Monday 20 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Biology enables, culture forbids.”

  • Yuval Noah Harari

Home working: be careful what you wish for

Interesting post by Ivana Isailović on “The ‘New Normal’ Privatization of the Workplace” in Law and Political Economy:

The changes we are seeing today seem more likely to reinforce inequalities, becoming another instance of how neoliberalism keeps reconfiguring our lives. Remote work has further eroded the weak labor protections at the heart of the industrial economy. More importantly, it risks intensifying the “economization” of our lives, by crowding out any non-work related activities and increasing the rat-race in the midst of the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

More data will be needed to understand the changes that are taking place today and their long-term effects, but what evidence there is suggests that workers are on the losing end. In 2017, a comparative study done by the International Labor Organization and Eurofund (EU agency for the improvement of living and working conditions) showed that overall remote work tends to have detrimental effects on workers. Instead of being protective of “work-life balance,” remote work is eroding it. This result was found in both countries with traditions of strong welfare states (e.g. France, Germany, Sweden) and in countries with weak social protections (e.g. the U.S.)

One problem seems to be that remote work blurs the lines between “work” and “private life.” Workers have reported that because of the lack of clear boundaries, the working day is spread out over longer periods of time, squeezing out “free time.” Moreover, this de facto overtime is rarely remunerated as such. Remote work also intensifies the pace of work, and therefore is associated with more employee stress and burnout (see also the recent Eurofund report from January 2020).

We’re already seeing lots of this.

Mask fascism on the rise

I don’t subscribe to the Washington Post (which may be a mistake — so will reconsider later) but Cory Doctorow does, and he relayed this from the paper:

In the Washington Post, this anonymous editorial from a 63 year old with asthma who makes $10/h in a dockside convenience store in a 900-person town in North Carolina where the sheriff refuses to enforce the state mask rule because he “doesn’t want to be the mask police.”

She describes how she is subjected to physical intimidation, verbal abuse — and risk of death from coronavirus — by customers, especially weekenders from Raleigh and Charlotte who ignore the increasingly desperate signs telling people that they can only shop with a mask on.

These bullies aren’t mollified by offers to bring their orders to them outside the store if they want to remain maskless, and certainly not by the offer of a free mask. Instead, they do things like open the door and scream “Fuck masks! Fuck you!” and storm off.

They tape handbills to the storefront with hoax information about the ADA entitling people to shop without masks, call her an agent of sharia law, or ask whether she’s preparing to turn “mind control” on her.

She describes a life of fear and trauma, where every day at work is a day of abuse and threats, where she and her co-worker sometimes have to lock themselves in the storage room to sob because burly men have screamed at them and threatened them.

What is wrong with these men?

The dark underbelly of the gig-economy

Lyft Is Selling — But Not Providing — Masks and Sanitiser to Drivers.

Why? Because it can’t give them away without conceding that its drivers are employees. And if they were employees well, they’d have rights and entitlements and health insurance and stuff.

KFC is working with a Russian 3D bioprinting firm to try to make lab-produced chicken nuggets

That’s according to The Verge.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a KFC outlet, but somehow I don’t think this would make me change the habits of a lifetime.

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Thursday 16 April, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination. The solutionist mandate is to convince the public that the only legitimate use of digital technologies is to disrupt and revolutionise everything but the central institution of modern life – the market.”

Tools for blogging

Someone asked me the other day how I plan the content of this blog. Answer: I use the wonderful Little Outliner created by Dave Winer. It’s everything a tool should be — lightweight, always-on (it runs in the browser) and agile. Here’s a screenshot of yesterday’s plan.

Dave was the author of the first great outliner — ThinkTank for the Apple Macintosh. I still remember the first day I saw it. And I used it — and its successors — ever since.

An outliner is really a tool for thinking with. One of the great ideas Microsoft had when creating PowerPoint was to build into it an ‘outliner’ mode which allowed one to focus on the flow of the argument rather than fiddling with the slides.

When the world stopped

When The World Stopped from Michael S Cohen on Vimeo.

Nice idea: a photographer grabbed images from webcams all over the world, digitally enhanced them and made an eerily compulsive film.


The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level

Sobering and perceptive essay by Evgeny Morozov. He’s long been a critic of a particular Silicon Valley ideology — “solutionism” — the belief that for every problem, social or otherwise, there is a tech solution. But solutionism has transcended

its origins in Silicon Valley and now shapes the thinking of our ruling elites. In its simplest form, it holds that because there is no alternative (or time or funding), the best we can do is to apply digital plasters to the damage. Solutionists deploy technology to avoid politics; they advocate “post-ideological” measures that keep the wheels of global capitalism turning.

Morozov sees solutionism and neoliberalism as a sinister pair of ideological twins.

If neoliberalism is a proactive ideology, solutionism is a reactive one: it disarms, disables and discards any political alternatives. Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination. The solutionist mandate is to convince the public that the only legitimate use of digital technologies is to disrupt and revolutionise everything but the central institution of modern life – the market.

Great essay. Worth reading in full.

Why does it suddenly feel like 1999 on the Internet again?

From Tech Review:

You see it in the rekindling of old relationships. Before sentimentality was replaced by an annual Facebook friends spring cleaning, it was a treat to keep in touch with middle school classmates and rediscover primary school teachers. Now we’re back to cherishing faraway old friends; after all, there’s no longer much difference between hanging out with them and those closer to home. People are going analog, too: sending postcards, leaving voicemail messages for family, putting together care packages.

The internet also used to be a place where you could learn about anything—that is, until the information overload became overwhelming. Now cabin fever and boredom have led people back to the internet to learn again, crowdsourcing the best sourdough recipe, mastering new languages, or picking up any number of other useless or handy skills.

Even Millennial-dominated apps have become more fun, less filtered, like the days before Photoshop and AI-powered touch-ups made us more vain about our digital appearance. The glossiness that pervaded Instagram the past few years has crumbled. Now there’s a delightful rawness to virtual yoga sessions done in cluttered living rooms, Martha Stewart and Ina Garten sharing their culinary tips from unflattering angles, even celebrities chiding their mother-in-law for being too loud.

Nice piece, but it will only make sense to those of us who were early users of the Net. 1999 was the year before the first Internet bubble burst. Google and Blogging were still new. And Facebook wasn’t even a glint in an eye.

And, as Andrew Sullivan of the Internet Society points out, in 1999 the Internet was much smaller. Also, many people still accessed it via dial-up lines, which meant that it could be expensive scrolling through endless messages etc.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Quarantine diary — Day 26


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The economic consequences of George Osborne

Last September there was a terrific conference in King’s College, Cambridge to celebrate the centenary of the publication of John Maynard Keynes’s famous pamphlet, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. In a mischievous spirit in the months before the event, I tried to persuade a well-known economist of my acquaintance to compose another pamphlet, The Economic Consequences of George Osborne, that we could unveil on the weekend before the Keynes conference.

Osborne, as most people know, was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Coalition and Tory governments led by David Cameron following the 2010 general election. In that role he was the prime architect of the ‘austerity’ policy of slashing public expenditure (and therefore welfare benefits) using the preposterous rationale that somehow the public deficit brought about by rescuing the banks was due to extravagant spending by a Labour administration living beyond the country’s means. In fact, working on the principle that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, Osborne used this rationale as a cover for what he always had been seeking to do, namely to shrink the state in best Hayekian style.

Sadly, my tame expert was unable to help with the pamphlet, having been unexpectedly headhunted for a demanding role which left him little time for entertaining pursuits. So the booklet remained unwritten — until now.

But it has just surfaced under a different title and with a different set of authors. It’s  Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On, written by a team led by Professor Sir Michael Marmot. Although the authors are much too polite and reserved to put it like this, the report shows that the consequences of George Osborne are as numerous and bleak as I had supposed. British subjects can expect to spend more of their lives in poor health, for example. Improvements to life expectancy have stalled, and declined for the poorest 10% of women. The health gap has grown between wealthy and deprived areas. And place really matters – living in a deprived area of the North East is worse for your health than living in a similarly deprived area in London, to the extent that life expectancy is nearly five years less.

In more detail, the research underpinning the report says:

  • Since 2010 life expectancy in England has stalled; this has not happened since at least 1900. If health has stopped improving it is a sign that society has stopped improving. When a society is flourishing health tends to flourish.
  • The health of the population is not just a matter of how well the health service is funded and functions, important as that is. Health is closely linked to the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age and inequities in power, money and resources – the social determinants of health.
  • The slowdown in life expectancy increase cannot for the most part be attributed to severe winters. More than 80 percent of the slowdown, between 2011 and 2019, results from influences other than winter-associated mortality.
  • Life expectancy follows the social gradient – the more deprived the area the shorter the life expectancy. This gradient has become steeper; inequalities in life expectancy have increased. Among women in the most deprived 10 percent of areas, life expectancy fell between 2010-12 and 2016-18.
  • There are marked regional differences in life expectancy, particularly among people living in more deprived areas. Differences both within and between regions have tended to increase. For both men and women, the largest decreases in life expectancy were seen in the most deprived 10 percent of neighbourhoods in the North East and the largest increases in the least deprived 10 percent of neighbourhoods in London.
  • There has been no sign of a decrease in mortality for people under 50. In fact, mortality rates have increased for people aged 45-49. It is likely that social and economic conditions have undermined health at these ages.
  • The gradient in healthy life expectancy is steeper than that of life expectancy. It means that people in more deprived areas spend more of their shorter lives in ill-health than those in less deprived areas.
  • The amount of time people spend in poor health has increased across England since 2010. As we reported in 2010, inequalities in poor health harm individuals, families, communities and are expensive to the public purse. They are also unnecessary and can be reduced with the right policies.
  • Large funding cuts have affected the social determinants across the whole of England, but deprived areas and areas outside London and the South East experienced larger cuts; their capacity to improve social determinants of health has been undermined.

I could go on, but you will get the point.

Since being unceremoniously sacked by Theresa May, Osborne has led an exceedingly comfortable life, topping up the income from his family Trust Fund with a lavish salary as Editor of the London Evening Standard and £650,000 for working one day a week for the investment fund Blackwater.

Impunity vs. democracy

I’m at Ireland’s Edge, consistently the most interesting event I go to every year. It’s held in Dingle, which is on the westernmost edge of Europe and a place I’ve loved ever since I was a student. And what conference Centre anywhere has a backdrop like the one shown in the pic?

Yesterday, one of the sessions was on “A New Era of Investigative Journalism: Political Polarisation and Surveillance Capitalism”. It was moderated by Muireann Kelliher, co-inventor of Ireland’s Edge, and had a terrific panel: my Observer colleague Carole Cadwalladr, Peter Geoghegan of openDemocracy and Donie O’Sullivan of CNN. There was a spirited discussion of the way in which journalistic exposés of the blatant flouting of electoral and other laws in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election by political parties, foreign and domestic actors and social media companies have not resulted in any meaningful penalties for the wrongdoers. The audience came away having been stirred by the manifest injustices and institutional dysfunctionality described by the journalists, but also (I think) deeply pessimistic that anything will be done about the problematique (to use the French term for a real mess) portrayed in the discussion.

On reflection, it occurs to me that the fundamental problem underpinning all this is impunity — i.e. the discovery that there are agents in liberal democracies which are able to behave badly without having to worry about the consequences. We saw this with the banks in the 2008 crisis, and we’re seeing it now with political activists, foreign actors and tech companies. And the reason this is so poisonous is that impunity goes to the heart of the matter. Democracy depends on the rule of law (not, as the Chinese regime maintains, rule by law). Its fundamental requirement is that no one or no institution is above the law, and what we’re discovering now is that that no longer holds in many democracies — and most shockingly in two supposedly mature democracies: the UK and the US.

How did we get here? One of the reasons is that since the 1970s governments and ruling elites have drunk the neoliberal Kool Aid which privileges markets — and the corporations that dominate them. One of the reasons the 2008 banking crisis happened is that in preceding decades the regulations under which banks operated were loosened (using the hoary old “red tape” trope) to create a legal environment in which they were able to screw the world economy with impunity. And our failure to anticipate the growth of tech power led to a failure to create a regulatory environment which would punish monopolistic and irresponsible business models. And now we’re living with the consequences.

What the Huawei debacle demonstrates

Nice Guardian column by Larry Elliott in which he focusses on an interesting (and under-discussed) aspect of the Huawei controversy: why a country (the UK) that emerged from the second world war with a technological edge in computers and electronics should require the assistance of what is still classified as an emerging economy to construct a crucial piece of national infrastructure. It’s a sign, he argues, of how diminished Britain is as a manufacturing force that the only rivals to Huawei are not the great names of the past such as Marconi and Plessey, but Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson.

The Huawei affair should help to puncture a few myths. In the early years of China’s rapid industrialisation, the UK took comfort from the fact that it was only low-cost manufacturing that was migrating east. Developed countries like Britain, it was said, would do all the clever, high-end, profitable stuff, while the Chinese would have to be content with churning out cheap toys and clothes.

It seemed highly complacent to assume that China – a country which was making technological breakthroughs while Europe was stuck in the dark ages – would be content with being an assembly plant for western consumer goods, and so it has proved. China is now one of the world leaders in artificial intelligence and solar panels. When the government wanted to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, the Chinese got the contract.

A second myth that China has well and truly busted is that all will be well provided market forces are not hampered by state interference. China has had an industrial strategy over many decades, and has stuck to it, while during the same period Britain has seen the state’s role wane and manufacturing become an ever smaller part of the economy.

Britain’s mid-20th century edge in computing, jet engines and radar was a direct consequence of putting the economy on a war footing between 1939 and 1945. What’s more, the reason the UK retains a global presence in aerospace and pharmaceuticals is that companies have been able to rely on the state – in the form of the Ministry of Defence and the NHS – being an important customer.

Interestingly, Huawei is now trying to persuade the residents of Sawston — a village just down the road from me — that they should be relaxed about the company’s plans to build a new factory on its outskirts.

The madness of neoliberalism

This is from the front page of today’s Financial Times. It’s a vivid demonstration of what happens to governments when they have imbided an ideology that says that when there is a choice between the state providing a service or outsourcing it to a private company, then it’s always best to do the latter.

Here’s the nub of this particular act of folly:

As a result, fire services at 69 RAF bases will be outsourced to the riskiest company available.

Confirms my definition of ideology as “what determines how you think when you don’t know you’re thinking”.

‘Complexity’: ontology or just an epistemological tactic?

I’m reading Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. In Chapter 1 he reflects on the curious fact that nothing much changed as a result. “The strangest thing”, he writes,

was that instead of leading to a collapse of the right-wing neoliberalism that had enabled the catastrophe to happen, the crisis actually seemed to strengthen the Right. It took a rare degree of self-confidence or fortitude not to gasp dumbfounded at the roaring resurgence of the right so soon after the most catastrophic global economic collapse after the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Incongruity” seems too polite a term to describe the unfolding of events; “contradiction” seems too outmoded. Austerity became the watchword in almost every country; governments everywhere became the scapegoats for dissatisfaction of every stripe, including that provoked by austerity. In the name of probity, the working class was attacked from all sides, even by nominal “socialist” parties… The pervasive dominance of neoliberal doctrines and right-wing parties worldwide from Europe to North America to Asia has flummoxed left parties that, just a few short years ago, had been confident they had been finally making headway after decades of neoliberal encroachment. Brazenly, in many cases parties on the left were unceremoniously voted out because they had struggled to contain the worst fallout from the crisis. By contrast, the financial institutions that had precipitated the crisis and had been rescued by governmental action were doing just fine — nay, prospering at pre-crisis rates — and in a bald display of uninflected ingratitude, were intently bankrolling the resurgent right. Indeed, the astounding recovery of corporate profits practically guaranteed the luxuriant post-crisis exfoliation of Think Tank Pontification. nationalist proto-fascist movements sprouted in the most unlikely places, and propounded arguments bereft of a scintilla of sense. “Nightmare” did not register as hyperbolic; it was the banjax of the vanities.

That’s just about the most succinct expression of the bewilderment that most of us felt — or certainly that I felt as I watched the UK post-crisis, Tory-led coalition government blaming the populace (or its Labour predecessor) for the debacle, and imposing ‘austerity’ as the punishment for popular irresponsibility rather than as the price of forcing the public to shoulder the costs of bankers’ greed and recklessness. And it’s why I always thought that, eventually, the penny would drop with electorates, and why the current ways of populist anger towards ‘elites’ comes as no surprise. In fact the only surprising thing about it is that it took so long to materialise.

Mirowski also picks up the strange inability of the left to pin the blame where it belonged: the financial services industry and the feeble regulatory regimes under which the madness and greed of the sector burgeoned. Here, for example, is Ezra Klein reviewing Inside Job, a documentary that made an admirable stab at naming names and fingering culprits. What made the financial crisis so scary, Klein wrote, was that

The complexity of the system far exceeded the capacity of the participants, experts and watchdogs. Even after the crisis happened, it was devilishly hard to understand what was going on. Some people managed to connect the right dots, in the right ways and at the right times, but not so many; and not through such reproducible methods, that it’s clear how we can make their success the norm. But it is clear that our key systems are going to continue growing more complex, and we’re not getting any smarter.

The fact that (as Mirowski points out) some commentators normally seen as left-of-centre felt obliged to attack the documentary is itself significant. It’s a symptom of how far the ice of neoliberalism has penetrated the radical soul. Less abstractly, it confirms my own working definition of ‘ideology’ as the force that determines how you think even when you don’t know you’re thinking. Klein’s hapless defeatism also echoes the feeble answer eventually provided by the British Academy to the question posed by the Queen to the luminaries of the LSE at the height of the crisis: why had none of those besuited, learned gents in the receiving line seen the catastrophe coming?

But against those who warned, most were convinced that banks knew what they were doing. They believed that the financial wizards had found new and clever ways of managing risks. Indeed, some claimed to have so dispersed them through an array of novel financial instruments that they had virtually removed them. It is difficult to recall a greater example of wishful thinking combined with hubris. There was a firm belief, too, that financial markets had changed. And politicians of all types were charmed by the market. These views were abetted by financial and economic models that were good at predicting the short-term and small risks, but few were equipped to say what would happen when things went wrong as they have. People trusted the banks whose boards and senior executives were packed with globally recruited talent and their non-executive directors included those with proven track records in public life. Nobody wanted to believe that their judgement could be faulty or that they were unable competently to scrutinise the risks in the organisations that they managed. A generation of bankers and financiers deceived themselves and those who thought that they were the pace-making engineers of advanced economies.

All this exposed the difficulties of slowing the progression of such developments in the presence of a general ‘feel-good’ factor. Households benefited from low unemployment, cheap consumer goods and ready credit. Businesses benefited from lower borrowing costs. Bankers were earning bumper bonuses and expanding their business around the world. The government benefited from high tax revenues enabling them to increase public spending on schools and hospitals. This was bound to create a psychology of denial. It was a cycle fuelled, in significant measure, not by virtue but by delusion.

Among the authorities charged with managing these risks, there were difficulties too. Some say that their job should have been ‘to take away the punch bowl when the party was in full swing’. But that assumes that they had the instruments needed to do this. General pressure was for more lax regulation – a light touch. The City of London (and the Financial Services Authority) was praised as a paragon of global financial regulation for this reason.

Translation: It was all very complex, Ma’am. QED.

This is the resort to ‘complexity’ as an epistemological or ideological device. It’s a way of saying that some things are beyond analysis or explanation. Sometimes this is true: complex systems exist and they are inherently unpredictable and sometimes intrinsically incomprehensible. But a banking system run as a racket does not fall into that category.

Intellectual imperialism and the behavioural turn in economics

Further to the decision of the Nobel committee to give Richard Thaler this year’s prize for economics (about which I bloggeda few days ago), Frank Pasquale pointed me to an interesting critique by Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra, who picks out “three problems in economics and its relation to the ‘real world’ it inhabits”.

Firstly, it skates over the fact that what Thaler is being rewarded for — realising “that people can be influenced by (mostly social) prompts to alter their behavior” — was, well, rather old-hat in other social science disciplines. So the Swedish recognition of behavioural economics is really just “a legitimation of economic imperialism: a finding is only truly relevant if published by an economist (corollary: being an economist from Chicago helps).” Ouch!

Secondly, though Thaler’s contribution might make economics “more human—and real”, the behavioural turn “doesn’t make away with the ontological commitments of discipline, privileging market processes and individual action as the fundamental sources of virtue.” Take the metaphor of the ‘nudge’, as articulated by Thaler and Sunstein. “Rather than questioning the economics of general equilibrium”, says Pardo-Guerra, “‘nudging’ is a proposal in calculated engineering: we can build policies that create outcomes similar to those of theory by gently walking slightly irrational, bounded economic agents through the correct ‘architectures of choice’”. But who conceptualises those architectures? And within what ideological constraints?

And finally, this year’s prize confirms that to win a Nobel prize in economics, it really helps to be male and white. To date, only one woman — Elinor Ostrom — has been recognised, and Amaryta Sen is the only non-white laureate so far. I don’t know much about the overall demographics of the economics discipline, but if the Nobel list is representative then one can see why it might be more problematic than the Swedes recognise.