Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Extra cash

The EU is once again infringing on the British yeoman's ancestral freedom:

Fees for paying with plastic – most commonly a credit card – are routinely levied on everything from low-cost flights and tax bills to cinema tickets and takeaway meals, but the Treasury announced that these would be consigned to history from January 2018.

The government said the move, which builds on an EU directive, would mean “shoppers across the country have that bit of extra cash to spend on the things that matter to them”.

I'm just wondering: If the effect of this regulation is to leave people with more cash to spend, isn't that defeating the purpose? Anyway, I'm sure we can return to credit-card fees (and mobile roaming charges) just as soon as we're out from under the Brussels yoke.

Final salute

This photograph from Helmut Kohl’s memorial service in Strassburg immediately struck me as bizarre. Normal by now for America, but bizarre. Does any other democracy — not a totalitarian state or banana republic — have its leader going around playing soldier like this? Of course, the German military people and honour guard who accompanied the coffin to the burial in Germany saluted, but that’s their job. If I remember correctly, it was Reagan — who limited his military service to making propaganda films in Hollywood — who introduced this custom. And I remember very clearly how Bill Clinton was mocked, at the beginning of his presidency, for his supposed incompetence in saluting. He learned, and it’s no surprise that he wants to show that he can still do it. But seeing it on the international stage like this highlights how inappropriate it appears.

It’s all fine

Regulations are commonly enforced by fines. Economic logic says that the level of fines should be set high enough to discourage most of the violations, and if the laws are being violated frequently that means that the penalties are set too low. But that’s not how British politicians and businesspeople think. I commented before about how the Conservatives seem to think that high levels of speeding and parking violations are prima facie evidence that the laws need to be changed, rather than that there needs to be more effective enforcement.

Now we have this comment in the Oxford Times about the “bus gate” (ban on private vehicles) in one part of High Street. It should be prefaced by saying this is hardly an arbitrary restriction. Because of river geography and the huge space taken up by colleges, Oxford is inevitably a challenge for transport. High Street is sufficiently congested at most times of the day, with just buses, taxis and bicycles, as well as the vast numbers of tourists on foot, as to be difficult and dangerous to pass through.

A top businessman said Oxford’s bus gate in High Street should be reviewed after it emerged council bosses have raked in fines totalling more than £6m over 10 years.

The bus gate uses camera enforcement to restrict normal traffic from using the High Street between 7.30am and 6.30pm.

After the £6.2m fines total emerged following a Freedom of Information request by the Oxford Mail, Jeremy Mogford, owner of The Old Bank Hotel in High Street, called for the restriction to be reviewed.

Weirdly, he also seems to believe that it’s a problem that many of the scofflaws paying the fines are tourists. Given that Oxford has to pay a huge burden for maintaining transport infrastructure for millions of annual visitors who don’t pay local taxes, what could be more appropriate than that those who abuse the system and endanger our lives to get an advantage would pay the costs.

Two other points that Mr Mogford makes:

“I do think the bus gate should be better signposted in High Street because some drivers are clearly missing the signs or ignoring them.

“It’s quite likely some delivery drivers will go through the bus gate and pay the fine instead of spending half an hour going all the way round.

I agree with the first point, though the current signs don’t seem obviously deficient. As for the latter, I don’t really object. Fines can serve as a kind of stochastic congestion charge, allowing those with an urgent need to use a certain resource to pay the cost. I think that a formal congestion charge is better, though, since it is less ambiguous, more predictable, and removes the taint of illegality.

It takes a thief

Speaking to her fellow Conservatives this week, a “contrite” Theresa May said

I got us into this mess, and I’m going to get us out.

Ummm… Is this a common hiring policy? Is there any circumstance under which you’re looking for someone to lead a project and you say, “How about Theresa? She fucked everything up last time. That makes her just the person to make it go well this time.” Because she has the best inside view of the faulty decision procedures that caused all the trouble, or something.

It’s a bromide that is usually applied to a situation where the “mess” demands some unpleasant and unglamourous labour or expense to clean up — e.g., you misplaced the envelope with the club’s collected membership dues, so you need to go find it, or work out a new fundraising scheme, or replace the money from your own pocket. No one wants to do it, but it’s your job because it’s your fault. Applying it to remaining prime minister is just bizarre.

But this is all part of the way British politics is less about the effective deployment of power than the effective deployment of clichés. Of which Theresa “Brexit means Brexit” May is an unchallenged master.

Overqualified

On the BBC website there was this article about increasing dissatisfaction among university students in the UK, as measured by their response to a survey question about whether their studies provided “good value for money”, and questions about their happiness and wellbeing. I was struck by this sentence:

Young women and gay students at university are particularly likely to feel unhappy.

Why “young women” and not simply “women”? I’m willing to bet that they are not basing this on a distinction in reported happiness between younger and older female students. Those who are gay are referred to simply as “students”. Most students are, in a general sense, young, but why is this emphasised for the women? Why are the women not referred to as students? I feel like there is some invidious stereotyping going on here, but I can’t quite put my finger on what is irritating me.

Absence and present values: A thought on monuments

I’ve just been reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, and came upon this passage, that is relevant to current debates about maintaining monuments to once-admired figures who have now fallen into disrepute:

[The Republican Party] did gain the support of General James Longstreet, whose example inspired some Confederate veterans to follow in his footsteps… General Longstreet’s decision to join the Republican Party made him an object of hatred among Southern Democrats for the remainder of his life. When he died, in 1903, the United Daughters of the Confederacy voted not to send flowers to his funeral, and unlike other Confederate generals, no statues of Longstreet graced the southern landscape.

It’s incredibly naïve to say, monuments should stay as they are because they are part of history. They’re not. History is history, but monuments are present expressions of an attitude toward history. Sure, the statue of Robert E. Lee that was recently taken down in New Orleans was itself a historical artifact, and part of (a certain period of) city history, but the curatorial choice of what to keep is a statement about our current values. To the untrained eye, the statue was not a monument to 1884, when it was put up, but to 1863.

If you really want it to be a monument to 1884, and the intervening time when it has stood, so that the public could appreciate the “history” represented by the erection of a statue of Robert E. Lee (or of Cecil Rhodes), you would need to be able to make them see not only the statue that is present, but also the statue that is absent (of General Longstreet, say, or Olive Schreiner). But an absence can never compete with a presence in its impact on the viewer. So Lee and Rhodes must fall.

Slow travel

After plunging UK travel into chaos, British Airways CEO Alex Cruz announced that he will not resign. And why should he? BA needs his bold leadership now more than ever. In the spirit of not letting a crisis go to waste and no such thing as bad publicity and there’s no platitude like business platitudes, I’m expecting him to announce that this was actually a successful promotion for BA’s new motto: Slow Travel©.

Imagine the scene: First a harried woman being yelled at by her boss, forced to rush through some task, papers dropping every which way. Voiceover: Your work life can be pretty stressful. Rushing all the time.

Cut to: Same woman with her family, rushing through an airport, trying to catch a flight to Disney World or Mallorca. Boarding closed, children in tears. Voiceover: You don’t need the same stress on your holidays.

Cut to: Another family happily strolling through the duty-free selection. Voiceover: When you fly with British Airways, our international team of IT experts will make sure that you have untold hours to browse through the world-class shopping attractions of Heathrow… Maybe even days!Heathrow stay-and-playCut to: Happy children playing in the Terminal 2 play structure. Voiceover: Joyful moments like this can’t be rushed!

Cut to: Passengers sleeping on the floor and seats in the terminal. Voiceover: Travel means taking the time to get close to new people.

Cut to: Alex Cruz saying “Slow travel. Because Bland Acquiesence is what BA is all about!”

 

Mandatory retirement age

Oxford University’s ruling body, the Congregation, had a meeting recently to discuss the possibility of abolishing the university’s mandatory retirement age, with the somewhat orwellian title of Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA). EJRA is provided for in the 2010 Equality Act that banned various sorts of discrimination, including age discrimination. Every serious discussion of this topic uses pilots as an example: Safety functions depending potentially on fast reflexes, known to decline with age, and hard to evaluate individually. Not really analogous to a typical university post. Instead, the argument is that the old need to be pushed out to make way for the young, a matter of intergenerational fairness. Of course, there is nothing special about universities in this point — except that university posts are seen (by some) as singularly attractive. It’s a kind of discrimination Catch 22: Anti-discrimination law allows people to keep their jobs as long as they wish (and are performing them competently) only if it is a job that is unpleasant and that they would rather quit as soon as possible. If you have an attractive job that you’d like to keep doing, then you have to retire to make way for new people.

Although my research on ageing has concerned itself largely with technical issues, and often with evolutionary theory rather than social issues, I have been interested from the start in questions of variability in ageing patterns, and I have read some of the literature on the destructive effects of age stereotypes. Personally, I’ve always felt strongly attracted to the sartrean dictum that existence preceeds essence and have reacted viscerally to constraints placed on people because of the categories they are associated with. (more…)

With escorts like these…

It’s been reported that a passenger tried to force his way into the cockpit on a passenger flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Two US Air Force fighter jets then “escorted” the plane to its destination. It’s an interesting choice of words, because one ordinarily thinks of an escort as being on your side — your escort protects you, or raises your status. A fighter escort is usually protecting a group of bombers. In this case, though, the presumably unstated purpose of the escort was to shoot down the passenger plane if it seemed to become dangerous. Awkward.

More honesty: Migrants and Expats

I was poking around Google for more tabloid reporting on Brexit, and found this headline from The Sun:

Brussels ‘plotted for weeks’ to scupper Theresa May’s deal to secure fate of Brit expats in Europe and EU migrants in the UK

The British in Europe are “expats”, while the Europeans in Britain are migrants. Opinions differ, but to me the word expat is redolent of colonialism. An expat, in British vernacular, resides only temporarily in the benighted country where he labours to construct a simulacrum of civilisation, even if measured by calendar time he has spent most of his life there and never actually returns “home”. A migrant — not even an immigrant, which has a certain nobility to it — is an ethnic and civilisational climber, probably swarthy and reeking of garlic, who can wish nothing more than to leave his degraded origins behind him.

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