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Chris Bertram

Squeezing the rich is good: even when it raises no money

by Chris Bertram on February 2, 2014

In the UK the press and commentariat have been in a huff about Labour’s proposal to levy income tax at 50% on incomes above £150,000. This is supposedly “anti-business” and “sends the wrong signal”, despite the fact that the top rate was higher under Thatcher. Much noise also about the danger that “wealth creators” (whoever they are) may leave and go off to other jurisdictions, concern unaffected by the fact that lots of other countries tax those on high incomes at a steeper rate. All of this is to be expected of course, as is the fact that journalists, who, when spouting right-wing guff, claim to be “reflecting” the views of their readers, continue to spout it when those readers disagree, as in this case.
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Pete Seeger, RIP

by Chris Bertram on January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger, dead at 94.

Mandela sanitized

by Chris Bertram on December 6, 2013

The great Mandela is dead. A political prisoner for 27 years, a courageous fighter against racism and injustice, and finally a great statesman. There is much to remember there and much to mourn. Those who suffered under apartheid, the exiles, those who were active in solidarity overseas: all will have their memories of the struggle. Some of their voices will be heard. But sadly, they have to share a stage with the official voices of commemoration: politicians and others who cared little for the ANC or who actively opposed it. In the UK it is sickening to hear eulogies from the braying Tories, the Bullingdon-club types and ex-members of the Federation of Conservative Students who sang “hang Nelson Mandela” in the 1980s. No doubt, in the US, there will be some prominent Reaganites who utter similar word of appreciation. There’s an implicit narrative emerging that everyone recognized his greatness after 1990. But this isn’t so. The warbloggers and Tea Partiers (and their followers in the UK) were vilifying him when he criticized US policy under George W. Bush or said something on Palestine that deviated from the standard US-media line. Just as with Martin Luther King, we are witnessing the invention of a sanitized version of the man, focused on reconciliation with those who hated him – and who still hate those like him – and suppressing his wider commitment to the fight against social and global injustice.

Against (most) aggression in philosophy

by Chris Bertram on November 28, 2013

Yesterday, Jo Wolff tackled the question of women in philosophy in his column at the Guardian, writing:

At its worst, philosophy is something you do against an opponent. Your job is to take the most mean-minded interpretation you can of the other person’s view and show its absurdity. And repeat until submission. Certainly the method has the merits of encouraging precision, but at the same time it is highly off-putting for those who do not overflow with self-confidence.

Brian Leiter thinks Jo Wolff is making a mistake:

At the end of the column, he runs together two issues that should be kept separate: the combative nature of philosophy and how one should treat students. Professor Ishiguro’s approach [see the Wolff column] on the latter seems the right one, but that is independent of whether philosophy as practiced among peers should, or should not be, combative. Insofar as truth is at stake, combat seems the right posture!

I disagree, unless there’s some good reason to believe that combat leads to truth more reliably than some alternative, more co-operative approach. (Does the adversarial system of the US and English courts lead to the truth more reliably than the inquisitorial system?) Sometimes combat might be the right stance, but seeing that as the default mode for philosophical discussion leads far too often to destructive Q&A sessions that aim at destroying the opponent and bolstering the amour propre of the aggressor. Where the aim is victory, then all kinds of rhetorical moves can prove effective: there’s no reason to think that truth will emerge as a by-product. I think a relatively common occurrence is that people on the receiving end of an aggressive battering lose confidence (in themselves, or in a good idea). Sometimes people should defer to criticism, of course, and sometimes people should make criticism in forthright terms and Brian is right to value that. But frankly, a lot of the stuff that goes on in philosophy seminars is just damaging.

What I’ve said so far is independent of the gender issue. I realize that some women in philosophy are uncomfortable with the link between gender and philosophical style and there’s certainly no reason to think that merely being robust and forthright in argument is specially male. But a lot of conduct in philosophy goes well beyond the robust and forthright and tips into the straightforwardly arseholish, and there may be a selection effect in favour of women in the profession who are able (though not willing) to endure that. A lot of people in the academy – both men and women – suffer from “imposter syndrome”. But it turns out that women are more likely than men to suffer from this and there is no correlation with actual ability. An atmosphere where there is systematic reinforcement of such a widespread anxiety is not a good one, and it might be, because of its uneven distribution by gender, just one of the several mechanisms that exclude women.

Walzer anticipates Cameron (and Miliband)

by Chris Bertram on November 21, 2013

I was re-reading Michael Walzer’s famous (or infamous) chapter on “membership” from Spheres of Justice (1983) when I came across the following striking passage in the section on “guest workers”:

Consider, then, a country like Switzerland or Sweden or West Germany, a capitalist democracy and welfare state, with strong trade unions and a fairly affluent population. The managers of the economy find it increasingly difficult to attract workers to a set of jobs that have come to be regarded as exhausting, dangerous, and degrading. But these jobs are also socially necessary; someone must be found to do them. Domestically, there are only two alternatives, neither of them palatable. The constraints imposed on the labor market by the unions and the welfare state might be broken, and then the most vulnerable segment of the local working class driven to accept jobs hitherto thought undesirable. But this would require a difficult and dangerous political campaign. Or, the wages and working conditions of the undesirable jobs might be dramatically improved so as to attract workers even within the constraints of the local market. But this would raise costs throughout the economy and, what is probably more important, challenge the existing social hierarchy. (56)

With Cameron (and Miliband) having vowed to restrict immigration to the UK, one person’s modus ponens becomes another person’s modus tollens, and so we have the alternatives of immiseration driving the poor to work or the “living wage” laid before us (not that anyone believes that Labour would make good on the latter).

On the migrant trail to Australia

by Chris Bertram on November 16, 2013

I blogged a few days ago about Oscar Martinez’s brilliant account of the dangers migrants from Central America face as the travel through Mexico, so this is a follow-up to that. In the latest New York Times Magazine, journalist Luke Mogelson and photographer Joel van Houdt recount the experience of disguising themselves as migrants and taking the trail from Kabul to Australia. Harrowing and depressing stuff. There are fewer predators on the road, but the mostly Iranian travelers have to face the endless sea and the burning sun, and, at the end there is no hope. All detained and sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea and their dreams of new lives in Australia turn to dust. In the piece we learn that Australia has absorbed a tiny number of asylum seekers compared to many European states, but the votes are in pandering to the racists, so that’s what Australian politicians do. (h/t to the brilliant BritCits )

Scott on Diamond (and Pinker)

by Chris Bertram on November 16, 2013

The latest London Review of Books has an unexpected bonus, a review by James C. Scott of Jared Diamond’s The World Before Yesterday. Scott also takes aim at Steven Pinker’s arguments in Better Angels. Scott is particularly scathing about two issues: first, the assumption that remaining hunter-gatherer societies can tell us anything about the societies of our distant ancestors, since these survivors are profoundly shaped both by interaction with and marginalization by statist societies; second, the claim that states emerged as responses to levels of pre-state violence. In respect of the first claim, I’m not totally convinced, since there’s been good work done by anthropologists and primatologists who know the “marginalization” criticism but find sufficient material in the commonalities among such societies and in our similarities (and dissimilarities) to our ancestral species to draw at least some inferences (see Christopher Boehm’s work, for example). In respect of the second, I’m largely in agreement, though I’d note that Scott uses the word “state” in the review to denote a heterogeneous range of forms of political organization (as anthropologists often do) and that’s a departure from his usage in Seeing Like a State. But read the whole thing, as they say.

Cormac McCarthy used to live in El Paso, just over the border from Cuidad Juarez, Mexico. I kept thinking about this as I read Oscar Martinez’s book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Verso) because the parallels between Martinez’s non-fiction work and McCarthy’s novel The Road were sometimes striking and horrifying. Martinez is a journalist from El Salvador who has taken the courageous step of following the migrant trail that Central Americans would-be migrants to the US take through Mexico. “The Beast” of the (English) title is a reference to the trains that so many of them cling to through days and nights. Each chapter tells a different aspect of the story, from what makes people flee their homes in El Salavador, Guatemala or Honduras to the risky business of how to swim the Rio Grande at the end. Each chapter is different, yet each has the same essential theme: poor and desperate people who are the prey of criminal organizations in Mexico – the drug cartels – with police, the “polleros” and “coyotes” (migrant guides) and others being induced by a mixture of greed and fear (mainly the latter) to act as agents for the cartels (such as the Zetas) or at least to pay the tax they demand.

If you are a woman who undertakes the journey, you will almost certainly be raped, perhaps many times. Maybe this will happen when your are misdirected into an ambush in La Arrocera (near the beginning of the trail), perhaps it will happen on the train, perhaps it will happen when you are kidnapped and held on a ranch with hundreds of others whilst your relatives wire a ransom to the gangs, perhaps near the US border where a “bra tree” displays the underwear of victims as the rapists’ trophies. The stories of mass kidnapping and the warehousing of migrants by the gangs, with torture a regular part of the plan and summary death (in front of the others) for escapees are chilling.
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Screw the taxpayer

by Chris Bertram on November 5, 2013

The term “the taxpayer” is playing an increasing role in British public debate, often introduced, seemingly, as an apparently neutral synonym for “the public” whilst really being no such thing. The term is endlessly repeated by BBC interviewers asking “tough questions” of politicians and civil servants and it seems as if none of them either notices or is willing to question the ideological assumptions and tacit theory of legitimacy that lie behind the term.

Point 1. In a state that at least markets itself as a democracy, the principle ought to be that the state is answerable to the electorate. Pretty much everyone in the electorate pays taxes (VAT at least) but the key idea is not that the state is answerable to them because they pay for it, but rather because it is a non-voluntary entity that claims authority over them and subjects them to its laws. Whether they are “net contributors” to the public purse is neither here nor there. People who pay in more than they receive – such as the mythical “taxpayer” – have no special claim to extra influence.

Point 2. The “taxpayer” idea is being used in very harmful ways to deprive many ordinary people of their basic human rights, including the right to marry and form a family with a partner of their choice. (In the UK, the government asked an advisory committee to calculate the income levels at which families of various sizes would not be net beneficiaries of the tax-and-transfer regime in order to rule that people who failed to meet that income threshold would not have the right to have their foreign spouse live with them in the country.)

Point 3. The “taxpayer” idea claims that only those who pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits make “a contribution”. But that’s nonsense. Many poorly paid people make a contribution through work that they ought to be paid more for. The fact that they are underpaid and exploited shouldn’t be held against the many many people who, for example, keep our public and health services running. Many people who are not “economically active” make a contribution to society as parents, carers or in many other ways. And those unable to make a contribution because of age or disability: they have the same right to a say as anybody else.

The “taxpayer” trope is a pernicious ideological assault on the very idea of equal citizenship. It is elitist and exclusionary and promulgates a false theory of the state according to which government belongs to the propertied. No it doesn’t: it belongs to its citizens, rich and poor, old and young.

Lighter Than My Shadow

by Chris Bertram on October 6, 2013

Last Thursday I went to the launch party for Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow (just published by Jonathan Cape) a graphic memoir in which she tells the story of her descent into and recovery from anorexia (and quite a bit besides). It is a big book, 524 pages in all, which somewhat belies its title, yet I read the whole thing in one sitting. I know I’m not alone in having done this: once you start, it is very hard to stop. It is compelling but a hard book to read: I felt the tears welling up several times. It is also a great book. The graphic format works perfectly for the story and Katie – a terrific illustrator – has managed to convey very vividly some little part of what it felt like from the inside. The black cloud of despair, the screaming monsters in the head, the desperate urge to control, control, control and the sense of alienation from those closest to her, the pain she knows she’s inflicting on them but can’t help doing so.

When she spoke at the book launch Katie said that she hadn’t written the book to help anyone. Nevertheless, I’m sure it will help one very large group of people, the people who can’t imagine what it is like for someone in her position, who can’t understand the sense of compulsion, and why the sick person can’t just “pull themselves together”. In giving voice to this inside, Katie has pulled off something comparable to what William Styron did for depression in Darkness Visible. That’s a pretty high standard of comparison, I know, and I’m feeling swayed by the immediate experience of just having read Lighter Than My Shadow, but I don’t think it an unfitting one.

I should disclose a slight interest. I know Katie slightly (she’s a friend of one of my children) and a photo I took is on the cover flap. So I’m not entirely impartial. Still, I think this is, objectively, a very great achievement. And I don’t mean to relativise in a way that suggests that it is great for someone who has gone through her experience to have produced something this good. I mean that it would be great for anyone to have created this, even though her experience is a condition of having done so. Anyway, people out there, this is a book that most of you ought to read. You can get it at Amazon of course, but better to buy from somewhere else. (The Guardian had a feature on the book last week.)

With a bottle of wine, and some pills on the shelf

by Chris Bertram on September 19, 2013

Today is the fortieth anniversary of Gram Parsons’s death in Joshua Tree, CA, a death famously followed by two funerals, after the coffin containing his body was stolen from LAX by his road manager so that he could be cremated in the desert (as previously agreed, apparently). Relatives got the partially incinerated body back, and completed the job (as it were) in Florida. There’s even a rather uneven film about it: Grand Theft Parsons.

When Parsons died, he’d never had a hit record. He was a too-rich young man from the South, who loved country music, fancied being a rock star, and who threw much of his talent away with the drugs and booze he could readily afford. Not much to admire, you might think.

Parsons’s fame rests on five albums: the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace of Sin and Burrito Deluxe, then the solo GP and Grievous Angel (the latter two cut with the top session musicians his money could afford). All of them contain a mix of his own songs and covers of classic country and sometimes soul. His own compositions, written in the country-rock idiom he helped invent, are suggestive, even enigmatic, vignettes of American life, love, faith, betrayal and death. “$1000 Dollar Wedding”, perhaps my personal favourite (though I change my mind all the time) tells a story of death and tragedy, a wedding transformed into a funeral, but what, exactly, has happened? We have to invent a lot of that for ourselves. “Sin City”, recorded with the Burritos, also tells a story of something. What? Evangelism? Conflict between money and faith? “The scientists say, it will all wash away, but we don’t believe any more ….” And other songs depict childhood, nostalgia and loss: “Hickory Wind” (recorded with the Byrds and re-recorded on Grievous Angel), “Brass Buttons”, in which he remembers his mother. None of them have dated.
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Forty years after Pinochet’s coup

by Chris Bertram on September 11, 2013

My department just moved into a new building, and, being in a new building, acquired a new set of cleaners. I got chatting to one of them the other day and asked her where she was from. “Chile,” she told me. She had come to the UK some time after the coup, when other family members had been imprisoned and life had become impossible. She had been given refugee status and had raised a family here. She had been back once, but Chile had become a foreign country to her, all her life was now in the UK where her children had grown up. Often, such is the fate of the refugee, permanently exiled, a whole life, with its plans, expectations and connections, very different from how it might have been. In the late 1970s and early 80s I was involved in Latin American solidarity work in Oxford and got to know quite a few Chileans. Many seemed to be happy and friendly people but others were scarred by the experiences they had been through before exile, and it showed. People fleeing conflict, persecution and the threat of torture or death are very vulnerable and often fragile. At least British governments of the 1970s and 80s recognised and put into practice their obligations towards such people. Things are different now.

Today is the fortieth anniversary of that other, bloodier, September 11th when General Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile and overthrew a democratically-elected left-wing government, with thousands killed, “disappeared”, tortured or imprisoned. The Chilean coup hung over the leftists of my generation as a warning of what can and might happen, should capital ever be seriously worried about its entitlements and prerogatives. Such an atmosphere spawned novels such as Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup, an imaginative recreation of what a British Chile could be like. We know that in the recesses of MI5 and the Tory right there were murmurings and proto-plans. Plans for eventualities in which the country proved “ungovernable”, where the far left become too strong, or where the miners “brought down” another government. (Of course, it was the electors who actually deposed Edward Heath.) We knew too of the likely hand-wringing reaction of supposedly democratic liberals and conservatives, should such an intervention prove “necessary” closer to home. That thought was present in Ralph Miliband’s well-known “The Coup in Chile”:
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Democratic values? A nice idea ….

by Chris Bertram on August 28, 2013

In an op-ed with the Orwellian title “This is a moment for democratic nations to live up to their values”, British Foreign Secretary William Hague makes the case for intervention in Syria. I just want to focus on one sentence of his article:

According to the UN, the Syrian conflict is already the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide, creating nearly two million refugees and killing more than 100,000 people so far.

Last year, Hague’s colleague, Home Secretary Theresa May put in place measures to make it as hard as possible for Syrian refugees to reach sanctuary in the UK. Subsequently, Syrians who have travelled to the UK and sought asylum have been prosecuted for travelling on false papers and imprisoned, despite the Court of Appeal having ruled that this should not happen. Meanwhile, much poorer countries, such as Jordan, have been coping with a volume of refugees much greater that wealthy countries like the UK have ever had to. The complaints of western politicians that they are motivated by humanitarian concern as they ratchet up the rhetoric for bombing should be listened to in the light of their shameful efforts to evade their humanitarian obligations in the conflict so far.

Fingerprinting migrants in France: the back story

by Chris Bertram on August 8, 2013

The big item on this morning’s UK news (Guardian, BBC) is a report by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine, that is highly critical of the UK Border Force. Large sections of the report have been redacted, leading opposition politicians, such as Labour’s Chris Bryant, to accuse Home Secretary Theresa May and Immigration Minister Mark Harper of a “cover up”. What struck me about the report, though, was the basic failure in reporting by the news media, such that the ordinary reader or listener would really not understand the back story.

From the BBC report:


But inspectors found UK officials at Calais had stopped taking photographs and fingerprints of illegal immigrants in 2010 because of problems with the availability of cells to hold people in. This was also later stopped at Coquelles. Mr Vine said: “Gathering biometric information such as fingerprints could assist the decision-making process if these individuals were ultimately successful in reaching the UK and went on to claim asylum.”

The reporting follows the UK Home Office in stigmatizing people as “illegal” in advance of any judicial process, but it also fails to explain the background in the Dublin Regulation that states that people can only claim asylum in the first EU country they enter. This means that states in northern Europe, such as the UK, can disclaim responsibility for people fleeing persecution, just so long as they can show that the asylum seekers were previously present in another member state. This adds to armoury of extra-territorial checks (fines on carriers etc) that make it impossible for asylum seekers to reach the UK legally. Since most asylum seekers enter the EU through southern Europe (many dying in leaky boats in the Mediterranean), the Dublin Regulation effectively assigns responsibility to those states least able to cope (partly because of the Eurozone crisis) and where racism, xenophobia and violence towards foreigners is most marked. (There are regular horror stories about the suffering of asylum seekers in Greece.) A progressive policy would both recognize our humanitarian obligations towards refugees and put in place a mechanism for sharing that responsibility fairly across all EU member states. Unfortunately, rather than campaigning for such a policy, politicians of the “left” in northern Europe, like Bryant, use episodes like this to make a noise about “controlling our borders”.

Migration and the least advantaged

by Chris Bertram on August 5, 2013

One reason to favour a more open and liberal migration regime is because of the gains in economic efficiency and prosperity it would bring, because of the benefits brought by younger and more active workers who pay more in taxes than they take in benefits, and so on. But when people voice this argument, there’s one response that is almost instantly trotted out. This is to say that, even if it true that a more open regime is better in the aggregate, it isn’t better for the least advantaged among the indigenous population because labour market competition from the incomers depresses wages and often leaves low-skilled native workers out of a job. Now conceding, if strictly for the sake of argument, that there might be other reasons to restrict immigration (cultural impacts on the native poor, whatever …) and focusing on the economic argument alone, I can’t see that this objection makes much sense. If there’s something that is good in the aggregate, but has bad distributive consequences, the solution is surely to use the tax-and-transfer system to fix those distributive outcomes. You could either do this directly (maybe, for example, taxing the surplus to fund a citizen’s or basic income) or indirectly, by funding better education or training. But it doesn’t seem to make much sense for forego the aggregate benefit.

Now an objection to this might be that, given a lack of confidence that political leaders will actually introduce such redistributive measures (rather than, say, letting aggregate gains flow to the one per cent), it is rational for indigenous workers and their political representatives to lobby for tighter labour protectionism via immigration controls. But given the obvious downsides to that second-best strategy, particularly in its divisiveness and its fostering of xenophobia and racism, it seems clear that the left should prefer to take the aggregate benefits and redistribute them. Certainly it seems as if the left should be making such an argument rather than just pandering to “anxieties” among their traditional constituencies as the likes of “Blue Labour” tend to do.

Two questions occur to me. First, am I right about the “in principle” economics of this? Second, are there respectable political counterarguments, even if I am right about the economics?

[Note that this post is not about the right of the state to restrict migration, a matter on which I’m far more sceptical than most people. It concedes that right for the sake of argument and focuses on what the best policy should be.]