Tuesday, January 25, 2011

there are a lot more skeletons in the great closet of humanity than you'd think

So I should know better than to read comment threads on Stuff.co.nz; they only make me angry. I read a few of the comments on today's article about Phil Goff's plan for tax should Labour win the next election, and honestly a few was enough.

Because every single one of these threads ends up in a cagefight about interest-free student loans and omg how totally unhelpful and useless history degrees are. And everybody talks very earnestly about how hard they work (and I have no reason to doubt that) and how it's unfair that they have to pay as much tax as they do and/or pay so much child support and/or don't receive enough child support (children: they cost money). But then! Interest-free student loans and history degrees rear their ugly head. Again.

Universities are, of course, meant to be bastions of learning, stalwart defenders of truth against all the forces that want to suppress it.

This is, of course, largely bullshit.

Universities are not about truth. They're not (in my humanities-driven experience) about questioning whether things are true at all. If they were, there wouldn't be 2 departments in one faculty, one of which teaches that people are ultimately rational and will act reliably in their own self-interest and one of which teaches how to get people to buy the things you make even when what you're producing is crappy. Independent thought isn't nearly as encouraged or as valued as everyone pretends.

And maybe that's okay.

And I digress.

Universities have always taught humanities subjects. For a very long time, history meant ancient history: Latin, Greek, the Roman empire. People went to university for much the reason they do now: to spend a few years becoming even more educated after finishing school. Sons of particular social strata went almost by default, unless they showed especial interest in another career or were especially dim. The rest of us didn't go at all.

For most of humanity, literacy didn't exist as there was no written language. I don't doubt that people learnt a lot of skills anyway.

For most of the time that there has been written language, most of humanity - almost all of humanity - has been illiterate. The real change in accessibility to written language, and therefore to information that wasn't known by anyone you knew in person, was the printing press (at least in Western Europe. My rest-of-the-world history is very shaky). Even so, it took the Enlightenment and a bunch of other shit happening before educating the poor became popular. Sometime after that, governments started legislating for free compulsory primary school education.

Most people still left school at ages we would now consider Far Too Young. They still went out and got jobs and were fully productive members of society. This is because, actually, for most jobs an education past 14 or so was kind of... useless. There are very few things you need to know calculus for. Or geometry, or Latin. People went into apprenticeships if they were going into a trade, or they got a job as a shop assistant or a clerk or anything else you can imagine. Society continued to flourish.

And it got richer, and suddenly levels of education that were barely imaginable a generation ago were open to most citizens of the wealthier nations. So people went to university, and they got history degrees.

And as degrees became less and less about proof that you came from the right sort of family, they became less and less of value on a CV. Because it has always been true that an Arts degree is not of a lot of practical value in day-to-day employment for most of the people who have them. ALWAYS.

Does this mean that the state should stop subsidising education in subjects it doesn't see as having practical value? Or, conversely, does that mean it should do a better job at subsiding skillsets it does see as having a lot of practical value (I'm thinking of the trades here)?

And does the lack of obvious correlation between the education you receive at university and the job you do now mean that your education has no value? I work in administration, and the critical analysis skills I learnt in Philosophy papers have proved to be very useful in my job, even though I can't explain how and Philosophy is, like, the go-to Department of Uselessness whenever people want to get their rant on (along with Art History).

1. If people have a right as such to an education, to what extent should a state fund it so that it is realistically accessible?
2. Does it depend on the content of that education? How do you know in advance what will be useful? Does it depend on who's making the judgement (at a societal level, or at an individual level)?
3. If the behaviours of a group of people will be predictable over time, should we be studying that in order to avoid the certain unwanted and predictable consequences of certain actions? (In other words: should we not be studying the mistakes of history?)

And a little more provocative--
4. Do people have a right as such to an education? What form does it take, and what is its scope?
5. What makes some forms of knowledge more useful than others? What's a working definition of "useful"? (Art is a social good.)

And finally--
7. History is written by the victors. What would happen if nobody read what they wrote?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

On the subject of industrial action

Some things:
  1. a lockout is not a strike
  2. work-to-rule is not a strike
  3. if your employees working to the rules of your organisation would result in a lower output than you have contracted yourself to provide then your rules are stupid
  4. do not expect sympathy from me when you brag about a 20% annual return on investment and yet aren't willing to give your workers a 10% payrise over three years without fucking them over in other ways
  5. do not expect sympathy from me when you are getting $160,000 in ratepayer subsidy daily to run your transport system (which cannot be run to the rules of your organisation)
Some other things:
  1. private provision of essential national systems is really stupid and doesn't work
  2. this is because the government cannot let those systems fail
  3. at the same time, a government buyout of the system is expensive
  4. private service providers are not stupid, and know that the system cannot fail
  5. private service providers are profit-driven
  6. this provides an incentive for them to run those systems at a level just above that which would force the government to buyout the system in order to keep it running
  7. this is one of the reasons why, for example, the rail system, the public transport systems, and the telecommunications infrastructure in this country are so faily
  8. (I admit there are exceptions)
Some other other things:
  1. if you are more concerned about how much you personally pay for a service than you are about the ability of the people who provide that service to earn a decent wage, then you deserve that they show you exactly the same amount of concern: that is, not a bit of it
  2. there are many people who are not paid decent wages
  3. this fact is not a sign that the people who earn slightly more than those people (a) should earn less or (b) do not deserve a payrise
  4. this is, instead, a sign that the people who are not paid decent wages should be paid more
  5. all this applies to working conditions as well
  6. no seriously, we in offices rely on low-paid people in service industries far more than they rely on us
  7. no seriously, we in offices are probably entirely irrelevant to the continual operation of the community
  8. we should maybe stop bitching then and be grateful that we do not have to work on public holidays or deal with our shitty, entitled asses

Saturday, January 8, 2011

So forget all your duties, oh yeah

  1. It seems like I read on the internet every month or so that people should not be jealous of the rich, or about how tax cuts favour them.
  2. However, trickle-down economics? Really? We're riding that old horse again? I thought that the lack of general evidence in support of that set of theories might've killed the beast, but it has risen again and taken the form of that nice bloke who lives round the corner whom you'd just love to have a beer with.
  3. I just don't fathom the logic: investment/saving is better than consumption (or at least all the literature says so), except from the view of the businesses, who are completely fucked if people stop buying their crap. Investment (unless it's totally bullshitted financial derivitaves completely unconnected from any real product or service) is entirely worthless if you don't have a consumer base. But we get told we need to spend less money! Except then we need to support New Zealand industry! What the fuck?
  4. Semi-relatedly, there's no real correlation between "amount of effort/skill/knowledge it takes to do a task" and "amount one gets paid for it": which we know because, for example, parents don't get paid; there's also less correlation between "rarity of skillset" and "amount one gets paid" than you might expect.
  5. The whole "poor people just need to work harder" wank falls down pretty much as soon as the point above is acknowledged.
  6. So right-wingers turn to "working smarter" instead. Which, yes: it is a much better life choice to be an executive than a professional cleaner; the latter is not an easy job. But there are very few executive positions compared to low-wage positions: even if every person in the latter category applied themselves, most would still miss out.
  7. And then we turn to "most important to the economy", which is allegedly the reason why John Key doesn't want us to be jealous.
  8. Respectfully I submit that "most important to the economy" has very little correlation to "amount one gets paid"—
    1. 1. economies are founded on the people within them:
    2. these people need to, at a minimum, survive, and probably also need to be able to earn enough to feed and clothe themselves and get shelter and have enough left over to buy some luxuries:
    3. so the most important functions in society are the ones that provide these things; and by any reasonable analysis these things are provided at the level of the actual exchange of money for goods or services—the Board of Directors or executive floor has very little to do with whether one can buy bread at a supermarket. And they probably have very little to do, actually, with how the bread got to the supermarket and how much it costs; these decisions are made lower-down in the chain of command:
    4. I don't think that professional work is utterly unnecessary, or even mostly unnecessary. Executives do sometimes make good choices, and they probably have a better success rate (or at least are better at creating a profit) than people without that particular skillset.
    5. but business continues even in the absence of contemporary corporate management, and we know this because the contemporary corporation grew out of small businesses, in much the same way as the common law grew out of individual policy decisions (or judgements, if you like) made by individual judges in a court of law:
    6. business does not, however, continue without its workforce. The pretence that it does: that people who wear nametags are replaceable units of economic productivity to be discarded at will, whereas people who have their names on buildings are all honourable and hardworking [men]—well.
  9. Maybe I'm just jealous because my name isn't on a building.
[The first bunch of posts will be material I posted some time ago on my access-controlled Other Blog, for those of you who read that Other Blog (which I'm assuming is everyone who reads this one, at the moment). Sorry you're seeing it again!]

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Biting the hand that pays us inadequately

    Youth jobless rate soars to 19.4%

    What I said—at comment #72 on the article, is—

    @Will #21: "Set the minimum hourly youth wage slightly above what a weekly unemployment benefit works out as when divided by 40."

    For the record, the weekly unemployment benefit is $180.74 gross for a single adult not living at home (it's less for adults aged 18 and 19 who still live with a parent). People under the age of 18 are, of course, not entitled to the unemployment benefit.

    $180.74 divided by 40 works out to be $4.52 per hour. That is 35.47% of the current minimum wage. Living expenses are of course variable, but there is a limit to how cheap things get; for example, the cheapest room I can find as of today in Wellington is $75/week plus expenses of $20 to $25/week. A very frugal person could perhaps manage to keep their food costs below $25 or $30 a week.

    What people continually forget in this debate is that many, if not most, of the people who earn minimum wage or close to it a) do not work full-time even if they would like the hours, b) do not have secure or stable hours, and c) are in fact invested in their source of income. It is this last that bears repeating: people rely on their source of income to sustain them.

    If the income people earn through paid work is not enough to live on, the state will step in to make sure that the person survives. I think it would be a fair assumption that most of the people on the dole in our major cities also receive accommodation supplements or subsidised accommodation or a combination. If people are earning, through full-time work, only slightly more than what they would receive on the dole, then they will probably need additional income from the state.

    ... which effectively means that we the taxpayers would be subsidising employers who are too cheap to pay their staff a decent wage. Awesome! My tax dollars at work!


    There's a lot more that could be said here. I'd expect most people replying to my comment (if anyone did) to talk about the market a lot, and how people wouldn't take jobs that don't pay them enough money, and to that I would say:

    1. Obviously there are far more people than there are jobs, hence the unemployment rate being so high (there are people who aren't working and who avoid being in paid work for whatever reason, but... not that many).
    2. The unemployment benefit provides an absolute pittance, but it may be useful in figuring out a bottom line of "the least amount of money a person can survive on".
    3. The minimum wage acts as an absolute bottom figure of what employers can pay their staff.
    4. It influences the wages above it, too - so if the minimum wage for young people falls (which I believe can only affect new hires), we can reasonably expect wages in industries where a lot of young people get hired onto the minimum wage to generally fall over time, or to not keep up with inflation.
    5. In this way, the minimum wage itself partly determines what the market rate is.
    6. You just have to remember that people have to have an income or they will die. Therefore in the absence of any state control as to the lowest amount that income is, they will take what they can get, because they have to have an income or else they will die.

    Yeah, yeah, yeah, but that's what the unemployment benefit is for!

    1. ... yes. But I thought we all agree that generally it's better for people to be working in paid employment than being on the unemployment benefit?
    2. #6 is really more about the inherent disparity of power between employers and potential employees. People need jobs (largely) more than jobs need them.
    3. And if the market for a retail staff member in Wellington city is $13.50/hr, and you need a job, and the only jobs which you are capable of getting is in retail, then... good luck trying to persuade the boss that you're really worth $15. Like, maybe you'll get a payrise once you've been working for a while... but payrises are usually made in proportion to whatever the starting wage was (see #4!).

    But people can upskill so that they can get better jobs in the future!

    1. That's not going to do much about their income situation now, is it?

    But all my youth staff members EVER have been totally crap.

    1. Well, that's clearly not true of all youth employees ever over the entire country. Perhaps you need a better hiring process? Perhaps you're a totally crap employer (it could happen to anyone, really).
    2. There's also a lower minimum wage for people who have just entered into the job market, which should have allowed a bit of breathing space while you trained them up.

    I was an apprentice in 1975 and I earned youth rates and it was fine. Kids these days. Don't know how lucky they are. Flat in a 3-bedroom house with insulation? LUXURY.

    1. Awesome, I'm glad you had a cool apprenticeship! A quick google search doesn't disclose to me any helpful statistics from 1975. Wouldn't you like to know how average youth rates stacked up against a) the unemployment benefit at the time, b) the adult minimum wage, c) the median wage, d) the average wage and e) some data about the cost of living? I KNOW I WOULD.

    But we should incentivise employers taking on youth workers!
    1. Yes.
    2. I don't think we should create a situation where the behaviour that is incentivised is taking on young workers just because they're cheaper.
    3. I realise that taking on people who don't have a good employment history (or any employment history) is a risk.
    4. But taking on any employee is a risk. As the old adage goes, people rise to their natural level of incompetence. This leads to some awful dullards in senior and middle management (as I have myself experienced in all my previous jobs). It also makes for bad typists, engineers, machinists, teachers, neurosurgeons, baristas, barristers, and plumbers. Incompetence isn't limited to people in unskilled work! People in well-paying jobs aren't, on average, more intelligent or capable than people in jobs that don't pay well.
    5. The fact of that risk isn't a good enough reason to allow you to not pay people fairly. You want to work in a risk-free profession? Get a different job!


    I kind of try, in my posts about politics, to keep calm and carry on. But underneath the bullet points and the attempts at well-formed arguments is a deep well of rage, and it goes something like this:

    When you tell me that some people are only worth $2 an hour*, in a city where the cheapest flat I could find (on a cursory skim) costs $75 a week, plus expenses, plus food, plus transport and clothing and so on... when you tell me that, what you are telling me is that some people aren't worth being able to live in a house and eat until they are no longer hungry and have running hot water.

    And when you tell me that, I don't have to listen to anything else you say: you're a worm, and yours is the sort of thinking that causes revolutions.

    * As some disgusting fuckbag said in a Stuff.co.nz comment thread one day...

    Inaugural post

    This is intended to be a blog for me to ramble on about theoretical politics. I've no idea how often I'll manage to post to it, or if anyone will read it---but should you stumble upon it accidentally, hi!

    A bit about me: I'm a New Zealander, I'm fiercely interested in politics, I'd describe myself as left-wing but don't necessarily think that means much, and I like analysing things. I really don't take criticism of my ideas as criticism of me (unless it's coupled with personal attacks); but I also think that people who make ad hominem attacks or who avoid the crux of the debate to suit their own opinions are doing themselves a serious disservice. I really want to know what makes people believe that their opinions are right, and I enjoy deconstructing ideas to see what makes them tick (or if they tick at all).

    For various reasons, I don't intend to talk about current politics or politicians much, if at all. Of course what I'm talking about will be informed by what's going on in the news---but I think there's a number of really good sources of discussion for that, and what I really want to be doing is poking about what I believe.

    An example of what I believe: there is no such thing as a good idea that doesn't work in practice. At best, an idea which doesn't work in practice has the potential for being a good idea if a lot of research, testing, and analysis is done. (This sort of thinking makes me spectacularly bad at idealist politics of any kind. I always always always want to know how things are going to work in practice, right down to details about how and where and who by information will be held after the form is sent in. Idealism, when I've encountered it, usually focusses on big-picture stuff, and I don't like plans in soft focus.)

    Should this blog get any sort of traffic at all: please don't be a dick in the comments. If you think what you're writing could be construed as dickish, try to reframe it in a way that doesn't imply anyone is an ignorant buffoon with the charm and style of dirty linoleum, or refrain from commenting. Meanwhile, I'll try to respect people's arguments even if I vehemently disagree with them---though you should know that the best kind of respect I can give an argument is to test it (this goes for my own).