Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Status Poverty: The Poor get Unhappier

Lots for the machine this morning, so instead of opting for the obvious (though interesting) headline, I've decided to pick up on John Hutton's appeal to celebrate richness. Or, to be precise, "celebrate the fact that people can be enormously wealthy in this country".

Where, or where to begin? Such overtly controversial comments can't be simply a case of getting a little tiddly down the local boozer and then standing on a garden wall shouting whatever John really feels in his heart of hearts. He has something to say, some substance here. Which is probably why the language is so carefully defined in this case, rather than the usual vaguaries of idealist rhetoric:
"It is statistically possible to have a society where no child lives in a family whose income is below the poverty line - 60% of median average income - but where there are also people at the top who are very wealthy."
See that bit in the middle, separated by hyphens that will probably summon hand-wavery when said out loud? That's stats that is. Median average income, meeedian. That is, the average by rank, not your usual mean average which you get by adding everything together and dividing by X.

No, median average is unaffected so long as the order of richness doesn't change. Let's say out of a group of 10 people, you're the 6th richest - a decent number as it matches the 60% quoted above. Now, according to John, statistically speaking, you're still not poor, even if the 5 people above you suddenly all win the lottery together, sharing 50 million Euros between them. In other words, it's not the actual richness which is defining poverty, it's only how many people are richer than you.

Now, to my tiny economist brain (situated just behind my left ear, no bigger than a 5 pence piece), this is a bit odd. This is basically saying that poverty is based on status rather than what you can afford. For status is based on social ranking (which, it turns out, is based on how many limos you can afford a month), while actually buying things is based on how much money is floating around the system. Get that difference? How many people earn more than you, vs how much cash those people are spending. (By way of example - if people are prepared to pay more for houses, that pushes the price up, and I can't afford a house as much without upping my income. It doesn't actually matter if it's 1 person or 10 million that are buying all the houses in the first place though.)

Status poverty. Actual poverty.

Defining Status Poverty

This is good stuff though, from a Machinery POV. Maybe John is right when he says that we need "to recognise that aspiration and ambition are natural human emotions". This is true. Aspiration and ambition are omnipresent*. Look around, and we can see that modern day culture is defined, in many corners, by status rather than the self. By our comparison with others, rather than our own level of self-esteem. Owning things is seen as status - owning hard-to-get things especially. Status and jealousy and ambition and pride.

If we start looking at things from a status perspective, things change. Up til now, we've been talking two different purposes, a (probably deliberate) arena of muddy ideas and cross-wired principles. Poverty is not usually thought of as status, and so the conversation suffers from amibiguity and double-loading of the term.

But when we adopt a status-led stance, all of a sudden we're not talking cross purposes any more, as John does. We can see "status" as a thing, just like money is a thing. We can theorise that "celebritydom" is one form of ultimate status, for example. It doesn't matter that many famous people get screwed over and could probably make much more money than they do. What matters is the image of richness, the big house, the fast car, the all-night narcotic-soaked drunken orgies. This is status, and it's more powerful, more alluring than just cold hard cash. Cash is but a gateway drug to a lifestyle.

But here's the trap. Once we start turning status into a "thing", can we say that a median average is the right way to measure poverty in this thing any more? Or is an ambition for status - the answer for the individual, apparently, to escaping poverty - fueled by the excesses and the luxury that we perceive? Can we actually say that status is relative not to how many people are "better off" than us, but by how much better off they are?

I say yes, we can. I say we must do, because our ambitions are clearly not pumped up and inspired by statistical figures in spreadsheets. Our ambitions and our dreams are inspired by others, by the idea of others and by the illusion of others. In other words, in this age of "equality", what we think we are entitled to is defined by what we see others as having. And it only takes 1 person to have something for us to then want it too.

I am fundamentally connected to Bill Gates

Of course, this opens up the "holes" in Hutton's argument. If we have more rich people, more billionaires, then how does that affect the rest of us? Hutton seems to think that these parts of society are at such opposite extremes that this isn't a problem. The idea that there is "freedom to get rich" severs the ties identified above. Hutton wants to sever them in one direction, and let people get richer. But he fails to take into account the converse: that as some people get more rich/famous, those "left behind" will not be blind to this - in terms of both status and actual poverty. The idea that we need people to "be the authors of their own lives" assumes the same fundamental concept - that people are individuals. But who can really look at society and say that we do not compare ourselves to those around us, or to those we see on TV?

Status Poverty is real. It manifests not as being unable to afford things, but as being unable to live your own life. It leads to depression, anger, and a lack of confidence in one's self, because the self becomes constantly defined purely in terms of others. The result is wishing we were someone else, until the day we die. Status and happiness contentment are inherently linked, and John Hutton should be ashamed for trying to fool the rest of us into continuing to fool ourselves otherwise.

* Although, I've noticed, generally more so in insecure men than others, but that's a different tale for a different day.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Smith: Physical Security is Invulnerable

It's a "listen again" kind of Friday. El Reg picks up on Jacqui Smith's claims that the identity system will be "unhackable" because ... ready for this? ... Because it's not connected to the Internet.

I've yet to listen to the audio, so I'm taking this at the Reg's face value here. But if this is the serious level of understanding of security we face in Whitehal(o)l, then someone needs to come up with a proper identity card of their own, stat, and pimp that. Jacqui Smith should ask herself why Location-tracking site Fire Eagle is kind of cool, while identity-tracking schemes are not. A clue: the link to "Purge all my information" in a big blue box instills that thing us hu-mans like to call "trust".

John Humphrys vs Diplomas

Ed Balls has just finished spouting rhetoric of a "once in a lifetime opportunity" in his attempt to explain diplomas to John Humphrys on the Today Programme. Poor old John - he's getting on a bit, and complex bureaucratic educational machines are no match for his greying brain. Truth be told, I was barely keeping up with Mr. Balls, and that was before I was reminded A-Levels existed alongside diplomas. I'm sure complex systems are some proud manifestation of "student choice" in some twisted minister's imagination.

Again - some interesting integration of students, and systems that serve two purposes. It may be a little more justified in this case, but hopefully I'll get back to all this in the near future.

If you want to Listen Again, it's about 8.10-8.15am on Friday morning.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

ID Updates: Kill the Symbol and Go for the Pincer Move

Meanwhile, in the murky and dangerous Identity-Register Realms, Jacqui Smith is announcing some changes to the scheme, namely:

  • Non-EU immigrants will need them to register this year

  • "Sensitive" airport job-workers (that's a sensitive job, not a sensitive worker) will need to register next year

  • Students will be able to opt in to registration in 2010

  • People can choose to register when they get a biometric passport from 2011-12-ish

Kill the Symbol, Kill the Imagination

So the timetable has been pushed back a bit, and there's some "relinquishment" on the enforced nature. The Register, Ideal Government blog and Tomorrow's fish and chip paper (amongst many, I'm sure) have some follow-up, while the latter makes an excellent point about the symbolism of the card.

In my mind, this symbolism is something that the anti-ID lot have failed to really push - but not for lack of trying. People with the details, in the know, understand that the card is just what you carry (just like a bank card is not your bank account). The real danger is the database behind that card. But for many others, it is the card which has been handed down from history. It is the card which is the tangible, touchable, carryable item. In other words, we have no "physical" experience of biometrics or databases - the 2 things that are really important here - on a societal level. Because we lack this experience as a nation, and because both biometrics and "data" is generally "hidden" to us, it's difficult to get our heads around just what they mean when controlled by a centralised actor.

Maybe we need to start thinking about the database in terms of large Stasi-style filing systems. Maybe we need to think of biometrics in terms of something we are permanently attached to - like having our bank card stapled to us for all time. Whatever, we need a new way of relating both to information, and to ourselves. It's no good to think of the card as the system any more, and the government know this.

2 Functions Become 1

There are also many thoughts coming out of what Jacqui Smith says. What defines a "sensitive" job? Is it the work? Or is it the work, the opportunities, and the kind of people being employed to do that job? It's interesting to see who the government "trust" at this point. Why not start off by eating your own dog food, for example - make MPs carry identity cards, have them register first. If you want to prove there's nothing to fear, then go right ahead and engage with that "accountability" thing you know our form of democracy is supposed to run on.

However, what's most interesting to me is the juxtaposition of workers in "sensitive" jobs, and students as "early adopters". The theory is that students will want ID cards because they want access to services most - bank accounts/loans, pubs and clubs (one assumes, although alcohol + judiciously important documents is always good for a not-so-cheap laugh), and so on.

(Now is it just me, or have our students basically become a dumping ground for all the leftover exploitation we need to "run" things? This will be my next post, I think.)

Practicalities of studentships aside (I never had any particular problem getting access to banks' money - they tended to throw it away and wait for it to trickle back in triplefold), it's these 2 areas of focus which show just how "mixed up" government thinking on this scheme is. To get back to the old question of "Well, what the Hell is this for?", the answer it seems is, "Everything!". Security and fun with living! To stop you doing things and to let you do things, all at the same time. (Of course, you don't necessarily get a say in which things you get to do or not do.) If I get one, does that make me privileged? Or suspect?

The answer is both. No, wait. The answer is that "privilege" and "suspicious" are no longer based on what we're used to - on what the individual wants or learns them to be. "Privilege" and "Suspicious" are, under an ID system, completely in the hands of they who control the technology. "Privilege" and "Suspicious" disappear to be defined purely in terms of what the thought of the day is. They could be opposites one day, and identical the next ("Congratulations! You are privileged to be being monitored!"). And yes, theoretically the government answers to the public. But a) answers take up to 4 years to come along, and b) there's only one answer for the entire country.

That's not decentralisation, that's aggregation, normalisation, the middle ground.

The ID system has shifted, like a slippery chimaera changing its nightclothes. It's more dangerous now - the people who care about their privacy are no longer the target, until it's too late. Those who are targeted would be shooting themselves in the foot if they complained. The war is being fought on two fronts, neither of which are the original.

Our move, I guess.