Archive | October, 2015

The Cost of Choice

30 Oct

One of the founding economic beliefs of both conservatives and liberal – and one which suffuses much contemporary thought amongst people who think they are not political at all – is that ‘choice’ is a good thing.

There’s a host of things wrong with that claim in many areas of life, not the least of which is that those who believe in it most strongly in economic affairs so often seek to deny women ‘choice’ in the control of their own bodies.

I don’t want to look at those, more important, areas however.  I just want to point out, with a single small example, one difficulty with ‘choice’ in economic reasoning that I’ve never seen dealt with anywhere.  This is simply the time it takes to make choices.

Time, so the axiom goes, is money.  Let’s accept this for a moment, and attempt to apply it to a single person choosing which company to buy electricity from.  Let’s assume, in addition, that they have electricity and internet access to research their choice and that they do not face any exit fees from their existing contract, and that every company they may wish to deal with is as helpful and honest as is possible.

The customer has eighteen possible suppliers in Wales, England or Scotland, according to Which?  Each of these offers several tariffs.  Eon offers four, and in the interests of saving myself time, I’m going to treat that as typical.  It’s also possible for an individual to join a community or consortium that buys energy at another rate from some of those companies – but I’ll ignore that too.

If our customer reads and absorbs details at truly superhuman speed they will have worked out the preferable tariff – including the awkward ethical ones about sustainability, economic degradation, company donations to the Conservative Party, company attitudes to and take-up of workfare, industrial relations policy and cross-ownership issues with only a couple of minutes work per tariff.  Note that many of these issues are ethical and therefore can’t be decisively dealt with by comparison websites.

Two hours and twenty-four minutes of our customer’s time has been taken up with research.  It’s lucky they’re superhuman and didn’t need to stop for coffee and a fag halfway through.  Being superhuman and possessed of the ability to combine complex calculation with an intimate knowledge of their daily electricity consumption for the next year with decisiveness in the face of a murky moral universe of corporate and political strategy, they choose instantly.

Having an immaculate credit rating, money in the bank, and perfect knowledge of when to place the call in order to switch their account, it takes them only a few more minutes to get through and set the new supplier account up.  Let’s call that an even two and a half hours for the sake of roundness.

Being superhuman, their time is valuable and their labour likely to be more valuable than most people’s in the economy.They combine within themselves the skills of a high-level executive, a research librarian, a corporate lawyer, an IT consultant, a professor of ethics, and a slew of working-class jobs too numerous to mention.  They are either Sherlock Holmes or the guy who appears in Tarantino films to help dispose of a body.

I wouldn’t even like to contemplate a realistic hourly rate for their services.  But I’d like to suggest that they could have done something more useful with the time.

There’s No Such Thing as Paul McCartney

10 Oct

That’s not literally true, obviously.  Even though newspapers seem incapable of omitting the ‘Sir’ he got awarded long long after the stuff he did that was worth rewarding.

But it’s kind of true in a way that relates to the debate still commonplace amongst musicians and Beatles fans.  The debate being, of course, “Who was the better musician?”

There are three conventional answers.  I’m going to sum them up very briefly, and therefore inadequately and by caricature:

  1.  Paul, because he could sing better and was dead good on the bass, whereas John wasn’t that hot even as a guitarist.
  2. John, because he wrote more meaningful and harder-edged songs.
  3. Neither was ‘better’ than the other, because each had very different strengths.  Those strengths, in combination, formed the power of the Beatles.

The last answer, if I had to choose, would be the one I’d go for, and is similar to the case made by Conrad Brunstrom yesterday that started me off on this whole train of thought.  But there’s a fourth answer – nearly compatible with it – that I’ve never yet seen written as such, despite it being implicit in the legal name of their songwriting partnership.

This is simply that neither Paul McCartney nor John Lennon existed in a meaningful way as separate musicians from their first meeting at Woolton village fete until the Beatles ceased to exist.  The personal struggles that led to the death of the Beatles as a band were their process of being born as musical individuals.

In political philosophy it’s not particularly unusual to stick together schools of thought, or even individuals, to indicate their closeness or inseparability.  This can be done with good reason, and often even with accuracy. Fukuyama referred to Hegel-Kojeve as a ‘systemic philosopher’.  Both left and right (for better and worse and every shade of thing inbetween) spent much of the twentieth century talking about Marxism-Leninism.  Anarchists and communists have stuck together, and divided, their beliefs by reference to anarcho-communitarianism; anarcho-syndicalism and a host of variations of equal obscurity.    Feminists (and anti-feminists looking for a handy insult) have hyphenated their beliefs with pretty much everything else.

So why should accepting the joint process of creation implied in the term “Lennon-McCartney” create such difficulties?

I think it’s because we have grown up in a world where the myth of individual genius is paramount, and accepting artistic production as a communal and cooperative exercise is difficult.

Even when that cooperative exercise produced what for many is still the defining musical art of the last century – and, for some, of all the centuries.