Saturday, 17 November 2018

We are all partisan hacks now

When I was younger, I thought the internet would improve political discourse, as it would take away the stranglehold of the mainstream media. Information wouldn't be filtered through a few agenda-laden voices, but there would be more of a focus on facts.

It's fair to say that I was extremely naive, and spectacularly wrong. Instead, as we all have come to learn, the internet has exacerbated the polemic nature in us and pushed us into even more tribal positions to the point we don't even feel the need to engage in substantive rhetoric.

But the problem is worse than that. We can now see others as mere mouthpieces of certain political rhetoric. In other words, they are biased, and all we need to do is point out how they are biased in order to dismiss them.

I've seen right wingers use the accusation of being left wing against fellow right wingers, and left wingers do the same against left wingers. The accusation is often confusing because those criticisms are often valid, but their use is disappointing because it shows how lazy we've become in our political rhetoric. We don't feel the need to address the substance, but immediately and indiscriminately try to cast the criticisms as extensions of a political identity we don't share.

It doesn't matter why we hold the positions we do. It doesn't matter about the underlying substance. It doesn't even matter where we actually sit on the political spectrum. When we are online, we are avatars of whatever politician / pundit / celebrity and need to be attacked as such.

Let's face it, we don't know nor need to know anything anymore. We don't need to have informed opinions, or be able to think through an issue. What matters is which side of politics closest resembles the view being put forward, and we need to remind ourselves that we are mere puppets of those views with no values or beliefs of our own.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Try putting politics you disagree with in terms of positive values

If you can't articulate a positive account of a given political belief in terms of positive values, you haven't understood that belief.

With the erosion of political discourse online, it's often hard to get away from the partisan rhetoric and inevitable strawmanning. We have our own political narratives for our own beliefs, bolstered by a community of like-minded individuals, yet we are isolating ourselves from other groups who respond to different values and narratives.

The more I saw this rhetoric online, the less I could figure out who it's for. It seems more about fostering in-group solidarity than an attempt to win in a democracy. And in a democracy, persuasion is the path to adoption.

Gross caricatures are not at all persuasive to those who are caricatured, and may only be effective on the neutral if it can capture an actionable value. More specifically, if you don't capture the correct values that are in play, you are showing yourself as an unreliable critic. You are a partisan hack repeating your tribe's talking points instead of offering a penetrating criticism.

Beliefs are rooted in values, and one reason why anyone claiming to be the moral majority or the 99% is greatly overestimating how widespread their particular values are. Yet both the moral majority movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement had values they believed in and believed were worth fighting for. To address either is to address those underlying values, however divergent they are from your own.

If you cannot see the focus on family, on love, on valuing social order, on the important of doing right morally, then the moral majority seems like a bible-thumping persecution-happy hate group. Similarly, if you can't see the commitment to justice, to rooting out corruption and greed, to caring for the basic welfare of people, then OWS seems like a bunch of self-righteous anti-capitalists who know nothing of how the world works demanding a socialist revolution.

People tend to centre their politics around beliefs that matter to them, so trying to demand a political discourse that ignores that is a disaster in a democracy. It's hard to break out of our own narratives and tribal allegiances, but doing so is how political discourse can (at least partly) transcend partisan talking points because it gets to the heart of what matters to a voter. Talking about their moral failings that you perceive in their beliefs is going to be ineffective at best, and often even counterproductive.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Welfare as a stick for conservatives

Money is a necessity in society. It's our agreed upon standard for facilitating most transactions. This fact alone justifies the need for welfare, because without it people cannot function in our society.

Its necessity doesn't mean it's well catered for, however, with crackdowns frequent and even modest increases being politically untenable on either side of politics. I used to think that it was because they're an easy target - a group that can be demonised who have little recourse to fight back - but I think that explanation excludes the basic moral impulses in play. Rather the unfairness of getting something for nothing makes them an easy target.

In short, there is a tension between the necessity of welfare and the perceived unfairness of a welfare state.

People can, if they choose to, live their whole life without needing to work, which requires that others in the society do the so-called heavy lifting. The welfare rhetoric often focuses on abuse of the system for this reason, even if those abuses are rare and end up affecting those who aren't abusing the system.

This is why programs to restrict welfare to the deserving are part of populist politics, irrespective of whether it provides good societal outcomes. Drug testing welfare recipients is one policy that's expensive, counter-productive, yet gets popular support. After all, drugs are illegal, and welfare is meant to look after individuals. Cards that restrict purchases or even food stamps are another. They are the tacit recognition that welfare is necessary but that out shouldn't go beyond that.

The current contention over welfare in Australia currently is that the rate is so low that it's not even performing its necessary function. Again, for conservatives, this is a good thing because it means welfare shouldn't be relied upon, so it should only be used as a last resort. Combine this with the complaint that welfare recipients find ways to get on higher payments (such as disability pensions, which again get repeated crackdowns) or that they are supplementing their income without declaring (see: robodebt) and we've got a punitive system that makes it harder for those on welfare to survive.

Yet all these measures don't address some of the problems associated with unemployment. People in vulnerable jobs can be exploited. Long-term unemployed have weakened job prospects. There can never be full employment, and many who work now are underemployed. No amount of sticks within the welfare system are going to change that.

Instead, what is needed are practical steps to overcoming barriers for entry. There needs to be better support to get people into work, from better training, to employer incentives. These should be driven by practical results.

At the same time, we really need to change how we view welfare from a handout to the ability to participate in society. This would be more in line with the role welfare plays in a society, allowing for economic activity. Money given to welfare tends to go back into the economy, so the money isn't being lost, but encouraging economic engagement.

So when the the rate jobseekers get remains stagnant while the cost of living goes up, the outcome will be pushing more people into deeper poverty. The stick methods may be a deterrent effect for people in crappy jobs not to quit and live off welfare, but it's not going to get many people off welfare without other changes that make it easier to work. The necessary function of welfare needs to be depoliticised because of how easy it is to perceive it as a straightforward unfairness problem.