Thursday, March 19, 2020

Our lives are worth more.

There is a plan to save something very important during this pandemic we are experiencing. Lives will be lost in order to save this thing; my life possibly, hence my keen interest. Governments who love fiscal tightness will deliberately enter deficits largely by borrowing from the private sector so that this thing survives. The right and the left are united in calling for this thing to be rescued in some way. But I don’t know if the economy is worth saving.

Our governments tend to be elected or thrown out almost entirely on how they manage the economy and why wouldn’t they? When the economy is strong, indicators of this are full (or fullish) employment, which is people making money and investor and consumer confidence, which is people’s hope they will make more money in the future. When you hear the ka-ching of money landing in your opened hands from the fountain of the economy and when you look up and see so much more money potentially on its way to you it feels good. Good enough to want to re-elect a government despite their open corruption. That lovely money is pizza and fixing your car and getting your sore tooth looked at and it’s a Charles and Di wedding anniversary set of Celine Dion reads the Koran.  It’s choice. It’s control. It’s power in the marketplace in your hands.

Then the real magic of a strong economy happens. You take that power and give it to your dentist. They now have the power to hire a secretary who has the power to pop over to yours and pay you to walk their dog. That’s power back in your hands again. You’re not losing anything. You and everyone else is just getting more done from that kitchen refit to that tattoo they always wanted. The tattooist and the carpenter and you all benefit.

But economies don’t match the dream. In addition to increased income and spending another indication of a strong economy is inflation which is the reduction in actual value of any of that money that’s landing in your hands. That undoes the relationship between the ka-ching and the market power. Also not every body even gets to stand under the money waterfall. Some people stand under other people and catch what (if anything) spills out from their hands.  Those dregs they get will, due to inflation, be worth less in real terms. Anybody who gets the same amount of golden coins as they received before the economy blooms is actually facing a reduction in marketplace power. They can’t go to the dentist anymore. The dentist has to sack the secretary. Your dog walking business goes nowhere.

Lastly that circular effect of economic spending doesn’t always even happen when wealth increases. When you spend money you could be just pouring your money into some corporate conglomerate who sells tech products made for the cheapest labour costs in the world and pays no tax and whose overseas warehouse just sacked every employee but the unpaid intern who oils the robots. When this happens economic growth can’t achieve momentum. The extra pizzazz of a charged up economy is siphoned off into the same deep pockets who can’t seem to find a need for a twelfth bum wiper and so that economic power doesn’t return to you. But the recruitment officer does thank you for your enthusiastic application.

Somewhere buried inside a strong economy is a “general lift in living standards” but its not a given that you in particular will be part of the generally benefiting at all or that even more than a few will. It’s still considered, illogically, by governments, as a general improvement in living standards if Mr. Burns buys an island while his whole workforce can’t afford their rents anymore. This is because by the power of averages its as if everybody got a coconut from the islands palm trees. Utilitarians however would largely agree that concentrated wealth is worth less than distributed wealth in terms of pleasure “points”. The value of a meal to a hungry person is more than the value of a better cut of steak to a well fed person and certainly worth more than the second steak the tycoon can’t even finish. The rich person may whinge louder than seems possible from an adult, when they lose their luxuries, but as we used to say over beers in my student lefty days you’ve got to learn to filter out the wealthys tantrums as a non-concern because they’re bullshit.

For some time our relatively strong economy has been a horror for many of its participants. Rampant wage theft; No real wage growth despite corporate profits growing; Entrenched long term unemployment; Scandalous harassment of people on unemployment benefits, and disability and parenting payments; Robots (and I like Astroboy, he’s one of the good ones) are taking our jobs. In a number of countries student debt is growing astronomically. Good Old Boy Joe Biden was one of those who voted to prevent US tertiary students who couldn’t pay their loans ever declaring bankruptcy locking them in permanent financial servitude.  In Australia we have a housing crisis that means people can’t afford home ownership while rents keep them in anxious poverty. On the other hand global yacht sales including super yachts have experienced steady growth above 4% so it’s not all doom and gloom.

I am a teacher in a secondary school. I will work with kids because I value their education and I value them as people and because I am a part of preserving human knowledge across generations. I will work with kids for additional hours (call me up these pending holidays if necessary) to free up medical staff who need to work on fighting this virus. I will do this even though schools are impossible places to strictly impose infection controls, although we could do better than we are currently, especially if we have less kids attending and threw some more money to hire more people to our overworked cleaners. But I am not risking my safety, the safety of my kids and your kids in my classes, in order to save the economy from going under. We are seeing endless energy from this government for squeezing the tits of the poor, and zero energy cracking down on wage theft. Hospitality workers lost penalty rates recently. High income tax cuts have not been cancelled to save the surplus but the underfunding of the NDIS and public schools is supposedly acceptable to get us to one. Nobody I know has got a super yacht.

I say lets dump this economy. Let’s do something different. Something better. Something where everyone gets paid sick leave, where wage theft is taken seriously, where we have an anti-corruption commission with actual teeth, where nobody is homeless because housing is a right, not a way to make money. And if a teacher, a nurse or the staff at the supermarket checkout dies from this virus we can give them their own Viking funeral in one of those yachts.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Good Place reminds us of the offensiveness of afterlives.

Note: This post contains spoilers for the Good Place. They are pretty incidental to the piece so you wont need to watch the show to understand anything but if you are planning to watch the show then come back and read this after you’re done. I loved the show myself and the twists in the show are worth not spoiling.

Recently the series “The Good Place” came to an end. For most of the series audiences seemed happy to laugh along with it as it depicted a flawed system of determining who dies and ends up in the bad place, the good place or somewhere in between.  “The judge” character came closest to some kind of God for the series and they were pretty much an object of good humoured ridicule but this was still not a problem for theists I know. The final episodes however rankled some commentators. I think this was because the whole series, despite being ostensibly set in the afterlife, played like its plot was a continuation of life. The real afterlife, meaning that which happens after the drama of life is complete, is only glimpsed at the very end and, as I’ve titled this piece, descriptions (and depictions) of the afterlife have the capacity to offend us.

Afterlifes are often but not always systems of reward and punishment. When they are set up like that what they reward or punish is potentially offensive even if we don’t believe in the afterlife. If you were sitting down your children and telling them that only the eldest would get into heaven and the other would go to hell I would be offended by the injustice of this and as a second child some of that offence would be personal too. It is as if somehow I was going to go hell because of what you said, even though I don’t actually believe I will. My thinking here is not foolish. Even if I only believe in this mortal world the impact of such an afterlife description on your second child is real in this world. Calling it emotionally damaging seems too slight. Spiritually damaging seems fairer. I am right to be somewhat offended.

This offence of injustice can work many ways. We can be offended if justice is too soft so that the experience of victims means nothing. Versions of an afterlife in which George Pell flies to heaven on the basis of his recitation of the Apostles Creed would fit such a description. We can be offended if the circumstances around a persons life are not taken into account so that a person who steals out of hunger is treated as someone who steals out of greed. We can be offended if justice is arbitrary or cruel such as punishing same sex relationships that bring joy to all involved. We can be offended if justice is so complicated, that everyone is set up to fail and face an eternity of "spiders up the butt", for drinking cows milk, or soy milk, and twice as many spiders for almond milk. This is the system that the characters in the Good Place must challenge and eventually overturn.

In its final season The Good Place replaces that punitive system with what is essentially a therapeutic model. Instead of the old bad place, people go through scenarios run by rehabilitated demons in which they grow past the reasons why they caused harm with their lives. Its not so much punishment as it is treatment for human toxicity. The conclusion is “universalist” in the sense that everyone eventually gets into the Good Place. As we hear Brent arguing with his spiritual coaches we realise though that this is a longer journey for some than it is for others. Nobody is being tortured though. Nobody is forever excluded from the Good Place either. Judgement isn’t behind those participating in this system.

Christian Universalism is a belief within Christianity that everyone will be reconciled with God at some point. While it has a very long history in the church it leapt into prominence again in 2011 with the publication of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Due to influential commentary on the book Rob Bell gained the title of heretic in some circles and was bid goodbye by people who act as guardians of the evangelical faith. Universalism seems to me to offend people’s need for good to be seperated eternally from evil at a singular judgement point. As I don’t have that need I don’t fully understand it.

Perhaps the anxiety is that Hitler will be given a house in heaven under this system that they don’t deserve – the offence of too soft justice. However no universalist afterlife (and certainly not the one in the Good Place) suggest this is possible without Hitler first transforming into someone who any Jew would be happy to live next to. I think more likely it is offensive to people trying to get others to turn to salvation right now to suggest that there is no absolute deadline to secure salvation by. Evangelism in particular loses its bite if our death itself doesn't bring on our final judgement.

Issues of injustice centred around punishment and reward are not the only ways that afterlifes can offend us. The offence that the Good Place provoked in some commentators in its afterlife was the final obliteration of self-hood in the souls journey. At the very end of all things (serious spoiler alert...) the individual ceases to be the individual. The selves we came to know as Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi and Jason concluded their stories as they met their need to grow past self-interested survival or petty competition or paralysing doubt or simply an inability not to combine matches and petrol when left alone with them. They then, after all the time they need and by their own choice, end. This idea of an ultimate end to our self is as offensive to some people as an unjust afterlife.

Like the offence of universalism this is not an offence I particularly understand. I take solace in the line from Take this Waltz by Leonard Cohen: “Take this Waltz, It’s been dying for years.”; as a reminder that I am familiar with my own ending. The two year old me is in my past. The six year old me is in my past. The 20 year old me is in my past. And so on.  They ended and so too will I. I’ve been dying for years. One day finally the last me will die but by then they will probably be unfamiliar in many respects to the me of today.

Is this sad? Sometimes I find it terribly sad. Not only will I end but all the wonderful people I love will one day have no more versions of themselves in this world. You’d better believe that’s sad. But is this bad? I don’t think so. I come down on the show creators side that death, including ultimate soul death, is essential to valuing life. It is why “every human is a little bit sad all the time, because you know you’re going to die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” (Series 4 Episode 12). I accept though this may just be a rationalisation of an unavoidable reality that I and others will die. If someday we can actually cure death or if an eternal afterlife actually exists I will be interested to see if that does actually turn life into a prison (with or without harps). I do think it might.

Recently I listened to a podcast in which two very different Christian spokespeople both agreed that from a Christian perspective death is bad. They argued that biblically death is not a part of the world until sin wrecks it and that the right way for the world to be is without death. Therefore they believed all death should be railed against and a world without any death at all should be longed for. From this perspective it is actually an end to the soul that is unnatural. This belief in our eternal identities is not always extended to people who go to hell. Their eternal existence is supposedly tortuous and given that non-universalists hold out no hope for their redemption, essentially pointless.  Some therefore conclude that denizens of any Bad Place will be annihilated rather than barbarically burnt without dying for ever (a theory called Annihilationism) but that those who are saved by God will live for ever.  Whether annihilationist or not the idea is that we are supposed to be eternal and an afterlife with a positive ending of ourself is a depiction that offends against that idea.

There are any number of additional ways that an afterlife depiction can offend us. I suspect the Trumps of the world would be offended by an afterlife in which there are no walls between rich and poor. People who have prided themselves on knowing theology will be offended by the lack of a doctrinal entrance exam at the end. The Good Place showed us that it is a topic people are interested in enough to devote ourselves to four seasons to. It also showed us that even when nobody is pretending its the truth the afterlife can still offend.