Wednesday, 24 February 2016

An Outbreak of Zombie Super PACs

I've got a new piece up at IBTimes. Posting it here for purely archival purposes.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Maybe The Government Wanted Me To Write This?

Next week junior doctors will be taking their nuclear option and starting a series of complete strikes. While their previous walkouts have left emergency and critical care cover in place, this time they won’t. I wonder how many, when voting on the strike ballot back in November realised how far this would go, and how many would change their minds now, considering risks to patient safety and  to their own public support.
The BMA is probably the most powerful union in the country. Its members are well educated, respected by the public, photogenic and middle class, and crucially people don’t think of it as a trade union. Trade unions are full of burly working class men covered in coal dust. When doctors start agitating, social media is filled with middle class solidarity, petitions and opinion pieces shared by people who would never dream of doing the same for striking tube workers. Indeed, a popular graphic directly compared hard-working junior doctors to those feckless and overpaid tube workers.

Current pay distribution for doctors. Left three peaks are for juniors.

Doctors therefore start with from an extraordinary position of strength compared to other unions, and as such the BMA has had great success in the past at achieving its goals through soft power, making public statements and quietly lobbying without the need for a real strike. The union has therefore managed to preserve the relatively privileged position of doctors rather well. In spite of often understaffed hospitals, they have successfully limited places at UK medical schools. There is no shortage of capable people willing to be doctors, thousands more bright teenagers apply for medical school than are accepted, but if the supply increased, wages would fall. This is a completely reasonable thing for the BMA to do, all unions protect their members’ interests, that’s their job, but we shouldn’t see it as any different or more high minded just because it’s for middle class professionals. Equally, it is the job of the government to get the best deal for the taxpayer, and spending more money on wages for doctors isn’t necessarily the ideal use of scarce NHS funding.

With regards the actual substance of the deal, the gulf between the BMA and the government is actually rather small. The final sticking point was over how many Saturdays junior doctors would have to work before they were paid extra. The government offered extra money if it were more than one saturday a month, the BMA wanted all Saturdays to be paid a premium. Had the government conceded here, they would have called off all industrial action.

Since then, however, junior doctors on social media have been whipped up into a frenzy. As a medical student, I’ve watched this first hand both in person and on social media. Anyone not fully on board is subject to tirades of abuse by an army of medics utterly convinced of their own righteousness. For the first time in their lives, the class swots are getting to be rebellious, and they’re enjoying it rather too much. Facebook is filled with posts from doctors and medical students warning each other not to believe the mainstream media lies, retreating into a conspiratorial mindset more often associated with Communists, Scottish Nationalists and Donald Trump fans. Once this happens, it’s only a matter of time before they lose public respect, and I worry that they’re too far gone to back down now. There is even some suggestion that their leader, Johann Malwana, realises things have gone too far. He tried to exempt children’s healthcare from the strikes, but was overruled. Has he unleashed something he can no longer control?

Most statements around the strikes are wrapped up in very high minded rhetoric about protecting the NHS from private companies, often including a conspiracy theory where the government deliberately tries to crash the NHS so they can sell it off to private sector cronies. This seems very unconvincing to me. While many doctors moaned about the NHS reforms of 2012, they did not strike then. Instead, that same year, they went on strike over changes to their pensions. The last time before that, in the 1970s, it was over the right to private work for consultants. Again, these are all totally reasonable things to be concerned about, but they are matters of industrial relations and pay, not a crusade to save the NHS.

The doctors have also talked a lot about patient safety. This is a sensible decision to get the public onside. People are far more sympathetic to saving lives than increasing the pay of someone earning well over the median wage. Many previous studies, however have looked into doctors working hours. Ironically, these were responding to concerns at the time that limiting doctors hours were dangerous. Old school consultants who had to work 90 hour weeks as juniors felt that limitations imposed on working hours would mean understaffing, as well as a lack of experience by the time the juniors became consultants themselves, which would harm patient care. The evidence does not back this up, with both published meta analyses finding that there is not enough evidence to say patient safety is made either worse or better by any changes in working hours.

In the last few weeks I have seen several doctors and medical students on facebook approvingly sharing this. It argues, correctly, that there is nothing to stop individual NHS trusts from negotiating their own contract settlements with the doctors who work there. This would be very appealing to the strikers, who presumably think their own trusts would offer them better pay and conditions than the Department of Health, or at least stick with the old contracts. I'm not aware of the BMA making a statement on this yet, but they have been very wary of it in the past. For a union to have negotiating power, it needs to have a monopoly on the supply of labour. Allowing each NHS trust to negotiate separately would fundamentally undermine this.

Individual pay negotiation and the breakup of large public sector unions combines well with the government's agenda of breaking up the centralised NHS. NHS trusts would be able to experiment with different pay structures on a local basis, and maybe even compete against each other to attract the best junior doctors onto their staff. The Department of Health would no longer have to negotiate with the BMA, in fact the BMA would essentially have ceased to exist for the purposes of pay negotiation. This may be a good thing for the country, but it would hardly fit the aims of the strikers, they’d be cutting off their nose to spite their face.

None of this is to say that doctors shouldn’t try to improve their working conditions or pay. They should, however, be careful with how they proceed. This is a simple contract negotiation, albeit one that has become very hostile. Though the BMA have a lot of power, this power is vulnerable. Doctors are one of the few professions left with the respect of the public. Once a profession loses this respect, it doesn’t come back. Spending all their public sympathy on endless strikes over what is in the grand scheme of things a small issue is dangerous in the long run, and could jeopardise the future of the profession.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Neoliberalism, Social Justice and Barbie's New Hair

Edit - A shortened version of this post appears on IBTimes

Last week social justice had a victory and it had a loss. In Oxford, it was announced that Rhodes would not fall. In the States, Barbie got a feminist makeover, meaning that she gets fat and dyes her hair blue.

Obviously I don’t think all feminists look like this, but Mattel do.

Both these are relatively unimportant issues, but why did one succeed when the other fail? The most obvious difference is that the former was working against neoliberalism, while the latter worked with it. Rich donors wanted to keep the Rhodes statue, so it stayed. Barbie being a feminist means a huge number of different dolls for kids to buy, or, maybe more likely, for their right on parents to buy for them, and plenty of money for Mattel. Social justice causes are far more likely to succeed when allied with capitalism, and fail when opposed to it.

This may sound counterintuitive, since those agitating for social justice ostensibly rail against the evils of neoliberalism every day. The link between the two, however, was first pointed out to me by Ben Southwood, who has now decided that it will be called the Southwood Thesis. (You only really get to name one eponymous thing, Ben went for his pretty early in life.) While some social justice causes may ostensibly work against capitalism, these tend to fail, and the successful ones usually push society in a marketised direction.

There may be many different mechanisms through which the link works, and for the sake of exploration I’ve tried to list them here. I’m not confident in them all being real, whether they are all appropriate to include under this label, or whether they are all separate phenomena, but have tended towards including as much as possible. Equally, I’m taking rather generous definitions of both social justice and neoliberalism. Like porn, you know them when you see them. Neoliberalism is seen as the dominant ideology of the modern west, predominantly market based but with space for some government involvement in the economy, technocratic and sceptical of any overt ideological statements.. By social justice I don’t just mean tumblr ‘SJW’ stuff, but generally the post ‘68 consensus and rejection of faith, flag and family traditions in favour of self expression values. 


1. Social Justice as Distraction From Economic Justice 

This is a point that has often been made by the old left. Essentially, post the collapse of the soviet union, radicals lost all faith in socialism, and instead pivoted onto identity politics, which is substantially less challenging to the economic system. This requires us to assume that campaigning on social issues replaces campaigning on economic issues, but I think this is reasonably likely, you can only go on so many marches, and donations to some political organisations will divert funds from others. While the left are distracted by gay marriage and language policing each other, the corporatist government can get on with privatisation and cutting taxes. Anecdotally, this may even be tacitly encouraged, with big business giving money to activists to keep them safely occupied with unimportant problems. 

For a good statement of this position, see everything Fredrik DeBoer has ever written.
2. Social Justice as Cover for Neoliberalism 

People with a neoliberal agenda, economists, businessmen etc, may use liberal social values in order to cover their left flank when among their liberal gentry class friends.

People may only tolerate a certain number of deviations from their own views before they start casting them out of polite society. This is known in social psychology as idiosyncracy credits. Holding liberal social views, therefore, may provide licence for right wing economic views. While they may look like naughty right wingers on some issues, they’re not that sort of right winger, and can still get invited to the best dinner parties.

 3. Left-Fusionism

Fusionism was a right wing tactic that began to take shape in the 1950s, and finally reached its peak with Reagan. The idea was that right wingers who favoured a small state, generally not a popular idea with the general public, should make common cause with social conservatives in order to piggyback on the popularity of their ideas. It may be that many fusionists never really had any passion for social issues at all, but merely saw them as a useful means to gain power. As the electorate becomes more liberal, however, we may see the opposite.

The current mainstream of the democratic party in the states may be an example of this. Hillary Clinton clearly doesn’t care much about social justice issues, having been anti gay marriage only a couple of years ago. She is, however, focusing a large amount of campaigning energy on it, and sticking rainbows on anything that moves. This may be seen as a way of gaining popularity among the left wing base for her fundamentally neoliberal economic agenda. This has become very noticeable over the course of the Democrat presidential race. Many supporters of Bernie Sanders have made these exact criticisms of Clinton, and been on the receiving end of a large backlash from media elites, leading to a fun mini war over the existence of probably fictional ‘Berniebros’, young male socialist trolls insufficiently interested in social justice. If you don’t support capitalism, you’re a misogynist!

With right fusionists fighting left fusionists, the whole system is neoliberal, social issues are merely a false war to distract people from this. No matter who wins, the market wins! This is very similar to point one, with the distinction being that there social justice issues unconsciously distract people who who are sincerely left wing, whereas here they are used consciously by those who aren’t. It is distinct from point two in that it is used as an explicit means to win power, rather than just to placate friends. 

4. Social Justice as Marketing Strategy 

This is probably the most noticeable process. Corporations want to attract the key 18-40 demographic, with disposable time and income. Socially liberal ideas are most popular among the young and wealthy. The combination is natural. It was perhaps most notable during Obergefell v. Hodges, when almost every company going had a rainbow profile picture. Even more radically, we see Beyonce performing a black panther inspired routine, in order to sell her new range of merchandise and records.

This can sometimes go the other way. Social conservatives flocked to Chick-fil-A after their CEO backed traditional marriage, but most companies don’t much care about the demographic who support this, and it’s possible these people are less vulnerable to gauche political posturing as a marketing tactic. Social justice advertising is mostly propagated through social media, where the audience is younger and more liberal, so this may just be targeted marketing rather than a more general strategy. More interestingly, companies may use social activism and boycotts against their rivals as an addition to more usual price and quality based competition.

The trend has also been noticed by the left, with more radical campaigners criticising it as pinkwashing. This doesn’t necessarily reflect a fundamental compatibility between social justice and neoliberalism. It is simply a tendency for companies to back winners, and at the moment liberals are on the ascendency. If their advertising has any impact on the public’s political views, corporations likely just speed any existing bandwagon they can find. 

5. Markets Don’t Like Discrimination 

In a market economy, it will rarely pay to discriminate. Minority groups are a large market, so refusing to sell to them will result in lower profits. If an employer pays black workers less than equally productive white workers, it would make sense for a competitor to poach them. Any company with incentives other than maximising its profit will in the long run lose out to those who do. This was laid out by the uber-neoliberal Gary Becker. Equally, many of the strategies of activists working towards social justice ends takes the form of boycotts against companies they dislike, a fundamentally market based method of effecting change, and maybe one of the most effective. Even in the recent fights over free speech and abuse online, we see a similar thing, as activists use the corporate control of public fora to argue that restrictions on expression aren’t impingements on people’s rights. The people who run corporations are far more open to liberal arguments than the general voter, and so this may be an easier target for social change than via the ballot box. 

6. Labour Force Size and Mobility 

The adoption of liberal government policy and social norms is often good for big business. This is an argument that has been made by some conservatives in the past, but few still exist, with the vast majority of supposed conservatives being fully signed up to a neolibral agenda. The most obvious of these is probably immigration. The left promote immigration partly because it can lead to big increases in welfare for some of the world’s poorest people, and partly because they want to rub those racist pleb's noses in a bit of diversity. Both noble goals. The right, meanwhile, support it because it brings in a ready supply of low cost labour, bidding down wages at the bottom of society, and also increasing economic growth. This, however, may erode the social trust upon which traditional, non market, institutions depended. In addition, an increasingly diverse society may reduce support for redistributive government policies. People might be willing to pay for a large welfare state if it is supporting people similar to them, but less keen if it's for a 'bunch of migrants' with whom they have less in common, both culturally and genetically. 

Equally, women entering the workplace is a noble liberal cause, promoting independence and freedom, as well as leading to large increases in the size of the workforce and so helping boost economic growth. It also led to the end of the single earner nuclear family unit that was dominant throughout most of the latter part of the last millennium. As people strive to compete in the economic sphere, through longer working hours, this home life is eroded, and as workers move more in search of jobs and opportunities, the local institutions based on shared history and ties to the area break down. People are less likely to be involved in a local community when they’re only there for a year until they next move jons. A socially liberal society may simply be much more amenable to capitalism. 

7. Social Justice Opening New Markets 

Liberal social norms in many areas take what are traditionally informal, private realms, and bring them into the public sphere. As more women enter the workforce, childcare can be increasingly marketised, it becomes a job, rather than part of home life. Though no extra work is being done, this can show up in those sweet sweet GDP figures. Likewise, a big recent social justice cause has been sex work, where again private interactions between people become market based interactions between a buyer and seller. We are constantly told by progressive that we need to talk more about sex. Again, the borders of the home and bedroom, previously sacred, private and hidden from the tentacles of public discourse and the market, are broken down, allowing us all to buy lots of sex toys.

Perhaps less obviously, sexual liberation as well as the breakdown of traditional social institutions like the church, have led to a far more open, competitive and liquid dating market. Business have been able to step into this niche, and therefore profit off social interactions that were previously closed off to that, through online dating sites and apps such as tinder. If, as looks likely, polyamoury, becomes the next frontier, I'm sure there'll be an app for that too.

8. Social Justice Values as Market Values

In the past, status in society was gained through ones family, and wealth was mostly inherited land for the aristocracy. Society valued stability, hierarchy and self discipline. Capitalism does not value these things. Success is based on creative destruction, novelty, and self expression. The people we idolise are self made millionaires, successful musicians and actors. We compete to keep up with the Jones' on the things we wear, the things we eat, even the opinions we hold, always looking for an edge in the marketplace of cool, and there's always someone to sell you the latest cool hot takes.


This is all no coincidence, modern social justice and economic liberalism are phylogenetically linked, stemming from puritanical protestantism and opposed to traditionalist catholicism. They've both come a long way, but share a common individualism and commitment to progress and change.

It seems possible to me that the 21st century could see a political realignment along these lines, but currently the parties are split right down the middle. The 'metropolitan liberals', (Miliband, Umunna, Thornberry) are facing off against its more conservative working class base, some of who now seem to be defecting to Ukip. Corbyn is almost totally irrelevant to this fight, being unnacceptable to much of both factions, and tries desperately to hold things together. Equally, the Conservatives seem split between a relatively liberal leadership, and a conservative base. The EU referendum will serve as a proxy war for this fight within all parties.

In America, similarly, both parties are split down the middle. The left sees the Queen of social justice/neoliberal fusionism facing off against Bernie Sanders slightly crustier politics. Likewise, Donald Trump represents this same division. While on social issues, he is determinedly unprogressive, on economic ones, he looks far more of a poujadist than a business conservative. On the other hand, while more mainstream candidates like Marco Rubio may take many socially conservative positions, in a similar way to Clinton, they represent the triumph of the market state over the nation state, and the Cloud over the Land.

There are plenty of ways you might react to this fundamental compatibility between free markets and social justice. A modern liberaltarian may revel in it, a traditional conservative sees the unmasked face of cthulhu and everything he fears. A left winger sees that their whole life's work may have been in vain. I marvel at it. A memeplex so versatile and pervasive it governs our every social interaction, twists all opposition to it into support. Neoliberalism is pretty great, and it will succeed no matter what you do, so stop complaining and enjoy the ride.