Monday, 2 May 2022

Just End Poverty Now: The Case for a Global Basic Income

According to the World Bank’s latest figures, around 700 million people live in utter destitution, on less than $1.90 per day, poorer than the average pet cat in the rich world. It is easy to agree that this is a terrible thing. It has so far been much harder – even for philosophers – to agree on what should be done about it. Peter Singer, for example, argues that rich people should donate more to effective charities. Thomas Pogge argues that rich world citizens should stop their governments from supporting less than ideally just global institutions. Yet this intellectual debate is an unnecessary distraction. We already have all the moral agreement we need to act. Ending extreme poverty is not an intellectual problem but a practical one, and not even a particularly difficult one. We just need to find the people who are poor and give them enough money so that they aren’t poor anymore.

Monday, 18 April 2022

Why Governments Failed the Challenge of Covid and Capitalism Succeeded

Capitalism has had a good Covid. While governments of every political hue seem to stumble from one crisis to the next, for profit corporations stepped up to deliver our food and consumer goods to our doors, reroute disrupted supply chains, manufacture huge amounts of PPE, and develop multiple safe and effective vaccines in record time. I put this triumph of capitalism over statecraft down to two factors in particular. 

  1. Corporations are better at globalisation than national governments 
  2. Political incentives are less well aligned with the public interest than those for corporations

Sunday, 3 April 2022

A Dead Man's Switch Method for Insuring Against Dementia

Dementia is a terrible condition that afflicts up to 1 in 3 of the elderly (and some younger people too). People with dementia suffer a gradual loss of their cognitive functions, including memories, emotional self-management, and such essential everyday abilities as chewing and swallowing food. Many people consider this gradual decay of personhood and independence a fate worse than death, your still living body turning into an empty husk, a drooling incontinent mindless - but still conscious - burden on your family and carers. 

What can be done to mitigate this risk? I propose a dead man's switch method for ensuring that your body cannot continue living without you in it. 

Saturday, 12 March 2022

There Is No Such Thing As Countries

As any map will show you, the world is divided by political borders into spaces called countries. People and things can live in, come from, or go to these places.

But countries are not any more than that.

Firstly and most obviously, countries are merely a social construction. They are collectively produced fictions (like money, or religions) rather than mind-independent objects (like stones). Being fictional does not mean that countries do not matter, but it does mean that they only exist so long as enough people agree to act as if they do.

Secondly and more significantly, countries are places not agents. Places on a map cannot have interests or goals or take actions to achieve them. To think otherwise is to confuse the properties of one kind of thing with another. This category error infects not only general talk, but also much otherwise careful journalism and even academic analysis. For example, the influential Realist school of international relations is founded on the axiom that countries do (or ought to) act only in their national interest. This trades on two category errors: that countries (rather than governments) can act and that they have interests. The result is confusing and unfalsifiable nonsense about buffer zones, access to resources and so forth that is about as helpful for understanding, predicting, and managing conflicts as an astrological map.

Sunday, 20 February 2022

Invading Ukraine Can Only Be Bad For Russia

If Russia invades Ukraine this will be very bad for Ukraine. This has led many commentators to assume that invading Ukraine would be a great victory for Russia and a great defeat for the US and its allies. Actually the opposite is true. Ukraine doesn't matter geopolitically, and therefore the suffering of Ukraine also doesn't matter. What Ukraine does represent is a huge military distraction for Russia (as Iraq and Afghanistan were for the US) and a huge advertisement for NATO membership.

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Replace Waiters With QR Codes

A large number of jobs exist not because they create economic value but because they make business sense given the institutions we have - customer expectations, bureaucratic regulations, and so on. They do not solve a real problem but a fake problem created by inefficient institutions. They therefore do not make our society better off but rather they represent a great cost to society - of many people's time being expended on something fundamentally pointless instead of something worthwhile. One way of spotting such anti-jobs is to compare staffing in the same industry across different countries. US supermarkets employ people just to greet customers and bag groceries, for example, which would seem a ridiculous waste of time in most of the world. In Japan one can find people standing in front of road construction waving a flag (they are replaced with mechanical manikins on nights and weekends).

Another way to spot anti-jobs is to to observe the effects of Covid restrictions and look for areas where removing workers or tasks made no impact on performance, or even improved it. Take waiters. In America there are around 2 million people doing this job (1.4% of all employment). The experience of Covid lockdowns shows that much of what waiters do can be done better by pasting a QR code to tables for customers to scan to visit the menu webpage and order and pay directly. Having learned this, it would be ridiculous to go back to employing people to waste their time and their customers' by doing such fundamentally needless work. We still need some waiters to bring the food and drink we ordered (for now), but we don't need nearly as many because we don't need to employ people to ask us what we want and then tell someone else to make it.