Friday 3 February 2017

Between psychopath and pollyanna

Ever on the mark for exercising my utilitarian muscles, I was taken from Metafilter to a scrolling cartoon [link was working for me, on company time, this afternoon, but gone down at home, YMMV] about trading puppies for your mother. The story is that, in an interview for the position of a White House staffer, an applicant is asked how much money they'd need to pop a puppy in a microwave. When they've disposed of the money aspects of the transaction, The Man asks how many puppies would the applicant be prepared to see die to save his mother. You get the idea. It's more or less pure trolleology, which The Blob has touched on before.

In such hypothetical scenarios, nobody is going to present you with a puppy, a sack and a brick but they might want to see how you tick and whether you're capable to making hard decisions. By some accounts, fellow students presented ex-UK PM David Cameron with a pig's head, and he was able to do the hard thing. As one of the commenters on Metafilter put it "They don't want psychopaths, but they also don't want moralistic Pollyannas who don't understand that compromises have to be made everywhere."  As Otto von Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible. In honest democratic government a key issue is trying to get enough money, in taxes, from citizens to run the ship of state in ways that increase happiness or utility or efficiency for those same citizens. An obvious way for the state to spend your tax-dollars in utilitarian ways is in building infrastructure: roads, bridges, libraries, hospitals which are such humongous projects that no person and few companies or consortia could imagine carrying them out. It is hard to see how bridges and highways increase happiness but they certainly increase trade, transport, travel and these are usually viewed as being A Good Thing - even as they despoil the planet, but that's another story. I've had a run at the utilitarian calculus of health care with Morquio & Vimizim - Pembrolizumab - Orkambi - Gardasil. And Caitlin Moran has made the case for libraries as repositories of the common good.

The trouble with modern politics and modern politicians is that the whole caboodle is riven with self-interest. The trouble with democracies is that there are regular elections and the pols need to keep their constituents sweet for the next poll and therefore long-term strategic planning is really hard to get over the line.  Simon Coveney, the Minister of Housing was on the wireless the other day ruefully admitting that, of the 22 rural [rural = unDublin in Ireland] communities targetted for growth in a 2002 planning report, not one got into the "top 20 for growth" communities over the intervening 15 years. I think Coveney must mean the National Spatial Strategy for Ireland 2002-2020, which you can read in full [all 160 pages] in all its quaint earnestness.

Now here, for example, is a peculiar thing. In 2002, there was no such thing as broadband; let alone was it conceived as being an essential part of national infra-structure, happiness, utility and efficiency as it is now. That should give all planners pause. There's no point in building roads if we're going to be zipping about in hover-cars. To paraphrase JBS Haldane [prev] The Universe Future is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.  There you go, Haldane would never write that sentiment in those terms today because queer has now become a technical term in BLT-speak.

Mais revenons nous a nos puppies. Politics really should be about the Art of the Hard. We want our elected reps to make the difficult decisions for us, so long as it's someone else's Mum who is not getting a hip-replacement.

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