Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Layer 198 . . . Mansfield, Empathy, Duncan Smith, Work, Benefits, and Happiness

Mansfield, Identity and Empathy

What makes an outstanding individual? (see also blog on Maslow - Layer 20  Fully Evolved Human Beings)

Michael Mansfield QC on Radio 4's Midweek today was promoting his autobiography and talking about the need to 'identify' with the people he's representing in court, as Libby Purves put it. He spoke about 'being able to get inside someone's skin”. Actually this isn't identification – it's empathy. You can empathise with someone who may be a completely different sort of character, living a completely different lifestyle, with very different attitudes and behavior, without needing to feel any sense of common identity, providing you have the ability to imagine what it might be like to be that person and providing you can understand why and how they do things.

Words are very precise, and we ought to make an effort to use them properly.

Empathy is the essential component of social intelligence – the ability to relate to others, to understand their feelings and motives, and to form positive relationships. Mansfield is highly successful in what he does, partly because he's able to make positive relationships with his clients, partly because he is able to empathise with them, partly because he has a strong sense of compassion, and partly because he has a burning desire to see justice done, and to make sure it's seen to be done.

He's also an effective, persuasive, convincing and fearless communicator. It's a powerful combination of social and spiritual intelligence that makes Mansfield outstanding in his field. No-one doubts he also has a very clear grasp of the complexities of the law, and all the professional knowledge that goes with the territory, plus first-class thinking skills and powers of analysis. But no-one even knows or cares about how successful he was academically. Education policy makers please note.

The Quiet Man, Empathy and Social Justice

"On 7 December 2005, Ian Duncan Smith was appointed Chairman of the Social Justice Policy Group which was facilitated by the Centre for Social Justice. The group's aim was to "study the causes and consequences of poverty in Britain and seek practical ideas to empower the least well-off."
There was an amazing interview with Ian Duncan Smith in the 8.10 slot on the Today programme on R4 this morning, in which he talked convincingly with passion and conviction about the need to invest more money in the process of getting unemployed people into work. His point was that there's a tipping point that arises when someone is considering taking on a job and declaring earnings, since the system as it stands allows people to take home virtually no more when they take on a low-paid job than when they were unemployed but free and time rich. What does it take to make people go beyond the tipping point? At least that's my interpretation of what he was saying.

I've been thinking about this very thing for some time now. Our stupid politicians say they're desperate to get the unemployed into the habit of paid work, but they totally fail to take into account, and to factor into the equation, the loss of freedom and the reduction of time for personal and family pursuits when someone takes on a poorly paid and possibly boring job. Those things are actually worth something to the unemployed, and must be taken into account.

The answer therefore, if I heard IDS correctly, is to not ìmmediately reduce all of a claimant's benefits when they start work, so that their income becomes significantly boosted even when they're working for a minimum wage rate. I can hardly believe I heard a Tory saying this. I must go immediately and look this up on the internet, assuming IDS has published these thoughts elsewhere.

My own solution is along slightly different lines. When someone takes on a new job, especially if it's a dull and poorly paid job, neither the worker nor the employer knows whether they're going to be suitable and successful in the job, and during that period of uncertainty, when both are making up their minds whether the employment is going to be long-term, the benefits the individual has been receiving should not be cut. Neither should the new earner be taxed at the standard rate. There should either be a period of exemption from tax or the tax should be at 10% of earnings.

After a suitable transition period the new employee would lose the benefits income, since you can't expect double bubble indefinitely. By that time, though, relationships in the workplace will have been established, job prospects checked out, new workmates become pals, and the habit of getting up in the morning and commuting acquired. When faced with the financial, social, emotional and spiritual benefits of the new lifestyle versus returning to the old one, the vast majority are going to opt to stay in the job and not go back on unemployment and jobseeker benefits.

In a sense we'd be rewarding the unemployed just for making the effort to go out and start work, for giving up time for themselves, and for getting into the work habit – and why not? As things stand there's very little in the way or incentives or rewards for giving up one's liberty and taking on crappy, low status, poorly paid jobs, ie becoming a wage slave.

Faced with a choice of being a wage slave (and a very poorly paid wage slave), and a dropout, is it so surprising that so many choose to just drop out? Especially if they can make some money by ducking and diving. We clearly need to pay people to give up ducking and diving, or being a drug user, or being a slacker and a slob, or someone who just can't face the hassle of 'signing off' and losing benefits when they suspect they might be very quickly back on them but having to face a period of no income whatsoever whilst a new claim is processed.

I suspect very few politicians have bothered to look very closely at the predicaments and the lifestyles of the poor and the unemployed, let alone feel able to empathise with them, so respect! to IDS for spending time thinking of ways to actually help such people.


Sarkozy and the Quality of Life

"A great revolution is waiting for us," [Sarkozy] said. "For years, people said that finance was a formidable creator of wealth, only to discover one day that it accumulated so many risks that the world almost plunged into chaos."
"The crisis doesn't only make us free to imagine other models, another future, another world. It obliges us to do so," he said.

Measuring well-being would make France's economy, famous for its short workweek and generous social benefits, look more rosy.

"If leisure has no accounting value because it's essentially full of non-market activities like sport or culture, we put productivity below human fulfillment," Sarkozy said.
It was interesting that Keith Floyd, as a bon viveur, and having written a brilliant book on French cuisine, bought a house in France and chose to spend a lot of his time there.

"Endorsing the recommendations of a report given to him by Nobel prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, Sarkozy said governments should do away with the "religion of statistics" in which financial prowess was the sole indicator of a country's [or an individual's!] state of health.
"For years statistics have registered an increasingly strong economic growth as a victory over shoperation and Development. "We need better measures of people's expectations and levels of satisfaction, of how they spend their time, of their relations with other people in their community."

Layard and the Greatest Good – Tackling the Happiness Question 

Lord Layard is at it again this week:

"What is progress? That is the question President Sarkozy of France has posed to a distinguished commission. It is exactly the right question, and the future of our culture depends on the answer.
GDP is not the answer, and the Stiglitz commission – whose report, What is Social Progress?, is published today – is clear about that: progress must be measured by the overall quality of people's lives. At this point the commission identifies two possible approaches. One is to focus on how people feel: are they happy and contented? (This idea goes back to philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Jeremy Bentham.)

The other is to focus on people's objective circumstances: do they have the capabilities (as Amartya Sen calls them) that are conducive to human flourishing? The commission does not choose between these approaches, and both are infinitely superior to GDP. But it matters greatly which way we choose.

It would obviously be convenient if we could identify one overarching good and, together with many Enlightenment philosophers, I believe that good is happiness.

There are many things that are highly desirable: health, freedom, love, and so on. But if we ask why they matter, we can have a discussion: if you are ill, you feel bad. The same if you are enslaved or unloved; it makes you unhappy. But if we ask why it matters if you feel bad and unhappy, there is no answer. It is self-evident.

So it is time to reassert the noble philosophy of the Enlightenment. In this view, every human being wants to be happy, and everybody counts equally. It follows that progress is measured by the overall scale of human happiness and misery. And the right action is the one that produces the greatest happiness in the world and (especially) the least misery. I can think of no nobler ideal.

So I propose a campaign for the Principle of the Greatest Happiness. This says that I should aim to produce the most happiness I can in the world and, above all, the least misery. And my rulers should do the same. This principle would lead to better private lives and better public policy. We desperately need a social norm in which the good of others figures more prominently in our personal goals. Today's excessive individualism removes so much of the joy from family life, work and even friendship."
I can't be bothered at this point to go over again the arguments in favour of making Zen enlightenment (as opposed to 'Enlightenment' enlightenment) our goal, and not the pursuit of happiness.

I'll just say this – people pursue money and material things because they believe those things will make them happy. Governments pursue the generation of money and the production of goods because they believe people need lots more of those things in order to be happy. It all depends on what you think is going to make you, and other people, happy. Chasing after happiness is dumb behaviour. There – I've said it.

Still, Layard's thing is 'happiness' – and it's his hobby horse, his political franchise. No point in arguing with him.

Stiglitz and Wall Street

Nobel prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote an excellent piece this week, on the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse. It's worth taking time to read it in full.
What went wrong? Have the right lessons been learned? I fear that our collective response has been mistaken and inadequate – that we may just have made matters worse.

Lehmans was . . . a consequence of flawed lending practices, and of inadequate oversight by regulators.

Bailing out the US banks need not have meant bailing out the bankers, their shareholders, and bondholders. We could have kept the banks as ongoing institutions, even if we had played by the ordinary rules of capitalism which say that when a firm can't meet its obligations to creditors, the shareholders lose everything.

Unquestionably we should not have allowed banks to become so big and so intertwined that their failure would cause a crisis.

[Our government] has failed to take adequate steps to restrict institutions' size, their risk-taking, and their interconnectedness. Indeed, it has allowed the big banks to become even bigger – just as it has failed to stem the flow of profligate executive bonuses.

After the fall of Bear Stearns, with rumours that Lehmans was next, the Fed and the Treasury should have done a serious job of figuring out how to manage an orderly shutdown of a large, complex institution; and if they determined that they lacked adequate legal authority, they should have requested it.

They appear, remarkably, to have been repeatedly caught off-guard.

After saying that they did not want to bail out Lehmans because of a concern about moral hazard, they extended the government's safety net further than it had ever been. Bear Stearns extended it to investment banks, and AIG to all financial institutions. Perhaps they were doing the best they could at the time; but that is no excuse for not having anticipated the problems and been better prepared.

Lehman Brothers was a symptom of a dysfunctional financial system and regulatory failure. It should have taught us that preventing problems is easier, and certainly less costly, than dealing with them when they become virtually intractable.


Carter – Obama – Racism

"The former US president Jimmy Carter has condemned as "dastardly" and "based on racism" a southern Republican's outburst during Barack Obama's big healthcare speech to Congress last week. Carter said the "You lie" interjection by Joe Wilson showed there was "an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president".
The 84-year-old said the case was part of a disturbing trend directed at Obama that has included equating the president to Nazi leaders. "Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national programme on healthcare. It's deeper than that."

In an interview with NBC News, Carter attributed much of the conservative opposition to Obama to his race. "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man.”

Dick Harpootlian, a former Democrat party chairman in South Carolina, said he did not believe Wilson was motivated by racism but added that his actions encouraged racist views. "I think Joe's conduct was asinine, but I think it would be asinine no matter what the colour of the president." Harpootlian, who has known Wilson for decades, said: "I don't think Joe's outburst was caused by President Obama being African-American. I think it was caused by no filter being between his brain and his mouth."

Surely they're both correct in their assessments.

Interesting comment on the Guardian film blog on David Lynch:
“There are too few living directors out there who can successfully translate the craziness inside their heads into compelling movie-making. Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang still inspire devotion from beyond the grave. Lynch, at 65, is only getting started.

Which is why it worries me that he's so stuck on meditation. I don't want his silence. I want his noise. So if anyone out there finds his voice, could you please hand it in?”

Chavez and South America

“I would be worried if they spoke well of me.”

Hugo Chavez –  Oliver Stone - South of the Border


Max Mosley shared some interesting thoughts in an interview with Donald McCrae in the Guardian yesterday. He's agreed to stand down from the presidency of the FIA and his leading role in F1 at the end of this season, after being put under huge pressure by the F1 teams to do so, following the revelations in the New of the Screws about his sex life in S & M cellars and dungeons. (has anyone turned it into a Playstation game yet – Dungeons and Dragracers?)

He's a fascinating guy, and you have to say very gutsy (and wealthy) to fight back against the Screws and win his right to privacy case. His family background is unbelievable – Oswald and Diana Mosley as parents, involvement in his father's post-war Union Movement (successor to the British Union of Fascists) from an early age, and the loss of his only child, Alexander, from a drugs overdose, just a few months ago.

In the paper he's quoted as saying,

“Retirement will be a big relief. The work is absolutely non-stop and I always feel I haven't really done what I should've done. And I am tired of the battling. It's more or less, in different guises, the same problems with the same people and you're never going to finish. At a certain point it's time to stop. You've only got a limited amount of time left before you drop off – and do you really want to spend it solving other people's problems?"
“I'm dying to have a bit more time for myself. There are so many books I want to read and maybe I will write a book myself – because there is so much to tell."
That could be a book worth reading. I seem to be developing a strange regard for high-profile right-wing characters – IDS, Sarkozy, etc. Worrying.

Today's musical treat, for no particular reason, is Seasick Steve:

click on the 'Live on Jules Holland' video. Doghouse Blues Boogie.

This version is probably even better, apart from the quality of sound on the voice PA.

Steve decided at the age of fourteen that the quality of life he had at home was so piss poor he'd do better to hit the road and go out on his own. There's never been a lot of money in playing the blues and boogie, unless you get very lucky. Steve's been materially poor most of his life, but rich in spirit and attitude.

Taoist Thought for Today:

Free of self-focused expectations, one is free of disappointment.
Free of self-focused motivation, one is free of regrets.


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