, we would not be able to use contraception. This is in line with a view I already held, that "it's natural" is a pretty shoddy justification for behaviour as several unpleasant things can be observed in nature such as disease, paedophilia, extreme weather, and we can and must strive to avoid the full brute forces of nature. Indeed as a vegan I view eating meat as "natural" yet cannot justify eating it; interestingly Dawkins himself finds it hard to morally defend eating meat, despite the fact he does himself.

The Selfish Gene theory, whether you subscribe to it or not, is very well argued and is good at explaining lots of phenomena in nature that he details throughout the book. The book is very educational too, you will definitely learn a lot about genes, natural selection and lots of generally interesting facts about living things. For example, did you know that male bees are from unfertilised eggs and have 16 chromosomes, whereas girl bees have 32? In addition, I previously found it very hard to understand how simple gene mutations can cause such variety in nature but this book goes a long way to explaining it.

So to conclude, I enjoyed this book a lot and it is frustrating to see someone like Dawkins go off the rails and ruin his hard work by acting like a total douchebag on Twitter. I'll close with this flowchart made by Twitter user @garwboy :

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

I'm not racist but: Opening debate on immigration

I was a young teen when I realised the phrase "I'm not racist but..." always preceded a "racist" statement and by my early twenties I had learned to stop listening when anyone began a sentence with those four words. However a few years on I realise I was wrong for doing this. You see, scoffing at someone who is genuinely concerned with whatever the effects of immigration may be (even if they are wrong) is a bad way to win them over to your viewpoint, furthermore, calling someone a racist when they feel they are not insults them and shuts down any chance of a reasonable debate immediately. If name-calling was an effective retort when it came to debating immigration, UKIP's "earthquake" might not have been so high on the richter scale.

Many British people and in particular the working class feel that they are not being listened to; they see the white liberal middle class (and the politicians) who are more accepting of immigration as a group who do not have to deal with the negative effects of it. This is compounded by phrases I hear frequently uttered such as "immigrants want to do the jobs British people are too lazy to do for less money" - a phrase which shows true contempt for the British working class by implying they are unreasonable for wanting a living wage. Instead of calling someone a racist when they say that immigrants are taking our jobs, why not argue that immigrants drive demand which therefore increases jobs?

It is time to make people aware of the benefits of immigration whilst conceding that there are some negative factors and seeing if we can find solutions to them rather than ignoring them. Rents are rising to ridiculous levels, mine for example (in Tower Hamlets, one of London's poorest Boroughs) is £650 a month (more than two-thirds of take home pay if I was earning minimum wage) for a room in a small flat shared with 4 other people. It is reasonable to assume that if there is a finite level of houses in the United Kingdom, increasing the population by allowing immigrants to flow in is going to increase demand and therefore rent; it is then a question of how we can supply and manage more housing. It is also true that many British people feel their identity is under threat when lots of people with languages and religions that seem may bizarre start filling up the local neighbourhood and opening up their own businesses; we must therefore find ways to integrate better with new immigrants and celebrate Britishness and what it means to be British - which doesn't have to mean you were born here.

The solution to the immigration debate is just that - debate. Not being so shocked that your monocle falls out of your eye socket and sticking your fingers in your ears every time someone says something even slightly non-PC.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Are low wages the problem?

I haven't updated this in a while so I thought I should, just with a short entry. There seems to be a lot of noise made around what is a fair wage these days and you could certainly argue that what I earn (minimum wage - £6.31 an hour) for a stressful job in a pub in Central London is not enough. It's got me thinking: where I work a pint of beer runs at about three-quarters of my hourly wage and we sell several as the pub is extremely busy. According to this article it costs about 90p to produce one pint of beer, or since it was written in 2011, 93p adjusted for inflation. Anyone with a basic grasp of maths would start wondering about those figures - surely those tight motherfuckers I work for can afford to pay me more than the minimum wage?! Staff morale would certainly be higher and they wouldn't have to hold recruitment days all the time (a person quits like every week). But then, I was thinking, rent in Soho must be extortionate; perhaps they genuinely can't afford to pay me more (and why should they with a steady stream of jobseekers?) Who does this rent go to and do they really deserve it all?

The above paragraph was just a flimsy pretext for a quote I want to share with you stolen from some guy named Lindy Davies on a Facebook group which calls for a Land Value Tax on the basis that property owners receive a windfall unfairly and should be taxed on it to even things out -

"The elements of production can be divided into three mutually exclusive factors: Labor, Capital and Land. The objective of production is the satisfaction of human desires. The most basic of these desires are material — food, clothing and shelter — but once people have these basics, they desire many more satisfactions, of which some are material, and some are not (the satisfaction of a non-material desire is called a service). Human desires are satisfied by labor (human exertion) acting upon land (natural opportunities). The process of production is greatly aided by the use of capital (physical products of labor which are used in the production process, such as tools, livestock or merchandise). Land is fixed in supply. (They're not making any more of it!) Some sites are better than others for various kinds of production, and every site is unique. This means that the price for land sites will be bid up to whatever people are willing to pay to use them. Because land is needed for all production, everything that enhances productivity makes people willing to pay more for land. As society advances, people tend to hold land out of use, expecting its value to increase. This lowers the supply of available land, raising its price, but without adding to production. Meanwhile, in order to pay for public infrastructure and services (which increase production, and therefore raise land values), societies place tax penalties on productive activities — while land values, which were created by the entire community, are collected by private landowners. This has two basic effects: it drastically lowers the economy's productive efficiency, and it allows unproductive holders of privilege to collect and consolidate unearned wealth."

Of course, I'm not letting my employer off scot-free , I'm sure they could afford to pay me more, but it is worth noting that perhaps if everyone was paid a little bit more by their employers, rents would probably increase in line with these new wages as the rational landlord charges as much as he can get away with.

Monday, 10 February 2014

on work, incentives, morality & capitalism

One prominent principle that seems to guide modern business today is the fundamental acceptance of greed. There's barely an argument that consumables (to a certain extent) enhance our utility, especially the food we like, a comfortable bed, books, clothing, music etc. And if we can get that stuff for cheaper, then that is surely a good thing. As this self-regarding materialism is a huge motivating force for humans, greed is also good for the businesses, who will compete against each other to provide better products and better services in order to extract money from consumers. Therefore state interference in the functioning of free markets is almost never justified. Or is it?

In a world of efficiency and increased automation, the number of jobs is decreasing rapidly. With a huge pool of surplus labour, tighter competition for lower skilled jobs means zero hour contracts, depressed wages and/or poorer working conditions. If you don't like it then there is someone to replace you; and you are not allowed to consider this morally wrong because after all - "that's just business" - a Machiavellian world where the owners of capital are allowed to divorce their actions from reality as if they were playing a game of monopoly. Although perhaps I don't blame them, they are just acting in their self-interest, just like when I stock up on junk food from Poundland despite their use of workfare instead of using a more expensive local shop which actually pays its employees.

One funny thing to observe is that this free "get out of morality" card is not always extended to the individual, although I always advise my friends to "look out for number one" when it comes to making career decisions. I am not allowed to go to a job interview and say, "meh, I just want the money", I am supposed to want to work as a shelf stacker or a waitress or whatever because it is "virtuous". People are expected to work in mind-numbing jobs that add little value to society as a whole because it is "the right thing to do" rather than act in their self-interest and live on benefits whilst gaining more skills/volunteering/looking for something they actually want to do. This is particularly fallacious as, (and I won't waste my time trying to say something Bertrand Russell said a lot better, that is that) work is not inherently virtuous.

So what are the answers? As a left libertarian I am sceptical of policy that can upset market mechanisms such as a minimum wage hike which may only reduce the number of jobs or cause rent-seeking behaviour (but it might not, I'm speculating). It seems to me that the main reason why companies such as Tesco, Poundland, Wetherspoons or whatever can treat their staff so atrociously is because of a shortage of jobs, they stick two fingers up at you and say "if you don't like it, fuck off and we'll pick one of the 2.23 million other jobseekers". I would therefore argue the simplest option is to introduce a basic income and make it a genuine choice whether you want to take a shitty job or not. Obviously with far less takers, it will be in their self interest for these companies to start offering more attractive wages. This would also ensure a steady supply of consumers to actually buy the products these companies are making, perhaps ensuring their survival in the long term.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

unpaid internships and my life, an update

About a year and a half ago now, I wrote a cheerfully optimistic post about unpaid work and my future. What I seemed to be getting at in that entry was that proper volunteering (ie, you do it voluntarily, no set hours, not replacing a paid person) is a good thing yet I seem to gloss over the exploitation of unpaid workpeople (I won't call them volunteers) that is rampant in this country. I tried to ignore it at the time, but it is a real problem. I too applied for unpaid internships and went to interviews for them, but now I've grown up a bit, the thought of working for the entitled Baby Boomer generation for free just makes me feel a bit sick.

Let's not kid ourselves. The reason why unpaid internships are so proliferate is that in today's world of automation and efficiency, there simply are not enough jobs to go around. Having a few months of unpaid experience under your belt makes it easier for firms to discriminate between equally qualified individuals to fill a limited number of jobs. So that's what makes Brendan O'Neill's article "Why Interns Don't Deserve Pay" all the more ridiculous; Resilient working-class kids have for years topped up their internships with Saturday jobs or evening work, while kipping on a friend’s couch to cut outgoings he writes. Okay so let's imagine for a second that we all have friends with sofas in London we can stay on (not likely, most landlords seem to have converted living rooms into an extra bedroom but I said just imagine it) and we've all managed to find bar jobs that fit perfectly with unpaid internships. All of us, every single graduate. So then what? We're in exactly the same position as we were before, equally qualified graduates which are impossible to discriminate from. Maybe then young people will do more unpaid work; maybe more senior levels in companies will become unpaid. First we had academic inflation, now we have "experience inflation". It's not sustainable and it's frankly ridiculous.

So what am I doing now? I quit my job with an MEP and moved to London without a job after saving a fuck load of money to try and fulfil the romantic dream of "making it" in the city. I could have done an unpaid internship to tart up my CV I suppose, but I think I would have died inside a bit. To end on a slightly sombre note, I have ended up working in a pub despite being here for 6 months. I have been to interviews for jobs which pay what I would consider fair remuneration, but to no avail - however I shall see what the future holds. Perhaps I should add that I no longer care about having a degree-relevant career and I certainly don't want to work for an MP anymore - yuck!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

my letter to rushanara ali MP

I decided to write to my MP (first time I have ever done so) about something currently on my mind and I'd like to share it here.

Hi Rushanara Ali,

I'm writing to enquire about what you or any of your colleagues are doing about the current housing crisis.

Just to give you some background as to my own situation; I live in a 2-bed former council mould encrusted flat with dodgy plumbing, which I share with my boyfriend, another couple and a single man (the living room was converted into a third bedroom). If you think that sounds awfully crowded, you'd be right. For the privilege of this, each room is rented out at in between £600-£650 a month. My case is not unique, but rather fairly typical of young people living in London. Now, if you are a heartless neo-liberal you will consider our landlord/estate agent wonderfully enterprising, but if you are more like the rest of the population you will consider them both parasitic, intercepting an existing resource and extracting rents from it in a way that they would not have been able to do so were the market not distorted from right-to-buy, buy-to-let loans, planning permission & all-round lax laws on property maintenance. All of which have resulted in a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Since you are an adult and a politician with a proper job, I'm going to presume you know your stuff when it comes to the housing market and don't want to patronise you by explaining how all of those have created a choke-hold on not just the poor, but many of the middle class and certainly most young people today ("generation rent") and caused our limited housing stock to be concentrated in the hands of a few, especially wealthy foreigners.

You may point to the fact it is more expensive to live in London because of all the wonderful tourist attractions, public services, and be tempted to suggest that I just move out if I don't like giving so much to the landlords. If that is the case I would like to remind you that it is not the landlord who builds museums, hospitals, schools etc which add the value to his property, but the taxpayer; as Adam Smith said "The landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed".

So how do you/the Labour party plan to fix this mess?

Yours sincerely,

Emma Davids, unemployed 25 year old

Of course, I don't really expect the Labour Party to fix the mess, in my opinion they are wholly unelectable. I am more interested in opening up a dialogue to see how she defends such policies which have exacerbated the housing crisis.

Monday, 6 January 2014

i hate newspapers but i will read them anyway

What's up with journalism these days? In my unemployment, I read a wide variety of articles from newspapers (both left and right) and I barely feel more productive than if I'd wasted the whole morning playing video games or watching Jeremy Kyle. Why is this?

One factor could be that newspapers all seem to cover the same non-stories. Like when Jamie Oliver insulted the priorities of poor people, who really cares what a TV chef with no political sway thinks? Do we really need several articles all manufacturing some outrage (whilst giving him some nice free exposure)? Is it because there's a lot of peer pressure in newspaper circles and journalists are afraid people will think they didn't get the memo if they don't all do the same story to death?

And what about those "Click-baiting" articles that used to be confined to the likes of The Daily Mail that are now commonplace in The Telegraph, The Guardian etc with drivel we love to hate? Rich/posh people complaining that they are denigrated in society, articles implying that vicious murderers aren't completely to blame for what they have done... I could go on but I think my brain will explode if I do. Why are journalists so controversial and just plain mean; I mean, they can't actually believe it...right? My own opinion is it is because they know their own career will soon be over, what with everyone and their dog writing a blog, many of which are higher quality and vastly more interesting than any of the journalists that write for the Grauniad could ever hope to achieve. They aren't worried about long-term credibility because they know there isn't going to be a long-term, best to get the clicks in now.

Perhaps one of the reasons these news outlets still survive is because of the discussion they produce, with the most insight coming from the comments section of an article. Given my short attention span I often read the first paragraph and skip straight to reading the discussion, which I know has the possibility to teach me a lot more than what comes out of the filtered, narrow middle-class pool of journos we're expected to listen to. Commenters actually respond to each other and justify their opinions too (sometimes), they don't just write an article then run off into the internet wilderness (like journalists do).

So there we have it, a bored rant about how I hate the newspapers of today but will continue to read them. I'd like to close with some websites I like which offer a range of viewpoints and I'd consider to be quite well written.

RT News
Stumbling and Mumbling
Left Foot Forward
Adam Smith Institute
New Economics Foundation
Pieria

consumers, irrationality, high salaries, over confidence

In general, we often expect consumers to be rational, especially if they are of average intelligence and not currently suffering any delusions. For example, if we cut the price of something, we might expect that consumers are more likely to buy it. However, this is not always the case; diamonds, say, are desired by people because they are so eye-wateringly expensive rather than any actual use (other than being used in drills and whatnot, and Marilyn Monroe didn't look like the sort of gal who engaged in DIY), as a sort of status symbol. This is a very long and detailed article which explains the lengthy history of diamond price fixing and why they are essentially worthless, but I digress....

Another example of consumer irrationality is gift vouchers, which are just like cash, but much less useful. One case of irrational consumer behaviour I find particularly baffling is the purchase of CDs/books/DVDs of bands like One Direction/tv personalities like Kerry Katona and Katie Hopkins**, people with no apparent skills and are certainly not unique, yet have managed to make money due to freak occurrences in the market.

So if people are not always rational with their money, can we expect businesses (which are still run by humans at the moment) to make irrational decisions every now and then too? We might call into question super high CEO pay, which we have formerly been told is necessary to attract the best talent. It may be patronising for a jobless 25 year old to imply that HR departments with 20 odd years experience or whatever are subject to cognitive biases when it comes to financial remuneration, but the New Economics Foundation offers some convincing data which show us that the global market place for executives does not exist. The article also argues that CEOs are not uniquely talented as we are often led to believe. How or why do people rise to the top then? Of course there is some ability, but grounded in my own experience of the job market, there is a lot to be said about overconfidence. Have you ever walked away from screwing up a job interview from being so nervous even though you were perfectly qualified (if not overqualified) for the job?

Confidence is highly prized these days, but are the people who can shout the loudest always right? In his New Yorker article, "The Talent Myth" Malcolm Gladwell blames this misplaced confidence-in-confidence on the demise of the now defunct energy company Enron, where employees were promoted/given enormous bonuses/laid off according to performance reviews, resulting in inexperienced workers rising to the top in positions they were not ready for. This, Gladwell says, was due to their "narcissistic personality types" which make them more likely to take more credit for achievements and quickly disassociate themselves with any blame for failure. Similarly in this heartfelt TED talk, Susan Cain argues that the overconfident are more likely to take risks to the detriment of everyone else.

There are lessons to take from this, Enron isn't the first business to fail and won't be the last. So do businesses/banks/whatever hire the wrong people and pay them too much just because they're a bit stupid? Well, these individuals who reach the top are more than likely still highly qualified and hard-working, but we must stop thinking they have magical abilities just because they say they do whilst overlooking everyone else.


**In this instance I am defining rational behaviour as something that enhances our utility. I'm sure some 13 year olds would be willing to challenge me on One Direction, but at least there is widespread agreement that Katie Hopkins is somewhat of a waste of space.