What are the downsides of freedom?

Words can be really slippery and none more so than words like ‘Freedom’. We think of it as an unalloyed good, but the harder you look the harder it is to define.

Generally

First of all, there is no such thing as complete Freedom

  • You cannot escape from gravity (on earth)
  • You cannot escape from a relationship with others and that involves responsibilities eg children – no freedom!
  • You will grow old and die….
  • A society needs rules otherwise it will not be a society, and every rule restricts the individual’s freedom
  • There are many other freedoms that I might like for myself but would really resent if exercised by others.

Then there are the more subtle problems with freedom

  • Freedom can provide an excess of choice such that it is hard to make a decision – eg 60 varieties of Yogurt makes it harder to choose than if there are just 3.
  • Freedom brings responsibility…you cannot blame others when things go wrong
  • The removal of restraints implicit with Freedom could lead to a nihilistic life which probably is not a good thing.

Relative Freedom

So when we talk about freedom are we really talking about relatively more freedom compared with less of it. Every reduction of freedom makes our world a little smaller. The practical constraints are things like

  • Only 22 countries are ‘full democracies’ and another 53 are ‘flawed democracies’ See details out of 167 in total
  • Freedom of speech is widely debated – nowhere allows an unconstrained freedom of speech eg we may not shout ‘fire’ in a crowded room when there is none. The wide proliferation of lies is very dangerous
  • Only a few people have the freedom to buy anything that they want. For most of us it is constrained by a lack of sufficient money.
  • Freedom of travel is constrained by national boundaries and by social convention. China’s social credit system, many countries restrict visa access, COVID has reduced it dramatically this year.
  • We are all constrained by social mores – try running around naked in your local park! (Actually, don’t try that!)

I guess the question is ‘How much freedom do want your neighbour to have, and what are we prepared to do to protect it?’

Hastings Humanist discussion Feb 2021

Is Democracy under threat

On the 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and many saw this as the end of history. That Democracy was the winner and would inevitably become the default norm of all modern nations in the world.

4 years of Donald Trump have brought any such optimism up against a far more difficult reality. A constant diet of lies spread by an open social media has brought freedom of speech into some question and put the old dictatorial playbook onto steroids. American leadership’s abdication from the cause of Democracy has weakened it globally, as well as giving comfort to dangerous regimes in China, Turkey, India, Philippines or Russia, Saudi Arabia et al.

The Big Lie

At the heart of any dictatorship is The Big Lie. This is both the enabler of dictatorship and the reason for the damage it causes.

  • For Hitler, the big lie was that the Jews were the enemy within that were responsible for Germany’s loss in the 1st world war. This took about 15 years to grow from outrageous nonsense, to part of the Nazi national creed.
  • For Stalin the lie was the marvellous success of their industrial and agricultural programmes under the wonders of state Communist control, and that any deviation could only be explained by sabotage from the class enemy.
  • For Trump it has been that the ‘election was stolen’ and that ‘COVID is a Democrat conspiracy’.
  • Etc etc

How to Build it

The trouble with the Big Lie is that while you can fool most of the people for a short period of time, it leads down a very destructive path.

  1. First you need to have a lie that people want to believe. Take your pick. National exceptionalism is normally a good component and a bit of ‘othering’ of any convenient minority – Jews, Blacks, intellectuals, Muslims, the Uyghurs in China etc is always good for building a following.
  2. Then you need some enablers. People of power that know that it is a lie, but find it convenient to back you as a useful front man to achieve their own goals. That helps the lie gain momentum.
  3. But to make The Lie really work you also need to discredit any group of truth sayers. The media, experts of any sort, the liberal elite who might be well educated.
  4. But in undermining public trust in all these groups, the potential dictator must also undermine all the institutions of state that might provide good governance in the process of actually running the country. The judiciary, the police, the civil service, and in the UK – the NHS and the BBC, even Parliament
  5. Any other element of democratic legitimacy also has to be challenged. Local government needs to be eviscerated, supra national forums of collaboration – like NATO or WHO or the G7 become a challenge to national sovereignty and National greatness. Everything has to be managed by a smaller and smaller clique

This slippery slope does not happen all at once. It takes years. It might start with amusing little lies about bananas, but as it gains momentum it become more difficult to stop.

We all know in our hearts that success is much more likely if we all collaborate, but the short-term benefits of a beggar-my-neighbour policy, is very difficult to resist, especially when there are few short-term costs. (See ‘The Prisoners Dilemma’ in Games theory for more details)

In some ways COVID 19 has been a wake-up call that reminds us that the rhetoric that wins elections/ referenda is not the same as the job of management where results actually matter and cannot be wished away with a pleasing bit of prose. Actions really do have consequences and if we cannot work together we will surely suffer separately.

What do we need to do to stop the rot

As a starting point:

  • Let’s hold to the idea that a person’s word should be their bond and that blatant lying is repugnant and should disqualify you from public office.
  • Accept that no group has a monopoly on wisdom and a plurality of ideas will generally help avoid the most egregious mistakes.
  • Understand that centralising of power in a tiny clique of like-minded zealots is dangerous and prone to failure (whether they be in No 10 or in the Chinese polit bureau.)
  • And always remember that people have a natural sense of fairness, and if the level of inequality in society becomes too blatant, they will eventually rebel against it. Sensible governments will respond to the pressure before it boils over into revolution.

We collectively have serious problems such as global warming that need to be addressed. We also have serious opportunities such as those delivered by the next industrial revolution which is already upon us. It will take serious governments, pulling together, for us to manage the strains and changes to the status quo that these things will bring.

Sway version

What are we hoping to pass on to the next generation

Happy New Year and I hope you have all had a good (safe) Christmas: It is appropriate that we start the New Year thinking about the next generation.

It would be easy to feel despondent when you think of all the problems that we are passing to the next generation.

  • Global warming
  • Horrible wars like Syria and Afghanistan that go on and on without end or purpose
  • Populist Politians that have no respect for truth and enable dictatorships around the world
  • Pandemics
  • The rising tide of inequality within nations and the populism that is its enabler
  • (Not even going to mention Brexit – which is small beer by comparison)

But I think the dystopian view of the future is overdone and in 30 years’ time we will look back and realise that our current fears of Armageddon were more manageable than we thought, much as we look back at the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and see that we did not all kill ourselves as seemed so likely at the time. Or go back to the dark days of the WW2 which, however terrible it was at the time, has been followed by a long period of amazing improvements in the life of most people. I can imagine a 2050 when we will have a declining world population that is enabling us to return vast areas to nature. Where robots and AI systems will enabled us to enjoy the fruits of labour, without having the unpleasantness of actually having to do any. When we will focus on our children, on the creative arts, on our health and on exploring the solar system.

At a more personal level what are the skills that you would want to pass on to the next generation that will help them to prosper. Here are my top picks for the list:-

  • Independence of mind – do not be too easily led.
  • Ability to focus on getting things done
  • Listen closely to others
  • Keep fit
  • Loyalty to other
  • Appreciate science and philosophy
  • Never think that ‘things can’t get worse’ – they can and it takes constant effort to prevent it. I have only ever seen sadness and misery grow out of the ashes of destruction, never a phoenix!

And I am sure there are many more…

Hastings Humanists – Jan 2021

Black Lives Matter – June 2020 campaign

Some people seem to have a problem understanding the global response to the George Floyd murder.

Systemic racial prejudice exists in the UK and we should all work to eliminate it. The murder of George Floyd has triggered a global response not just because it was grotesque and disgusting to watch somebody having the life choked out of them over 8 ½ minutes, but because of the culture of impunity that it betrayed. The policeman knew he was being filmed and just didn’t care or worry that there could be any repercussions. And this is on top of the disproportionate impact of Covid19 on these minority communities in deaths, unemployment, loss of health care in the US etc etc

George Floyd unfortunately is not the only victim, which is why the slogan ‘black lives matter’ resonates so widely. Ask any person of colour if they and their family have faced prejudice? Very few are lucky enough to have avoided it and for most, it has been a significant and memorable or even traumatic pattern in their lives. The statues that some seem so attached to (Edward Colston), are of people for whom black lives clearly did not matter. Nobody is trying to rewrite history; they are trying to change today’s society by preventing the present day glorification of people who made their wealth, and whose philanthropy stemmed directly from, their total disregard for black lives.

I heard a black mother say to her child, “if you work twice as hard as everybody else, and achieve twice as much, then with a bit of luck, you might be able to overcome the racial prejudice that will always impede your progress”. Just because some have managed to achieve success against all odds, it is not evidence that prejudice has been defeated and that all is well with the world.

What is the risk of dying from Covid 19

It is hard to keep the risks of Covid 19 in perspective.

If you are of working age the risk of dying is 8.4 per 100,000.
There is variability within that number; women are at a lower risk, men at a higher. BAME seem to be at higher risk, as are all those with underlying conditions or those working in certain public-facing occupations. This means the risk to those not in higher-risk categories have a lower risk than that 8.4 per 100,000.

To give that some context…the risk of death from motor accidents is about 5 per 100,000 in each year.

But before we decide that we should relax the lockdown, bear in mind that the risk quoted above, could rise dramatically if we do not maintain a tight lockdown.

Oh and if you are over 65 years old, the risk is 286 per 100,000

Long term changes resulting from the epidemic

As I write this, it is mid April 2020 and we are about 5 weeks into the lock-down that has been the response to the epidemic caused by Covid 19.

Covid19 is the current epidemic, but some sort of pandemic was widely predicted for many years and then just ignored or wished away.
For vulnerable people of a certain age (me) it probably means a change of life style for years to come. But ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’   so maybe it will provide a tipping point for changes that are necessary but had previously been avoided. So this is partly about what I hope will come out of it and partly what I predict will inevitably be part of a trend.

These are in no particular order.

  1. Probity in Business
  2. Just In Time Operations v Resilience
  3. Cities
  4. Working from home
  5. Schooling/ Education
  6. Global Warming & Economics
  1. Probity in Business

The old corporate virtues of a reputation for probity and fairness will be re-established as a business’s greatest asset.  Companies that use sharp practice (however legal) to avoid paying a contribution to the society – taxes – in which they live and operate and on whom they depend, will not be acceptable.
Companies that pass down risk to their employees through such practices as ‘zero hours contracts’ or who avoid liability through small print exclusions that pass risk to their customers, will become very much less acceptable. 
Why should society/government bail them out if they are not contributing?

  • Reputation management will be on every board agenda.
  • Some over-powerful corporates will be broken up.

Just In Time Operations v Resilience

JIT operations management will become less important than Resilience. This will be a long term change in the corporate attitude to risk.
The difficult work of good operations management has always been a weakness in the UK economy, probably driven by a city that prefers to rely on top down re-organisations (mergers and acquisitions, then break up and asset stripping). 

  • A focus on risk management should be a key part of all business plans.
  • Changes to the supply chain management

Cities

Cities will lose their appeal.
If crowding people together is no longer safe and our tech infrastructure enables an alternative way of being, why would anybody want/need to be in a city?
In general the weaknesses of attempts at centralised control are being exposed.

  • This could have pricked the city property price bubble. A longer term decline might start here.
  • Distributed management systems will become the norm in business, government, and services such as the NHS.  Technology is again key to making these changes and it is wonderful to see everybody embracing as ‘normal’ the use of video conferencing; from an appointment with your GP to how Parliament is run.
  • The high street, in general, is in deep trouble.  Retail was only 7% on-line before Covid19 and will eventually go to the default method of buying things. The strategic question will be how companies are going to manage the change and specifically whether they want to be part of the Amazon juggernaut with the dangers of becoming permanently dependant, or whether they want the up-front cost of running their own systems.

Working from home

Working from home or from local business hubs is already becoming the new norm and I think it is unlikely that we will go back to the old systems of massive daily commutes that have blighted so many people’s lives. This is a substantial change with all sorts of implications.

  • Finally (and 20 years later than I expected) everybody is getting used to managing with employees working outside the main office.
  • However, managing a distributed work force requires a different business model to make it work properly. Everything from systems of remuneration to how to retain a ‘team spirit’.  Change is not easy.
  • All businesses will want/need a resilient IT platform in the Cloud, accessible from everywhere
  • As a country we will need to change our infrastructure priorities towards our IT infrastructure.  As a first step we need a programme to make 1Gb/sec internet connections available to 80% of the country – we can downgrade investments in 19th and 20th Century infrastructures of rail and roads which will become less important!
  • I suggest that everybody in EMC invests in Microsoft 365 and gets used to using their Teams structure. It is still somewhat clunky and not immediately intuitive, but it is being very widely adopted and has had a massive boost from the current lockdown. It will get better.

Schooling/ Education

Schooling is the last remaining ‘mass production’ enterprise and is long overdue for change. 
I can’t guess how it will change, but I am pretty sure it will be unrecognisable in 10 years’ time.
Educational games that teach the basics and test progress, will be part of the solution, leaving teachers free to do the important stuff of helping individuals when they are stuck.

  • Education is a massive sector of the economy that will need help adjusting

Economics and Global Warming

The Covid19 pandemic is a relatively simple dry run for the far more dangerous Global Warming.  It has clearly exposed the failure of ‘the market’ in allocating resources to long term problems that are ‘important’ but not immediately ‘urgent’. It is also similar in vividly demonstrating the need for some level of global co-operation which has so far been completely lacking in our response to Covid 19, especially when you compare it to the response in 2008 to a Global banking crisis.
The need to co-operate in a globally inter-connected world, are obvious, but are not reflected in our current economic system – I hope/expect there to be significant changes in the way we do economics as happened in the Bretton Woods agreement in the Post WW2 world.

  • GDP growth is a meaningless measure and even worse as an aspiration. We need to focus on the underlying issue of managing the local tax take needed to finance the changes and services we collectively need.
  • Overall demand in the economy will be significantly reduced for a long time as a result of the massive increase in debt right across the board.
  • The discussion of a Universal Income (or Universal Dividend as I prefer to call it as it is enabled by the historic collective investment we have made in society) will now become more relevant as a way to helicopter money into the economy to provide a fiscal stimulus. We already do this for about 1/3rd of the adult population – its called a pension, perhaps we can extend it to all parents as a next step and that might help resolve the obscenity of 1/3rd of all children growing up in relative poverty.
  • The extreme levels of inequality between neighbours is especially unsustainable in a world where ‘society’ has bailed out everybody.
  • Our response to Lockdown has been ‘heroic’ – how will we create a society ‘fit for heroes’ once the crisis is past its peak?

It is amazing how quickly humans, the world over, have adapted to ‘lockdown’. There will be many opportunities that the loosening of the ‘status quo’ offers to all the SME businesses that are flexible enough to ride the wave of change that is already here.

Covid-19 as of 10th April 2020

The following statistics spell out the impact of this virus as collated by http://ourworldindata.org .

This is what an exponential growth looks like:

And this is how we compare with other countries. Note that it is a LOG scale

I was surprised that the ‘normal death toll in the UK is about 580,000 people per year or just under 1,600 per day. (Also surprised that there are 16 suicides per day which is more than road accidents and drug misuse combines

Exclusive: universal credit linked to higher suicide risk, says study

Exclusive: universal credit linked to higher suicide risk, says study

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/nov/15/exclusive-new-study-links-universal-credit-to-increased-suicide-risk?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_WordPress

If it weren’t for the Brexit train wreck, the incompetent roll out of Universal credit which is costing lives, would be the story of the day. But now it is relegated to the back pages.

Draft Brexit Agreement

Now that the agreement has been finally published we all have the chance to form our own opinion as to its quality.

My preliminary view is that this deal is worse than staying in the EU, but then I am an ardent ‘Remainer‘ and I have seen no evidence that gives any grounds for thinking that my original assessment was wrong.

If you think the main drive for Brexit was protecting our boarders from foreigners coming to this country – then this deal delivers.

If you think that Brexit was about regaining control and national sovereignty, then you are missing the point of the global world in which we now live. The only question is ‘with whom are we going to share our sovereignty?’ Just ask yourself what control we have over our exchange rate in this world of instant trading – if you remember the ‘run on the Pound’ and the endless problems faced by a lone £ on its own, then you know that control is an illusion.

You can find copies of the full agreement here