Monday, 18 February 2013

A Paradox: Labour is Undervalued Because it is Overvalued

     Sometimes, paradoxically, it turns out that a problem is almost exactly the opposite of what we think it is. I've been thinking about this particular issue for a long time (and blogged about it just a year ago), but just this morning the counterintuitive insight hit me: Labour is undervalued because it is overvalued.

     First, that it's undervalued. That's not really a new idea, of course, and Karl Marx made much of it in his analysis. In the last thirty years or so, the problem has become worse, as income inequality has expanded. Wages have barely kept pace with inflation, despite enormous growth in the economy and productivity; almost all of the increase has gone to a smaller and smaller portion of the population (the "1%", as the Occupy protests put it). So maybe it's not entirely accurate to say that the value of labour has dropped so much as the value of other things has risen. In any event, the net result is the same: it's harder and harder to get rich by wages alone. To become upwardly mobile now demands some kind of investment, playing the markets, and so on.
     (Well, but does that mean labour is undervalued? Maybe labour just isn't worth very much now, given that we have so much technology that simply reduces demand for human effort. Maybe that's really just what it's worth. Maybe, but I'm not really going to argue that point, except to say that if someone can work a 60 hour week and still not make enough to prosper, then maybe we should ditch the rhetoric about poor people being "lazy".)

     Second, that it's overvalued. I'm going to argue that it's overvalued because we think it is the only thing of value most people have to offer. That is, we value it more than the other things they have, which we treat as valueless. What other things do they have? Well, that's just the problem: we think they have nothing. We don't recognize the property claims that each of us morally has to assets we've traditionally ignored as unowned externalities.
     Here's just one example: the Atmosphere. We all depend absolutely on it for the oxygen we breathe and use to burn other fuels, as well as to carry away the waste gases we produce. We use it to regulate temperature, and it carries precipitation to our crops. It shields us from space debris, and from harmful radiation from the Sun and other sources.
     Now, no one has claimed the Atmosphere as property, because there's no meaningful way to exclude people from using it. We colloquially say that it belongs to all of us, but in practical terms, we act as if it belongs to no one. But what if it DID belong to all of us? What if each of us was the owner of a single share (of about 7 billion issued) of Atmosphere Corporation, which managed the use of the resource on our behalf?
     There are limits to how much use we can safely extract from the atmosphere over any fixed amount of time, after all. It naturally processes a certain amount of pollution, but it takes time, and if you release too much pollution all at once, everyone else has to breathe it. So responsible management of the resource would involve recognizing just how much pollution-processing capacity there is in a given day or month or year, and selling that capacity at market rates. Some of the revenue from the operation of the Atmosphere utility would, of course, be reinvested in keeping the thing running smoothly, but profits could be distributed as dividends to the shareholders.
     My point here is that each of us has a moral right to a share of ownership in heretofore "unowned" valuable assets, the atmosphere being just a convenient example.  But at present, we do not recognize these assets as having value, and so the only thing of value we recognize most people as owning is their labour. Hence, we overvalue labour relative to all these other assets that people own but cannot realize value from.

     This means that people who have only their labour to sell are what realtors call "motivated sellers". They may own all sorts of other stuff, but they're not able to realize any income from it, and so the only way to make cash is by selling labour, and that makes it a buyer's market. And as technology makes it possible to do more and more with less and less labour, the price falls.

     If we actually valued these unrecognized assets (ownership of the atmosphere, the sun and other natural resources but also perhaps the currency system and other elements of culture and language), and everyone actually received cash dividends from their shared ownership, what would that do to the value of labour?
     There are those who worry that things like welfare payments destroy the work ethic, and that if everyone were able to earn an income simply by collecting dividends like this, nobody would do any work and nothing would get done. But that's nonsense, and betrays a disturbing lack of faith. First of all, if no one did any work, no one would be doing anything that required them to pay for the use of any of these collective assets, and thus the dividends would be zero, and not enough to live on. You'd have to work in order not to starve. The market handles this sort of thing very well, after all.
     No, what would really happen is that the price of labour would rise, because it people would no longer be forced to sell it at whatever price they can get. They could reasonably decide just not to sell it at all, if the price were too low. In essence, we'd have a more efficient labour market, one in which the supply would actually contract in response to low prices, instead of there being a permanent glut.

    And so that's what I mean by the seemingly paradoxical claim that labour is undervalued because it is overvalued.

Friday, 15 February 2013

The Zen of Rhetoric: Avoid the Bias Card

    "According to a study in Respected Peer-Reviewed Journal, use of Type A widgets is effective in lowering the risk of Bad Stuff."
    "Respected Peer-Reviewed Journal? It's probably biased."

     Rhetoric is the art and skill of argumentation, analogous in some ways to martial arts in personal combat. Skill at rhetoric enables one to win arguments more often, and to defend one's positions more effectively, and we can think of winning an argument as being analogous to winning a fight (though I will argue later that this is the wrong way to look at it.) As with martial arts, there are some flashy moves that amateurs like to use, but in reality are almost never tactically sound. The accusation of bias is one of them.

     It's easy to see why this would be so tempting to use. It looks, at first glance, like a devastating offensive maneuver. With one simple claim, you seem to disarm your opponent completely, depriving her of all the evidence upon which her opinion rests. Bam! Game over! What choice does she have now, but to accept your position as correct?
     But in fact it's a clumsy and amateurish move that does more harm to your own credibility than that of the opponent. You cannot raise the issue of bias without calling your own objectivity into question. And when that happens, you're at a disadvantage, because you've already demonstrated an eagerness to discount unfavourable evidence the instant it looks like it might be unfavourable.
     Worse, you surrender any realistic hope of convincing your opponent when you play the bias card, because you undermine the very basis upon which convincing happens. If evidence and reason can be arbitrarily dismissed as "biased" because it supports one side or the other, then what reason is there for your opponent to accept any evidence or reason whatsoever? At best, the bias card is a scorched-earth defensive weapon; it allows you to avoid being convinced by your opponent, but that's all it does.

     However, I want to argue that it's even worse than that, because a true rhetorical warrior's objective is paradoxically not to win arguments, but to lose them, and by taking a step that makes it impossible to lose an argument, you make it impossible to succeed at rhetoric.
     The true rhetorical warrior is seeks not to convince his opponent, but rather, seeks to be convinced by her. True victory is to be persuaded, genuinely and honestly, to adopt a new opinion. It is no good conceding prematurely, pretending to be convinced by weak arguments or trickery. He must be sincerely convinced, satisfied by his opponent's logic and evidence, that he ought to adopt her claims. To that end, he presents his objections not in an attempt to refute her, but to help her understand the obstacles to convincing him in the hopes that she may overcome them.
     To be persuaded is a victory, because it enables one to improve one's understanding of the world by abandoning an understanding that is demonstrably flawed. "Winning" an argument, in contrast, profits one little, however gratifying it might be to one's vanity. The rhetorical warrior who understands this, then, would never try to play the bias card, because there is nothing to be gained by playing it.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Pyrobrachiate Abuse and How to Stop It

    Pyrobrachiates, more commonly known as "Heat" or various other street names, were originally developed for use by the military to increase the combat effectiveness of soldiers. They are far superior to PCP ("Angel Dust") in this regard because they can be used for longer periods and (when applied correctly) do not interfere with the user's ability to follow orders. Most nations have approved pyrobrachiates for use by their armed forces; somewhat more controversially, many civilian law enforcement agencies are increasingly relying on them as well. But of growing concern to many is widespread pyrobrachiate abuse by members of the public.
    In addition to their primary effects on combat performance, pyrobrachiates are known to have a number of subtle and not-so-subtle effects on their users. Users report euphoric feelings of power, and a delusion of invulnerability. John Lennon, himself a victim of pyrobrachiate abuse, ironically described the feeling in a Beatles song: "When I hold you in my arms, I know nobody can do me no harm". Precisely because of this effect, people frequently self-medicate with pyrobrachiates to treat feelings of fear, anxiety and inadequacy, but such use is particularly dangerous and habit-forming. Such users typically become dependent on Heat, and many literally believe they will die without it. Long term users suffer alienation, severe paranoia and antisocial delusions, and can become a danger to themselves and others.
    Even among casual and recreational users (as distinct from addicts), pyrobrachiates carry significant risks. Pyrobrachiates can exacerbate depression; studies have established a link between the availability of pyrobrachiates and suicide rates. They also contribute to aggression, positively correlated with higher homicide rates. Accidental deaths are also more common where pyrobrachiates are widely available, and children are especially vulnerable.
    In many countries, pyrobrachiates are subject to strict legal controls, though in the United States it has been difficult to enact effective legislation, in part thanks to a powerful industry lobby; it is not illegal to manufacture or sell pyrobrachiates in the U.S., and in fact the U.S. is the world's largest exporter. Like alcohol and tobacco (which fall under the jurisdiction of the same federal agency), pyrophrachiates are not legally classified as drugs. The FDA has no authority over them, and unlike virtually every other product offered for sale in the U.S., there are no product safety regulations in place to protect consumers.
     How do deal with the problem? There may be no easy solutions. We have seen, with the War on Drugs, that the criminal law is not a particularly effective tool to address certain kinds of public health threats.
     Perhaps it is time to approach pyrobrachiate abuse as a health problem, rather than a criminal problem. A complete ban may not be workable or even desirable, because pyrobrachiates do have their legitimate uses for military and law enforcement personnel, and there is evidence that under carefully regulated conditions, even private recreational use can have positive benefits to gross and fine motor skill, self-discipline and confidence. But steps can be taken to reduce the harm of pyrobrachiate abuse and misuse.
     First, education. People need to understand the dangers associated with pyrobrachiate use, and to know how to use them responsibly. There is a great deal of misinformation and myth surrounding pyrobrachiate culture, in part due to the sometimes glamourous way Hollywood portrays it. Casual use can lead to addiction; proper education can break that cycle before it starts.
     Second, pyrobrachiate addicts must be given safe and effective alternatives to treat their underlying anxieties, so that they no longer need the rush of false security pyrobrachiates provide. Education can play an important role here, helping people to understand that the dangers they see in the world around them are not actually addressed by the sense of invulnerability they get from pyrobrachiates. And, of course, acting to reduce the source of those insecurities (crime, social alienation, poverty and gross inequalities of social power and influence) can't hurt.
     Third, the influence of moneyed interests, and in particular the pyrobrachiate lobby, must be reduced. Sensible attempts to regulate the trade in and use of pyrobrachiates have been stymied at every turn by this lobby. Where legislation does manage to get passed, the agencies responsible for enforcing it have had their budgets quietly cut.
     Most importantly, though, it's time to wake up and acknowledge that there really is a problem.