Thursday, September 30, 2010

Markets.

If morality represents how we would like the world to work,
then economics represents how it actually does work.
— Steven Levitt.
Do you know what's the sensible thing to do when you expect the market to go down? Sell, of course. Do you know what happens when lots of people sell their stocks (or whatever else) off at the same time? The market goes down, of course.

The inverse is also the case. When people expect the market to do well, they jump in to grab a bargain before it rises, and they're willing to pay that little extra because they know they'll be better off in the long run. Surprise sur-bloody-prise, prices go up.

So what do you think would be the easiest job in the world? Predicting markets. Because, if you get people to listen to you, to predict is to control.

I don't mean to suggest that the GFC and similar recessions were the fault of market analysts, but irresponsible journalism, coupled with widespread failure to notice the above simple economic logic, certainly act to worsen the situation in such times. Same goes for the housing market: houses inflate in value much faster than anything else, partly because of the supply/demand dynamic, but mainly because it's in a lot of people's interest to have them do so, and they have the ability to control the market by prediction.

It's not just a matter of control by prediction, though. The biggest problem is that in each of these cases, what's in the individual's short-term interest is to act counter to the interests of society as a whole. Trade is not a zero-sum game; it is a game of the Prisoner's Dilemma, in which time after time our fellow prisoner has ratted us out, leaving us all worse off.

I don't know that there is a solution to this problem. But if there is, it would most likely involve either complete control over the flow of certain information, or direct manipulation of the market. The first runs counter to freedom of speech and of the press, and would be impossible to enforce in this Information Age in any case; even I, socialist and authoritarian as I am, think it unlikely to be worth it. The second sounds rather Communist too, but I'm not as inclined to dismiss it out of hand. The question is, what level and form of manipulation would be necessary, possible, and preferable to complete laissez-faire. Different markets might require different measures, depending on how their fluctuations affect real things.

And that's the real crux of the matter. Much as I agree with the opening quote, markets and currency are, like national borders or bills of rights or cricket, useful fictions. If these fictions outlive their usefulness they ought to be reviewed and revised in order to rein them in and regain their usefulness.
"The trouble with the law," protested Bentham,
"Is that it always manufactures fictions
To cover up its patent derelictions
And then imagines that it really meant them.
So let me help the lawyers: I'll present them
(Adding perhaps my milder maledictions)
With demonstrations of their contradictions."
They seemed, however, only to resent them.
— DH Monro, The Sonneteer's History of Philosophy.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reasons to Believe.

I apologise for the number of big words in this post — I had a post planned that would be much more accessible, on the subject of communication, but I've spent the last few days mostly taking care of Quincy following her surgery and I kind of developed blogger's block partway through writing it. So I've fallen back on this one, which I've adapted from a bunch of notes and which probably contains enough conceptual material for three or four simpler posts (which will probably still happen down the track). Hopefully it's not too dense, and I expect I'll explain my points here much better down the track. In the meantime, the communication post is on track for Thursday.

There is all the difference in the world between a good reason and a true explanation, or a cause, especially when it comes to epistemology. We can come to believe things any number of ways. Most of the things we believe we believe for reasons which are not epistemically good, but which are generally acceptable — it is unreasonable to demand that we refuse to believe anything whose truth we cannot directly demonstrate right now; this is the origin of solipsism. Yet it is reasonable to demand we withhold judgement on things which we suspect there are not sufficient epistemically good reasons for believing. That an intellectual peer disagrees with us is a good enough reason to investigate the issue, but when we do so and come out with good reason to believe our original thesis and (this is equally important) good reason to believe our disagreeing peer is simply mistaken or misled, we are justified in reaffirming our original thesis.


Religious believers (and followers of certain other non-reality-based doctrines) don’t, of course, want to question their beliefs, but epistemology is a field where desires don’t (or oughtn’t) enter into it. If you really care about the issue, the correct course is to withdraw judgement while investigating the issue and hopefully discovering the truth. If one follows this attitude with intellectual honesty as regards religion, for example, one will wind up withdrawing judgement perpetually, becoming an intellectual agnostic and a practical atheist (which are, by their most common definitions, near-synonymous, or at least nearly exactly correlated), until and unless such time as actual, concrete evidence such that a scientific journal or a court of law would accept comes to light.

When it comes to religious revelation, it is always more likely that the recipient of the revelation is simply mistaken — the very nature of such a miracle includes such improbability, which is why it is never rational to believe in them unless it is even more improbable (and therefore miraculous) that the miracle did not occur. When it comes to other ideas, Edgar Allan Poe writes: “For my own part, I have never had a thought which I could not set down in words, with even more distinctness than that with which I conceived it: — as I have before observed, the thought is logicalized by the effort at (written) expression.” He goes on to discuss “a class of fancies...which are not thoughts, and to which, as yet, I have found it absolutely impossible to adapt language” — but these are feelings, not thoughts, and it is certainly not possible to speak of them in logical terms or use them as premises on which to base rational conclusions. A revelation that is a feeling is inadmissible as evidence of anything other than an electrochemical event in your brain and an emotional one in your mind; one that is not a feeling ought to either be objectively convincing or, as mentioned, so improbable that it is more likely that the subject is merely mistaken. Logically, a feeling can only be equatable to the belief that one is experiencing that feeling. If one is sad, one simply believes it; if one does not believe that one is sad, one is simply not; and vice versa. It is certainly possible to share this fact with others, but the experiential component — how it actually subjectively feels — is impossible to share. But this does not mean one is unable to share any meaningful evidence.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

VodaFAIL.

I can't really say I wasn't warned; I've been told about Vodafone's terrible customer service before. But I figured so long as I ordered the phone online, paid by credit card and didn't actually have to interact with their customer service department I'd be fairly safe. They had the cheapest iPhone 4 plans that included everything I'd want to use — or so I thought. So they said.

Now I've been slugged with a major overcharge for using 370-odd megabytes of data in my first month. The plan I signed up to included 1GB, which given my browsing habits should allow me plenty of wiggle room. The plan they actually have me on record as having includes a piddly 50MB, which would kind of defeat some of the purpose of having a bloody iPhone in the first place and which I'd never have signed up for.

I'm OK with them making a mistake like this. They also have a $29/month cap that includes 50MB, and while it'd be kind of weird for the system to sell me an iPhone and then put me on a cap that costs the same but includes different things, I understand that it can and did happen. Kind of like me ordering an iPhone and getting a Galaxy S — it might be worth just as much, but that doesn't mean I want it just as much, and if I pointed out that sort of error I'd expect even Vodafone would be falling over themselves to swap it for me.

But the customer service rep who answered my email asking them to fix it said "we have you on record as only having 50MB, so we're going to assume that our records are correct and that for some reason you didn't get the iPhone 4 plan when you bought your iPhone but instead you got the dumbphone plan that costs the same and includes less, but we're feeling generous so we'll sign you up for our promotional deal that'll give you an extra 200MB a month from now on". They didn't mention whether this promotional deal cost extra, and they certainly didn't give me any indication that they were going to remove my overcharge.

I know the mistake isn't on my end. I have a screencap of the website that sold me the deal, and Quincy's on the same plan and her bill lists her extra data and the fact that it costs her nothing. It doesn't bother me that much that they made an honest mistake. What galls me the most is that they don't even consider the possibility that they did make an honest mistake, and their tone — "you're wrong and stupid, but we'll do something unrelated not to make up for it but just because we're being like, super-nice (and to make you feel bad about accusing us of being unfair)".

Ugh, and it's a 24 month contract too. When the iPhone 6 comes around, I'll hang the price premium and go with Telstra.

UPDATE: I've got an email now saying they'll try to honour what the website said, but they have to go to some other department. I hope they take more than a week to get back to me this time. Add "lousy corporate organisation" to "bad customer service". I really shouldn't have had to threaten them with taking the matter to Consumer Affairs in order to get what I paid for.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Parent Licence.

The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.
— Winston Churchill.
The best argument against parenthood as some sort of natural right is a five minute conversation with the average parent.

video


Does a potential parent have the right to bear and raise a child? So many people would simply answer yes without a second thought. Religion invokes God’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply, or similar, and some consider it their duty to have many children — it comes as no surprise that an ideology which creates more adherents will be more resilient than one which allows for such things as abortion and contraception. Mainstream liberal thought arrives at the same conclusion: we invoke free will and the right to do as one wishes with one’s own body, such as produce a child — this is, after all, part of the basis for the pro-choice movement.

That some people need to have the right to have children is obvious if we want our species to survive. But there are plenty of such necessary rights that we assign not to everyone but only to those who have shown that they will be competent and responsible in using them. There's a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Applied Philosophy claiming that because to be a successful parent requires certain knowledge and skills, and because abuse of one's rôle as a parent can have extremely harmful consequences, we should implement a parent licensing scheme analogous to driving licences or medical qualifications. And of course, we don't see having a child as a simple human right — it's already conditional on finding a willing partner and/or being able to afford fertility or adoption services, many of which impose minimum competency standards of their own. This last is in itself a solid argument — we require people to jump through hoops to adopt kids, but if inserting tab A into slot B works for them we leave them alone.

There are compelling arguments for parenthood-as-privilege from the rights of children. Bearing in mind that children have not had legal rights for any longer than women, the relative novelty of these arguments and the obvious interests of potential parents in maintaining the status quo explains why they have not been taken as seriously as they should be. Much as we need to reproduce in order for our species to survive (this much is tautological), there are certain rights we need to accord our children if we want the sort of society we favour to survive; these are the rights the fulfilment of which enables the child to become a properly functioning, responsible individuals.

Now, I'm not advocating unreasonably high standards. If we managed to get this far largely without legal regulation of parenthood it's fairly obvious that we can survive as a society even if some of us are abused or neglected as children. On the other hand, evolution tends to weed out those who are damaged in this manner — would it not be better for them not to suffer in the first place? The main focus of the sort of system I envision would be more on helping potential parents prepare than on telling them to go and get their tubes tied; not so that only competent people reproduce, but so that people (in general) can become competent to reproduce. And some forms of child abuse can be prevented in other ways. Take religious indoctrination. This would be better prevented by banning religion from schools, and treating religion like porn or drugs and restricting religious material and venues to adults, than by banning religious people from having children. We can provide hearty school lunches, charged to the parents' tax bill, to counter Ramadan starvation; we can provide counselling services to counter Catholic guilt-mongering, and comprehensive and compulsory health education to counter Christian sex-denialism; and we can strip doctors of their licences (and charge them with sexual assault) if they perform circumcisions.

video

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Technocracy.

The name doesn't in fact refer to government by machine, but by experts (Greek τέχνη "craft, skill" + κράτος "government"). Basically the idea is that rulers should be selected on merit in their own field. This doesn't happen at the moment; the only skill required of a leader is public relations, and the only ability required of a minister is the ability to be selected for the post by one's party. That and loyalty to the party in the first place.

I'm not in favour of technocracy as a sole means of government, but it does need to play a more prominent part. Why are medical practitioners answerable to a Minister for Health whose qualifications are in Law? Why have our last two state Premiers been schoolteachers? Why have we got a rock star heading the Education department?! Sure, plenty of his songs were political, but they ran the gamut of ideologies from workers' rights and socialised healthcare to property-rights libertarianism — hardly consistent.

We could even have a thoroughly democratic system, yet ensure our leaders were competent in their fields by imposing certain restrictions on who could hold what offices. The education minister, for example, could be required to have no less than five years' teaching experience, ending no more than five years ago. The health department could similarly be restricted to someone with a doctor's (or perhaps nurse's) qualifications, with similar experience restrictions. The question then is what happens when no qualified person is elected as a representative; but I envision this sort of technocratic cabinet being selected entirely separately from the ordinary democratic parliament, and from outside the party system to boot — you could only stand for a cabinet position if you were qualified. We want department leaders who'll implement what policies are best for their field, rather than toeing the party line.

The other requirement, I think, should be to make leadership a thankless job. To lead should be to serve. A local representative ought to serve the interests of his area, not those of his party. A party representative, conversely, should stick to his party line (as laid out prior to his election) regardless of his personal views; if he disagrees with the party he should stand down from both it and his seat. To this end, there should be separate roles for local and party representatives — a house of representatives with single-member local electorates, and a party house elected by the whole country on a similar preference system to our present Senate.

A technocrat should act with the sole objective of making his area of expertise as efficient and effective, and as great a public good, as it can be. Personality should be irrelevant. Popularity should be irrelevant — this is another reason I'd like to see a technocratic cabinet removed from parliament. The pay and perks of such a position should be no greater than the member's qualification and experience ought to entitle him to; he should want the job not to better himself but his country, and he (like a local representative) should be barred from membership in any party or ideological organisation.

I've actually thought out this sort of system in more detail than this and will probably publish those details here at some point.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ramadan: Ritual Child Abuse.

Wait, what? There are cases of institutionalised child abuse in so many religious traditions, many of which are utterly barbaric, so why am I opening a post about it with a discussion of a tradition whose purpose appears to be asceticism and self-respect?

Because our society isn't quite brain-dead enough to allow the most horrific forms of abuse. We react with the proper abject horror to stories of girls being sent overseas to be married to their cousins at 14, or having their clitorises cut out, or of children being violated by priests. I'm not going to go into why they're wrong because anyone with a functioning brain stem knows how wrong they are; if you can't see the obvious I'm not going to be able to make you.

But thousands of kids across the country were sent to school last month with no lunch (nor money with which to buy any). Do you remember forgetting your lunch one day at school? I'm sure it happened at least once. Do you remember how tired you felt toward the end of the day? Do you remember how much harder it was to concentrate on what you were supposed to be learning? Now imagine your parents denying you food from dawn till dusk for thirty days. How do you think you would have coped?

Ramadan is one of the teacher's banes. For a kid in this situation, you can pretty much write off most of the month as far as learning or getting anything constructive done goes. And the damage isn't temporary; their brains are still developing, and the lack of food for the entire day for thirty days is not the sort of conditions evolution equipped it to develop properly in. The age at which you're supposed to fast is well before the age when the brain is mature, and many younger children are "encouraged" to do it as well as "preparation". It's not just food, either. If you forgot your lunch for one day, you'd at least be able to visit the bubblers for a drink — no such luck for these kids. I've heard of cases where children have been denied vital medication because it's taken orally and thus violates the "no-eating" rule.

The best argument I've heard in favour of it is that it's the kid's own choice and we oughtn't interfere. Bull. Shit. How much choice do you think the kid really had? Even if there are no formal repercussions at home for breaking it, which there often are, expression of disapproval and disappointment at that age is devastating enough. I grew up in a religious home; I know how that sort of thing can feel, and I was a lot older before I even realised that some of the things going on were harmful. And you're not going to be able to hide it — people talk. Schoolchildren gossip like anyone else. In any case, if the parents encourage harmful behaviour, wouldn't you generally think this is a Bad Thing that Should Not Happen?

I'm not done with sticking it to religion as regards child abuse, and as I mentioned at the beginning there are a lot worse things than Ramadan that happen to kids, but this is one case that a lot more fuss needs to be made about. People are paranoid about annoying religious people and Muslims in particular, but the truth only ever hurt anyone when a lie got there first. I know it's cliché of me, but as long as people need to hear it I'll say it anyway:
Think of the children.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Benefits of Linguistic Prescriptivism.

I recognise that language in general and English specifically is by its very nature a fluid thing. I am all in favour of introducing new words, phrases and expressions to the language. English has, probably deservedly, been described as the sort of language that "takes other languages down back alleys, beats them up and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary". Native words change meaning all the time, and words that were obscene or insulting even within living memory are used as terms of endearment — and vice versa.

There remain three travesties up with which I simply refuse to put. The first: nonsense. I couldn’t care less makes logical sense. I could care less, when taken literally, means “I do care”, yet for some reason is used in place of the proper expression to mean “I don’t care”. I have heard the expression I could care less used correctly precisely once: on Green Day's American Idiot where it's used to emphasise the difference between the narrator and his apathetic community.

The second: deliberate inefficiency. Why do people feel the need to invent the word burglarize (which I spell with a z in contrast to my usual near-pathological aversion to that form, as I do with Americanize and novelize, to show my disapproval of the word in question) when we already have the perfectly serviceable, shorter, and more pronounceable burgle? (The original root word is burglar, which is why it's spelt with an A: burgle is a back-formation.)

The third: confusion of words such as alternate and alternative, being informed of your confusion, and subsequently refusing to use the correct word. It's this refusal that bothers me, because it amounts to deliberate muddying of one's language — and quite apart from the obvious question as to why you'd want to do that, it can, over time, eradicate what was once quite a useful distinction from the language. I can understand such a misuse in the mouth of someone who doesn’t know any better. The words are similar in form and meaning, which makes them easy to confuse — but this makes it especially important to make the effort to distinguish them. “But everybody does it” is not a valid reason to continue to be sloppy and careless, confusing, and potentially downright misleading. It’s not that hard to remember the difference, especially when the endings on the words make it clear that one is either a verb or a verby noun and the other is either an adjective or a descriptive noun.

I'm all in favour of being creative and flexible with language. My favourite writers all have something in common: they knew their language well and didn't just follow the rules; they were able to bend the rules to make it express things it was not necessarily designed to express. The same goes for good poets and lyricists. But this sort of rule-bending differs from the forms of laziness mentioned above in three important respects. Firstly, it is creative, designed for a specific expressive purpose (even if that purpose is a single joke). Secondly, it respects the principle that one can and should bend the rules only when one understands why those rules are there in the first place (more on this, in the wider sense, another day). Thirdly, if it sticks around, it can enrich the language itself (Shakespeare is the textbook example of this; scores of forms and constructions which we consider natural today were if not invented then certainly codified in his work, though the claim that he invented thousands of words is hyperbole), whereas the examples of bad English above can only diminish it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Reservation.

I propose a reservation of sorts. An area of land, in which are plenty of natural resources for the support of its inhabitants, in which anyone who wishes may go and live without any of the obligations or benefits of citizenship. Of course, it is not quite as simple as that. The State may not interfere with this reservation in any way. The only liberties of which the inhabitants of the reservation are deprived are those which proceed from citizenship itself, because of this requirement of non-interference.
  • Whereas the State may not interfere with the conduct of the inhabitants of the reservation, it may not enforce its own laws there in any way, nor may it enter into any arrangements with an inhabitant of the reservation.
  • Whereas the State has the right to public property, it may and should prohibit its own currency from being taken into the reservation, and it may and should prohibit inhabitants of the reservation from using public lands or infrastructure (including transport networks, water, power or communications infrastructure). (May here descends from the right to property; Should from the responsibility of the State to its citizens only and from the libertarians’ own opposition to free lunches.)
  • Whereas the State may not interfere with the liberty of the inhabitants of the reservation, it may not offer any form of legal guarantee on any contract involving an inhabitant of the reservation.
  • Whereas entry into the reservation must be a result of a conscious, informed, deliberate and free choice, it must be preceded by a cooling-off period of, say, thirty days.
  • Whereas entry into the reservation must be a result of a conscious, informed, deliberate and free choice, it must be restricted to citizens over the age of independence.
  • Whereas entry into the reservation must be a result of a conscious, informed, deliberate and free choice, the inhabitants of the reservation must waive any right to parenthood. This entails a requirement either for mandatory sterilisation of anyone entering the reservation, or the raising of children of inhabitants of the reservation as orphans. Whereas the State may not interfere with the conduct of the inhabitants of the reservation; whereas many libertarian systems view giving birth as an act of force (and therefore wrong) in itself; and whereas all other things being equal, an orphan’s lot is not as good as that of a child raised by parents (biological or otherwise); the former option is likely the better one. Ideally, such sterilisation ought be permanent but reversible, in case an inhabitant of the reservation should decide to rejoin society; but it is more important that the procedure be as effective as possible, as unlike normal irresponsible parenthood, there is no easy fix if a child is accidentally born in the reservation, because the State may not interfere with the conduct of the inhabitants of the reservation.
  • Whereas entry into the reservation entails the forfeiture to the State of currency and any property whose ownership depends upon the state; and whereas no form of State-recognised currency may enter or leave the reservation; one may not enter the reservation if one has any dependants (whether they be spouses, descendants, other family or nonrelated persons) unless one ensures and can prove that their care is provided for prior to such forfeiture. Even if one does not have any moral responsibility to any dependants, one may and should choose to distribute that property which one will not or cannot take into the reservation, much in the manner of a will, rather than merely forfeit it.
This reservation need not actually be a separate, fenced-off area of land; it's more a political idea, and could be adopted as a form of legal fiction. One could choose to renounce one's citizenship of the State and "enter the reservation" by severing all ties between himself and the State. Of course, this would make him practically unemployable (or at least unemployable by any business that would pay him in legal tender), and severely restrict his movements (since he would be unable to access public roads); a separate, delineated area would probably be preferable to those who would renounce their citizenship.

It would be theoretically possible for the inhabitants of the reservation to set up their own independent system, with its own regulatory bodies and so on — but, even ignoring the fact that it's against the libertarian's ideals to do so, why would they go to the effort of doing so when it would take a much lesser effort to reform the State in the first place? (For this reason, the reservation would also serve as a form of insurance — if the State did become too far gone, and it became easier to start afresh than implement reform, the State would lose its citizens at a faster and faster rate and the reservation could supplant it. This sense of competition would serve to keep the less appropriate motives of the State in check.)

    Saturday, September 11, 2010

    Spoilsports.

    And then there are those of us who'd rather no government at all: economic libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and their ilk.

    Mark Rosenfelder explains very well many of the problems with these positions, practically and morally. It's an erudite article, and if you're not overly familiar with these ideas it's probably the best layman's explanation I've found — it's certainly biased, as his goals are to discredit libertarians and their ideals, but as far as I'm concerned said ideals were never worth crediting in the first place.

    The short version is that libertarianism favours the elimination of government regulation and the absolute freedom of citizens. It's based on the idea of absolute individual sovereignty and, relatedly, absolute property rights. Sounds nice and dandy, but this extends to the abolition of market regulations, safety regulations, and all public services on the one hand, and the view of all taxation as theft and law enforcement (no matter what sort of case or whether the "victim" is guilty) as the immoral "initiation of force" on the other. The general hope is that the market forces will ensure a fair outcome overall; but these idealists are poor economists. The practical results we see when libertarian tenets are actually implemented are a ballooning gap between rich and poor, increasing poverty overall, and the erosion of workers' rights. Furthermore, taking power away from "the government" doesn't mean the power itself goes away. It is usurped usually by corporations and landlords, and to a lesser degree by churches and social organisations, none of which have the legal accountability of a government — especially when that government is small and powerless.

    However.

    While my own ideals are quite authoritarian — indeed, I'm in favour of certain restrictions on personal liberties that have appalled more mainstream ethicists — I do believe in the basic premises of liberalism: that everyone is entitled to his own conception of the good, his own ideal to which he aspires. Of course, you can't stop people from holding beliefs no matter how hard you try, short of killing them. But the idea is that insofar as to act on your beliefs interferes with nobody else's similar rights, nobody has the right to stop you. Libertarian policies demonstrably do interfere with the rights of others, by removing the checks and balances on power and the citizen's recourse to the law when he is treated unfairly. The question we must therefore ask is, is there a way in which a libertarian could act upon his own conception of the good, without treading on what we consider the rights of citizens of an effective and (by design, at least) benevolent State?

    I think there is. Subject, of course, to whether the libertarian's conception of the good is genuinely the absence of state interference in his life, or just his desire to grab the biggest share of the pie, to which end he sees embracing libertarianism as the quickest means. Fortunately, this solution also enables us to discriminate between these two, and as an added bonus can be structured so as to actually teach a few of them a Valuable Lesson™. I'll go over it in detail on Tuesday.

    Thursday, September 9, 2010

    Told You So.

    Philosophy, in terms of both these [major] parties, died a decade ago. Probably longer.
    — Tony Windsor.
    We should have a great big swear-jar in this building.
    — Rob Oakeshott.

    Normally I don't like to brag. Okay, that's a lie, I'm actually wonderful at banging on about how awesome I am. Still, I'm not exactly experienced at this game. I didn't expect Katter to faff about with making up his mind for 17 days, and I certainly didn't expect Wilkie's decision to rest on a party offering him too much. On the other hand, I saw pretty much the rest of the scenario playing out in my first post, a few days after the election. I felt pretty sure it'd come down to these two. While I think Oakeshott was quite wrong to say that there was almost nothing in the decision — both because that's not the kind of talking that wins you votes and because both parties, despite their shriveled husks of ideology, are still distinguishable on policy grounds — and I got tired of his waffling on once he made it plain he wasn't sending us back to the polls, I am thankful that they went with what is on balance the lesser evil.

    Am I happy with the result? As happy as I could expect to be, I suppose. I didn't want to see another election any time soon; and the Greens strongly disapprove of Conroy's internet filter, which should keep that off the table for the time being. Whatever happens over the next few years, the Greens will almost certainly grow in power. We might even get that gay marriage bill through before the next election.

    I was amused that some protested that a Labor-Green alliance would lead to the most left-wing government we've ever seen. That's supposed to be a bad thing? Progress is inevitable. The right, by and large, tries to control it by limiting it. The left tries to control it by guiding it in the right direction. I think it's quite clear whose approach is going to be more successful. It always has. I'd like to hope that this represents a turning point for Australian politics: that even if a major party does regain a majority in the lower house, the number of crossbenchers in the Senate who actually do stand for something — the Greens, Xenophon, maybe even the Sex Party given their performance this election — is able to keep the bastards honest in a way we haven't seen so far.

    Also, to Barnaby Joyce and others who think the independents have acted against their electorates' wishes by supporting Labor: Have a cup of concrete and stop whinging. If their electorates wanted the coalition to win, they would have voted for them. To those who think that the resulting government is in any way illegitimate, remember: it's not the individual party with the most seats, or even the most votes. If it were, Labor would have taken government several times when it took the Nationals to get the Libs over the line. Just because Labor has resorted to a coalition doesn't rob them of legitimacy. If the Libs had managed to woo Windsor and Oakeshott, we wouldn't hear any of those complaints — or if we did, it would be from the other side and it would be just as misinformed. If you don't like the rules, that's fine, but you have no right to suggest they aren't being followed.

    Tuesday, September 7, 2010

    Insurance, or, I Like Pears.

    Insurance makes sense in a lot of cases. It's cheaper to insure my car for years than to have one accident uninsured. Peace of mind is not a negligible benefit in itself; you sleep a lot easier at night when you know that even if things go pear-shaped, you're at least going to have some help picking up the pieces. Of pear. Mixing metaphors is fun, kids.

    Of course, there are some gripes I do have with the way it's implemented. I remember hearing a story about a car insurance company which paid an analyst a large amount of money to refine their algorithms for determining premiums. The analyst came up with a solution that would be much more accurate in terms of reflecting the likelihood of having to pay out a claim, much fairer on drivers, and even cheaper in the long run. The company rejected it because it would require their sales staff to push a couple of extra buttons to set up a policy.

    There is, however, one type of insurance I can't really understand: health insurance. I understand why it has to exist, given how useless the government healthcare system in this country is — more on this another day — but the way it's done baffles me. You can buy cover that will supposedly cover everything that happens in a hospital — but whoops, it won't cover your wisdom teeth operation because that's a dental procedure and it comes under extras. The cynic in me wonders if if you bought extras cover instead, they wouldn't cover your wisdom teeth operation because it's done in a hospital. You can buy a policy that will cover a pair of spectacles every year for the rest of your life, but won't fork out a cent to buy you laser corrective surgery — which will be just as permanent, much less annoying, and probably end up costing the insurance company half as much. If you change cover, your waiting period starts afresh — even if you were upgrading. You're paying more, and you can't even use the cover you were paying for to start with!

    Also, I really don't like that you can't pick and choose. Most of the providers I've looked into offer the same three levels of cover, with very little difference between providers, and with no ability beyond this to choose what you want covered. What if you've had your vision corrected with lasers already? You neither want nor need optical cover, but if you want that extras cover you have to buy it. What if you've already had your wisdom teeth removed? They aren't going to grow back, but if you want other dental cover you have to buy the whole package. What if you're a sane, sensible person who trusts the doctors when they say that if Insert Natural Remedy Name Here actually worked, they'd be prescribing it? Sorry, you still have to pay for this other loony to have his acupuncture/water divination/snake oil therapy if you want your cover.

    Forehead, meet palm. You're going to be spending a lot of time together.

    Saturday, September 4, 2010

    Democracy and the Philosopher-King.

    Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, — nor the human race, as I believe, — and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day. Such was the thought, my dear Glaucon, which I would fain have uttered if it had not seemed too extravagant; for to be convinced that in no other State can there be happiness private or public is indeed a hard thing. 
    — Plato, The Republic Book V (trans. Benjamin Jowett).

    The comments on Tuesday's post brought to my mind the notion of the philosopher-king: one who gains power in order to effectively execute his philosophy, or who gains philosophy in order to justly execute his power. Philosophy in this sense means wisdom and knowledge about what is good for the state, good for the people, and (if you still believe in such things) good simpliciter.

    Plato perhaps more than anyone else, and The Republic perhaps more than any other work, laid the foundations of democracy both in the classical world and in the modern one. Despite this, the way in which democracy is set up in most modern societies seems to me to be perversely opposed to the success of anyone who wants to actually become a philosopher-king. Politicians who stick to their ideology, take the time and expend the effort necessary to adequately inform themselves, and refuse to compromise (those who gain philosophy), are much less likely to be elected than those who bend themselves to the will of the Party or the whims of the public. Conversely, politicians who suck up to whoever funds their campaigns, base policy decisions on what will win them marginal seats, and do whatever it takes to actually get themselves elected (those who gain power), are much less likely to act responsibly and in the interests of the people with that power.

    Does it have to be that way? I don't think so. But the implementation of a solution rests at present on it being in the interests of enough people who have enough power to make it happen. Even the independents who are holding the balance of power (in the sense of holding it over Gillard and Abbott's heads) are concerned first for stability, second for their electorates, and much less with the initially touted potential for parliamentary reform.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010

    Phobia.

    Opposition to gay marriage makes even less sense than most social-conservative policies. The arguments dreamed up in its defence are particularly pitiful. But it's my belief that we don't even need to answer those arguments directly. Sure, we can point out that the existence of gay married couples doesn't in any way degrade existing straight marriages, and if a straight couple feels that it does then it's the fault of their own bigotry; we can point to studies showing that children aren't any worse off, socially or psychologically, with gay parents, and to similar rates of divorce among straight and gay couples in places where it's already legalised.

    The first reason is that in this area, the law is relatively powerless. Civil unions confer many of the major benefits of marriage and are a definite step in the right direction; if you're savvy enough, or know someone who is, you can draw up contracts to cover most of the rest of it. Yes, it's not neat, and it's probably not cheap, but it's doable. Furthermore, the only people who talk about civil unions are the people whose business is the law. No young Romeo is about to fall to his knees and cry "Julian, my darling. Will you civilly unite with me?" (Linked, an explanation far better and conciser than I could write.) You might not be "legally married", but if you've got your own priorities straight, you'll be as married as the rest of us where it really counts.

    Second reason: We throw around words like homophobic to label people who oppose homosexuality. Why -phobic? We have racism, sexism, speciesism, but here we attach a label that in most cases describes either relatively benign psychological conditions (acrophobic, claustrophobic) or mundane scientific phenomena (oleophobic, hydrophobic). We don't mean it that way, but it lends an aura of acceptability, inevitability to what's really just simple bigotry. "I can't help it; I have a phobia."

    But the reality is that it doesn't matter if the Marriage Act is homophobic. No really, it doesn't. We don't need to convince people that homophobia is wrong before we convince them to change it. We can argue against it from a principle that a lot more people accept: that sexism is wrong. It doesn't matter if it's homophobic, because it is also sexist and that should be enough to prove that it's wrong. To wit: subject of course to her consent, I could theoretically marry just about any woman I chose. But I couldn't marry a man no matter how well I knew him or how much I loved him — not because I or he was gay, but because we were both male. Sure, the law exists for homophobic reasons, but it can be torn down on a gender equality basis.

    By the way, to any couples planning to get married in Australia, if you're told your celebrant has to read the part of the Marriage Act that defines it as being only between a man and a woman or else your marriage will be invalid, pay attention. This part came as a bit of an unpleasant surprise as we were planning our wedding. More recently, I've looked into the actual Marriage Act. Nobody's going to come along and tell you you aren't "really married", or take away your legal rights. One part of the Act does indeed list those particular words as a requirement to be read at the ceremony, but a couple of sections later is the part that talks about grounds on which a marriage should be considered invalid and failure to have those words read is specifically excluded. I'm no lawyer, so don't take my word as gospel: but look into it for yourself, and work something out with your celebrant, if those words make you as uncomfortable as they make me.