Reasonable Discussion

When I went to Bible college, I learned two things about engaging in debate which struck me as very wise, and have stuck with me since. While I learned them in the context of theology, I’d argue that they apply universally.

The first is that you become properly qualified to critique someone’s position only when you can summarize it in a way which would have that person, were they looking over your shoulder as you write, saying “yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to say”. Ideally, you need to understand their position and rationale for holding it as well as, or even better, than they do themselves. Being able to summarize it well before interacting with it is proof that you have done the work to do this. It will not only make your arguments better, but it will make it much more likely that those who disagree with you might consider and even accept them. Anyone can attack a straw man; however, doing so may lead to cheers from your own side, but is unlikely to win any converts. Attacking straw men is always much easier than interacting with people’s actual nuanced positions and therefore might be said to be a form of virtue signalling.

The second is that you should always engage with a person’s strongest arguments and points, not their weakest ones. If someone writes a piece where 50% of the arguments are, in your view, so weak that they barely require refutation, then you can either refute them anyway, or you can engage with their better arguments and points. We were strongly encouraged to do the latter, for much the same reasons. Refuting bad arguments is much easier than refuting better arguments, but is far less likely to convince anyone who holds the opposing view.

In the context of recent Internet debates, this Medium post was recommended to me as “excellent”. However, it is hard to agree with this assessment given that the first paragraph spectacularly fails the first of the two above tests. (I’d argue much of the rest of the post does as well, but the first paragraph is the clearest example.) And I’d say most of the Internet has joined in that failure, including, shamefully, many reporters who should be able to do better. A rather insightful Twitter commenter (yes, I know, wow) noted that the debate around this document had mostly been a complete waste of time as it involved a version of it which existed only in the imagination of the debaters. I’ve certainly seen many instances where people have claimed the document says things it either does not say, or even explicitly denies.

As for the second test, the difficulty is that the Internet hate machine’s lack of nuance means that if you pull out one or two points and say “these are worthy of further discussion”, it is assumed that you are therefore a wholehearted supporter of everything written, and are treated accordingly. This is not how debate works in a sane society. Still, in ever-present hope that this won’t happen, I think the following two parts of the memo deserve careful consideration:

Viewpoint diversity is arguably the most important type of diversity and political orientation is one of the most fundamental and significant ways in which people view things differently. In highly progressive environments, conservatives are a minority that feel like they need to stay in the closet to avoid open hostility. We should empower those with different ideologies to be able to express themselves. Alienating conservatives is … non-inclusive.

Just as some on the Right deny science that runs counter to the “God > humans > environment” hierarchy (e.g., evolution and climate change) the Left tends to deny science concerning biological differences between people.

Note for the hard of thinking: this post in no way endorses any bits of the memo I did not quote, and the bits I did quote I endorse only so far as to say that they deserve careful consideration.

The Wrong Currency

The Labour party have objected strongly to the government “buying” stability in the form of a majority by sending money to Northern Ireland at the request of the 10 DUP MPs, who will now support them.

But it seems their objection is not to the principle, but to the currency. The newly-approved currency for the purchasing of government stability is the blood of unborn children.

Lord, have mercy.

Everything’s A Cut

In UK politics, at least, the language of “cuts” is common (most often preceded by the word “Tory”). There are to be cuts to this budget, and cuts to that service, and cuts to the other program. Cuts are almost universally seen as bad. But almost any change in any funding arrangement can be portrayed as a cut of some sort.

Let’s say the budget for activity X is £100,000 in 2015. In 2016, it’s £90,000. Is that a cut? Clearly. But what if it’s £100,000? Well, that’s a “real-terms cut” because of course inflation means that money this year is worth a bit less than money last year. OK, so let’s make it £102,000, to account for inflation. But the Retail Prices Index has gone up by more than that, so it’s still a “cut”. £105,000? Well, in fact, the costs of doing X have gone up significantly this year because of reasons, so that’s also an “effective cut”. More people using a service? An increase can be portrayed as a cut. More expensive and better treatment option becomes available? Even an increase can be portrayed as a “cut to that service”.

If you move resources from activity X to activity Y, then your opponents can focus on “cuts to activity X”. If you want to start doing a new activity Z, and don’t want to increase your budget, them something somewhere has to be “cut”. There’s always a cut somewhere you can find to complain about if you look hard enough.

If the previous administration was massively mis-spending their money and you have a big rearrangement of priorities, lots of things are going to be “cut”. If a particular client group such as the elderly has been doing extremely well for the past N years (triple lock, anyone?), and you change things to be more equitable, that’s a “cut”. And if that group is particularly photogenic or sympathy-worthy, no matter how much they were getting before, they can get the public on their side by objecting to the cruel “cuts”. Once a set of people has got access to a pot of government money, entitlement sets in extraordinarily quickly.

The difficulty for politicians, of course, is that it’s very difficult to say something like “well, pensioners have been coining it for the past 10 years, and it’s time we had a bit more equity”, because the press can always find a frail-looking pensioner who will be outraged on camera that they now apparently have to choose between food and heating.

The only way to avoid anything which seems like a cut is always to increase budgets for everything. And that normally means tax increases to pay for it (or, via borrowing, putting the bill on our children who can’t object, which is a sadly all-too-common move for politicians to avoid having to pay for what they are doing). But there are limits to how much you can increase tax, because taxation changes behaviour. It’s generally accepted when talking about carbon emissions, or cigarette smoking, or sugar consumption, that taxing something means you get less of it. But people shy away from applying this logic when it’s applied to incomes, or sales, or company profits (which are, absent a monopoly or criminal activity, the reward for hard work and entrepreneurship). Taxing those things means you get less of them too – less economic activity, smaller economy, poorer people.

So when someone tries to engender outrage by simply saying “something is being cut!”, remind them that pretty much everything’s a cut, and point them at this article. Just because something qualifies as a cut, and the group or activity receiving less money is deemed worthy of support, doesn’t make the change necessarily wrong.

Buzzword Bingo

This is a genuine question from a European Union public consultation:

Do you see the need for the definition of a reference architecture recommending a standardised high-level framework identifying interoperability interfaces and specific technical standards for facilitating seamless exchanges across data platforms?

Words fail me.

The Blunt Spoon of Austerity

How many billion pounds did George Osborne cut government spending by in the “age of austerity” from 2010 to 2016? Have a guess.

How many billion pounds did George Osborne cut the welfare budget by during the same time? Thought of a figure, or even a percentage? Good.

When you adjust the figures for inflation, it turns out that he cut government spending by a whopping £1.2 billion over 6 years. That’s about £200m a year – as the Taxpayer’s Alliance points out, the cost of one Boaty McBoatface. Another way to put it would be just under 0.03% of the total budget, per year. Basically, he didn’t cut government spending at all, in purchasing power terms. (In terms of numerical pounds, of course, it went up. It’s only about even when adjusted for inflation.)

But what about welfare? OK, so he didn’t get overall spending down, but surely he’s been savagely cutting the welfare budget, in order to pay for more tanks, guns, bombs, duck houses and other pointless stuff the government fritters its money away on. Right? Well, again after adjusting for inflation, it turns out he reduced the welfare bill by… <drum roll> minus £1.2 billion a year. That’s right, it went up. There were reductions on welfare spending for those of working age and children, but these were more than offset by the increases in benefits paid to pensioners.

Given that the government is still spending £67 billion more each year than it takes in taxes, and has just decided to abandon its commitment to balance the books by 2020, it seems likely that the new administration is going to be just as bad. Our national debt is currently around £1,782 billion – which will already be a burden borne by our children, either in repayments or interest payments. And it seems like our current intention is, scandalously, to keep adding to that burden. Where’s the intergenerational justice here?

A good person leaves an inheritance for their children’s children… — Proverbs 13:22a

A Cycle of Fear and Irrationality

Scared people act irrationally.

I’ve been pulled over a couple of times in my life, to receive a talking-to from a traffic policeman about a piece of dubious (although not dangerous) driving. I’m not afraid of the police, though. Some people are. And when people are afraid, they do irrational and unwise things – like running away from what they fear.

A man commits a minor traffic infraction, and runs from the police. 7 police break down the door of his house, enter with guns drawn, tase him, and pepper-spray his 84-year-old mother, before pinning her to the ground and arresting her as she cried “Help me, Jesus”. What sort of country does this kind of massive overreaction happen in? One guess. In the UK, the registered keeper of the vehicle would probably have got a £50 fine in the post two weeks later. Do our roads contain a significantly higher incidence of dangerous driving?

Scared people act irrationally. Why are people scared of the police? Because of incidents like this. Why does this sort of thing happen? Because people act irrationally and the police see it as a provocation. This is a cycle that isn’t going to be easily broken. But the burden of breaking it lies with the police.

Last year in the US, the police killed around 1146 people. In an average year in the entirety of the UK (population: 1/5th of the US), the police fire their guns at all less than 10 times. Are US suspects really so much more dangerous than UK ones?

A Christian Case for Brexit

We had an EU Referendum evening at my church last night; in honour of it, I have written “A Christian Case for Brexit“, which are some of my thoughts on the referendum issue from a Christian point of view. Many of the arguments and points most commonly deployed in the public debate on the referendum are not particularly interesting, and I think some important issues have been somewhat overlooked.

Prophetic…

Almost 20 years ago, two Christians from the Jubilee Centre pondered the possible consequences of the Euro:

Unfortunately, EMU [European Monetary Union] may well foster conflicts and increase nationalism among EU countries. If the system works well and an active fiscal policy compensates for the lack of an independent monetary policy, some countries will need to raise taxes in order to cool their economy even though the government is in strong surplus. Quite correctly, electorates will blame the system. However, if EMU fails, endemic unemployment will result in some countries due to an overvalued exchange rate for their needs and excessively high interest rates. Wage cuts in, or labour movements from, the countries thus affected seem unlikely, and the current treaty does not provide for fiscal transfers from a prospering country to a depressed one as a result of EMU. Hence, some countries will feel neglected in the interest rate setting process, and will demand restitution from the centre. To make matters worse, they could be having to cut spending and raise taxes in a recession to avoid being fined for an ‘excessive’ deficit, while having to bail out a collapsing banking system due to inappropriate interest rate levels.

If a country faces an unsustainable fiscal situation, it may be forced to threaten default on its debt or request help from other members. If a transfer or debt guarantee is granted, those populations in solvent countries may resent their taxes being used to bail out irresponsible governments elsewhere. If these payments have no democratic mandate, resentment of neighbouring countries within EMU may result.

— Paul Mills and Michael Schluter, Should Christians Support the Euro?, December 1998

The only thing they missed is that the bailed-out would also resent those who did the bailing…

DMCA Section 512 Comments Submitted

A small milestone: the first post in my name on the Mozilla Net Policy blog has just been published. It concerns our filing comments for a US Copyright Office consultation on section 512 of the DMCA – the section dealing with safe harbo(u)rs for intermediary liability. Section 512 contains the rules that mean Facebook, Twitter and other platforms actually let you have a conversation and upload images and videos to talk about, rather than restricting that capability because they are too afraid of immediate copyright liability.

This is not to be confused with section 1201 of the DMCA, which gives the rules for the 3-yearly process for getting DMCA exceptions for important things like phone unlocking. We also filed comments in a consultation on that recently.

We hope that the Copyright Office’s recent attention to these sections bodes well for useful reforms to US copyright law.

Hi, I’m Bill

Hi, I’m Bill. As Tim Chevalier has written about me (at least a little bit) in an article series entitled “The Christians and the Pagans” (1, 2, 3), I hope I may be permitted a short response. (Yes, it’s taken a while. Sorry about that.)

What first struck me as I read Tim’s three articles is the number of things we agree on. Firstly, I entirely agree that there is no such thing as being apolitical or non-ideological – as Tim says, being (supposedly) apolitical is a political view. In fact, I would also go on to say that there’s no such thing as being areligious – being an atheist or agnostic is a religious view. People sometimes find this assertion more palatable if I use the term ‘worldview’ instead of religion, but the point is the same – everyone has a highest point of reference, an ultimate real from which everything else flows. It may be God, matter, reason or something else, but everyone has it. Similarly, everyone has a basis on which they relate to others and a view of what would be ideal in society – everyone is political.

I also agree that it’s foolish to push away people who want to contribute. When Tim writes:

“[T]o build the best thing you can you have to include everybody who wants to and can work together on it and contribute. Pushing away people who have something to contribute is an exercise in purity-based morality, not a sound business or technical strategy.”

all I can say is a hearty (and perhaps slightly cheeky) “Amen!”.

However, when I agree with Tim on this, I can’t help remembering the following quote from the Github issue which prompted ESR’s article:

“Reading the links you posted I only have one thing to say to you:reevaluate your actions,you are becoming a toxic individual who is harming the Python and Django communities and haven’t even realized it yet. You are a member of the Django Software Foundation and are supposed to be setting the example. I will be forwarding the content of this issue to the Chair to evaluate your continued presence in the DSF. best regards.”

And I can’t help remembering what happened to Brendan Eich. There seemed to be a whole lot of pushing away, and purity-based morality, going on in both these situations. And if the response is “it’s not about his code; we didn’t like his politics”, surely that’s taking precisely the view that Tim is arguing against? Tim objects to people focussing on his politics and ignoring his code, and wishes it were different; would he grant Brendan the same grace?

Where we diverge is in Tim’s assertion that Christianity is a part of the dominant culture, an “unmarked ideology” in tech. This assertion would be within some distance of plausibility if by “Christianity” he meant the moralistic therapeutic Deism of American (and British) civil religion which is called “Christianity” in some quarters. Even then, it would be a big stretch – I think most people in tech don’t follow that; instead they see it for the hypocrisy it is. The dominant culture of tech is secular humanism. To demonstrate this point, of these pairs of opposing views, which one is dominant in tech? Which one would go unmarked if it were expressed in conversation at a tech gathering, and which would be challenged?

Christianity Secular Humanism
Marriage should be between one man and one woman Anyone should be allowed to get married to anyone else
Hell exists When we die, that’s the end
God created the universe Science explains the existence of the universe
Jesus is divine Jesus is irrelevant
Elective abortion is murder Women can do anything with what’s in their bodies
Sex should be for marriage only All (or most) forms of sex should be accepted and celebrated

As someone who has occasionally been on the sharp end of Christianity being very much a marked ideology in tech, I do find it hard to see how Tim can have come to the conclusion that it’s the mainstream. Over 1000 people come to Mozilla all-hands meetings; the prayer meetings we hold there have never attracted more than 5 people. This doesn’t bother us, because Jesus is Lord of all. But it’s hardly what one would call popular.

An additional trouble with Tim’s article is that it was prompted by an article by ESR, but Tim seems to have seriously misread him. Tim claims a pollution of agency attack – that is, people are denigrating the code of “SJWs” because of their politics. I agree his (ESR’s) headline (“Why Hackers Must Eject the SJWs”) is unhelpful at this point, but the body of his article seems clear that:

“We must cast [SJWs] out – refuse to admit them on any level *except by evaluating on pure technical merit whatever code patches they submit*.”

As we can see, ESR is urging precisely the opposite of what Tim says he is. ESR wants the hacker culture to stick to meritocracy, which he defines as focussing on the code contribution and not the person. His article is a call for a rejection by projects of a particular political stance and its ramifications, not of contributions. Just as, in a project run as perhaps Tim would have it run, other political stances and their ramifications would also be rejected by the leadership.

For myself, I unashamedly agree with this principle of operating open source projects. I don’t care if you call it meritocracy or something else. This is not to say some people don’t need more help on the contribution pathway than others – “to each according to his need”. But when it comes to looking at the code, we look at the code. If sometimes that principle is drifted from, and people start evaluating contributions based on the person who made them (a system which, for example, was being encouraged by djangoconcardiff) the solution is not to throw away the principle, but to recommit to it.

With Tim, I assert that this principle is *not* apolitical or non-ideological. Against Tim, I assert that instead, it is fundamentally based in justice. And I think this is where the heart of the disagreement is between “SJWs” and some (at least) who oppose them – it is not that one side says “we are pro-justice” and the other side says they aren’t, or says that something other principle is even more important. It’s that they don’t agree on what justice is. And perhaps one reason that “SJW” has taken on negative connotations in some circles (as Bradley discusses) is that people look at the form of justice espoused by this group and see it as no justice at all. Hence the ironic title.

More on the nature of true justice later, I hope. In the mean time, Merry Christmas to all :-)

Facebook “Community Standards”

A couple of things which apparently have violated Facebook’s “Community Standards” recently. Firstly, the idea of loving your enemies:

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Secondly, a post encouraging people to correctly use the word “homophobia”:

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Seems like the “community standards” process is being abused somewhat…

Fairness

We’re having a general election here in the UK, and so there has been more than the usual amount of talk about “fairness”. Fairness is one of these slippery words, the definition of which depends very much on your worldview. But ignoring even that, I’d like to propose a new rule to be observed in political debate, worldwide:

Politicians should be banned from arguing for change using the words “fair” or “fairness” unless they also specify what level of change would be “unfair”.

Let’s take the common example of taxes. We often hear phrases like “the rich should pay their fair share”, or “it’s only fair that those with the most resources shoulder the burden”. If a politician says this, they need to be asked “OK – so what level of taxation would go beyond ‘fair’ and get into ‘unfair’?” They would be allowed to define it in any number of concrete ways, e.g. “I think it’s unfair to take more than 50% of a person’s total income”, or “I think it’s unfair to leave anyone with less than £15k of income after tax”.

But the one answer that should not be allowed is the equivalent of “‘fair’ means paying more than they pay at the moment”, however much that is. In those cases, talk of fairness is actually covetousness in disguise – people are being taxed simply because they have money and the politician wants some of it for their own purposes. Covetousness knows no limits. If they want to argue for this, they can – but they should not have the gall to try and call it ‘fair’.

Politicians don’t like making such commitments, because then they would have to (shock!) keep them, or be easily held accountable. But the convenient thing about “fairness” is that it’s very elastic – people can generally be convinced to agree that any tax rise is ‘fair’, as long as it doesn’t target them. After all, most people like the idea of spending other people’s money on stuff that they want to happen. But without any sort of upper limit defined, taxpayers can never know when a particular politician might be coming back for another bite of their earnings – and that most certainly is unfair.