Category Archives: Other

Are Humans Labour?

Have you ever heard of an unemployed tiger? Probably not. An unemployed whale? No?

Unemployed animalWhy are the concepts of labour and employment so universal, and so evidently a part of human life, when they are completely unheard of to all of our Earthling kin? Either labour is a natural concept exclusively for humanity, or it’s a temporary attribute of the dominant economic system today. I assumed that the second was an obvious truth, and set out thinking about how we would be able to move towards a state when unemployment could be eliminated. But labour, employment and unemployment are huge parts of our modern socio-economies. And trying to solve the problem of unemployment based on conventional economic reasoning would, I knew, lead me to either incremental solutions designed to lower certain types of unemployment i.e. structural and cyclical; or it would lead me towards Milton Friedman’s conclusion that unemployment can’t be lowered beyond the ‘Non Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment’ without price and/or wage controls. Furthermore, the concept of unemployment is a very modern problem.

Prior to England’s Poor Law of 1601, and to some extent prior to the Industrial Revolution, the concept of unemployment simply wasn’t recognized. In 16th century England the jobless were called “sturdy beggars”; a term that included both those with non-socially accepted employment, and also those who didn’t want to work. The Poor Law of 1531 simply assumed that there were enough jobs for everyone, and perhaps understandably so, since the first Vagrancy Law was passed in 1349, when the death toll caused by Bubonic Plague spreading across England was at its peak. Yet throughout the globe, humanity’s population boom only commenced after the Industrial Revolution was under way, and most strongly in the latter part of the twentieth century. Furthermore, the technological advances which have been utilized since the eighteenth century have meant that production today is less labour intensive than ever before. All of this leads economists to conclude that unemployment is a very much a modern concern, and problem to be addressed within our present economic system. However, I wanted to explore the concept’s roots a little further; not as a sociological investigation into when it was first used, but more as an investigation into where and when the idea of humans as labour came from.

I was immediately surprised to find reference to the word labour in theories dating as far back as Confucius (about a hundred years pre-Socrates and Plato). But I thought, surely this is a poor translation, right? So next I looked at the etymology of the word labour. I found that it comes from the Latin word ‘laborem’/’laborate’, which seems to mean a great many things, just like our modern word: work, trouble, toil, exertion, hardship, pain, fatigue, and even labour in a fairly modern sense. Etymology of Labour Going back further proved difficult, with the best guesses that I found saying the word comes either from one which means “tottering under a burden”, or from one of the Ancient Greek words of lamvano/lavo (to undertake; Gr: λαμβάνω), or laepsiros (one who runs very fast, agile, speedy; la+aepsiros; Gr: λαιψηρός, λα+αιψηρός).

In other words as far back as we can go, the verb labour i.e. to labour at a task, seems to exist. However treating humans as labour in the sense of a noun i.e. labour meaning worker, does indeed seem to be quite modern. For example when Confucius used the word, as in the quote below, he was meaning work, and not worker: “Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.”

My question therefore, is this: why did we start seeing humans as labour/workers? Is it natural among humans to treat ourselves as such? And if the modern adoption of concepts such as unemployment, and labour as a noun, are indicative of the modern socio-economic system, and temporary, then might it be possible to see a point in time when we see ourselves not as labour, but rather as thinkers, players, or even something else entirely?

Do identities stick?

Sticky IdentityYou might be familiar with the concept of wage stickiness. It’s a theory that the pay of employed workers tends to respond slowly to the changes in a company’s or the broader economy’s performance. But what about you? Is the person you are flexible to the world around you? Let me clarify briefly as to what I’m talking about; personality is no more than a set of characteristics and traits; I am not talking about this. But identity is more fundamental, and is about who you are. My hypothesis is that identities are sticky on three levels:

  1. Personal/Social Identity
    1. The personal identity is that which is self-relevant, and the social identity is that which exists with reference to others (it’s important to note that social identity theory is different to group identity, for where one is personal identity influenced by the group, the other belongs to the group). If these identities are sticky then identity that we build for ourselves may be more powerful than analytical/rational thinking. In 2004 Lisa Bolton and Americus Reed published an article in which they argued that past components of a person’s identity have prolonged impacts on judgement. The authors examined judgements on issues that were linked to identity, such as pollution linked to environmentalist identities, legalising marijuana linked to liberal and parental identities etc. They tried to weaken these participants’ judgements using a variety of methods, but when the judgements were linked to identities they had little success. Social influence i.e. peer pressure, was the most influential method, but even this had its limitations. So effectively their message was that identity is important. Not rocket science of course; but the implications are significant, because if the effects of identity are prolonged, and perhaps sometimes irrational, then they are also open to manipulation. For example Bolton and Reed concluded that companies should try and build brand loyalty along identity lines.
  2. Group/Collective Identity
    1. A group identity is one which is held in common with a collective. And there are numerous examples of where such identities can be seen to stick. For example many have argued that ethnic conflicts arise when an ethnic group identifies itself as marginalised, oppressed and/or weakened by the dominant group. Yet when such groups find themselves involved in a shifting balance of power, their self-identification of vulnerability usually stays. One example is the growing power of the Hutus in Rwanda vis-a-vis the Tutsis prior to the Tutsi genocide. Another example is the growing power of Israel in the world, and the clear evidence of their power from military victories, together with the enduring identity of vulnerability coming from the holocaust.
  3. 3rd Person Identity (I made this concept up because I couldn’t find a label for it):
      1. One aspect of it is obvious. Does your boss think you unready for a promotion? It may be that they have identified you as young and inexperienced, or it may be that they have built an identity for you based on mistakes that you made early in the job. And it often takes a lot of persistent evidence that you have grown beyond this in order to justify your promotion. What you’re really trying to do is not only provide empirical evidence of your competence, but actually change your own identity as exists in your manager’s head. The implications of this are numerous. Should we try and change jobs and locations  as often as possible in order to ensure that others’ identities of us is always at the latest, most competent stage? Should we focus a lot more of our energy on ‘anchoring’ conversations i.e. suggesting/implying what you want the other person to believe early, so as to ensure the other person’s identification of you is as positive as possible? Or should we recognise that there is a trade-off between others’ identification of us, and the enjoyment that can be realised from a sense of enduring community?
      2. The second aspect is less obvious, for it involves a feedback loop. It is a part of human psychology that we act on guesses about what other people are thinking about us. But of our course our guesses are all based on past data and perceptions i.e. what the other group/person has done in the past, as opposed to what they’re thinking at the moment. And thus if these identifications stick, then we could not only build very obscure identifications of others, but also end up letting that influence our actions, and thus the reactions of the person we are identifying, and thus their, and again our, identities.

Do you think identities stick? And if so what do you think the implications are?

The Tax Debate

Taxes are one of the hottest topics in politics today. But where is the debate today, and is it in the right place? To those on the right, inefficiencies are costing us money, and we should adopt a more regressive system of taxes i.e. flat rates. To those on the left, states seem to be in a ‘race to the bottom’ in lowering their Corporate Income Tax rates as a means to attract investment, while at the same time benefits to the poor are being slashed; in other words the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. Indeed, if you google the phrase ‘tax debate’ you will find:

  1. A debate in the US over whether they should lower their official Corporate Tax Income rate of just under 40%
  2. A debate in the UK about whether it is fair to increase taxes based on the number of bedrooms in your house
  3. A debate in France about the effectiveness/efficiency of the 75% upper limit of tax on income over EUR 1m, combined with govt spending of 56% of GDP

Each of these debates is a pretty traditional debate, based on the values laden division between right and left, and what they teach you in a university about tax policy making. For instance in the UK the left say that the ‘bedroom tax’ is unfair because it targets the poor, and of the 660,000 people affected only a minority are able to move to smaller accomodation. Whereas the right say that this is efficient, because in de facto terms this removes a ‘spare room subsidy’, which ultimately saves the tax payer around GBP 500m.

Tax JusticeBut to what extent are these debates really in touch with public concerns? They attract interest of course. Yet to the vast majority of people reading newspapers, it is neither fair, nor efficient that firms with greater market power have a lot more room for manouver in negotiating their rates. To think that one of the largest, most widespread protests in human history was the international Occupy Movement, and that this movement is still going on today, it seems odd that the debates today are national. Indeed where the debates are international it is simply in comparitive terms. Right wing tax reformers in the US for instance, like to highlight the fact that the average Corporate Tax Income Rate in the OECD is only 25%, compared to their 40%. But is this the debate that moves public interest? In practice, the 40% rarely applies. And it is not just in tax journals and legal documents that this is realised. The public is well aware.

Dan Lynch et al (Product Market Power and Tax Avoidance: Market Leaders, Mimicking Strategies, and Stock Returns, 2013) found that between 1993 and 2010 there was a positive correlation between product market power and tax avoidance. Furthermore, they found that the effects trickle down to smaller companies, and even to the individual shareholder. Less influential companies seek to emulate the practices of the market leaders. And investors gain a greater return from firms that engage in more aggressive cash tax avoidance. The entire system seems set up to encourage more than discourage, tax avoidance. In fact I spoke with an investment adviser earlier this year. He said to me “some people only want ethical investments in their portfolio, and that’s ok; but it really does hold us back”. He was encouraging us to give him complete autonomy over our investment decisions, and quite explicitly admitting that if we did so then he would have been investing in areas that might be deemed less than ethical…

It seems odd therefore, that in the media and in political literature the stress is on the average rates applied at the national level, together with the right-left debate over efficiency versus fairness; whereas in business, law, and popular culture, the stress is instead on the exceptions, and the application of law. Why for instance, don’t we hear more about the fact that OECD recently released a progress report on tax transparency? In this report, not only countries such as Luxembourg, the Seychelles and the British Virgin Islands, but also countries such as the UK and US were found not to be fully compliant with the OECD’s tax transparency rules. Why don’t we hear more about the US Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) or the OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) initiative? Why don’t we hear more about the growing popularity of the Financial Transaction Taxes? And what about the Double Tax Conventions? Or the conflicts between different tax laws e.g. EU law on the one hand, and Double Tax Conventions on the other? There really are so many issues that are current, and huge in significance. And yet the major political debates still rage over the classical right-left dispute.

What do you think today’s major tax debate(s) should be? And why?

To what extent is innovation collective?

Let’s not re-create the wheel they say, as if the wheel were one individual innovation, thought by a single great thinker from our ancestry: the genius cave man!

Genius cavemanMost of human history in fact seems to have been analysed this way (with a focus on great individuals) until relatively recently. Take the study of leadership as an example. Its first spot in the limelight as a subject of its own was with the Great Man theories of the 1840s. Subsequently, the subject’s theories have shifted through traits theories, behavioural theories, contingency based theories, charismatic based theories, and now only recently to more collective forms of leadership which, for example, take the followers into account as well.

None of these theories were ‘stupid’, and in fact despite the reduced popularity of the great man theories in the field of leadership, they have permeated a great deal of our culture. Think about the big events that you learnt in school history lessons; there were probably a few significant individuals at the heart of each study. Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Alexander the Great, Nelson Mandela, Julius Caesar; the list goes on and on. Indeed we seem obsessed with individuals across all subjects. Think about English, and Shakespeare probably pops into mind. Music; Beethoven and Mozart. Science; Galileo, Newton and Einstein. Maths; Pythagoras. Etc. It makes sense for us to link significant ideas with their proponents. And so you can see how the Great Man theories of the 1840s became popular. However the growing force of pragmatism is forcing these emphases into the history books as well. For what use is it to memorise a list of great names? Just as in leadership, so too in other studies, we are becoming much less interested in who did what years ago, and much more in how we can do those things ourselves.

However, it may also be that this move is more logical and truthful than simply pragmatic. Einstein, for instance, wrote the general and special laws of relativity. But could he have done this without the help of Max Telmud (a student who introduced him to several difficult topics), his teachers at Zurich university, the authors of those books that he read (and he read a lot), and indeed the entire advancement of science up until that point in history?! I could have extended this list, but hopefully you get the point. To give an other example; shortly into this century a broadsheet newspaper concluded that Marx was the most significant political thinker of all times. Whether or not you agree with this, it would be impossible to deny that a significant amount of what he said, was widely known and talked about when he was writing. Neither did Marx even try to deny it. For instance he started his academic career as a Hegelian, and this is where his concept of alienation came from. When he later wrote more about alienation he said not that he was adding to Hegel’s work, but rather that he was taking it, and “turning it on its head”.

When we come to innovation, many ideas seem to be echoed in nature. And so it is easy to infer that prior to the invention of the wheel someone might have seen a log rolling down a hill. Perhaps this log injured or killed several people, and started a lot of gossip. It’s quite possible that events such as this could have been talked about for generations before one creative individual, or perhaps team of individuals, decided to ‘take’ (not make) this idea, and use it for something else. How else can one realistically suppose that the wheel’s invention came about? Inventors/creators don’t just sit around and invent/create out of nothing. They learn from others all the time, amalgamate different ideas heard in different places, and build upon what other people have said.

invention of the wheelAlthough we don’t know exactly who created the wheel or when, we have in fact made numerous educated guesses. For instance the earliest wheels found come from Sumer, (around 3500BC – this empire was formed along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in the Middle East) the empire which is also credited with the invention of writing. And the process of their invention is believed to have been a six stage progression, from placing rollers beneath heavy objects, to placing sledge like runners beneath them, through various combinations of the two led eventually to what we now call the wheel.

If the Sumerian invention of the wheel is correct, then this invention was indeed a huge one, over a huge period of time. But my contention is that all creativity is collective and social. After all, if you put someone in a room at birth, and kept them alive, but with no form of social interaction; do you really think that that person would ever invent anything new?

To what extent do you agree? Is innovation always collective? Or is it sometimes, or even more than sometimes, individual?

Is Materialism the main intellectual opponent of religion?

Almost every religion has an anti-materialistic message.

imagesCAXOHYAEIn Christianity: When the rich man came to Jesus asking what he could do to improve his chances of getting into heaven, Jesus told him to give up all his wealth. The rich man walked away, and Jesus told the growing crowd that it was harder for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

In Sikhism: When Guru Nanak met Duni Chand, and was invited to his mansion, Duni Chand proudly displayed his wealth to the Guru. But later he told the Guru that he was unhappy, and wished to be the richest man in the city. The Guru replied by giving Duni Chand a needle, and asking him to return it to the Guru in the next life. At first Duni Chand took this seriously, but when he told his wife she laughed. “Are you mad?” she asked. “How can a needle go to the next world?” It was only then that Duni Chand realised the folly of his ways, and rejected materialism.

But if materialism really is the main intellectual opponent of religion, then why is agnosticism and atheism growing in popularity? The picture below shows the proportion of atheists and agnostics around the world today – an image that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago.

Stephen Barr, professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware, argues that quantum science makes believing in God easier, because it provides a strong argument against materialism. Incidentally, if you’re thinking about materialism only as money, this is the definition used by Barr: “an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions.” As I’ve argued in previous posts, quantum mechanics makes a strong counter-argument. In fact the quantum sciences accord much more strongly with the Aristotelian view of reality than modern materialism, since they recognise the importance of potential as opposed to the more materialistic view of things which are already determined. So where a materialist would say that if you had complete knowledge of the universe then you would know exactly what was going to happen and when, a quantum mechanic would say that such knowledge would only afford you foresight into what the probabilities were. Furthermore, the mathematics which describes all physical processes (the Schrodinger equation) does not accurately describe the fluctuations in probability that actually occur in reality. And on top of that, knowledge of events themselves can actually change what occurs (watch ‘What the Bleep do we know?’ if you doubt me:

Barr questions whether if the human mind can transcend matter and its laws, a more powerful mind might not exist, which transcends the physical universe altogether. In other words he pits materialism against God, as His main intellectual rival, and infers that God might be fighting back with quantum science. But after all, religion has grown during a very materialistic phase in our history. So is materialism really the main intellectual rival of religion? Will growing knowledge about quantum science see people returning to religion once more?

Is there a difference between Management and Leadership?

The concept of leadership has been analyzed as a concept distinct from management for centuries. Indeed a great deal of the debate dates back to Weber (and even a hundred years before too), who’s well known for distinguishing between transactional (bureaucratic), transformative (charismatic) and feudal (traditional) models of leadership. And the philosophical debate has been continued in today’s era by the likes of Burns and Bass. Bass said
“Leaders manage and managers lead, but the two activities are not synonymous. Management functions can potentially provide leadership; leadership activities can contribute to managing. Nevertheless, some managers do not lead, and some leaders do not manage”.

Far from being distinct, the above quote seems to reflect the consensus view. Leadership is commonly thought of as relating to inspiration, charisma and particularly crisis situations where direction, and “grabbing the bull by the horns” are important. Management however, is often thought of as being more operational, administrative, reactive and sometimes technical. One results in change, the other results in maintenance.

But what’s the truth? And is there any merit in the separation of these two concepts? Professor Tony de Luca of Sacred Heart University believes that not only is the debate without merit, but it also proves very little in the way of a real difference. For example a leader who isn’t a manager would make nice speeches but never deliver on anything. They would be ” all smoke and no sizzle” i.e. no beef. So in reality there’s no point in separating the two concepts because either job needs both skill sets.

What are your thoughts?

Are we truly free?

Capitalism is often espoused as an economic system that liberated people from Serfdom. Linear models of history tend to place it after Feudalism as the most free of social models. Fukuyama even went so far as to say it marked the end of history.

And yet when we compare 2011 with 1848, which looks more revolutionary? Neither resulted in the overthrowing of existing theories. Both spread ideas far and wide. And 2011 was a lot bigger! So if we assume that 2011 and Occupy was largely about Capitalism then it seems that many are far from happy with the amount of freedom that they have.

Your immediate thought may be that people are unhappy because of the Great Recession. At this moment there are more 16-25 year olds in the world who aren’t in education or work than there are citizens of the United States. These people clearly have reason to think that the system let them down. But what about those protestors with a job? What about those who wanted to protest but feared that they could be fired for doing so, or that they were working so much that they didn’t have time to protest? Movements as big as Occupy don’t result solely from recessions, no matter how big they are.

This now brings me to my main point. I saw a Dilbert cartoon some months ago, and it stuck in my head. Dilbert kept looking at various animals kept in captivity, each time deriding them for their stupidity in allowing themselves to be virtually enslaved. And then in the last strip he went to sit in an office booth and tapped away on a keyboard; a slave, or so we are to think, of a faceless corporation.

Capitalism says that it permits labour freedom of movement, so they can work where they want. But critics say that Feudalism at least protected one from being fired and/or unemployed. And of course you are only free to choose where you have a choice. Where’s your freedom to quit if you know that there aren’t any other jobs out there? After all how many people have you met who work in their dream career? How many people have you met who work for who they want to work for? In a Capitalist system you generally need capital in order to be your own boss.

So what is it that we have right now? Freedom of labour movement? Freedom to choose which company you enslave yourself to? Or worse still rigid slavery to an entire system that we cannot escape, and serves only the 1%? Are you truly free? Or will our grandchildren look back on these times with pity?

What is the primary motivation behind group formation, actions and interactions?

Group psychology focuses on how groups come to be, how their identities are forged and shaped, how they grow, and ultimately even what they come to do e.g. if they tend towards violence or arm theirselves why do they do so?

Given that these questions are so wide ranging the subject obviously finds ground in various other subjects. Yet for example in International Relations there is a lot more research needing to be done. The main theoretical branches of IR use almost no psychological justification, and yet all are willing to base their ideas upon very profound psychological components of human nature. Realists cite power and security as the main motivation for group actions, Liberals cite utility or wealth maximization, and constructivists call human nature nothing more than a social construction.

Do any of these views hold true to you? Or would you need to see the data? Why do you join and/or start groups? And if there could be one then what do you think is the primary motivation behind group actions?

After Pragmatism and Agnosticism

The words pragmatism and agnosticism are very popular in today’s society. In fact they form a large part of modern society’s identity. But they are as ideological as any other mode of thought from human history. Indeed neither arose from simple ‘common sense’ as people often like to say. Pragmatism for instance, arose thanks to a large amount from the works of theorists such as John Dewey et al.

But given that we find it hard to even identify such things as ideologies it seems impossible that we might be able to guess what we will be thinking and saying 50 years from now, right?
In actual fact there have always been clues as to what the next leap in human thought would be through history. And they were almost always found in our beliefs about reality.

It is therefore quite profound to note that ideas such as the above are based on outdated beliefs in science. As Henry Staff (theoretical physicist from Berkeley) said “orthodox quantum mechanics insists […] that the physically described world is not a world of material substances, as normally conceived, but it is rather a world of potentialities for future experiences.” To this extent modern science completely rejects the very bedrock of pragmatic and agnostic beliefs, for both are built upon a materialist conception of reality. Or to put it another way both would have a hard time explaining Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

The important question that remains therefore, is what will replace such beliefs? What do you think?

How much fresh perspective is given by history?

In an LSE lecture by Professor Christopher Clark, Clark outlined the focus of his new book: the origins of the First World War. He explained that despite this being an area that has been researched greatly already, history brings new perspective. He also explained that he would focus on how the war began, rather than why.

Clearly this area of history is of almost unparalleled importance. Without the Great War we would probably not have seen the rise of fascism, the holocaust, Naziism, the Russian October Revolution and all other manner of significant later occurrences.

But will Clark’s study really add to existing literature? How much of a difference does history really make in your opinion? Will he be able to bring an entirely fresh perspective? Or will he be likely instead of what he terms Presentism – making the past fit present circumstances?

« Older Entries Recent Entries »