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.

Monday, 22 November 2021

Moral Status Should Not Depend On Social Status

“The poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he” (Thomas Rainsborough, spokesman for the Levellers at the Putnam Debates)

What does it mean to say that everyone is equal? It does not mean that everyone has (or should have) the same amount of nice things, money, or happiness. Nor does it mean that everyone’s abilities or opinions are equally valuable. Rather, it means that everyone has the same – equal – moral status as everyone else. It means, for example, that the happiness of any one of us is just as important as the happiness of anyone else; that a promise made to one person is as important as that made to anyone else; that a rule should count the same for all. No one deserves more than others – more chances, more trust, more empathy, more rewards – merely because of who or what they are.

Sunday, 10 October 2021

If We Could All Be Good For Just One Day….It Wouldn’t Make Much Difference

Suppose that we could all be good for just one day. No one would be tempted away from doing the right thing and towards their own selfish interests or illicit urges. No one would be afraid of retribution. We would be free of all internal and external obstacles to being good. What would happen?

Monday, 23 August 2021

The Political Economy of Tourism

Tourism accounts for perhaps 10% of global GDP and 300 million jobs (source), though obviously much less at present due to Covid. Yet tourism has an awkward unloved place in most societies. Tourists are widely resented by many locals in the places they visit, not only because their behaviour is sometimes obnoxious but also because they are accompanied by businesses catering to their interests and tastes, like Airbnb rentals and expensive cafes. Jobs in tourism tend to be low-level, often seasonal hospitality services that don't feel very meaningful or prestigious (unlike manufacturing or finance).

I think some of this resentment is entirely misplaced, and other parts are misdirected. The central problem is a failure to recognise that tourism is an export industry. Your country exports things like cars or T-shirts or coffee beans to people in other countries in exchange for tokens (dollars, Euros, etc) that you can use to buy things they make. Tourism is where you sell foreigners things that can't be moved around the world; things that they have to come to your country to consume, like views of your beautiful coastline, authentic cuisine, and the famous paintings in your museums. The fact that cars and T-shirts tend to get made inside large ugly buildings on the outside of town while tourism exports are produced in the prettiest parts of the centre is irrelevant. The things that tourists buy are still exports. 

Thursday, 19 August 2021

If our governments won’t help refugees, they should let us sponsor them ourselves

Guest post by Brecht Weerheijm

As of 2020, over 80 million people are on the run from war and persecution. Of this group, over 26 million are refugees looking for a safe haven outside of their home country. Most of these are from countries torn by civil war or governed by authoritarians, to whom human lives seem not to matter. The burden of caring for these million falls squarely upon the shoulders of developing nations; 86% of all refugees are hosted by developing countries, with the UN’s 46 least-developed countries taking in more than a quarter of all refugees. Millions are living in inhumane conditions in refugee camps across the globe, in nations that lack resources to take proper care of these refugees. Even if there are means to stay alive in these camps, there is often no access to public services or a path to citizenship. Refugees are neither politically represented nor provided with education, and this status is often inherited by their children and grandchildren.

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

The Moral Case for Guest Worker Programmes

The United Arab Emirates is a small but rich rich country with a million or so citizens and nearly 9 times as many foreign migrants, mostly from poor Asian and Arab countries. In 2019 remittances home from these guest workers amounted to $45 billion (12% of GDP). In comparison, total overseas aid from rich countries in 2019 was $145 billion (an average of 0.3% of donors' national income). 

Another way of putting this is that one small country's entirely self-interested transactional relationship with the poor world is responsible for transferring 30% as much wealth as all the high minded moral principles of the whole world turn out to be worth. The lesson I draw from this astonishing statistic is that anyone who really cares about reducing global poverty should be looking at how to make more countries like the UAE, not vice versa.

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Privacy Is The Right To Be Mysterious. Democracy Depends On It

 

At the heart of liberalism is the idea of personal sovereignty. There is some domain of thought and feeling that is essentially private, for which we are not answerable to others because it is no one else’s proper business. Privacy is the meta-right that guarantees this right to think our way to our own decisions in our life, whether that be how to follow our god, or what to make of our sexual inclinations, or how to grieve for someone we have lost. It prevents others demanding justifications for our every thought and feeling by veiling them from their view. It is the right to be mysterious to others.

Monday, 14 June 2021

Vaccination Need Not Be Compulsory To Be Universal

Covid-19 vaccination take up has been disappointingly low in many countries, or parts of countries, such as in America. Given that vaccination offers significant private and public benefits, this is surprising. Is it permissible or even required for governments to compel or incentivise vaccination, and if so, how?

Monday, 31 May 2021

Don't Pity the People of the Future

Climate change is such a terrifying large problem that it is hard to think sensibly about. On the one hand this makes many people prefer denial. On the other hand it can exert a warping effect on the reasoning of even those who do take it seriously. In particular, many confuse the power we have over what the lives of future generations will be like - and the moral responsibility that follows from that - with the idea that we are better off than them. These people seem to have taken the idea of the world as finite and combined it with the idea that this generation is behaving selfishly to produce a picture of us as gluttons whose overconsumption will reduce future generations to penury. But this completely misrepresents the challenge of climate change.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Effective Altruism Is Not Effective

Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can. Obeying the usual rules about not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing is not enough, or at least not enough for those of us who have the good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families and still have money or time to spare. Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can. (Peter Singer)

It is almost universally agreed that the persistence of extreme poverty in many parts of the world is a bad thing. It is less well-agreed, even among philosophers, what should be done about it and by who. An influential movement founded by the philosopher Peter Singer argues that we should each try to do the best we can by donating our surplus income to charities that help those in greatest need. This ‘effective altruism’ movement has two components: i) encouraging individuals in the rich world to donate more; and ii) encouraging us to donate more rationally, to the organisations most efficient at translating those donations into gains in human well-being.

Unfortunately both components of effective altruism focus on what makes giving good rather than on achieving valuable goals. Effective altruism therefore does not actually aim at the elimination of global poverty as is often supposed. Indeed, its distinctive commitment to the logic of individualist consumerism makes it constitutionally incapable of achieving such a large scale project. Effective altruism is designed to fail.