The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. Lionel Shriver

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. Lionel Shriver

It is difficult to categorise this novel as it crosses many genres. It a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, science fiction story wrapped up in a family saga and present day morality tale, it contains a fair bit of humour, and  there is a fair bit of economic theory and history thrown in for leavening. Surprisingly it is all the better because of this, it is engrossing. The story follows a number of members of the Mandibles clan as they cope with the changes that follow the economic collapse in America.

The discussion about the problems with fiat money, inflation, central banking and the nature of money itself is well written and manages to explain many things, by using the form of a novel, that many economics textbooks fail to clarify. The impact of these problems is made real by the realistic descriptions of life post-collapse. Time will tell if Shriver is going to prove to be prescient, or rather, in which areas her predictions were accurate.

The characters are well drawn, some likeable, others despicable, but all believable. Shriver’s ability to reveal the darker side of our nature is well known. In this story, as the characters try to survive, many facets of human nature are turned over for assessment. We will sometimes see features we recognise in ourselves and sometimes this will not flatter, but shame, us. It is always better to be self aware and to know our faults and, if it has to be done, it is better to do it to the accompaniment of some dark comic humour.

Leaving the last word to Shriver herself :-

Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all. The future is just the ultimate monster in the closet, the great unknown.

‘I, Pencil.’ L.E. Read

This is an excellent short read. More a pamphlet27831931 than a novel, it is  the autobiography of an HB pencil. By looking at the birth and ancestry of the pencil  a complicated topic of economics and knowledge theory is made easily understandable. As individuals we have only a tiny fraction of the sum of human knowledge and planning, not one of us is able to make a pencil by ourselves. But by our cooperative endeavours every one of us can own and use a pencil.

We are, in part, successful because  we don’t need to know everything about everything. We can specisalise in what brings us most pleasure, and that which plays to our strengths,  in the knowledge that others will be doing liklewise in different areas. By this, knowledge is distributed between all of us and is much more than the sum of its parts. When we act cooperatively, in a dispersed and decentralised manner we achieve much more than we ever could when we work under central guidance.

As the pencil decribes it :-

“This is not a dispute about whether planning is to be done or not. It is a dispute as to whether planning is to be done centrally, by one authority for the whole economic system, or is to be divided among many individuals.”

and

“None of the Robespierres of the world knew how to make a pencil, yet they wanted to remake entire societies.”

Volunteering : Why do we do it ?

Volunteering : Why do we do it ?

via Daily Prompt: Volunteer

When I moved to my present home, and shifted from an urban to a rural community, I became more aware of the role that volunteering played in my and my neighbours’ lives. It is not that there is any more or less volunteering in either site but rather that the structures of community organisations, and the role these play in day to day life, are much more visible in the rural setting. It is easier to see what is going on among a few people than it is amongst very large groups.

It is clear that many people volunteer regularly to provide services to our own community and for those further afield who are in need. Obviously, as this is volunteering, it is done with no thought of payment or recompense. Indeed, the cost to volunteers in terms of  time, money, and energy is often quite considerable.  For example, one neighbour drives daily to the old peoples’ home at her own expense and spends an hour talking to elderly people who might otherwise be lonely.

So why do we do this ? Some, of a religious bent, may do it as it is part of their way of practising their faith. Other may do it in recognition or thanks of previous help given. However, looking at my friends I’d suggest that most do it because they gain pleasure from helping others. In addition to pleasure it is also part of living, being a part of a community rather than a simple consumer of the benefits of society.

Every second week in our village hall committee we meet and spend hours organising events for the community and seeing to the logistics of running various societies which have their base in our society. When we meet and talk, when we interact and exchange ideas, when we choose form options for our society, we are in fact living. While we do this we are more than individual consumers, we are not solitary agents but social beings, and while we take part like this our lives become richer and fuller.

Possibly the most quoted sentence by Adam Smith  is this below :-

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

and many people think that this suggests that selfishness was the sole key to the organisation of capitalist societies. Many portray capitalism as incompatible with altruistic actions and see the  phrase “greed is good” as one which summarises a trading society.  Many libertarians do little to counter this image.

While it is true that self-interest guides the many voluntary trades that people make everyday which allow our society to develop and grow. It is these multiple interactions  which allow us to concentrate on what we are good at, to specialise and divide labour, and to create things that would otherwise be impossible. It is through all these voluntary transactions that the spontaneous order arises which makes up our society. Billions of individuals freely interacting with billions of others give rise to the order which is the society in which we live. While this requires that the individuals look after their own interests it works because we are human and there is another side to our nature.

Unfortunately the following quote, which is the first sentence of Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” is much less frequently quoted :-

“No matter how selfish we suppose man to be, there is obviously something in his nature that makes him interested in the fortunes of others and makes their happiness necessary to him, even if he derives nothing from it other than the pleasure of seeing it”

Adam Smith believed that innately we wish to help our fellow man. Indeed he believed that the pinnacle of moral development would be “To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature”. He correctly recognised it was the combination of voluntary transactions, guided by self-interest, in association with an innate tendency to care for the welfare of others which allowed capitalism to thrive and develop.

It is this innate desire to help others alongside the gaining of pleasure by doing so that I see in my community here. I am aware that this is a universal aspect of human nature seen in people from all walks of life and in all areas of the globe. It doesn’t detract from the wealth creation of trading but rather augments it as it is the glue that creates the society in which we can pursue our dreams. I am sitting using a computer and social media to create this blog, this is just one example of the multitude of sites (Flickr, Youtube, Facebook,  Freecycle, Twitter, etc) where people create things (images, stories, songs, news, goods) simply to share with our fellows with no expectation of profit. It seems further evidence of our need to share and to give.

However, I do have some concerns that the last century has seen a change in how we view such activities as volunteering and charity. Alongside the growth of the welfare state it is possible that we have started to feel that we no longer need to undertake these activities.  Certainly the amount we give to charity has dropped from an average 10% of a middle class family’s income in  1895 to around 1% today. Friendly societies which used to provide much of the welfare that people received prior to the war when it was estimated that over three-quarters of the working population were registered with such a society were destroyed by the introduction of National Insurance. A model which was based on local planning, voluntary choice and democratic decisions when local people got together to form groups to look after themselves was swept away by Lloyd George’s changes. In their place, an unaccountable, impersonal and inefficient centrally organised state system took over.

The change to state organisation funded by taxation has had a further change which has an impact on charitable activities. As James Bartholomew said “People have changed from being team members in mutual support groups to being state dependants who feel no particular responsibility to act decently. “. It is important to feel that one is helping others, as said before it is an innate desire and part of what lifts us above other species of animal. When we organise our welfare services by taxation it removes us as individuals from the care of our neighbours. It becomes anonymous and faceless, it breaks the link between the two individuals helping each other. It removes our option to be compassionate and good as we can’t really think of ourselves as good when we have no choice over our actions.

We will always need to provide welfare for our societies and will always want to do so. We need to encourage voluntary arrangements which allow this to be done in a human, individual and engaged manner and we need to wrest welfare back from the state. We need to bring it back from the central state and back to local societies and the individuals amongst them

I think Dominic Frisby summarised this well in his “Life after the State” :-

“The giver goes unconsidered in the process of state care. Taxes are taken and that is it. But the giver too has needs. Sometimes the giver needs to be anonymous – sometimes he needs recognition. Sometimes he or she likes to be involved with the recipient in some way, sometimes not. The forced giving that is taxation destroys the satisfaction that altruistic people get from giving voluntarily. To share with others is part of humanity. In a world in which the government takes care of the poor and needy, compassion is removed from life. As a result, the state now has a monopoly on compassion! In fact it is even more bizarrely specific than that: the pro-welfare left wing has a monopoly on compassion. Anyone who doesn’t agree with the concept of a large, generous welfare state is deemed heartless and selfish.”


Volunteer


Wealth of Nations
Theory of Moral Sentiments
The Welfare State we are In
Life after the State
David Green, Working-class Patients and the Medical Establishment (Gower, 1985).

The Gilded Cage

The Gilded Cage

I do not feel that I have been so engaged in the politics of the country as I have over the last few months. During the referendum campaign I found myself torn between two options both of which carried risks and potential benefits. I started the process as someone who would be likely to vote to “remain” because of my economic cautiousness and someone who felt themselves to be an internationalist. I ended the campaign putting an “X” in the box against “leave”.

During the campaign it was clear that the push to remain was based on arguments of prosperity, that we would all have more money and more security of wealth, if we remained in the EU. Strong though these arguments were they did not settle my growing unease as I read of the anti-democratic nature of the EU and the clear evidence that the EU works to foster ‘crony capitalism’ rather then free trade and internationalism. There was good evidence that the EU is one of the drivers for the increasing unfairness of capitalism when success arises from rent-seeking by corporations in close cooperation with government agencies.

For me, immigration was never a major factor in my decision on how to vote. I support free movement of people and think that, in economic terms, immigration is usually a net benefit to an economy. However, we have to be careful that free movement is not an excuse for companies to undercut wages of local workforces by importing cheaper labour, nor an excuse to allow companies to force labour to move across the continent, often breaking up families, in the search for a decent wage. The differences in various nations’ welfare state provisions mean that taxpayers, via the government, can end up paying to allow the luxury of companies to drive down their labour costs – the companies do not pay the costs of the “social wage” that is often a large part of the differential that makes the migration attractive for workers.

I did find the paradoxical accusations of “racism” annoying. All my life I have fought against racism wherever I have encountered it. To find the term bandied about, simply as a term of abuse, to scare people in a campaign was distasteful and  probably put the first cracks in my decision to vote “remain”. The EU has done dreadful damage to farmers in non-european countries and caused many problems for potential migrants from non-european countries. It would be easier, and more accurate, to level the charge of racism against the EU with its “free movement” so long as you are Caucasian and were born in Europe.

But my worries about the financial aspects remained even when I was clear that for fairness, free trade and democracy I’s have to vote for “leave”. Though I did start to More of the house and garden 007recognise I was being offered a gilded cage – stay here, it is rich and safe, don’t worry about those abstract things they matter less than material security. But I also knew that gilt fades and gilded cages usually end up as plain prisons as time goes on. In the early days Greece would have found the EU money a wonderful incentive to participate and who would not want to be in this pretty organisation with its largesse. Most Greeks now find their cage pretty oppressive, as do increasing numbers of others (for example the large numbers of unemployed youth in southern Europe).

It felt increasing like going through a divorce. There were all the fears, stoked up by an annoyed spouse – that “how will I cope” fear, that “perhaps he’ll change” glimmer of hope, that “things are not all that bad after all” grasping at straws. This has been even more apparent in the first week apart with the erratic behaviour of the EU staff at times threatening retribution and revenge then trying a more conciliatory approach. When couples find themselves at this point in a relationship they nearly always part and almost never remarry. The gilded cage often keeps one partner there for longer then they should but eventually they recognise that some things are more important than money.

Tony Benn once said “Better a bad democracy than a good King” and he was right. To have democratic power over those who rule us is more important than short-term wealth. To have the ability to contest the rules which are made is also the best way to secure long-term prosperity. We will fare better out of the EU and may also help other countries to recognise that they can also.

The first week after the vote has strengthened my resolve and reassured me that my decision was correct. To read the response of the “remain” group has confirmed how anti-democratic they were with their calls to ignore or re-run the referendum, with their hostility to the elderly, with  their distaste for the poor of the country, and with their arrogant self-assuredness that they were correct when the majority was in error.

Whatever happens we have taken the correct first step.

 

Will Venezuela vote for change ?

Will Venezuela vote for change ?

Whatever happens, Scots working for independence would be well advised to look at the recent history of Venezuela to avoid the mistake of believing an oil rich economy can by itself avoid the disaster of socialist planned economics.Whatever happens, Scots working for independence would be well advised to look at the recent history of Venezuela to avoid the mistake of believing an oil rich economy can by itself avoid the disaster of socialist planned economics.