Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Zacchaeus Principle

There is widespread public concern about the high remuneration of Directors of major listed companies.  I think we should encourage people to adopt a Zacchaeus Principle. People who receive more than £1M pa should be encouraged to donate 50% of their earnings to charities of their choice.

There is strong scientific evidence that giving away extra money makes you happier than keeping it for yourself.  So why not require Annual Reports to disclose who has signed up to (and is abiding by) this Zacchaeus Principle and that RemCos should link bonuses to whether the EDs are willing to follow this principle.

Lest we imagine that the high earnings are truly earned, we should reflect that remuneration of CEOs has gone from 47-88x the Median earnings in last 10 years, whilst the FTSE 100 index has gone down by about 1%.

PS (7 Dec) Maybe £1Mpa should be replaced by 20x Average earnings. This would be "only" £520k but there is at least a feel in the management literature that a gap of more than 20x from top to bottom in a firm is problematic.

Thinking, and non-thinking, atheists

It's understandable that atheists should have a problem with the "supernatural" but it's remarkable how had some of them seem to find it to think straight when this is mentioned.

The Faraday Institute publicised a blog post in Scientific American which claims:
"To the extent we can be certain about anything, we can rest assured that all supernatural claims are false"
This is such arrogant nonsense that it is hard to know where to begin.  Not only is no reasonable argument presented for this claim, it is very hard to see how a reasonable argument could be presented for this claim. Certainly there is no conceivable set of scientific observations that could substantiate it. Even if there were a known set of deterministic scientific laws whose predictions agreed completely with every experiment that had ever been performed (which is certainly not the case) that would not and could not demonstrate that “all supernatural claims are false”.

But in a gushing eulogy for Lisa Randall's Knocking on Heaven's Door  in Science Michael Shermer comes out with this:
if divine providence were on the offing, “it is inconceivable from a scientific perspective that God could continue to intervene without introducing some material trace of his actions.” In other words, if God did act in the world scientists would want to know how he did it. “Did He apply a force or transfer energy?” Randall asks rhetorically. “Is God manipulating electrical processes in our brains? … On a larger level, if God gives purpose to the universe, how does He apply His will?” Inquiring minds want to know. Religion has no answer. I know because I have asked many times.
 He (and Randall?) seem to be "arguing" that unless we have a clear scientific explanation of how X happens then X cannot occur.  Now firstly if we are talking about God interacting with the Universe there is no reason at all to demand that this occurs through "normal" physical processes. The relationship of the Ulimate Creator to the universe is analagous in many respects to that of a programmer and a simulation.  Even if in the simulation a physical law applies programmers can and do interact with the simulation in ways that are completely different from the internal physics.  This is so blindingly obvious in this age of CGI that it is amazing that people can overlook the point with a straight face.  Even if Shermer doesn't do much/any real science Randall surely runs simulations and certainly knows people who does.

But secondly if the doctrine were to be taken seriously it would rule out doing any real scientific research.  The whole point of research is that we look for things that do occur for which we don't have a current scientific explanation and try to find one.

This brings me to Julian Baggini (who I rather like) and his attempt at "Articles of 21-st century faith".  He also wants to rule out:
"claims about the nature and origin of the natural universe...belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, including miracles that bend or break natural laws, the resurrection of the dead, or visits by gods or angelic messengers... the thoughts of a divine or supernatural mind that exists independently of humanity"  
and asserts blythely that
"if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim, not the religious one, should prevail"
There are many confusions here but one of the most fundamental seems to me to the implicit assumptions about the nature of science. It assumes that there is something called "our best science" which is an essentially complete and definitive description of everything set of 'facts' {I've revised this following Julian's comment} about "the nature and origin of the natural universe". Now let's assume for a moment that there is such a thing as the complete physical laws of the universe (this is a metaphysical assumption historically rooted in theism and could be false, BTW).  Call this set L*. Clearly we don't have L* but some approximation Ln say, and it is very hard to know how we could ever verify that we had L*. But even if we had L* and knew that we did, L* cannot possibly explain the origin of L* and we would have to appeal to metaphysical/theological principles to do so.

Furthermore to return to the reality of Ln, there is hot debate and rightly so about whether some of the ideas of our "best science" are right at all.  Most cosmologists currently believe in something like string theory and our "best science" certainly contains multiverses etc.. although much of this is driven, as Martin Rees admits, by a desire to avoid the otherwise compelling arguments for creation.  But the empirical evidence for this is inadequate and it is perfectly reasonable to put forward alternative hypotheses.  The motivation for alternative hypothesis is basically irrelevant to their scientific validity.  Attempts to discredit "Big Bang" on atheological grounds should give people like Julian some pause for thought.

Science is not fundamentally a collection of 'facts' but a set of theories and observations. Some of the observations turn out to be wrong (see eg this paper in Science) and the relationship between theory and observation is highly complex and intertwined. I am not suggesting that the concept of scientific fact is vacuous or that anything goes in the domain of claims made by religions. But religious claims and scientfic claims are almost invariably different kinds of claim and notions of "incompatability with our best science" are highly problematic. 

Indeed it is interesting to reflect that in many respects 20th century science has moved quite a long way in a "Christian" direction.  As far as all empirical science knows, there was a big bang which is suspiciously like creation, but in addition it is now quite clear that "dead" people sometimes come back to life and that in extreme cases the "placebo" effect is very strong indeed, with very strong interactions between the nervous and immune systems.  Indeed I don't think any of the healing miracles in the Gospels can now be considered as impossible.  And of course, as John Polkinghorne and others have pointed out, we really don't seem to live in a mechanical, deterministic universe.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

We must try to retain our humility

Continuing to enjoy and profit from The Master and his Emissary - now on romanticism.
McGilchrist quotes a very perceptive remark by RH Brady:
An extremely odd demand is often set forth but never met, even by those who make it: i.e. that empirical data should be presented without any theoretical context, leaving the reader, the student, to his own devices in judging it [1]
He also draws attention to the importance of "depth" and "longing" as categories of romantic, and indeed human thought. The romantics understood that one can feel pleasure and pain at once, it's not an either/or (c/f the recent paper in Science which makes this point).

He points out that "we half create and half perceive the world we inhabit... Further...the sublime is more truly present when only partially visible than when explicit...[like] the erotic, or... the divine... limited information is less limiting, more capable of permitting them to presence to us... The Romantics perceived that one might learn more from half-light than light"  and quotes Blake
This Life's dim Windows of the Soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to Believe a Lie
When you see with, not thro', the Eye
He debunks some of the myths of materialism, such as:
  • "The myth of the unity of science - the left hemisphere's view that there is one logical path to knowledge regardless of context; whereas in reality science is...'a loose grouping of disciplines with different subject matters, tied in various ways each of which work for some purposes but not for others'...
  • The myth of the sovereignty of the scientific method - of the left hemisphere's planed, relentless progress following a sequential path to knowledge.  In fact... the greatest advances in science are often the result of chance observations, the obsessions of particular personalities, and intuitions that can be positively inhibited by too rigid a structure, method or worldview....
  • The myth of science as above morality, oddly coupled with an uncritical acceptance of the idea that science is the only sure foundation for decency and morality...
  • The myth of its brave stand against the forces of dogma"
 He also quotes Heisenberg's highly perceptive observation that technology no longer appears
as the product of a conscious human effort to enlarge material power, but rather like a biological development of mankind in which the innate structures of the human organism are transplanted in an ever-increasing measure into the environment of man [2 - but the translation is that of Hannah Arendt]
All fascinating stuff.  We must try to retain our humility in the face of the techno-hubris that is tending to envelop modern culture, and getting if anything worse in the last few years.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Westminster Abbey celebration of King James Bible

To Westminster Abbey for the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, as a guest of my friend Geoffrey Rowell who had written the opening hymn.  I didn't realise until the day before quite how high-powered the congregation would be: The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, the Archbishops of Canterbury, York, Westminster, Thyateira and Great Britain and many other prominent figures.

The Hymn is terrific.  Full text is here but let me give a flavour:

Lord God in high thanksgiving 
    we come to praise your Word
creating and sustaining 
    the Being of our world,
dividing light from darkness,
   and calling us in love
to grow into your likeness
    the life of heaven above

In Christ’s own new creation
    the tongues of flame and fire
kindle imagination
    creatively inspire
Words setting forth salvation,
    discernment right and meet,
a light upon our pathway,
   a lantern for our feet.


note the creative use of resonant phrases from the KJV and the Prayer Book.

...the 4th verse is particularly good...

Words to the Word still pointing
    Word in these words expressed
words of prophetic longing,
    of mercy, hope, and rest
Words that can speak in silence.
    your presence, dearest Lord,
in prayer and praise and worship
    eternally adored


Rowan Williams gave a characteristically thoughtful and poetically deep sermon, which is here, emphasising the way in which the KJV is true to the original in not being tidy and simplifying since "they sought to find in our language words that would pass on to us hearers and readers in the English tongue the almost unbearable weight of divine intelligence and love pressing down on those who first encountered it and tried to embody it in writing; those who like Moses and Ezekiel found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer ‘density’ of divine presence, those who like St Paul found themselves dizzy with the number of connections and interrelations between God’s acts over the ages and unable to put it all into a theory, only into a hymn."

Interesting and rather wonderful to note that the stained glass windows in the north nave commemorate ... engineers!  Sir Henry Royce, Charles Parsons, and Sir Benjamin Baker were the three I could read.

A wonderful and uplifting occasion.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Opportunity Credit vouchers

I've made further progress on how to deal with long term unemployment (see earlier posts). This is much more damaging than short-term. I think we should give everyone who has been unemployed and claiming benefits for 6 months or more a £6k voucher which they could take to an employer and which would cover:
  • £1k/month or 100% of their first two month’s wages (whichever is lower)
  • £500/month or 50% of their wages for the next 4 months, and 
  • up to £1,800 of training costs. 
The money would be deducted from Employers NI so it would be in effect a tax cut.  Note that:
  1. The net cost to the exchequer would be much less than £6k per person, allowing for benefits savings, taxes paid and (sadly) less than 100% takeup.
  2. The psychological impact for someone getting such a voucher would be a great plus.
  3. By restricting it to people on benefits for 6 months or more it would avoid the problem that most new jobs in the UK go to people born outside the UK. Employment can go up without unemployment coming down.
  4. Even if some of the jobs created were “at the expense” of not hiring someone who had only been unemployed for say 3 months it would still be well worth doing economically. After more than 6 months people tend to become unemployable.
  5. This will reduce the output gap and hence the structural deficit.
  6. This is simple and straightforward and big enough for small business owners to act. There are 4.5M small businesses and if even 20% of them use the opportunity to take someone on risk free for a couple of months you would eliminate long-term unemployment.
  7. Obviously there need to be some safeguards but almost anything is better than the present situation of people being left to rot.
  8. You will have spotted that there is £200 left over from the £6k voucher. This will pay for two entries for the employer in an Opportunity Credit Award Draw, one after month 2 and one after month 6. This would give them a chance to win £1M at fair odds (1 winner per 10k entries) with 50% going to charities of the employer’s choice and the other 50% tax free to the employer. This means that a business owner would be “mad” not to take someone on: it costs them nothing and they have a chance of winning £1M which is vastly better than the National Lottery. 
The cost of this to the exchequer should ideally be met by freezing all the other benefits except the State Pension. However since the net cost would be vastly less than the £5bn pa that would be saved by such a freeze it might be possible to temper this, or even to cover the cost by freezing benefits the following year.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

McGilchrist on the Enlightenment

I'm continuing to read Ian McGilchrist's wonderful The Master and his Emissary with great profit. He is masterly in skewering  "the hubristic movement which came to be known as the Enlightenment". In contrast to "Bacon's careful recognition that, while observing Nature attentively is essential, she is many times subtler than our senses or understanding" Descartes "made the fatal mistake of believing 'that I could take it as a general rule that the things we conceive very distinctly and clearly are all true'. That was the fallacy that was to derail the next three centuries of Western thought"
He notes that "the pursuit of happiness has not generally led to happiness.  Such valuable things can come only as a side-effect of something else.  The left hemisphere misunderstands the importance of implicitness... The French Revolution famously championed liberty, equality and fraternity ...[but] going for them explicitly, left-hemisphere fashion, rather than allowing them to emerge as the necessary accompaniment to a certain tolerant disposition about the world, right-hemisphere fashion, is that they can only become negative concepts once they become the province of the left hemisphere...the ideals... led to the illiberal, unjust and far from fraternal guillotine"

He rightly praises Pascal for recognising that "the ultimate achievement of reason...is to recognise that there are an infinity of things which surpass it" and draws attention to the vital role of "the rediscovery of Shakespeare... not just ...in England, but in Germany and France. It yielded evidence of something so powerful that is simply swept away Enlightenment principles before it, as inauthentic, untenable in the face of experience."

He also skewers Descartes description of laughter: "as that which 'results when the blood coming from the right-hand cavity of the heart...causes the lungs to swell up...forcing the air they contain to rush out through the windpipe...[and] causing movement in the facial muscles... And it is just this facial expression, together with the...sound, that we call laughter'"  Pointing out that Descartes "had no idea what he was talking about. His anatomy is a complete work of fantasy.  But laughter was to be put in its place because it was spontaneous, intuitive and un-willed, and represented the triumph of the body."

On the subject of Shakespeare, this wonderful Hamlet cartoon makes me chuckle repeatedly.  (For those who don't know, Hamlet and his friends are all actors - in the shape of animals - and usually meet in a bar. Hamlet is, of course, the pig.):

Friday, November 11, 2011

Growth through infrastructure, R&D and Negative Employers NI

It is an amazing tribute to the credibility of the coalition in international bond markets that long term interest rates are so low in the UK.  In the medium term the reduction from about 3.7% before the election to 2.1% now will save us about £16bn pa.

We should re-invest all of this saving is really substantial investments in infrastructure and R&D that will increase our productive capacity and long-term growth rate and stimulate the economy. These will actually reduce the structural deficit and improve our projected Debt:GDP ratio.  With the right mix of direct investment (say £4bn pa), challenge funding (say £4bn pa) and tax incentives (say £8bn pa) the total additional investment would be £30-40bn pa.

We do not need measures that will increase consumer demand which largely goes into imports. But really should do something about long term unemployment. The best thing would be to freeze benefits (saving about £5bn pa) and use the whole amount to encourage employers to hire people who are long-term unemployed, ideally through Negative Employers National Insurance.

If every employer who hired someone who had been out of work and claiming benefits for 6 months or more could deduct (say) £1,000 from their Employers NI bill in month 1, £750 in month 2, £500 in month 3 and £250 in months 4,5 and 6 there would be a big incentive to give people a chance. The gross cost would be £4k per job created but the net cost would be much less, taking people off benefits and into tax.  Of course there would need to be some safeguards, but with this kind of incentive almost everyone employable would find a job at least for a few months. 

There are probably about 1.5M people who have been unemployed for 6 months or more (it's about 800k for 12 months) so even with an 80% take-up rate this would be affordable - and actually the claimant count for people on JSA is only 1.6M so probably only 1M have been claiming for 6 months or more. So this is easily affordable. It's surely better to pay people to work than increase people's pay for doing nothing.  And equally it's better that people who haven't had a job for 6 months or more should get 1-2 months experience of paid work even if they then have to go back to looking.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Lion in Winter

Last night to a preview of The Lion in Winter with Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley.

It's a very good production and a strong cast. Robert Lindsay is an outstanding actor (his performance as Pellew in Hornblower is an absolute classic) and Joanna Lumley is one of the few people who can do that role really convincingly.  Strong supporting cast - look out especially for Rory Fleck-Byrne (in the role of King Philip - Timothy Dalton made his film d├ębut in that role).

The play is a tiny bit frustrating - can't quite decide whether it is Lear or Much Ado or a non-musical Kiss me Kate.  The fact that it can be compared at all with them shows why the play won a Tony and the film 3 Oscars.  It is of course full of anachronisms of which the most glaring is the complete absence of any retainers - understandable of course in a play but makes for really silly scenes like the King and Eleanor doing Christmas Decorations themselves.  But it's a fascinating period in history.

Interesting that all the major plays in which Henry II is a key feature are by foreigners - Becket, this and Murder in the Cathedral (I don't think Henry II actually appears in that play though FWIW he did in the filmed version).

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Very good news that Richard Chartres has taken charge

Very good news that Richard Chartres has taken charge of the St Paul's/Protesters saga. As George Pitcher says, Richard "is a man that most organisations under bombardment would want in their trench" and it is very good that he is initiating a serious discussion about the ethical and spiritual aspects of all this, with a real grownup (Ken Costa) leading.  Anti-capitalism is not the right idea at all, what we need is anti-immoral-capitalism and it is often forgotten that Adam Smith was a moral philosopher whose Theory of Moral Sentiments was more important than The Wealth of Nations.