Saturday, 24 June 2017

The charity conundrum

I puzzled for a while now about how differently I react to requests for charity. Money that is to you and me. It's probably fair to say that I have always given generously and on a regular basis to organisations such as Unicef and others. In fact, about 15 years ago I promised to myself always to give about 2 percent of my after tax income to charitable causes. So far, I kept that promise, with Unicef the most prominent benificiary over the years. One of the most satisfying instances of giving for me was with the Guardian scheme in Katine, Uganda, where every pound was matched by Barclays Bank for five years (check it out HERE, it was an amazing project!). The money was spent on training programmes for schools, midwives and health visitors in several villages in and around Katine and the Guardian and the charity reported annually about progress and difficulties. I enjoyed giving to it since I felt it could make a difference and I had a sense that there are real people at the end of this programme. Also, I thought the money would not be spent on temporary disaster relief but on permenantly building up the community resilience to problems. Sadly the programme ended after five years, perhaps a sign of how effective it has been in improving people's lives there.

This mix of motifs and incentives also lies at the heart of what puzzles me about charitable giving. What attracted me to the Katine programme was clearly the ability to see firsthand that there were actual people at the receiving end, that the money was used to provide them with help to help themselves, and that there was significant oversight and reporting on progress made.

Cut to a street in Liverpool or London in 2017 where I am being approached by someone who asks for a pound. No matter how desperate, homeless or not, I simply would not get my wallet out (before you set off in indignation let me add, I used to give on the street as well). Worse, when being confronted by images of poverty in the UK, homelessness and the like, I feel no pull on the heart strings.

Copyright: Peter Shelomovskiy

Which one would you give to? Copyright: Telegraph

So why is this? There is nothing more concrete and immediate than a person standing in front of you asking for money. I know where the money would go and how it would be used if I was to give any. Why don't I feel the same generosity when I am confronted by the signs of UK poverty as it is when I see it in far away countries?

I think it has something to do with the differentials in opportunities between both contexts. I recognise that people can get into all sorts of difficult situations where they need help, either from their own family and friends or from the local community. However, there is a crucial difference between the two environments. In the UK, whatever you think about injustices built into the system there are enormous opportunities for education, training and work with a basic safety net that includes homeless shelters. This highlights, rightly or wrongly, the role of personal responsibility in creating your own destiny. It emphasises how much we are all in the driving seat when it comes to forging our own future.

This heightened role of personal responsibility carries risks of failure for those who struggle to reconcile personal obligations with individual behaviour. In those cases, we are all called upon to help. But the help should be provided, in my mind, by (local) government, not by individual charity.

The situation of a child (or adult for that matter) in a village in Uganda is considerably different. It's position vis-a-vis opportunities is hampered by ineffective or non-existent government services in the first place, due to state failure or corruption. Here it does not matter whether or not anybody accepts responsibility for their own future. The barriers are simply too great to overcome. Charity in this context is mitigating state failures to ensure that they do not translate into personal tragedies.

I acknowledge that there are structural injustices in both contexts which conspire to hold people back. Yet, the fundamental difference remains: where states function well, opportunities, however small, exist. None of this means that we should be heartless or cold towards personal suffering wherever it occurs. It does however tell us something about our own agency and how we behave in the face of need. In the UK, as largely in the Western world, we mitigate need through government and its myriad organisations, stressing the sense of personal responsibility. In the developing world we recognise that the failure of government itself is the main cause of poverty and the lack of opportunities. Personal responsibility does not take you far where state institutions have broken down and do not provide the basic infrastructure to allow you to thrive as a human being. It's there that we are all called upon to help.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

What welfare really means

The General Election has brought some of the welfare issues back into the spotlight. This may be because the Labour Party now has a leader who believes in the good of welfare.

I have often struggled to find good arguments why welfare should not be a universal entitlement. The argument for universal welfare (all the up to basic income) are very compelling. What's wrong with helping people who cannot help themselves? It surely must be their right to be supported in times of need.

Sometimes, it's worthwhile to go back to what others have written on the subject since nothing is new under the sun, least of all the debate about welfare. So I came across this passage in Michael Lipsky's seminal study of 'Street-Level Bureaucracy. Dilemmas of the individual in public services'.

'The ways in which street-level bureaucrats deliver benefits and sanctions structure and delimit people's lives and opportunities. These ways orient and provide the social (and political) context in which people act. Thus every extension of service benefits is accompanied by an extension of state influence and control over their lives.' (p.4)

Lipsky is no dyed in the wool Tory, he was an American political scientist who investigated the effects of public services on those who delivered them (the local staff) and those who received them.

The passage is so insightful because he does not opt for the usual perspective on welfare that we commonly adopt when debating public services, focusing on the support function of welfare payments to individual. Instead, he tries to see it as a form of control that is being exercised over people. This resonates with the messages that are often articulated from the extreme left about the injustices of the welfare system such as Ken Loach's recent film 'I, Daniel Blake' and his critique of the welfare sanction regime. Lipsky's conclusions are different to those of Loach. Whilst Loach wants every one to have unlimited welfare payments, Lipsky articulates the malign effect of welfare on welfare recipients themselves, as welfare payments start to structure their lives and determine the way the behave.

The answer, Lipsky makes clear, is not to grant street-level bureaucrats more or total control (i.e. universal benefit) but to reduce their influence over our lives. Welfare is not innocuous, he argues, it restricts us and exerts power and control over us. Providing less welfare to all of us in the end liberates us, it allows us to shape our own lives.

The Airbnb experience

A couple of years ago, I decided that I had enough of hotel rooms. No more sagging beds despite four stars and unbearable attitude at reception desks, no more plastic kettles precariously placed on a side table with no socket in side, and interior design that would have made my mother cringe. I was fed up with the anonymous feel whilst paying a high price to get a vacuous yet contemptous fake smile at the reception. So I went Airbnb.

For those of you who do not live in the shared economy, Airbnb is an internet platform that allows you to advertise your own four walls to other people. Airbnb manages all the money transfers between your guest and yourself, takes a fee for this service and guarantees you in turn a potential customer base of several million people across the world who want to stretch out their tired legs in your living room. Over the years, I have found Airbnb nothing but an impeccable service, rapidly responding to my emails or calls when things go wrong.

Stepping into someone else's flat. The Airbnb promise.

The beef I have (and I do have a beef) is with those who embark on the Airbnb path without the necessary skills or readiness to be a host.

Essentially, Airbnb has two types of 'hosts'. The first type is the private citizen who happens to have a spare room and does not mind a complete stranger putting their feet up in the living room. Making some pocket money at the same time helps. This type of host may be attentive or not, considerate or not, clean or filthy, absent or present...whatever he or she is. You know what you get since you know you will enter someone's private abode.

More recently, however, Airbnb has attracted a lot of business clients as hosts. These are basically companies (single self-employed investors or large scale investors) who buy up property to rent it out via Airbnb. I doubt that the profit margins are very high, given that those apartments are usually fully serviced but whatever the gain, the problem I have is not with the professional companies playing host (they are not much else but hotels offering apartments instead of single rooms) but the self-employed, self-taught wanna-be host. You know who I mean. The one who has two or three mobile phones, a fake Rolex watch, and drives an Audio A8 (on credit).

Whilst looking all 'proper business like' (so they think) what they fail to grasp is that running a business like renting out an apartment (or many!) takes good organisational skills and a sense of how to manage your time and resources. That's where they fall down. How often have I stood in front of a locked door at the agreed time, desperately ringing the sole phone number given to me by Airbnb without a host anywhere in sight. If you are lucky, you might get an email saying that, at the present time, your host cannot be at the apartment as arranged but will be there soon. 'Soon' is usually not specified and can mean anything from a couple of minutes to several hours.

Most of these hosts are in fact nowhere close to the specific apartment you would like to stay in. In fact, it always struck me as extraordinary how many of my 'hosts' where living in Florida or Paris whilst the flats they rented out were some thousands of miles away in the Costa del Sol or Munich. For these 'absent' hosts, luckily there is always the helpful neighbour close by... well, not quite. Since the hosts probably never lived in the flat themselves, they have no relationship with any of the neighbours who lived there for years. In fact, at times, the neighbours often don't even know that the flat is rented out through Airbnb.

Worse, because these hosts rarely know the flat they are renting out themselves, they rely on the cleaning service to tell them details and sort out problems. Most recently, I arrived at an apartment in a house that was completely scaffolded from floor to rooftop with some builders cheerily hacking off the outside plaster with sledgehammers whilst I was anxiously trying to phone my host to see if any alternative flat would be available. When I got through to the host, he had no idea the house was actually being regenerated and had been gutted from top to bottom. Needless to say I was slightly miffed about this teeny weeny bit of ignorance.

But that's nothing compared to the 'host' who rents out a flat that isn't even his. This happened to me a couple of years back where, in the second night, someone else came into the apartment who was quite surprised to find me there. It turned out that somebody had rented out a flat that wasn't even his, but which he had shared previously. Having held on to the key of the flat, the fellow thought it would be cool to advertise the flat on Airbnb to make a buck on the side.

In all this, I have to stress, Airbnb itself has been absolutely without fault. Whenever the hosts messed up, Airbnb bent over backwards to make it right. But I think I am just growing a bit tired of poor organisation, hiccups and absent landlords. I might just have to go back to tiny rooms with kettles on the floor and windows I can't open whilst the aircondition is rattling away.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Malaise of Labour

The date is set, the knives will be out shortly. Well, at least amongst Labour politicians. And those knives are of course not sharpened for Labour's attack on the Conservatives, but for a good fratricidal battle as only Labour can do it.

Barring a miracle of triple Trump proportions, May will be Prime Minister with a sizable majority in the House of Commons and will emerge strengthened from the June snap election with a decent mandate to negotiate a hard Brexit. The Lib Dems will make some minor amends for their previous nigh annihilation in 2015, and the Greens will tread water as they have ever since they were founded.

So, what about Labour? Isn't this the big test Corbyn's proponents and enemies talked about? Maybe this is the moment when he will have to resign following what in all likelyhood will be a defeat of 1983 magnitude?

Nothing could be further from the truth. When was the last time anybody heard Corbyn or anybody from his team speak of 'electoral tests'? The fact is that Corbyn does not think of politics as a battle of ideas to be decided by general elections. He does not attach any significance to elections at all. His is the 'long game' of the socialist revolution (no joke!) where elections are not the litmus test of governability for Labour.

The stuff of dreams - Corbyn and the socialist consciousness

In fact, if you listen carefully to McDonnell and others, what matters to the Corbyn team is not the victory at the ballot box but the development of a historical consciousness of the proletariat that will emerge as things go worse. In their (contorted) Marxist logic, the more successful the Conservatives will be, the more the country will sink into a 'deep crisis' that will help develop the 'revolutionary situation' which is necessary to establish socialism in Britain. (I recognise that there is an element of caricature in this picture, but only just!).

The sad dynamics of these illogical theoretical gymnastics of Corbyn are that they leave the UK without a strong reformist opposition with policy ideas that are grounded in real life and speak to people who are at the sharp end of Brexit and Conservative policies in education, health and the economy. Such a viable effective opposition will only emerge once Labour (and the moderate British centre left) will be able to re-appraise the enormous policy achievements of the Blair and Brown governments for a moderate Labour government and stop seeing the last time Labour was in power through the prism of Iraq. The answers of such a re-constructed moderate left will be different to those given by the two last giants of Labour policy but the thrust will be similar: engaging with real life issues, formulating reformist policies in education, health and a rebalancing of the economy.

Until now, all we have from Labour is 'school meals for all'.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Why neurosciences can't tell us much about ... human behaviour

There has been a spate of recent books on the insights of brain science on our behaviour. The main news is that we are probably not as independent from our brains as we think we are when making decisions. In fact, there is now good evidence that our brains decide things before we even start to think about things. If that sounds irrational, so it is indeed. Reasoning is out, impetus is in.

Whilst scientists appear to agree increasingly that our synapses fire before we can think about our options, the jury is out on whether this makes us better or worse when it comes to social behaviour. If neurosciences tell us that our brains make decisions for us and instead of us, do they have a tendency to select one option over another? Are our brains hardwired to be 'social' or 'altruistic' rather than 'egoistic' and 'selfish'?

Some neuroscientists draw on evolutionary biology and psychological experiments to answer this question. One of the more interesting attempts has been Donald Pfaff's book The altruistic brain. He develops a theory about why our brains are more likely to select the more 'altruistic' option in moments of snap decisions, rather than the selfish option.

Pfaff's theory combines evidence from evolutionary biology with recent findings from neuroscience  experiments (basically: people in MRI scanners pressing buttons), but his theory has a wider scope and it is there that it runs into considerable trouble. Here is why.

The holy grail of neurosciences but not much space for moral thinking
MRI scanner in action. Foto: NHS Choices

There may be sound evidence that our brains are designed in such a way as to pre-empt our reasoning. After all, it makes sense to have a brain mechanism to make the right selection from a range of difficult options when we are in immediate danger. The narratives of evolutionary biologists speak to this issue. We may be likely to protect our closest family members 'without much thinking' as this safeguards our genetic prospects.

Pfaff's theory however has a larger scope. He gives an instructive example in his book when talking about the firefighter Steven Siller who, on his day off, hears about the attack on the World Trade Centre, and spontaneously decides to pick up his gear and drive himself down to the centre of the attack to rescue people. Steven lost his life while helping others so Pfaff can justly claim that Steven's actions are undeniably altruistic.

But look more closely and Pfaff's theory of altruistic brain looks a bit more on shaky grounds. Neuroscience experiments say something about the predominance of altruistic or non-selfish behaviour in the moment before our thinking kicks in. That may account for Steven's actions in the moment he hears about the 9/11 attack. But Steven did not stop there. He now faced a long drive to the location of the attack which gave him plenty of opportunity to think hard about what he is doing and why. For this period of time when we contemplate and consider the right course of action, neurosciences can't tell us much. Our reasoning is safely removed from instant brain surges. After all, to assume this separation between the impetus of the brain and our reasoning is the precondition for neuroscientific theories of human behaviour in the first place. Pfaff therefore can't have it both ways. Our reasoning must, at some point, take over.

Claiming that our brains guide us in our behaviour prior to our considered rational thought can only extent to the domain of instant behaviour. Where behaviour is considered, thoughts always trump the predominance of brain matter.

Since Pfaff does not want to accept this, he would need to tell us why the brains' altruistic preferences extend not only to the milliseconds before we make a decision but also to the hours and hours when we mull something over and consider our options (and often revise our behaviour).

Yet, that is not where the difficulties end since Pfaff wants to mould a behaviour moderating mechanism out of his theory. If we knew the brain activity that guides us (prior to rational thinking) to altruistic behaviour, perhaps we can, so he argues, subject criminals to neuroaltering procedures to strengthen their 'good' over their 'bad' behaviour?  Sounds familiar?

Yes, we have been here before. Pfaff walks the path of every other scientist who believes in the ability of his own theory to change this world to the better if only we apply the theory consistently and without much consideration for our own moral compass. Imagine if we could change people's brains, we could make this a better world.

But his thinking is based on a series of fallacious assumptions. The first one is that, if only we could eliminate 'non-altruistic' behaviour we will all live happily ever after. What he fails to understand is that 'good' behaviour only exists because we can point to behaviour that isn't such. Good things happen because we know what bad things look like, and vice versa.

The second grave error he makes is to assume that 'altruistism' is something that we can just point to when we see it (unfortunately, Pfaff also uses the terms 'reciprocal' with 'altruistic' interchangeably which is problematic since not all reciprocal behaviour is altruistic). But altruism is not a fixed entity, it requires interpretation and people often profoundly disagree about what constitutes altruistic behaviour and what does not. In fact it takes a lot of thinking (cue our capacity for rational thought) to determine what is altruistic course of action in a given situation. And. ultimately, we might come to different conclusions and agree to disagree of whether or not something is altruistic. Neurosciences can't help us in this search for intersubjective truth.

There is a fundamental revelation in the Christian doctrine of original sin that reflects this issue of uncertainty. If you look beyond the narrow theological interpretations of the fall of man, one can see that it hints at an irreducable aspect of the human condition. It is the inability to agree and say with certainty what is good or bad (metaphorically also represented in the Tower of Babel and the proliferation of many languages). Neurosciences won't help us to return to a state of innocence. It is up to us, rational human beings, to argue about what is good and what is evil. No MRI scanner can help us in this quest.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Tracy Emin and William Blake - from unmade minds to unmade beds

Liverpool Tate are currently running one of those 'compare and contrast' exhibitions that have a slightly didactic thrust. They managed to obtain Tracy Emin's piece My Bed and have surrounded it with sketches and paintings by William Blake from their archives. The connection is supposed to have something to do with the presence or absence of the artist but, the best one can say is that this connection is mainly present through its absence.

At best provocative. Tracey Emin's My Bed -
Foto: Tate Liverpool

Putting the works of two artists together in an exhibition is always a risky thing to do and I am not sure Emin's work will ultimately benefit from this recent attempt to draw parallels where there are few or none. What the exhibition demonstrates most of all is the enormous explosive imagination of Blake and his breathtaking artistic inventiveness that allowed him to borrow (and shape) mysticism and philosophy even centuries later. In contrast, Emin's Bed looks at best 'provocative' rather than a piece of groundbreaking or revolutionary art.

Michelangelo Pistoletto: Venues of the Rags
Foto: AK
But then again, the curator's choice of Emin and Blake in one exhibition may have been slightly unfair to Emin given that hardly any artist could hold their own in comparison to Blake's restless mind and his artistic output. The comparison between Emin and Blake also falls down on a different matter and that is the supposed link between a piece of (largely) conceptual art and sketches/paintings. As far as conceptual art is concerned, Emin is herself not the most entertaining or the one with sufficient depth. Interestingly, as a brief walk about on the other floors of the Tate Liverpool reveals, other pieces show more affinity to Blake's philosophical musings than Emin's. Even a funny piece like Michelangelo Pistoletto's Venues of the Rags has more entertaining value than Emin's work. And Rebecca Horn's Scratching Both Walls at Once evokes feelings of haunting and dread.

Reaching out. Rebecca Horn's Scratching both Walls at Once
Foto: AK

The comparison finally grinds to a screeching halt in a second room where Emin's prints are juxtaposed to some of Blake's. The comparison is not a kind one to Emin and cruelly demonstrate the lack of depth and artistic vacuity of her print work. The exhibition should act as a warning to potential curators: do not match up what is best kept separate.

Speenhamland and Free Trade

As the debate about free trade versus protectionism rages on, it may be useful to cast an eye back to another period in history when protectionism was en vogue.

Karl Polanyi wrote about it eloquently in his The Great Transformation. The essential tension that made protectionism ultimately unworkable, he wrote in 1945, was that capitalism requires three conditions to be met to function properly: labour should find its price on the market (unhindered individual or collective negotiation of wages); capital and good can be exchanged unhindered (free trade without tariff and custom barriers); and the creation of money should be subject to an automated mechanism (an exchange rate established on the currency market or, previously, a fixed rate such as the gold standard).

To implement but one, free trade, without the other (to tether one currency to another without means of adjusting, or to deny labour to find its price in free and fair negotiations) is to set capitalism up to fail. Polanyi illustrates his argument with a detailed analysis of the Speenhamland practice, something that figures little in history books but was discussed and debated vigorously in 19th century economics. Speenhamland was essentially a system of wage subsidy, where wages would be supplemented by a form of outdoor relief by local taxpayers. In essence, Polanyi writes, it achieved two counter-productive things. First, it undermined the ability of people to negotiate their wages (individually or collectively) to accomplish a fair price for their labour. But, second, it also tied their labour to a specific place, making it impossible to move. The Speenhamland system thus created capitalism without a free and unhindered labour market.

Polanyi's example is instructive for the current debate on protectionism and free movement of people. Allowing goods, capital and services to move freely but denying the same right to people will achieve only one thing, to undermine capitalism to function properly. A fair market economy can only work smoothly if all three mechanisms of exchange (labour, goods and money) can move freely. Restrict one and you will cripple the others.