08 December 2012

Pragmatism 3

The second arena of socio-political battles is prostitution; I’m specifically thinking of prostitution in Scotland and N Ireland, and to a slightly more distant degree in the Republic. The battle is around the introduction of the “Swedish model”. There is a proposed law out for consultation in Scotland, and similar proposals have been seriously mooted in N Ireland, though the legal process is not so far advanced.

What is the “Swedish model”? Briefly, it makes it a criminal offence for a man to buy a sex from a woman. (A simplification, I know; I do realise, for example, that there are LGBT people out there, but they are a small, if vociferous, minority; and if I exclude them, it’s just to make things easier to understand.)

Under this Swedish model, it’s the man who is the criminal, not the woman. It’s already illegal for a man to buy sex from a trafficked woman in the UK; despite the hype, the evidence these women are a in a very small minority. Not that the evidence has ever stopped people with an agenda from believing and proselytising otherwise. Non-indigenous women are almost always independent agents, and are not controlled by pimps; they are not trafficked, even if a travel agent helped with their journey. Being assisted to travel as an economic migrant could classify them as “trafficked”. I’m specifically thinking of the free agent, the courtesan or escort.

Consensual sexual relations are those where the woman must consent, whether payment is included or not; they are legal throughout the UK. There are activities around prostitution, such as street walking, brothel keeping and living off “immoral” earnings which are already illegal. The Swedish model reverses the common, if incorrect, conception that prostitution is illegal. (In the US both selling and buying are criminalised.)

The Swedish model was introduced more than a decade ago, and has been hailed as a major success in reducing prostitution. It was an avowedly “feminist” initiative that got it established.

And with the word “feminist” I immediately run into difficulties. There are, as I understand it, first, second and third wave feminists; rad-fems and neo-feminists and even feminazis, and I do have real problems understanding their differing agendas, and how these ideologies developed, on what factual, rather than theoretical, basis they exist. At one extreme, some seem to blame men for all that is wrong with the world, and wouldn’t want to have anything to do with men; though others say things like “equality” while recognising that men and women aren’t equal, rather there is “equivalence”.

Be that as it may, and it’s my problem, it was the more extreme men-hating type of feminists that introduced the Swedish model. I’d argue that they did so in the face of all the evidence.

The pragmatic realist knows that prostitution has been around for as long as recorded history; it’s not called the “oldest profession” for nothing. There have even been “sacred” prostitutes at the temples in ancient Greece .

What is the imperative that “drives” women into prostitution? It’s usually poverty. A few become courtesans, improving their social position and rising to positions of influence, some seek independence from men, but for the majority it’s simply penury. It’s probably no coincidence that for most of recorded history that men have controlled women’s wealth and possessions.

And the imperative that drives men to prostitutes? This is probably a “biological” imperative, the hormonal and genetic influence that drives men to have sex with as many women as possible, to spread their seed as widely as possible. (Whereas, for women, the equivalent imperative is to have a “protector”, a man who will provide for her — but who may not be the best genetic fit for her, so that she “cheats” and allows a “good” man to raise the offspring of another man as his own.)

Be that as it may — and you might find the explanations disturbing — it’s very clear that there has always been a demand and a supply.

Then there are the moral arguments, that prostitution is a “bad” thing, that it is demeaning, that it’s more male abuse of women, and therefore, prostitution should be illegal. Well, there are plenty of things I don’t like, I might even find them “immoral” but that doesn’t mean they should be illegal.

Consider Starbucks. The coffee house has been in the news recently; they have paid no corporation tax on their earnings in the UK for many years, indeed they say that they run at a loss here. Except that they don’t run at a loss, rather they are able to transfer their profits to Holland where the rate of tax is lower than the UK. There is nothing at all illegal in this — and Starbucks are by no means the only company to do this — but there has been an outpouring of moral indignation about it. Years ago, a ruling by the then House of Lords said, in effect, that an individual could arrange his (her) tax affairs in any way to mitigate them (providing it wasn’t illegal). Starbucks is now to make a voluntary tax contribution, buckling under pressure.

And the “immoral” earnings, or the “living off the avails” in the US? Just who decided that such earnings were immoral, under what authority were they described as immoral? And why is this “immorality” enshrined in law? It’s strange that in  puritan America the earnings aren’t described as “immoral” but as the “avails”. If the “it’s illegal to perform an illegal abortion” has the unintended consequence of “it’s legal to perform a legal abortion”, can one then say that even though it is “illegal to live off immoral earnings” that it is “legal to live off moral earnings” and pitch an argument as to what exactly is legally “immoral” today? I expect this morality derives from Christian theology — not from Christianity, but from the theology, which you will recall was largely constructed by Sts Jerome, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, all of them misogynists to a greater or lesser degree. Not, it has to be said in fairness, that Calvin or John Knox seem to have been any more enlightened.

Then there’s this possible unintended consequence of the Swedish model; if I had a mistress (I wish — I don’t) and set her up in a flat — what the red tops would call a “love nest” — and gave her an allowance, am I to be criminalised? We both entered this arrangement voluntarily, I get her company, she gets “expenses”. Just why should this be illegal? (Whether you think it’s immoral is your problem, and you can keep your problem.) And that’s to say nothing of the marital home, where access to sex for the man might be dependant on purchases, necessities and gifts; and please don’t say that this doesn’t happen, of course it does, not universally, but it exists.

So, we have a supply and demand position, with willing participants — well, perhaps the women aren’t doing it altruistically or even for enjoyment, rather they are doing it for the money — in what way will the Swedish model, which aims to deprive them of their livelihood, improve their position? (It might frustrate men, but that of course is of no importance in this model.) Perhaps the women are expected to stack the shelves in a supermarket; morally superior perhaps, but not very financially rewarding.

Does the Swedish model actually work? Its proponents say yes, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? The reality seems more to be that is has driven prostitution “underground”; it hasn’t reduced the demand or the supply, but it might, just might, make the “figures” more tolerable.

There’s another problem in Scotland. There are currently eight Scottish police forces, and these are going to be combined into one. At present, they operate a policy of “tolerance” in Aberdeen; there are massage parlours in Edinburgh; but there is a zero tolerance (whatever that means) policy in Glasgow. What will be the policy in the combined force?

(A little off the main thrust, but prostitutes are people, with — you might like to think — the same rights as the rest of the population. A “zero tolerance” policy might well suggest that they won’t get the protection of the law to which they would otherwise be entitled. And you might well think that this policy is driven by “morality” rather than pragmatism or common humanity.)

We haven’t got quite so far in N Ireland, but there is certainly a move towards the Swedish model — unsurprisingly, this seems to be driven by “morality” rather than pragmatism, or any real, genuine concern for the “working girls”. It’s too soon to know what will develop. There is a single police force in N Ireland; and now that the “troubles” are largely behind us, they have turned to “real” crime. There are occasional prosecutions for pimping, trafficking and brothel keeping. (Incidentally, should an “escort” employ a live-in maid, secretary or even a “bouncer”, she’s now working in a brothel, and liable for prosecution. Curious that having help, having protection makes you a criminal.)

Pragmatism 2

There are a couple of areas of modern life where pragmatism meets entrenched attitudes, and the result is like trial by combat, a struggle to the end. Neither side wants to admit any of the other’s thinking as being in any way correct, and neither wants to yield an inch. I’m thinking of abortion and prostitution; both topics are current in Ireland*; and both sides seem to be wheeling out the “big guns”. And massaging the reality; and using hyperbole.

There’s a school of thought that says that abortion is a woman’s issue, and that men shouldn’t be involved. I’m not trying to favour one position over the other, though you might guess what I think; I’m trying to be the disinterested observer, a theoretical but non-existent creature.

Abortion is topical in the south because, firstly, of the death of Savita Halappanavar, when it was said that an “abortion” might have saved her life; and, secondly, because the European Court of Human Rights has told the government that the state’s legal position on abortion is untenable, and that the government must come up with something better.

So, we’re told, the south is one of the safest places for a woman to give birth and there is no abortion. Ireland is certainly a safe place, but not the safest; safest in the sense of the maternal death rate. The reported maternal death rate in Ireland is almost certainly wrong; the true rate is about twice the reported rate. (Inconveniently, the safest places do allow abortion.)

And no one has been able to explain why and how the absence of abortion makes childbirth safer. Well, it can’t be done, there is no causal connection between the two, even if this is inferred in the statement. Nothing better for reinforcing your agenda than to place a spurious connection in the minds of the credulous and those who wish it were true.

The second bit, about Ireland not having abortion, is only true in that it is illegal (bar very few exceptions) in the state; which is why several thousand women travel to England or further abroad to have an abortion. But this is a highly inconvenient fact, best brushed under the carpet: there is no abortion in Ireland.

And then there is a conclave of Irish (Catholic) Bishops (ag├ęd, supposedly celibate “men in frocks”, if you want to be disparaging) reminding us of morality and the need to preserve life at almost any cost; they and the constitution say, in as many words, that an ovum from the point of insemination has the same civil rights as the mother in whose Fallopian tube this occurred. And don’t forget, it takes a referendum and a majority in Ireland to change the constitution; which is to say, when it was passed, a majority agreed with whatever they thought the sentiment was. And, although the Catholic Church has had a major fall from grace, power and influence in the last two decades, they will still have been in a position to teach (indoctrinate) much of the population of a “certain age” — remember the Jesuits and their motto about getting the kid at an early age so that they are theirs for life. Early indoctrination, they realised, is very difficult to change, to eradicate.

At an extreme, there are those who denounce all abortion as “murder”; in a (strange) way there is some justification in this, though the foetuses aborted at an early age cannot survive outside the womb, they cannot exist independently. And later abortions are often done because of abnormalities incompatible with independent life. So if “murder” is the wilful destruction of a life outside the womb, is abortion really “murder”. Or is this just a bit more semantics? (There is the curious paradox in the US where abortionists have been murdered by prohibitionists; I really can’t follow the reasoning behind this, beyond the “life for a life” idea. And the commandment against murder meant members of your tribe, not foreigners, didn’t it?)

Meanwhile the “pro-choice” campaign are advocating just that: a “choice”, even if it’s really a very liberal stance on abortion, extending to “on demand”.

Abortion has been around for at least two and a half millennia, from the time of Hippocrates and the pharaohs. The Hippocratic Oath tells physicians that they may not procure an abortion — at least that is the common understanding. There are several versions of the Oath; and it seems more likely than not that the physician was expected to get a common midwife or surgeon to perform an abortion; or possibly, there were some methods he should not use, but leave to the others.

Be that as it may, it’s clear that abortion has a long history. There have been all sorts of potions used, all sorts of “home remedies”, and the resort to the woman in the back street with the knitting needle. This woman, well intentioned no doubt, was the cause of infection, infertility and death. If there is a demand, those seeking an abortion will always find a way to achieve it; to ignore the “problem” does not mean that it will simply go away; to criminalise it won’t make it disappear. Whether you approve of abortion or not, you cannot deny that women through the millennia have sought it. And isn’t criminalising it no more than a form of control? I hesitate only slightly to say that it’s the patriarchy, because I think it is; so I have difficulty understanding why some women would wish to accept this control.

And yet the government in the south has studiously ignored abortion for over twenty years, recognising just what a hot potato it is while hoping it will disappear. Not this time, by the look of things.

The idealist would recognise that back-street abortions are dangerous, that there is a persisting demand, and would permit it, perhaps with some minor exclusions — such as literal “on demand” — though leaving enough slack for this to be accommodated. And the idealist would recognise that just because abortion is legal doesn’t mean that you have to have one; that the choice is yours. And that there will be people who refuse one. Betting shops are legal in the UK, but there is no compulsion or requirement to bet; I’ve no interest in betting on the horses, and have only ever been in a bookies once — and that was to collect a mobile phone.

Whether the refusers ought to influence those who wish one is a perennial difficulty; it’s a power struggle, the imposition of a will; in this case, a morality versus pragmatic reality, or “choice”. If you think something is “immoral”, should you strive to keep it “illegal”? If there is a “choice” doesn’t it imply that you don’t have to choose?

The pragmatist recognises that Ireland is a much more secular society than it once was, particularly in the Dublin conurbation, but that the rural homesteads remain traditional. And also recognises all the election promises that have been made — generally a “no abortion” stance — and the difficulty of squaring them with today’s conditions.

The pragmatic Irish politician has to sell ideas to two very different groups; the rural traditionalists and the urban secularists, while still hoping to retain some credibility with both of them. And doing nothing is no longer an option. It will be interesting to see what they come up with, because I don’t know how they can square this particular circle; but then, I’m not a politician; yet politics is the “art of the possible”.

Things haven’t got this far in the north; a private advisory clinic opened recently, and was subject to a protest. The protesters held placards with gruesome photos of dismembered foetuses. Now, it’s true that the (dead) foetus must sometimes be dismembered to allow its extraction; the fact that these are a tiny fraction of the whole hasn’t presented them as being somehow typical of all abortions. You might call this “scare tactics”. While the “law”on abortion has been clarified, it’s still very constrained by comparison to the rest of the UK. (Actually, just how the “law” came to allow medical abortions before nine weeks is a mystery to me.) It’s perhaps not surprising to find the ultra-evangelical wings and traditional Catholics in agreement, for once.

* Well, perhaps. The current problems in N Ireland are more about emblems and “flegs”, more a problem of the insecurity of of the unionist population.

04 December 2012


Harold Wilson, having told us so often about the “thirteen years of Tory misrule” that we almost came to believe it, announced that we could expect “100 days of gritty pragmatism” when he first entered 10 Downing Street. That’s how I remember it: mostly, the response was a dictionary search for “pragmatism”, gritty or vanilla. He was the author of other notorious sound bites, such as the “gnomes of Zurich” during a financial crisis, though it was the gnomes of the City of London who were short selling the pound, not their brethren in Switzerland.

Anyhow, Wilson is certainly remembered for his pragmatism, the understanding and acceptance of what is the reality, and working with it, rather than trying to force through policies based purely on theoretical political theory. I’m no fan of Harold Wilson, even if he was a consummate politician and founded the Open University.

Pragmatism doesn’t get a good press these days. Rather, we are expected to accept a political theory based on an espoused position — a theory based on on a “wished for” position. Economics is good at this; we hear about “perfect markets” where all have “perfect information”, yet it’s blatantly clear that all don’t have perfect information, otherwise there would be no markets. But then I’m not an economist. I try to live in the real world.

“Evidence based practice” is a modern theme in medicine; no longer is it enough to have an “opinion”. The results of experience were almost sacrosanct, but we learned that experience was a poor teacher, and there were better options. Of course, it isn’t possible to test everything, some areas had to be taken as read, using the best “opinion”. For instance, appendicectomy is the treatment for acute appendicitis, but could it be treated with antibiotics alone? Probably, but it would be a step too far to trial this.

So, even if we are trying to fully rationalise treatment, there are things which we can’t or shouldn’t test for now. We have to be sensible, to accept what’s there, use what evidence we have. We just don’t call it pragmatism.

Sometimes, it seems that we haven’t learnt that some things simply don’t work, and trying more of the same doesn’t work either. Think of Prohibition in the US; it didn’t work, yet we have a “war on drugs”, another prohibition. Just what is the evidence that such a war will work? Or is it just wishful thinking, another triumph of expectation over reality?

And then there’s the “war on terror”, used as a justification for the war in Iraq. That and the weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist, but ought to have. And a war with no strategy for when it was won. What evidence is there that a “war” needed to be fought, that it ought to be fought? Rhetoric again, the need to be seen to be doing something “tough”?

Look at Greece: their entry to the Eurozone was a fiddle, their figures were massaged to get them in. And once in, they borrowed at low rates, until their borrowings were unsustainable. And the remedy? Austerity and more austerity, driving the country’s economy further into recession. Those who lent money seem to think that they have an overriding right to be repaid, no matter that the social fabric is destroyed. Those who lent can’t accept that they might just have been wrong; it’s very clear what their priority is. Will the Greeks ever be able to repay? Maybe the Greeks were profligate, but someone helped them to be profligate; how does economic destruction help this? The lesson from African debt: cancel the unpayable debts; the countries simply can’t repay. Isn’t it part of capitalism that sometimes companies go bust, and you loose your investment? Why should countries be treated differently?

But I’m not an economist, I just look at things.

I’m simplifying things, they say, the reality is far more complex. Well, the big picture might be big, but stand back a little and see the totality. And if you, an expert, can’t explain things in a way that the average person understands, then you don’t fully understand it either, and you don’t deserve the position you have. Even rocket science can be explained. And don’t try to hide behind arcane language.

Will we see a return to pragmatism? As they say, don’t hold your breath.

03 December 2012

Barriers (3 of 3)

The poor are always with us, it’s said. Said as if it was a necessity or something that could not be changed. An acceptance of defeatism, a reluctance to shake the status quo. And George Bernard Shaw said that the reasonable person would accept this, for it was only the unreasonable person that wanted change. It seems inevitable that there will be richer and poorer, but why the rich shouldn’t get richer at the expense of the poorer; and do the rich need to be so much richer?

If you are one of the 10% — or, more likely these days, the 1% — you are probably content to leave things alone. After all you control so much of the world’s wealth that you are impregnable, aren’t you? You can have anything you want, and anything disturbing can easily be airbrushed — photoshopped — out of your field of view. So, to you, everything looks rosy.

And even for the other 90 − 99%, things aren’t equal. It seems as if one group has the power, such as it is, and the other suffer under it. It was once like this for those at the top. I’m talking about the difference between men and women.

From the beginnings of recorded history, women have been inferior to men; recorded history in western countries, that is. There are places where women have a more equal role, but these are often categorised as “undeveloped” or “savage”; non-westernised, uncivilised — and ripe for colonial exploitation.

And the position of married women was, legally speaking, as if they barely existed. And yet for many women, the “protection” of marriage at least enabled them to endure life.

The modern, supposedly emancipated women, can certainly have a career, even if rising to the top is constrained by the glass ceiling — or “stained glass” ceiling. But she does this with one eye on her reproductive functions and “biological clock”. Curiously, for all the advantages that men would arrogate to themselves, reproduction isn’t one of them.

And so, for so many women, there is a double disadvantage; poverty and the patriarchy. So often, they are expected to do much of the work of providing for the family. You’ve probably seen the images of men sitting around, drinking — alcohol or coffee, depending on culture — and looking on while their women work.

One traditional way out of poverty for women has been prostitution. You may well have moral objections to this, but that is to ignore the fact that it has existed for as long as we have recorded history, and shows no signs of disappearing. Closing your eyes to it won’t make it go away, nor will exhortations or laws. If you think it’s exploitation, what then is working for the minimal wage shelf stacking in a supermarket? Hardly anyone’s idea of ambition.

And there are still places where education for women barely happens; it may have been common in Victorian Britain, but surely this quaint idea is long gone; except that it isn’t.

Education is the answer; easy to say, not so easy to do. Education needs teachers and facilities; but most of all it needs a major culture shift. And shifting entrenched opinions, cultures and fossilised minds also takes education, which, alas, is too often seen as inessential and thereby rejected. The “good enough for my grandfather” argument.

In the “land of the free” where the story is that anyone can drag themselves out of poverty through hard work, it turns out that this is just another myth: getting out of poverty is extremely difficult, so difficult as to be next to impossible.

All rather depressing; we can see what are (some of the) problems, we can see what would help; but achieving action is so difficult. And yet there are indications that change, long overdue, is slowly happening. Festina lente.

There’s something else to think about. It’s clear that in so many places inequality is increasing, with the 1% showing little regard for the rest, the “plebs”. History doesn’t repeat itself, but what does repeat is the inability to learn any lessons from history. The burden of taxation has weighed heavily on those least able to pay it in many places — and I’m not excluding present day Britain. Some classes — the Church and the nobility — didn’t even pay taxes, for taxes were for the “little people”. And the result, eventually? Think of the French revolution, the Russian revolution, what happened to the Ottoman Empire. Could this happen again?

The (inchoate?) thoughts in these three pieces were initiated by watching the BBC’s Why Poverty series. The individual programmes may be available on the iPlayer. There is more at www.bbc.co.uk/whypoverty and there are links there to further information from the Open University. Do look.

There’s also a BBC series called Inside Claridge’s or how the other 1% lives. Marvel at the oleaginous ego-polishing.

02 December 2012

Inequality (2 of 3)

Do we know what inequality today is? Do we know what it means? After all, not all of us are equal, some are more equal than others, so should we strive for it? What are the benefits?

You might think that equality is a moral imperative, and perhaps you are right; something that seems instinctively right. Yet there are advantages that, at first sight, aren’t so obvious.

Any yet, evidence from some major economies suggests that, even as they become richer, they also become more unequal; the rich get richer, the poor if they don’t get poorer, certainly aren’t any better off. And not just the rich, it’s usually the mega-rich, a tiny cadre of people who own and control much of any countries wealth.

How rich does any individual need to be? Above a fairly modest level, increasing riches certainly don’t make you happier, only richer. Why do people go to such lengths to vastly enrich themselves? Influence certainly, and power; yet we know that power corrupts — perhaps they’ve forgotten this, or think that what we learn from history can be ignored. Don’t think you can tax such people down to “reasonable” levels of income — they can afford the best accountants and lawyers to thwart you at every turn.

Am I exaggerating? Currently, the minimum wage in the UK is £6.19, and is recognised as not even a “living wage”. And whereas 20 years or so the difference between the workers’ average wage and the CEO’s salary was about 1:20, today it can be 1:230. Do managers work 10 times more than they did? I doubt it. Do managers deserve it? I doubt it.

Look a bit sideways; which are the happiest countries, the ones that are best to live in, not necessarily the richest ones? You’re probably not surprised to learn that they are Scandinavian, with Denmark usually the “best”.

And if you check, you will also find that Denmark has one of the least unequal societies. True, the Danes have high taxation, but they also have good social care for all ages, good schools and health care. It’s almost as if they put people and families first. And perhaps they do.

And if you look across a range of social measures such as rates of teenage pregnancy, drug use etc as proxies for the “health” of the country, you will find that these problems are worse in more unequal countries, and less in equal ones.

An association of course, not a causation. So, why do these countries have few social problems, and better outcomes for schooling and care? Something in the genes? Or is it more their culture, their mores?

There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut answer to this. But the message is clear; if you want to be happy, be well looked after, move to Denmark. You won’t have a super yacht or a private jet, though; and the weather could be better. But then it can hardly be worse than in the northern half of the British Isles.

See also: The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, available here from amazon.

01 December 2012

Castrated at birth

Lord Justice Leveson recommended an independent regulator for the press which had “statutory underpinning”. That is, a body which would self-regulate the press but which had its foundation based in law, enshrining rights and responsibilities.

This is a very similar position to that of many professionals (such as lawyers and health care workers) in the UK.

Serving editors were to be excluded from the composition of the panel; and membership of the regulator was to be voluntary, but with sticks and carrots to try get all parties included.

However, the Prime Minister is against statutory underpinning, at least for the present, until the industry has been shown to be incapable of erecting a suitable and trustworthy body by itself. Remember, politicians were criticised for being too close to the press at times. Other politicians, perhaps those who weren’t so close to the press barons and editors, agree with Lord Leveson.

Drafting of legislation is in progress, but already the suspicion is that it will be produced in such a way as to make it unworkable, thus “proving” that legislation is not the answer.

Those against a statutory foundation talk of “statutory regulation” of the press, which Lord Leveson explicitly said was not what was intended. The regulation is “self-regulation” even if its foundation is based on law.

It’s quite clear that there are those who hope to avoid a statutory basis for their regulator through dissimulation, and to retain total control of the whole process.

Having previously failed to be properly (and pro-actively) self-regulating, the editors are now engaged in a scramble to try to invent an appropriate body, one which self-regulates them, but which they presumably also want to have quietly castrated at birth. It was clear to me from their evidence to the enquiry, that some editors and others in the press really wanted to continue as if nothing much had happened, but were willing to sign up to a process of veneering.

The campaigning organisation Hacked Off represents those many people who were at the wrong end of press coverage. They are organising a petition to support the victims of press abuses. Their website is here, from where you can sign the petition.