Recently a major economics paper was found to contain basic excel errors, among other problems, and an amusing storm of controversy is growing around the paper. The controversy arises because the paper was apparently quite influential in promoting the most recent round of austerity politics in the western world, and the authors themselves used it actively in this way. The authors even managed to find a magic number – 90% – at which government debt (as a proportion of GDP) throttles growth, a threshold that many small government activists and “sustainable deficit” types have been seeking for years. It’s like manna from heaven!

There’s been a lot of hilarity arising from this, about how woeful the economics field is and about how vulnerable policy-makers on crucial issues like government spending can be to even quite terrible research that supports their agenda. But there has also been some criticism on statistics and academic blogs about the use of excel for advanced analysis, and what a bad idea it is. Andrew Gelman has a thread debating how terrible excel is as a computational tool, and Crooked Timber has a post (with excellent graphic!) expressing incredulity that anyone would do advanced stats in excel. While I agree in general, I feel an urgent need to jump to the defense of MS Excel.

MS Excel is great. It’s much, much more convenient than a calculator, and it can be used to do quite complex calculations (as in sums and multiplications) in multiple directions that would take ages on a calculator. On most computers now the calculator is buried or, if you’re a windows user, crap, and if you need anything more than addition it’s much more convenient to drag out excel. Sure it takes a moment to load compared to your calculator function, but it is so much easier to compare numbers, to calculate exponents and logs, and to present simple results in excel than in a calculator. As a simple case in point: if you get regression coefficients from Stata you can copy and paste them into excel and exponentiate to get relative risks, etc.; then you copy the formulas below, run a new regression model (with, e.g. random effects that weren’t in the previous one) and paste the results to enable you to compare between models quickly and easily. Similarly, if you’re checking a paper to see if they calculated odds ratios or relative risks, you can chuck those numbers into excel and do the comparisons with the contingency table right there in front of you. It offers a simple, graphically convenient way to visualize numbers. This is especially useful when the task you’re approaching is conceptually very simple (like a contingency table) but takes a bit of time to do on a hand calculator, and takes a bit of time to convert to the file formats required in Stata or R. In the time it takes me to think about how to structure the problem, input four lines of data to R, and then write the code to calculate the odds ratios, I can do the whole thing in excel, have the contingency table in front of me to check I’ve made no transcription errors from the paper, and fiddle quickly with changing numbers.

If you’re doing cost-effectiveness analysis in TreeAge (shudder) or R, excel is a really useful tool both for outputting results to something that is vaguely attractive to use, and for doing ballpark calculations to check that your models are behaving reasonably. This is especially useful if you’re doing stochastic Markov models, that can take hours or days to run in TreeAge, because you can’t trust software like that to give you the correct answer if you try to treat your stochastic model as a simple decision tree (because of the way that TreeAge faffs around with probability distributions, which is non-intuitive). Make a few simple assumptions, and you can do approximate calculations yourself in excel, and fiddle with key numbers – cohort size or a few different parameters – and see what effect they have.

Recently I was helping someone with survival analysis and she was concerned that her definition of time to drop out was affecting her results. She conducted a sensitivity analysis in Stata to see what effect it was having, and although with correct programming she could have produced all the material she needed in Stata, the time it takes to do this and debug your code can be time-consuming if you aren’t a natural. It’s much easier with modern machines to just run the regression 10 times with different values of drop-out time and plot the output hazard ratios in excel.

So, I think excel is a very useful tool for advanced modeling, precisely because of its ease of use and its natural, intuitive feel – the properties that recent excel bashers claim make it such a terrible device. While I definitely think it should not be used for advanced models themselves, I find it a hugely valuable addition to the model-building process. Reproducible code and standardized tools are essential for publishable work, but unless you are one of those people who never does any fiddling in the background to work out what’s going on in your model, excel will turn out to be your go-to tool for a wide range of support tasks.

In any case, the bigger problem with Rogoff and Reinhart’s work was not the excel error. Even if they had got the excel code right, their results would still have been wrong because their modeling method was absolutely appalling, and should never have seen the light of day, even at a conference. The main flaws in their work were twofold:

  • They binned years together, essentially giving different years different weights in the final model
  • They stripped the years out of their time series context, so crucial information contained in the time ordering of deficits and growth was lost

I think the second flaw is the most specifically terrible. By using this method they essentially guaranteed that they would be unable to show that Keynesian policies work, and they stripped the cause-effect relationship from all data collected in the Keynesian era (which lasted from the start of their data series to about 1970). In the Keynesian era, we would expect to see a sequence in which deficit increases follow negative growth, so unless the negative growth periods are very short and random, Reinhart and Rogoff’s method guarantees that this looks like an association between negative growth and higher deficits. If Keynesian policies actually work, then we would subsequently see an increase in growth and a reduction in deficits – something that by design in Reinhart and Rogoff’s model would be used to drive the conclusion that higher debt causes lower growth.

In short, no matter what package they used, and no matter how sophisticated and reproducible their methods, Reinhart and Rogoff’s study was designed[1] to show the effect it did. The correct way to analyze this data was through the presentation of time series data, probably analyzing using generalized least squares with a random effect for country, or something similar. Using annual data I think it would probably be impossible to show the relationship between debt and growth clearly, because recessions can happen within a year. But you could probably achieve better, more robust results in excel using proper time series data than you could get in R from Reinhart and Rogoff’s original method.

The problem here was the operator, not the machine – something which should always be remembered in statistics!

—-

fn1: I use the term “was designed” here without any intention to imply malfeasance on the part of the authors. It’s a passive “was designed”.

Did Tubs do right?

image

Do Japanese cats understand cats from Australia?  Is feline a universal language? Do they understand “get off there you bastard” in any language? This birthday card from my cat to me shows he speaks the language of his household , though hiragana are visible if you squint. Perhaps he is bilingual but lacks the manual dexterity for kanji?

Note also the single cat biscuit under the ribbon. Who says cats  can’t feel love?

I’ve been enjoying the Olympics from the vantage point of my air-conditioned couch, and because I’m in Japan I’m getting to see only the sports that interest Japanese viewers, so at the moment it’s wall-to-wall Judo and swimming. Of course, having something of a soft spot for China I’m quite happy to see them coming up in the world of olympic sports, and this year’s sensation is Ye Shiwen, the 16 year old swimmer whose performance has sparked controversy. An American high up in swimming circles claims she must be a drug cheat, because not only did she beat a man in one leg of her medley (and not just any man – an American man), her times have improved rapidly in just a year or two, and her freestyle leg was just so much faster than her other legs.

Of course this has pissed off the Chinese delegation and Chinese media no end, though to her credit Ye Shiwen has responded in a level-headed manner both in and out of the pool. But she might be surprised to hear that she has found some strong defenders in the Australian press. The Sydney Morning Herald has an article disputing all the main claims of the American coach, and suggesting that both Australian and American achievers could be accused of drug cheating if judged on their performance alone. About Ms. Ye swimming faster than an American man (Lochte) in her freestyle leg, he points out that she didn’t actually beat his medley speed overall, and in any case four other men in Lochte’s race did beat Ye’s time in the same leg – they were all swimming their hearts out to catch up with Lochte, which is what Ye had to do in her freestyle leg to catch the leader.

John Leonard’s other big complaint is that Ye shaved five seconds off her previous best at this Olympics. The Herald’s article tears this complaint apart:

It wasn’t an insinuation Rice had to deal with when she clocked her world record in 2008, which was at the time an absurdly fast result.

Earlier that year, Rice shaved a startling six seconds off her personal best time to hit 4.31.46 at the Australian trials. American Katie Hoff reclaimed the mark a few months late before Rice countered at the Beijing Games, reducing it to below 4.30 for the first time. In contrast, people seized on the fact Ye reduced her PB by five seconds to claim the new mark of 4.28.43 as genuine grounds for suspicion.

The article also points out that Leonard’s comparison of Ye’s times now with two years ago are unfair because of Ye’s age:

To the wider sporting world, Ye is only now becoming a notable name. Yet to swimming diehards, she has been one of the rising stars for some years, even if her surge of form in London has caught most people by surprise. Beisel and Rice had been the favourites for gold.

Ye won the 200m IM at the Asian Games in 2010 (2.09.37) and the 400m IM (4.33.79), all at age 14. At the time, she was listed at 160cm tall. Now, the official Olympic site lists her 12 cm loftier at 172cm. That sort of difference in height, length of stroke and size of hand leads to warp-speed improvement.

To me these paragraphs also contain an insinuation of bad faith against Leonards: he clearly, as a swimming insider, knows that Ye’s times have grown with her age and body size, and should be aware of her history. So why is he making the complaints so openly now? Would he be happy to have them made against Michael Phelps or Stephanie Rice when they started their careers? Is it fair on Ye that her improvement should be immediately slated home to drugs? The accusations have already hit home, with the doping committee making an unprecedented release of her pre-olympic drug testing results to calm the waters, but it’s probably the case that the claims won’t die down.
I think that she’s probably not a drug cheat (or if she is, she’s doing the same undetectable cheating as everyone else) and Leonards and others who insinuate that she is are well aware that her performance is natural. But these people are watching their nation’s long-standing dominance of this sport sliding out of their grip as China’s performance improves. There are also insinuations of “military-style training camps” (always a marker of repression when they do it, but of efficiency when we do it), tightly-controlled sporting worlds, etc. But in fact the Chinese swimming world is quite open and employs foreign coaches, one of whom wrote an illuminating opinion piece for the Guardian, indicating exactly why China is improving its performances so fast: hard work. This coach writes:

Chinese athletes train incredibly hard, harder than I can explain in words and as a coach who has placed swimmers on five different Olympic Games teams, I have never seen athletes train like this anywhere in the world.

They have an unrelenting appetite for hard work, can (and will) endure more pain for longer than their western counterparts, will guarantee to turn up for practice every single time and give their all. They are very proud of their country, they are proud to represent China and have a very team focused mentality.

He adds that there is no special talent selection program, but that he just selects those players he sees and thinks are good. But he gives an interesting insight into the supposedly centrally-managed, state mandated programs that are always painted in such a negative light when they compete with Western athletics – in fact, like so much of Chinese “communism” they’re probably more free market than those in the West:

Let’s also not forget that this is their only avenue for income; most do not study and sport offers them a way out or a way up from where they and their families currently live in society. If their swimming fails, they fail and the family loses face … my athletes are salaried and receive bonuses for performance; I am salaried and receive bonuses for performance. We all want performance, not mediocrity, not sport for all, but gold medals – and they are not afraid to say this.

He also observes that China gives him all the funding he needs, and enormous freedom to manage his coaching programs:

If I want a foreign training camp, money is available; if I want high-altitude training – money is available; if I want an assistant coach – money is available; if I want some new gadgets or training equipment, guess what? Money is available.

I think this is the real threat that people like Leonards are worried about. As China becomes wealthy, it is pouring money into playing catch up not just industrially and economically, but in the cultural and scientific pursuits that have traditionally marked out the west as “advanced,” on the assumption that fast development in these areas will lead to results that will challenge western cultural hegemony. They don’t want to be pinned down to traditionally “Asian” sports that often have lower value (ping-pong, badminton, the traditional martial arts) but want to compete in areas that, by being traditionally western strongholds, often have higher cultural value attached to them: swimming, basketball, soccer and gymnastics. And by dint of their combination of rapid economic growth, rampant nationalism, and highly successful mix of central planning and free market ideas, they’re going to catch up fast. The doyens of a previous era of cultural and sporting superiority don’t want to accept it, just as a previous generation of industrialists couldn’t accept Japanese superiority in industry, and a previous generation of military planners couldn’t believe Japanese naval and air superiority.

As China continues to improve its sporting prowess, I think we’ll see more of the same, allied at times with accusations of cheating and corruption. But I think, given the sour grapes China’s growth is producing in many areas in the west, we should approach many claims about their sports programs and sportspeople with a great deal of cynicism and caution.

This weekend all atomic clocks will add an extra second of time to keep track of … something. This is cool! I’m moving house on Sunday, I could use the extra second of sleep. The Guardian reports on the issue, and some of the commenters provide some excellent examples of a healthy cynicism towards science.

Asks Easilylead:

Do we all have to take the extra second at the same time, or can we save it for when we need it?

Following this (almost immediately) TheAdulteratedCat shows that there is no law of the universe that humans haven’t learnt to rort the moment it’s written. In response to Easilylead, TheAdulteratedCat asks

You mean like you can claim it if you’re about to be hit by a bus?

I think we can all agree that would be awesome, like the universe delivering everyone on earth a single fortune point through the dipole moment effect of gravity, or something. Thanks, God! But tipatina is clued up to the obvious social justice issues attached to this time change:

i hope the unions make sure we get paid for this extra second… if not i say we strike for two seconds…who’s with me

A valid point, I’m sure we can agree, though I don’t know if I can make it to the barricades in two seconds. But this extra second doesn’t just manifest as an issue in economic relations: consistent with basic feminist doctrine, we need to recognize that all political issues start in the bedroom, and WhatsMyPoint has his eye on the feminist implications of the moment:

The Mrs is in for a treat 🙂 Reckon I can just about last that!

The world will definitely be partying for that extra second … unless you’re an elite athlete:

Could we add the extra second during the 100m final at the Olympics to slow down Usain Bolt? Or would that speed him up?

Sadly for newlaplandes, the olympics won’t be held at midnight tomorrow night.

Finally, however, VSLVSL nails it:

I BLAME BROWN.

That bastard! I bet he’d tax our extra second if he could!

Gruumsh not think R help much like poetry. Gruumsh need use R to crush human foe. Gruumsh not like read help, but sometimes have to. Here help for round function, Gruumsh quote verbatim:

Note that for rounding off a 5, the IEC 60559 standard is expected to be used, ‘go to the even digit’. Therefore round(0.5) is 0 and round(-1.5) is -2. However, this is dependent on OS services and on representation error (since e.g. 0.15 is not represented exactly, the rounding rule applies to the represented number and not to the printed number, and so round(0.15, 1) could be either 0.1 or 0.2).

Gruumsh not trained statistician, but Gruumsh think this is big pile of steaming Ogre shit. Gruumsh check with Stata oracle. Stata rounds 0.5 to 1, not 0. Stata sensible god of numbers. Gruumsh not mathematician, but when Gruumsh round 0.15, Gruumsh expect 0.2. Gruumsh want to smash idiot that made IEC 60559 standard. Stupid jobsworth die slow nasty death under Gruumsh-club.

 

Today’s Guardian is reporting a new conservative policy on welfare, which will target young people on housing benefit particularly. David Cameron wants us to think that this is a big and necessary change, but in making his case he is giving an implicit nod to what really needs to happen in the UK:

If you are a single parent living outside London, if you have four children and you’re renting a house on housing benefit, then you can claim almost £25,000 a year. That is more than the average take-home pay of a farm worker and nursery nurse put together. That is a fundamental difference. And it’s not a marginal point.

I agree, David, though perhaps you missed the key point in your speech: if a farm worker and a nursery nurse can’t between them earn more than 25,000 pounds a year, there is something seriously wrong with your economic system. Do you expect these people to build a life together on that income in modern Britain? And do you wonder why people might prefer not to bother looking for work? You claim that 1 in 6 British children lives in a workless household, but your alternative to their lack of work is to cast them into a labour market where two grown adults between them have to work in hard jobs to make 25k?

What David Cameron needs to do is buried in that speech. He needs to find a way to make work more rewarding, to lift people out of the state of working poverty. He either can’t, or doesn’t want, to do either. Why bother, when your rich mates are demanding that you flood the labour market with cheap and vulnerable workers?

… have been in the media recently. This is a fine example of how to debunk “research” showing that computer games make children angry …

In comments to my statistical proof that Game of Thrones is misogynist, Jamie tells me that I am viewing the world through the lens of “privilege,” and thus unable to properly understand the seriousness of certain issues. There is of course a grain of truth to this idea, that living in a certain privileged environment can make one blind to the full nuances of life as someone else, and to the extent that the word “privilege” or phrases like “blinded by privilege” can be used to describe this situation, I think they are useful rhetorical devices. But scan any feminist blog today – Feministing, or Pandagon, or Shakesville, for example – and you’ll see lots of examples of arguments being shut down and opposing opinions invalidated through the invocation of “privilege.” For example, at the “feminism 101” page on Shakesville, itself a loathsomely sexist blog (though the authors can’t see it) we get lots of invocation of privilege in quite negative and almost mystical terms. Consider “On Privilege Breeding Insecurity” (emphasis in the original):

Insight isn’t the only thing that undiluted privilege doesn’t freely give its members; it also robs them of an internal, dignified security that isn’t predicated on treating rights as a zero-sum game. Every layer of privilege serves as proxy for the self-assurance hard-won by struggling to be proud despite one’s marginalization. Privilege tells its members they need not reflect, or justify, or earn, or question. They needn’t even bother themselves with the business of being good, because unexamined privilege assures them they are good, by virtue of their privilege.

Not only is this a remorselessly negative view of modern men, but it clearly contains the germ of a rhetorical strategy of ignoring other people’s point of view and setting up levels of “privilege” that you can choose to ignore. Of course, it’s written by an American, which means it’s written by one of the most privileged people on earth, whose entire way of life depends on the huge economic inequality between her country and the rest of the world. Yet … I’m sure she’d object to being told that her “hard-won” self-assurance was actually a windfall due to an accident of her birth. It’s kind of like being a man, really, isn’t it? And see here’s the great thing about the argument from “privilege”: Shakesville’s author can claim that she understands the situation of people in the developing world – maybe she’ll even claim that her own underprivileged position gives her useful insights – and that her opinions about what people in the developing world should do and think are valid; but the child labourer from India can just tell her that she’s talking from a privileged position and doesn’t know anything, really. And what can she say back? It’s a perfect argument – if you want to stifle debate. Not so useful if you think that the free exchange of ideas might help everyone to progress to a world without inequality.

In my opinion, then, this concept of “privilege” as deployed in the feminist blogosphere is deeply counter-productive: it has limited analytical power; it reduces structural discrimination to simple personal politics; and it is founded on the gender essentialism that pervades radical feminism, which is itself a tactic aimed at establishing a new, privileged form of rhetoric.

The limited analytic power of “privilege” rhetoric

The very last time I involved myself in a political struggle was a student occupation a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I was not a student at the time – I had completed my Masters of Public Health and was working full time as a researcher in a health centre for extremely marginalized members of the community (who themselves could show astoundingly regressive racist and sexist beliefs). I just turned up with a few mates to help out with the occupation. More fool me. Near the end of my day of “helping,” as my stomach was sinking at the site of what a shambolic and useless demonstration it was turning into, I found myself standing in a ring of students, who were being given instructions by one of the demonstration’s organizers. At this time I was in my mid twenties, kickboxing maybe 2-3 times a week, and hadn’t yet discovered fashion. So there I was in a flannelette shirt and skintight black jeans, hair shaved, tanned from bike riding and generally in fairly good physical condition. The organizer went around the ring of students asking each in turn to go to their university and organize as many students as possible to come to the occupation[1]. Then she came to me, took one look at me and said “I want you go to your technical college and see if you can get us any help.” That’s right, she thought simply by looking at my clothing that I was not a university student.

This woman was so “blinded” by her own “privilege” that she couldn’t comprehend that someone from a working class or lumpen proletarian background could even be at university. This is a remarkably naive attitude for a person in Australia in the 1990s, when lots of people from that background were easily able to get into university if they studied hard. But it showed what a bubble she lived in. So whose privilege was working against whose here, and which one trumps which in the woe is me stakes? Me the professional man still not yet out of my working class cultural heritage, or her the wealthy woman? Obviously I was no longer in the class of my origins – as a researcher I had moved up to middle class – but the attitude she was showing to me is exactly the attitude that now, as a professional adult, she will be showing to little 18 year old versions of me that she meets, working class men and women whose futures are extremely vulnerable to small flexings of the muscles of the privileged upper classes. So in amongst this complex mess of privilege – of age and wealth vs. masculinity – which one should we decide holds the whip hand? And in making that decision, have we actually added anything to our understanding of the best methods for undoing the inequality that plagues our societies?

In my estimation, we’re much better off ignoring people’s origins, and talking about the structural factors that determine inequality. As someone from a working class family who found out what university was at the age of 16, moved to his university with precisely $300 to his name ($250 for student fees!) and has never received a cent from either of his parents since he turned 16, but who watches his friends have their houses bought for them by rich parents, I feel that the inequality in access to capital is a much, much more serious factor in determining life futures than, say, the fact that one of those friends had never had a friend who paid their own fees before he met me.  How does discussion of the role of people’s privilege in personal interactions change anything for people from my background? Reducing political disagreements to nasty personal judgments about your interlocutor’s emotional attitude to you won’t help working class women get access to childcare, but it will distract everyone from the structural factors that govern inequality.

The reduction of structural discrimination to personal politics

This concept of “privilege” also enables “anti-racists” and feminists to be self-congratulatory even as they’re saying or doing enormously racist and sexist things – because they themselves aren’t from a background of “privilege” so everything they do must obviously be in solidarity with the world’s victims. Right? Try telling yourself that next time you drink a cup of coffee during a debate about inequality, and think about where that coffee came from. The best example of this that I can think of is Pandagon, which is a nest of accusations and co-accusations of privilege. I was banned from Pandagon for challenging one of the team’s racist assumptions about Japanese Otaku culture. The very next comment after my banning was a crude joke by that same team member about the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. I guess, if you’re a black man from the wrong side of the tracks, your lack of “privilege” means you can make cruel jokes about a whole race of people that your country once nuked. Pandagon also used to host a commenter called Gilmar, who was a soldier who spent several years in Iraq. She was very fond of throwing out accusations of privilege, but the sparks really would fly if you pointed out the hypocrisy of a member of an occupying army complaining about their own oppression. Now, it may be that she thinks the war in Iraq is justified, but there are about 2 million Iraqi refugees (and a million dead) who might like to disagree; by her own lights, rather than engaging with her in a debate about the relative merits of liberal interventionism, they can just say “you’re blinded by privilege!” and there goes the argument. Unless she wants to claim that a female soldier in the US army from a poor background has less privilege than one of the civilian victims of that army. And maybe she could – some of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were gang leaders, no doubt, or colonels in a sexist society, etc. So the argument cycles back to a debate about who is blinder to whose circumstances, while the war grinds on and grinds over the little people.

I think identity politics has its place in political discourse and can form an important narrative tool, as well as a rallying point in struggles for equality. For example, if your inequality exists purely because of some identifiable aspect of who you are – your skin colour or sexuality – then solutions to that problem must necessarily distinguish between people on the basis of that identity. But that doesn’t mean identity politics is always and everywhere right or useful, and the big problem of modern identity politics American-style is that it reduces every political discussion to a debate about individuals’ characteristics and problems and conflicts, rather than to a discussion of the social and structural determinants of inequality. I don’t care how blind person X is to the problems of person Y, if person X doesn’t engage in or facilitate structural barriers to person Y living their life as they want. Sure, it might mean that person X doesn’t understand person Y’s predicament, but who cares, so long as person Y’s predicament gets fixed?

There are issues of course where individuals react against perceived reverse discrimination, where this blindness may have political consequences (e.g. backlashes against positive discrimination). But responding to that by accusations of “privilege” blinding the objector isn’t going to work: not only will they object to their own compassion being questioned, but it’s likely that they have their own experience of discrimination and barriers, and this will lead to the unedifying prospect of mud being slung between the people at the bottom. This is why conservative campaigns against things like positive discrimination and welfare tend to be aimed at the Tory working class – because they are going to be least favourable to others getting a leg up, through their own experience of discrimination. Telling them they don’t get it because their experience is just not so bad both impugns their compassion, undermines any class solidarity one might be aiming to try and achieve, and just generally sets them on edge. Better than saying “you don’t get it because you’re more privileged than me” is to explain your program to them. And if you can’t convince them of the merits of your program, then maybe your program isn’t good for them, in which case regardless of your relative degrees of privilege, they will oppose it.

The most obvious example of this is the inequality between nations. It’s in the best interests of the majority of the developing world to see major changes in the way the world order works. If these changes were implemented fully, the readers of Pandagon would have to pay considerably more for many of the resources they take for granted. Strangely enough, they seem to be more focused on domestic issues. One could claim that this is because they are blind to the suffering of the developing world, but more likely it’s because they don’t particularly want to overturn a world order that works just fine for them… but by ranting on about the privilege of white upper class cisgenders they can escape the extra bit of self-reflection required to at least have the decency to feel guilty about posting blog comments on a phone made at FoxConn.

Gender essentialism and the language of “privilege”

A more sinister aspect of this concept of “privilege” that I find annoying is its assumption of some heirarchy of troubles, and its lack of interest in the overlapping problems of class, culture, gender and sexual identity. Thus we find ourselves trapped in fine-grained debate about who is more privileged – a straight-acting white gay male or a working class white woman vs. a wealthy lesbian professional vs. a rich, white, heterosexual female student. But underlying a lot of this debate in the feminist blogosphere is the idea that gender trumps the lot and sexism lies at the base of all the other forms of discrimination. There’s a strong streak of gender essentialism in this notion that we can boil down all inequalities and social conflicts to a root cause of discrimination against women, and whether it’s expressed in the astringent language of radical feminism or the more eloquent and allegorical just-so stories of ecofeminism, we still end up with this unknowable and unchangeable root-causes theory driving our understanding of who is in a worse situation than who. Alternatively, unable to comprehend the complexities of intersectoral discrimination, these bloggers find themselves constantly treading on each other’s toes: in this debate you can’t disagree with my opinion because you aren’t disabled; in this debate the key dimension of privilege is gender, so how much really would race or class affect that fundamental dimension? Of course, women are always and everywhere discriminated against, so they can always defend themselves against claims of privilege.

We see this at its most unedifying in two issues: whether to include transgender women in safe spaces; and how to respond politically to lesbian B&D. The latter has received some awful criticism from radical feminists, which makes it clear how uninterested they are in including certain forms of sexual identity in their big tent. It’s okay to be asexual, apparently, but not to be a masochist lest you reproduce patriarchal relations in your lesbian bedroom. And transgenders retain the privileged perspective of men, because women have a special, innate experience that no one else can understand. This kind of logic is poisonous for any shared understanding of the human condition, and destructive of attempts to find shared ground.

Conclusion

Talking about “privilege” as a reason why people disagree with you or don’t understand you doesn’t get you anywhere. At best, it reduces argument to a debate about lifestyles and identities – the Americanization of political debate. At worst, it alienates your interlocutor and blinds both you and them to the very real common ground you might be able to find in the struggle to make the world a better place. Political disempowerment and inequality is as much about structural causes and social constructions that we have no choice but to participate in as it is about individual reactions to “the other,” and reducing all disagreements and social conflicts to the latter leaves us trapped in an essentialist bind – we’re all caught up in our own identities, which are at war with each other. In fact those socio-cultural and economic causes can be changed, if we work together and try to understand each other. But the language of “privilege” assumes that we can’t – that a rich boy can’t conceive of how terrible it can be to be raped, or that a poor white woman will never understand that fat black lesbian’s struggle, no matter how much she tries. It’s prescriptive in that it fixes our response to discrimination in our identity, and restrictive in that it doesn’t give credit to the ability of our common human condition to overwhelm our differences, even where those differences are manufactured and enforced by potentially monolithic structural power relations. Bashing identities together atomizes and disrupts the struggle; seeking common ground and solutions that don’t rely on breaking down other people’s identities is much more likely to work. So ditch the language of “privilege” – if someone disagrees with you, it’s probably because they’ve thought about your position and they think you’re wrong, not because they can’t see things your way because they aren’t a transgender Vampire:The Masquerade player.

fn1: Yeah, this was an “organizer” of this demonstration, didn’t even have contact details for other university unions when they decided to get physical with their own university’s property. How would that work out if you did it in latin America in the 80s?

It surely comes as no surprise to my reader(s) that I am a strong supporter of labour unions. Not only are they the single most important mechanism by which the working classes of the developed world secured basic rights, but they are a fundamental part of the Australian social fabric – they have been around longer than the nation, and were crucial players (for good or ill) in almost all of Australia’s most important political events. I would go further and say that all conservatives should also be strong supporters of labour unions – they are a classic model of spontaneous and organic social organization, and any conservative who respects the right to freedom of association and incorporation has to respect the role of unions in society.

Unfortunately, labour unions can also show remarkable levels of venality that can really drive me crazy. In today’s newspapers we see two perfect examples of this venality in action: the decision by the British Medical Association to go on strike over pensions, and the opposition of certain “left” wing unions in Australia to Enterprise Migration Agreements. Probably, practically speaking, the former is worse than the latter, so let’s handle them in that order.

The Doctor’s Strike

The British Medical Association plans to go on strike on June 21st over pension payments. Pension payments. The average salary for General Practitioners in the UK is 110,000 pounds, and although their pension and tax arrangements are a little weird – and kind of eye bleedingly high under the new rules – on this average salary a GP can expect a take home salary of 40,000 pounds. That’s the equivalent of a salary of just over 60,000 pounds for a standard employee. That’s the top 5% of Britain’s income scale, which puts the average British GP in a ludicrously small percentage of the world’s income earners. Incidentally, we’ll be coming back to a discussion of world income scales when we tackle the Australian unions.

So, some of  you may have noticed that there have been some changes in the NHS in recent years. Specifically, a massive reorganization of funding systems to force GPs to commission health care on behalf of ordinary tax payers; and a 3% reduction in funding for the NHS in real terms over the next couple of years. The NHS is one of the lowest-funded systems in Europe, and David Cameron aims to cut some more out of it. If David Cameron wanted to find a really simple way to cut 3% from the NHS, he could probably do it by bumping GPs from the top 5% of the income scale to the top 10%. But he didn’t choose to do this – instead, the NHS is going to be squeezed in myriad other ways. Ways that impact on patient care. Yet Britain’s doctors are going to go on strike because of their pensions. That’s right, the richest 5% of the British population are going to refuse to provide you with vaccination services in June because their pensions are going to be cut. And if you miss a few days work due to sickness, on your 21000 pound a year job, with your pension in a private fund that suffers with the fortunes of the money markets, well that’s a fair price to pay isn’t it?

I think David Cameron should use this strike as an opportunity to break the BMA. Bring in foreign doctors, drag the army into it (you’ll be fine so long as you have a head injury or need an amputation!), force British doctors to work longer hours for less, like their European and Australian counterparts. Force them to back away from criticizing organizational reforms, and hand more power to nurses. When the NHS was formed, and Bevan was asked how he would quiet criticism from the doctors, he replied “I’ll stuff their mouths full of money.” That plan hasn’t worked for the NHS, and we can see with this strike how doctors’ professionalism is serving the NHS – they won’t go on strike over some of the silliest medical reforms in a generation, but touch their pensions and, well …! That, my friends, is venal.

Australia and the Big Bad EMA

Which brings me to the perennial problem of Australian labour unions: racism. I’m pretty sure that there is more than one important theorist of working class politics who has observed that solidarity with the international working class is a crucial factor in a successful and radical labour movement. Now, admittedly, it’s an old-fashioned idea, but I think it’s got a more distinguished pedigree than the White Australia Policy. In Australia recently the government announced the introduction of a system of guest workers – rare in Australia generally – to work in mining projects. This system, called the Enterprise Mining Agreement, was introduced because mining companies are having difficulty finding employees easily in Australia. Australia has 22 million inhabitants, and is experiencing an unprecedented mining boom, primarily because of China’s economic growth. It’s hard for a country of 22 million to field enough workers in a situation like this, especially since mining booms aren’t exactly easy to predict and an economy the size of Australia’s isn’t in a position to build up a surplus workforce that can be quickly and easily deployed to a new area of industrial growth – even if that sector were in the cities rather than the arse end of nowhere. And rest assured, from someone who went to school there, that when Australians say “arse end of nowhere” they mean it in a way that most other countries haven’t ever had to come to grips with. People don’t willingly move to Australia’s arse end, which is why the wages for these temporary mining jobs are astronomical – $150,000 a year or more.

So the government has agreed to allow a mining company to bring in some workers from overseas. And the unions are up in arms about it. Which begs the question – have they grown up at all in the past 30 years? I thought we’d got well past the point where members of labour unions still thought these kinds of racist barriers to the free movement of labour were either a) a good idea or b) at all consistent with the basic principles of unionism. Apparently not. This is particularly silly at the moment because the government allowing this process is a Labor government, the best friend of the workers that the labour unions can hope for in the present environment, and that government is in desperate need of good news to arrest its terrible polls. It is also simultaneously engaged in a long-term battle with the mining companies over windfall taxes and the new carbon pricing system, both of which the mining sector strongly opposes. It’s as if the government thought that by throwing the miners a small bone it could get a bit of quid pro quo going on, and reduce some of the more extreme political opposition it faces from them. So in step the “left” labour unions to piss on that bone. And why? The mining sector jobs in question are a tiny, tiny proportion of Australia’s workforce, at the very top end of the wage scale. We’re not talking migrant contract cleaners here, but extremely well-paid and well-treated people working in extremely unusual circumstances during a once-in-a-generation boom. i.e. people who are going to get rich from being in the right place at the right time. Unions are there to represent everyone in the workforce, not to damage the political prospects of a pro-labour government by sticking up for a tiny minority at the expense of people from a much, much poorer nation. Because that’s the other side of this equation: if the EMA doesn’t go through, just over a thousand Chinese labourers are going to lose the chance to move to Australia and earn more than they ever dreamed of. They may, it appears, earn only half what their Australian contemporaries will earn, but that’s still a lot of money in China.

This aspect of Australian unionism eternally frustrates me. The only way to protect rights and conditions of Australian workers in a global market place is through truly international solidarity. You don’t protect your own rights and conditions by throwing up barriers against foreign labour, but by agitating for better rights in those countries. The solution to the problems of a globally competitive marketplace are not protectionism here but development there. And one very effective path to development and solidarity is flexibility in the movement of labour. Rather than opposing a few foreign labourers in a market with strong labour shortages, the unions should be enrolling those labourers in local unions and agitating to protect their conditions, get them English lessons, teach them how to organize the Australian way – so when they go back to China they’re in a better position to extend the rights of the Australian working class locally. Who knows, one day the roles may be reversed, and Australians may find themselves being locked out of a boom in China because of mutually exclusive barriers to the free movement of labour. We won’t be on top of the economic pile forever. In fact, the only certainty in life for a country the size of Australia is that we are at the whim of the political and economic decisions of foreign powers. I thought this was a lesson we learnt under Keating and his economic reforms, but apparently some of the unions haven’t got the memo. Still. After 20 years of labour market reform and 100 years of the theory of labour movements.

What on earth would Lenin say?

A final note: David Cameron is toast

David Cameron’s Britain is experiencing stagflation, his former media advisor has been arrested for perjury, his main backers in the media are being slowly picked apart by the police and the courts, his NHS reforms are universally unpopular, Labour have a huge poll lead on him even though their leader is a pointless dweeb, the stench of corruption is hanging over his frontbench, international bodies are lining up to say he needs a change of course, there may be a drought this summer, it’s public knowledge that he thought “lol” means “lots of love” (and he said it repeatedly to a married woman who he really really should have been keeping his distance from!) and now on top of all that he faces a doctor’s strike. Even if he can rescue his and his party’s popularity, his Liberal Democrat coalition partners are clearly history, so he’s unlikely to even be able to retain the weak position of a hung parliament. Is there any conceivable way – short of a war – that he can pull back from such a situation? And does this mean that Labour will become the natural party of government in the UK? Or will the prize go to UKIP? My God I’m glad I got out of there when I did …