Tag: politics

Status redistribution

Posted by – December 2, 2015

It has become clear in modern welfare societies that redistribution of wealth is inadequate as a guarantor of social well-being. It is possible for people to get through years, decades or an entire lifetime without working a job, subsisting through various interactions with the public welfare system, but only a very individualistic and self-satisfied sort of person is able to achieve happiness in such a life. Indeed, judging from personal accounts, prolonged interaction with the system practically guarantees depression and feelings of worthlessness. Escapism into drunkedness or drugs often follows, and is considered a pity.

Sometimes, however, people escape into an intense appreciation of a hobby or subculture, and that is not considered such a pity. Indeed, this is a point often raised in the context of universal income (or negative income tax, or similar schemes), that when subsistence no longer requires conforming to the demands of the system (pretend to apply for undesirable jobs, ineffective training, be diagnosed as having a mental illness so you can be excused from obligations), people would be more free to pursue such self-actualising goals. “Free of what?” is an interesting question. Time constraints? Their own negative emotions like guilt? The mental distress of having to lie and self-justify? But I’m not going to address that now.

Ronald Dworkin published a pair of essays called “What is Equality?” in the 1981, the first addressing “equality of welfare” and the second “equality of resources”. (Years later he continued the series with “the place of liberty”.) They constitute a rather good exploration of what a complicated question equality really is. From the first one:

Suppose, for example, that a man of some wealth has several children, one of whom is blind, another a playboy with expensive tastes, a third a prospective politician with expensive ambitions, another a poet with humble needs, another a sculptor who works in expensive material, and so forth. How shall he draw his will? If he takes equality of welfare as his goal, then he will take these differences among his children into account, so that he will not leave them equal shares.

[…]

When the question arises how wealth should be distributed among children, for example, those who are seriously physically or mentally handicapped do seem to have, in all fairness, a claim to more than others. The ideal of equality of welfare may seem a plausible explanation of why this is so. Because they are handicapped, the blind need more resources to achieve equal welfare. But the same domestic example also provides at least an initially troublesome problem for that ideal. For most people would resist the conclusion that those who have expensive tastes are, for that reason, entitled to a larger share than others. Someone with champagne tastes (as we might describe his condition) also needs more resources to achieve welfare equal to those who prefer beer. But it does not seem fair that he should have more resources on that account. The case of the prospective politician, who needs a great deal of money to achieve his ambitions to do good, or the ambitious sculptor, who needs more expensive materials than the poet, perhaps falls in between. Their case for a larger share of their parent’s resources seems stronger than the case of the child with expensive tastes, but weaker than the case of the child who is blind.

Dworkin introduces several theories of equality, one of which is a family called “success theories of equality”:

These suppose that a person’s welfare is a matter of his success in fulfilling his preferences, goals, and ambitions, and so equality of success, as a conception of equality of welfare, recommends distribution and transfer of resources until no further transfer can decrease the extent to which people differ in such success.

[…after talking about more theories of equality, which] raise the question of whether equality in that conception is reached when people are in fact equal in welfare so conceived, or rather when they would be equal if they were fully informed of the relevant facts. Does someone attain a given level of success, for purposes of equality of success, when he believes that his preferences have been fulfilled to a given degree, or rather when he would believe that if he knew the facts?

That last part is very interesting to me. It cuts two ways: sometimes people rage against their lack of success, and I feel like telling them they expect too much, are unrealistic, that they really have had their preferences fulfilled rather well if only they could see it, all things considered (“look, you’re not smart or hard-working enough to be as good as the best, but you have no right to expect to be”). Other times people seem to achieve happiness through ignorance, misunderstanding either their relative success in their pursuit, or the relative importance of their pursuit.

But then it occurs to me that there is really not much difference between what I called ignorance about the relative importance of their pursuit and “escape” into hobbies or subcultures. Of course, there are very loaded words. In our postmodern world, there is no need to put down “marginal” pursuits; shared narratives about what is meaningful have broken down into ever smaller pieces, and there is no objective hierarchy of legitimacy among the narratives.

So ultimately, will our path towards equality take the form of producing a large enough number of subcultures, interests and hobbies that generate preference-satisfaction in the sense of the success theory of equality? It seems we have at least gone some way on that path, although I doubt it will amount to an actual paradise of social well-being (at least until people move on to living in simulated realities on computers). Subcultures, interests and hobbies we have always had with us, but only now in the kind of intense bubble way that truly create feelings of success.

As an aside, there have been islands of this type of thing before; Pythagoras’ pupils isolated themselves from outside value systems and made themselves the only possessors of truth and beauty, and many religious cults have followed the model, but that has only ever been possible for relatively small numbers of people. Mass religions have tried to produce feelings of success in other ways (“suffer in this earth, you will have a glorious reward in the next”), but they either never really worked or have stopped working in the present era.

The endgame of this development is hard to predict, but it seems to be rather unstable. Feelings of success create pride and an expectation of dignity and respect, but the atomization of society destroys solidarity on the national level (and solidarity on any other level doesn’t really exist). The harsh reality of producers vs. consumers will persist and become even sharper. Of course, much depends on the advance of technology. Many western countries already use some promilles of their GDP on foreign aid; perhaps one day that will be sufficient to support most of the population and their success-theory-of-equality bubbles.

That, of course, is on the big scale. It’s hard to see one’s own place in it clearly, but on the individual level, my advice is to neither try to escape nor to relentlessly play the status game, but to try to achieve some measure of inner peace, to have modest material needs and to develop sustainable and robust methods to satisfy them indefinitely. The only winning move is not to play?

Halla-aho convicted for hate speech

Posted by – June 8, 2012

Somewhat surprisingly, Finnish parliamentarian Jussi Halla-aho’s case, which progressed to the Finnish supreme court, has turned out even worse than it did in the lower courts. Previously he was convicted only for “disturbing the peace of religion” (“uskonrauhan rikkominen”, essentially a blasphemy law), but now the supreme court has also found him guilty for incitement to hatred against an ethnic or racial group (essentially hate speech).

Finland doesn’t have the best record in the world for civil liberties anyway, but this is nevertheless a considerable setback. For Finnish readers I’ve mirrored the original blog post here (the author has already been forced to redact parts, and this new decision demands him to make further cuts). A slightly subpar English translation may be found here.

I want to point out once again that one of the laws he was convicted under, the religious peace one, contains the phrase “who mocks God”. Finland is an EU country with an actively used blasphemy law.

A take on politics that resonated

Posted by – November 21, 2011

A redditor came up with an interesting diagram of political views. In case the image link bit rots, here is my own mirror. The picture in this post has relabeled (by me) axes and no introductory text.

Here are some excerpts from author well_met_sir’s comments in the image and the reddit post, with my own edits marked by [square brackets]:

The [Governmental power vs. Liberty] axis is about how comfortable you are with the government using violence to achieve its goals, both economic and social. At one extreme people believe the government and society are synonymous, at the other that they are incompatible.

The Instinct vs. Intellect axis is about whether you believe that humans are a blank slate [(intellect)] or whether they are destined to act in a certain way [despite] attempts to reason with them or to brainwash them.

If you fall into the blue area you believe that government is a necessary evil, move to the left to find a compromise position on the triangle. If you fall into the purple area then you believe that it is impossible to control people as much as you would like to, move to the right to find a compromise position on the triangle.

Let’s look at the bottom left corner, communism. The communists were always talking about the “New Soviet Man”. They believed that with enough education any newborn baby could become the ideal communist citizen.

Now let’s look at the bottom right corner, an-cap. An-caps believe that we can transition from what we have now to a stateless society, simply by reasoning with people.

Now let’s talk about the top edge, but let’s first talk about animals. Wolves have a certain social structure, bees have a certain social structure, fish have a certain social structure. It doesn’t matter how could your rational arguments are, it doesn’t matter how good your brainwashing is, you simply aren’t going to get bears to accept social democracy and you aren’t going to get bees to adopt paleoconservatism.

The top edge acknowledges that fact, and thus there is only one point on that top edge. If humans act on pure instinct, then only one form of government is possible.

Georgism apparently refers to geolibertarianism, a version of libertarianism where land and other natural resources can’t be rightly owned by anyone, and are therefore justly subject to (heavy) taxation. I sometimes find myself gravitating towards this position, but it is perhaps too far down in this diagram.

Over-representation without victimisation

Posted by – August 29, 2011

Taloussanomat, a financial newspaper, has a story about the overrepresentation of Finn-Swedes on the boards of the 50 largest Finnish companies. Finn-Swedes comprise around 5.5% of the population and 23% of the board membership, making them overrepresented by a factor of about 4.2. The story has this to say about the causes of this situation:

  • Finn-Swedes are more oriented towards business
  • Finn-Swedes were the main part of the old bourgeoisie
  • Finn-Swedes are more oriented towards engineering, finance and law
  • Finn-Swedes are more internationally oriented
  • Many large companies have ties to Sweden

A while ago they also had a story about the under-representation of women. 25% of board members were women, for an over-representation by men of a factor of 1.5. Taloussanomat was unable to give any background as to why this deplorable situation might exist. Sexism and male insecurity are the only things I can think of. However most respectable politicians, including the previous prime minister, a woman called Mari Kiviniemi, periodically state that if near-parity isn’t achieved soon, legislative measures may have to be taken to force companies to recruit women into board membership.

It’s not your tax money

Posted by – August 19, 2011

…at least, not the way you think and not mostly.

People often describe public expenses as being paid for by their hard-earned wages which are subject to income tax. Many people know that other taxes are more important (VAT is the biggest revenue source for the Finnish state, and “vice taxes” on alcohol, tobacco, and sweets alone amount to almost a third of earned income tax), but in fact even the deficit is more important than income tax.

The United States and Finland currently share the interesting status of having a larger deficit than their entire revenue from taxing earned income is. So for whatever income tax you pay that goes eg. to pay me to do research in finite-state methods in computational linguistics, more than that is borrowed for the same purpose.

I gave myself a big tax cut this year by moving into home brewing. About 300 € worth of alcohol taxes saved so far (much of that alcohol I gave away), projecting for 500-600 € by the end of the year. Next year will be more like 1000 €, since I only got started this summer.

The other wealth tax

Posted by – August 19, 2011

Finland had a wealth tax from 1920 until its repeal in 2006. The marginal rate was 0.8% for individuals and 1.0% for corporations – the tax only kicked in for wealth over a certain limit, which was 250,000 € at the time the tax was repealed.

Taxes of this type are quite rare currently. In Europe, France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, The Netherlands and Norway have wealth taxes. In each case there are a large number of exemptions that I assume make it possible for savvy individuals to mostly avoid paying. The French “solidarity tax on wealth” exempts owning businesses, old art, intellectual property, forestry holdings (why?), anonymous bonds (I don’t know what this is), pension plans and wealth derived from compensation for injuries. The Dutch exempt approved “green” investments (heh), which also receive an extra tax bonus on the income derived.

Finland, like most countries, does still have a capital gains tax. Under the current monetary system, this also acts as a wealth tax: there is always inflation, so even if a property doesn’t appreciate in real terms, it does appreciate in nominal terms, and so is subject to capital gains tax. Two natural questions arise: how much is this wealth tax, and how much do you actually need to profit from capital in order to keep its value constant?

For property that has an unchanged value, its nominal value theoretically increases at the rate of inflation. The tax due will be the tax rate multiplied by this increase – for the Finnish budget of 2012, the capital gains tax for incomes under 50,000 € is 30%, and inflation over the summer months has been about 4% annualized. So the effective wealth tax is 1.2% – higher than the old wealth tax! (For incomes in excess of 50,000€ the figure is 1.28%). So the repeal of the wealth tax actually represented a repeal of less than half of the wealth tax – in fact, very much less, considering that the wealth tax kicked in at 250,000 € whereas the other wealth tax has no lower bound.

And for the second question, we solve the equation (1-T)*P = I, where T is the capital gains tax, P is the rate of profit and I is inflation. This gives P = I/(1-T). For the Finnish figures, this gives 5.7% for lower incomes and 5.9% for higher incomes. So if you’re making less than that on your investments, you are actually losing ground, and the present value of your wealth is greater than the future value. So if spending is a source of happiness to you, you should spend as much as you can right now, because you’ll actually be able to consume less in the future.

Political terror, visionaries and cynics

Posted by – July 25, 2011

It’s now clear to anyone who has seriously looked into the background and writings of Anders Behring Breivik that he’s a political terrorist. He didn’t commit violence because of mental illness or an outburst of emotional bitterness, but out of a considered determination to effect change by any means available. In that respect his actions are best compared with those of Che Guevara, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden, Vladimir Lenin, Nelson Mandela, Ted Kaczynski, … All people who had a political desire that was radically, fundamentally opposed to the existing reality around them, and very little hope of success via the conventional political process.

All of the above were successful terrorists, and most of them were successful in achieving their political goals. One of them, Mandela, is universally praised; Guevara and Lenin get a lot of support, and even bin Laden is largely the hero of those he would call “his own”. This is almost completely dependent on their political goals and popular images, not the violence of their actions. Whether or not you sympathise with them tends to depend on to what extent you share their goals.

Sidetrack Whether you empathise with them is a very different thing, and mostly depends on what kind of person you are. People get very emotionally worked up over how much they hate and despise killers, but it’s really not much worth debating over. I’ll just say that I have the human disease of empathising with just about anyone whose position I understand enough about, and that includes all the people I mentioned above. /Sidetrack

It also bears mentioning that in most of these cases the absolute significance of their violence is very small. Osmo Soininvaara remarked that every day as many people die in traffic in Europe as died at the hands of Anders Breivik. Osama caused a very big bang indeed, but it was dwarfed in every way by the response it received. Lenin’s violence is by far the most prolific, but even then he’s more remembered for his political philosophy and historical significance than the millions of peoples’ enemies who died. Breivik wanted to strike a strategic blow at the heard of Norwegian social democracy, but ultimately it was very personal violence, the main significance of which is the loss of young lives, the terror of the survivors and the lifelong grieving of their families and their nation.

What I’m trying to say is that if you do care about the violence but don’t care about the politics and the setting, you’re being myopic. Where is history coming from? Where is it going to? I don’t know is there that much to be learned about that from this event, but it’s what it made me think about.

The Norwegian response to those questions was clear: yes, this was a political attack against our way of life, and we are going to preserve and safeguard it. Prime minister Stoltenberg said

You will not destroy us. You will not destroy our democracy and our ideals for a better world. We are a small nation and a proud nation. No one will bomb us to silence. No one will shoot us to silence. No one will ever scare us from being Norway.

Stoltenberg is talking about the grand social democratic project: democracy + state-controlled capitalism + progressivism + universal human rights. Equality of the sexes and ethnic groups. No personal discrimination.

In Breivik’s view, this is a false Norway, one taken over by “cultural Marxism” and globalism, in irreversible decline and about to be overrun by foreigners. This view is not so uncommon anymore, and indeed is shared by eg. Halla-aho. In his manifesto Breivik quotes lengthily from Norwegian blogger Fjordman, who must now find a way to disown his ideological disciple. He writes:

How do I feel about knowing that the assumed perpetrator of these atrocities has quoted me in his much-talked about book? Absolutely terrible. What else can I say? I must stress that I have not yet read his very long book or manifest and I have neither the time nor the stomach to do so at the present time. I can only refer to the bits and pieces of it quoted in various news articles and what others keep telling me. He has apparently quoted a great many texts from a variety of public sources, one of them being me. His total lack of respect for human life is not, however, something he can have picked up from me, or from any of the other Islam-critical writers I know such as Robert Spencer or Bat Ye’or. Indeed, the lack of respect for human life is often one of the great shortcomings of Islamic culture that we have consistently pointed out.

The main difference between Fjordman and Breivik is that Fjordman advocates resistance (“I would suggest that one thing we should fight for is national sovereignty and the right to preserve our own culture and pass it on to future generations.”), Breivik advocates attack. Not against Muslim immigrants, by the way – he views them as innocent animals, acting in their own best interest – he wants to attack the social democratic project.

Stoltenberg, Fjordman and Breivik all believe in affecting the course of history. That’s the non-cynical position. They dare to dream, like Che Guevara, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden, Vladimir Lenin, Nelson Mandela and Ted Kaczynski. People like that are dangerous, but important.

But they’re the exception. Most people are apathetic, or cynics. The fellow who writes The Fourth Checkraise is a good example. He’s a smart guy, got a CS PhD in Finland, was/is disgusted by social democracy, upped sticks to Canada (although I think that’s more because he married a Canadian) and lives the existence of a comfortable misanthrope. As far as I can tell, he broadly shares the Halla-aho / Fjordman / Breivik view, but with a completely cynical attitude. Towards Finland he has the attitude of “smell you later, suckers”, often relishing what he considers to be Finland’s incurable stupidity and economic underperformance. On the topic of Breivik, he wrote

Since I am as giddy as a schoolboy on Christmas Eve waiting for the day that the European welfare states collapse, and the day that all those good little white liberals and leftists finally open their eyes and realize to their abject horror that they have become an impotent and irrelevant minority whose effete shibboleths the new majority doesn’t even pretend to respect, let alone obey any more while they can’t afford to escape their utopia where we white conservatives quite happily prosper, this development should nicely accelerate the schedule of transformation of the Nordic countries into snowbound Sao Paulos over the next few decades. To quote the Cappy: Enjoy the decline!

This future is essentially Breivik’s nightmare.

Halla-aho on human value

Posted by – April 23, 2011

Jussi Halla-aho, a Finnish politician, has recently become notorious in European newspapers for apparently denying that all humans have equal value. Particular attention has come from Austrian and German papers, which have a long-standing concern over such claims. The basis of this assessment is a blog post from 2005. In my opinion this attention has been a little unfair, and I recommend that any Finnish readers who are upset about it read the post for themselves as a philosophical musing rather than as ideological ground-preparation for the mass murder of artists, linguists and the unemployed. As far as I can see, non-Finnish speakers can’t read the blog post anywhere, so in service of anyone interested in the issue I have translated it below. My usual disclaimer: this isn’t a token of agreement or admiration, but of interest and a desire to allow people to understand one another.


On human value

An axiom is a claim with such self-evident verity that it requires no other justification. It must be axiomatic (pun intended) that particular care should be exercised in granting the status of axiom to any claim. Such a claim should preferably be true regardless of context, in place or time.

One contemporary axiom is the equality and universality of human value. Even the worst racist and antiegalitarian will generally attempt to include human equality into his theoretical framework. To deny the axiom is simply incorrect.

The claim that everyone has equal value requires that a person’s value is a known and measurable quantity. If it cannot be measured, there is no way to determine to what extent each individual is in possession of it. Certainly human value can’t be an externally given, cosmic property – or at least can’t be proven to be that. It isn’t inscribed in the stars, waters or bedrock. In fact there is no indication that the equality of human value, or indeed the entire concept of human value, is anything but an accepted convention, characteristic of our time, alongside the axioms of times past: “The Sun revolves around the Earth”, “The Pope is infallible”, “Women don’t have a soul”, “Masturbation causes shortsightedness”. The self-evidential quality of those has been as obvious as that of equality today. They have been supported by as little actual evidence as we have for equality of value. Because they haven’t lended themselves to supporting arguments, they have been declared axiomatic and therefore to require no support.

The only measurable and therefore definitely real human value is an individual’s instrumental value. Individuals can justifiably be hierarchically ordered by the extent to which the absence of their abilities and knowledge from a community would weaken it. The farmer, the man who raises animals for food and the building engineer are more valuable than others because without them the community would perish of famine and exposure. On the other hand, they would survive in the absence of everyone else’s abilities. The arms-bearing individual is next in value, because he protects the food stock and dwellings from wild beasts and enemies, and prevents the members of the community from destructively following their more primitive impulses.

The artisan (and his modern equivalent) is valuable in that his products and inventions improve the lives of everyone above and below himself in the hierarchy. The natural scientist (physicists and chemists in particular) is valuable because he produces information for the artisan, the soldier, the building engineer and farmer all to apply to their practical activities. It’s possible to survive without foundational science, but unpleasantly. The doctor is valuable because he extends life and improves its quality. He certainly isn’t completely indispensable, though; a great fraction of people would survive until their reproductive age without him. Procreation is the primary activity common to all species that everything else in service of.

The groups I have enumerated more or less produces, in the material sense, the society in which we live. These occupations permit a quantity of free time and the existential contemplation that follows from it, in which I include to a great extent astronomy and, to an even greater extent, the humanities. These things qualitatively separate us from apes, but are by no means necessary. Although it must be admitted that thanks to behavioural science we are perhaps less prone to killing one another. On the other hand, warfare improves group cohesion and almost always leads to technological breakthroughs.

Artists, the clergy and politicians are generally speaking superfluous. The community would function perfectly well without them, and their activities are made possible entirely by virtue of the efforts of other groups. Artists in particular are generally in the grip of a certain bitterness towards science, but no painting would be made without chemical industry, which is an application of natural science. The superfluity of these occupations to the rest of society is indicated, amongst other things, by the fact that they are mostly supported by public handouts from the rest of society.

When in the service of something non-critical, the value of intelligence is subjective, but I don’t think many would deny that reading a good book or hearing sense being spoken stimulates the mind and produces happiness. I find it a strange and insulting idea that Esko Valtaoja (SH: Finnish astronomer and writer) has no greater value than Juha Valjakkala (SH: Finnish murderer), Helena Lindgren (SH: Finnish celeb) or an immigrant loitering in the railway station.

Until someone demonstrates to me how everyone has equal value, I shall consequently consider difference of kind to lead to difference of value, and that everyone has a different amount of value. Unlike the egalitarians imagine, this doesn’t result in gassing those of lesser value in the absence of some particular reason. I value myself above a dead mouse lying on a forest path, but that doesn’t cause me to tear it into pieces. I think the world is a more pleasant place with art (not sure about religions and parliament) and linguistics. But if the boat starts leaking, I consider it obvious that the least valuable have to go first, ie. artists and linguists.

Egalitarian nonsense is the result of too many people with lots of energy and too little of consequence to do. As Finnish examples I might mention Karmela Liebkind (SH: academic, in the field of ethnic relations and social psychology) Rosa Meriläinen (SH: Finnish ex-politician, Green party) or Mikko Puumalainen (SH: minority ombudsman and chancellor of justice, pursued hate speech investigations). Like every age, ours is blind to the fact that we and our ideas are a momentary and soon to disappear eddy in the endless river of time. Generations to come will spit on our graves and receive our self-evidentialities with a hearty laugh and a wet fart. There is no reason not to believe that “equality”, “tolerance” and other things so important to us will be joining the long list of inanities of times past, alongside the Sun that revolves around the Earth, the Pope’s infallibility, the soullessness of women and the fact that masturbation causes shortsightedness.

Opinionator 2000

Posted by – February 12, 2011

Election time is drawing near, and some candidate-evaluating applications have already popped up on the Internet. The previous election was actually the first one I was eligible to vote in, since I didn’t turn 18 quite in time for the 2003 one. Back in 2003 and again in 2007 I was very enthusiastic about the prospect, and played around endlessly with the online candidate-evaluation apps. Such fun! This time I wonder if I’ll be able to complete any of the app questionnaires, and feel practically harassed that I should decide to vote for a candidate.

What usually makes me give up in the questionnaires is some question I either have no idea about or that makes me feel like I have no right to have any opinion in the matter. Should Finland have more or fewer immigrants? Come on, you decide! Should Christian immigrants be preferred? (Yes, this was an actual question.) Should wages be lower or should the age for pension eligibility be raised? Should homosexuals be able to marry? Should the Finnish treasury be used to pay for the deficits of other European countries? Should capital gains tax be progressive? Should VAT and/or income tax be higher? All of a sudden I feel like some kind of a monster, contemplating where people should be allowed to live or what particular proportion of their income they should be allowed to keep, (and in what particular circumstance of which I have no understanding).

Of course it’s not me who is the monster, it’s the monster of democracy. When everyone decides together, those decisions gain a kind of mute violence that allows no boundaries to its right to dictate the course of human enterprise. I have to wonder what psychological sea-change came over me between than and know that I should no longer feel able or willing to have opinions on other peoples’ business. Maybe it’s a growing up thing.

People like us #2

Posted by – January 29, 2011

I’ve been way too sick (terrible, horrible influenza, don’t recommend it for anyone) for a week for scanning, drawing or blogging, but I’ll just leave a brief prediction note here about the Egyptian protests before it’s too late. As I’ve previously noted, it’s suspiciously easy for people to choose sides in remote instances of unrest. Now everyone is on the side of the young, rights-demanding Egyptians who threaten to overthrow their government. My heart is, too, on their side, and I wish them the best of luck. However, my prediction is this: if they do succeed and Egypt undergoes a “regime change”, sooner or later the protesters will turn out to have been useful idiots for the islamists lying in wait. Sad face.