Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Drawing limits to experience

Complying with the bastardisation of a concept that I used to like, the meme. Given that it now seemingly includes everything connected to language I've become more sceptical. Meme means "idea gene" and was first coined by God's enemy, Dawkins; God is a meme that has mutated and is now a protected idea species, when once it was top dog discussed by all .

Yet as the "I would never" meme was sent to me by the fantastic Yellow Duck, to add some mutations to this meme the duck suggested giving some free publicity to this book. YD is a man of very good taste and Dave Hill's blog is very enjoyable, so if you're at a loss this Christmas and a member of my family why not get the book for me.

The proposed meme is to write a list of ten things "I would never do"

I would never physically hurt anyone intentionally.
I would never support an aggressive invasion.
I would never read the Da Vinci code.
I would never fail to respect the humanity of one of my future employees or interviewees (if I am ever an employer, which is probably unlikely).
I would never leave Ana, my wife.
I would never work for the police.
I would never smuggle drugs.
I would never plagiarise.
I would never put forward an opinion that I do not believe at the time.
I would never use any of the big fast food giants, McDonalds, Burger King, etc. (Although I did until I reached about 18 when I made this vow - if that doesn't count I'll need to think of another one).

Given I know few other bloggers, anyone who reads this who fancies doing the exercise please volunteer. Anticant wasn't nominated by Yellow Duck so I nominate him.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Invisible Hand versus the Hidden Hand

How do you choose to explain what goes on in the world? Are events stuff happening or do the authorities carefully orchestrate our reality and circumstances? My general inclination is to stress the former overall, and in cyberspace, at least, this puts me in a minority group.

In his highly interesting book Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick made a distinction between the invisible hand and the hidden hand. The invisible hand, of Adam Smith fame, is in some ways a terrifying prospect to confront. Its existence (or lack of one) means that in our everyday comings and goings the great changes that happen in our society are not the result of conscious thought and effort but instead the inevitable force of the market.

The hidden hand has connotations that can seem far more sinister. The idea is that the state or some evil demon is controlling our day-to-day lives. This is Winston Smith territory and Big Brother is watching you. Our worst fears about anti-terror legislation, ID cards, the Masonic cult of the ruling classes and perhaps a deity that deliberately allowed suffering and evil to exist are played out in this kind of scenario. Our own underachievement, worldwide hunger and the inexorable desolation of our planet through carbon emissions are because those in power refuse to share it with anyone, because agricultural companies seek a profit over providing affordable crops and because the executives of Exxon Mobil prefer Foie Gras today to saving tomorrow.

What seems clear is that hidden hand scenarios can sometimes briefly take the ascendancy. The perfect dictatorship would lead to those in charge of the party machine controlling the actions of everything that goes on in their country. For example, the Russian people seem to have been repeatedly victims of meticulous rulers who tried to control everything that went on in that huge country. Yet even Stalin’s iron grip softened on his death and Putin’s attempts to revive Pravda and the KGB will fail eventually.

This is the insight that should be taken from the way we see the hidden hand lurking behind injustice. The actions of the few are often the cause of great pain and suffering for many. The decisions to go to war in Iraq or to fly planes in to the World Trade Centre will shape our age, yet what must be conceded is the thoughts in Rumsfeld’s or Bin Laden’s head, whatever they may have been, have taken and will take shape in ways that they could not control.

So if, as it can sometimes seem, we are gradually marching towards an environmental and perhaps nuclear apocalypse, remember it won’t have been because of the nasty figures who dominate the front pages of our newspapers with their attempts to puppeteer the rest of us. It will have been the far more alarming failure of all of us to coordinate our actions in such a way that our sophisticated race can curb our pursuit of momentary pleasure. How can we stop the general orgy of destruction before it is too late? If the invisible hand explanation of events is true it may turn out to be far more worrying than the idea of conspirators controlling our lives because it may also be the case that we cannot control what happens to us in the future. Ironically most of us view the fable of Winston Smith as the worst case scenario for human existence, yet perhaps it is the case it is Adam Smith whose way of explaining events is the most scary because if the lack of control he emphasises is true then there is seemingly little we can do to change our fate. Perhaps, however, we will continually evade our worries. If so it is far more satisfying to live in a world with no possibility of one group taking over the reins of power. Hopefully life will continue to surprise those who attempt to control us as they continue to fail in their attempts to keep the population of the world in check.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Do you think Rousseau would like this?

Blair's new social contract should be viewed with scepticism. My hunch is this is little more than a publicity stunt pledging "a new more explicit contract between the state and the citizen on agreed public outcomes" but failing to change much of what is already in place.

The two key policies mooted are "that a local health authority will only offer a hip replacement if the patient undertakes to keep their weight down." This seems fair but how it can be assessed and implemented will be another matter. It will certainly victimize those who are already suffering and is a very nannying approach. Why cannot Doctors' simply advise patients that they must diet and exercise regularly without the dead hand of the state drafting a condescending contract for these people to sign? Due to my failure to slim I have been a bad citizen.

Another measure though seems far more intrusive - "Parents might also be asked to sign individually tailored contracts with a school setting out what the parents must do at home to advance their child's publicly-funded education." Whilst clearly parents are responsible for the education of their children how the hell does the state think it can draw the lines? Clearly when children behave badly something is wrong but do we want the metaphorical parents bullying dad John Reid and the insane mother, Blair, telling people what to do as part of their social contract? You must have Shakespeare in the home, play Mozart and whip the blighters if they don't attend school. What is provided in exchange is improved police response times.

The social contract should stick to states providing an agreed supply of public services and order given to the public from taxation. Obviously when citizens transgress certain laws they should be arrested or dealt with appropriately. Politicians should also respond to their constitutional obligations and should be held to account accordingly. The idea that you can draw up guidelines for parenting as a social contract is repugnant even though we probably realise certain approaches will be better than others. Yet Blair declaring from on high declaring what we should do (in a pseudo-contract) stinks.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Should the minimum wage be defended?

After Boris Johnson’s amusing article, I felt susceptible to Toynbee-baiting following the preposterous announcement that she would be a useful guru for the Tory party. What's more you have to ask how could she send her kids to a public school or own an Italian villa and really mean what she says about social integration?

Yet foraging for other ostensibly unrelated material on the minimum wage, the need arises to defend one of the poor woman’s views from Tim Worstall’s attack:

Higher minimum wage eh? We know that (at some point at least, for the doubters) this will mean fewer people have jobs and we're also certain that it will reduce the number of hours offered. How does this increase incomes? Note that while she calls for higher tax credits and benefits, she still can't quite bring herself to call for lower actual taxation of low wages.

Now, Worstall’s premises are clearly fine, a minimum wage will probably have a negative impact on employment, it will probably mean eventually that people are not employed to do certain jobs and that people are employed for fewer hours. Presumably though there will be more incentive for people to find work given that the wage they earn will be relatively liveable? In addition, shouldn’t the minimum wage lead to less inefficiency in the work place by employers firing unnecessary labour and not using people for hours for which they are unwilling to pay a reasonable wage and the other hidden costs of labour?

The straight answer to Worstall's question has to be that with the minimum wage incomes are increased for those in work and there is more incentive for those outside work to find employment. Maybe this is an ideological difference and simply involves too much state tinkering for Worstall’s happiness and there is clearly a good argument to raise the basic level of taxation instead. Yet given that governments are terrified of doing this, preferring redistribution, is it not better in the short term to have the minimum wage to aid redistribution to those in work so they can survive on a liveable wage?

If valid proof arises that the minimum wage will lead to an unbearable burden on the economy then it should be ditched but the proofs need to move beyond the insults traded between free market ideologues and mad left wingers. The electorate and those who are not professional economists need to know why both camps tear each other's throats out about an issue that could cut both ways.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Prospero's Books

A tribute to the now deceased Robert Altman is a fitting way to launch my blog. The man has inspired me so many times with his wondrous filmmaking and analysis of character that if this small venture of mine were to do the same just once for anyone I would feel proud. The film that I still remember best by Altman was The Player (perhaps because it is the first of his films that I saw). Ironically, The Player was dismissed by Altman himself as "a fake film", but despite the condemnation of the great man, the film's virtuosity can hardly be denied.

The astounding eight-minute tracking shot of the opening sequence led me to discover Orson Welles' great thriller Touch of Evil to which the sequence was a homage. If the film had gone rapidly downhill after this beginning then it would still be memorable. Yet the cold satire of Hollywood plunges on, providing the usually banal Tim Robbins with a great part as a successful producer who has murdered a scriptwriter. The curious thing about the skeleton-in-the-closet story is that this murder moves in to the background of the film, while Altman chooses to dissect the superficiality and cruelty of the Hollywood community. To Altman’s mind, perhaps, the script idea was too perfect and this was presumably compounded by the fact the people who he had sought to criticize willingly embraced the satire, lauding it, after having marginalized him for so long.

How did someone who was so wilfully anarchistic get by in the Hollywood system? Perhaps the only reason he could do was because he gave actors such a free rein with his huge ensemble casts. In comparison to many directors, his work must have been so free-wheeling to work on, a party where luvvies could hang out in the knowledge that the Prospero in charge would put a great film together even if your small moment would seem inconsequential at the time.

Altman’s best Seventies films, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs Miller are incredibly varied and virtuoso that some will think my choice of the Player as the model for the demonstration of the man’s talent is perverse. Yet my guess is most people will have a different favourite. Maybe Raymond Carver fans like Short Cuts above all? Maybe you just can’t stand the man’s films, but, if so, tell me why?