Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cameron criticizes "secular neutrality"

Here's an interesting speech by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, arguing for more engagement from the Church of England in restoring a sense of right and wrong in UK society.

The Prime Minister said that faith helped people to "have a moral code" and that it was correct to pass judgment on others. "Those who advocate secular neutrality in order to avoid passing judgment on the behaviour of others, fail to grasp the consequences of that neutrality, or the role that faith can play in helping people to have a moral code," he said.

It's not entirely surprising for a Tory Prime Minister - even a very socially liberal one like Cameron - to call for a return to traditional values in one form or other. Cameron believes the summer riots in the UK were largely caused by moral failings, not poverty or less social spending or police tactics.

But what is interesting here is he specifically disagrees with the idea of the secular, neutral state which merely referees rights. This is heresy from the point of view of the broad postwar liberal ethos.

I've been arguing that this kind of secular neutrality effectively destroys any real society. It removes any possibility of genuine change in our institutions to take advantage of technological change. The left undermines genuine change.

Society needs incentives for people to do the right thing, and as a sign of what a society values. 

Of course, the word "incentive" sounds very clinical and corporate, the kind of thing overpaid CEOs claim they need from supine board compensation committees. Call it "carrots" instead. 

It is much broader than money, which has been the most successful incentive system in human history.  It is what earns people respect, or nudges them to cooperate or produce things of value to others. It helps restrain bad behavior and predatory selfishness. 

Religion is the oldest way humanity has evolved to deal with these issues - which is no doubt why Cameron is complaining the liberal Church of England is not doing enough of it.

But the older great religions cannot accomplish that task by themselves now. Theocracy has its own problems, which is why the West came up with the idea of a secular state in the first place. 

However, if there are no carrots for doing the right thing, then society withers. 

A neutral state undermines the ability to have the right carrots. It leaves money and trashy celebrity as the main residual incentives. It is a future of reality tv stars and connections and sleaze.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Descent from Eden

There is a fascinating article in the New Yorker (behind pay wall) about Gobleki Tepe, the oldest religious/ monumental structure yet discovered. It is in southeastern Turkey, and appears to predate the transition to agriculture itself. 

Some German scholars even argue that it is the actual Garden of Eden, as it is filled with natural imagery - including snakes - and it lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as mentioned in Genesis.

The article dwells at length on Jared Diamond's argument that the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture is the "worst mistake humanity ever made." People worked far longer hours, were more poorly nourished, prone to disease,  smaller and shorter-lived. Passing on land and property led to all sorts of consequences in later society from enforced monogamy to warfare. Or at least so the argument goes. 

But there were more farmers, and they eventually wiped out the hunter-gatherers.

The point is transitions from one sort of economy to another are very difficult. Agriculture, of course, is the foundation of all later civilizations. But at the time it may have led to millennia of lower standards of living. 

The first great economic transition may have been the descent from Eden.

You're wrong, Mr Nobel Laureate

Joseph Stiglitz has an article in Vanity Fair which argues that although monetary policy helped cause the crisis, it can't fix it. Only a huge new investment program can. He says that his research shows that the Great Depression is better understood as a weakened economy undergoing structural change even before policy errors or trade wars hit.

The trauma we’re experiencing right now resembles the trauma we experienced 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, and it has been brought on by an analogous set of circumstances. Then, as now, we faced a breakdown of the banking system. But then, as now, the breakdown of the banking system was in part a consequence of deeper problems. Even if we correctly respond to the trauma—the failures of the financial sector—it will take a decade or more to achieve full recovery
Fixing the banking system isn't enough, he argues.

The problem today is the so-called real economy. It’s a problem rooted in the kinds of jobs we have, the kind we need, and the kind we’re losing, and rooted as well in the kind of workers we want and the kind we don’t know what to do with. The real economy has been in a state of wrenching transition for decades, and its dislocations have never been squarely faced. A crisis of the real economy lies behind the Long Slump, just as it lay behind the Great Depression.
The problem is his suggested cures are all standard liberal nostrums. He may be a Nobel-winning economist, but his ideas at least in this case lack imagination. Huge new government spending programs for "investment" and higher taxes. More money for education, more money to help the states to close budget shortfalls.

In other words, more money flowing to public service unions that reliably fund Democrats and boost their pensions at the expense of public services.

I agree when he argues we need more money spent on infrastructure. That, at least, is genuine 'investment'. But it has to be sensible investment, not pork.
"Today we are moving from manufacturing to a service economy.", he says. No, we're not. We're moving from a service economy to something which lies beyond an service economy. He doesn't get that the problem is actually deeper than he concedes. And THAT's the problem.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Changing gender roles

Here's an article at RealClearBooks about social changes, especially changes in gender roles that are being driven by technology. Young men are increasingly adrift, it argues, because the economy no longer has as much role for them as providers or security:

Today, however, men are unemployed, and the cause, Mansfield believes, is modernity, which relies on technology more than duty to satisfy our needs and protect us from trouble. The economy's productivity and the government's programs provide the baseline level of safety and security. Security, says Mansfield, is the "very antithesis of manliness." There's the rub. Today's rescue mission is not men jumping from helicopters. It's the Allstate man, or woman, handling your insurance claim. "The entire enterprise of modernity could be understood as a project to keep manliness unemployed."

Agree with it or not, it's an interesting illustration of how changes in the economy and technology can cause much deeper change in social structures - and these have their own consequences. 

We don't have to buy the argument that social features are just "superstructure", as the Marxists would say, determined by the means of production. 

But there is little doubt that major changes in how people make a living and wider social roles can have plenty of consequences for people's sense of purpose, social respect and status, and their happiness in daily life. Changing technology and employment affects much more than just the GDP statistics.