So, the last of my narcissistic archiving of internet conversations and posts. Short and to the point.

Date: 4th July

“So, with the architects of Brexit distancing themselves from their promises and admitting they had no clue what to do if they won, the retractions by many media supporters of Brexit, the loss of credit rating and emergency measures by the bank of England, the freezes on investment and hiring, the ‘shocking’ revelation we couldn’t have the benefits of the EU without baring some or the costs, the very worst of the Tory party crawling forth to claim the poison challenge of PM, the likely deposition of the most anti-establishment party leader in a good long time, and the worrying free pass the vote seems to have given to racists…

I have to ask Leave voters, given most of the above should not have come as a surprise, was it really worth shitting your pants to protest the lack of toilet paper?”

Are EU kidding me (Part 5): So now what?

Posted: 10th July 2016 by Get No Happy in Uncategorized

So, it looks like there’s nothing we can do about the vote. So is it possible to salvage anything from this cluster-fuck? Well yes, but only if those that voted Leave stick by their delusions, or should I say “clear and logical reasons they voted to leave the EU”. What do I mean? Well, if we take much of the reasons people voted to leave at face value, they could lead to real and positive changes for the way that the UK is governed. See below

Date: 28th June

So, it is becoming clear that we just had a very strange referendum.

Firstly, it was a vote that the people didn’t use to carefully deliberate on their future, so much as use as an once-in-a-life-time opportunity to stick a spanner in the desires of politicians, business men, people with letters after their name, and, for one or two, the life-plans of the nice Estonian couple down the road. Some of whom, it appears, are now quite surprised the decision affected the world.

Secondly, it was a vote in which those running the winning campaign, having realized the enormity of what they’ve done, just want to hid under their duvets and hope it all goes away.

In fact the only person from the higher echelons of power really happy about this is someone so rabidly anti-EU, one can only assume that as a young child his Father explained that it was the reason Mummy now lives with Uncle Steve.

Aren’t referenda fun?

OK, I said positive.

So, let’s say I accept the vote was a genuine protest by the people about the alienation they feel from the political elite and the global economy, and the perceived lack of accountability law makers have to the electorate. If for now we ignore the ‘dirty protest’ aspect of the outcome, or indeed that normally protesters set themselves on fire rather than their children’s future, I can get behind it.

In fact it is quite positive.

Because if this is the case, it follows that the Brexit government that will follow Cameron’s resignation will have to do the following. Or at least that, at the next election, the following will be

1) The suspension and roll-back of privatization.

Never have public services been so unaccountable. From hospitals to Olympic security, private firms have walked away with barely a slap on the wrist. There is minimal public oversight, no officials to fire or vote out, and companies are often foreign-owned. Now, many say the private sector is more efficient. I disagree, but that’s for another time. Nevertheless, the Brexit vote was clearly not about fiscal efficiency but ‘control’. Thus, if you voted for Brexit to “take back control”, you must be in favour of bringing essential service back under the Government’s, and thus the electorate’s, control. Because if you don’t want a bunch of EU bureaucrat (that is, elected MEPs and representatives from national government, just saying 😛 ) apparently controlling everything, how could you tolerate your kid’s school being run by a billionaire based in the Cayman Islands?

It is likely that the most free-market ideologues of the Tory party will soon be running the government. The opposite of what a lot of people seemed to have voted ‘Leave’ for. If this truly was the people’s stand against an elite who play with their livelihoods and savings like pieces on a chess board, against globalisation, against unaccountable power, then you have to stand against the signing away of control over the infrastructure and services we depend on.

2) Increase MPs pay, and prevent second jobs.

This is a personal one for me, and may seem odd, but bear with me. The tragic murder of MP Jo Cox forced many to consider how we demonise politicians. Governing is a difficult job and they deserve both respect and to be paid appropriately for such a job. BUT, from a transparency POV, it’s appalling that MPs can also be part-time board members or consultants to large private institutions. Not that I think MPs are corrupt, but they should not have two master; Caesar’s wife must be beyond suspicion and all that. So, greater pay, but no secondary sources of income. If there is a mandate for accountability, this would be a great, simple and easy way to start.

Again, if you’re truly concerned about elites sticking together, then ensuring that sitting MPs cannot be accused of helping themselves or of vested interests is an important step. Might not seem much, but it is doing the small things right that breeds trust in the bigger things.

3) The big one, change the voting system of the UK immediately.


If this was a referendum about control we don’t need another a la AV.

It’s no wonder people feel alienated from our political system and unable to enact positive change. The only votes that matter belong to a few thousand people in a couple of villages famous for not making up their minds until the last minute. Equally, no wonder people feel alienated when 1.1 million votes and 2.4million got the Greens 1 MP and Lib Dems 8 MPs respectively, but 1.4million netted the SNP 56 and 11 million votes 330 for the Tories! As the Green MP Caroline Lucas said, if this was a referendum about taking back control, there is no alternative but to change the voting system. Now I would prefer PR, but STV would be a happy medium as people like the fact they are selecting *their* candidate rather than having the party executives’ favourite thrust upon them.

As with the other two, if we the people voted against the powers-that-be and against the “unelected and unaccountable” powers of the EU, then allowing our own political class to maintain their positions of absolute security and indifference is impossible. Make them fight for every community’s vote come 2020 and beyond.

I imagine that of the above suggestions, two at least would be very much supported by the majority of people on both sides of this referendum. At the end of the day, if we (well, you) really believed and followed the cry for more “control of our own destiny”, and for the higher echelons to be more accountable, then you can’t *not* support the above.

If we go by the most optimistic interpretation of the referendum vote, then there is an appetite for more open democracy. Let’s not lose this inertia. We’re probably not going to make ourselves richer, more important or sadly more accepting, but we can at least make Britain fairer.

Is that positive enough?


Date: 10th July (‘today’)

In sum, if you voted leave for non-racist reasons you should support the above. However, shockingly, this isn’t happening.

Just to give an example, here is the response I received from one of the few Leave voters willing to admit to said decision about voting reform, quote in full “It’s not up to me, and no party is behind changing the system”. ARE YOU KIDDING ME, no party was except UKIP was behind leaving the EU, but you were happy having a say on that.

While this was of course but one guy, I think it just adds my assumption people were, to misquote Jurassic Park, wielding their vote like a kid who’s found his Father’s gun. They made a big show about sticking fingers up to the ‘elites’, to an ‘unaccountable EU’, but have failed to draw the same conclusions about our Government, you know, the one that ACTUALLY makes our laws. Leave voters were just kittens following a dot of light without questioning the motives of the person hold the laser pen.


As I mentioned below, the main response from many across social and regular media has been “just get over it”, as if Britain leaving the EU isn’t the single most important, permanent and life-changing thing this country has done in two generations. So, below is my response to such people.

Date: 26th June

So, now we’ve had the reaction, we’ve had the counter-reaction. And it basically consists of “lulz, u lost, democracy” , and “sour grapes, get over it”

Here why such reactions are fundamentally wrong.

Or rather, why is Remain-ers are legitimately seething with sadness and rage.

Think of it like the difference between being talked into going to a club-night and going to a gig.

1) You and your friends are walking through town and are given a flyer for a cheesy pop night.

It promises Spice Girls, Boyzone and more. Now, you hate cheesy pop, but your friends seem keen. You point out that there’s a reason you stopped listening to that music, and the last time you went to a similar night it ended up awful, and that you all hate some of the songs. But your friends tell you that it’s been a while, maybe it’ll be good, similar nights did play some good songs last time that got the dance floor going. And it’s only £5 entry so what’s the harm.

This is a general election.

An example of representative democracy. While we may vote on specific polices, we’re also fundamentally voting on theme. No one can predict what will happen for the next 5 years, so we choose the party that fits us over all. I.e. if you believe that the successful members of society should help the less successful, even if it’s the latters own fault, you vote Labour. They will lean towards that response to whatever arises. I.e. while there may be specific songs you like/dislike, you “know what you are getting”. You’re deciding who, on average, represents the way you want your country to react to the world. You are voting on how the Government will respond to 5 years of unknown events.

There is no real ‘right’ answer to this; it is personal morality or taste. And in 2 years there are local elections, in 5 a general election. I.e. you can change my mind with minimal cost if you chose the wrong club. So it’s not that expensive. This is the point. In the long run making a mistake is not that costly.

This referendum was not like that.

2) Imagine that instead of a club-night, someone hands you a flyer to a secret gig. It promises that Muse will be playing and entry is £200.

Now, your friends are excited, a chance to see Muse. Finally. But, you’re on the Muse’s twitter and RSS feed. You tell your friends that, according to their schedule, Muse should be playing festivals in the Far East. In fact, Matt Bellemy recently broke his wrist stage diving at the last show. You show them the photo he tweeted from a Tokyo hospital.

What’s more, you point out that Muse swore never to play in the UK again years ago. You show your friends the video interview where they said this.

But your friends don’t believe you, they ask why anyone would produce a leaflet that would lie, and say that it’s “only £200” to see one of the world’s greatest live acts. You will never have this chance again. It’s worth the risk. All your friends decide to go, and because you’re staying with one of them, you have pay your money. It turns out to be a crappy tribute band.

That is the referendum.

It asked a specific question: Are Muse playing? Are we better off in the EU or out of it. This is a single question, not a ‘theme’. We’re not asking what will happen over the course of the night, but who will show up on stage at the beginning. You’re not making a decision because “on average it’ll be enjoyable” like a club, you want to see a specific band. Is it Muse or isn’t it. You may assume that Muse will play certain songs, but in the end it’s Muse you want to see.

You personally have access to all the facts and data, and tell people this is how it is. I.e. while there is a chance Muse ‘might’ be there, all the evidence points to the contrary.

But none of your friends believe you and now you’re down £200 with no way to get it back. And no way of really seeing Muse as this offer was nothing to do with them in the first place. You don’t get to “try again” for Muse Tickets, there was no Muse to see.

And you’re angry. You showed your friends firm and conclusive evidence that Muse weren’t playing. But they just refused to believe you, because the leaflet’s offer was just too tempting to refuse. And everyone is down £200. And suddenly everyone realises that they needed the £200 for the rent next week.

This is the difference.

This is why so many people are angry or upset after the “decision was made”.

Because the nature of the referendum meant it was never a choice of “what you feel like tonight” but of “what will or will not happen”.

You can delude yourself that somehow your decision “would send a message” to Muse about “how much the UK loved them”, at it may have done. There’s a chance, seeing how desperate their fans are, Muse may decide to play gigs in the UK again. But in there here and now, all your decision did was give the con-men your money.

This is why we’re angry.

Not because we think you have “bad taste” in music, but because your decision was based on evidence that, had you looked at it for a second, would have convinced you otherwise.

Now, you may love Muse, you may WANT to see them live again desperately. The problem is, even though your intentions may have been pure: all you wanted was to do was see Muse live, you wanted feel like “you were taking control back”, you were willing to believe the most obvious lies and distortions of reality.

That’s why we’re still angry. Because we know that, for the vast majority of Leave voters, you won’t get what you were voting for. We tried to tell you Muse weren’t coming. You didn’t listen.

We didn’t tell you the music would be shit, we told you Muse wouldn’t be playing.

It wasn’t a matter of taste, it was a matter of fact. And your refusal to see has cost, and will cost, us all dearly.

And that is very, very, frustrating.

Since the vote, there have been two responses from people who voted Leave: shut up and get over it (see above post) and “every side was the same”. And I’m sorry, but I am not letting the second point stand. It’s a embarrassed attempt to revise history now they know what an awful decision they made.

Date: 28th June, 2016

[in response to just such a “both sides were the same” post in a forum]. Just to be picky, no, both sides were not dishonest. The leavers made up numbers, told lie after lie about the EU, have already backed down from almost every pledge they made, and whipped up a storm of xenophobia. The remain side made dire predictions about our economy. Everything they, or we should I say, said about what a post exit agreement with the EU would be politically looks like it’s coming true, the warnings about capital and manufacturing flight seem to be coming true, the economic freeze in things like contracts and hiring is happening. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let the Leave voters declare ignorance or that “both sides were the same”, they were not.

You refer to David Cameron suggesting “World War 3” would follow Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. This is both hilarious and ironic in the current context as David Cameron, as you can see here, did not say that. Ignore the headline and read the text of the speech. What he said was Britain will always be effected by what happens on the continent, that history tells how often war has erupted and has dragged us in. That the EU has very successfully taken a continent of opponents and over the years produced a continent of cooperators if not friends. I said hilarious and ironic as it was Borris who claimed the PM was predicting World War 3.

Date: 10th July (‘today’)

Even if this post sits lonely and read til the end of the internet, I want it written down somewhere that BOTH SIDES WERE NOT THE SAME.

If you voted Leave it may be a nice way to make yourself feel better, but it was not true. As I said in a previous post, look at the list of people you CHOSE not to listen to, and just bloody live with it. Much like a German dinner table when ‘what Grandad did during the war’ comes up, when you’re children ask why the UK isn’t in the EU, why Scotland became independent and why the Northern Ireland conflict started up again, just sit in awkward silence waiting for the potatoes to be brought out.

Are EU kidding me (Part 2): post-vote thoughts

Posted: 10th July 2016 by Get No Happy in Uncategorized

So, like many people around the world, I woke up on the 24th June with more than a little dismay. The thing that no one, and it seems this includes the majority of the brexit leadership and a good minority of leave voters, believed would happen happened. The UK, or more specifically England, or more specifically the older and poorly educated of England, voted to leave the EU.

My initial response

Date: 24th June, 2016

Time: 9.39am

“Let’s be clear, this was not a victory for democracy, it was its death knell. It was a victory for emotion over reason, for “one simple trick” snake oil over the “boring” complexity of life, for the charlatan over the expert, for conspiracy over reality, for fantasy over fact. I’m not just angry at the UK, I’m embarrassed for us.”

“And yes, I would have said the same thing had we voted to remain, only with “this was *almost* a…”

Date 25th June, 2016

Time: 3.13am

“I’m pretty drunk now so will be far more blunt: leave voters; you bunch of ignorant, short-sighted, weak-minded, childish, xenophobic assholes. Yes, the last adjective too, because the Leave campaign didn’t win on fiscal sense or sound legal advice did it? If the 19th century campaigners for universal suffrage could see this, they’d have told everyone to go back to their fucking turnips and to stop complaining. Do you realize what you’ve done to yourselves? I wish I was rich, because only by being safe from the mess you’ve condemned us all to could I truly enjoy the looks on your faces when, over the coming years, you realize you’ve been tricked by the worlds most expensive and blindingly fucking obvious shell game. If a well-informed populous is the best defense against tyranny, then roll on King Borris, blond of hair and first of his name. I’m disgusted with the lot of you, and ashamed to call you my countrymen


I was trying to be nice in the initial post, but the second is more accurate. Nothing about this campaign makes me hopeful about the future of democracy. Even if you ignore the xenophobic aspect, the fact remains that nothing the Leave side said was true (see the next post). But we can’t ignore the xenophobia aspect can we? The entire Leave campaign was run on the fear of EU citizens; they are taking your jobs, they are the reason schools are full, they are the reason you can’t buy a house, they are the reason hospital waiting times are up. Not 6 years of destructive ideology-not-economics driven austerity, not decades of asymmetric deals with private companies for hospitals (PFI) and schools (academies), not a refusal to reign in predatory landlords or build more affordable housing, but them people.

Congratulations assholes.

Are EU kidding me (Part 1): Final pre-vote plea

Posted: 10th July 2016 by Get No Happy in Uncategorized

You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

So, as I write this, the UK is now just under two week into the it’s collective madness. In case you missed it, “we” voted to leave the EU with the overwhelming mandate of a 3% difference in votes cast.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been arguing in person and online with people, and if only for personal catharsis I’m putting some of the larger pieces here, as a sort of ark for future internet archaeologists. Not that they did any good.And not that I have any online presence that means they would. But we all dream of going viral…

I was actually quite pleased with the piece below, unlike most things I write on the internet, it was actually shared by friends and strangers.

Date: 22nd June, 2016

Some of you will vote ‘leave’ tomorrow and have just kept quiet about it. That’s fine, it’s up to you.

But please, remember this vote will affect you, your children and your grandchildren, and more importantly mine! This is not something we can ‘vote out’ in a few years’ time. It’s permanent.

At this point you’ve heard the facts. You’re probably sick of facts and won’t be convinced to vote Remain by any more. So if you want to vote for ‘leave’, please don’t so much fact-check, as reality check: look carefully at the two sides:


By voting Leave, you are going against the opinion of almost all Britain’s, if not the world’s, scientists, legal experts, business leaders, economists, and most of our politicians. This is not a conspiratorial blob; it is a group disparate individuals and organization across all professional and academic disciplines, often with opposing ideological views, but all agreeing that the UK is stronger in the EU.

You are ignoring the problems countries, such as Norway, have in terms of legislation and sovereignty: i.e. obeying the rules without a chance to set them.

You are going against the opinion of all our friends, partners and allies around the world from the USA to India to Japan. You are even ignored the Chinese government when they say the UK’s world standing will be diminished outside the EU.


But, by voting Leave, you are listening to Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

You are listening to the campaigners promising a great economic future, yet the sectors that they claim will benefit most from Brexit don’t agree. Think about that. They claim business will boom; business does not agree.

You are listening to the call to stick two fingers up to the pampered elites… by listening to the rallying cry of the millionaires Borris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch. The latter being on record as saying he hates the EU because they don’t listen to *him*. I’ve heard many Leave voters say “experts” have vested interests in the EU, what do the Brexit-er’s have?

And yes, while I am not implying anything about you personally, it has to be said you are listening to, or at least on the side of, a section of society that believes ‘foreigners’ are the cause of all our ills.


Indeed, as a friend of mine pointed out, on social media “out” videos tend to be by bloggers, “in” videos by professors of economics or law; while Remain have a cornucopia of prominent supporters for TV and radio interviews, Brexit have the same two or three. At some point, the asymmetry in experts and arguments must suggest ‘both sides have their points’ is simply not a credible idea.


But, more importantly, consider this.

On the 24th, it will almost be business as usual. This is no glorious revolution; there will be no change to UK domestic politics once the hang-over has worn off. So, do you trust that the Government, based on their behaviour in the last 6 years, will do the following:

1) Spend the money we now pay into the EU on public services, or use it for austerity and tax cuts for the mega-rich?

2) Spend the money that would come back through EU regional development funds in the same regions, or to focus all cash on London and/or areas they want win in 2020. i.e. business as usual?

3) Protect the hard-won workers’ rights, which will legally have to be rewritten in some form because most legislation for the past 30+years is connected to the EU, from the ever more rapacious demands of the mega-rich?

4) Negotiate deals with other countries, and especially the USA, that will benefit the citizens of the UK, rather than ones that will support their personal neo-liberal ideology?


Put it simply, Brexit have promised leaving the EU will somehow cure our problems with housing, with schools, with wages and with the NHS. Has this government, and have the Tories inside Brexit especially, done or said anything in the last decade to make you think that solving these problems is on their agenda? Because they haven’t and they aren’t.

If you are voting ‘No’ based on any of these issues, you will not get what you want.


In the last 20years or so we’ve fetishized the idea of ‘going it alone’, but you’re not curating a gap-year Tumblr account or saving your kidnap-prone daughter. It’s a romantic idea, and I know voting for what ‘feels right’ rather than ‘what makes logical sense’ has an appeal. But you’re not ordering an extra slice of cake. No, you’re voting in the most crucial and permanent vote we’ll probably ever take part in.

Only vote ‘Leave’ if you can honestly look at yourself in the mirror and say you have seriously considered all the evidence available, both fact-checked and reality-checked it, and can firmly say to have come to a logical conclusion.


Date: 10th July

Well, it looks like we know which side people believed….

Teach the Controversy: Shadow of the Leviathan (Part 2)

Posted: 29th September 2012 by Get No Happy in Science

Chimpanzees are like us in many ways. They form alliances, maybe even friendship, and maintain these alliances by aiding each other in conflicts. Other behaviours we would recognise in ourselves are an obsession with social climbing, swapping dinner for sex and, slightly less light-hearted, the penchant for actively killing their neighbours out of boredom

The chimp mafia are surprisingly well organised

… or if the price is right

But, on a fundamental level, they just don’t give a shit about one another.

There was a paper in Proceeds of the National Academy of Science (the world’s worst abbreviation, read it out loud…) which demonstrated that they don’t have a concept of fairness in an egalitarian sense. Chimps know damn well when they themselves have been treated unfairly, and will react when their offspring or social allies are attacked, but beyond that, nothing. Too bad for chimpanzee, because third-party punishment (just punishment from now on); where someone intervenes to either protect an unrelated individual from harm or to uphold general standards of fairness, is vital for the evolution of large scale cooperation and altruism.

Shadow of the Leviathan

In part 1, I told you that three things tend to encourage us to get along, 1) Kin Selection, 2) Reciprocity and 3) Reputation, but nothing has been demonstrated in both the experimental and theoretical literature, and indeed everyday life, to increase cooperation and altruism like the spectre of punishment for transgressions.

Despite what you may think, this isn’t because of we’re afraid of being punished ourselves per se, it’s because deep down we don’t trust one another. Human relationships are complex, and while some people might take notice when someone cheats another, that defector is still probably a ‘great guy’ to their friends; one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter as they say. So we can’t guarantee that reputation and reciprocity will work in our favour. Human for the most part are conditional co-operators, in that we all want to cooperate but fundamentally fear being taken advantage of.

A local example will do: This year the council asked the stores along the high street (and we’re not talking an Oxfam/Ladbrooks high street here) to help pay for the Christmas lights. Lights that draw people to the centre, encourage shoppers to stay late and put us all in the mood for a Christmas spending binge. Yet so few stores said they would contribute there may be no lights this year. Basically each retailer (because saying ‘store’ makes it sound like we’re talking about a local butcher not a multi-national) feared being the only one contributing for everyone’s benefit and thus none did.

On a more academic note, it is a wonderful example of a naturalistic public good game. An intersting questions is what would happen if the names of the stores which refused to contribute were revealed?

Merry Christmas everyone

Punishment changes this in a very Hobbesian Leviathan way. That is, we are willing to cooperate and trust one another because we know some power somewhere will bring its wrath upon those that do not. We know this not just because individuals will cooperate when they could be punished, but because individuals will actively seek an institution where punishment is possible; we are willing to give up the freedom to defect, cheat, rape or murder in order to be protected from others who want to do the same. It’s why prosperity follows peace and why we often turn to tyrannical leaders during times of hardship.

We know punishment massively aids cooperation and altruism. In fact, we expect someone else to intervene as much as we expect them to help (hence why we’re so shocked when people just stand by and do nothing). But viewed from the economics of individual selection, the numbers just don’t add up.

The Problem with Punishment

Punishment is costly. It costs the person being punished, it costs the person doing the punishing, and it costs the group as a whole. In fact in many cases, given the waste of resources that punishing unfairness inevitably causes, everyone would just be better off going it alone – as for the most part Chimpanzee’s do in terms of cooperative endeavours. Even if punishment didn’t negatively impact the group, those that punish are in the position of an altruistic shop in the example above. If a shop had paid for all the lights, they certainly benefit, but so does everyone else for free; equally, if one stops rowdy teens breaking the glass in a bus stop, you have a nice bus stop, but so does everyone else that didn’t risk a stabbing.

Because of this, on an Individual Selection level many believe that punishment can never evolve. Those with a propensity to punish will always lose the evolutionary race against both free-riders (those who behave selfishly/chavs) and also second-order free riders (those who refuse to punish selfish individuals/hippies).

The caption is the title of a paper by Dreber et al (2008) detailing why anyone who engages in punishment will ultimately lose out to plot holes and satan-power reboots

“Winners Don’t Punish”

That is, unless you take into account inter-group conflict.

War and Peace

If there’s one thing we’re good at, and this probably extends (as I mentioned above) right back to a pre-hominid ancestors, is killing one another. In fact, if both historical and contacted hunter-gatherer people are any indication, we spent most of our evolutionary past in a state of endemic low-level warfare.  In such a competitive environment, the willingness to punish intra-group unfairness; which remember actively promotes cooperation within a group, is no longer such a handicap. Essentially if a group is more socially cohesive and goal focused than another it will win any conflict; it doesn’t matter if the group with the punishers may have lower absolute group efficiency, they’re the only ones left standing.

Genetic legacy secure, shame about all that sterilising radiation


The reason for our sensitivity to unfairness, and desire to avenge it, is that some groups, through a quirk of random mutations, contained individuals who were willing to punish regardless of the cost. Groups containing such individuals triumphed in these never ending conflicts. Thus there doesn’t need to be any benefit for the punisher to explain why this behaviours evolved as groups that didn’t maintain this variation were simply eliminated. The important difference between modern Group Selection and its earlier incarnation is this conflict pressure (though more benign versions suggestion ‘environmental pressure’ as a possible alternative) as it provides an actual means by which an individually deleterious trait could be evolutionarily stable.

Strong reciprocity

While I’ve been talking about how generally nice humans are to one another, it doesn’t take much (famously as little as dividing participants by which of two paintings they liked) for us to form antagonistic groups. This version of Group Selection seems able to explain this too in the form of ‘parochial altruism’: the propensity to be nice to people in our group and violently assault people in other groups while taking their things.  Much like intra-group punishment above, being altruistic to your group mates here can be evolutionarily stable without any need for individual benefit through reputational/reciprocal gain. As an overall effect it’s been called Strong Reciprocity, as an individual is reacting to the behaviour of another and not to what they can get out of it.

So while Individual selection explains altruistic gestures in the modern world as essentially the misfiring of a brain designed for our ancestral environment, Group-level selection suggests that any spontaneous niceness occurs because we evolved to help anyone near us, regardless of any individual costs or benefits. The pressure of inter-group conflict has made us willing to behave cooperatively and altruistically without a thought to any benefits (evolutionarily or otherwise).

In some cases heroism it may take longer to get to than others

Deep down, we’re all superheroes

It’s a controversy

Now we (finally) get to the controversy part of all this. Because at it stands the conflict/group-level selection explanation for human pro-sociality is far from universally accepted. While Group-level selection is a fine theory that has been supported by experiments conducted by researchers far more intelligent and insightful than I will probably ever be, there are certain issues that have lead others, including me, to question its validity. For the sake of space, and because it’s my area of expertise, I’ll be focusing on punishment.

Retribution and retaliation

There is, to paraphrase one researcher, “A reason the police wear body armor” and that reason is we really don’t like being told off for doing something wrong. Retaliation is as ubiquitous as punishment, yet very few experiments really take this into account when investigating human social behaviour. Those that do find that when retaliation against a punisher is possible, punishment is no longer evolutionarily stable, and no punishment means no cooperation. In fact, unless very strict criteria are observed very few participants at all will try and punish free-riders if said free riders can fight back.  This can be seen quite plainly in everyday life; we’ve all read the stories about the knife-y fate that befalls anyone willing to stand up to criminals or angry looking youths.

IMHO this 'common sense' cost to punishment has been ignored because, in contract to altruism, the study of punishment has almost entirely been the purview of economists, or sociologists who just see patriarchal oppression

What I’m saying is, maybe we should just stick to tutting loudly when someone cuts in-line

Why is this important given what I said about the Group Selection explanation? Because individuals behave as if they are insensitive to the cost of punishment only if it’s cheap. Once recantation raises the cost it’s suddenly a bad idea. While the threat of retaliation may be the main cost inhibiting the evolution of cooperation and punishment, it is also the most overlooked.

Real life examples

Another problem is there is huge cultural variation in a willingness to engage in both cooperation and punishment. For instance in cultures that are honour-heavy, (in experiments at least) there is little punishment but a great deal of retaliation to any attempt at punishment. When honour is the social norm, and especially in countries where the authorities are corrupt or non-existent, stepping into a conflict not concerning you is dangerous as the target will respond in kind; indeed they’ll have to, as in such a culture NOT reacting to any slight can be deadly!

Perhaps the biggest problem is that in pre-state societies (modern hunter-gatherer and pastoral groups), societies that are supposed to represent the condition of humanity for most of our evolutionary history, there is little definitive evidence of third-party punishment. Indeed most studies that claim there is are often criticised for overlooking factors such as kin or self interest. In both cases this is not what we would expect if Group-Selection and Strong reciprocity are correct.

Indeed, if we turn away from punishment for a second, it’s simply far too easy to manipulate people using the prospect of reciprocity/reputational gain into behaving more altruistic/selfishly for these to have been insignificant forces acting on our evolution.

Cui bono, or public good for private gain

Because of these issues, individual selection is making a comeback into the evolution of human sociality. Firstly there is the matter of costly signalling. The classic example of this is the peacock’s tail, only high quality males can have such a fancy appendage and still survive, but a better example in this context would be a Billionaire building an orphanage complete with tennis courts, boating lake and a Michelin star chef. Indeed there is strong evidence that people, groups and nations regularly engage in this sort of conspicuous consumption or excessive giving as a way of showing off how fabulously wealthy they are; anyone with slightly competitive relatives will know what this looks like at Christmas when it’s present time.

Oh no it’s fine, I mean the socks you got me are good too…

This also applies to punishment. As I mentioned above retaliation is potentially the main cost to punishment so while we all get outraged at unfairness, only very few of us actually do anything about it because it is so costly. This is borne out in the data as, handbag waving grandparents notwithstanding, pretty much all acts of third-party punishment are carried out by large and athletic males. See, there is a reason beyond eternal loneliness that I have included super hero pictures across this post, just as there’s a reason Peter Parker only started cleaning up the streets of New York after gaining the power to cover criminals in sticky white goo. Added to this, having witnessed said masked vigilante take down a train full of armed Mafioso, are you really going to steal his wallet while he takes a nap? It’s all about reputation again, but this time as someone who is not to be messed with. Equally, and continuing with the theme, we really like people who stand up for the public good, or more specifically, our good. While we generally don’t like people we observe violently (because, well, they could beat the crap outta us) we love them once it’s directed against ‘bad people’. A few experiments have shown we really like individuals who ‘stand up for what’s right’, truth, justice and the American way.

Combining these two ideas, there’s some really interesting research being done (including by me) on the role punishment has in signalling dominance, and whether engaging in punishment behaviour in necessary to maintain a dominant position; no politician was ever elected on a “soft on crime and a ban on door locks” ticket after all.

If you know what BBY means (and are female) please send me a private message including your name, age and ring-size ;-)

Keeping the galaxy safe since 19BBY

Alternative opinions are available

So, despite having left the point of these articles to die in a ditch quite a while ago, there we have it. There is a genuine debate within the field about how our altruistic behaviour and sense of egalitarianism evolved. What began with a simple concept of group survival was replaced with a focus of individual selection, only to rise from the ashes as the weakness in the latter approach became clear. And now, this approach too is being questioned. What’s the answer? Will group-selection via inter-group conflict continue to be the most likely explanation, will Individual selection also make a comeback, or will a hybrid multi-level selection model win out?

For the purposes of this post it doesn’t really matter. The point is this is what an actual controversy in evolutionary theory looks like, competing hypotheses that are thoroughly tested in the most complete way researcher can think of. And as the methods are honed and the results become clear, theories are amended, altered or rejected, because any researcher who carries on with there pet theory contrary to all the evidence will simply be ignored. It’s just a shame this doesn’t happen in the wider world.

While strolling through the merry lanes of cyberspace (The very fact I’m still using that word makes me feel old, fucking ‘web 2.0′) I happened upon this article. Yes, the National Trust has decided to include a Creationist perspective on the formation the the Giant’s Causeway – which, for those that don’t know, is made up of a lot of stone columns that stretch out to form, well, a causeway the size of which a giant might use. I do genuinely wonder what exactly their exhibit will look like, I mean on one side of the centre you’ll have display cases of rock samples, crystal formations, diagrams of volcanoes, tectonic plates and erosion, and on the other…

Well, I’m convinced

… All I’m saying is it wouldn’t be the hardest exhibit to curate.

Now on the one hand I can understand the National Trust’s reasoning; the  zealous have a lot of time on their hands and usually have someone willing to supervise while they use safety paper and crayons to write letters of complaint, and since an idiot and his money are soon parted, no one else is going to spend £15 on the muddy coffee and the sorry looking sandwiches that the National Trust so lovingly provides for its visitors. It’s big problem though, as this gives Creationists both a foot-in-the-door and an air of legitimacy, a “as recognized by the UK National Trust” badge to wave at anyone objecting to their nonsense. But I won’t dwell on that here, and instead will focus on one particular statement that angered me greatly; “We fully accept the Trust’s commitment to its position on how the Causeway was formed, but this new centre both respects and acknowledges an alternative viewpoint and the continuing debate” *clears throat*


The Creationist position is not an alternative view on how a geological formation came to be. OK, I suppose yes, it is a alternative view, in the literal sense that it is a view that has been vomited forth into the world, but it is not a legitimate view. It’s no more legitimate than my view that you’re currently reading this entry not on a computer or phone screen, but somehow using the bloated viscera of a beached Whale. But apparently that’s is good enough for the National Trust, so please explain your ingenious yet disgusting use of a rotting marine mammal in the comments section.

"Why didn't they see the land?" "Too busy playing with their i-pod" etc

I bet you get great performance though… it has a pod-core processor after all… XD

This ‘alternative’ viewpoint fallacy really annoys me; that just because you’re idea is rejected by others with actual expertise, you’re somehow a maverick fighting a Machiavellian scientific cabal, that ignoring evidence makes you a free-thinking martyr. And it’s not just a religious thing, this same argument applies to every counter-the-evidence claims made by everyone from Mediums to Climate-change ‘skeptics’. To some up the truth of it all rather succinctly, and to use one of my favourite quotes, “To wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind Establishment, you must also be right”

But I thought, rather than have a little rant on this subject that has no doubt been covered elsewhere with much more grace and style,  I would try and educate a little by describing scientific debate taking place at this very moment. So, here dear reader(s) is an ACTUAL debate within evolutionary theory, namely


The evolution of human pro-sociality: group vs individual selection


From “one for all” to “all for me”

Nature is filled with examples of organisms apparently sacrificing themselves for the good of everyone else, from actively attacking predators to staying vigilant while everyone else forages and mates.  The prevailing theory for the evolution of this behaviour in the early 20th century was group-selection.  Group selection as it stood was essentially a Disney-version of evolution; one where particularly noble members of a species would sacrifice themselves for the good of the group (Possibly providing comic relief for a likable every-man protagonist). Such virtuous individuals aid group survival and thus helps their species to prevail in the Darwinian thunder-dome we call Earth. All very nice, but in this form at least the theory suffered from a rather massive flaw. Essentially, as many a coward has discovered, reproduction favours the individual who stays behind the front line sipping cognac and bedding the local debutantes while others die in their place.

Any excuse for a Jurassic Park pic

Yeah, you go save the day, I’ll stay here and guard the car

Fast forward to the 50s and Game Theory began to develop. This lead to a major problem as, mathematically at least, the aforementioned gluttonous, whoring, cowards should out-compete the heroes in every possible situation; to skip briefly across the shore of scientific terminology for a second, such a population of altruists could easily be invaded by defectors to the point where cowardliness reaches fixation. Over evolutionary time, life in nature should inevitably decay into the Hobbsian war of all against all. But observations disagreed as, not only do clear examples of altruism exist, humans in particular flatly refuse to behave as selfishly as any model predicts. With a few exceptions, we’d much rather assist someone having a heart attack than steal their wallet. But why?

Help the weak, as long as everyone else is watching

Attention then turned to individual/gene level selection; meaning any apparent act of altruism or cooperation by an organism has to in some way benefit said organism. I’ve written previously about Kin Selection, but for those of you too busy to read another ramble about evolutionary game theory, people are nicer to people to whom they are related (and for those of you who did click the link, yes I part-lifted the opening paragraph from there, I see it as recycling). While this obviously explains why people care for their crying parasites, or ‘babies’ as some call them, rather than drown them instantly in the nearest puddle, it doesn’t explain why we cooperate and help others.

This is where two connected concepts come in; reciprocity and reputation. The former hypothesized we help others to ensure we get something back at some point in the future; it treats favours like money, I did x for you so at some point I will trade this for something I need from you. Its evolution relies on certain factors especially common to primate evolutionary history, specifically that we are long lived and tend(ed) to remain within relatively small, stable, groups. Indeed a recent model suggested that as long as there’s as little as a 7% chance you’ll meet someone again you’d still be better off helping them. Also, in actual experiments, just suggesting to participants that they will meet a confederate again is enough to significantly increase altruistic behaviour, tit-for tat as they say. Remove the shadow of the future however and it’s pretty much everyone for themselves.

"... and anyway, the guy at the shop said you never tip at Christmas"

“I’d love to help save your family, but I’m only here on holiday”

Reciprocity has certainly been very successful in explaining a lot of cooperative behaviour in animals, particularly in the complex world of (non-human) primate societies. However one of the limiting factors in reciprocity as a stand-alone mechanism is that anyone could simply refuse to reciprocate. This may not be very harmful if someone simply fails to return a bit of grooming, but what if an individual you have previously shared food with decides to abandon you in your hour of starvation? It’s a genuine risk and one that limits the level of cooperation in most animals to, at best, advanced mutual self interest. This can however be solved with the addition of reputation (Or more accurately, by adding indirect reciprocity). The principle is that by acting in a cooperative/altruistic/reciprocatory manner, you get a reputation for acting in such a way. The payback for your act of altruism doesn’t come from the recipient, but ‘indirectly’ from others watching. Gain a positive reputation by being altruistic and trustworthy, and  others more willing to help you as this reputation makes you a safe bet. Gain a negative reputation however, and soon others wouldn’t spit on you if you were dying of thirst, you cheating bastard!

This interplay is nicely demonstrated in studies of friendships. At the beginning altruistic acts are cheap and usually returned almost immediately (for example, buying someone a pint) but as two people build up a chain of reciprocity; i.e. are friends for a while, the acts become far more costly and may never actually be returned (for example, moving a body). It’s no wonder we work hard to maintain close friendships, a lot of time and social capital has been invested in them.

Furthermore, we are incredibly sensitive to being watched by others, to the point that both eye-like images on a computer screen and posters of faces in a canteen have been shown to hugely increase altruistic and cooperative behaviour. In fact if you remind individuals there’s a God watching them, this too vastly increases their pro-social behaviour. You can also see the negative side of this in the growth of Slacktivism, or why ‘liking’ the plight of political prisoners or adding some dead baby as a friend isn’t going to make the world a better place. Facebook provides the perfect environment to get all the kudos from recognizing that bad things happen without the hassle of actually having to do something.

Fundamentally, indirect reciprocity and reputation maintenance mean you can commit an altruistic act without worrying about whether the target of your altruism will ever return the favour. It also means that if you’re going to do something heroic, make sure as many people as possible see you do it.

Whatever happens, a YouTube hit is guaranteed

What do you mean “Let me just get my camera first”?

For the most part, a mix of reciprocity and reputation is exceptionally good at encouraging cooperation and altruism. This doesn’t mean of course that whenever someone is helpful they aren’t actually thinking any of this, it’s that over evolutionary time our sociality has been shaped to implicitly take these concepts into account. As a species we’re naturally gregarious because our ancestors benefited from acting in such a way. As I said in the entry on Kin Selection, no one would dispute that parent’s care for their children more than the children of strangers, explaining the evolutionary origins of parental instinct, or here altruism/helpfulness, does not make such feelings any less genuine.

This is by no means an exhaustive trawl through the literature, but I’ve tried to place it in some sort of historical/intellectual narrative. So this is our story up until now, early scientists noticed that some animals behaved altruistically and formulated hypotheses based on these observations which became the theory of Group Selection. Later, advances in mathematics, psychology and experimental methodology lead to new hypotheses that explained altruism, and especially in humans, far more effectively. This is the point, Group Selection in it’s initial form isn’t an alternative theory as one that has been debunked by more recent experimentation. It was fine when it was proposed, but careful analysis and *cough* evidence *cough* found it wanting.

And this is where our tale about human pro-sociality would end; Individual Selection supplants Group selection as the most likely theory and that’s it. However, as you’ll see in part 2, thanks to an additional, and uniquely human, pro-social behaviour, Group Selection has seen a resurgence in recent years. Because, for some reason, we humans just can’t keep our noses out of other people’s business (Part 2)

The reluctant socialist: A (sort of) book review

Posted: 10th August 2012 by Get No Happy in Angry Rants, Politics, Reviews

I’ve always had trouble defining where I sit politically. I used to consider myself a libertarian, until the obvious dawned on me about 5 years ago that in order for all people to individually  reach their full potential it was important their parents spent money on baby food and books rather than heroin. It’s a constant amusement to me that the form of society expounded by the US Tea Party, one where every ones success or failure depends entirely on their own efforts, inherently requires a  socialist society to work. Nevertheless I still dislike the attempt to absolve the slovenly and criminal of all responsibility for their actions and have no problem with the idea of the latter being horsewhipped through the streets mounted on a cart pulled by the former in a macabre but utilitarian form of exercise. I also believe, that with very few exceptions, society on it’s own fails no one; it’s a reflexive relationship. No council builds a ‘sink estate’ or a knife-saturated comprehensive, the people who live and go there do that.

And in his defence, fire is kinda awesome

If only the school hadn’t been flammable, this poor tyke could have received an education

I think the thing that annoyed me most after the riots was listening to chavs with no education complaining about not being offered the ‘jobs they wanted’, when a few years previously I was a double graduate with published scientific papers happy(ish) to apply to any crappy job I could find. Basically life isn’t fair and you have no absolute right to a PlayStation. This, and a general believe that nuclear weapons aren’t inherently bad, that the police are hear to protect us rather than act as the iron fist of an oppressive shadow government, and that one always has some personal responsibility should make me a natural Conservative . However the problem is there seem to be only two sorts of Tory these days; the snorting aristocrat who still bemoans the fact King Charles lost the Civil War and King George lost the Colonies, and the neo-liberal Republican-type who wish to  dismantle the state so they can sell contaminated milk to school children because arsenic has a higher profit margin as a preservative, and neither of these particularly appeal.

You should see what they decided NOT to include

…and we’ll call it ‘Mother’s Friend’

Equally, like most people (or at least the people you meet when you’re achingly middle class and over educated) I’m very liberal in the individual freedom and equality sense, which conservatives generally aren’t. I genuinely don’t care who you take home in the evening, their skin colour nor which particular deity you shout exhalations to before the swing gives way under the weight of your urine soaked furry suit. Indeed, in my more sober moments I even accept that the right of “Gavin from Stockport” to both hold his asinine, ill-informed and hyperbolic opinions and to ‘contribute’ them to the BBC comments section without a visit from the local commissar is probably better than the alternative.  Also, as social psychology experiments go, treating women as equals for the past few decades has been pretty successful.

I'm sure the sat-nav said "straight on"

well… within a statistical margin of error

Nevertheless, I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of being ‘left wing’.

As well as the unnerving and unwavering support for the USSR, there was also the the inherent anti-Americanism (especially following 9/11), the incessant championing of the idea we live in some sort of fascist state, an environmentalism based on some hypothetical eden-esque prehistoric past and an aversion to anything that resembled ‘Western’ ideals resulting in a sort of racialist relativism  unwilling to extend the concept universal human rights (and responsibilities) to people that aren’t white.

This is on top of the blanket absolution of all criminal behaviour by anyone below the median income line. For an ideology that campaigns against (rightly) the ‘blame the victim’ response to say sexual assault, they seem awfully willing to do this when the perpetrator is poor and the victim has (had) an iPad. This was especially evident in the riots last year, where despite all evidence to the contrary (for instance the targeting of local shops and houses, running from rather than confronting police, the fact Waterstones was hilariously left untouched) these were seen as class warfare rather than opportunistic looting. More generally I always find the continual call for ‘more education’ around things such teen pregnancy and health to be both patronising and, ironically,  elitist: I mean you can’t expect someone without a degree in Marxist Theory to look after themselves can you?

Basically to me, being truly left wing means behaving like an hypocritical idiots. It meant venerating tyrants and being so wound up in post-modern relativism that I’m fairly sure many have drowned due to the belief that oxygen-dependent respiration was nothing more than a pervasive falsehood perpetuated by oppressive bourgeoisie science to keep the proletariat from a new life of freedom and prosperity under the sea.

If you won't abandon the dogma of Western science, then drowing is really your own fault

“up on the shore they work all day, under the sun they slave away”
… You’re not even trying…

Why am I saying all this? Well, the following are to two book I wish I’d written: “What’s Left” by Nick Cohen, and “The Fallout: How a guilty liberal lost his innocence” by Andrew Anthony. Both are written by two people who considered themselves for many years to be left-wing revolutionaries, the latter going so far as to take part (albeit as a farm hand) in the various South American revolutions, who are incensed that a movement that once championed equality and freedom now finds itself acting to prevent these things. They both explain far more eloquently than I ever could the trouble I’ve always had in identifying with the modern left wing.

Of the two, “What Left” is much more thorough and global affair and acts a potted history of the insanity he feels took over the left following the glory days of the sixties. Some of it was familiar to me, such as the the admiration of the USSR and refusal to accept the views of those escaping from it, and the rather disgusting “they had it coming” attitude to any bombing in Israel and in the aftermath of 9/11, and the failure to stand up for freedom of speech and expression in the face of religious fundamentalism. Perhaps more shocking were the reports from what was happening at the general discursive level, with high profile liberal intellectuals of the day willing to sacrifice Human Rights at the alter of cultural relativism . Equally shocking was the way, following the invasions of Iraq, the left abandoned individuals and movements in Iraq it once supported, because these people were quite content with the fall of Sadam. Instead they decided to take the side of religious fundamentalists, clearly the natural ally of liberalism, who were busy racking up sectarian kills like they were aiming for the top of a Call of Duty scoreboard… Because, yaknow, fuck America!

Once again my inability to grow a beard will come back to haunt me

Liberating us from the hegemony of a democratic, secular, artistically and scientifically creative Superpower since 2001

This is certainly the more academic book, focusing as it does (as mentioned briefly above) on the philosophical wrangling and reactions of the left wing intellectual elite rather than ‘the man on the street’ as it were. It’s also more vitriolic, there’s a real sense of anger from someone who’s watched his ideology go from demanding freedom and equality to actively (in his eyes) acting to suppress those ideals. “The Fallout” is a much more autobiographical and personal affair. There’s less emphasis on the wider ideological debates taking place within the left, and more on the reflections of someone looking back on the mistakes he made; from the guilt of mocking a Black MP for not being ‘black’ enough and questioning an  East Berliner about why they had fled from a superior system of government, to the impotent rage of being told his anger at a recent burglary showed he had sold out because “burglary is just another form of wealth distribution” and being lambasted by former friends for suggesting Enlightenment values of freedom of speech and religion should be something the Left should support.

Now I don’t agree with everything either say. Both supported the invasion of Iraq and do so with a certain moral self-righteousness; “why would you not stop the over throw of a vile dictator?” being the main point. It’s an interesting perception of the world that probably deserves more discussion, but just to make two points that both authors seem to ignore, 1) real social change only comes from within,  the interplay between shifts in social/cultural norms and in-group/out-group dynamics means change can’t be (easily anyway) imposed by an outside force, and 2) because of this, exporting Enlightenment values at the barrel of the gun just makes them look like the cultural-specific beliefs of an invader and thus undermines their spread. Their attitude is a little like the charity worker asking how you can say you can’t afford a donation while wearing clothes not from Primark. Technically true but in reality rather facetious.

Nevertheless they’re two great books that raise important questions about how as a society we should be and how, be in form of bomb-making militants or Creationist lobbying, all the values we claim to cherish are under attack while their natural defenders have left the battlements for a light lunch. I think I’d suggest “What’s Left” just because it is a little more global in its scope and academic in it’s musing, but as I say, both are worth a read.

The problem is, after generally agreeing with both these books (and the equally excellent “Where have all the intellectuals gone?”) , it must mean I’ve become a socialist… Bugger

It's this or vote for Ed Milliband

I guess there’s only one thing for it



The best things in life are fees

Posted: 3rd March 2012 by Get No Happy in Angry Rants, News of the day, Politics

Having received yet more diktats about how the University demands we “improve the Undergraduate experience in light of the new 9k environment” I thought it best I cover this little gem of a topic. It was this or rave to myself in darkened room. Everything is being geared towards showing the Undergrads what their buying for £9,000 at the expense of staff, the postgraduate taught and research students, and (in my opinion) the ethos of higher education in general. The attitude new students already have is that they are here to be taught and not to learn; One student actually complained they had to go to the library, and this will only get worse now they believe their relationship to the university is that of customer to service rather than master to apprentice

Fair enough you may say, they are paying a lot of money.  I had to (about £1,400), and since then  students have been handing over nearly £4,000 in what I image to be a macabre ceremony involving an axe-man and a student waiting nervously for their transaction to clear . Oddly enough though, come September this year, no one will be handing over a nice big cheque at registration. Furthermore, there’s a good chance the university sector as a whole may never see any of the £27,00 fees they are apparently paying. It’s almost as if, despite the protests and demands, they’re not paying £9,000 at all…

This is important as everyone, from the very top of the University hierarchy to the  hysterical cretins whose hyperbolic ravings about super-debt and “no poor people in University” probably put of more people that the debt itself, seems to be under the delusion that students deserve more for the money they aren’t actually paying. And because of this, on a front-line level I am being forced to greet every member of the 2012/3 cohort with the deference normally offered to visiting dignitaries, a welcome mint on each feed-back form, and probably a comforting hug…

We're still working on the staff training manual

... and that's not as easy as you may think

Now before I go on, I need to stress I am not in favour of tuition fees. While the job of the University sector is NOT promoting social mobility per se, it should ensure (although I’m loath to quote Michael Howard) that attainment is about ability to learn and not ability to pay. In an ideal world Higher Education would be free, but in that ideal world I would be writing this from a chair upholstered in spun gold while Any Adams, Ellen Page and Myleene Klass frolicked playfully (and nakedly) around my Ottoman harem. And it would be on the Moon. And just as I won’t be drawing up plans to extend the Moorish water garden any times soon, so too will H.E . never be completely free again. However, the system that will come into force next year is, in principle, the fairest (just about) deliverable system.

It’s free at the point of entry

There are only two other real solutions to the issue of paying for Higher Education.

The first solution is to muddle along as we did with £3/4,000 up front for some and not others. This too isn’t fair because, as always, it’s the downtrodden ‘not actually starving’ workers that suffer, the squeezed middle as they say. There’s more on this below (Who are the ‘rich’), but to put it anecdotally,  had my brother and I been born two years later I’m not entirely sure we could have afforded £7,000 a year fees. The fact my parents, who had somewhat inauspicious/deprived (economically at least) beginnings, earned their doctorates and had successful careers may have meant their own children were priced out of the university sector, that *Daily Mail voice* they’d spent 30years paying taxes to support. Also, the University budget has been massively cut, so the only option would be to raise fees incrementally for everyone. Thus the amount of cash your parents can fork out in a lump sum would even more become the stumbling block to Higher Education. Thus not fair.

The second is to make University free by returning to the grant system, which in turn would mean a drastic reduction in the number of University places and indeed Universities. Personally I’m in favour of this because we don’t need 50% of people with University degrees. Given the occasional reports of the shocking failings of compulsory education (stories about reading/writing age etc.), it’d be far better to make sure at 100% of people can read a book without pictures before we look to H.E. Equally, there were 50+ graduates for each job before the recession; there are simply too many graduates with too many middling degrees in middling subjects. When recruiters for office temp jobs are putting anyone with less than a 2:1 at the back of the pile,  you know there is a problem of over supply. And we could quite happily scrap the bottom 20 ‘universities’ and not notice; I worked for one of the bottom 50, and in clearing we were admitting students with two D grades at A-Level. Does someone who only just passed semi-compulsory education deserve a 3-year jolly in the tertiary sector? However given that in the public sphere, a right to a equal chance for higher education has been confused with simply a right to it, no one is going to advocate preventing little Britney for the ‘experience’ of University just because she can barely spell her own name. More importantly, given the differences in performance between the private and state school sector and unless admissions were tightly controlled, a vast reduction in places would mean the majority would inevitably go to the private sector students. And this is also not fundamentally fair.

Although handle bar moustaches deserve a come back

The University of Bolton graduating class in Sociology 2018?

If we want a situation a) where there is still the opportunity for every person, from the bright kids struggling in a city-centre crumbling school to the workshy slacker who just wants to be out of the sun, to go to University and b) where  the up front costs won’t be prohibitive to many, a system where the education itself is free but you may need to pay it back at some point is really the only solution. Which brings us to

The Graduate tax; or how I learned to stop worrying and accept I’m not paying £9,000.

The system itself is a graduate tax. Because if you graduate and earn a graduate salary you pay an additional tax than someone who didn’t graduate but is earning a graduate-level salary isn’t. In fact, it’s actually slightly better than a proper tax as there is finite limit to pay back (i.e. ‘the debt’). Now there are some good argument against a graduate tax; people who are successful (and don’t become bankers who declare their earnings as capital gains and therefore pay the shockingly low tax rate introduced by New Labour) pay more overall tax  anyway and do so at a high rate of tax, and this is hard to disagree with this. All I can really say is that taxes, from the window tax to the income tax, have been introduced for specific needs. Therefore, we can conceptualise this tax as not so much paying for your education, as the person’s after you. It’s a tax to pay for higher education as a whole. So we can see this tax as a sort of nationwide alumni payment; you benefited from a free education and it’s your turn to support the next generation. This isn’t how previous generations footed the bill granted, but the argument of “how things used to be” is something of a straw man upon which I could unleash my own until the battle ground resembles the stable of a particularly messy horse.

We simply called this battle "The harvest"

So many needless deaths

The beauty of the news system, and the reason it’s fairer, is the amount you pay (if any) can be attributed to how useful your course was to your career. Like everyone until next year, I will start paying my Student Loan back when I earn around £15,000 a year. As a wage this is nothing, this is probably what you would be earning if, instead of university, you started at 18 in a call centre and were relatively good at your job. But by setting the amount at the average starting graduate salary (as this damn fine video from the University of Plymouth shows) everyone should grasp the clear point that you only pay anything if you have benefited from the education everyone else paid for. At the very worst, should upon completing your degree in classics you begin to rake in 21k as a professional circus clown, you’re at least paying for the opportunity to have studied a intellectually fulfilling but economically useless subject (in the eyes of some anyway – I disagree btw and this could be a topic in itself). Remember, even then just being a graduate in any subject-  again in a subject you may have simply been intellectually curious about – will likely still pay off greatly . It’s philosophically actually quite selfish; if you never benefit from going to university, they you don’t have to pay for anyone else to go.

Granted, it is an extra payment (although just over £300 a year at the lowest level isn’t a bank breaker) but unlike say the loan I took out to pay for my MSc, no one is coming round with a bat should you become unemployed. It’s a very special sort of debt it’s based on performance only. Like income tax but for graduates only…

So, as I’ve suggested, the system is basically workable as a long term solution to funding for the H.E. sector that ensures participation is not dependent on the liquid assets of your parents. However, despite the fact it makes university free and costs only occur when you’re personally earning a reasonable amount of money, there are worries on how this will affect social mobility and the rich/poor divide. But…

If I were a rich man…

One of the arguments is the notion that “Rich parents will simply pay off their children’s debt”, that’s pay off twenty seven frekking grand in case you weren’t paying attention. There’s an odd assumption, especially on the left but also in the general discourse on this issue, that one is either a worker in a sulfur mine or a powdered wig wearing member of the aristocracy. Unless you grew up on an estate apparently your parents can just give you £27,000.

Yep, this was pretty much my home until we downsized to a bank account

Yep, this was pretty much my home until we downsized to a bank account

There’s a massive demographic gap between “can pay a £27,000 cash lump sum” and being functionally poor. Yes, there is the issue of the 1%’ers, but these people are so wealthy compared to national averages they wouldn’t be affected if every new student had to present the vice chancellor with a solid gold statue of Adam Smith himself. The argument actually applies to so few people (say, I dunno 1/100) that to use them here as a rich/poor argument is absurd. Unless we embrace communism in it’s bloody, brutal and dystopian totality, having VERY rich parents is going to give someone an easier life regardless of what happens.

I’m just a poor boy from a poor family

This is the part of the debate that makes me the most angry, for three reasons. The first is obvious if you’ve been paying attention so far: if not, this system is free at the point of entry and any debt you have is only paid off when you’re earning enough not to be classed as poor, again, like a tax. This is also why those from poorer families should NOT be excluded from the fees. This makes sense when fees are up-front for obvious reasons, but now any debt payment (or rather taxation) is dependent on what the student does with their life, exempting individuals means a person is essentially inheriting their parents’ tax bracket.

The second is more important and the blame lies with those who took the genuine issue of funding for education and ran with it straight off into the valley of hysteria. There is research which suggests poverty breeds debt-aversion. And many applicants from non-traditional backgrounds are already put off applying to prestigious universities as they don’t believe ‘their sort’ would fit in. Hell, I would have felt the same as an undergraduate at my current University; a place where the rifle club suggests you bring your own and there’s a stable in case one doesn’t want to leave Buttercup alone on the family estate. So logically the prospect of having £27k of debt is going to lower University applications even more from those with poorer backgrounds. Except it shouldn’t for the reasons I’ve mentioned above.

By blowing what is in essence an issue of a graduate tax so out of proportion, there is a good chance the anti-tuition fee protesters have driven  from higher education the very people whom  they claimed to be championing. Remember that while under the old system the fees were waved for some, most paid either the full or an attenuated amount. So by managing to frame the new fees as a giant credit card debt instead of a progressive (ish) tax to provide higher education for whoever wants it, they have likely put off many would may have benefited from the free-at-entry system. The issue therefore is again not about the student debt, but being more accurate and objective in how the system is explained to potential students.

So, not exactly the result they desired. But lets hope they learn a lesson for the next campaign

Don't buy this unbelievably comfortable and irresistibly sexy seal fur coat

Don't buy this unbelievably comfortable and irresistibly sexy seal fur coat

Halls of palatial residence

The final reason, and slightly separated from the others,  is that by concentrating on fees, attention has been drawn away from the hidden costs of University, especially the forgotten issue of housing.

Student accommodation is shockingly expensive, and mainly because Universities stopped building (or knocked down) traditional halls in favour of luxury private flats. Back in my undergraduate days (which were only… 9 years ago… oh), I though £85 a week was stupidly expensive for these flats (that I never stayed in fyi) but now some are nearly £200 a week. There’s no way anyone from a poorer background could afford that, meaning should they go to university, they may be forced to choose one within commuting distance of their parents house. The fees should have been accepted as what they are, the least worst choice, and instead focus placed on providing cost of living grants for poorer students. But alas that was lost amongst the sit-ins and and placards.

At least someone got their Moorish garden :-(

This is actually one of the budget choices for accommodation

The best thing in life are fees

I’m not happy the tuition fees are now as they are. I wish it wasn’t the case that any student had to pay for their own education and that and the country saw universities and scholarship as the public good they are. But, partly due to the economic situation, partly due to a sort of Luddite, anti-intellectual snobbery and partly because past governments spent too much time marketing the University experience a while reducing focus on the academic and scholarly side, this simply won’t happen: Yes university can be a fantastic experience, but if you just want to meet and sleep with different and interesting people I suggest joining the merchant navy. Quite frankly if the threat of ‘super debt’ puts off anyone who just wanted to avoid working for three extra years, for me it’s it was worth it alone.

While there are separate issues surrounding whether the changes will actually adequately fund higher eduction and how the £9/6,000 fees will alter the relationship between the best and worst institutions, we have to accept they are the least worst choice available. The point I’m trying to make is that, fundamentally, the students are not actually paying £9,000 for their education and perpetuating the myth this is the case is not doing anyone any good. From a personal point of view this means being forced into endless and insufferable dealings with undergraduates, that thanks to a modern “everyone’s special”  education already have an entitlement complex, who now have an even greater sense of their central position in the Higher Education universe.

More important than my own selfish whinings however is that viewing the interaction between student and university as a direct payment, rather than a generalised graduate tax to support future graduates, will not only put off those who the protesters were meant to defend but will also dangerously (and illusionary) monetizing the higher education system. When you believe you have bought a degree, bought the time of the lecturer or research staff, why should you have to rely on yourself? You’ve paid to be taught, not to spend days shifting through material for a question never mind an answer. If we’re not careful we risk turning the Higher Education system into little more than advanced daycare for spoiled children.