Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Hip-Pocket Fallacy (Part One)

It’s an argument that comes up in a lot of debates - asylum seekers being one of the most prominent, both in Australia and abroad. And quite often it can be debunked in simple matters of fact - the consequences of a more humanitarian approach to refugees would not bankrupt the country, as is claimed. But even assuming it is based in fact - even if people might be put under financial strain by a political decision, this does not necessarily mean the decision is wrong.

You see it everywhere. Recently on Q and A, they were discussing whether News Corporation owning so much of the nation’s print media was a good thing, and whether a near or total monopoly would have negative effects on the freedom of the press. One view, exemplified by a News Corp employee that tweeted in, was that if it weren’t for Murdoch and his persistent backing of print media, half the journalists in Australia would be out of a job. This is wrong on several levels.

Firstly, this equates ‘not in their current job’ with ‘unemployed’, which are two entirely different things. Assuming that the country needs roughly the amount of newspapers it currently has - or at least, that the market will support this number of papers regardless of who owns them - these people would still have jobs in print media. Also, if Murdoch didn’t own such a large percentage of these papers, it’s not like the papers wouldn’t exist - or that papers wouldn’t exist to fill their respective markets. This is before you even consider that although formats may change, skilled journalists will always be needed - when you get rid of print, even more opportunities will arise on the internet than are already there. So whether online or in print, whether owned by Murdoch or individually owned, these people’s jobs are fairly secure even if you were to take Murdoch out of the picture.

Secondly, it assumes that having people out of a job is the worst thing in the world. Sure - it’s not ideal for people to lose their jobs. But let’s assume that those journos would lose their jobs (which as I’ve said is very unlikely) and weigh things up on that basis: on the one hand, you have a man who has shown himself to have an extreme conservative bias (he owns the Fox Network) potentially gaining a monopoly over the print media in Australia, and you have a few thousand journalists employed. On the other hand, you have those same journos out of a job, but you have a free press, that supplies information to the people of Australia with much less bias - or at least, a wide variety of biases, through which the truth can be divined. At the end of the day, option two is better. Having a free press through which we can view the world and make decisions is of paramount importance, and in the unlikely event that it came down to it, the jobs of a few journos are a small price to pay. They’re talented people. They can get other jobs.

The most common place you see this argument at the moment, though, is with climate change. Whenever a measure is proposed to fight climate change, the most common objection is on the basis of cost - cost to the taxpayer, cost to the business, cost to the consumer. And don’t get me wrong - when you’re considering these sorts of decisions, the cost is definitely a valid concern, because sometimes you will have two solutions that will work equally well, but with one being far cheaper. But cost does not trump all - it is not the ultimate arbiter of whether or not a project should go forward.

Take the proposed carbon tax. Most people have objected to this on the basis that it will drive up electricity prices, and that they can’t afford such a rise. To put it plainly - I doubt it. I’m sure the prices will rise. This is probably more to do with the fact that this is an acceptable excuse for companies to raise prices than it is to do with an actual need to raise them; this is certainly the way it has historically worked with oil prices, in which a perceived shortage has allowed companies to raise prices when there was no actual shortage. But as for not being able to afford such a rise? Most of the people who I’ve heard complaining about it are people who have lots of disposable income that they spend on things they want but don’t strictly need. You don’t need an iPhone, or to go out drinking every week - you want it. You need food, shelter and clothing, and you’ll still have all of those - and to be honest, probably still most of the wants as well.

Of the cases I’ve seen in the media, it seems to mostly be the subprime mortgage fiasco all over again: people who are in financial strife because they overextended themselves, took out loans they couldn’t really afford, and now are struggling to repay them. I don’t doubt there are a few cases, here and there, that don’t conform to either of these scenarios - there are homeless people and so on who can’t afford the current situation, either - but to generalise: if you’re reading this, you can afford it. You mightn’t be able to afford it while maintaining the artificially heightened standard of living you currently enjoy, but you can afford it.

The other side of the coin is the same as with the News Corp issue - let’s assume that the economic claims are true. Would that really be sufficient reason not to act? Let’s weigh up the two options - either you are slightly poorer and we stop climate change, or you live the high life for a few years, and then the planet is irreversibly damaged, and trillions of human and nonhuman lives are lost, probably including your own. Even if we take it to the extreme: even if we were driven to what we’d consider an extremely poor standard of living (which would still be light years ahead of what people deal with in Third-World countries) it would still be vastly preferable to the alternative. Cost is a factor, but it is negligible in the face of mass extinctions.

Part Two here

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