A Tale of Two Smartphone Apps: Love and Ethics in the Time of the Travel Ban

It was the best of times, it was the Trumpiest of times.

I don’t write as often as I want to these days, and more often than not it’s for the same reason. In recent months, I find when I go to sit down and write one of these, then I read some awful news that just happened and decide that not only do I not feel like writing anymore, but wonder who would want to read any of my nonsense given what is going on elsewhere. The last time this happened was at the end of January, and President Trump had just signed his first executive order on immigration, the “Muslim Travel Ban”, which immediately barred even legal US residents from certain Muslim countries from re-entering the US. Slowly, stories started trickling in about people who left the country for a vacation and suddenly lost their whole lives. It was shocking not only in these personal stories, but also that a US president could have done this, and obviously not thought through the effects of his actions at all. Another reason I don’t write a lot anymore is that since all anyone talks about anymore is Donald Trump or Brexit, it follows that most of the things I’m thinking about are these two things, and there is already far too much stuff online already about them. So this isn’t about either of these things, it’s just set in this new world, against this madness that we all now reside in.

You were all alive at the time, and remember how the protests against the Travel Ban were organised very quickly, especially in major US airports. The largest protest was perhaps at New York’s JFK Airport, where thousands of people showed up to demonstrate against the ban. Out of solidarity, New York taxi drivers joined the strike, making it impossible to get a traditional taxi to or from the airport. People still needed to travel to and from the airport however, so the obvious replacement was Uber, which had been taking customers away from the traditional yellow New York cabs for years anyway. Uber, in situations like this with higher than usual demand, are famous for “surge pricing”, which entails charging higher than usual fares for car rides as a way to encourage Uber drivers to show up in places and at times where it wouldn’t normally be worth their while under normal circumstances. The company has caused controversy several times for seemingly profiting from terror attacks such as the Boston Marathon Bombing by, through means of surge pricing, charging customers high fares to flee danger.

In this case at the airport, there was high demand for Uber rides, but the company decided not to apply surge pricing in the area between the airport and the city. From their perspective, they were trying to help out with legitimate transport needs without attempting to profit from a bad situation. From the point of view of everyone else, they were not only crossing picket lines and attempting to break a strike, but through low prices were actively encouraging people to use the service, and thereby profiting from the Travel Ban. A Twitter campaign began, urging people to delete their Uber accounts. Apparently 200,000 people deleted their accounts over that weekend, a level high enough to force Uber to change the way they handled the process of deleting accounts.

The success of this campaign and the tarnishing of the Uber brand wasn’t very surprising: those on the left have severe difficulty in choosing their battles to fight, and Uber faces such grassroots opposition from taxi driver associations around the world so that any criticism about the company will be spread as widely as possible through networks that were designed for just this purpose. What did pique my interest that day was the news that the other main “sharing economy” company, AirBnB, was also receiving attention. The founder of AirBnB had announced that his company would aid in giving emergency housing to those affected by the ban. It was a very nice and welcome gesture, but it does needs a bit of context.

The Context

In simpler times (about a year ago), the type of thing that would light up the internet for a few days would be something like a “study” of the travails of a black person trying to get a booking on AirBnB in comparison to the ease of a white person. In a series of these, it became apparent that it was extremely difficult to get a place to stay on AirBnB unless you were white, and preferably straight. The conclusion that everyone drew from this was that AirBnB was racist, and possibly homophobic. The people at AirBnB took great offence to this, and vowed to solve perceived discrimination on their site. The culmination of this was that from November 1 2016, anyone logging into the site had to read and agree to a new user agreement, forbidding discrimination on both sides. If you want to rent out an apartment on AirBnB, you have to agree to rent it to anyone regardless of colour, sexual orientation or religion. Similarly, those seeking accommodation were encouraged to rent from all available properties, rather than just those offered by their preferred race or creed.

Ever since I received the email from AirBnB at the end of October 2016 about this proposed new user agreement, I have been planning to write something about it. Look, its intentions are obviously noble, and I would like to live in a world without discrimination, but to think it can be solved by a user agreement is one of the most arrogant things I have ever heard of. I might write about this again soon, as it is the topic of my PhD dissertation and it demands further exploration than the quite right-wing explanation I will give here for expediency, but the arrogance shown by AirBnB here is not that they think they can solve discrimination, it is that they see discrimination as a decision.

Deciding to Disciminate

To the AirBnB people in their start-up community, where they are connecting people through their app and website, rather than taking jobs away from people in the hospitality industry through the exploitation of legislative gaps in taxation and insurance, good people wake up in the morning and decide to treat everyone equally. Bad people wake up and decide that they don’t like certain groups. If only these bad people would stop doing this, then there would be no discrimination, and everyone would be equal.

In reality, discrimination is not like this: most discrimination is subconscious and ultimately involuntary. There is no one on this earth who can say they are not racist, sexist or homophobic, because they really don’t know, and in truth they themselves are probably not the ones who should be the judge of it. I like to think of myself as accepting of everyone, yet at times, and often very suddenly, I am shocked at how I behave in certain situations with people who are a different race, religion or sexuality than myself. I can check it, but often I only realise my behavior afterwards. The reason discrimination is so persistent is not due to choice; it is far, far deeper than that. I would even go so far as to say that it is a very depressing part of what makes us human.

This is not a popular view of discrimination however, and many would have us believe that it is something we can solve by simply being good people. AirBnB say that if you want to use their service, then you have to stop hating black people. That’s fair enough, but what if you don’t hate black people, and receive many requests on AirBnB, and suddenly you receive an email from the company telling you that through analysis of your rejections against acceptances, you reject black people a lot more than anyone else. You didn’t know it, but you’re a racist. And now you’re banned from AirBnB.

I’m not saying that we should all stop worrying about discrimination or that it will solve itself, just that its stigmitisation as something awful is not necessarily always correct. Gender quotas on management boards and parliamentary elections do not exist to enhance equality today, but to normalise gender equality and thus limit this subconscious discrimination in the future. Exposing and defining various forms of discrimination is helpful. Naming and shaming individuals who are perceived to discriminate is not. My grievance with AirBnB is that they expected all their discriminatory users to be aware of their discriminatory behaviour. It’s quite a high horse to ride on. While they have shown through their user agreement roll-out that they are attempting to tackle discrimination on their platform, there is no doubt in my mind that it will have no effect whatsoever, and new “studies” exposing AirBnB discrimination are inevitable.

Back to Reality

What’s this got to do with AirBnB’s actions during the Travel Ban, and with the announcement of housing refugees and US citizens affected by the order? It’s hard to be cynical about something like this, as they are in a position to help people out, and hopefully they have helped a lot of people throughout this period. However, if you have been following the company’s issues over the past year, it is also hard to avoid the fact that they are using the Muslim Travel Ban as a marketing stunt. The week after the travel ban, the company aired an ad during the Superbowl emphasising their inclusiveness policy, and just this week sent out an email to all their users about how inclusive they are. Again, their actions in helping real life victims are pure, but are their intentions any different from the criticism of Uber that prompted such vitriol? At the time of the #deleteuber campaign, the main message was that people would not tolerate businesses trying to profit from Trump’s policies, yet I would argue that AirBnB have done just this.

The moral quandary here is that AirBnB is doing good things, yet it is using a political situation to reposition its brand to a place that is comfortable with the values of its founders. When data inevitably comes back in a few months that its user agreement pledge had no effect, AirBnB can now point to their actions during the Travel Ban as a means to deflect criticism, and they are proving this by keeping everyone very aware that they are doing through massive advertising campaigns and reminder emails. All that could be said of Uber’s intentions were that they were questionable; the intentions of AirBnB much less so. If you’re going to punish companies for attempting to profit from the eccentricities of President Trump, consistency is necessary; the actions of Uber cannot be criticised while the actions of AirBnB go unnoticed. That, and at some stage we will all have to admit to ourselves that we discriminate, perhaps even every day.

 

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The Beginning of History

We all are currently in the middle of key historical events that will be analysed for generations to come. It is unlikely that this analysis will accurately reflect our experience of these events.

At times of key importance, I often find that the world can take the form of literature. Should someone (famous or otherwise) die, my mind highlights all the conversations I have had about that person recently, and find that these all alluded heavily to that persons passing. Perhaps I had taken an interest in a new hobby, and this hobby again would almost certainly be a metaphor for death. If I were reading a summary of these events, without any knowledge of what was to come, it would be obvious to me that this person was not long for this world. The author had signposted it without any subtlety whatsoever.

On the night of 23 June 2016, I went to bed, and just before I had drifted off to deep sleep, I was awoken suddenly by the crash of thunder. What followed was the most violent thunderstorm I have ever experienced. The rain and wind raged against my windows like it was the end of days. The boom of thunder sent vibrations right through to the objects on my shelves. The lightening lit up my apartment like it was the middle of a summer’s day. After a while, I got used to it, and finally did drift off to sleep. When I woke up, the world had changed completely.

On Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th of November 2016, temperatures here in Hamburg had plummeted to unseasonably cold levels, and on both of these days the city was covered in a layer of snow that would be more suitable in late January. Winter came early, just as autumn had gained momentum. During this time of the early winter, events unfolded that have stunned the world into a collective depression that has not been seen in my lifetime.

If I was making a movie, or writing a book, about what I was doing during the time of the Brexit decision and the US election, I probably wouldn’t include those weather elements in there, as they are quite heavy-handed. They are a bit obvious, and their lack of subtlety does not respect the audience enough to make up their own minds about what they should be feeling about the unfolding of these events. The fact remains however, that of these two world-changing events that we have all experienced this year, both of them were foreshadowed (in really amateurish fashion) to me through the metaphor of extreme weather.

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Constructing A Narrative

I am the very definition of the elitist, ivory tower-dwelling, liberal idealist that was completely taken by surprise by both the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and the electing of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America. I understood the issues at hand, and I respected that there were legitimate concerns by the supporters of these two decisions that drove them to desperate measures, but my highly condescending and elitist view was that the angry, poor masses would come to their senses, see that they had given us a big fright, and finally do the right thing and listen to us smart, educated people on election day.

I went to bed on June 23rd and November 8th fully in the belief that my worldview would be upheld. It wasn’t, and I was stunned into disbelief when I awoke from both of these smug, elitist sleeps. Everyone was stunned, and immediately began searching for explanations. From my experience on the days of June 24th and November 9th 2016, I saw that what was unbelievable in the morning, can become obvious by the afternoon. Brexit and UKIP had empowered the forgotten parts of the UK outside London (and Scotland and Northern Ireland), while Donald Trump had (in association with Wikileaks) led a grassroots movement to end the capture of US democracy by the Clinton and Bush dynasties. The world was shocked by the Brexit result, but almost six months later we now see it as an inevitable conclusion to years and years of the British government neglecting their working class. We are still normalising ourselves to the idea of President Trump, but it will not be long until we see it absolutely ludicrous to think that Hillary could have beaten him in the election.

Except, when I went to bed on the nights that the votes in both of those polls were being counted, no one thought it was obvious at all. On June 23rd, I actually went to bed after Nigel Farage had conceded defeat in the referendum. I went to bed after seeing the most vocal Brexiteer admit that they had lost. The next time I saw him, he was smiling like the Chesire Cat and proclaiming that he always knew that Brexit would succeed. Over in the US, Donald Trump in the weeks (and hours) before the election was seen to have a 20% chance of winning. His campaign rhetoric had switched to issuing pre-emptive excuses for his defeat: conspiracies, lying women, voter fraud. It is widely known in US media that he planned to devote his time to his new TV network after the election. Even when he took to the stage on the morning of November 9th to deliver the body blow of news that he had officially won the US presidency, his victory speech was followed by the immediate musical cue of You Can’t Always Get What You Want, by the Rolling Stones. This is not a victory song, by any event of the imagination, and felt very out of place given the circumstances. I truly believe that this song was cued by the organisers of this election night party to follow his concession speech to his supporters. They were so shocked by the result that they forgot to change the playlist.

Making History

Hindsight is a marvelous thing. While the world is a dynamic, constantly changing flow of information, major events act as a pause button and allow the static, isolated analysis of a single event in time, concentrating solely on the event and what went before. That not even the central figures in both of these historical events we experienced this year had any idea until very late in the ballot counting process that they would spark major world events must surely make us ask questions about how history is constructed. Your children and grandchildren will read about both of these events, and will be able to explain to you in one sentence what the whole contemporary world did not realise until the event had already happened. They will tell you about the inevitable backlash of downtrodden working class Americans raging against globalisation. You will have forgotten by then that Donald Trump didn’t even believe that until he won Florida.

The thing about history is that it must be a narrative. It must be a linear story of how we got from Situation A to Situation B. You are living through a major period in history right now, and do you really think that it is a simple, linear story? Studying history in high school (I don’t call it high school, but I have a lot of foreign readers, so let it go, Irish people!), what intrigued me most was how underplayed the First World War was, compared to the Second. I am well aware of the reason for this, as the answer to what caused the First World War is a ten page essay, while the causes of the Second can be described in one surname. The origins of the First World War are complex, while its sequel was about good versus evil.

Future generations will have to study a chapter of a history book that gets from the end of the Cold War (also an absolute shock to everyone in 1989, but obvious to us now), through the War on Terror, via the Financial Crisis and make it all lead up to a swing to the political right in the world’s richest countries. It will take up maybe five pages of a history book, and it will make sense. It will make as much sense to them as Germany’s mistreatment at the Treaty of Versailles and subsequent currency inflation during the Great Depression leading to the Third Reich completely explained the rise of Nazism to us history students over the years. I doubt those people in 1930’s Germany saw it that way, but it is too late now, and their story has been explained.

In the modern world, history isn’t written by the winners, it’s written by those who can explain complex and unpredictable events in a simple way. A story has to be created to explain how and why something happened. There are no surprises when reading a history book, there are no twists. Everything is foreshadowed, and the conclusion is obvious, pages before the major events. Everything is connected, and leading inevitably to its conclusion. In doing this, a lot of information has to be jettisoned, and the information that is used to explain major events must be carefully selected. Analysis through hindsight clears away everything that does not directly rationalise an event, and leaves you with a clear, straight path from “Yes We Can!” to “Make America Great Again!”

In this way, the construction of history is not unlike the construction of a conspiracy theory. Both are vastly subjective and oversimplified explanations of complex forces, and both use extreme prejudice in selecting only evidence that support its claim. The writing of history is in itself an art form, making sense from isolated key events and attempting to explain them as if the world was just one big linear narrative. In the decades to come that I will be talking about these events in 2016, I will try to remember how shocked I was, how shocked everyone was, when they occured. I will also include the hackneyed scene-setting device of the thunder and snow. It just makes for a better story.

 

A Very American Pornography

Donald Trump is an endlessly quotable guy: his straight-talking, no-nonsense, ill-informed speeches are analysed both by his critics and supporters for lines of dialogue to either ridicule or celebrate him, respectively. Unlike much of the internet, I don’t get much from learning each of the new stupid things the man has recently said, but in all honesty I must admit that one thing he said a few months ago (and then repeated it every time he had a microphone) on the US Presidential Nominee circuit really stuck with me, and it was one of the few things he said that did not spawn articles and outrage, and it probably should have. Back last year, in the middle of any speech he was making, he would proclaim with pride that he was personally funding his own campaign for the Republican Nomination for the 2016 US Presidential Election. In one of the televised debates last year, he boasted to his rivals that he was the only one among them who was paying his own way in the campaign.

We’ve all heard this fact, so it seems pretty innocuous to hear it again, but it is worth pointing out exactly what it means. By saying that he uses his own money to pay for his campaign, Trump is saying that he did not need to use the traditional (democratic) means of campaign funding, did not need to raise money from individuals and groups that liked what he had to say and would like to see him in office representing them, and did not need any support from the hierarchy of the political party whose nomination he wished to win. He would bypass all of this, because he was insanely wealthy and could pay his own way. And he was very, very proud of all of this. Trump was in effect boasting about being able to buy his way into consideration for the biggest job in the country, and considered this a point of honour: to him, his rivals for the Republican nomination were smaller people than him because they relied on donations while he was self-sufficient.

With his self-funded campaign, Donald Trump purchased for himself a platform with which to shout at us from, and ensured there would be no escaping the man for the foreseeable future. In the US, you don’t necessarily have to have something to say in order to be given a voice, you merely must be able to pay for the microphone. This of course ignores the fact that people in America always listen to Donald Trump, and not because he is loud and says funny things, but because he is a billionaire, and Americans worship billionaires.

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When viewing a billionaire, or merely a millionaire, an American pair of eyes would not just see a very rich person, they would see a successful, great, powerful and wise person who could maybe have wisdom to impart to all of us about how to achieve similar success. This is the only way I can possibly rationalise the sudden sainthood achieved by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once his wealth passed a certain level and he claimed his place among the richest people in the world. Zuckerberg is obviously very good at what he does, and was very clever at building his product at a certain time and in a certain way that proved very successful. He engages in sizeable philanthropy, and strives towards a better American workplace in his own employment policies at Facebook. That’s all very good, but does it really make him worth listening to? Apparently so, as according to the World Economic Forum, he has some lessons to teach all of us through his choice of literature.

This type of post is so ubiquitous on the internet, we hardly even notice them anymore. A simple browse of LinkedIn will bring up posts about “7 things some rich guy says you should do before 7am”. Donald Trump himself originally achieved fame in the US by publishing his business strategy manual ‘The Art of the Deal’, which aimed to simultaneously teach the reader how to be better at business while also acting as printed evidence of how great Donald Trump is at business. Books like this, where a very successful person reveals their secrets always sell well. There is thus a direct link between the success of an individual and whether that individual is worth listening to.

The real issue here is the link between wealth and virtue in the US. While it is not explicit, in American culture it is highly apparent that success (measured by wealth) is considered a high virtue, and one to aspire to. If someone is rich, there is an unsaid understanding that that person works very hard and deserves everything he/she has achieved. The successful individual is seen as the sole author of his/her success, and therefore this person is an authority on success and can impart wisdom to others in and help them achieve similar success. The problem here is that there is no role given to luck or good fortune in the success story. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t benefit from being born into an intellectual family that encouraged education. He didn’t benefit from being born at the exact right time and right place to take advantage of technology and resources. Donald Trump didn’t benefit from being born into a rich family and honing his business acumen with massive private wealth as a safety net in the event of failure. Both these men are great successes, but it is difficult to argue that they both have not been incredibly lucky also.

Many reading will see aspects of this mentality in their own cultures, and indeed it is prevalent worldwide, but this is only a by-product of globalisation and the Americanisation of culture. The link between wealth and virtue is an almost uniquely American idea. Asking a Russian billionaire for tips on how to make money would involve merely a few sentences about being friends with Putin. Similarly, for the Chinese super-wealthy, all the tips would be about cultivating ties with the ruling political party. But even in ‘free’ democratic countries, there is an understanding that wealth and success are a mix between good fortune and hard work. The graph below shows how far the US is out in front of other countries with regard to individualism (The UK is in there too: that’s what Margaret Thatcher did to the country).

Americans Stand Out on Individualism

The stand-out statistic is the 26 percentage point gap between German and US opinions about the role of luck in success. Similarly, 73% of Americans see the sole act of working hard as the driving force of individual success, while other developed countries are far more cautious.

This idea that any American can achieve individual virtue through success (obscene wealth) by simply working hard is the American Dream in abstract, yet unromanticised terms. It is the reason brash billionaires are not only tolerated, but celebrated. The super-rich are the chosen few who have reached the highest level of American society. There are people who listen to Mark Zuckerburg and Donald Trump and dissect everything they say, in order to gain wisdom on how it is they became so successful, and then attempt to apply this to their own lives and achieve the same success. This is the same with the books written about success stories: Steve Jobs’ autobiography didn’t sell millions because people were interested in his life, it sold because people want to know his secret to success. This is why his profound quotes litter the internet, as people attempt to use the life of Jobs to sow the seeds to their own success. He wasn’t good, he wasn’t great, but he was rich, so there must be something he did right.


“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”.

John Steinback

The reason Donald Trump is tolerated, and admired, in the US is solely because he is obscenely wealthy. His admirers like him because they have dreamt of being in the same position themselves, and can imagine all the sort of crazy things they would do in this situation: be mean to people, say stupid things on TV without caring, attempt to buy the presidency of the country. It’s a fantasy, a uniquely American fantasy, and this is why I see this billionaire worship as just another form of pornography, playing out in the minds of millions all over the United States of America, and probably beyond.

The Morality of the Eurozone

Despite many advances in the relevant technologies over the past decade, it turns out that driverless cars are a lot further away than we may imagine. Yes, Google will be testing their self-driving vehicle this summer on the roads around Silicon Valley, and yes, Uber have recently decimated the Robotics Department of Carnegie-Mellon by sweeping away their brightest researchers, but what you don’t read about too often is that developers at the forefront of the technology have hit an unforeseen problem: they have to encode their machines with a way to judge the value of life. I am not being abstract, I mean literally that driverless cars must actually be able to weigh the value of one life against another, and make decisions based on this, in real time. The most straightforward example I can give you is the case of a driverless car containing a single passenger that is about to hit a (n also driverless) schoolbus full of children. The car of the single passenger, ie his/her personal property, would have to make the decision to protect the many over the life of its single owner, and possibly swerve that car over a cliff, or any other alternative action to save the most lives. Therefore if you have a driverless car, there will be certain situations where it will decide that the logical decision is to kill you.

As I said, this fact has many of the best minds in robotics technology absolutely baffled, so much so that companies like BMW and Mercedez Benz have actually hired philosophers and ethicists as permanent staff members of their driverless car projects.  How to weigh a life is one of the most important questions in this next phase of technological advancement, and is one that we will see again and again as this century progresses. I can imagine a time not so far away when robotics engineers are convicted of murder for a glitch in a shoddy ethics algorithm. Weighing intangible assets against each other is new territory in quantitative analysis, however the ethicists and roboticists at these research departments could simply look to Europe for answers, and reason quite clearly that the best solution is simply to drive the weakest individual off the cliff, at any cost.

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The case of Greece and the Eurozone is an important moment in the history of democracy in that what is actually happening right now is a weighing of the value of one democracy versus the value of another democracy. The Eurozone is a democratic institution, comprising of elected finance ministers and heads of state from all its member nations. Within that democratic institution is Greece, a sovereign democratic nation in itself that is being forced to do things it doesn’t want to do, by the more powerful democracy, to the detriment of itself and its people. The sovereignty of Greece is irrelevant (and questionable) in the situation, it is more important that the views of the majority in the higher democracy are served, whatever the cost to the smaller nation. Such an event has never happened in history between a sovereign nation and another actor, in any political system, except from times of war.  I want to state clearly here that I don’t feel very sorry for Greece, or feel that the actions of the Eurozone are justified. The two are different sides of the same coin, a problem that Europe has tried to ignore for almost 20 years: monetary union is absolutely unsustainable without further fiscal, political, and ultimately total, union.

The Euro, while long a dream in Brussels circles since the 1970s, was a product of the post-Cold War era of the mid-1990s, a time where anything was possible and the belief that the objective power of capitalist market dynamics was enough to stabilise the financial system. I had just started studying economics in high school in the mid-90s and was taught that the watermark for a safe financial system was an independent central bank and the limiting of government intervention in this financial system. This was trumpeted mostly by Alan Greenspan, a man who probably should not be allowed to walk down the streets unmolested by abuse. This, a booming worldwide economy, and the prototype successful reunion of West and East Germany was enough to convince decision makers in the European Union that the time was ripe for further union. And what better union to make than monetary union, based in the financial system, which was a completely objective and self-correcting entity that would basically take care of itself? The Eurozone was thus conceived as a harmless, subjective almost robotic entity that ran itself automatically, and had the steely gaze of the independent European Central Bank to make decisions should something go wrong. In effect, Eurozone members traded in their monetary sovereignty for the chances of deeper trade ties with their major European trading partners, and would save millions on transaction costs (exchange rates etc) while pooling their financial might to create one of the strongest currencies in the world. It was going reasonably OK until 2008.

You can really tell who your friends are during a crisis, and the House of Europe was not a happy one towards the end of the first decade this century. Suddenly there was a witch hunt going on in European media about the frugal, sensible Northern Europeans versus the lazy, tax-dodging Mediterraneans (and Ireland, a little bit). In truth, if everyone acted like the Germans claim to do, and save every penny while treasuring security above all, there would not be so much economic activity in that country. Yet it was fine, because the media and politicians who could say this sort of thing about Greece, Portugal and Ireland were completely unaccountable to the electorate of those countries. The important thing however was that those politicians could influence the monetary policy and bailout conditions on those countries due to their status as Eurozone members. The Eurozone, in a time of financial crises, was plucked from the realms of supposedly objective invisible-handed guidance, and plunged into the centuries old bickering of European petty politics.

It’s not that the Eurozone was a bad idea, or that it can’t work, it’s that it was never going to be enough by itself to ensure a stable monetary union. States gave away sovereignty, a possession long thought indivisible, and this has been proven right. By reneging on their monetary sovereignty, the only option was to further ties with other members of the union, ultimately leading to a Eurozone Confederacy. Only by coordinating monetary, fiscal and financial policy can a system such as the Eurozone ever work, balancing the growth of its richest members with the protection of and investment in its weakest members. West Germany reintegrated with East Germany knowing that it was an economic risk to take on such an economically backward region, and entered the Eurozone knowing that countries like Greece and Portugal would take generations to reach the same level. Within a country, you would call this the core-periphery model, where a high-growth region ultimately has to fund a weaker region that has nothing going on, with the hope that key investments will help the two converge economically. This is usually done through investment in infrastructure and education in the peripheral region, and rarely through tax extraction and austerity as has been seen in Eurozone bailout countries.

The Eurozone is flawed because it is programmed to throw our peripheral regions off the cliff, at any cost, and the real reason for that is because no one in any position of power really has to care about any other country’s wellbeing but his/her own, and this is fine as long as it goes along with the majority decision of the other members. A real union, of any kind, would probably require some kind of inbuilt morality to guide the final decision, something that in this transitory period where we can’t quite seem to let go of nationalism just yet, means that we would need to belong to the same political union.

The Great Disconnect

I once watched a documentary about Julio Cu Camara, a Mexico City civil servant who is tasked with a daily dive into the open sewers of the overcrowd metropolis in order to remove whatever debris is clogging up the system and thus preventing the free flow of excrement and waste through its natural course. While Camara was preparing to submerge, the documentary makers joked that a tradition should exist whereby once a year, the mayor of the City should be required to perform this task of swimming through the citys waste, lending a degree of enforced humility and groundedness to the entrenched political elite. In truth, this idea is a pretty decent metaphor for the peak of an election cycle, where politicians, particularly in parliamentary democracies, are forced to jump through any and every hoop that voters and media alike may cast in front of them in a bid to earn a job for the next pre-determined number of years. Election campaigns in European-style parliamentary democracies are far from the self-aggrandising egomania of a US presidential election where two candidates strut around from place to place, entering like a rock star to adoring fans in tightly scheduled rallies. No, in parliamentary democracies, everyone in parliament loses their seat at the same time, so everyone must go back to where they came from, and account for what he/she hasn’t done since he/she won the last election.

This is the average voters time to shine, as politicians who are blamed for all our problems are paraded out in the open, seemingly begging to have mud thrown at them, clean up, and then beg for more. We drag them through the mud, we blame them for everything, we call them every name we can think of, and they take it all, because in the end, they know that most people will vote. Yes we complain, we drag them through the mud, but in the end, we still give them exactly what they want, because voting is all they want us to do, and we do it because freely electing leaders is a privilege that relatively few people in history have ever had. There is good reason to be depressed about this vicious cycle, yet in truth, we are really just getting the leaders we deserve. This is because, largely as a result of our own doing, there is a fundamental disconnect between what we expect from a modern politician and the actual job of adequately running a country.

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A politicians primary goal is to preserve their position for as long as possible, and if possible, in the meantime, to perhaps achieve some progress for their constituents in the process. This is all most people do in their jobs, so we can’t really judge anyone else for this mindset. However, think about how a politician goes about keeping their position, and compare it to other occupations. For most of us, simply performing our tasks to expectations is enough to get a contract renewed. Yet for politicians, performing adequately is not enough, as they are plucked away from their posts which deal with policy and negotiations, and are required to go kiss babies and have their photo taken with members of every religion and race in order to reinforce how good an official they have been, or are going to be. An election decides who makes the decisions that run a country, and election results are based often on the success of election campaigns, and there is absolutely no relationship whatsoever between the ability to campaign well and being a competent leader.

Thus we have a disconnect in skillsets between what would make a good leader, and the type of person who could actually gain a position of leadership in this system. A good, dependable leader is informed, open, intelligent, honest and good at making decisions. An electable leader has to be somewhat likeable, has to pretend to know absolutely everything, and be able to absorb as much shit thrown at them as possible through an exhausting election campaign. The skillsets of these two types of leader do not overlap much, and therefore we primarily get leaders from the latter category, and often without ticking all the boxes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the UK, where David Cameron and Ed Miliband embody the perfect examples of the modern, drearily electable, surprisingly passable leadership candidates. The UK is an interesting example to use, as it has used my earlier declaration that politicians primarily exist to win elections as dogma ever since the first New Labour term back in 1997. Tony Blair was big into data analysis, and had teams of pollsters conduct never-ending surveys on what people liked and didn’t like, about absolutely everything in modern life. They would then use this data to construct sound bites for the next election campaign, thus giving the people what they wanted, and giving the impression he was reading people’s minds, doing a good job, and in-tune with the mindset of his people. It worked in multiple, successive elections.

Fast-forward almost two decades later, we have Cameron and Miliband, who are nothing more than empty vessels filled with survey data from their research teams, pumped full of policy ideas that tear acutely at extensively focus group-tested split hairs of the middle ground of the political spectrum, and whose every gesture at televised debates appear directed by a PR guru, just as an actor is instructed by an overly-obsessive theatre director giving instructions from backstage. These aren’t politicians, they are regurgitators of the median opinion of whatever sample group their research team analysed, desperately hoping the average British person exists out their somewhere, and not only in their data results. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode “The Waldo Moment” captured this perfectly, as it showed a cartoon character running for election, voiced backstage by a team of analysts. The only difference between that piece of fiction and the election this year is that Waldo was actually charismatic.

While the use of data in political analysis is necessary given that political parties need to know what their voters require from the state, its overuse in places like the UK are dangerous, as it creates a system of purely reactive politics, with politicians like Miliband and Cameron merely clinging to whatever they are advised their constituents desire. There are no political stances, there are no ideologies, there aren’t even plans, just merely datapoints instructing careful positioning for the next election. Politicians change based on what they think you want, gleaned from opinions of people who they think are like you, which wins them an election, and once you learn to hate them, they have realised from a focus group how to appear likeable again, just in time for the next election. It’s foolish to expect change in any modern election, because you, your expectations, and the average opinion of people deemed to be just like you are part of the problem, feeding into an iterative circle of perpetual dissatisfaction. But you can’t really blame anyone for this, as it is everyones fault, for we get the leaders we want, the ones we can drag through the mud, the ones willing to dive down deep into the electorates excrement in order to cling onto power for just one more term. Thus these are the leaders we deserve, the ones who would say anything, and consequently absolutely nothing, in order to rule ineffectively, treading water until the next election comes around. There is of course a need to hold politicians accountable for their actions and to expect them to adequately communicate their ideas to us on a regular basis, however this must not be at the expense of effective leadership or even having ideas about how the country should be run, rather than just spewing out how their analysts think we think it should be.

A Simple Guide To Understanding European Tabloid Newspapers

Travelling around a Europe and can’t understand the local tabloid headlines? Fear not, this simple guide should put you on the right track!


Monday

1

Tuesday

2

Wednesday

3B

Thursday

4

Friday

5

Saturday

6

Sunday

7


And, REPEAT.

Algorithm & Blues

No one was really shocked when in the summer of 2013, The Guardian and the Washington Post with the help of Edward Snowden exposed the extent of US government spying on internet users all around the world. The story was less a big shock and more of a global ‘but of course!’ moment. We all had our suspicions, but the Snowden episode meant that we could all talk about these activities openly without seeming like a conspiracy theorist, and much more importantly, it meant that world leaders couldn’t treat journalists asking questions about these activities like conspiracy theorists. It was an important event because at a May 2013 press conference, Barack Obama could dismiss questions about government spying with a wave and a sneer, yet two months later, and forever more, he had to answer, and explain.

I wasn’t really bothered at all by the revelations, to be honest. I could understand why some people were outraged at the confirmation of the hypothetical persistent violation of their privacy, yet to me this was just a part of the modern internet world. In order to live here, you have to give something away. Most things we use online everyday are free, yet companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google are all worth billions. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that in a situation like this, you (the user) are the product that these companies produce. They gather as many users as possible together on their platform, and then charge companies vast sums of money to advertise to us. It’s a simple two-sided market, as used by newspapers, terrestrial TV Stations and credit card companies.

The ‘theft’ of personal information, by Google or the government or both, is a constant theme in mainstream media. It gets the blood boiling, as we can all think immediately of our own online presence, and how comfortable we would be with others looking over it without our permission. How dare they use the text from that status I just wrote to recommend an ad to me, how dare they spy on my WhatsApp messages, how dare they publish my Facebook photo online. All of these are common complaints in the world we now live in, but these statements and concerns all miss the point. The end of privacy shall not be a result of stolen personal data, it’s going to be a result of the seemingly harmless, impersonal data that some people, many of whom are completely unknown to us, freely give away. Continue reading