Preferring the Nightmare – Part Three – What can we do?

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This is the Third part of a three-part post. The first two parts can be found here and here.

These attitudes poison useful discourse and retard progress the world over. Popping back to the US for a moment, it’s worth noting how many states have seen huge organised opposition in recent years to building things like improved water mains, electricity networks, new highways, etc.. Is this because of environmental concerns or budget considerations? No, it’s because of Agenda 21. Agenda 21 is a set of best-practice recommendations produced by a team of experts funded by the UN for the construction of infrastructure in developing countries. It basically brings together current knowledge on how to build infrastructure in a useful and productive way, and avoid wasting money on projects that are useless before they’ve finished due to other developments or something like that. It’s just a nice useful handbook that has been turned to for guidance by many a developing nation, particularly in Africa. Idiots in the US reckon that Agenda 21 is a “UN plot” to “take over” the United States. Therefore they oppose anything which Agenda 21 suggests. Agenda 21 suggests roads, so they’re against roads. I’m not overstating this. I’ve read transcripts from debates in state legislatures. These guys often WIN. The infrastructure of several southern states is crumbling as a result. They need an enemy to fight, so they’ve invented one. Two seconds of investigation of Agenda 21 or even of what the UN actually is and what it does would render their ludicrous conspiracy utterly impotent, but they don’t care. They don’t care about protecting sovereignty as they claim; they just care about having a fight.

Several years back, the “G8+5” had a historic summit. They wiped off 3rd world debt. This is possibly the single most positive action that has ever been taken from the perspective of helping the developing world. Bob Geldof, everyone’s favourite anti-poverty campaigner, was thrilled, and indeed was deeply involved in the process, delivering one of the key closing speeches. The only thing that stopped this being celebrated or even heard about that much was the unfortunate fact that the 7/7 London bombings occurred partway through the summit, and somewhat dominated our news-stream in the UK. The capital portion of these debts was colossal, but the real boon to the 3rd world came with the eradication of all the interest payments that had been crippling their economies for decades. This was a meeting of world leaders explicitly for the purpose of doing something multilateral in order to make a huge impact on world poverty. It was a wonderful moment.

And yet, perversely, the event was besieged constantly by protestors. It was pretty much a holiday season for regular protestors from all over the UK. They converged on the conference location in Scotland in droves, boasting placards and banners proclaiming their opposition to the evil shenanigans going on at the summit. The objectives of the summit were well-publicised. Geldof took care of that. The goings-on were not secret, and the agreements reached were fully and proudly public. However, throughout and after this historic summit in the long drive towards the eradication of poverty, leftist and anarchist groups protested doggedly. Their logic, as far as I can derive it, is that because these people were democratically elected leaders of rich and successful countries, they must, by definition, be scheming new ways to screw over the workers and the developing world. Information that proved conclusively what was actually going on in that summit was simply rejected because it did not fit the romantic image of men in suits being generally evil that forms one of the central pillars of the twisted worldview of these nutters. They would prefer that world. They would prefer that the summit were really some kind of evil scheme to kill poor people, so then they could happily gather round and play protest songs on acoustic guitars and be the good guys, without having to really study any issues or think about anything nasty and complicated.

The list goes on. All over the world, people who present themselves as campaigners against gross injustice will distort reality, lie by manipulating statistics, or just outright ignore the facts in order to present an image of the world that is far worse than it actually is. They will dishonestly maintain a paradigm under which they can justify extreme actions, and excuse themselves from rational debate or analysis of their position in order to maintain a crusade against a romanticised absolute evil. Such an attitude displays a complete lack of genuine concern for the issues or people in question. The only motive for such lying is the abandonment of all real concern to fight a political war. When the political war is placed above the real world issues, something has gone horribly wrong. When actual results, facts, and the reality of the lives of real people on the ground are all sacrificed or simply used as useful data to be exploited if possible, manipulated if necessary, and ignored if beyond reconciliation to the cause, then all that is occurring is a pointless and logically vacant fight between groups vying for their own slice of power.

Finally, a word on gaslighting. Gaslighting is the process of ignoring someone’s actual argument by questioning their motives or mental integrity. It is essentially circular, because in order to question someone’s mental integrity as a method of working out how they could be so wrong, one has to have already concluded that they are wrong. That does not mean that such discussions are irrelevant (indeed that’s what this whole post is about), but rather that they cannot be used to dismiss the arguments of the people about whom we are talking. If someone is preferring the nightmare in a conversation, it’s not enough just to point out that they are preferring the nightmare and therefore must be placing the fight above the cause, because doing so skips the step where you actually work out whether they are in fact distorting the truth or lying. It’s important for me to make clear that this blog post is about such people and their arguments, not to them. I have, in each case, explained the nature of these people’s distortions of reality, in order to convince the reader that they are distortions, but that is not the main point of this post. I’m not writing this to disagree with such people and point out how they are distorting the facts – I’m writing it to explain that they are doing so and investigate why. It is imperative not to jump the investigative step and go straight to the mental analysis; that would be gaslighting. It is for this reason that I’ve selected the most extreme, the most obvious, and the most appalling examples of outright lying or distortion that I have come across first or second hand, in order to write this post. Nobody in their right minds believes that the UN is taking over US sovereignty, or that a drop in unemployment doesn’t count unless it’s at least a million strong. Such opinions are only promoted by those who are deliberately lying to further their interests, or have no interest in the truth of what they are saying, only in fighting a romanticised war. They will not be convinced by one more person (me) explaining the most obvious of facts. This post is intended to explore the motives behind such lying, and expose the true priorities of many who claim to be freedom fighters or activists for an invented cause.

These people are, as Lewis says “fixed forever in a universe of pure hatred”. Slipping into this mindset (as opposed to deliberately propagating lies for one’s own benefit, as some do) is a matter of degrees. I have felt the emotional appeal of the black and white fight against injustice tug at the corners, or even sometimes the heart, of my thinking. A firm commitment to fact-checking, a rigorous defence against confirmation bias, and a constant re-evaluation of opposing viewpoints is absolutely necessary to avoid the tempting world of fighting pure, romanticised evil. Slipping into that world feels better and better, as less and less good is actually achieved. It is absolutely paramount to avoid the transition in one’s mind of opponents into enemies, the morphing of the misguided and wrong into the evil. This is not to say that nobody is truly evil. Some people do have the worst of motives – these are generally the people who wilfully propagate the lies that originally well-meaning people fall for and then get sucked into the circular world of extremism. But this is comparatively rare. Establishing this takes a lot of evidence and rigorous analysis of the person in question – and far too often rumours, lies, and distortions form the basis for the assignment of an “enemy”. In some parts of my own world of the British Left, this becomes nothing more than McCarthyism repackaged, with strongly emotive and extreme words like “fascist” bandied around to denote anyone with whom a minor disagreement has been found. “Enemies” are then denoted, put up on pedestals, and reviled, just like “communists” were during the McCarthyan witch-hunt.

If we are to be genuine fighters for real causes, we must avoid this toxic mindset at all costs. It destroys politics and political activism, turns causes into mudslinging, debate into polemic, and, most insidious of all, turns real causes into phony wars between rival groups vying for political power. It is everything that can be bad about politics and activism, and it is the most dangerous trap of all – more dangerous than any individual warped ideology against which we can fight.

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Preferring the Nightmare – Part Two – Closer to Home

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This is the second part of a multi-part post about CS Lewis’s idea of “Preferring the Nightmare” and it’s relevance in political discourse today – to view the first part click here.

Note: Sorry for the crazy formatting – I can’t work out how to do anything about it. When I go to edit the post it just looks normal.

I have noticed this exact same phenomenon occurring much closer to home, in terms of location, in terms of time, and in terms of political affiliation. Oh yes, this disastrous way of thinking is not limited to the unhinged maniacs of the fundamentalist evangelical right. It is woven through the discourse of the British Left. So many activists and writers in the UK today, who empathise with the kind of leftist politics that I do, have been embroiled for several years now on a fairly difficult crusade. They are bent on portraying the current Conservative-led government as pure evil – a Machiavellian gang of posh thugs, gleefully destroying the UK, oppressing the poor and minorities, and cackling with unrestrained glee as they reap the benefits of their corruption for themselves whilst the economy collapses around them and everyone bar the super-rich suffers.

Unfortunately, they have a problem. The current government has increased the top rate of tax so that it is an eighth higher than it was under Labour, closed a number of tax loopholes that benefitted only the very richest, lifted the income-tax threshold so that millions of the lowest earners in society pay no income tax at all, increased the basic state pension at a rate around 5x higher than Labour did, paid primary schools extra money in proportion to the number of disadvantaged students they take, and has also introduced gay marriage. The economy, despite initially (and, it turned out, falsely) appearing to “double-dip” has now been growing continuously for some time. The structural deficit has fallen.

Of course, not everything has been rosy. We are recovering from a severe recession. I certainly don’t agree with everything this government has done, nor do I think it has got all its economic priorities correct. The left needs to argue for a different strategy, using evidence, facts, and reasonable discourse. Unfortunately, what the bulk of the left has chosen to do is fight ever harder and harder to maintain the image they set out to paint of this government on the day it was formed. This image must be maintained in spite of huge and growing quantities of evidence, and thus the rhetoric must become even more shrill and charged to make up for the lack of any factual basis.

As part of this, leftist writers and politicians have consistently claimed that the economy is shrinking and the deficit is up, despite the facts. They have consistently claimed that the burden of the recovery has been borne mostly by the poor. Actually, analysis across the board shows that it is in fact those toward the middle of the income distribution that have suffered the largest proportional cut in their wealth.

The UK is one of very few countries in the whole world, in fact, in which the poorest 10% are NOT the group to have suffered the most as a result of the global recession. That’s amazing. It’s unprecedented in history. Recessions almost always hurt the poor most, but right now in the UK it’s not the case. Labour and their associated press cannot possibly accept that this is true, so they outright lie. They would prefer to rail against the nightmare of their imaginations instead of knuckling down to the complex business of reality.

The “Cost of Living Crisis” is a perfect example of this principle in action. Mean real incomes have fallen in the UK. No shit, Sherlock. We had a recession. Labour are leaping on this drop in mean incomes in order to claim that the government cares nothing for ordinary people etc etc etc. However, just look at what mean real income actually is. It’s primarily a reflection of the fortunes of the rich. The incomes of the rich and super-rich, by their inherent largeness (by definition), contribute hugely more towards the mean income of the nation than does the income of a middle-income or lower-income earner.  A sharper drop in mean income most likely implies a sharper drop in incomes for the richer members of society. Median, not mean, income is the only statistic that economists would ever use to attempt to show a representative figure. “Average incomes down” does NOT imply “The average income is down”. The most obvious example of this in action is in London, where the incomes of the poorest have actually RISEN in real terms, but the huge cut in income for city traders and bankers and the like means the average income across London has plummeted. Labour and the Unions have got very angry about this. So don’t worry, bankers: This Tory-led government might be slashing your pay but at least Labour and the Unions are on your side. It’s laughable, ludicrous, insane. Labour have Ed Balls and Ed Milliband at the helm; both are competent economists. They know the situation. They know they are talking nonsense, and all they’re really doing is complaining about a drop in incomes for the super-rich, but they don’t care. They would prefer to paint a nightmare picture so they can look like heroes than actually deal with reality and propose viable policy based on fact.

I’ve even seen this first hand. A number of weeks ago, I posted on facebook some encouraging news of a drop in unemployment. Someone, to my utter confusion, argued that, even though the current unemployment figure was lower than the previous figure, because, when rounded to the nearest million, both were two million, there had not actually in fact been any change. So apparently he would be happy for me to steal all his earthly possessions, as I expect that his net financial worth, when rounded to the nearest million, would remain at zero. The levels of illogic and insanity to which I have seen people reach in order to make out that things are worse than they really are has been stunning. Possibly the most notable example is the entirely spurious claim that 13,000 people have died after being declared fit to work by ATOS, and that ATOS, and hence the government, is responsible for killing those people. This claim was fact-checked by several agencies and found to be, politely, utter bollocks. Even Labour don’t use it, and they have quite low standards for acceptable statistics to trot out. The most frustrating thing is that there are really good points to make about how the current disability benefits system is severely flawed and needs changing. I’ve written a post primarialy about the insanity of “cracking down” on benefit fraud. ATOS in particular were awful at first, finding someone who was in a coma to be “fit to work” – but, as you would expect, the doctors in question who were found to be acting spuriously were disciplined and removed, and the system has now improved. But it’s not a good system. There is great debate to be had about how we award disability benefits. Making up ludicrous claims about the government and ATOS murdering 13,000 disabled people doesn’t do ANYTHING to facilitate that debate, all it does is allow the speaker to fantasise about a romanticised ideal conflict in which there is only pure evil and pure good.

I have occasionally directly challenged such thinking, and the response is always that such finicky little points as actual evidence and facts are not of value in the overall FIGHT against the EVIL TORIES. This is, of course, circular, as these facts are required in order to confirm the evilness of said Tories. The attitude of these people on learning that the reality is, in fact, slightly less traumatic than their imaginings, is not that of relief, and re-entry to sensible political discourse, but rather one of anger. It is totally analogous to the satanic panic exposure. Certain people would prefer to fight in a romanticised ideal world of absolute evil versus the valiant defenders of right. It saves all the complicated and difficult business of actually finding things out, of actually forming detailed opinions, of research and of reason. Therefore, reality is sacrificed on the altar of revolution. The nightmare is preferred.

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Preferring the Nightmare – Part One – The Satanic Baby-Killers

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CS Lewis is not one of my favourite philosophers. He’s one of my favourite fiction writers (from a purely artistic perspective, as I abhor a lot of the moral content of his fiction), but the vast majority of his philosophy (that I have read) leaves me completely cold. I generally don’t think he’s right, and certainly don’t think he’s interesting. But he did say what I consider to be one of the most important and central points to evaluating the world of politics and morals. He wrote about something called “preferring the nightmare” – and how this mindset destroys what may have started out as well-meaning attempts to make the world better by genuine and good-hearted people, turning these people into the perpetrators of harm themselves. I feel that is a supremely important point to consider. I’ve seen it crop up so many times, and felt it creeping into my own thought patters from time to time, so I felt it worth writing about.

Here’s Lewis: “The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”

I would like to explore a few key examples of this principle in action, and how “preferring the nightmare” leads people to ever more destructive, extreme, and harmful policies.

I’d like to start this investigation with the Baby-Killers. The Satanic Baby-Killers, to be exact. This all started in 1972 with the publication of “The Satan Seller” by Mike Warnke. I won’t go into the details, but this book is basically an expose of the Satanic Baby-Killers who rule America behind the scenes, written by a defector from this movement. Warnke describes how this group controls congress, the presidency, the military, and the civil service, how they manipulate elections and mainstream media, how they control the courts and social services, how their operatives are present in almost every level of society. Standard conspiracy stuff. Then he describes what they get up to behind closed doors. There’s a lot of blood, a lot of animal and human sacrifice, a lot of abortion (obviously) and homosexual stuff (duh) and they generally just carry on like they’re in a cheap and particularly nasty horror film. These people then pretend that they’re atheists or muslims or whatever in order to produce some false idea of diversity when in fact all they’re really doing is trying to destroy Christianity. Even the bad Christians, like Catholics and mainstream Protestants, are in on the deal.

This book was hugely popular, and immediately spawned all sorts of similar stories. Survivors came out and told their stories, defectors came by the truckload, and they all reported much the same general satanic conspiracy with the same major themes: Destroy Christianity; Promote Homosexuality; Abort the Babies. Lots of people made a lot of money, and lots of Christians were very chuffed because it all proved they’d been right all along that all these other religions and these other Christians and these atheists and liberals whinging on about tolerance and pluralism were, as they’d known all along, of course, all part of a great conspiracy to destroy true Christianity. It’s interesting to note that one leading Christian who was very unimpressed with Warnke was Tim LaHaye, a leading “end-times prophet” who would go on to become the author of the enormously popular “Left Behind” books of insane drivel, sorry, I mean Biblical Prophecy. He was pleased that Warnke had defected, but pointed out that he can’t have ever been very high up in the Satanic conspiracy, as he claimed, because he didn’t know about the even bigger, totally global Jewish conspiracy that was behind the Satanic conspiracy. Poor guy, thinking he was blowing the whistle. The Jews were probably behind it all along and sacrificing the US satanic arm to exposure in order to even further shroud and protect them and their chums in the UN/Illuminati/Council of Lizards/Aliens/whatever.

Anyhow, LaHaye aside, Christians were upset. They set about rounding up these Satanists and trying to get them prosecuted. They didn’t seem to notice that this would be difficult or impossible if the conspiracy controlled the courts as claimed. Thankfully, they weren’t that successful at ever proving any of this, and only a few poor, unfortunate people, mostly lesbian couples, ended up in prison on charges of child-sacrifice and whatnot (yes, all you need to tell a jury in 80s Texas is that child sacrifice is obviously what lesbians get up to, duh, because satanic baby-killers, yes, and that’s enough to get a conviction), and almost all have now been released (as of only very recently). The main reason was that Warnke turned out to have made the whole thing up, and this got exposed quite quickly. In the meantime he’d made a shit-tonne of money so he didn’t really care. Other charlatans who jumped on the band-wagon were also exposed as having made the whole thing up. The whole affair was very sad, and indeed several people (all women) committed suicide after being duped into presenting themselves as escaped victims, but it all got cleared up fairly quickly and thankfully it all turned out to be nonsense, everyone huffed a big sigh of relief that actually there wasn’t a nationwide conspiracy of Satanic Baby-Killers, and got on with more important Christian things like helping the poor, feeding the hungry, etc..

Except that they didn’t. For decades afterwards, the myths Warnke created lived on. His book continued to sell moderately well. Fundamentalist Evangelicals continued to insist that the conspiracy of satanic baby-killers was at large. On the whole, people continued to believe despite the fact it was obviously false. The advantage was this: it meant they didn’t have to think. The “enemy” were irrefutably evil, and everything could and should be sacrificed to stop them. A good excuse to dismiss and vilify scientists, doctors, LGBT people, democrats, atheists, Muslims, Catholics, and pretty much everyone else had been developed, and it worked well. There’s no reason to have to even bother to listen to the points of a Catholic, or be accepting of LGBT people, if you know that they’re both part of a vast evil conspiracy who are just creating fake debate to cover up their Satanic Baby-Killing. It’s much easier to hate them, much easier to be at home with their destruction. It was onto this sea of hatred for those outside the tribe that Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” and related PMD mythology rolled in the coming decades. In PMD mythology, the faithful simply look on and cackle as a vengeful God rips the earth apart, killing billions of people in cruel and horrible ways. Most people would be uncomfortable with such an idea, but it found fertile purchase in a group already vaguely convinced that the “others” were all part of a big Satanic Baby-Killing Conspiracy.

This is the circular and insidious nature of “preferring the nightmare”. The people caught up in the Satanic Panic of the 70s and 80s, and in the “Homosexual Agenda” conspiracy that has gradually replaced it in evangelical circles, refusing to accept the massive bodies of evidence that show that their enemies are imaginary, do not really care. They are not really warriors for justice, fighting to save mankind from some huge evil. That is just secondary. If it were their primary motivation, they would eagerly embrace news that they had been misled, and in fact the grand conspiracy is not real. They would be overjoyed to find out that these imagined atrocities are exactly that: imagined atrocities. That would be the reaction of someone whose primary concern was for the victims of these imagined conspiratorial groups. The fact that the reaction to revelations of fraud is not relief, but rather a redoubled determination to fight on regardless of the facts, shows that in fact, the main motivation is self-gratification, crusading, the glory of the fight. Evidence and facts is secondary to THE CAUSE, to THE FIGHT, to WINNING. If there is evidence on our side then lovely, but if not then no matter. The problem is that this is completely circular. Without the evidence to show the existence of an enemy that is absolutely evil and needs to be destroyed at all costs, then one cannot appeal to the necessity of defeating that enemy at all costs as a reason for not wasting time with facts and evidence.

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Nobody is Beyond Redemption

My skin crawls at the mention of the name “Paul Ryan”. Originally just one of many insane and borderline criminal Tea-Party Congressmen of the 2010-2012 session, he rose to prominence as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012. Romney, as a former champion of free healthcare and general all-round “only-a-bit-evil-guy”, needed a real villain by his side in order to head off any breakaways to the right from Tea Party die-hards.  Ryan became notorious for his budget plan, which was so severe, so damaging, and so all-round disgusting in it’s ruthless and unashamed cutting loose of the poor and subsidising of the rich, that 90% of people presented with it in focus groups concluded that it must be some kind of hoax – an invented budget put about by democrats in order to defame Ryan’s character. But for the man who had claimed that his primary academic inspiration was Ayn Rand, this was no joke. This was his vision for America.

Romney was soundly beaten by Obama, in a result that was unsurprising to anyone who could understand polling, but that still seemed to come as a shock. The Republican Party then followed the strategy that seems to be popular for British opposition parties that have just been roundly defeated because they were far too extreme: they decided to get even more extreme – seemingly following the idea that they could handle the loss of even more centrist sympathy if they could just make their core vote even angrier.  Our own Labour Party tested this method to death in the 80s and 90s, and the Conservatives,  in their own quiet manner, tried much the same in the 2000s. Seemingly unsure whether they wish to win an election or inspire a revolution, the Republican Party is currently waltzing down this particular spiral into oblivion at warp speed. Any remaining sense of legislative sensibility or reasonable discourse, and even the basic notion of actually running the country (they do still control the House of Representatives), has gone down the toilet as the rhetoric is whipped up to 11 and politicians and pundits alike resort to literally reversing reality in order to stick to their message. The Republican Party needs someone to lead this glorious charge into the abyss.  They need a frontman to lead their revolutionary chants. They need a presidential candidate to lose gloriously in 2016. As the dust settled after the 2012 election, I could see no other man suitable for the job but Paul Ryan.

Ryan fulfills all the criteria necessary. Firstly, he’s a step up in crazy from Mitt Romney. There would be no chance of a breakaway on the right with him at the helm. Secondly, as losing VP candidate, he’s experienced and notable but not badly wounded by the defeat. Thirdly, he’s a Catholic (none of this Mormon nonsense that made everyone so jumpy around Romney). Fourthly, he is the darling of the top echelons of the business world. Finally, he’s simply the only man for the job. Mike Huckabee, the bass-playing Southern Baptist, who would have rallied the religious right in a second, has given up the ghost. Chris Christie, though a great candidate for a normal Republican nomination, just isn’t batshit insane enough for the job. Christie is just Romeny 2.0. Rand Paul is eloquent and powerful, having achieved almost cult status among his amazingly dedicated and vocal supporters, and his libertarian bent could steal a lot of the social issues that Democrats take for granted, but that same libertarian bent makes him less appealing to the religious right and to big business. He’s certainly nuts, but not quite in the required direction. Rick Santorum, the evangelical champion, seems faded and burnt out after an unsuccessful 2012, and his overt reliance on folksy appeal and “common-man” charm makes big business and intellectual conservatives nervous of his suitability for the job. Nobody wants another George W. Bush. John Boehner has been fatally damaged by his decision to restart the US Government and prevent the worst economic crisis ever seen. He will fight on in Congress, but he will struggle to put that act of treachery behind him for good.  He will always be seen as the man who blinked at crunch time.

Ryan’s biggest obstacle is his youth, but even if that eventually counted against him in this electoral cycle, I would have expected to see him working upwards, raising his profile, and positioning himself for a run in 2020. But he is nowhere to be seen. Paul Ryan seems to have dropped off the political radar. Rand Paul is currently front-runner in the race to be Republican Presidential Nominee in 2016, though of course there is a very long way to go yet. His main opponent right now seems to be Chris Christie. Both of them have severe problems, and it seems to me that Paul Ryan could easily muscle his way past if he wanted to. But he doesn’t seem to want to. He’s even dialed it right back down in Congress. He was involved in the shutdown scuffles, but even his closest friends admit that his heart just isn’t in it anymore. So what has become of Paul Ryan?

The answer is quite simply astounding. During the closing weeks of the 2012 election campaigning season, Paul Ryan spoke at a very strange event indeed. The event was not strange in and of itself, but Ryan’s presence made it so. At Cleaveland University, he attended a round-table meeting with community leaders who spent their lives working with the poor and destitute.  The Romney campaign team were not happy. Ryan had argued it might help show that they cared for the poor, but the campaign strategists argued, quite correctly, that this ship had sailed a long time ago, and Ryan should be doing his job closing the right flank and making sure that at very least all the rich white straight cisgendered men without a sense of compassion would vote Romney. But Ryan won the argument. Despite a pile of hurdles flung in front of him by his campaign team, he made it to that meeting, and found himself, for what was apparently the first time in his life, sitting round a table with people who actually work with the poor.

Paul Ryan is a spreadsheet wonk. That’s not a demeaning term. He’s a numbers man. He’s apparently very talented in monetary fields. He builds economic models, plugs in his assumptions and his data, and trusts the results. But he’s never actually seen the world behind the figures he feeds in and out of his computer. Now I have to be careful to make sure I don’t slip into gratuitously cliche “reality vs theory” nonsense and end up demeaning the work of millions of people. There’s nothing inherently wrong with working in such a way. When I do chemistry, I take the information given to me by physicists for granted. I don’t have the time or expertise to do the physics. I know that I have to make models that contain assumptions, and I trust physicists to tell me what those assumptions should be, and in what situation I can use them. Chemists do the same when passing their knowledge on to biologists. What is necessary is that there is a clear filtering of information up that chain, and in economics, there just isn’t. I don’t understand a lot of economic models, but I understand the concept of models. When I can see that an assumption used in a model is wrong, I don’t need to understand the in-depth functioning of that model in order to know that the output won’t be reliable. If economists make mistakes of economics, then I, as a non-economist, am not qualified enough to tell. But if economists make mistakes in the assumptions they put into their models, then I can see where they’ve gone wrong. I don’t need to understand how they get from A to B to realise that, if A is wrong in the first place, then B is not reliable. The assumptions that underpin the calculations that men like Paul Ryan make on their spreadsheets before concluding that cutting taxes for the rich whilst removing support from the poor will make everyone better off in the long run, are wrong. They are far too coarse, and fail to model a flotilla of sociological, psychological, and practical issues that are hugely important. Going into exactly what issues these are is not the point of this post. The point is that such flawed assumptions exist. There comes a point where, in order to remain allied to the kind of views that Paul Ryan holds, one has to actively blind oneself to these issues. One will be confronted with the reality at some point, and denying that reality is at the core of tea-party politics. Paul Ryan, it seems, had been so sheltered that he had simply never confronted that reality, until that meeting.

Such moments, where assumptions that have underpinned a vast swathe of one’s personal belief system, are revealed to be false, are very important. It seems, sadly, that most people’s reaction to such moments is to deliberately reject the new evidence and waltz down paths of often staggering illogic in order to reconcile themselves to the situation. Reversing one’s reasoning, so that one’s assumptions are taken as a priori truth and therefore the evidence must be wrong, which is essentially a circular argument, is probably the most common response. That would have been an easy response for Paul Ryan. He could have walked back into an establishment that would re-affirm his assumptions, and he would have carried on like everyone else in his political movement – crawling down ever-tightening spirals of logical insanity and discarding more and more of reality in order to maintain an increasingly detached and twisted viewpoint. But Paul Ryan didn’t do that.

Paul Ryan sat round that table, listened, heard, and realised that he was fundamentally wrong. He realised that the ideology for which he had become a poster-child was based on flawed assumptions. He realised that what he had managed to convince himself was genuinely right was actually horribly wrong. He put his genuine commitment to helping people ahead of his political career. He decided that he had some learning to do. At that moment, Paul Ryan left the tea-party.

After that meeting, he saw out the remainder of the presidential campaign. He and Romney never had any real chance of winning, and the 6 point win for Obama that resulted was pretty much exactly what had been predicted. He still operates in congress as a republican, but he is no longer a leading light. Instead, he’s been devoting most of his time not to climbing the ladder, but to learning. He has been travelling round the country talking to real people who work with the poor, and trying to develop a whole new platform of ideas to help the worst-off in American society. He realised that he’d been leading a charge in the wrong direction, and is now attempting to get a better idea of where to head next before starting out again.

One telling example of how much he has changed has come since the accession of Pope Francis. Powerful Catholics in the USA have for a while now enjoyed a very close political alliance with White Evangelicals. This would have been considered impossible just a few decades ago, and that’s a whole other discussion into which I won’t enter here. Catholics and White Evangelicals are at the forefront of the Sectarian Religios Right, fighting for lower taxes for the rich, the removal of rights from minorities, the spread of guns, and the erosion of religious freedom, among many other disgusting crusades. The arrival of Pope Francis, preaching extremist, radical, controversial nonsense about caring for the poorest and weakest among us as Jesus did, has been denounced as Satanic by most of the White Evangelical movement, and by a controlling group of Catholic leaders as well, who have had to be rather more coy about the matter. Paul Ryan, had always been closely allied with the White Evangelicals, and is exactly the kind of figure you’d expect to see speaking out against Pope Francis right about now. But he has been almost completely absent from the discussion. His only real contribution was a really sensible point about Pope Francis’s career in Fascist Argentina and how it may have affected the development of his economic views. Obviously this subtle and sensible contribution to the debate was barely reported on at all in the media. Close friends report that he is pretty much in agreement with the Pope, but he isn’t ready to waltz back into the limelight with the kind of statement that would get reported by the media. He’s still developing his views, still learning.

I have no way of knowing what conclusions Paul Ryan will come to. This epiphany doesn’t mean he’s about to run as Socialist candidate at the next election and start vigorously campaigning for Trans* rights in Texas. Or maybe it does. Who knows? What matters is that Paul Ryan was already deep into a profitable career based on being a politician who held certain views based on certain assumptions. He realised that those assumptions were wrong, that therefore his views were wrong, and that therefore the continuation of his political career on it’s current trajectory was not in line with helping real people. He chose to accept that, and to start trying to find out what he actually should do to help people. That’s a rare choice for someone that deep into a political career. It’s rare for human beings in general. It’s particularly rare for someone buried in such a ludicrously dangerous and vicious ideology as tea-party republicanism.

Paul Ryan shows us that even the most ludicrous of political views can still be borne out of ignorance not out of malice. This isn’t to say that people like Janet Mefford, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, Chuck Colson, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Larry Pratt, Rush Limbaugh, Phil Robertson and countless other maniacs are actually just well-meaning fools. Some of these people are actually well aware that they’re wrong, but their motive isn’t helping people, it’s personal gain, and they’re happy to trot out what they know are lies knowing that there are fools who’ll listen and help them. That’s a whole other path with many other issues. But there are also many, many people who are simply willfully blinding themselves to the truth. These people have sat at their own Cleaveland meetings decades ago and chosen the easy path over the right path, and it’s got harder and harder to turn back. But they have many more opportunities. But what it does show is that nobody is beyond redemption. It’s never too late to realise you’re wrong. It means that, unless you’re dealing with actual cons of the Driscoll/Colson variety, it’s worth carrying on chipping away, presenting facts and argument, and trying to get these people to see reality. If Paul Ryan can realise he’s wrong, then anyone can.

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The Pipe You Can Save

The Pipe You Can Save is a wonderful piece of philosophical satire 🙂

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Clamping down on Benefit Cheats is a counter-productive waste of Money

jcsign

We’ve all seen the headlines. “Romanian single mother of 67 has three extra wombs paid for on NHS so she can procreate four times faster in order to claim more benefits” and the like. As a result of public hysteria over the issue, fuelled by headlines and articles with a casual relationship (if that) with fact, politicians compete with each other to seem “tough” on “scroungers”.  New measures to make it more difficult to cheat the benefits system, new checks and restrictions, more and more hoops to jump through – many such plans are bandied about and nobody can possibly have a problem with them, for fear of being labelled “soft” on the issue. Politicians with particularly rabid bases toward which to appeal make hay out of the issue constantly, whereas those elsewhere on the spectrum just speak about it less, marking it down as a lower priority, but still seem to grudgingly accept that actually opposing the policies would be politically suicidal. The spectrum of options for acceptable political opinion seems to cover a variety of views over the priority that should be assigned to “clamping down” – rather than any variation in opinion over whether this is even a desirable course of action, high priority or not. The truth is that such “clamping down” is neither necessary nor helpful. For some reason, the left has conceded on the principle of such actions without even a glimmer of a fight, and is now simply ducking the issue and talking about prioritisation. Voices on the left need to be standing up and challenging the idea itself, rather than just sweeping it aside whilst vaguely mumbling something about it not being a high priority issue.

Firstly, it does need to be mentioned that benefit fraud is, of course, morally reprehensible. It is the wilful exploitation of our social system for personal gain. It is theft. It should certainly be punished through the legal system, and those who are caught should be tried as thieves. This, however, is totally irrelevant. Burglary is also theft, but politicians do not expend the same energy in constantly talking of a mass crack-down on burglary.

The truth is that it is incredibly hard to commit benefit fraud in the UK today. There is already a formidable network of safeguards. That’s why the actual rate of benefit fraud is so very low. Of course, by its very nature, the rate of benefit fraud cannot be known precisely, but very reliable estimates exist. The best estimates put our fraud rate at about 0.8%. That’s tiny. For every £1,000 of benefits paid out, about £8 has been illegally claimed by fraud. It’s just over £1 billion per year across the board. That’s phenomenally low. The 2012 London Olympics’ opening display cost more than a whole year’s worth of benefit fraud.

But surely, the argument goes, even less fraud would be even better. Unfortunately, this assumes that decreased benefit fraud would be the primary result of a “crackdown”. This is simply not true. Consider what every security expert knows. The only way to have a completely secure system is to isolate it completely from any access, even by its intended users. No system can ever be perfect. There will always be “false positives” and “false negatives”. The trick is in finding the right balance. As one makes systems more and more secure, access for the “right” people becomes more and more difficult. As one gets close and closer to a perfectly secure system, the drawbacks in accessibility increase more and more rapidly. The same is true in the benefits system. There will always be people who claim fraudulently and slip through the cracks, and there will always be people whose valid claims are falsely identified as fraudulent and unjustly denied. The only way to avoid the former is to abolish the benefits system, and the only way to avoid the latter is to have no checks for fraud whatsoever. Obviously these two ideas are terrible, so some compromise must be found.

In the UK, we are currently pushing so far in the direction of fraud prevention that the fraud rate is below 1%, but the process is so complicated and difficult that even the most obvious and simple benefits claims are staggeringly difficult and complicated, and the rate at which people are mis-accused of fraud is fairly high. Another big lot of legislation and extra paperwork and checks might get the fraud rate down from 0.8% to maybe 0.5%, but would involve massive sacrifice on the other end of the scale. In order to make any significant further inroads into the fraud rate, the difficulty and complexity of making legal claims would skyrocket again, and many legal claimants would suffer great losses for almost no gain in the fraud reduction department.

All this is before we even look at the cost of fraud prevention. The paperwork, staffing, and administration of a benefits system that is sophisticated enough to have a 0.8% fraud rate is staggering. We’re already pouring untold billions into systems that prevent only the last percent or so of fraud. Any further measures to push that 0.8% rate even lower will cost more and more and more, and will utterly outweigh any compensation from a small reduction in that rate.

Once both the direct cost of the fraud prevention systems and the cost in terms of denying legal claimants their money have been taken into account, agreeing on where exactly the “sweet spot” of balance lies is difficult, but it is clear that we have reached it, if not gone well past it. We are already doing more than enough, indeed more than is actually productive, in the combating of benefit fraud. It is an utterly ludicrous idea to suggest spending billions on a further crackdown which, even if it managed to snuff out benefit fraud completely (which is impossible) – would return only around a billion back to the treasury, and would harm countless genuine claimants in the process. The cost alone outweighs the benefit, and the collateral damage is huge.

We could massively lower the burglary rate if we posted armed guards and military-grade security systems in front of every house, and required retinal scans and fingerprint analysis for all entry, and had to register the possibility of all guest entry weeks in advance. That would work, but the direct cost and collateral damage in terms of massive inconvenience for home-owners and tenants would dwarf the savings. Such a policy would rightly be laughed out of town. Why, then, is there not the same response to any suggestion of “cracking down” on benefit fraud with plans that would cost orders of magnitude more than they would save?

We need to stop just deflecting the conversation and arguing that there are higher priority issues to deal with whilst letting the idea that a “benefit cheat crackdown” would in theory be a good idea to become accepted knowledge. It’s a laughable and insane idea to suggest for even a second that one penny more needs to be poured down this black hole. A fraud rate of 0.8% is very good by international standards, and a rhetorically driven campaign to push it a few tenths of a percent lower at untold cost is utterly stupid. The argument isn’t hard to win – the hectoring back-bench Tories and their friends in the right-wing rags that call themselves “News”-papers are literally suggesting pouring billions down a black hole. Last time I checked, these people were against “wasteful public spending”. If there’s one perfect example of wasteful public spending, it’s any further “crackdown” on benefit fraud.

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Russell Brand is a Dangerous Fool

Russell Brand is a fool. If a significant chunk of the population took leave of their senses and acted on his advice, then the only people who would win would be the worst of the corrupt, lying politicians against whom he rails. He has correctly identified a problem (a vicious circle of growing public apathy leading to politicians being less accountable and being able to get away with more meaning worse politicians and worse politics meaning growing public apathy etc) and, for reasons that I cannot even start to grasp, advised that the best thing to do about it is to make it significantly worse. Disengaging even further from politics would simply give the worst of the corrupt, lying, careerist politicians even more scope to do exactly as they please with no accountability at all.

If we want to make politics better, then more decent people have to get involved. If we want good people running our country, then we need to vote for them. If there is not once decent person running, then we need to run against them. We live in a democracy. The only way we exercise any power at all is by voting. Not voting is exactly what the worst politicians want. The lower the turnout, the easier it is for them to coast through and keep winning elections. The lower the public engagement with politics, the more they can get away with. The more we act like every single person in politics is a greedy self-serving bastard, the harder it is to tell the actual greedy self-serving bastards apart from the decent people who really want to help make the country better.

Even if, as Brand claims, every single politician is a greedy self-serving liar (a claim which is fantastically easy to disprove – I personally know several politicians who give every spare moment they can to helping to improve the lives of as many people as possible, and that’s just in Reading), then it still wouldn’t be useful to stop voting. The right thing to do in that situation would be for all the people who aren’t politicians to roughly band together and form a new political party or parties. If the situation really were as Brand imagines, with a tiny group of completely selfish politicians universally loathed by the whole country, then the established power would easily be defeated. Even in Brand’s fantasy world, his “solutions” are still completely counter-productive.

Other big winners from Brand’s ideas would be the BNP and National Front, as well as many other extremist nut-job parties. They thrive on low turnout. If everyone actually voted in every seat everywhere, the BNP would have absolutely no chance of winning everything. It’s only because their own supporters are dedicated and active that they can pick up the odd seat in areas with very low turnout. A large decrease in the number of people voting would be hugely beneficial to the BNP, the National Front, the disgusting “Respect”, and maybe even UKIP, the ultimate self-serving liars.

The worst politicians and the media work hard together to create this image of politics as utterly corrupt and completely filled with self-serving liars. They do this because, if people believe this, it will be much easier for the real selfish liars to operate. If people believe that “they’re all as bad as each other”, then they won’t be inclined to support the genuine public servants over the bastards, so the bastards will do better than they would do if people were engaged enough to tell the difference. Brand’s ideas represent exactly what the most corrupt, careerist, lying, selfish politicians and their allies in the Murdoch media want: disengagement – and thus a free pass to get away with anything. Ironically enough, the people Brand hates most are those whose hands into which he is playing.

It is worth noting that our laughable “First-Past-the-Post” electoral system does disenfranchise a lot of people, does make it harder to “kick the bastards out” if they are acting up, favours the two biggest parties hugely (thus creating an inertia against change), genuinely makes many votes completely worthless, and creates “safe seats” in which any party hack can keep a job in parliament even if they do absolutely nothing of use. But it is not completely unbeatable. FPTP doesn’t prevent change, it just makes it harder. If people really stood up against a safe-seat toe-rag, then it would not be out of the question to unseat them. At the end of the day, you have to get the most votes to win a seat – safe seats are only safe seats because enough voters are cool with that being the case. The 2010 election saw some stunning defeats of MPs who thought they were totally beyond the reach of the democratic process – the most notable of which was probably the amazing unseating of Peter Robinson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, by Naomi Long of the Alliance Party – a party which had no MPs until that day. Even with the problems created by FPTP, change is still possible, engagement is still the best option, and disengagement is still the ultimate free pass to the worst of the political class. Anyhow, we had a choice to change our voting system to a much better one, with the possibility of changes to a real democratic system down the line, and we completely rejected it for reasons at which I cannot even start to guess. So it’s our fault we have a system that disenfranchises us anyway. Maybe if more people had been engaged in 2011 and taken the time to properly evaluate AV, we’d have an easier job now. In fact, it’s a good example of the entire point I’ve been making borne out in practice.

Russell Brand’s advice is exactly what the most corrupt politicians would love to see happen. He is not just playing a part in this descending spiral, he is a vigorously pushing it to the bottom, to completely unaccountable politicians and a completely corrupt and undemocratic state. He is a dangerous fool.

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