Archive for the ‘Religion & Politics’ Category

The six reasons why we punish people

Monday, November 13th, 2017 | Religion & Politics

I studied law at high school and I was very good at it. But one thing I could never get my head around was the six aims of sentencing. When it came to punishing people, what was the point of any of it, other than rehabilitation? Surely that was our only job?

Times of changed and now I am older and wiser. My idealistic view of humans has taken a kicking at the hands of Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer. So, here are the other five aims of sentencing and why they are important.

Reparation

Never had a problem with this one. If you can make it right, you should. I don’t think that view would be in any way controversial.

Protection

A necessary evil. Sometimes we need to lock people up to stop them hurting other people, or even themselves.

Detterence and denunication

I’ll put denunciation in here because there is a lot of overlap with general deterrence. Specific deterrence is making the individual criminal think twice before doing it again; general deterrence is making wider society think twice before doing it in the first place.

Both of these are important. Why? Because people are not inherently good. They’re not evil, either. They’re just people.

And, ultimately, people weigh up the consequences of their actions. And if the risk is worth the prize, they risk it.

So, you need carrot and stick. You need to give them a job and a place in the community to give them something to lose if they commit a crime. But you also need to make the deal not worthwhile with some stick, too.

Retribution

This is the most contested aim of sentencing: punishing people because they deserve to be punished.

Why do we need to do this? Because people want to live in a fair world. And it causes us distress when that view is broken. When you find out there has been wrong-doing, you feel bad. You physically feel it. It makes us sad when we hear about unfairness.

So, crimes have to be punished. Just for the sake of adding an extra wrong, because, as we adults know, two wrongs do genuinely make a right. When someone is punished, it restores a sense of fairness to the universe and we all feel better.

Death penalty betting

Sunday, November 5th, 2017 | Religion & Politics

Betfair is running a market on this. Seems a bit distasteful to bet on whether someone gets the death penalty or not.

I feel like an idiot for voting, and you should too

Wednesday, June 7th, 2017 | Religion & Politics

Tomorrow is the general election. Will you be voting? If you answer is anything other than “no”, you’re making bad choices with your life.

I usually vote. But I feel like an idiot for doing so.

Why? Because pretty much every economic model shows that voting is not worthwhile. Think about it: your vote is worth basically nothing. The British electorate is 45,000,000 people. You are just one of them. You don’t make any difference on the outcome.

And, presumably, you put some kind of value on your time.

An example: Leeds Central

I’m based in Leeds Central. It’s Hilary Benn’s Labour safe seat. Last time, we received 24,000 votes. His nearest competitor received 7,000 votes. That is a majority of 17,000. He has a 55% share of the vote.

This never changes. The last time Leeds Central elected anyone other than a Labour candidate was in 1923. 94 years ago. Before I was born. Before my parents were born. Before my grandparents were born.

So, no matter what I do, Hilary Benn will be re-elected as the MP for Leeds Central tomorrow.

Okay, so that established, I now have a choice. It’s polling day and I am sitting in my house. Regardless of whether I cast my vote, Hilary Benn will be re-elected. I can choose to spend 30 minutes going to the polling station. Or I can choose to spend the 30 minutes with my daughter.

What’s the rational choice here?

Voting costs time

Voting is a time-consuming business. You have to go to the polling station and get back. You might have to queue. I have had to queue for 40 minutes in a previous election.

That’s a big time-suck. How much is your time worth?

Probably valuable, right? I could be spending that time with my family or my friends. Or relaxing. Or cooking. Or getting some work done. Or learning something new. There are loads of valuable things you could do with that time.

And if your time is worthless, maybe you need to spend that time sorting your life out.

The rational action is not to vote

If you live in one of the 80% of safe seats, your vote is completely worthless. Nothing is going to change there.

If you live in one of the 20% of marginal seats, you vote is still worth practically nothing. Why? Because elections rarely ever come down to one vote.

We have a general election every 4-5 years, have done for around 200 years and currently have 650 constituencies. That is tens of thousands of constituency elections. Just once. In 1886. Seems unlikely you will be that one vote, then.

But voting is a right, and an honour

Which is the kind of thing we tell young men when we need them to go off and get themselves killed in a pointless war. “It’s an honour to service in the British military, and your duty to defend the Queen. I’d probably get some insurance for those legs of yours, though. And maybe freeze some sperm.”

When people tell me I have to vote, nobody can explain to me what that means. Or why. Why do I have to vote? It literally doesn’t make a difference to the outcome of the election. It doesn’t change anything. It is a waste of my time.

Those are concrete facts. The 30 minutes I lose spending time with Venla is a concrete outcome. “You’ll be participating in the great democratic process” is a nebulous concept with no clear value.

Yes, but if nobody voted…

People say to me “well, if everyone who wanted Bremain had gone out and voted, we would have won”. This is true. But they won’t. You don’t have control over them. You only control yourself and your one single vote.

It’s essentially the tragedy of the commons.

And if everyone thought like me and stopped voting, I would start voting, because my vote would suddenly become incredibly valuable. But until that happens, it isn’t.

If you don’t vote, you can’t complain

Of course you can. Not voting doesn’t somehow disqualify you from having an opinion when your human rights start getting stripped away or the government starts murdering disabled people.

Not voting merely shows that you have some grasp of basic probability. In short, that you’re not an idiot.

If anything, voting should disqualify you from having an opinion because you fail to grasp how the whole system works (or doesn’t work).

But Chris, you said you vote

It’s true. I’m not better than you. I’m saying that we’re all idiots together.

But young people don’t vote

You could argue “that’s fine, I am happy being an idiot, let’s all be idiots together and be proud of it.”

Fine. But young people don’t vote.

Most people say that they are disenfranchised and ill-informed. But is there any evidence for this? A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that young people should be more informed. They have more access to news, access to the internet, higher levels of education than ever before and a higher IQ (which moves up 3 points every decade). They should be the most switched on.

And I think they are. What if, rather than being ill-informed fools, young people are just smarter than us? They realise how pointless voting in a first-past-the-post system is and have realised that their time is too valuable to waste on such an endeavour?

Conclusion

Voting is an irrational act. Your vote will have no impact on the outcome of the election. It does, however, cost you valuable time. The sensible thing to do is not to vote.

That is why young people don’t vote. They’ve realised this ahead of the rest of us. Sure, if they all block voted they could change the election. But they won’t, and they understand that they won’t because they each individually only control one vote, and so they do the thing that makes sense and use their time more productively.

The rest of us have been brainwashed by words like duty or feel that it would somehow be offensive towards the ghost of Emmeline Pankhurst if we choose to spend the time with our family instead.

Maybe I’m wrong. The truth is, I would like to be proven so. I would like to think I am not acting irrationally. But your argument better be well-thought-out and articulate because nobody has been successful yet.

And you say “well, I’m happy to act irrationality”. But that in itself is not a badge to be proud of. We often chastise the electorate for failing to vote in their own self-interest. But what right to do we have to make these claims when we ourselves cannot rationalise our actions? None whatsoever.

Footnotes

Image courtesy of Man vyi via Wikimedia Commons.

Why you hate the idea of voting Lib Dem (but should anyway)

Thursday, April 20th, 2017 | Religion & Politics

Let me give it to you straight. This is why you hate the idea of voting Liberal Democrats, and why you should do it anyway.

Ever spend a bunch of time trashing something, only to realise that you were wrong. But then you can’t change your mind because everyone what point at you and call you a hypocrite. So you persist in a clearly irrational belief, that you don’t even believe yourself, to save face.

That’s what’s going on here.

You’ve spent the last decade shitting all over the Liberal Democrats. They voted for university tuition fees and you were angry. I get it. You have a right to be angry. They broke one promise, just one, but it was a big one. You’re used to the Tories breaking promises because they’re bastards, and Labour breaking promises because they are incompetent. But you thought Nick Clegg’s honest face was different. And it was. Except for that one time.

But now it’s seven years later and we’re two years into a Tory majority. Now we’ve seen what that looks like: your European citizenship is being taken away from you. The human rights act is due to be scrapped. Taxes for small businesses are going up, in favour of breaks for corporations. Grammar schools are back. And Trump is getting a golden carriage for his visit to London.

And you haven’t come up with any fresh and clever vibes. So, like a broken clock, you parrot out the same line about tuition fees. And, behind your back, everyone is talking about what a petty and ill informed idiot you are. Hey, don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just telling you how it is.

In many ways, we’re impressed that you are brazen enough to say it. If I had been backing a party that sold off large chunks of the NHS, introduced divisive faith schools, and invaded Iraq, I would be too full of shame and humiliation to criticise another party when all I could find was one broken election promise.

But surely the opposition are stopping all of this?

Ah yes, the gallant knights of the official opposition. What are they up to? A Helping Ms May out, of course. When Jeremy Corbyn isn’t fending of mass resignations and votes of no confidence from his own MPs, he is busy giving speeches about how Brexit will upgrade Britain’s economy and issuing three-line whips to favour for Brexit.

Meanwhile, Tim Farron continues his singular mission: to shout as loud as he possibly can from the rooftops that he will do everything in his power to stop a hard Brexit. He had a blog post up before Theresa May had even announced the general election.

So now you’re in that shitty situation. Do you eat your words and vote to keep Britain a tolerant and open place where you stand some chance of maintaining your European and human rights or save face by slashing deep into with a large knife until your nose is no longer attached. I joke, but that’s a killer decision. Nobody wants to face that. It’s hard and uncomfortable. But it’s also happening in six weeks.

But the Lib Dems will never win anything!

Other than the 62 seats they used to hold, of course.

But times are a-changing. We never thought Brexit would happen. We never thought Trump would happen. We never thought the Lib Dems could overturn Zac Goldsmith’s majority in Richmond Park. But they did. With a 30.41% vote increase. 30.41%.

But the whole Jeremy Corbyn thing has been highly amusing to many of us anyway. “I like Corbyn, but he’s unelectable”. Watching Labour voters tear themselves apart as they try to choose between what they believe in and what will win votes. Why not just be a Tory if principles are that expendable?

Grow some balls and vote for the people you agree with. How fragile is your ego?

Voting Lib Dems, even in a safe seat for someone else, sends a message. Because this is an election about Brexit. And the Tories are on one side, and the Lib Dems are on the other.

Time to choose a side, Dr Watson

So, what’s it going to be, our kid?

Will it be the red corner? And I do mean red. Locked in the control of a man who never liked Europe and is now doing everything in his power to easy Theresa May’s passage to hard Brexit.

Or, the yellow corner. Lead by a man who voted against tuition fees, and is now the only voice speaking out against hard Brexit?

The choice is yours. Just remember that if you do choose to shit in your bed, you still have to sleep in it.

How the budget shakes up for small businesses

Saturday, April 8th, 2017 | Religion & Politics

It’s the start of a new tax year. That means another year of people trying to sell me their self-assessment services long after I have already filed mine. What joy.

Last year was a kick in the balls for small business owners. The government introduced a new tax on dividends, which is how small business owners typically pay themselves.

This year it looked like we were going to hit with the double whammy. First, that £5,000 limit was set to be decreased to £2,000, resulting in me paying tax on an additional £3,000 of income.

Second, the flat VAT rate for my industry was set to be increased by 2%. If you are not familiar with flat VAT, it is a scheme that allows small businesses to pay a set rate of VAT and not claim anything back on purchases, meaning you can avoid doing all the complex VAT accounting. It’s terrific.

This year hasn’t been a complete disaster. The VAT increase has happened, but the reduction of the tax threshold will not take place until next year. Add to that that the corporation tax rate had been reduced by 1% and the additional tax being placed on small business owners is irritating, but not crippling.

One thing remains clear, however. This Conservative government is no friend to small businesses. For a second year running, they have increased taxes in favour of cutting those for big businesses.

Why age disparity in relationships matter

Monday, February 27th, 2017 | Religion & Politics

On average, men choose to marry women slightly younger than they are. But for would-be dads, this can have a profound impact on family life.

Most people enter relationships with people of a similar age. In western culture this is normal, and indeed doing anything other than this is considered abnormal. However, in different cultures, and at different times, this as not always been the case.

If we look at the 2013 US survey data, we find that a third of heterosexual married couples are within one year of each other. It is not an equal curve on each side though. Women are far more likely to marry older men. In 20% of marriages the man is 2–3 years old, and in 13% 4–5 years older. Compare this to 7% and 3% for women being older.

This makes sense. OK Cupid data, as documented in the book Dataclysm shows that men prefer younger women, and up until the age of 30, women prepare a slightly older man. As many relationships are formed before the age of 30, the older man younger woman setup is likely to have the broader appeal to both parties.

Why is it important, though?

I think it is important because it contributes to the imbalance of women staying at home to look after the children while men continue working. For would-be stay-at-home dads and passionate career women, this is not a desirable situation.

People who are further along in their career earn more money. Nothing controversial there. This means that if you enter into a relationship with someone a few years older than you, on average, they are going to earn more money than you.

When it comes to starting a family, it would be nice to think that childcare could simply be divided as you see fit. However, this is simply not the reality that most of us live in. Many of our decisions are driven by economic factors. That is to say, there are bills to pay and we need to earn enough money to pay them.

Therefore, when it comes to starting a family, many people are faced with the decision of giving up the father’s wage or giving up the mother’s. Unfortunately, for many would-be full-time dads, giving up their own higher wage is not financially viable for the family.

Exactly what can be done about this, I am not sure. You could say that if you want to be a stay-at-home-dad you should marry someone older, or in a more lucrative career than you. However, as most of us know, love does not work that way.

Men twice as likely to be without emotional support

Friday, February 24th, 2017 | Religion & Politics

Men have an almost one in ten chance of having nobody to turn to. Could peer support fill a much-needed gap?

In June, mental health charity Mind published research suggesting that men were twice as likely to have nobody to rely on for emotional support. 9% of men, compared with 5% of women, said that they have nobody to turn to in times of need. The research also suggested men are less likely to feel comfortable talking to the people close to them about their problems, with 52% agreeing.

This is a big problem for a number of reasons.

As Susan Pinker explains in her book _The Village Effect_, having a strong social network and close emotional support is critical to both good mental and physical health. When you eliminate the bias for women to have a stronger circle of close friends to rely on, you find that the disparity between men’s and women’s life expectancies closes dramatically.

Second, with men three times more likely to take their own lives than women, having someone to turn to at the crisis point could mean the difference between an intervention that saves someone’s life, and a successful suicide attempt.

The question is, that can be done about this problem?

To an extent, the problem could lie with our gender itself. If we built stronger relationships and invested more time in building those relationships, we would have a wider circle. However, many men feel like they simply don’t have the connections to do this, that it would not be viewed upon as socially acceptable in their circle, or simply that they feel too uncomfortable to do this.

Another option would be to increase the number of peer support groups available. The advantage of being able to talk to people going through similar problems, and therefore being able to bypass the chance of people not understanding, or judging, may provide a critical avenue for men to get the emotional support they need.

7 surprising freedoms we enjoy in Britain

Monday, February 20th, 2017 | Religion & Politics

In an age when Theresa May seems determined to read every email you write, abolish human rights and arrest everyone on terror charges, it can feel like our freedoms are under threat (they are). However, on a more positive note, we British people enjoy some freedoms that a lot of the world does not.

Nothing on this list will be a surprise to you. However, what I think will be a surprise, is that the rest of the world does not have these freedoms. These are things we take for granted but are not always the norm.

Naming your child

In Britain, you can name a baby anything as long as the powers that be do not label it as offensive or rude. People take liberal advantage of this, regularly naming their babies after TV characters, inanimate objects or obviously incorrect spellings of real names.

This is not a freedom most of Europe enjoys: many countries have set lists of accepted names. You have to pick from the list and you cannot change the spelling.

Homeschooling

Only wacky religious people tend to homeschool. However, you do have the option if you so wish. If you are tired of the school forcing facts down your child’s throat, you can pretend to be a teacher and give them an education yourself. You will seriously damage the child’s intellectual and social skills, but at least you will feel better.

We and around half the countries in the world enjoy this freedom. Each country has different levels of restrictions. For the rest of the world, homeschooling is illegal.

Jaywalking

At some point in the history of the United States, the government and the people had the following conversation:

Government: “Can we take away some of the really big guns so that children stop getting massacred?”
People: “No! Keep your hands off our second amendment!”
Government: “Okay. Can we make it illegal to cross the street wherever you want?”
People: “Sure, that’s fine.”

It seems a bizarre way round to me. I like living in a culture where assault rifles are not allowed, but crossing an empty street when it is safe to do so is. But what do I know as a humble British person?

Germany also criminalises jaywalking. There is something odd about watching clearly inebriated Germans stumbling home, yet stopping at every crossing to wait for the green man.

Moving house without telling everyone

Do you find junk mail annoying? I do. When I move house, I do not want everyone to know that I have moved. I will tell the people I think are worthy of knowing: banks, utility companies, etc. For everyone else, I do not want your nuisance mail.

In Finland, when you move house, you tell the state. The state then tells everyone else. This is convenient because it means all of your banks know that you have moved house. However, what if you do not want to tell a bunch of for-profit companies about your new address?

Free healthcare, including birth control

We tend to think of free healthcare as something that all civilised countries have, with the notable exception of the United States. However, this is not always the case. Take Finland again, for example.

When you go into hospital, there is a charge per day. It is not the full cost of your hospital stay, but it is not insignificant. You also pay to visit your GP and pay higher prescription charges. For birth control, for example, you will be paying around €15 per month.

In the UK, we pay for prescriptions (not in Scotland or Wales) and dental, but these are both capped at relatively low amounts. Hospital treatment is without cost entirely (unless you want to watch the TV).

ID cards

Compulsory ID cards are overwhelmingly the norm. Britain is one of only nine countries[ref] in the world that does not have any ID cards.

Flag burning

Flag desecration varies by countries. In many, it is illegal. In some, it is prosecuted under wider laws.

In the UK, we are pretty relaxed about it. If you want to burn the Union Jack, feel free. There is no law against it. There have been some moves to tighten up on it, but none have come to fruition.

Of course, you may struggle if it is made of fire-resistant material. As this EU flag was, for example:

WATCH: Video preview of Trump inauguration speech

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017 | Religion & Politics, Video

On Friday, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. Unless Obama resigns tomorrow, and Joe Bidden takes over, in which case Trump will be the 46th president. That seems unlikely, though.

It has been a hard time filling the bill. Celine Dion, Charlotte Church, Elton John, Moby and Rebecca Ferguson (and possibly many others) all declined offers to perform. Some because they wanted to make a political statement that they do not like Trump. However, for others, it could simply be that they already had plans.

Here is what Trump is expected to say in his inauguration speech…

Trust Me

Saturday, November 19th, 2016 | Religion & Politics

trust-and-fear

In a recent episode of Freakonomics Radio, entitled “Trust Me“, Stephen Dubner looked at the decline in trust that many countries were experiencing. This was specifically measured by asking people “do you think most people can be trusted?”

Building this up is important because the most trust you can build, the more social capital people have. This is important because countries where people have higher social capital do better, and also on a personal level as people who have more social capital live significantly longer. As Susan Pinker teaches us it is one of the biggest factors in life expectancy.

Some countries have very high trust levels. Sweden for example. Some of this is explained by the welfare state, but perhaps the biggest factor is the homogeneity of Swedish society. That is to say, everyone looks the same. People trust people who look similar to them. Conversely, when researchers looked at what makes people cheat, cheating across racial lines was a major factor.

One option then would be to resist the diversification of society, join the BNP and insist Britain is just for white people. But aside from the fact that many of us would detest such an attitude, it also ends badly: countries with a lack of diversity are less creative.

Therefore, we need to find a way that we can continue to build trust and social capital in a world that is becoming increasingly more diverse.

How do we do this? By finding ways to connect people across different communities: military service, university, sports teams, etc. University is a great example. You are thrown into a hall of residence where you meet a diverse group of people and build relationships with them. You then internalise the skill of trusting and it stays with you for the rest of your life. This is reflected in the fact that graduates have more social capital than non-graduates.

University is not the only place you can build such trust of course. If you are in the UK, you may have seen adverts for the National Citizen Service. The NCS was introduced in 2011 as a way to get young people to build these skills.

It is also worth noting that these barriers break down over time. There was a time when an Italian person and an Irish person was a “mixed marriage”. Then a black person and and a white person was a “mixed marriage”. Now it is just a marriage. Where possible, it makes sense to speed this process up.