Archive for the ‘ Ethics ’ Category

Abortion

I recently supported my wife through a pregnancy and birth with some, but by no means terrible, complications. My wife was largely immobile in the weeks beforehand, and my son took 36 hours and a caesarian section to be born. Since then he has mostly fed and slept quite well, after a testing few days when he wasn’t getting enough milk and we weren’t topping up with formula milk. I love them both very much, and am very proud and pleased to be a father.

I know Kung-Fu

Clearly the best baby

 

And it all made me think a little bit about abortion. My view hasn’t changed, but has been strengthened. I am even more strongly pro-choice than I was.

Having seen how difficult pregnancy, childbirth and very early parenthood are, it is strikingly clear that women should be allowed to abort unwanted or problematic pregnancies. Our baby was planned, we are secure in our relationship, housing and finances, my wife was lucky enough to have a healthy baby, and has been supported (hopefully well) by me and a wonderful set of family and friends. And still we struggle. Because it is *hard*.

Forcing this on someone against their wishes is awful, and a hugely disproportionate punishment for carelessness, changes to circumstance or worse.

I don’t think that early stage abortions should be restricted at all, by which I mean before the foetus is likely to have developed a nervous system. Until that point, it can’t even feel basic sensation, so can’t suffer, and so I don’t think has intrinsic value. It is literally no different from any other lump of cells, except it is parasitic and disruptive, with massive mid and long-term consequences if left unchecked.

However, that doesn’t mean that women should just be left to it. I suspect women who have an abortion without being significantly impacted are few and far between, and with abortions should come support. It is difficult to make sure this role doesn’t get taken over by organisations with an anti-choice agenda, but I think it’s important that support is offered.

I am not particularly well versed on baby development, and can’t say anything about how they experience sensation in the early stages of neural development or when they start to develop a sense of self, and I’m not particularly interested in viability as a criteria for parental responsibility. The main consideration for me in this sort of situation is suffering, of all parties, and for all decisions.

I think I would take a fair bit of convincing that a foetus suffers sufficiently at most points in development to make a case against abortion when there is a serious disability or health risk to either party.

I am still a little conflicted about elective late term abortions. Theoretically I think there should probably be a cut off in intentionally killing a foetus at the point where it could, by an equivalently traumatic or invasive procedure, live. So, for example, a woman carrying a 30 week old baby would likely have to give birth to the baby or have a C-section, and whether the baby is dead or alive would not affect that process much. At that point, I think the woman should still be allowed to terminate the pregnancy, but perhaps not by killing the child.

The complexities really come in the time between viability as in ‘could just about survive but with high risk of long term problems‘ and viability as in ‘could survive in the wild on its own‘. How reasonable is it to ask that a woman at 28 weeks pregnant, carrying a baby that may well be viable, but with a higher risk of health problems, carry to at least 34 weeks, making it very likely that the baby could survive just fine? I suspect that the additional few weeks would be a toll on the mother, but I am not sure how this weighs against the likelihood of long-term effects on the baby.

 

What the result of all this, and how that would be enacted legally I have no idea. Translating principles based on theoretical limits like the point of sentience into laws for society is basically impossible, and there are a million practical problems that I haven’t thought about. I don’t have a massive problem with elective abortions only being allowed up until a certain point in normal cases, although I think there should be room for exceptional circumstances such as diagnosis of complications and, perhaps most controversially, not knowing they were pregnant.

Of course this might then start a rash of babies being delivered early by mothers that don’t want them, but A) I very much doubt it would be in any real numbers and B) aren’t there loads of gay or infertile couples after small babies to adopt?

Equal parenting and feminist fatherhood

I’m a feminist and a soon-to-be father. I’m ridiculously angry by comments that Farage is making about his inability to change the gender discrimination in the City as if it were based solely on necessary biological differences. I am also angry about articles like the one in the Telegraph saying that fathers are worse at important parenting skills. I think it is true that women and men, or birthing and non birthing partners, face different challenges, and that women are often better equipped to parent. But this is in large part because of entrenched social norms, where women are expected to sacrifice personal fulfillment to manage the family, and men playing with children are something to be suspicious of. I am very much opposed to the unnecessary continuation of these traditions, and the damage that it does to families who are forced into roles that they don’t want.


I’m also in a really rather traditional family set-up, with myself as the bigger earner and the original house purchaser, and my wife almost always doing the cooking and managing the housework. I drive the car, and she makes sure it has everything in it. This has come about largely as an accident of our circumstances, rather than any view either of us hold about the gender roles in a relationship.

So what should I do about fatherhood? What role can and should I play in the upbringing of my child? How does this fit with my feminist principles?

My guiding principle must be that the division of both labour and reward is fair, or at least as fair as it can be given that the whole process is wildly messy and unbalanced. What is ‘fair’ can be really tricky to evaluate, as different ‘work’ is evaluated differently, both by society at large, and by individuals. So, for example, while both my wife and I work hard in our jobs, I get paid more. My wife enjoys cooking, while I like to set up gadgets. Rewards are also impossible to measure when it is mostly about interaction with a hazy eyed food processing tube that will at times hate you.

I feel like there should be some theoretical way of evaluating and therefore calculating how to share the workload of a household, but the problem is that every single relevant factor in doing this calculation varies wildly. At this point I have to say I have no idea what all of these factors are and how they vary, but there are a few things that I can immediately identify as key areas to work out. These are:

  • Physical and mental fitness
  • Personal preference
  • Time at home
  • Financial security
  • Long term opportunities
  • A good example

Physical and mental fitness

There is massive variation in people’s ability to do things in everyday life, and this is exacerbated in the early stages of parenthood. Due to a happenstance of biology, women go through 9 months of parasitism, massive physical trauma, and then are often woken every hour to be parasitised again. My wife has had added complications of pelvic girdle pain, which has made everything painful, and walking any further than between bed and couch really difficult. New dads will be tired too, but I don’t think that can compare to what new and expectant mums go through.

So, obviously, doing anything at all will be harder for women in the time around birth. That doesn’t mean that the man has to do everything, but he should be getting pretty close to it.

I don’t really know what the changing paternity laws give people in terms of time off, as I am sadly not eligible for it due to changing job too recently. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that this balance will change somewhat if one partner is returning to work while the other doesn’t. I think this can cut both ways – the person not at work is not not working, and the person working out of the house is presumably not trying to neglect their household responsibilities. Of course, it can be difficult to see this when you’re involved on side or the other.

Personal preference

People enjoy different things, and it seems mad to discount this when deciding who does what. For example, my wife enjoys cooking more than I do, and so it makes sense that she should therefore cook. But, that should only really be about prioritising who does which particular tasks, rather than how much they end up doing. So while my wife will do the majority cooking, I should ensure that I am doing the equivalent value of work in some other way. This matters all the more when there is more to do – and I think I have heard mention of an increase in required work when you have a child.

In deciding parenting roles, however, this needs to be put to one side a bit. I am sure that I would prefer not to be the one to tell off my child and stop it doing things – I’m more relaxed about Health and Safety than my wife, and would trust the child to learn, while she would want it not to injure or kill itself. But I think it’s important that a balance is found, and that messages are consistent at least until the child is able to start to distinguish and decide more independently. So for example we might agree that we say ‘don’t use prostitutes’ and ‘no smoking crack’ and even if I don’t hold an *in principle* stand against either of those activities, I will need to support and enforce those rules. Of course, in exchange for that, I might be able to convince my wife to allow him to try alcohol in a controlled environment and have consensual relations at a younger age than she would have liked, and she would have to support that too.

There is also a question of identity. Many of the women who are identified primarily as mothers are happy to be so, because they view the nurturing of a new person as the most important thing they could do. I think this is widely under-rated, and that people who choose to live like this should be proud of the job that they do. However, many woulds prefer to have more than one life, where they can be recognised in their own right. My wife will make an excellent and proud mother, but would also like to achieve things in the workplace, the community and perhaps in the political and public world.

Time at home

I’ve mentioned the importance of trying to balance the workload for all parties (except the baby, who can get away with minimal domestic input), but the main thing about being at home is spending time with the child. Traditionally, the mother looks after the child and does all of the housework during the day, and so does all the boring stuff like checking homework, making them tidy up. Because the dad is only around for a short period before bedtime, he wants to make an impact, and so doesn’t ‘waste’ his time by doing chores. This is a bad deal for the mother who never gets a break to relax and have fun with the child, as well as the father who only gets a small amount of time, even if that can often be more fun.

My wife will likely be working after maternity leave, and it looks like the easiest nursery to come to is by my work, so I will likely be doing quite a bit of that after the first year. It makes sense that I would do that as I will be responsible for him getting there on time, clean, fed and ready to play and learn. In the first year, my wife will be on maternity, so she will be doing a lot more of that.

Financial security

This is the boring bit, and the bit where it can get very cruel. Although money doesn’t make you happy, not having any money can make you very miserable indeed, and it is harder to bring up a child in a poor house than a well-off one. So financial stability really should come into how you allocate responsibilities. We are lucky enough that we could get by with very little, and that it would be feasible to survive on either one of our wages alone. But for many, this fundamental point of needing to make enough money to survive would make the decision for them without any real room for discussion about who does what – the family has to follow the money.

In realistic terms, me going part-time would have a bigger economic impact than my wife doing so would. It is this simple fact that makes it most difficult for me to realistically consider a major drop in working hours, but as I said before, we are in the lucky position of being able to cope with a reduction in one or both of our incomes. Of course, as my wife progresses career-wise this is likely to become easier to balance.

Long term opportunities

The problem with making decisions to make the present bearable, like only having the higher earner working, is the constrictions that puts on long term opportunities. So, if my wife significantly reduces or gives up work, she risks damaging her career and missing out on opportunities. Sadly, we live in a gendered world, so the response to me doing the same thing would be very different. I am not sure whether it is more likely that I would suffer negative consequences if I were to do that, as I would be seen as unusual and not committed to my work, or whether I would be treated as a hero for sacrificing myself to care for my child.

There is also the fact that, independently of this, women are seen as a greater risk by employers, as they are more prone to having to take time off for childbirth. Hopefully this will change in time, and I would like to think that if we decided to have another child, we would be in a position to share the leave entitlement. However, this is currently hypothetical, where the risk to a woman’s advancement is certain. This suggests that, given the pre-existing disadvantage to women, male partners should take the greater hit when there is optional long-term impacts, again in the name of fairness.

A good example

One of the things I am very keen to give my child is a good example, and to teach him how to be a good person. This includes making sure that any decisions we take in our family are to do with our circumstances, and not our genders. So *if* my wife and I end up in a relatively traditional set-up, and there is still a reasonable chance that we won’t, it should be clear that that is not a better set-up than any other. When he gets to start thinking about setting up a family of his own, however that looks, he should make sure that he is open to considering the things I talk about here, with the express aim of making the burden of responsibilities and the spread of opportunities as fair as it can be.

The worst outcome would be for us to end up in a traditional situation and carry on as if it is and should be normal. It is currently normal, although that has changed significantly over the past few decades, but it should change more. People who think that this is as it should be, beyond the relatively minor biological imperatives of childbirth etc, perpetuate an unjust society in which women don’t get to succeed as individuals in their own right, and men don’t get to succeed in their families.

Whatever happens, we are going to raise a man that recognises and respects women. We want him to be sensitive to the differences between people as well as aware of the extent to which these are needlessly and damagingly built by a variety of social pressures.

So it’s probably clear that I haven’t thought through every eventuality, and am as unprepared for fatherhood as anyone can be. I’m also starting from a position of power that may somewhat be a result of entrenched patriarchy, and I’m aware that my middle class white son stands to get a good start in life, better than most.

I am committed to doing my part to raise my child, and part of that is making sure that his mother is empowered. I do not want her to risk losing her identity into our son – being identified as a mother is a wonderful and vastly under-rated thing, and I’m sure many people are proud to be so, but I suspect my wife would like to do something else too. This requires me making sacrifices to support her – both as a mother, and as an individual. I don’t know what form this will take yet – it may be time off work, a reduction in hours, a different share of the housework or anything else – but I will be doing whatever I can to make sure the labour and rewards of our having a child will be shared.

And that not having a clue what will happen, but being committed to making it work for everyone involved is what I think any feminist good parent should be doing.

Should I be more jealous of my parents or my unborn child?

I’m having a baby!

Well, my wife is. Anyway, I don’t want to be *that guy* and now talk only about the baby, and forget that I ever had other interests. So, I have combined one of my other interests with the prospects of the child by thinking about social justice between generations.

I have written before about the loss in Britain of the last generation that knew war with an existential threat to the UK. From the ashes of the First and Second World Wars Britain built the welfare state, the NHS, expanded education access and built decent affordable homes. I think these things are related – there is nothing more obvious than a massive war for demonstrating how cruel and unjust life can be, with huge numbers of people dying or seriously injured in their early adulthood in the name of the state. I think that lead to a sense of social responsibility – we had a collective moment of recognition that we as a society should look after people who needed it. I think we owe a huge debt to that generation, as the foundation of a society where people are, by and large, looked after.

The subsequent generation reaped the benefits hugely. Free and available education, quality social housing and the welfare state mean that there was much less actual hardship. And, perhaps because of this lack of understanding of what they were saved from, that generation has been incredibly damaging. Where the war generations sacrificed a great deal to provide for their children, the baby boomers have sacrificed their childrens’ prospects to protect themselves.

That may sound harsh, but in many ways the baby boomers are pulling up the ladder behind them. Property around the country, but especially the city, is unaffordable because of property hoarding and an obsession with inflating property value, despite the fact that this is a clear sign of social inequality. Energy is largely created by burning dinosaurs because of small minded, short sighted NIMBYism preventing both renewables and nuclear power. Free, and with it at least the appearance of equal, access to education has gone, and healthcare is at risk of following. The disabled and those in need from other countries are demonised and treated appallingly rather than supported. In fact, people born in the 60’s and 70’s are likely to be poorer than their parents.

And yet, despite the selfish and short sighted nature of the Baby Boomers, in many ways life is much better now, and technology has changed the world and the way we live in it. Almost every part of the globe is accessible in very little travel time. A huge amount of knowledge and information is available free and at your fingertips. You can communicate immediately and for free in HD around the world. Healthcare is improved, and should continue to improve for at least those that can afford insurance. Food is plentiful and varied for most. Society is more liberal, with homophobia, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination diminishing.

So, to answer my rhetorical question, I would much prefer to be born into the world today, as one of the first generation born into a world that has the internet. I prefer the great variety and improved technologies of the western world as it is now, which make our lives easier, safer and better. However, I am worried about the direction of travel in some areas, and I would very much like it if we could apply to this modern world a bit more of the ethos of that post-war generation, that recognised the duty to support those in need. I want my generation to have a greater understanding of our responsibilities to the future than the previous one had to us.

Why we shouldn’t try to make IDS live on £53 a week

Recently Ian-Duncan Smith said he could live on the £53 a week a stallholder said he took home. He has since been backed up by a few others who think they could do the same, although most people seem to think this is impossible. Notably, it seems that the richer you are, the more likely you are to think you could. I had a conversation with a relative a little while ago about the both the possibility and fairness of living in London on minimum wage, so I find this interesting.

Of course, the immediate response for most people who disagree with IDSs politics was to challenge him to do it – there was a massive petition, which I believe broke records for the fastest growing online petition.

While this is completely understandable, and I’m very sympathetic to the cause, it’s misguided, for a few reasons – it’s basically impossible to make it a fair test, and even if it were, he would be able to do it, and even if he weren’t it would prove his ideological point.

 

How do you make it a fair test?

He would have to give up every perk of being an MP – no phone, hospitality, transport, second house payments or anything. This would make it basically impossible for him to do his job for this period. So, he would have to step down for a year. I can’t really see that happening, especially as he will be aware that by the time he came back, this parliament would be coming to an end, so he might not get to return to a governing parliament.

Even if his current income and perks were cut to those a benefits recipient gets, and he left his job for a year, he would need to do a lot more to ensure this was anything like a fair test. Presumably he has the house, car, clothes and gadgets of a wealthy man. If I could start a year knowing that I had all the clothes I needed I would feel a lot better about the £53 challenge, but the problem with the sort of clothes that that income affords is that they are cheap, and don’t last well. If I could set up camp in a well insulated room with a decent pc, thick blankets and an iPad for when I wanted to go to the loo, I could pass a year without really noticing. But an iPad is roughly equivalent to eight weeks without food, water, electricity or heating at that income.

So he would have to start from scratch – perhaps the fairest way would be to do a survey of the possessions and finances of people who have been on £53 long term, and give him those to begin with. Of course, this should really include any outstanding debts to Wonga, Bright House and even less savoury and scrupulous characters (*glares at Lloyds TSB*). But given that he could argue that he wouldn’t get into that situation, and that’s exactly what we’re testing, I would say start at evens, with only the items owned outright by the ‘average’ benefits claimant. How we work that out, I have no idea.

Even if we could somehow get his wealth and goods to the equivalent of someone on £53 a week, I can’t imagine that that becomes a fair test. His social circles are valuable in themselves. I guess that when he goes to a dinner party, he very rarely gets offered a choice between the cheapest Lambrini rip-off and value super-strength lager. He wouldn’t get served Smart Price food, or the occasional treat of something that’s just about to go out of date and needs flogged off by the supermarket. That sort of thing makes such a difference to quality of life that it makes a nonsense of the whole project.

Finally, he has his education and upbringing, including his time in Perugia. Being incredibly literate, confident and well spoken means that even if all the above were somehow balanced, he would be in a situation incredibly few people living on £53 a week would dream of. He would be able to navigate the system that, perversely, he and others have made unnecesarily complex. I have very intelligent and able friends who find this difficult, and less well off friends find it nigh on impossible.

 

Why would he not succeed?

As well as not being able to make it a fair test, I can’t see how he would not succeed. It clearly is possible to *survive* on £53 a week – it’s just very difficult to really *live*. Someone of his intelligence and ability should be able to plan a budget sufficiently that he doesn’t die of starvation or exposure. He understands compound interest, and knows better than to get involved in anything dangerous or illegal, so if he was committed he’d get through even if he didn’t enjoy it at all.

The interesting point about this though, is that the mindset and experience involved with being a very wealthy person roughing it for a set period of time is vastly different from living in the situation. He would have a finish line to aim for, when all his worldly possessions would come flooding back. I would happily live on £53 a week if I knew I would end up as wealthy and powerful as IDS at the end of a year, and I would be terrible at living on £53.

He could not possibly experience the grind that most poor people feel. The problem that most people in this situation face is that they expend all their energy and effort trying to survive, with little expectation of significant improvement at any point. Real people in this situation have constant fear that something will go wrong – the boiler breaks, you get evicted, the government cuts your benefits or whatever. At best they can hope to absorb this hit over a period of months, if they live an even more miserable existence. Even in minimum wage jobs, much better than £53, life is a very tricky balance, which a single outlay can massively throw for a long period of time.

I just can’t buy that he would fail the challenge, partly because it isn’t the much worse challenge faced by people who actually do live on benefits every day, and partly because he has massive advantages going into it.

 

What would he learn anyway?

I think this is the most important point really: whether he failed or succeeded in living for a year on £53 it would probably reinforce his point. If he succeeds, he can say that it clearly is possible, and possibly that he found it so easy that the rate can take another cut. His ideological position appears to be to want to make living on benefits deeply unpleasant to give people an incentive to come off it. If he finds it really hard, well, that’s exactly what he wants.

There is a possibility that he would come to understand the challenges that the long term unemployed face, but I don’t think this is the problem. I genuinely believe he wants people to have more opportunity and be better off. He has done work previously that suggests he actually has a bit of an understanding, probably more so than most Conservative MPs. It is his belief, however, that the best way to tackle this is to make the ‘option’ of staying out of work so unpleasant as to border on untenable.

I think the way for him to learn something useful and important would be to study the impacts of various approaches to welfare on a range of measures such as employment rates, GDP, life expectancy, poverty and quality of life. I haven’t done a full impartial study, but I suspect that there is a limit on when the stick is useful, such as when there is a significant job shortage and demonisation of those in need. If the evidence isn’t already in place, perhaps he could consider the parliamentary paper on evidence based politics, and get that underway.

What to do instead

If you have a problem with reductions in benefits payments, the increased difficulty in getting them, and the demonisation of the sick and the poor, there are things that you can do that will be much more effective than the pipe-dream of signing a petition to get a government minister to quit his job and live as one of the poorest in society. I’m no expert, but things that strike me as a bit more useful include:

Sign the petitions on the government site that might actually enforce a debate. There are some on benefits, and others on related social issues. Tell everyone you know to do the same. Here’s one, here’s another one, and here are a load more (including the occasional WTFer). There is no way the government care about online petitions, or what your Facebook avatar is, but they have ensured that this one petition site could, theoretically, mean something.

Write to your MP part one. They Work For You. So tell them what to do. If you want them to protect the poorest, tell them that. MPs do read letters, and if they get a few on a topic it makes them think out their response. You probably won’t change their mind, but just prompting the thought and giving them a sense that the topic matters is important.

Write to your MP part two. When you don’t have a specific challenge, it is well worth promoting evidence based policy. If we convince the government to promote hypothesis testing, we will build a solid and incredibly useful evidence base on a huge range of policy areas. Even if you disagree with the decision to act on evidence, having solid evidence allows for a better quality of debate than simple unfettered ideology.

Challenge prejudice. When you see people talking about ‘scroungers’ or ‘dole-scum’, point out how incorrect they are. Point out that there are more people than jobs, so people necessarily will be out of work. It is also worth being very aware of your own prejudices and privileges. I am a young, educated, straight, middle-class, relatively wealthy, white male, and I am very aware of just what a lucky bastard I am. Few people in the history of humanity have had as easy a life as me.

Give to charity. If you reasonably can afford to give some, or more, to charity, do so. Where the state is contracting, charity may have to fill some gaps. If you can give money or time, you could make a real difference.

Loads of other stuff… There is probably a load more to do, and I can’t pretend to know it all. If you think of something, do it, and tell others to do it too.

Guaranteed jobs and enforced work (aka I WANT MY HOVERBOARD)

Labour has just announced what looks likely to become a central plank in their electoral strategy in a couple of years. They are guaranteeing the offer of a job for anyone who has been out of work for 2 years. On the face of it, and stated like that, this looks great – long term unemployment is a real problem for people stuck in it, and for children growing up surrounded by it. Giving people the opportunity and experience to work is likely to benefit them and the people around them.

However, there are a few questions I think need answering to clarify what this policy really is. The answers to these will really strongly colour how I feel about this policy. At best, this is a good policy badly let down by how it has been presented, and at worst an economically and socially illiterate tax funded subsidy to those least in need using the forced labour of the demonised poor.

1. Why are we compelling people to work at all?
Balls has stated that benefits will be withdrawn for anyone choosing not to accept the job ‘offer’. This fits with a general social idea that people should be forced to work as part of a social contract. This is in many ways the biggest challenge I have, and the one I’ll need to look into the most before I’m happy to state my own position, but my initial reaction is that it is barbaric to force people to work against their will.

I want to live in a society that demonstrates compassion, that doesn’t force people to act against their will, and that provides a decent standard of living for everyone in it. Deciding to make people suffer where it is in our gift to support and nurture them is cruel and I want no part of it. I will take some convincing that it is somehow better to force people under threat of starvation and homelessness than accept that decision not to work and ensure that they are comfortable and able to provide well for their children and dependants.

The economic argument to withdraw benefits after two years of unemployment seems trivial in the grand scheme or things – much smaller to both individuals and the state than the costs incurred by the NHS de-organisation, the education de-organisation, the privatisation then partial unprivatisation of the railways, and the avoidance of tax by large international companies.

I am tempted initially to support something like the Citizens Wage, described and argued for here on A Latent Existence with links to handy further reading, which gives each citizen a set amount of money. This provides everyone the opportunity to feed, clothe and shelter themselves to a basic level, without living under duress. However, I’ll need to look into that more before committing.

2. Where will these jobs come from?
Even if we accept that people should be forced to work, its not clear how there can be the jobs required to make this guarantee. The economy is currently difficult, and there aren’t enough jobs to go around. The numbers of unemployed, long term unemployed and underemployed have risen over the last few years. I am yet to be convinced that any initially promising signs in employment numbers mean a sustainable growth of any kind, let alone one that could provide employment for every long term unemployee as well as everyone who has been disemployed in the last two years.

The proposed method of paying for this scheme seems like a socialist dream, in that raising tax on the wealthiest is being suggested to fund work for the long term unemployed. I am behind that in principle, and as long as the money stacks up, this is not a point of contention at all for me.

New jobs will have to be created to meet this need, and I can think of D) ways of doing this.

A) Provide subsidised work to the private sector.
This is mentioned in the initial version of the policy proposed today, but I really hope this changes before the next election. I struggle to see how this could legitimately increase the number of jobs, as private employers would use this labour to replace their existing low skilled, low paid workers as they have done with the workfare schemes. I suppose criteria for using the workers could include conditions that force expansion, but I don’t see any modern political party forcing the hand of industry in that way, and private industry would still only take these on if it improved profitability in some way.

However this is formulated and implemented, this ends up with the state subsidising shareholders in private industry without really creating work. I am not comfortable with tax revenue being paid to private companies to replace low paid work with even lower paid work.

B) Provide subsidised workers to the public sector.
The public sector has contracted significantly since the election, as I’m sure it would have under a Labour led government, and I don’t think there are many publicly funded bodies not feeling a significant pinch. This is leading to a decrease in public unemployment even where people are not being made redundant, through natural wastage. I am sure many public sector organisations would jump at the chance to have cheap labour, but they will recognise that there are often significant skill gaps between long-term unemployed and high quality nurses, firemen, administrators and managers. And to be clear THE PUBLIC SECTOR NEEDS ENOUGH GOOD ADMINISTRATORS AND MANAGERS. Frontline staff cannot magically do everything.

So this ends up looking like the government is just providing essential funding to deliver services from a different pot, with strict limits on the staff it can be used to employ. Although this may allow public bodies to deliver some services, it looks like a massively inefficient way of using public money to do so.

C) Dig a hole and fill it up
Keynes argued that it was more worthwhile to employ someone to dig a hole and someone else to fill it up than it was to have two people without work. I agree with this when opposed to the austerity and deficit porn Osborne and, sadly, Balls seem stuck on. The value to communities, families and individuals of people working is much greater than difference between the benefits and tax bills. It is both financial and psychological – and is depressingly widely seen as a measure of social worth.

However, this seems like a massive missed opportunity – if people are going to be offered a job after two years, make it a useful one. People who feel engaged in their work will get more from the job, and be more likely to stay in it for the long haul, and pass on a strong work ethic to others in the community.

D) Create genuine public sector work
This is superficially similar to the above, but involves a great increase in spending on genuine public services rather than with concentration on those jobs that can be reasonably filled by the long term unemployed. If you increase public spending across the board, more jobs will be created and these will be filled. Additionally, really big projects could be undertaken that those involved could be proud of.

Is there any good reason the entire rail network could not be upgraded quickly? How about a decent national cycle network? Why isn’t every public building covered in solar panels? Why don’t I have a hover board? Is every public building wheelchair accessible? Could children stand to have more after school sports, arts, music, science and tech clubs? Could jet packs be made safe and affordable? Is fibre optic and 4g coverage available everywhere? Do we recycle plastics other than bottles properly? Is every library book in the country on the right shelf? When can I go to the moon? Are there any old or disabled people that could use some support? I want a goddamn flying car already.

If the answer to this question ends up as D, I am a very happy pixie, not least because I really want that hover board. I could sadly live with the wasted chance of C in preference to continued public sector slashing. I couldn’t support B as although the intention is probably good, the practice would almost certainly be more destructive to public services than the benefit to individuals is worth. A would really, really grind my beans for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to go further into.

3. How individualised will these jobs be?
It is important that people starting work for the first time in a while have a good experience to increase the chances of staying in a post for the longer haul. Will there be a process whereby they can reasonably choose between different working conditions? A hard physical job outside would be very unsuitable to those who have multiple health conditions but have been taken off health related benefits by ATOS, but may well suit an ex-factory or dock worker. How people are matched to jobs will make a huge difference in how suitable a match it is, and this needs to be spelled out. Of course, not everyone can get the perfect job, but everyone should get an acceptable job.

Other important factors include the locations for these jobs. For people based in London, Manchester or Birmingham I don’t imagine there will be much difficulty finding work, but this won’t be the same in Fleetwood and Darwen. Will people be expected to spend more than fifty percent of their probably minimum wage on travelling three hours a day to get to the nearest city with jobs? Or should people move away from their family, friends and homes to take up a job they have to take?

I will only be happy if there is some assurance that people will be offered jobs that they are suited to and in a suitable location, and that they are likely to get skills and experience that make it more likely that they can move on to other jobs as and when they choose.

4. Why is it being presented as it is?
The initial piece that I read was by Ed Balls, and the Twitter account of the Labour press office mentioned this on several occasions. They are really emphasising the ‘tough’ aspect, although of course not all Labour supporters like that. Now, this rhetoric makes me feel really uncomfortable – in a world where there is currently, and potentially indefinitely, less work to do than people to do it, we should not be punishing people for not having work. There is no reason to be ‘tough’ with people for not finding work that doesn’t exist. I agree strongly with giving people the opportunity, skills and any other support to help them find work, but shouldn’t be demonising people who haven’t yet been able to do it for themselves.

What we need is a positive approach that understands the challenges a rapidly changing highly industrialised society, with pockets of disenfranchised people in the second or more generation of unemployment. The same policy would be much better simply for a positive presentation of those people, as it would help create a more inclusive, supportive society. Of course, it wouldn’t pander to the centre ground of politics, which is increasingly authoritarian, petty and unpleasant around out groups such as the poor, the unwell and the foreign. I sadly suspect this short term party political posturing explains the damaging presentation, as Labour compete with the Conservatives to be the toughest kid on the block.

Could this policy work?

So, in the guise presented originally I am really worried about this proposal, but from the ashes of this policy could rise a really good policy. The changes or clarifications that I feel must be made to make this a decent, progressive and socially beneficial policy are roughly:

  • Remove the compulsion aspect – offer everyone a paid job and encourage and support them to do it
  • Make sure the job is suited to the person in terms of work required, such as physical and mental effort
  • Make sure the job is where the person wants and needs to be
  • Make the job worthwhile – make it serve a public good rather than shareholder interests
  • Stop talking about getting tough with people, and recognise that it’s tough for people

I hope  that between now and 2015 Miliband and Balls recognise these problems, and use this opportunity to create  jobs, improve public services, and protect those in need from public invective stirred up by the unpleasant posturing of the Conservatives.

Labour – Please, be the party of the left and use the proposed pension tax on the richest to fund a better society for all of us, and not a worse.

Why ‘gay’ marriage?

There is a bit of discussion around about gay marriage, which has brought out some of our favourite homophobic institutions to say our favourite idiotic things – gay marriage undermines normal marriage, marriage is meant to be a union of one man and one woman, and marriage is meant to provide a home for children. There is enough being done to combat and ridicule these claims elsewhere by people more able than me.

Surprisingly, I want to say that I don’t agree with gay marriage, but for very different reasons than those given. This is the same basis on which I disliked the civil partnership system that was brought in under Labour. I guess my problem is semantic in the first instance, but is indicative of a deeper concern. On reflection, I think I don’t want my gay friends to be my gay friends for the same reason.

The reason is this: there is nothing sufficiently special about homosexuality to require the presence of the word in every description into which it could be crowbarred. My gay friends are my friends who happen to be gay. Others happen to be different races, heights or genders. One has strikingly ginger eyebrows. And, really importantly, it doesn’t matter. These distinctions are arbitrary in almost all scenarios and pointing them out is unnecessarily labelling people, and potentially divisive.

Gay people shouldn’t have to have a gay wedding to enter a gay marriage, in the same way that they shouldn’t have to have a gay breakfast before driving their gay car to their gay job*. I think we should change the way we consider sexuality in relation to everyday life – it is most basically a matter of what you want to do with your genitals, and very little else. Just let people who are in love marry each other if they want, in the same way that any others can, and don’t introduce needless distinctions.

Of course, people of course can use their sexuality as an identifying mark if they choose, and the building of a gay community has been a great force for positive change. However, in a civilised nation, this identification should not be systemic and enforced. If a gay couple want to have a big gay wedding, great, power to their elbows, but a couple that just want to get married as their hetero contemporaries can, should be able to do so. The current rhetoric doesn’t really allow this.

This probably seems flippant, but actually I think unnecessary distinctions between gay marriage and straight marriage are indicative of a fundamental separation that people still hold in their head. What we really need to recognise is that every gay person is part of the wider community, whether they choose to be part of the gay community or not. Their gayness is, or should be, just one characteristic among many that should not be made to stand people out in day-to-day life.

*I saw a formulation very much like this on Twitter, but can’t remember who wrote it. Sorry!

Edit to add: Of course, as has been pointed out immediately to me, whilst the law continues to discriminate, the distinction will need to be used in public discussion. But that could and should be ended pretty simply, following the Spanish example, and just changing the marriage act to say something like ‘any two people can…’

Free will and the criminal justice system

I have recently argued that free will as we tend to think of it doesn’t exist. So where does this leave our relationship with the concept free will? It is an assumption in most normative ethical theories, and particularly the criminal justice system, that not only does free will exist, but that it really matters. It is intuitively true that a crime commited intentionally is worse than something that happens by accident, and that the punishment should be greater.

However, if actions are a direct result of a complex series of chemical and electrical interactions in the brain, which is in turn shaped by a combination of genetics, development and environment, it seems there is no independant moral agent against which to act. It is arbitrary, and arguably cruel, to inflict punishment on someone that is not meaningfully responsible for a crime, whether or not they committed it.

If I take something that does not belong to me, the statement ‘pixie359 committed a crime’ is true. However, we can see that this does not mean there is an independant being, pixie359, that can make moral decisions and direct actions – I am the culmination of a set of interactions over which I have no control. The statement ‘pixie359’s brain did it’ is more meaningfully true, but of course my brain cannot be meaningfully held responsible for a mechanistic set of responses to specific stimuli. It becomes clear that if our actions are the product of mechanistic responses to external stimuli, the term ‘responsibility’ loses some meaning.

I think this problem fundamentally undermines the punishment model of ethics and criminal justice. Whether a particular person commited a crime is largely inconsequential when the universe is such that their action was unavoidable – the problem then is with the universe and all the factors in it that made the crime occur. To punish a particular individual for the sake of punishment is an arbitrary decision.

We should consider the purpose of a criminal justice system. In one formulation, it is intended to punish those that commit crimes. I have argued that this is not appropriate based on our current understanding of free will and responsibility, however emotively appealing it is. In other formulations, systems are intended to rehabilitate criminals, prevent them endangering society, and deterring other criminals from similar actions.

I would argue that the primary aim of the justice system should be to protect, serve and ultimately improve the society that the system serves. This should be the organising principle for every public organisation or system, for broadly utilitarian reasons. This leads to the adoption of those practices that can be best shown to improve the outcomes for the individual and society in favour of those that fit best with a particular set of principles.

Given the improvement of society and not punishment of criminals as a primary aim, what should a criminal justice system look like? If we are losing the idea of direct personal responsibility, do we need to lose all forms of punishment?

There is a clear and justifiable role for punishment for several reasons – what it should not be is aend in itself. It arguably plays a key role in both rehabilitation and deterrence (for at least some forms of crime, although less so for emotive or need driven crimes), but more than that, it is what society wants. The fact that people are programmed to desire retribution means that to remove punishment entirely would directly cause suffering. Therefore, while punishment continues to be a consideration when dealing with crime, it is no longer a justification in itself – it must serve the purpose of improving outcomes.

One implication of a shift toward an outcome based system would be a change in sentencing procedure – there would be no hard rules for the appropriate sentences for particular crimes, and the length of a sentence could not be meaningfully determined at the beginning of that sentence. Where someone is detained, the primary considerations should be a) the prevention of crime in the period they are detained, and b) the prevention of crime after they are released. This means that the criteria for detaining and releasing people is primarily based on the threat they pose, rather than a punishment for any misdeeds. This would need ongoing assessment, and people released when it is considered they no longer pose a significant threat.

Secondly, the understanding that any crime is committed as the result of a complex set of circumstances, rather than an independent decision by a separate moral agent, requires that the justice system is allowed to act more widely than simply against the individual that commits a crime. Where a crime is committed directly because of an unfulfilled need, that need should be addressed as the primary problem. This could include a number of processes and powers, potentially right up to compelling parliament to address particular concerns.

Finally, if we do not consider punishment a goal in itself, the need for jail use can be decreased. Detention would be reserved for circumstances where there would be a demonstrable benefit. Where a crime is committed in circumstances that strongly suggest the person committing it does not pose a threat generally, punishment is not appropriate, and so can be spared jail time. There are a significant number of cases where education, community involvement or opportunities for employment will have better outcomes than incarceration, both for society and the criminal. This results not only in improved outcomes for the party that commits the crime, but also the wider society, gaining at least some involved and productive citizens.

Although I don’t understand the relevant politics well enough to see all the implications and barriers, I think that a move toward outcome based justice can only be of benefit. It removes the ethical concerns raised by the complexity of causal relationships in the lead up to crimes, and the arbitrary punishment of the person that commits a crime. It allows punishment, which is widely seen as a good, however irrationally, as long as that punishment is appropriate to the severity of the crime and the circumstances around it, and is justified by the outcomes it achieves. It would also decrease the amount of crime in total, as those practices that best reduce crime are favoured over those that best fit an imposed morality.

While I started out looking at the justice system from the perspective of a lack of free will and determinism, I believe that the system outlined above doesn’t rely on that basis. You can believe that there is free will, and still agree that the organising principle of the justice system should be the improvement of outcomes for the individuals and society, rather than punishing people that contravene a set of laws. This will be a better system because it values the outcomes above the process, where the outcomes are the quality of life of individuals and the levels of crime in our societies.

Sorry for writing all this nonsense, but I genuinely believe I had no choice.