Thursday, 6 December 2018

Theory of Knowledge and BRExit

I have been endeavouring to write a paper on the epistemology (theory of knowledge) behind phenomenography and variation theory. However, as I have checked my references and understanding of epistemology, not only have I become more aware of the nuances of the epistemology debate but also of the implications for other fields of interest such as peace building and reconciliation.
According to Everitt and Fisher (1995, pp 12-13), there are three kinds of knowledge that can be debated. These are capacity knowledgeor what I would call process knowledgethat is the knowledge ofhow to do somethingknowledge by acquaintance that is knowledge derived from experience, and propositional knowledgethat is knowledgebased on knowing that some sentence or proposition is true. They contend that the philosophers place their attention on the last of these propositional knowledge.
I could argue that propositional knowledge is what I am used to in computer science. We can create formal statements for each of our propositions and then prove or disprove them. We can then use a set of formal propositional statements to reason about a problem using induction, deduction, or abduction. The thing is that al our propositional arguments only have validity if our base propositions or facts are true. If they are not then regardless of how well we might argue logically, the outcome that we might prove or disprove is likely to be invalid.
In computer science, we are also concerned with capacity knowledge. The computational solutions that we develop are most often descriptions of processes of how to achieve a desired outcome or how to solve a particular problem. Capacity knowledge could include how to build a logically valid argument to support our hypothesis. Process knowledge is also required to know how to discover a way to solve problems that we can then capture as computational solutions. Capacity knowledge is extremely important to us and we need to know whether the arguments for propositional knowledge also apply to our capacity knowledge. That is does propositional knowledge overlap capacity knowledge? I would like to argue that it does in part because as part of computer science, we want to prove that our problem solving algorithms (captured capacity knowledge) solves the problems that we claim it does.
How does knowledge by acquaintance fit into this? I could argue that knowledge by acquaintance lays provides the facts from which we develop our propositional knowledge but then we need to ask what influences our interpretation of those things that we experience or are acquainted with? I have to ask this question because if we look at supposedly logical arguments in everyday use, we find that people are arriving at different outcomes supposedly from the same facts. It seems that our interpretation of the facts varies depending on something that drives the way we reason and think.
If we consider BRExit, we have remainers, leavers, and a whole lot of shades in-between. We also have those who believe that the outcome of the referendum (52% to leave versus 48% to remain) means a clear majority in favour of leaving. What percentage of support for a proposal is required in order for something to be a clear majority? Personally, I want to start by asking the question “what percentage of the eligible voters took the opportunity to vote in the referendum?” If we take that percentage and multiply it by the percentage in support of leaving then do we still have greater than 50%? Clearly not, so do a majority of people want to leave.
The next question, if I am to apply propositional knowledge, is what were the facts used by those who voted to make their decision? Were they well informed or were they mislead? The evidence being revealed suggests that the leave campaigners were basing their campaigns on lies. However, the remain campaigners are not entirely without fault for telling the truth either. It seems to be unclear what the facts of the leave or remain really are so we are left with an opinion poll and not a factual analysis. Now as we approach a vote on a BRExit agreement, we have more information available that seems more factual but is it?
When endeavouring to predict the future, there are a set of assumptions involved. We can run various models based on those assumptions. In fact, with some modelling techniques, we can experiment with the assumptions and see what the likely outcomes are. The difficulty is when someone states a benefit of leaving or remaining, do they provide us with their assumptions so we can validate their reasoning (i.e. apply propositional logic)? Generally not. This might be because their assumptions are difficult to validate or simply they want to focus on the outcome because it suites their purposes. Propositional knowledge is discarded in favour of what the person wants to see. Some might argue knowledge by acquaintance but is that are good basis on which to make decisions?
How do we know whether leaving the EU is good or bad? That is the wrong question. A better question is how do we build a society that is better for all? Do a search on sustainable communities or transition towns and you see that some are already changing the way they live and work regardless of whether they are inside or outside the EU. There is a cost to leaving and there is a cost to remaining but unless you are addressing the real issues that concern the people, remaining or leaving is not the issue. The knowledge that we currently have will not help because it seems that the objective is to be the same but separate. What does that mean if we are part of a market driven world economy?
We need to understand the impact of the markets. We need to understand the impact of our financial mechanisms and institutions. Remember it was them crashing that caused the recession and ushered in austerity. Do we want to be dependent on economic prosperity? Do we want to be driven by a need to sell more, grow bigger, consume more? Or would we be happy to live within our means and to ensure that all are able to live within the resources available to us?
The leave and remain arguments are based on a lack of knowledge. There are alternative ways of structuring society. We do not need to leave the EU to make those happen but neither do we need to be in the EU for them to work. We need to decide what is important and what the story is that we want to live by.
The problem is that how we interpret knowledge or information or events is linked with our understanding of the way that we should live or our framing story. Whether to leave the EU or remain in it has more to do with how we interpret events based on our framing story than it does to propositional knowledge. We interpret the base knowledge based on our framing story and not some global truth that cannot change. We out that story in place and we can change it. So dream a little about what you want to see.
A group of us did that during 2016 and 2017 and came up with the following principles(seeThompson,25 March 2017).
  1. Enabling potential
  2. Sustainable environment
  3. Equal society
  4. Participatory democracy
  5. An economy for the common good
I have also bloggedaboutbeing in our out of Europe and argued for localsustainable communities (see Thompson, 14 May2017).
I know I am not the only one who thinks there are alternatives to the road that we are taking and that those alternatives have little to do with the current debate. It is time that we focussed our attention on the real issues and the type of society that we really want to build.


Everitt, N., & Fisher, A. (1995). Modern epistemology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Thompson, E. (25 March 2017) Economic Principles. Available from
Thompson, E. (14 May 2017) In or out of Europe? Available from

Saturday, 3 November 2018


On 11 November 2018, Lloyd George said “At eleven o’clock this morning came to an end the cruellest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say that thus, this fateful morning, came to an end all wars” (Burnham, 2014, p 97).
What is it that we remember on 11 November? It is not the “end of all wars.” In fact, we do not seem to remember the cruelty of war. Instead of backing away from war as a solution, we seem to have embraced it as the solution building more powerful weaponry so we can create crueller wars and fought more wars with even more devastating consequences.
A journey to the world war one sites, left me feeling that we had learnt nothing from the world wars. Now reading books on peace building and on those who sought not to fight, I am more convinced than ever that the soldiers who sent to the front were not galant heroes who volunteered to defend country and crown. There were those who initially out of loyalty and duty volunteered but increasingly they were conscripts required to join the army and at best they were reluctant volunteers.
The initial enthusiastic volunteers believed there would be a swift victory: “It will be over by Christmas.” The reality was four years of slaughter and destruction. Those initial volunteers who dod return home either did so because of injury or because they were dent for officer training. The chance of survival on the front was almost zero.
As I reflect, I find it difficult to stand with pride, trying to remember these men as heroes. Although my grandfather received a military medal and was removed from battle for officer training, I still see him as a victim of war along with all the civilians killed and maimed, and along with all the other soldiers who never returned, or who survived because of injury or cam back suffering from shell shock or post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). Many of this later group where court marshalled and shot (murdered) at the front for failing to obey orders. We have a name for the damage that we do to our soldiers that we send into conflict with the cruellest weaponry believing they are doing good for humanity. Because we can name the problem, we can treat the symptoms but leave the cause in place.
Yes, I am a little cynical about war and its effects but I ask: The armistice / remembrance day, let us not simply remember the brave people we sent or send to the battlefields to maim, to be maimed, and to die on our behalf. Let us remember the cruelty of war and the impact that it has on all our lived and let us seek to bring to “an end all wars.”


Burnham, Karyn (2014) The courage of cowards: The untold stories of first world war conscientious objectors. Pen & Sward Books Limited.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

What are we selling?

On Thursday, I went into Birmingham city centre. As we walked through the New Street station, we were accosted by a young man pushing the “Rich List.” I had no difficulty telling him he was misguided but as I later walked back down High Street, I saw a man with his loud speaker calling for personal salvation by accepting Jesus Christ, a small group of Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking to distribute their Watch Tower magazine proclaiming that they could tell you what the Bible really says, a number of homeless with their paper cups begging for money, and a Muslim man with his stand covered in Korans and other books. It struck me as odd how each of these people where proclaiming a message but seemed totally oblivious to each other and to some extent the people walking the street or rushing to make their purchases. All they were interested in was selling their wares or their message.
Was salvation really the message of the preacher or was he simply accumulating his indulgences for the week. He was making sure that his message was the loudest in the street but he did not seem to care about the Jehovah’s Witnesses who stood less than ten feet away or the homeless person almost sitting on the ground behind him. The truth he believed to be proclaiming was all important but it clearly had no impat on what happened on a daily basis. It was this future salvation that was important.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses showed even less compassion. They often stand talking to each other while people pass by but more often than not, they simply stand there looking bored. Does the Bible really say anything of value to those around them. It doesn’t look as though it fulls them with any sort of enthusiasm and certainly no compassion. Why would I want to learn what they believe the Bible says since it seems so boring and uninterested.
What about the Muslim man? I didn’t hear the music that they normally play but again, I didn’t feel invited in. I may have stopped to pick up an English Koran for my reconciliation studies but he didn’t really seem interested so I walked on. He showed no interest in those who walked past. What was his Koran really about. Recruiting people to the faith, just like the street preacher, or the Jehovah’s witnesses. Cerrtainly nothing to do with the lives of people or the suffering of the homeless.
The young man pushing his rich list message was a little more enthusiastic but I really wondered whether he understood what he was pushing. This was a job, a way of earning some money, a way of getting himself onto that rich list. Was that a message I wanted to hear. It certainly didn’t show any compassion.
The homeless at least were blatantly seeking funds to live. They looked genuinely homeless but there was little compassion in the street. The occasional passerby would drop something in their cup but most rushed on looking for what they needed to do.
It seems to me that we have become a society of personal projects. We go to work to progress those projects or to obtain funding for our projects but we never reach out to others or seek to build a community. That would involve letting go of our own projects.
I am also conditioned by this society of looking after self but I dream that it could be different. Others have had similar dreams (i.e. Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, John Paul Lederach, …). Some have had an impact for a period but their dreams remain unfulfilled. Some have formed their own small communities separated from the rest of the world but the dominant story by which society lives is never challenged and their efforts drift back until the next prophet steps forward.
It seems to me that if we do not change the dominant story, the story people live by, the framing story of people’s lives then all we are doing is treating the symptoms and never attacking to core of the problem.
What do I mean? It seems that we look for cures to cancer but never want to change what is shown to be the cause of cancer. We want to treat mental illness but we don’t want to address the systemic problems that cause mental illness. We want a different type of society but we will preach a message of future salvation and never deal with inequality or the issues that Jesus addressed in the gospel. We want peace but we will not look for the things that make for peace but will build greater weapons of destruction and create larger barriers so others can not have what we have and we are shut out from what they have.
I am no longer interested in more statistics about the level of poverty, the increasing or decreasing wealth of the nations, the number of wars, who is on the rich list, … I am even less interested in the junk that comes in spam emails and through my mail box. They are selling a message that I am no longer interested in. It is a message of the decay of society. It isn’t a message of hope, a message of peace, a message of living together in harmony, a message of building equality.
The message, I want to hear is a practical message that endeavours to addresses the underlying causes and to build the type of society were the barriers are broken down, where we walk collaboratively together to care for each other and the living world, where relationships and reconciliation are at the core.
I would like to see the street preacher, the Jehovah’s witness, the Muslim bookstore watcher, and the rich list promoter actively working to solve the problems for the homeless, resolving inequality, ensuring that we are not exploiting the planet and each other. Somehow, I don’t expect to see it happen because I don’t think any of them have thought through what the message is that they are telling or have the compassion for the people they claim to want to reach.
What I know is that it is time to change and key to that is understanding what we are selling and what is really involved in selling our message.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

We Can Stop War

Back on the 21 April 2013, I wrote a blog referencing Donovan's “Universal Soldier”. I took the following words as key in that blog which I titled “Universal Conformist”.
But without him,
How would Hitler have condemned him at Labau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone,
He's the one who gives his body
As a weapon of the war,
And without him all this killing can't go on.

He's the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame,
His orders come from far away no more,
They come from here and there and you and me,
And brothers can't you see,
This is not the way we put an end to war.” (Buffy Sainte-Marie, 1964).
As I prepare to retire from forty five years involvement in computing with twenty five of those being involved in teaching, I am doing a lot of reflecting on why I am leaving now. I keep coming back to the idea that I have to do what I believe in and not conform to a system in which I no longer have any faith or belief.
We are reading a book by Peter Price (2018). In the current chapter (29), he talks about the importance of relationships in peace building and keeping the doors open for communication. He says “All peace processes come down in the end to making relationships” (p 130). The more that I have read on peace making, the more that I have come to see that relationships are all important but they are relationships built in trust and equality. This is where I see my relationship with my workplace failing. I am little more than a cog in a large machine conformed to the wishes of higher leadership. My services are only wanted provided they conform to the direction in which the the workplace is moving.
This made me wonder what would happen if we no longer made ourselves available to support systems that are not working for the good of all (the common good. This is what I have decided to do. Remove my support so I can pursue what I believe to be important.
When I turn this thought to war and economics, I have to conclude that the reason that we have war and our current economic strategies is that we have learnt that these are the only way that things can be (see Price’s discussion of the story of Cain and Abel as described by a chief rabbi of Israel, p 130). Cain had to learn to commit murder and as Price argues, we have to learn to live in peace. We have learnt to be the universal soldiers of Donovan’s song whether it is in the pursuit of war or the pursuit of economic objectives. Maximising individual utility (maybe that should be futility) functions have to be learnt. Our learning brings us to a point of conforming unless we are influenced by something outside of the system.
But let us take this further. If you look at war, it is not the soldiers who make the decision to go to war. In fact, it is not even the military commanders. It is politicians who will not have to go out and face the opposition. Those that go to war are the paid soldiers or the universal soldiers. They are paid to fight. Their allegiance to the campaign has been brought about by a system of obedience to instruction and an acceptance that those issuing the commands are right.
I see the same thing happening in the workplace and our economic environment. Those who suffer from economic decisions are not the decision makers but the poor and the vulnerable. This has been true for quite a lot of western history. Watch any programme on family history and sooner or later, you will hear stories of the work houses or of avoiding the work houses. Those that land up there are not there because of their own fault. They are there because their skills and abilities became redundant or managers decided that they were no longer needed. The capitalist market driven system has never delivered equality and the evidence suggests that it is very unlikely to.
What would happen if the people, the workers and the poor decided that they were not going to accept the way things are and developed their own local communities that focused on meeting need rather than maximising value or utility? What would happen if the soldiers on both sides of a battle put down their weapons and said we are not fighting this battle for distant leaders?
War only happens because soldiers are willing to be paid to go to battle. Our economic system only operates as it does because we, the people, accept and go along with its current practices. We are capable of learning alternative ways. We are able to develop alternative ways of interacting with one another and some communities have. The question is whether we are willing to say “enough is enough” and let us build a new society based on building relationships and not on building barriers? We do have a choice, it is simply that so few are prepared to take the risks involved and be rejected by the current system.


Peter B Price (2018) Things that make for peace: A Christian peacemaker in a world of war. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.
Buffy Sainte-Marie (1964) Universal Soldier (recorded by Donovan in 1965).

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Success or Failure

Tomorrow, will be exactly three months to when I am eligible to claim the UK government pension. I already know at that date, I will have finished work and be on my final annual leave before officially retiring a little later in July. We have spent some time reviewing our finances to se what state we will be in. The conclusion is that I have not been that successful as there is no great retirement pot that we can live off. In fact, I may need to find some part time work just to help cover our costs. However, I really want to focus on research around peace building, economics, and computational reasoning. It would be nice to be funded for two days per week to conduct this research but we will still do some without funding after all that is how I have conducted research for nearly 20 years but maybe more on that later.
However, over the last year, I have taken to walking around my local neighbourhood as part of an objective of achieving at least 6,000 steps each day. Tomorrow will actually mark the 400thday when I have achieved that goal. But what I notice on my walks is that despite our area being in the Bournville Trust although near the western boarder, there are not signs of prosperity around here. In general properties within the trust area are well maintained but not consistently so. Just outside the trust area and the standards drop quickly. Walking through a newer housing state not far from us gives evidence of uncared for properties. Add to that the accumulation of road side rubbish (some fly tipped) and you wonder what is really so great about the United Kingdom. I am not convinced that there is much but then it is obviously better than the state which many find themselves in in Syria or some areas of Africa.
However, my thoughts have really focused on what success or failure means. I am reminded of a book in my personal library, The Logic of Failure : Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations (Dörner,1997). In his book, Dörnertalks about complex problem solving scenarios that they got participants to attempt to solve and the high failure rate at solving these problems. The reason why there was a high failure rate primarily cam down to the focus of the participants. The participants would focus on solving one problem within the scenario and ignore all the other issues. The example I always remember is building a pipeline to supply water only to find when they had completed it the community that they were supplying water for was dead because of disease or other issues.
I can reflect on my career and see that at times, I have given priority to one area at the detriment of others (i.e. I have focused on teaching related issues at the expense of building a research reputation) but that is not the most significant reason why I have not progressed research as fast as I might.
However, it is not my own career that I want to focus on here. As I reflected on Dörner’s book, I thought about the current Conservative UK government and its focus on BRExit. I wonder whether we have a government that has a single problem focus and has lost sight of the wider issues. Maybe, if it kept a wider range of issues in focus, it might not be so focused on a suicidal exit from Europe. Supposedly we are now within 12 months of exiting Europe but no clearer as to what that means other than Britain having less say in European decision making. Unlike many European Union nations, the United Kingdom still has its own currency and control over its financial markets. It benefits from the European Union funding cycles and trade agreements, and has free access to European Markets. In fact, it is difficult to see where the UK is hindered by its European Union membership. Leaving does not look like it is going to give much more control back to the UK and possibly is going to remove control since it will have no representation in the European Parliament. Is the BRExit focus causing the UK government to fail in its obligations to the home nations? My belief is that it probably is and from what I hear from economists, they believe it will have negative impact on the UK economy.
However, even prior to the Brexit vote, I would contend that the Conservative government with its neo-liberal austerity economic policies had a single focus (lower the deficit). The estimates is that this caused an average loss to the UK population in the region of £10,000 per person since 2009 (Wren-Lewis, 2018). Is this success or failure? Yes, as George Osborne celebrated recently, they achieved the governments deficit target but what was the consequences for the UK economy and the people? Was that sacrifice worth the effort? Is this success or failure?
My contention here is that the singular or narrow focus (usually around economic or money issues) of governments causes governments to fail the people and ultimately the world. We cannot solve environmental issues by focusing on economic affordability. We cannot solve housing issue by focusing on affordability. We cannot solve conflicts around the world by focusing on the economic impact. We cannot end an arms trade by focusing on economic impact.If anything, we need to recognise the limitations of our economic models and the reasons for their failure and begin to put priority on dealing with the real issues regardless of the monetary cost. Maybe, as Steve Keen (2012, p 354) says in his book, capitalismneedsa year of jubilee. However, maybe we need an alternative economic focus that allows us to hold everything in better balance.
Footnote:If you have followed my blogs, you will realise that I have not been totally dedicated to teaching and that I have pursued a lot of background reading in computational thinking, economics, and peace building. I recognise that it is easy to become very narrowly focused and to fail to see the breadth of material required to understand how we might solve world problems. My fear for British education is that it encourages specialisation of knowledge rather than a broader perspective. However, that critique may belong to a number of education systems around the world.


Dörner, Dietrich (1997) The Logic of Failure : Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
Keen, Steve (2011). Debunking Economics - Revised and Expanded Edition: The Naked Emperor Dethroned?Zed Books Ltd.
Wren-Lewis, Simon (2019) The media and attitudes to austerity. Available from: Accessed: 8 April 2018.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Lacking Community?

I have been reading a lot on peace-building and relationships recently. This morning, the passage was on grief and bereavement. Associated with grief and bereavement are changes in relationships and our reaction to them. Retirement is one of those situations where relationships are changing.
Considering that we moved half way around the world to spend time with our daughter, her husband, and our two grandchildren only to have them move to the US and then back to New Zealand, you might think we were used to seeing relationships break up and having to establish new relationships. However, as I reflect on my planned retirement in July, I am conscious that outside the workplace, I actually have few close relationships. It therefore seems strange that I should sever the workplace relationships to enter the uncertainty of retirement.
However, reflecting this morning, I came to the conclusion that part of why I am prepared to walk away is that few of the relationships in the workplace are actually valuable for my health and have little to do with enabling people to be who they should be. Even the closest relationships in our small research group are focused on obtaining research outcomes. Other relationships are all about teaching outcomes. I am not sure I could identify any that are really about the people involved. There is not a sense of being part of a community from which I am withdrawing.
I would like to think as a lecturer, I treat my students as people that I want to encourage and help to grow but I have to admit that the reality is that it has become more about ensuring they jump the hurdles in order to obtain their degree. There are some friendships that I have established with students that have tentatively lasted beyond the teaching sessions but most are fleeting interactions in a lecture, tutorial, or laboratory session. The larger the classes, the fewer opportunities to get to know the students and to really help them find what it is that inspires their interest. There is no sense of community here.
I look around and although we might call our middle class neighbourhood a community, I do not really see it operating as one. I think back to my childhood and how the neighbourhood children played on our back lawn, how my parents shared the produce from the garden, and how we meet regularly with our cousins. I would not call it a brilliant community but I know that my mum was part of the local church community and supported by it after dad died. There was something there that I sense is missing from our modern maximising income and profit society.
I look across town at a group that I have some distant links with and I see them active in local community building. They are looking at the potential of the local community and how to build relationships. It is not an affluent community and I wonder whether that makes a difference. Does it also make a difference that key people in that community are working in areas where they are actively helping the disadvantaged?
Could I join such a community and feel that I could be part of it? I fear that I might actually be disruptive to what they have operating even though I know that in Auckland, we were actively involved in helping a small struggling church survive without a pastor through working at sharing the responsibilities. Yes, it put pressure on myself and some of the other key leaders. We departed after I found I could no longer keep up computing contract work, theological study, and leading the church community. The strain just proved too much. Could we have organised differently so there was less pressure on the few key people?
Building good healthy relationships and communities is not easy but I see it as vital to individual health. The operation of modern society does not encourage healthy relationships or community building. Most people are involved in a range of communities. Some are beneficial to them. Others put substantial strain on them (i.e. the education community). I really wonder what would happen if we gave people more time away from the workplace to focus on being part of a community. In fact,
  • What would happen if we made the local community the centre of our economic life rather than the workplace?
  • What would happen if that local community focused on ensuring that all its members had the resources that they need to survive?
  • What would happen if those local communities then interacted with their neighbouring communities to exchange surplus resources to meet needs of the other community?
  • What would happen if instead of maximising what we gained for ourselves, we were more focused on an obligation to meet the needs of others and to the enabling of their potential?
  • What type of society would we have and would we fear so much for our own security?
I wonder whether our problems actually stem from the emphasis on maximising personal and organisational gain. I know the objection. Someone will always try and rip others off but I ask whether that is in actual fact the result of generating an individualistic society focused on personal security and wellbeing rather than a community that shared together and worked to meet each others needs.
As I conclude this blog, I realise that it is not just the lack of meaningful relationships in the workplace that makes it easy for me to walk away. Ultimately, I am walking away because I no longer believe in the system that education is designed to support and create. It is increasingly something that I do not believe in and I no longer want to spend time supporting. If someone was to come to me and offer an opportunity to be part of a small group education programme focused on individual learning that was prepared to help people find what it was that inspired individual participants and that operated without time limits or artificial performance goals then I suspect, I might sign up.
So, yes, I am leaving an artificial community that contradicts what I have become but I am looking for a community that respects who I am and my potential so that I can help others be respected and fulfil their potential. That means getting to know who the other person is and what really inspires them.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Pensions and Economic System

I am writing this during the university strike over amendments to the USS pension scheme. There are a number of things that are easy to say that are emotional in character rather than based on any understanding of the system and the way it operates. We also need to recognise that different economic assumptions influence the way that we view the issues in this dispute and to some extent, I would argue that what we are seeing is a conflict of economic principles.
We have workplace pensions because the government is seeking to offload some of the financial burden of paying pensions for an ageing community. This is based on a neoliberal principle of small state which leads to the idea that individuals need to prepare for their own future retirement. If we take the government at its word that the only possible ways to pay for the increasing pension bill are to
1) encourage / force people to save for their pensions (workplace pensions),
2) to increase taxes to cover the additional costs, or
3) to have people work longer (i.e. to an older age)
then we should look carefully at these options to decide which is the most appropriate to use.
Option 1 places the burden on the person who will supposedly benefit from the pension when or if they retire or on their employer to contribute to a suitable scheme. This places pressure on the employer to pay an adequate amount to cover pension savings while allowing the individual to live off their income. The current workplace pension scheme places the burden partially on the employer and partially on the employee. I would argue that regardless of the distribution between employer and employee, there is the same cost to the employer unless the employee has reduced spending power in the wider economy. Employers saying the cost of the pension scheme is too much and that the employee should be willing to risk their future income on the markets (the university proposal in the current dispute) just shows a lack of understanding of the employees position. As an employee, I do not want to spend forty hours slaving for an employer and then have to spend my evenings and weekends analysing the markets to obtain the best results for my pension savings. There is more to life than being constantly locked into financial issues. Unless you have some independent income or have a reasonable amount of control over what you do in the workplace, the employee becomes little more than a robot or an economic slave. They work to survive and to prepare for a future that they have no idea what it will deliver. A future that to a large extent is being moulded by government decisions.
If the pension is based on a defined benefit then it is expected that contributions plus the earnings from investment need to cover the future benefits paid out (assuming that a person’s contributions is what derives their pension). Leech (2017) argues that this is based in the assumption that the scheme could close. He also suggests that if the scheme remains open then the focus on the viability of the scheme should be based on cashflow (i.e. will current and future income including new contributions cover the required benefit pay outs?).
The defined benefit is estimated based on an assumed average earnings of the contributions. If the rate of earning falls below the assumed average earnings for any prolonged period of time then the pension scheme potentially has a deficit that may have to be made up by the guarantors of the scheme (for work place pensions then the guarantor is the employer so they carry the risk. Leech (2017) says that the scheme is backed by the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) which actually invalidates this assumption). This is the current situation with many workplace pension schemes having low earnings because of the financial crisis and government austerity. Employers are keen to reduce this risk by reducing the defined benefit or redefining the benefit to a defined contribution scheme.
Leech (2017) provides an analysis of the risks based on the assumption that the scheme could close and could therefore be in deficit at the time of closure, and of the risks based on the assumption that the scheme remains open and that future contributions and investment income have the potential to meet the defined benefit commitments. Leech concludes that the scheme is not in deficit but he also highlights the inaccuracy of the estimates being prepared by UUK and USS based on the basis of the scheme closing.
A defined contribution scheme works on the basis of what has been paid into the scheme plus the earnings from interest. For the employers, there is no risk but the employees take all the risk when they retire because they can never be sure what their potential pension will be or whether what is in their pension put has the capability of providing the required pension for the remainder of their life (life expectancy also being a guess). If an employee wants a better pension then they need to pay in more but that still offers no guarantees of a suitable pension for the remainder of their life.
Although not a direct comparison, this reminds me of some of what Michael Sandel (2012) says in “What money can’t buy.” Sandel describes schemes that are based on gambles (i.e. life insurances and futures trading). I see the workplace pension scheme in a closed form as a gamble either by employers or employees. There are no guarantees of future value of any investment. Any guaranteed pension has to be built on a different basis than the individuals contributions and returns on investment.
There is another element of this that I object to. It is the employee’s pension that is supposedly being brought as part of this work pension scheme but it is the employers who are dictating the scheme to which the employee belongs and the benefits that the employee gains from the scheme. Surely in a market economy (I do not believe a market driven economy is valid (see Thompson, 2018 and other entries in my blog)), the person who is purchasing the scheme should be the employees but that is not the case here. The employers are making the decisions based on their assessment of the affordability of the scheme. The employee is simply expected to accept the consequences of the decisions. If there is to be a workplace pension scheme then surely it is the employee that should be looking at the schemes on offer and their affordability to determine which they feel best satisfies their future needs.
However, there seems to be a bigger problem with these workplace pension schemes. In two recent company collapses (BHS and Carillion), it has been stated that there is a deficit in the pension fund. It is not clear how this evaluation was made so it could be on the basis of the fund closing (see Leech, 2017). Not only have the employers been managing the fund but they have either been undersubscribing to it or using funds from it for business purposes. The employees are not guaranteed a pension from such schemes but are sacrificing some of their incomes for ultimately no return. Possibly not surprisingly, the owners, senior managers, and pension fund managers do not seem to have lost out. They still have their expensive houses, cars, etc. It is the lower level workers who suffer the consequences both in terms of a lose of employment and lose of pension savings. Does this suggest there are some fundamental problems with the system. The universities are no different. They can afford the vice-chancellor salaries but not ensure that the people doing the real work have adequate security for the present or their future. Surely this has to be part of the mandate for any executive officer.
Add to this an emphasis on the desire for workplace mobility with a pension scheme that is linked to a workplace, and you wonder what the employee is actually obtaining from these schemes. In New Zealand, this was recognised as a problem with many employees finding that after transferring from one company to another they had gained nothing from their pension savings and in many cases lost their pension savings. The solution was to set up a national pension scheme that was available to all and was independent of the company you worked for. The employers still contributed along with the employee but at least there was no lose of savings and no risk of closure. However, such a scheme does not solve international employment mobility but that is a wider issue.
Option 2 places the burden on the current workers to pay for the pensions of those who have already retired. Leech’s (2017) argument for an open pension scheme also makes this assumption. This is based on a misunderstanding of money creation and government deficit. I am deliberately using deficit rather than debt since many economists say that it is acceptable for a government to run a deficit. These economists focus on the ratio of deficit to gross domestic product (GDP).
The usual argument in this situation is to focus on having to cover government expenditure by taxes but taxes is not the only source of government income. The government earns seigniorage for all cash (notes and coins) produced and distributed to banks. However, most money created is now created by banks when they issue loans or people use credit cards (Jackson, 2013; Jackson & Dyson, 2012; Jakab & Kumhof, 2015; Mcleay, Radia & Thomas, 2014) for which the government obtains no seigniorage. In effect, banks have taken over the responsibility for creating money and gain the advantage of charging interest to those who borrow. It should be noted that they also destroy money when loans are repaid.
The economic theory that drives the push to offload pensions is neoliberal in focus and seeks to minimise government services. There are other models that recognise that government should be working to meet the needs of its people and not the profits of large corporations. In this later focus, governments are prepared to tax the rich in order to feed the poor. Also consider the alternative of sustainable communities (see Thompson, 2017). There are also other economic models proposed including basic income models (see We are not necessarily tied to an economic vision that impoverishes large portions of the population and transfers the wealth to an increasingly small subset of the population (Neate, 2017).
Option 3 simply reduces the number who will be seeking to be paid a pension but it also assumes that those who have worked for forty or more years still have the drive to deliver the outputs demanded of them. Graeber (2018) argues that work becomes an end in itself. In effect extending the retirement age requires the creation of work and not the reduction in work hours that was expected with technological developments. In effect, we have not found a way of distributing the rewards of the economic system. It also requires the creation of money making schemes that amount to little more than gambles on future outcomes. Sandel (2012) discusses this idea in his book although not in relation to pensions.
We need to consider a different conceptual framework for the way that we interact economically. It would take more than this blog to deal with these economic alternatives.


Graeber, D. (2018) Bullshit Jobs: A theory. Penguin.
Jackson, A. (2013). Sovereign Money: Paving the way for a sustainable recovery. London: Positive Money.
Jackson, A., & Dyson, B. (2012). Modernising money: Why our monetary system is broken and how it can be fixed. London: Positive Money.
Jakab, Z., & Kumhof, M. (2015). Banks are not intermediaries of loanable funds - and why thus matters (Working Paper No. 529). Retrieved from
Leech, D. (2017, 25 November) Is the USS really in crisis? Available from:
McLeay, M., Radia, A., & Thomas, R. (2014) Money in the modern economy. Retrieved from
Neate, R. (2017, 14 Dec) World’s richest 0.1% have boosted their wealth by as much as the poorest half. Available from
Sandel, M. J. (2012). What money can't buy: The moral limits of markets: Penguin Books Ltd.
Thompson, E. (2017) In or out of Europe? Available from
Thompson, E. (2018) Inequality and economic slavery. Available from

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Equality versus Equity

In our reading of King (1964) this morning, King was arguing not simply for justice but for additional support to give the African Americans the opportunity to gain equality. In effect, he is arguing that it is not equality unless you have equality of outcomes. Simply removing desegregation was not going to give justice unless the African Americans had the opportunity to take advantage of the new opportunities. Is it justice that you can go into a lunch bar and sit with white people if you cannot afford to buy a lunch? Is it justice if you can apply for jobs but you will not get them because you have not had the educational opportunities to gain the qualifications required? Is it justice if you have the qualifications and skills but you cannot get the position because the focus of your qualifications or skills does not match with the dominant framing story of society or the institutions that would normally employ you?
King was fighting for civil rights but he recognised that it was not simply the African Americans who were disadvantaged by the nature of capitalism. The poor whites suffered from the same disadvantages that segregation caused for the African American. He therefore argues that a bill of rights for the disadvantaged should not simply be for African Americans but should be for all disadvantaged people.
I see King’s argument as promoting the different between the argument for equality of opportunity or what I refer to as equality of outcome (equity). Equality of opportunity simply says anyone has the opportunity to participate but it does not take into consideration the disadvantages that some people have that actually hinders there ability to take those equality of opportunity. Equity recognises the those disadvantages and endeavours to overcome them so that all have the same outcome. An example of equity is were you have different height people and seeking to look over a fence. Giving them the same height box is equality but if those boxes do not allow all to see over the fence then there is no equality of outcome. If instead, they are given different height boxes to ensure that they all have the same view then you have equality of outcome or equity.
Some would contend that equity exists in our society but I see on a daily basis how some are disadvantaged because of attitudes of others or the competitive nature of funding gives advantages to others. If what you seek to achieve does not match the dominant themes then you are not likely to have the opportunities given to you. If the roles that you are able to obtain do not enable you to take opportunities to advance then you simply become enslaved to the system. Our society tends to reward those who already have the advantage and to restrict the opportunities for those who are disadvantaged.
I see the UK education system as failing to provide equity. It does nothing to help people find their strengths but instead forces students to conform and if they fail to conform then they are spat out as of no value to society. The opportunities to recognise that you have made the wrong choice and to restart are not there. Instead the system leaves them with a huge debt that locks them into a path that they possibly chose before they recognised what it was that they were interested in or that they were good at. That debt becomes a noose around their neck limiting their future opportunities.
However, it is not only students who are disadvantaged by the system. I see staff locked in because they need the work but cannot afford to move to another location. I see it in others that I meet who are locked into low paying occupations with no opportunity to advance. Capitalism inherently encourages inequality. Capitalism encourages conformity to its story. Capitalism requires competition and if you cannot commit or prefer not to compete then you have no future.
Like King, we need to be calling for reform of an unjust system. Like king through nonviolent action or protest, we need expose the injustice. We have to expose it in such a way that there becomes a real drive for reform. We need to continue the reforms of the civil rights movement so that real justice prevails.


 Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964) Why we can’t wait. Boston: Beacon Press.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Inequality and economic slavery

We have been working our way through King (1964) “Why we can’t wait” on the civil rights actions in Birmingham, Alabama, USA. King describes how the authorities fought to hold on to their segregated society in the face of nonviolent direct action. However, in today’s reading, it was comment that he made about a company who had major operations in the Birmingham area but whose headquarters were in New York that prompted this post. King says “Profits were not affected by racial injustice; indeed, they were benefited. Only people were hurt, and the greatest single power in Birmingham turned its back” (p 133).
As I reflect on inequality and economic slavery, I can see that I could adapt this statement to apply to many of the decisions being made by governments and business leaders. The company had said that it had “fulfilled” its “responsibility in the Birmingham area” (p 133) when in reality they had changed nothing and only benefitted from the segregationist policies.
Our capitalist system says that things are alright provided the “profit” is not impacted. Change only came in Birmingham, Alabama when the nonviolent direct action began to impact the profits of companies and even then the authorities sought to apply force to coerce the protesters to accept existing policy.
In the British media, the gender pay disparity has again hit the headlines in part because high profile females are protesting to not being paid as much as men for the same job. I agree with their claims, they should receive the same pay but I would contend that there is a more uneven pay differential that is being completely ignored and it is this second pay differential that leads to inequality. I no longer believe that we should be judging the value of skills as a way of differentiating how much we should pay people. The argument for the skills pay differentiation is “market forces”. Supposedly it is easy to recruit workers for low skilled jobs. There are more people competing for these jobs so the pay is low. If I listen to some of the anti-Brexit discussion, this appears not to be true. People do not want the low paid jobs and avoid taking them on. The low paid jobs have no future and do not guarantee security. They lock you in as a slave for life. As a result employers are looking to immigrants who will just about take any job to fill these lowed paid positions. If market forces were at play then the pay would rise to attract local workers to take up this work but that doesn’t happen. The market doesn’t work. Pressurising the low paid to take lower wages in order to maintain profit is what drives the economy.
However, the pay disparity between the low paid and the high paid ensures the unequal distribution of wealth. It ensures that a proportion of the population stay enslaved to the economic system. With government policies being made based on the average or above average income, a large percentage of the population are unable to achieve a viable living standard and they are certainly unable to put aside what is needed for a pension. I am sure this claim could easily be verified from the national statistical databases. The end result is that a large proportion of the population is enslaved to the work that they can obtain or they remain locked in to receiving government handouts.
I believe that it is not simply time that the gender pay gap was resolved. It is time that we overcame pay prejudice and rewarded everyone equally for the time that the put in. It is also time that we implemented a basic income for all and to get rid of the discriminatory social security systems that are implemented around the world. Inequality is not the result of people failing to put in the effort. Inequality has its roots in pay inequality and the basic operation of a market driven economy.
Profits are not affected by pay disparity; indeed, they are benefited. Only people are hurt, and the greatest single power for achieving equality has turned its back.” This power is governments and business owners. We could have a completely different system if the focus was on greater equality and not difference.
Yes, I can hear the cries that we cannot afford to do this but a lot of these cries show a complete lack of understanding of money and its creation. We do not have enough money because we have turned money creation into private debt and focussed on being able to pay. Governments ability to create money for essential works is being hampered by attempting to treat governments like companies and declaring that they have to live within their income (i.e. tax). If you want growth in the system then there needs to be an expansion in the money supply and that expansion has to be without the debt risk. The only entity that can expand the money supply without the debt risk is the government through its central bank but that is for another blog.


 Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964) Why we can’t wait. Boston: Beacon Press.