Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The "insanity" defence

[trigger warning]

The news that the murderer of 77 people in Norway has been declared "insane" is not surprising. After all, he was white and not a believer in some scary foreign religion - if he was "sane" he wouldn't have done what he did.

The psychiatric report concluded

[...] he lived in his "own delusional universe where all his thoughts and acts are guided by his delusions"

Okay - this has probably been translated from the original Norweigian, and may well have lost some nuance, but let's break it down:

  1. His beliefs about the nature of reality were inaccurate
  2. His thoughts and actions were based on his beliefs about the nature of reality.

The second part of that is essentially what everyone does.

So the "insanity" must be concluded from the first part - that his beliefs about the nature of reality were inaccurate. But this is true to at least some extent of everyone, too.1

Furthermore, plenty of people share his particular belief that there is a Muslim invasion of Europe planned and that our governments are complicit in it. Most of them do not commit mass murder as a result, however.

So: the Norweigian murderer has a commonly-shared mistaken belief, and chose highly illegal actions as a consequence. He therefore cannot be held - by "insanity" - to be criminally responsible for those actions.

Meanwhile, for less default-y terrorist suspects - black, Muslim, non-European, etc. - the idea that they could rationally decide to kill people (even if the decision was based on faulty premises) is completely accepted, and they're tried as criminals.

The idea of that form of "insanity"2 being treated as in some way excusing him of responsibility is completely wrong.


1 For an entirely uncontroversial example that affects almost everyone: optical illusions. They're artefacts of millions of years of evolved visual processing where an "optimisation" that works most of the time gives the wrong result in a few cases.

2 Using the definition of "mistaken belief about reality", anyone who had no reasonable way of knowing based on their perceptions that their action would have a particular criminal consequence should not be held criminally responsible3 - and most of our laws recognise this fact: there are exceedingly few "strict liability" laws.

3 I'm aware that, given what we know about rapists, many of them would be able to use this "defence" on the grounds that they are also deeply mistaken about the nature of reality. However, the precedent that people whose mistaken beliefs make them a general danger to society - highly rare among those considered "insane" by psychiatrists - may be separated from it for as long as those beliefs remain is well-established, and would have much the same effect. At any rate, if we get to the stage where accused rapists are advised by their lawyers to plead "not guilty due to insanity", we'll be at a stage where rape culture is generally considered a "mistaken belief" - and, minus the ablism in that sentiment, I'd be happy with that.

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Friday, 25 November 2011

Friday Links

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Transgender Day of Remembrance

[trigger warning]

Today is the 13th International Transgender Day of Remembrance.

There have been at least 221 murders of trans people in the last 12 months - when murders of trans people that didn't make the news, and more indirectly-caused unnecessary deaths - suicides, cissexism-caused poverty or lack of access to medical treatment, and so on - are accounted for, the number will be far higher.

Bigotry and hatred of trans people are extremely commonplace. Legal protections are rare, and even when they do exist they're often more theoretical than practically useful. Even in countries with some protective laws, there are harmful laws too - Sweden's mandatory sterilisation, for instance. It's not surprising, given the support for hatred by states, companies, and others among the powerful that so many trans people are killed.

"Not surprising" doesn't mean "inevitable". With enough work, this can be changed.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Assume a spherical frictionless population

So, we've got the government sponsoring a review of sick leave, that essentially recommends that we treat people with acute health conditions in the same way that we now deal with chronic and terminal health conditions.

Latentexistence at Where's the Benefit? has more on the particular problems with this proposal, which I won't try to duplicate here. I want to focus on the last sentence of the article for what it says about government overall:

The DWP spokesman said: "The economy loses £15bn in lost economic output each year due to sickness absence and we cannot continue to foot this bill."

Interesting claim... After quite a bit of searching, I can't find a source for this. I have found:

  • Several other unsourced repetitions of the figure, sometimes accompanied by a claim that there are 150 million working days lost annually in the UK due to sickness absence.
  • One claim that £12bn (instead) in economic output is lost, but 200 million working days are lost
  • Claims in the original press release for the review that the total cost of sickness absence (which is not the same as lost output) is £100bn, £60bn of which is paid by the government.

However, it does seem fairly clear that the main assumption for losses and costs is as compared with an economy where no-one was ever ill.

On that measure, we "waste" about £70 million annually on street lighting, compared with an idealised country which flies around the world on jet engines so that the sun never sets on it, or a country populated entirely by people genetically modified to have sonar.

People are people. They get ill. I'm all in favour of reducing the amount that people get ill through advances in medical science, good1 public health initiatives, improved safety measures, more efficient treatments, and so on. But anyone seriously basing their government policy essentially on the assumption that people should never be seriously ill has such a bizarre idea2 of what humans are that they shouldn't be in charge of the country.

And it leads to policies like this where the sickness absence itself, and by extension the person who is ill, gets treated as the problem - when actually it's a symptom of the facts that we don't have sci-fi medical technology now, that we have unsafe and unhealthy working environments (especially for mental health), that we place toxins into the environment far more than we should be, and so on.

That's what's "costing" us the £15bn in "lost output", not people being ill. Not getting that distinction - and so making a policy based on the belief that people shouldn't be ill (which is not unique to our current central government) - means policies like this, which are likely to make the situation worse, not better, and so cost the economy even more overall - and a lot of ill people a great deal personally.


1 i.e. non-dehumanising

2 Admittedly, the ablist idea that "not ill" is normal and "ill" is deviant is so common that finding a member of government who doesn't believe that may take some work - but as with many discriminatory assumptions they just sound silly if you say them explicitly.

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Friday, 18 November 2011

Friday Links

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Loitering within tent

[trigger warning: state violence]

Why aren't the people in charge simply ignoring the Occupy movement? It's not obvious to me.

Petitions, protests, marches, letter-writing campaigns, voting - all can be and are largely ignored by elected politicians. A representative who is already sympathetic to their cause can use these things to be more forceful in Parliament. With consistent effort of this sort over many years, then the number of sympathetic representatives in Parliament can be grown and public opinion can be altered - but this is an extremely slow process and as, for instance, the blatant racism or heterosexism shown by some MPs today demonstrates, can be ignored at will by an unsympathetic representative.

The "ultimate sanction" of making them lose elections is only a statistical deterrent. A party may occasionally lose power temporarily - though that was going to happen anyway - but individual representatives in safe seats (and there are equivalents in almost all electoral systems) can stay in office as long as they want.

So, given that, what is it about Occupy that stops it being ignored. Look at it entirely from an abstract point of view - ignore the aims, just look at the methods.

  • A protest march will, if it's large enough, block off multiple streets in a major city for several hours. Normal day-to-day life is disrupted over a large area. Then, everything returns to normal, and it gets pushed back in to the pile of previous marches.
  • Occupy take an area of public space, put some tents up, and stay there. The vast majority of the city continues as normal - indeed, from a distance, it's not obviously there - and even nearby it's generally relatively straightforward to walk around them. Generally, far fewer people are participating at any one time, in any particular Occupy location, than would appear at any medium-sized protest march in the same city.

The only thing that makes it more "disruptive" than a protest march is the permanence in a public space. But alone, that's not particularly disruptive1. They may be a reminder of something governments and the powerful don't like to be reminded of - but they should be an easily avoidable and ignorable reminder. The late Brian Haw camped outside Parliament for years without changing policy, and only really made the news on the (many) occasions where they tried to have him removed.

Likewise, while the Occupy movements are - to a greater or lesser extent - trying to develop alternatives to the established order, that they're doing so in a square in the rain, instead of on an internet forum or on a commune somewhere out of the way, shouldn't be particularly threatening. It's not as if people merely walking by are going to pick up the interesting details of that, as opposed to a few messages and slogans on signs.

It seems fairly obvious to me that if the governments and powerful had completely ignored Occupy Wall Street, giving non-committal platitudes about the right to protest and "they can stay if they want[, I don't care]" if anyone asked, then it would not have reached the numbers it has - across North America and Europe - and not have received anything like as much press coverage.

Occupy LSX has pretty much only been in the news since it started over disputes as to whether they should be "allowed" to stay there or forcibly removed. The reasons they're actually there are getting very little press coverage. If they'd been passively allowed to continue without interference, then they'd still be there, of course - but no-one who didn't physically go past them would have noticed.

Similarly, the recent attacks on Occupy Oakland - and now New York and Seattle, at least - and the slightly less aggressive ongoing policing and "health and safety" disruptions of the sites - may have deterred some people from attending ... but they've also kept the protests in the news, encouraged the protestors, often grown their numbers overall, and made them think that their strategy is working.

Gandhi's "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win" statement has been repeated to the point of cliché about Occupy - but while their eventual victory (and what that might mean, anyway) is still nowhere near inevitable, they're larger in number and angrier as a result of governments and the powerful not being content to remain at the "ignore" stage.

So why try to repress them so much? It can't be the ideas alone. There's nothing new in their ideas (and that is not a criticism!) - and there's nothing new about a significant angry minority holding those ideas. The economic collapse has made more people receptive to those ideas, and the Occupy camps mean that (a few) more people hear about those ideas.

It also can't be about permission to hold those ideas and express them publicly. The only part unique to Occupy is "in a square" or "in a tent". Again, if ignored, they wouldn't be powerful there.

It can't be personal inconvenience or conscience. If the powerful had those, then plenty of other forms of protest would either be more rapidly effective, or more heavily restricted, or both.

It can't be about "health and safety" or other such concerns. The only health and safety potentially being affected is generally that of the people inside the Occupy camps - which they obviously don't care about. Yes, the protests may after legal argument be found to be breaking some technicality of the law. But probably most protest marches could after the fact be found to have done the same. It's largely irrelevant to whether they can be ignored, and it's more focus on enforcing every single law at once than ever gets applied anywhere else. Enforcing laws - and making up new laws to enforce - is a means, but it can't be the end in itself.

It shouldn't be about personal fear - hundreds of thousands of people in a square like Tahrir Square can be threatening to a government: that's enough people that if they did turn out to be armed revolutionaries they could do some serious damage to the government even if the police and army stayed loyal - and a sign of enough popular support that a dictator can't rely enough on their loyalty. So Egypt's government fell.

But a few hundred people? Maybe a few thousand at the biggest? That's not dangerous. They're not even particularly close to government buildings, or the offices of the truly powerful. Even if they were all armed to the teeth if they tried anything violent they would go down very quickly in the "fatally failed revolutionaries" list. And clearly if they were armed and shooting, the loyalty of the police and army is nowhere near weak enough yet in North America or Europe to end up defecting: the recent police assaults on Occupy should show they don't have a problem there.

So - there seems to be nothing to lose by simply ignoring Occupy like they ignore every other protest and fringe movement. And much more to lose by attacking them through the courts and through violence, thereby increasing anger and public sympathy. So why pick that strategy?

I really don't get it. What do the rich and powerful know that I don't that makes Occupy so specifically threatening to them that they're willing to take such disproportionate and panicked action to try - counter-productively - to stop them? What am I missing here?


1 If the public space is "across a major motorway" or "in the middle of Oxford Street" or "right where you wanted to build a block of flats" or "in front of the gates of a military base", then it's definitely very disruptive. But that's not what Occupy is doing.

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Wednesday, 9 November 2011

We are the 70-100%. Tax the 40-70%.

While writing my thoughts on Occupy, I was thinking quite a bit about how revolutionary and protest movements are often either explicitly about the interests of the relatively-privileged upper-middle and middle classes, or end up co-opted towards their interests anyway.

And then an example comes along.

I wrote about the tuition fee plans last year when the original Browne Report was published. At the time I thought they were surprisingly good, all things considered - though with some potentially very dangerous and largely ignored consequences.

Political changes to the report's proposals in the process of turning it into legislation took away the most dangerous consequences - but at the cost of taking away most of the proposals' internal logic and consistency too.

My general assessment, though, remains about the same: a surprisingly good deal for students and universities. The protests against the tuition fees - and they're mainly about the tuition fees - are effectively a protest by the rich against the poor. That's not to say that the participants think that's what they're doing - but the protest and anger has been quite effectively co-opted by upper-middle-class interests.

Lets look at the current system first.

A student on a typical undergraduate course will pay around £3.5k in fees a year, and take out around £4.5k in maintenance loans each year, for either 3 or 4 years. This will leave them with a maximum payment requirement of either £24k or £32k (indexed to inflation), to be repaid at a rate of 9% of all gross earnings over £15k. Because that £15k earnings figure isn't indexed to inflation, just about everyone will repay all of it - in 25 years, when the debt is written off if not repaid, the median wage is likely to be around £40k in absolute terms (assuming an average 3% nominal inflation). Repayments will therefore be over two thousand a year even for that salary - and a graduate 25 years after graduation is likely to be earning considerably more. Total real-terms payments are therefore going to be approximately the full value of the maintenance and fees "loan".

Furthermore, if this scheme were to continue, the gap between £15k and nominal salaries would increase, so repayment sizes would rise.

Now compare this with the new system.

Repayments are now at 9% over £21k, but the repayment threshold is itself linked to changes in median wage. This means - using this calculator, which seems accurate - that, depending on the exact assumptions made1, to repay more than (real terms) £24k under the new system would require a salary greater than around £29k in real terms. A slightly higher salary would be required to repay more than £32k.

On the one hand, £29k is not a huge salary. On the other hand, it's quite a bit higher than the median income - it's currently around 70th percentile of income. It's also higher than the median income for almost any age-band, gender and region combination: that is, the majority of people2 will not earn more than £29k (in real terms) at any point, never mind as a career average salary!3

So under the new scheme: The bottom 30-40% don't pay anything under either scheme. The next 30-40% or so pay less than now both in total and per year. The top 30% (by income) pay more in total (though still less in the early years). The ones who have to repay the greatest additional amount under the new scheme compared with the old are the top 10-20%4.

Very approximately, therefore, the protests are about trying to persuade a right-wing mostly-Conservative government that it should charge the rich less and the middle more for their education. Even more strangely, the government is refusing: tax rich graduates instead, they say.


1 I pinned personal salary growth in the simulator to equal the average earnings growth (both at RPI+1 or RPI, it makes little difference) to mimic having a fixed real salary over the whole time period. That's not realistic, but it allows a comparison with median wages.

2 Now, graduate salaries are generally higher than non-graduate salaries, and there's nothing like a bit of self-interest, but even then it's mainly benefiting the richer graduates. It's very tricky to assess by how much and there are several conflicting sources (and the premium varies by degree, too) - but it probably works out, on average, at only around £3-4k additional gross earnings a year. Even the median graduate is therefore unlikely to be earning much more than £29k in real terms.

3 And this is also assuming continuous employment for the full 30 years after graduation. Take time off to raise children, or become unemployed for more than a couple of months, or become ill and spend a year off work on long-term sick leave, etc. etc. and the likelihood of repaying more than £24k falls further.

4 Above a very high threshold - in to the top 5% or so - total repayments start falling again because their earnings clear the loan before the higher interest rates only charged on higher earners have much effect. But they'll still even in the absolute best/worst unrealistic case (walk straight out of university into a £400k corporate directorship) repay almost twice as much under the new scheme as they would under the old scheme. And someone with that sort of immediate earnings potential probably has sufficient family wealth and connections that the cost of university is largely irrelevant anyway.

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Thursday, 3 November 2011

A distant but relevant memory

Strange how seemingly unrelated events can remind you of things you hadn't thought of for years, isn't it.

Back in the mid-90s, there was a computer game called Frontier: First Encounters, an approximate sequel to the old Elite. It was set in 3250, with humanity spread across over hundreds of light years of space and 3 major political alliances.

Anyway, one of the side plots related to a legal dispute. An influential person had arranged the assassination of an opponent, whose family tries to have him brought to trial. He hires a bunch of lawyers who advance the following argument:

  1. Our client is "innocent until proven guilty"
  2. He hasn't been proven guilty, so therefore he is innocent
  3. Since he's innocent, the accusation of murder is libellous, and so we're suing you.

(The dispute is only resolved when the lawyers are bombed from orbit.)

There's a bit of text explaining why their legal strategy works - the influential person had spent years lobbying for the law in the relevant star system to be rewritten in his favour. There seem to be a lot of people who think that's how "innocent until proven guilty" already works, which just shows the difficulty of developing sufficiently implausible satire.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Occupy Ambivalence

I have very ambivalent thoughts about the Occupy Placename movements. On the one hand, they're highlighting that there are many areas in which the cosy political consensus does not have the support of the population, in a way that governments don't quite know how to respond to and can't entirely ignore. On the other hand, while the movements aren't likely to fall to party-political co-option, there's a definite problem with default-person co-option, Tyranny of Structurelessness, and so on. While some Occupy groups are trying to explicitly deal with these problems, some are very definitely not - and it makes their claim to be for "the 99%" rather dubious.

Part of the reason for the ambivalence, of course, is that there's no one Occupy movement - other than vague solidarity and similarity in some aims, and a global slogan and broad methodology, there's nothing to connect Occupy City A to Occupy City B. The actions and decisions of one don't directly affect the actions and decisions of another.

So the actions of one group can make me hopeful that this attempt at a revolution might really be a revolution - while the actions of another make me sure that it's just another attempt to reshuffle the people at the top (or as Melissa McEwan puts it, "[...] you're not staging a revolution: You're staging a change in management.")

Differences between the US and the UK

One of the questions regarding the UK protests has to be "why now?". The practical answer - that the US protests, themselves having at least some similarities in form to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions - have been successful and encouraged people elsewhere, isn't sufficient.

But the situation in the US and the UK is rather different. The recent news that the US median weekly wage for 2010 was $507, for instance. On hearing that, I needed context. So, I converted it to pounds, adjusted for the (small) purchasing power parity difference between the two nations, and then started comparing it with the ASHE results for the UK in the same year.

I live in the North East of England. It's a region that's been largely abandoned by successive governments, has high unemployment, high social deprivation, very little incoming investment, and wasn't in good shape even in the boom years. On a regional basis, it has the lowest median wage in the UK.

It also has a median wage - after currency conversions - around 10-15% higher than the US equivalent. Furthermore, the social safety net is more generous, and health care is both free and available.

The US as a whole is noticeably worse off than the worst bits of the UK. It's not surprising that the US is rising up in protest; nor is it surprising that it didn't before.

10% or 30% or 99%

The UK, meanwhile... there are some seriously deprived parts of the UK. But most of these have been hated by governments for years. The protests in the UK - their appearance at this time - aren't about those bits. They aren't about the consistent demonisation of disabled people that has been ongoing for decades. They aren't about the consistent racism and classism that set off riots in the 80s and riots this summer. They're - in many ways - about the worry on the part of the middle classes that they'll end up poor too.

The UK economy is heading into a severe mess, inflicted by the "expansionary austerity" beliefs of the government - and this is making the middle classes less secure. Not unreasonably, they're worried. But the people at the bottom of the classism pile, and the people seriously affected by other marginalisations, have been there for a long time, and failed by our governmental and economic power structures for a long time. People could have come out on the streets to criticise those structures any time in the last decade.

And part of it - part of it - is that just as you can't have a riot by yourself, you can't have much of a protest - the late Brian Haw excepted - by yourself. The success of the US protests gives some of the discontent in the UK the knowledge that they could do this and not be alone. That might be why the Occupy camps in the UK appeared, and stayed. But there have been protests before.

Who are the protests for? Are they for those who were never at the top of society but thought that if they followed the rules they could lead a comfortable mostly-privileged life, or for the rest of the 99% as well, who knew that they'd never get that far as things stood? Are the efforts of the very poor, disabled people, women and [trigger warning] rape victims and other generally marginalised groups to be heard when speaking for themselves considered a part of Occupy, or separate? The answer varies from camp to camp, and even within a camp, of course. But the general trend I'm reading about in the UK is not making me optimistic.

We know best, now rise up and revolt

Claiming to be representing the 99% is rather tricky. That's a lot of people, who, collectively, agree on absolutely nothing. While the wealth and power may be concentrated in a very small group - far smaller than "the 1%" - that doesn't mean that the rest are going to agree, even on the necessity of overturning the established order.

But the standard response to anyone disagreeing with the approach is to point out that they are in the 99% too. It reminds me a bit of the contempt for people who make the "wrong" voting decision that s.e. smith talks about in the context of the US urban/rural divide.

Why assume that everyone below a certain extremely high wealth level should agree on:

  • The current system being unjust (when many of those protesting now didn't think so until it started obviously hurting them)
  • The proposed solution being better

It can't be better for all of the 99%, even afterwards.

If the revolution makes a fair effort to dismantle all privilege, then many mostly-default people are going to take some steps down in relative social position. If they really dismantle capitalism, globally, and end inequality, then almost everyone in the UK and USA is going to take several steps downwards relatively, and probably a few in absolute terms too, at least in the short term.

But if it doesn't make that effort and succeed, why should people other than the mostly-default take part in risky, dangerous, and untested revolution to choose who rules them with contempt1. We already have elections for that.

The assumption is the old socialist-lefty one that classism is so much bigger than every other form of oppression that if you end classism and capitalism the rest will just disappear. It might be necessary to end it, in practice - but it's nowhere near sufficient.


So, yes, ambivalence. The Occupy movements are well-intentioned and in some cases well-implemented. The power structures they are fighting against are deadly and oppressive, and need to go. But there's a tension there between destroying the power structures and commandeering them - and I don't have confidence that those wishing to destroy them will be able to shape the movements.

They're not going away, for now, and the escalation of violent responses from some governments suggest a panic about where they could go next. But where do they go next? Their very existence is achieving something - but not yet enough. Where they go - and what they do - depends on why they want to do it. Which aspects of privilege do they want to defeat and which do they want to accept? Hopefully the answers will become obvious soon.


1 If the rulers are bad enough, the people can become desperate enough to believe that bringing in a new set of bad rulers on a tide of blood can't possibly make things worse. And often, they're right, especially in the short term. But it can hardly be said to be congruent with the original noble goals of the revolution.

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