Good call

Thirty-two years ago today, one guy decided not to start a nuclear war.

He was a Soviet military man named Stanislav Petrov, whose job at the time involved checking whether America had launched at nuclear missiles at Russia lately. If they had, he was to escalate this up the chain of command, where the standard strategy that would presumably be enacted would be for Russia to launch some of its nuclear missiles back at America.

On 26 September 1983, due to some technical glitch, it looked like America had launched a nuclear missile at Russia.

Stanislav Petrov decided not to report this to his superiors, and so Russia did not launch any of its nuclear missiles at America. No superpowers killed millions of each others’ citizens that day.

Let’s spare a moment today to appreciate the line of reasoning which led to this decision.

Hyperbrief summary: Conservatives are disingenuous about their views on government intervention and liberals fall for it.

Recommended?: Yep, especially as it’s available free.

Dean Baker is an impressively credentialled American economist. He’s written a bunch of books, many of which are downloadable for free from his website. The subtitle of this one represents what seems a common theme in his work: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. Its basic idea is something that’s been seeming increasingly obvious to me for a while now, as I grow incrementally less dumb and ignorant about politics and economics.

According to the popular narrative, left-wing liberals believe that there are things we can’t get done as a society without relying on government to do them for us, whereas right-wing conservatives support independence, personal autonomy, and minimising government interference in lives of citizens. The public debate is commonly framed in these terms, and both sides tend to argue as if from this premise.

In fact, this is an entirely inaccurate basis for discussion, and liberals regularly leave themselves at a massive disadvantage by capitulating to this idea, allowing conservatives to claim a monopoly on fundamental American concepts like freedom and independence. Conservatives want and demand state intervention in the “free market” as much as anyone, generally to further entrench and concentrate the money and power of the rich and powerful.

One of the book’s main strengths is the consistent recognition that the way things are right now is not the only way they could possibly be. In numerous areas of life, there are clearly major drawbacks to our current way of doing things, and it’s our responsibility to be open to the possibility of substantial change. (I mean, he could do with turning that healthy revolutionary attitude up a notch on subjects like taxes, but in general it’s pretty good, and a lot better than most mainstream conversation.) The intended purpose and substantial downsides to our current systems are examined rigorously, and it’s sensibly analytical about the positives and pitfalls of alternative approaches.

It’s efficient in its writing, more than being particularly charming or witty, or otherwise infused with the author’s personality. Which isn’t really meant as a criticism, just something I noticed in comparison with most other books I’ve encountered that attempt to do a similar job. If you aren’t expecting too much of a casual chat, but want to see someone making their point articulately and concisely, it’s a good read.

One drawback for me was the way the word “state” is almost never used throughout the book without the word “nanny” preceding it. I get that this phrase is what summarises the thesis behind each individual argument, and he’s essentially right about all of it, but referring quite so often to “nanny state conservatives” as the people supporting the policies he argues against starts to feel like unnecessary name-calling – especially when “nanny state” becomes an inappropriate metaphor for what he’s describing.

I’ve never liked it that much anyway, as a term for an over-meddling government. Nannies are people we hire to come into our homes and provide a vital service looking after our children. They might have a stereotypical image as overbearing and overprotective, but that’s not inherent to the job, and they only exist because the tiny humans they’re looking after would be in serious danger of harm or death if a nanny wasn’t around to keep them safe. I guess the idea is that children are genuinely helpless, and need someone to take basically full responsibility for their lives, which is what some people act as if they want the government to do for all of us, but it still feels a bit weak as an epithet, especially when so overused.

Most of the time it’s not so bad, because the over-bearing intervention of the state is the correctly identified problem. But there are times when it talks about the wrong sort of intervention, or even when the government refuses to meddle in ways the book thinks it should – to let rich people get away with things in ways the less privileged wouldn’t be allowed to, say – at which point the overbearing nanny allegory entirely fails.

It’s not like his criticisms of government policy are suddenly any less valid or acutely observed at these points, but the patriarchal actions of a “nanny state” aren’t a good descriptor for the problem.

I was especially interested in the section on Social Security in the US, and how it compares to other systems. According to the figures cited, the administration costs of running Social Security are around 0.5% of the tax revenue that pays for it, compared to a figure of 15-20% of revenue going toward admin costs in privatised social security systems, such as in the UK.

Embarrassingly, given that I’ve worked in the field for several years, I had to google the name of the paper in the citation to figure out that the UK’s “privatised social security system” refers to pensions, in particular the system by which insurance companies sell annuities. (My mind only went to the socialised free-at-point-of-use NHS, which was more of a given when this book was published in 2006.)

But he’s obviously right that all the costs associated with being an annuity provider, such as executive pay and advertising and whatnot, are hugely inefficient. It’d never occurred to me to make the direct comparison to the US’s government system of Social Security; I’m going to need to read up on this in order to better understand the distinctions.

The Conservative Nanny State is a free e-book available on the author’s website. If you have any kind of political investment or personal leanings as regards liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, or any of the ways humanity attempts to get its shit together, you’ve got no excuse not to read this and learn some more about how the system you think you understand actually works.

Socialism ahoy-hoy

There’s an old saying along the lines of: People aren’t interested in socialism, they’re interested in putting food on the table.

I think it’s meant to discourage enthusiastic lefty types from talking openly about their political ideas on the grounds that nobody will be interested.

I don’t buy it. I know how caught-up large numbers of people can become in arguments about political ideas, labels and all, because I’ve been on the internet. People get personally interested in all kinds of things.

But even if it’s true, I don’t know why the general public are imagined to give any more of a shit about capitalism as an abstract political notion, so singling socialism out as beyond the scope of public interest seems unfair.

But maybe there’s something to it. Maybe all this outright radicalism isn’t that useful, and won’t change any minds.

Maybe most people don’t pay that much attention to the minority like us, who insist on taking societal change and complex jargonistic political ideas seriously, because they’re focused on things like how their children are going to be fed and clothed, and how much the taxman is going to take away out of what they earn at their bullshit job.

Except, y’know, all that is exactly the kind of stuff most socialists want you to take an interest in. It’s not just about fixating on explicitly political ideas; it’s about the things people just believe about how the world works, without really thinking about it or questioning it or considering it a matter of politics at all.

What kind of parent you want to be is an overtly political question. The lessons kids learn from their interactions with grown-ups will shape the way they see interactions with everyone else, on a society-wide level, for the rest of their lives. And that’s basically what politics is. The ways you choose to raise your children has a direct effect on the eventual political engagement of at least one future member of adult society.

Will they learn to view their interactions with others through the lens of domination, where the way you get what you want is by beating your enemies until they are totally defeated and you win? (The answer is: probably, unless you shield them from basically all of culture as well as treating them differently yourselves.)

If you’re going through tough times, is it demeaning to ask for help? Does it always feel shameful to have to rely on charity? Or is it a normal and beneficial part of life that a safety net should exist to support those who can’t fully support themselves and their own families, for whatever reason and over whatever length of time? It’d be odd to claim that everyday folk don’t take a direct personal interest in this kind of thing, and this is exactly what many people are talking about when they talk politics, socialists included.

There certainly exists plenty of socialist rhetoric which won’t mean much to anyone not already entangled in political intrigue, about uprisings of the proletariat and whatnot, but a lot of what I see is inspired by real-world relatable issues, to talk about those issues in a political context. Sometimes talking about socialism literally is talking about putting food on the table.

People might not care about “socialism” as an abstract set of ideas in political philosophy, or be swung by its promises in a political theoretical sense. But they already have strong feelings about the things it represents.

This is your sporadic reminder that allllllllll the intellectual property and copyright can get tae fuck.

Snakebite victims in the US can be charged tens of thousands of dollars for a single vial of snakebite venom.

And no, it’s not that the stuff requires rare and exotic ingredients, or takes an especially skilful and labourious process to create, or even that there had to be a huge up-front investment of years of research and development to come up with it. The system is just so utterly fucked, and seemingly geared toward everything but providing people with healthcare with any kind of efficiency.

The cost of making the antivenom, including research, development, animal care and plasma harvesting… A mere 0.1 percent [of the ultimate expense]. 70.1 percent… was due to hospital markups used in negotiations with insurance companies. [emphasis mine]

Jesus fuck. It’s not actually fair to blame this all on IP, that’s just my hobby-horse. This goes deeper in terrifying and unfathomable ways.

Although on that note, the insane Warner/Chappell copyright claim on Happy Birthday To You is finally no more after a ruling this week. While this does not mean the song is now in the public domain, this is a step 90% of the way toward sanity in this one isolated case.

So on balance, between those two news stories and that other shithead gouging prices on AIDS medication, September can still pretty much suck it.


Hey so I had an actual kinda serious thought about how David Cameron supposedly stuck his dick in a dead pig’s mouth.

I know, it’s not exactly the stuff of serious thought. But I’ve not been that into most of the jokes everyone’s been making about it.

It’s not that it isn’t funny that a major newspaper published a story about how the Prime Minister once put his cock inside the head of a pig as part of some kind of initiation procedure. Obviously that’s hilarious. It’s so obvious that I don’t really need the entire internet to keep telling me how funny it is.

The #baeofpigs hashtag is a stroke of genius (especially in contrast to the laziness of #piggate), but the gags seem to mostly consist of people re-explaining to each other why it’s funny that our hamfaced leader has been outed as a literal pigfucker. And that’s absolutely worth revisiting as often as you want to. I’m honestly not trying to buzzkill anyone else’s joy. I just started wondering what’s next before most people had finished having fun.

So anyway this actual serious thought I had.

Satire has always played a vital role in any society where political power is concentrated in the hands of a few dictators and despots, whether they’re democratically elected or not. Ultimately tyrants can only hold sway if their claim to authority is on some level taken seriously – even if you’re a brutal oppressor, you’ll need some kind of military force if you intend to keep a whole country in check, and they’ve got to have a good reason to consider you worth following. A system has to be maintained where you are adequately feared or respected – either by a sufficient chunk of the general populace to keep voting for you, or so that your advisers and generals don’t decide that your shiny hat would fit them better.

The most restrictive and authoritarian regimes have tended to have the least tolerance and harshest reactions to any kind of mockery or ridicule directed at those at the top. This may simply be because, when someone has the ability to make anyone who hurts their feelings disappear, they’ll use that ability – but it may also be because people with that kind of power understand how tenuous their grasp on it might turn out to be, if actual satire is ever allowed to take hold.

Satire punctures the aura of awe and mystique surrounding the distant stony figures who glare down at us from their jewelled thrones. It allows us to laugh at authority, to see the frail human hiding in everyone who ever tried to persuade a nation to see them as something akin to a god.

And as such, in the Western world in the 21st century, it’s basically redundant.

Or rather, there’s a surplus of ridicule and mockery already in place, intrinsic to society, directed at anyone who dares stick their neck above the surface to make themselves noticeable or remarkable even for a moment. Anyone with a shred of online awareness surely knows that everyone is satirising and laughing at everything all the time these days.

David Cameron never had any aura of awe and mystique around him. People have been taking the piss out of him internationally for years. He’s never been protected from criticism by any hushed reverence around a noble office that deserves respect and veneration. Some people haved talked as if this might be a resigning matter for him, but that would require it to change the esteem in which we hold him. But, these days, there’s nothing there to puncture.

There are people who vote Tory and support David Cameron and his ideas, and have developed a tribal allegiance with the filthy farmyard delinquent, and who might have gone off him somewhat as a direct result of these allegations. There are also people who didn’t like him before, and who are making plenty of hay out of this story, and good on them.

But I don’t think anyone was holding back their show of disrespect, until a news story about ritual bestiality suddenly broke the ice, gave everyone permission to point and laugh, and let forth an outpouring of no-longer-restrained ridicule.

For most people, David Cameron is not much more or less a figure of fun than before we found out that he once face-fucked a pig. His ability to command power will, I suspect, be little shaken. Most of the people who previously respected him will continue to do so, for the same reasons as they always did. The people who didn’t respect him before and hold him in even more contempt now, will continue to concern him as little as ever.

Sadly, for all our fun, I don’t think David Cameron is any less dangerous a tyrant than before.

#baeofpigs #neverforget

False memories

It takes a relatively short amount of time, and a few fairly well understood psychological techniques, to implant memories in people.

The science is basically in: Your memory is not a camera that faithfully records your experiences in the world and plays them back to you later. It’s constantly re-interpreting and re-writing itself, and can easily be fooled into taking on board fictitious details, treating them just the same as all the memories that originated from actual experiences.

People Can Be Convinced They Committed a Crime That Never Happened, as one headline puts it.

So, the next time we hear about someone confessing to a crime, and it turns out they were interrogated for eight hours by police first, using techniques known to elicit both false memories and false accusations, can we agree in advance that this confession means nothing, and that we don’t actually have to pay a damn bit of attention to their own opinion on what they did, and that we can thank the cops for screwing up the evidence if we’re unable to bring a case against anyone as a result?

If it’s broke, fix it

Reformists and revolutionaries never seem to get along.

One side points to the horrendous and damaging things done by the state, and cites this as a reason we should abandon it. The other side showcases the necessary parts of life currently accomplished by means of the state, and declares that, because these things are necessary, the infrastructure currently providing and maintaining them is equally indispensible.

Atheists and secularists, similarly, point out the atrocities committed in the name of religion, as well as the less obvious harm it does to people’s capacity for rational thinking. Apologists highlight the many people inspired to do good things by their faith, and claim that, at worst, religious faith is a useful tool that can be misused.

Too often, one side gets stuck trying to deny the other side’s arguments have any validity at all. Secularists act as if our entire case would fall apart if we admit to a single instance of a Christian doing something nice because Jesus. Some people in my political sphere of engagement seem to fear it’d be a major defeat if they ever had to acknowledge that some people get into politics because they care about the folk around them and want to help.

I think a crucial way to be better at having this discussion is to learn to be more selfish, unreasonable, and idealistic.

We’re always told that we can’t have it all, we have to take the good with the bad, that there’s always going to be a downside and shortcomings to any attempt we make to solve anything. Obvious question, but: why? Why can’t we have the good things without the bad things?

Why are anarchists wrong to think that we should have things like roads, healthcare, firefighters, and other federated national services, but not also have to put up with a government that spies on everyone’s private correspondence, locks up hundreds of thousands of its citizens for non-violent offences, and murders thousands of foreign people with no meaningful accountability?

Why should we have to tacitly endorse all the colossal evil done in the name of religious faith, when people do good things for each other all over the world every day inspired by nothing more than secular humanism?

Why shouldn’t we get to pick and choose the positive bits from existing systems, be they religions or governments or whatever, filter out the negative traits, and make up our own system to just give us the good stuff?

We might never be able to eliminate every undesirable aspect of whatever improved systems we put in place, but when the fallout includes things like 9/11 and the NSA, it seems unconscionably complacent to shrug that off as simply being shit that happens. Maybe when the side effects are quite that bad, we should take this as a sign that the system doesn’t need “fixing”; we deserve a less broken system altogether.


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