Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Inconvenient Truths: When Friendships And Philosophies Collide

“It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.” - Professor Dumbledore in 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone'

Today I want to talk about that and why it's important to stand up for what is right even if it makes you unpopular. I'm not just a contrarian, you know. It's just that I believe that if you don't stand for anything, you'll fall for anything. The trouble is, a lot of people are afraid to stand up and be counted when it counts. Why is that?

I got into yet another argument over Basic Income, this time with Mike Masnick on Techdirt. Yes, I know, I've written for Techdirt. Wasn't I afraid we might fall out?

The argument (redux, ad infinitum ad nauseam)

Here's the podcast. Have a listen. While it is revolutionary, the idea is not new. It's actually been around since Thomas Paine's Common Sense. I've got a partial transcript here.* The trouble with what's being said here is that guest speaker Mr. Wenger sounds like a snake oil salesman. There are few, if any specifics bar the notion that this is for everyone and that it's necessary because work itself will soon become redundant because of automation. The only self-funding example we have at the moment is Alaska, but that will only last as long as the oil does. At about 26.20 minutes in Mr. Wenger talks about BIG (Basic Income Guarantee) being redistributional. It is, sort of: it requires tax revenues to pay for it and would redistribute monies from the middle class up and down unless a more progressive tax system is adopted (I'm not holding my breath). I struggle to find evidence against my growing belief that its purpose is to continue the dismantling of the middle class, which explains why lefties and right-wingers are so keen on it. Everybody gets it, remember, but the money has to come from somewhere and he hasn't said where.

If it doesn't stand up to scrutiny, it doesn't stand up

Recap: liberal doses of FUD over automation, promises of more leisure time, and promises of more creativity bursting forth from people who now have free time to create and innovate without worrying how to pay the rent, NOW with added promises of emancipation for battered spouses by meeting their basic economic needs, I kid you not.

Finally, they ask the question: what would you do if you didn't have to work to meet your basic needs?

As for me, I'd pick fights on the internet, make comics, and write fiction and blog posts all day. Why? Because that's what I do with my spare time. Scraptivism is how I learn, how I exert influence and how I develop new ideas. How does that provide value to the community? I could argue long and hard in favour of an enhanced (for me) online life, including the fact that I would be educating the living daylights out of pretty much everyone I interacted with in pretty much every tweet. The trouble is, you can't make a living from doing it so I'd just be bumming off the public while sitting on my bum. And honestly, I'd rather have a job. It makes me feel more respectable. In any case, Mike's counter-arguments petered out after I'd pointed out that he was wrong about pretty much everything; there is such a thing as tax-funded pensions and BIG (as he prefers to call it) actually has been rolled out a few times. It failed. In Portugal, it's been reworked, limiting it to the poor and to those over 25. I think that what really pulled the rug out from under the pro-BIG argument is the fact that you can't just push a few buttons, then lock the room and throw away the key. Someone has to actually run this program and we DO have to be a bit picky over who receives it, after all.

Why can't this be properly interrogated?

Well I thought of tweeting at Mike along the lines of, "U mad, bro?" but I've decided to leave it. The point of this article is not to display our interaction like some kind of internet trophy (I'm more proud of having written articles for Techdirt and having had them accepted and published online), but to ask why Mike didn't question Mr. Wenger more closely about the downside of BIG or make any arguments against it. He was completely supportive throughout the interview. I'm thinking that maybe he didn't want to fall out with the man because he admires him or because he's a friend, or for some other reason. The fact is, I think it would have made for a more interesting podcast had he done so. As it was, it fell to me to be one of the few dissenting voices that could actually hold its own in the debate.

Mike doesn't owe me an answer. He has already given me more than enough and I am most grateful. He's a top bloke but when I think he's wrong I'll say so. And I say the same to the excellent and admirable Glyn Moody, to Rick Falkvinge, and to anyone else, however much I love and admire them, on a regular basis. Am I the only one who does this?

The cost of contention

I love a good scrap. I'd be lying if I said I didn't, but let's face it, arguments are emotionally draining, particularly if you lack a strong enough foundation to maintain your own position. Arguing can also strain relationships if they get heated, especially if you have strongly invested in your opinion. This is why I tend not to invest in opinions; if it turns out that I'm wrong, letting go of it hurts less. I've been proved wrong about so many things I've believed in that I don't really bother with opinions that much. That I'm keen on Middle-out is more down to the fact that I can't see a viable alternative than to a philosophical adherence. The thing is, I also seem to be the only person I know who thinks like that. Pretty much everyone else I know strives to protect that bee in their bonnet. I must confess I'm not particularly sensitive to that, mostly because I think it's an absurd way to carry on and honestly, I'm a bit mean about it.

The value of dissension

There is nothing more creepy to me than seeing people walk in lockstep, carefully stepping around each others' neuroses and no-go areas. It reminds me of a scene in North and South, where naughty Ashton is alone with her lover Elkanah Bent and she says, "And we love each other..."

He interrupts her and she says, "We love each other's money..."

That's what it looks like to me when people just accept the most egregious nonsense because someone they don't want to fall out with said it. The truth is, dissension is healthy and we need to allow it because we can learn from it. Being willing to let go of opinions based on nebulous notions is the key to success here. Indeed, one of the things I love most about Techdirt is that Mike Masnick loves dissension. He welcomes and encourages it, that's why he replied to me in that post. It's why he doesn't ban people from posting and allows people to comment anonymously without signing in or anything. This allows me to comment from work where I can express the kind of views that might get me into trouble, particularly where IPR is concerned. He has people of differing political persuasions posting articles there, from conservatives to socialists, libertarians and liberals. In fact, most of the ideas you see here have been influenced by Techdirt posts and comments.

I suppose that's why I'm so surprised by his apparent acceptance of BIG, the idea of which I can barely stomach because it goes against every principle I've ever believed in and because it divorces income from earning. But that's how things have always been. Take it away and what have you got? Money for nothing and your chicks for free. And it still wouldn't solve the poverty problem. It turns out that giving money to poor people doesn't automatically make life better for them forever because the causes of poverty are complex. So yeah, the more I think about it the more objections I end up with. I can't make it work in my head and the only people I can actually discuss this with already agree with me on the subject.

Final thoughts

So this leaves us with some rather awkward questions:

  • How important is truth to you? 
  • How far are you willing to go to defend or promote it? 
  • Would you risk falling out with someone over it or would you rather keep the peace?

Well you all know where I stand. Am I right?

*I can't be bothered to finish the job, I'm just not that interested in vague ramblings about a Star Trek economy peppered with FUD about automation Taking Our Jobs and promises of kittens and rainbows in a more leisurely future.

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