The marvellous consistency of John Harris

John Harris has one of his, as usual, excellently done pieces detailing the economic wasteland that is a town where Tesco has decided not to arrive. Bit of vox pop, bit of background information, the underlying tale being that of course the capitalist bastards are ripping the heart out of good honest working class communities by not arriving.

It’s very well done:

Throughout the 1990s and all the way up to the crash of 2008 and beyond, this was how whole swaths of Britain were rebuilt, and Tesco led the charge, to the point that it sometimes seemed to be a wing of government, and some people began to fear the dystopia crystallised in the title of Andrew Simms’s best-selling book Tescopoly. Now, though, Tesco is in retreat, and its sudden withdrawal from scores of places has left behind resentment, anger and what feels like a strange state of shock.

It’s just that this was the same John Harris who only 5 years ago was not only complaining about Tesco coming to town but actively campaigning against it doing so:

This is the kind of nightmare many Frome locals fear: the dullest, most oppressive kind of arrival, thoroughly out of sync with a creative, imaginative local atmosphere. Put another way, it’ll be another small step closer to the kind of future long since mapped out in middle America, in which banal convenience will conquer all – and this being Britain, forgetfulness will come at 24 cans for a tenner.

The underlying tale being that of course the capitalist bastards are ripping the heart out of good honest working class communities by arriving.

Our assumption is not that if you’re a Guardian columnist then you’ve got to find something to complain about. Nor even that to be a lefty you must have some whinge, whatever it is. It’s that in order to be properly bien pensant you must be whining about something. What is whined about does not matter, the logical consistency of successive whines is unimportant, to be a Very Serious Person discussing the state of the world has moved on from EM Forster and ended in “Only whine”.

The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley

There’s an interesting reason why politics, the creation of laws and regulations, just isn’t very good as a way of doing things. That being that the world’s a complicated place. And so it is with this idea that every child should be safe from the terrors of pornography on the internet. The powers that be demanded that all such possible access be filtered out unless responsible adults deliberately asked for access to be possible.

And lo! the regulations were made and:

“But it’s very simplistic: URLs with Sussex or Essex in them, for example, are blocked.”

Rather less amusingly the websites of many charities and educational sites are also blocked. If all “porn” is blocked then so will be places that discuss how to escape the porn industry, what to do about an addiction to porn and, a memory so glorious that perhaps we should build a statue to it, the website of the MP who campaigned for there to be an internet porn filter.

The point being that this world of ours is a complicated place. Enough of us now understand Hayek’s point about economic planning, that we can’t for the only thing that we have that is capable of calculating the economy is the economy itself. It’s not possible to run a model and then direct it: what happens is emergent from the very method of calculation. What is less well understood is that this applies to all these other areas of life as well. It’s not possible for us to just gaily insist “porn filters for all!” and for that to be actually implemented.

Therefore, logically, we should stop trying to micromanage life in this manner and go off and do something more useful with our energies. And given that doing pretty much anything would be a more useful use of our energies that leaves us all with a great deal of choice over what to do.

Men are not ‘over’, women are not discriminated against

In what seems to me slightly contradictory, two popular modern memes hold that, firstly, we are experiencing ‘the end of men’, who are steadily being eclipsed by women in many levels of academia, areas of the economy and so on; and secondly that women are discriminated against in the labour market, which is why they only earn around three quarters as much as men on average per hour.

A 2013 paper by Kingsley Browne in the Boston University Law Review challenges both of these claims, arguing that the dominance women enjoy in many areas of society refutes the idea they are discriminated against, but their relative scarcity in other areas shows how men are still not ‘over’. He explains this discrepancy between sectors to differences in preferences and characteristics between the sexes, differences he believes are biologically caused.

Common examples of perceived workplace inequality – the “glass ceiling,” the “gender gap” in compensation, and occupational segregation, among others – cannot be well understood if the explanation proffered for their existence is limited exclusively to social causes such as discrimination and sexist socialization.

Males and females have, on average, different sets of talents, tastes, and interests, which cause them to select somewhat different occupations and exhibit somewhat different workplace behaviors. Some of these sex differences have biological roots. Temperamental sex differences are found in competitiveness, dominance seeking, risk taking, and nurturance, with females tending to be more “person oriented” and males more “thing oriented.”

The sexes also differ in a variety of cognitive traits, including various spatial, verbal, mathematical, and mechanical abilities. Although social influences can be important, these social influences operate on (and were in fact created by) sexually dimorphic minds.

As I have written before, even if the very substantial work-related differences between men and women are socially constructed, satisfying their preferences as they are, rather than as an egalitarian might want them to be, makes men and women best off. I have also written how the gender wage gap isn’t evidence for firm discrimination between the genders, because it is entirely explained by women’s decisions (to take safer, more satisfying jobs, to work lower hours and to take substantial time out of the workforce).

He points out that women have recently come to dominate many high status fields and that most of the gender wage gap is between, not within, professions. Taken together, he argues there is no general ‘glass ceiling’, although of course there are many individual instances of discrimination.

In many respects, however, women have made breathtaking advances in the past several decades. Professions such as law and medicine are reaching parity among new entrants, and women represent over 60% of newly enrolled pharmacy students and over 75% of new veterinarians.

Even within fields in which men predominate generally, such as science, technology and engineering, there are interesting variations: women are underrepresented in metallurgical and mechanical engineering but much closer to parity in biomedicine and bioengineering.

And he gives strong evidence for differences between men and women in: competitiveness, which are not easily explained by ‘stereotype threat’ given that they start very early and only appear in specific sorts of high pressure competition; risk-taking (boys and men take more risk); interest in children (girls and women show more of it); spatial reasoning ability (men excel); verbal ability (women excel); and occupational interests.

Whether these are biological or social they massively affect the fields that women want to enter and the ones they can do well in. And this is OK! It makes people happier to do jobs (including work in the home) they want to do and jobs they are good at. It’s OK for our labour markets to reflect this—it makes us better off overall.

Plus ca change, c’est la meme chose

A little bit of interesting history. We used to have, here in the UK, an official of the Royal Household who determined what might be shown to us proles on the stage. The Lord Chamberlain’s office included the responsibility to:

so that he could only prohibit the performance of plays where he was of the opinion that “it is fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace so to do”.

Of course we did away with all that fuddy duddy nonsense with the Theatres Act of 1968. The Earl Peel now has no such responsibility or power.

Yes, of course we did away with all of that fuddy duddy stuff, there’s no one able to limit what the proles may see upon the stage or screen:

Seventies comedies would not be allowed on television screens today because they were so racist and offensive, the outgoing head of Ofcom has said.

Ed Richards, who stands down as chief executive of the media watchdog at the end of this month, said programmes from a previous generation were no longer suitable for today’s more enlightened audiences.

What it is that we proles may be shown seems to have changed a little, the August Personage who gets to decide it seems to have changed, but it does still seem to be that the bien pensants of the day get to decide what may or may not be shown to the populace.

Haven’t we all had such a radical expansion in freedom and liberty, in cultural expression?

Not that we’re in favour of racism, sexism or whatever, particularly. It’s just that we can’t help thinking that an actual free market in these things would work rather better. If people didn’t like what was being shown then they wouldn’t watch it and it would quickly fail and be taken off the air. And at least in the Lord Chamberlain’s day they were very clear about this: you may not show these things because people would like them too much. The modern censorship is making the opposite argument: you may not show them because no one would like them. But if that is so then we don’t need the censorship, do we, because something that no one likes won’t survive. We thus suspect that the censorship survives precisely because those censoring know that the populace does not share their views.

How very liberal, eh?

Someone’s got a very dark sense of humour concerning Cuba

Much chuntering about the fact that Broadway musicals have returned to Cuba for the first time in 50 years. And whoever it was that put this package together they’ve a very, very, dark sense of humour:

In the play, the setting is New York: the East Village, in the early 1990s, with a bohemian, artistic crowd trying to make ends meet over Christmas.

In real life, the setting is Havana – with a disparate group of actors, trying to put on a musical, to show over the festive period.

Because for the first time in 50 years, a Broadway musical is transferring to the Communist island, and – in a case of life imitating art – a play whose first scene opens on Christmas Eve will raise its curtain on December 24. Rent will then open to entertain crowds of curious Cubans, most of whom will never in their lives have seen a musical on that scale.

“Getting permission to bring the show here was extremely challenging,” said Robert Nederlander Jr – producer of the show, and the third generation of a Broadway dynasty. “It took us well over a year to negotiate.”

Our best guess is that we should congratulate Mr. Nederlander on that sense of humour.

Rent is a story (loosely a story, a collection of songs loosely nailed to a story might be a better description) detailing the travails of various people of interesting sexuality, their struggles with being HIV positive, the threats of becoming so, and how they cannot find secure and decent housing.

To take this to an island that, until recently, would lock up in isolation camps those who were HIV positive, distinctly demonise those of interesting sexuality and where there hasn’t been decent or secure housing since the socialist revolution is, well, it is humorous, isn’t it?

Well done Mr. Nederlander, well done, our caps are raised in admiration. We are left wondering though who, other than you and ourselves, is going to get the joke.