Who gains from the great university scam?

Higher education is big business. Over half of UK young people now attend university, meaning the target first set by Tony Blair 20 years ago has finally been reached. And according to a 2017 report for Universities UK, once you count the (mostly borrowed) money students spend on subsistence, tertiary education generates some £95 billion for the British economy, more than the entire legal sector, the advertising and marketing sector and air and spacecraft manufacturing combined. 

This is true across the country, but its impact is especially noticeable in post-industrial regions. According to a 2017 report, the University of Liverpool alone contributed £652m in gross value added to the Liverpool city region in 2015/16, and supported one in 57 jobs in the region.

Some 11,000 jobs are either directly funded or supported by spending associated with the university — and the University of Liverpool is only one of 5 or more institutions (depending how much of the area you count) offering graduate and post-graduate courses in the Liverpool area, meaning the total sum is even greater.

As well as generating jobs and supporting whole industries catering to student life — from nightclubs and cafes to housing rentals – higher education is shaping the very landscape of the cities in which it thrives. As this 2015 report from UCL’s Urban Laboratory shows, universities are increasingly actors in urban development:

“Driven by competition (for reputation, staff and students) in an international marketplace, and released from financial constraints by the lifting of the cap on student fees, [universities] produce locally embedded variants of global higher education models. These assume physical and spatial form within the parameters of distinct, but increasingly similar, city planning and urban regeneration contexts defined by an ‘assemblage of expertise and resources from elsewhere’.”BY THE SAME AUTHOR

Some of the money that flows into and through universities and out into local economies of course comes from overseas students, endowments and the like. But to a great extent, these dependent industries, revamped urban landscapes, former factories converted to student accommodation, ancillary services and so on are funded either directly — via government subsidies to higher education — or indirectly, via government-backed student loans.

Though academic research is still heavily subsidised by government via the UK Research and Innovation body, the proportion of direct funding to students has shrunk even as that taken on by students as loans has grown. A January 2019 research briefing from the House of Commons Library stated that the cash value of higher education loans is estimated to be around £20bn by 2023-24. The report also acknowledged that only about half of the money borrowed will ever be repaid, estimating that “The ultimate cost to the public sector is currently thought to be around 47% of the face value of these loans”.

The total cost to the public sector, the report continues, is roughly the same as it was before the funding model changed to scrap maintenance grants and increase tuition fees. That is to say, as the proportion of direct government funding to higher education has been reduced, there has been a corresponding rise in the amount of student debt that will never be repaid and which the government will eventually have to cover.

This money is in all but name a form of government subsidy, funded by government borrowing. But it is counted differently. The briefing notes in passing that “This subsidy element of loans is not currently included in the Government’s main measure of public spending on services and hence does not count towards the fiscal deficit.”

That is to say, billions of pounds are being borrowed by government for disbursement in the higher education sector, and the government already knows much of this will never be paid back. But the money is no longer counted toward the fiscal deficit, as it has been nominally privatised in the form of loans to individual young people.

One might argue that this is unimportant provided the higher education sector is delivering value to those who are nominally its customers — the students. But in 2018, the ONS reported that only 57% of young graduates were in high-skilled employment, a decline over the decade since the 2008 crash of 4.3 percentage points.  The ONS speculates that this could reflect “the limited number of high-skilled employment opportunities available to younger individuals and the potential difficulties they face matching into relevant jobs early in their careers”.

Nay-sayers pointed out, when Blair first introduced the tuition fees and the 50% graduate target, that the law of supply and demand suggests employers’ willingness to pay a “graduate premium” in wages as graduates become more plentiful. In 1950 only 17,500 youung people graduated from university; but when 1.4 million of them do so, as reported by the House of Commons this year, can they really hope for the same graduate premium?

Results so far suggest that many of them cannot. In a hard-hitting article last August in the New Statesman, Harry Lambert spelled out further the way in which the marketisation of higher education under the Blair rubric has also incentivised grade inflation.

Cui bono, then? Arguably less the students, graduating in ever greater numbers with ever less valuable degrees, than the cities in which they live for three or four years to study, and which have in many cases experienced a renaissance due in large part to the post-Blair expansion of higher education.

In 1981, after the Toxteth riots, Lord Howe advised Margaret Thatcher to abandon the entire city to “managed decline”. In a letter only made available to the National Archives in 2011, following the 30-year rule, Howe wrote:

“We do not want to find ourselves concentrating all the limited cash that may have to be made available into Liverpool and having nothing left for possibly more promising areas such as the West Midlands or, even, the North East. […] I cannot help feeling that the option of managed decline is one which we should not forget altogether.”

Today, Howe’s words remain only as a bitter memory: the regenerated Liverpool city centre hums with tourists, students and shoppers. The Albert Dock area, reimagined from shipping and warehouses to office buildings, shops and leisure, is beautiful, vibrant and popular.

Much of this regeneration has come via the higher education boom. In Liverpool and elsewhere, successive governments have used the higher education sector more or less explicitly as an instrument of regeneration. In effect, government-backed student loans have become part of this: an off the books subsidy for depressed post-industrial areas, that have thus been partially rescued from the threat of Thatcherite “managed decline” and reinvented as hubs of the “knowledge economy”, all funded by government debt.

But a conflict of interest lurks beneath this picture. If we work on the assumption that the main beneficiaries of the higher education industry are supposed to be students, then it follows that institutions delivering shoddy teaching and useless degrees should be allowed to fail, as word spreads and students go elsewhere. But what if the main beneficiaries of this industry are in fact the cities regenerated with the borrowed money those students spend there?

In that case, from a policy perspective, the quality of the courses delivered will be less important than that the students continuing to arrive in their thousands, bringing their borrowed money to the region and spending it on accommodation, lattes, printer paper, fancy dress hire and all the other essentials of student life.

If the aim were indeed less the introduction of market forces than the use of students as a covert form of subsidy, we would surely see market distortions. In order to head off the threat of young people abandoning poor quality higher education, and entice them into shouldering their allotted portion of off-the-books government borrowing, the “graduate premium” would have to be maintained.

And indeed, since Blair’s student attendance target was first introduced, we can see that instead of using market forces to drive up quality the government has conspired with employers to cartelise the world of work. A growing number of roles that were once accessible via on-the-job training have — by government fiat if necessary — been rendered degree-only. Nursing is the classic example, but in 2016 this was even expanded to include the police,  a move so unwelcome in the force that this year Lincolnshire Police Force launched a judicial review against the policy. 

The victims in this situation are the students, who have come of age at a time when to have any hope of snagging a job they are more or less forced to leave their families and shoulder an enormous debt burden — over £50,000 each on average according to the IFS.  They must do so to acquire a degree whose value for money is declining, but which they cannot do without in a cartelised employment climate in which higher education is obligatory even as the grades it confers count for ever less. 

Not only is the government paying for today’s elderly care (and banker bailouts) with borrowing that will fall on tomorrow’s taxpayers, but young people are also being forced to take on huge personal loans to fund degrees; degrees that are less useful as preparations for adult life than as a conduit for indirect subsidies for regional regeneration.

To make matters worse, the government knows that much of this borrowing will never be repaid, which will leave tomorrow’s taxpayer on the hook for yet more billions. It is an accounting fiddle on a gigantic scale, which penalises young people by first saddling them with loans, then devaluing their education, and finally by hiding government borrowing that future taxpayers will somehow have to meet.

Young people already live with the suspicion that overall public sector borrowing is running up a tab today that will be their burden tomorrow. The situation is far worse than they think.

This article originally published at Unherd

Weekend long read: GPS ‘crop circles’

In 2003 science fiction author William Gibson said ‘The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed’. I was reminded of that phrase reading ‘Ghost ships, crop circles, and soft gold: A GPS mystery in Shanghai’, my pick for this weekend’s long read from MIT’s Technology Review.

It recounts the discovery of a phenomenon around the port of Shanghai in which the GPS transponders of oceangoing ships have been spoofed, meaning that vessels appear to be in locations where they are not or ‘ghost ships’ appear to be present where in fact no ship exists:

Although the American ship’s GPS signals initially seemed to have just been jammed, both it and its neighbor had also been spoofed—their true position and speed replaced by false coordinates broadcast from the ground. This is serious, as 50% of all casualties at sea are linked to navigational mistakes that cause collisions or groundings.

Mark Harris, MIT Tech Review

AIS transponders on vessels were introduced in order to increase safety and transparency in shipping. But as tracking technology advances, the means of hacking the system has kept pace, for example to obscure the activities of illegal sand dredgers in the Yangtze estuary:Under the cover of darkness, AIS can be a useful tool for a sand thief. Ships that are not equipped or licensed for sea travel, for example, have been known to clone the AIS systems of seafaring boats to avoid detection.

Nor are sand thieves the only users of hacked AIS technology. In June this year, an oil tanker with a cloned AIS system rammed an MSA patrol boat in Shanghai while trying to evade capture.

MARK HARRIS

The spoofed GPS signals were appearing in a pattern that analysts began to call ‘crop circles’, that centred on the Huangpu river near Shanghai, and that affected not just ships but all GPS signals. Analysts are still unsure as to what is causing it. High-tech hacking to conceal illegal resource extraction or oil shipping? New forms of experimental weaponry?

The article leaves the conclusion open but one thing is clear: the age of big data will bring with it not just the potential for advances in medical research and social innovation (or surveillance) but also for unforeseen new kinds of crime and even warfare.

This article originally published at Unherd

Remainers are the ones longing for empire

In his valedictory speech as outgoing European Council President, Donald Tusk described Brexit as a delusion driven by the foolish nostalgia of those Brits still “longing for the empire”. His words prompted the usual harrumphing, but the truth is he has it precisely backwards. It is not Brexiters who are chasing an imperialist high, but those devoted to the European Union.

Since its founding, the EU has self-mythologised as a project of peace, whose principal aim is to prevent a repeat of the two World Wars of 1914 and 1939. The basis for this argument tends to be a notion that the World Wars were caused by an excess of “nationalism”, with the aggressive and expansive German identity promoted by the Nazis held up as the primary exhibit, and that by diluting the power of Europe’s nation states nationalism will also be attenuated.

Lately, despite its convoluted and multivariate origins, the First World War has also been recruited by European leaders as a cautionary tale against nationalism. But the origin of the Second World War can just as reasonably be described as a multi-sided jockeying for power between imperial powers.

And as Yoram Hazony has argued in The Virtue of Nationalism, Hitler was less a nationalist than an imperialist, who sought to expand German-controlled territory and as such was resisted by the rival empires of Britain, the United States and other allies. That is to say, the two World Wars were arguably more driven by the competing interests of imperial players than an excess of national identification as such.

Over the horrific bloodshed that took place between 1914 and 1945, these imperial powers lost or began the irreversible process of losing their empires. The British Empire was at its greatest, not to mention most crisis-ridden, after the end of the First World War, and by the end of the Second was exhausted to the point where it no longer had either the will or the resources to sustain its imperial reach. 

The international world order that replaced the Old World empires from 1945 until relatively recently was, in effect, an empire of American-influenced rules underpinned by American military and economic dominance.  And in this new age of Pax Americana, international conventions established the right of nations to self-determination. It was no longer the done thing to invade countries halfway round the world for the purpose of grabbing resources, extending geopolitical influence and/or “civilising: the natives.

With no one overseas to colonise, what happened to the old ruling bureaucracies of the formerly imperial nations of Europe? What now for those educated with imperial dreams and a global vision, trained from a young age to run international business and political institutions, dreaming of rule across vast territories and hundreds of millions of benighted souls in need of guidance?

The solution they came up with was to colonise one another. To console themselves for the loss of the riches and ready supply of servants in their overseas colonies, the washed-up post-imperial nations of Europe agreed to pool their reach, influence and unwashed natives into a kind of ersatz empire.

It did not greatly matter whether the natives in question liked the idea or not, as the pooling was undertaken largely without public discussion and in practice (to begin with at least) made little difference to their everyday lives. Rather, the extension of ‘reach’ and ‘influence’ was largely a bureaucratic one, harmonising rules on the kind of trade and manufacturing standards which most ordinary people care very little about.

The result provided an imperial buzz for a cadre of civil servants, who got to dictate standards on the minutiae of countless areas of commerce for hundreds of millions of people rather than mere tens (and enjoy the perks of a colossal corporate lobbying industry in the process).

Even better, they could do all this without any of the demonstrable dangers of the kind of overheated jingoism that came with the style of imperialism that ended in bloodshed with the two world wars. A kind of diet imperialism, if you like: all the fun of civilising the heathens, with none of the guilt.

Their diet empire now constituted, the post-imperial civil servants of each EU member state could enjoy something of the lavish transnational lifestylemoney-no-object pageantry and grand entertaining they missed out on by the unfortunate fact of having been born too late for a career enjoying absolute power in the colonies while feathering their own nests. Indeed, the strange disappearance of a 2014 report on corruption within EU institutions suggests the diet imperialism of Europe offers ample opportunities of the nest-feathering variety.

Those in the administrative class who missed out on the opportunities for self-enrichment in the prewar empires can enjoy instead the huge and relatively unaccountable sums of money that flow around the European Union’s various budgets.

Indeed, even when misbehaviour tips over into outright criminal activity it can sometimes go unpunished, as was the case with IMF head Christine Lagarde, who received a criminal conviction in 2016 for negligence over inappropriate payouts while in the French Government but was nonetheless installed this year as head of the European Central Bank.

The administrative empire also delivers a servant class, at a scale appropriate to the post-imperial nostalgia it serves to alleviate. The debate around the Brexit referendum was full of dire warnings about the looming loss of staff to (among other things) wipe bottoms, look after children, pick fruit  and make lattes.

These laments strongly hint at the preoccupations of a colonial class reluctant in the extreme to let go of a rich supply of subaltern masses whose services were rendered affordable by the expansion of the labour market through freedom of movement.

It is not just the servants. The prospect of losing the European extension to their shrunken, empire-less British geopolitical self-image cuts to the heart of our modern governing class. As one would expect, then, those lamenting Britain’s post-Brexit loss of “standing” or evolution into a “laughing stock” (who cares?) are not the supposedly imperialist and thin-skinned Brexiters but those who wish to remain. Because in their view the only available modern source of the suitably elevated pomp, influence and imperial “standing” to which they feel entitled is our membership of the EU.

Paradoxically, in the act of accusing Brexiters of the imperial nostalgia of which they themselves are guilty, the Remain Europhiles have hit on a term which is more accurate than they realise for their Brexiter foes: Little Englanders. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the original Little Englanders were anti-imperialist, and wanted the borders of the United Kingdom to stop at the edges of the British Isles.

The epithet tends to be used against Brexiters to imply jingoistic and probably racist imperial aspirations, but this is the opposite of what it meant when first used. And taken in its original sense, calling Brexiters Little Englanders is entirely accurate: they would like the borders of the nation to which they belong to be at the edge of the British Isles, not along the edge of Turkey or Russia.

Should they get their way, this will present the United Kingdom with the prospect of life as an independent nation of modest size. We can then look forward to a future going about our business much reduced from the giddy, extractive and racist highs of the early twentieth century but hopefully more stable, more content with ourselves and, importantly, perhaps even finally at ease with the loss of British imperial reach.

For the imperialist nostalgists of Remain, though, unable to reconcile themselves to the notion of the United Kingdom as anything but a world power, this possibility is anathema. The argument tends to be that unless we join a large power bloc we will be ground to dust between them. Gideon Rachman argued recently in the FT  that “the EU needs to become a power project”, saying that future geopolitics will be a contest between four or five large blocs including China and the US and the individual nations of Europe cannot hold a candle to these behemoths.

But must this necessarily be so? Rachman’s future is just a projection, and many projections – such as Fukuyama’s famous one about the “end of history” have been proved wrong by subsequent events. Admittedly, a multipolar future seems likely. But any age of competing superpowers has always also contained smaller nations that managed to avoid absorption into a larger empire by one means or another. Why should Little England not be one of them?

The only thing holding us back from a post-Brexit and doubly post-imperial future, at ease with our reduction in stature and ready for a new chapter in our national history, is the imperial nostalgia of the Europhiles.

This post originally published at Unherd

Why liberal feminists don’t care

A society that venerates health, youth and individual autonomy will not much enjoy thinking about birth or death. We are born helpless and need years of care until we reach the happy state of health and autonomy. At the other end of life, the same often applies: the Alzheimer’s Society tells us there are some 850,000 dementia patients in the UK and that this will rise to over a million by 2025 as life expectancy continues to rise.

If we are reluctant to dwell on the reality of human vulnerability at either end of life, we are unwilling to give much thought to its corollary: that (somewhere safely hidden from the more exciting business of being healthy, youthful and autonomous) there must be people caring for those who are unable to do it themselves. Someone is wiping those bottoms.

Traditionally, this job of caring for the very old and the very young has been “women’s work”. To a great extent, it still is: the OECD reports that, worldwide, women do between two and ten times as much caring work as men.

In the UK, this tends in statistics to be framed as “unpaid work”, a sort of poor relation of the economically productive type that happens in workplaces and contributes to GDP.

Carers UK suggests there are around 9 million people caring for others in the UK part or full-time, of whom up to 2.4 million are caring for both adults and their own children. Women carry out the lion’s share of this work: 60% according to the ONS. Full-time students do the least and, unsurprisingly, mothers with babies do the most. Older working women carry the heaviest load of people in employment, with those in the 50-60 bracket being twice as likely as their male counterparts to be carers whether of a vulnerable adult, a partner or a child or grandchild.

Second-wave feminism pushed hard against the pressure women experience to take on this work of caring. Within this variant of liberalism, caring work is routinely framed as a burden that imposes an economic “penalty” while harming the economy by keeping skilled women away from the workplace. The OECD report cited above states: “The gender gap in unpaid care work has significant implications for women’s ability to actively take part in the labour market and the type/quality of employment opportunities available to them.”

The implication is that, once freed of this obligation, women can then pursue more fulfilling activities in the workplace.

So what does this liberation look like in practice? According to a 2017 report by the Social Market Foundation, women in managerial and professional occupations are the least likely to provide care, as are people with degree qualifications. The number working in routine occupations who also donate more than 20 hours a week of care in their own homes is far higher than those in intermediate or professional occupation.

In other words, higher-earning women are to a far greater extent able to outsource the wiping of bottoms to less well-off people, who are themselves typically women: 90% of nurses and care workers are female.

These women are then too busy to wipe the bottoms of their own old and young, who are sent into institutional care. Such institutions are typically staffed by women, often on zero hours contracts, paid minimum wage to care for others all day before going home to do so for their own babies and elderly. The liberation of women from caring is in effect a kind of Ponzi scheme.

This is a problem for our liberal society, for two interlocking reasons. Firstly, the replacement of informal family-based care with a paid, institutional variety renders caring impersonal, in a way that invites cruelty. Indeed, cases of care home abuse are well documented – see herehere or here – and the number is rising: the CQC received more than 67,500 in 2018, an increase of 82 per cent over the already too high 2014 figure of 37,060.

It is difficult to see how this could be otherwise. Caring for those who are physically or mentally incapacitated is emotionally testing even when we love those we care for. An exhausted worker on a zero-hours contract, paid the minimum wage to perform more home visits than she can manage in the allotted day, is unlikely to have a great store of patience to begin with, let alone when faced with a refractory “client”. The entire system militates against kindness.

Secondly, and relatedly, it turns out that the informal, traditionally female networks in which caring for the young and old once took place were actually quite important. Those networks also ran church groups, village fetes, children’s play mornings – all the voluntary institutions that form the foundation of civil society.

When caring is treated as “unpaid work” and we are encouraged to outsource it in favour of employment, no one of adult working age has time for voluntary civil society activities any more. If the number of people caring informally for relatives is waning, replaced by institutional care, so is voluntarism: between 2005 and 2015 alone there was a 15% drop in the number of hours donated (ONS).

The result is loneliness. Almost 2.5m people aged between 45 and 64 now live alone in the UK, almost a million more than two decades ago. Around 2.2 million people over 75 live alone, some 430,000 more than in 1996. In 2017, the Cox Commission on loneliness described it as “a giant evil of our time”, stating that a profound weakening of social connections across society has triggered an “epidemic” of loneliness that is having a direct impact on our health.

Several generations into our great experiment in reframing caring as a burden, we are beginning to count the cost of replacing mutual societal obligations with individual self-fulfilment: an epidemic of loneliness, abuse of the elderly and disabled in care homes, substandard childcare. A society liberated from caring obligations is, with hindsight, a society liberated from much that was critically under-valued.

What is the alternative? Some would prefer a more communitarian approach to caring for the old and the young. Giles Fraser recently wrote on this site that caring for the elderly should be the responsibility of their offspring:

“Children have a responsibility to look after their parents. Even better, care should be embedded within the context of the wider family and community. […] Ideally, then, people should live close to their parents and also have some time availability to care for them. But instead, many have cast off their care to the state or to carers who may have themselves left their own families in another country to come and care for those that we won’t.”

These are strong words and there is much to agree with, but the barest glance at the statistics shows that in practice what that means is “women have a responsibility to look after their parents”.

If we are to count the costs of liberating society from mutual caring obligations, we must also count the benefits, as well as who enjoyed them. Society once encouraged men to seek worldly success, underpinned by the imposition of an often-suffocating domestic servitude on women.

Liberalism blew this out of the water by declaring that in fact both sexes were entitled to seek some form of worldly activity and fulfilment. It is not enough to point to negative side effects of this change and say: “Someone needs to be resuming these mutual caring obligations or society will disintegrate.”

To women well-accustomed to the widespread tacit assumption that it is they who will pick up those underpants, wash up that saucepan, pack that schoolbag and so on, this sounds a lot like a stalking-horse for reversal of societal changes that, on balance, most of us greatly appreciate. In truth no one, whether liberal or post-liberal, wants to confront the enormous elephant that liberal feminism left in society’s sitting room: the question of who cares. Who, now that we are all self-actualising, is going to wipe those bottoms? There are no easy answers.

This article first published in Unherd

Motherhood put and end to my liberalism

I was raised to believe all the usual liberal things about men and women. How humans are all broadly the same apart from differently shaped genitals and some socialisation; how sexist stereotypes alone are what hold women back in the workplace; how success in the workplace and the world at large is what men and women, to equal degrees, do (and should) aspire to. How parenthood, not motherhood, should have equal impact on both parents; how having a child would be a temporary blip in a life otherwise oriented outwards, towards the world.

Then I had a baby. It is commonplace to observe that life after becoming a parent is different from life before, which is true, and one part of this was my cherished liberal beliefs running aground on the physical reality of being, not a parent, but specifically a mother.

For me, becoming a mother involved 12 surreal and painful hours of labour followed by a crash C-section and a week on a drip. Recovery took a month. On sharing this with other women who are mothers I discovered that most of us have a horror story of one sort or another about childbirth, but that a polite omerta exists around sharing these either with men or with non-mothers. On the whole this is probably for the best, or no woman would ever consider getting pregnant. But it is only the first layer in a cloak of obfuscation that lies over the nature of motherhood.

Gestating a baby is physically punishing, and one sports science study compared it to running a 40-week marathon in terms of energy expenditure. Getting the baby out is not easy, either. Although, mercifully, fewer women die having babies in Britain nowadays thanks to modern obstetrics, childbirth still carries a high risk of sometimes life-changing complications.

Women who have had one or more babies by vaginal delivery are at double or treble risk of developing pelvic floor disorders – that is to say, anal or vaginal prolapses or urinary or even faecal incontinence. And once the baby is there, breastfeeding demands some 500 or so additional calories a day, is painful to establish and comes with a risk of mastitis and other unpleasant experiences.

This life-changing experience collides at a fundamental level, as I discovered, with the liberal vision of all humans as equal, rational individuals, for whom embodied existence is a mere servant to the pursuit of individual desire. To the extent that it is a liberal movement, much of feminism has focused on freeing women from those aspects of our traditional roles that seemed an impediment to women’s freedom to fulfil ourselves.

Freedom from domestic drudgery; personal safety on the streets; recognition as equally deserving of the right to vote, own property, succeed in the workplace and so on. More recently, this being largely accomplished, third-wave feminism has focused more on liberating women from the necessity of even being female, declaring that “Trans women are women” and that about this “there is no debate”.

This is all (or mostly) good stuff; I have no desire to live in the nineteenth century. The problem with where we are now, though, is babies. When it comes to the most gruelling aspects of propagating the species, there is no means by which the work can be equally distributed between the sexes. Males cannot give birth, unless you count those male-identified females who are periodically reported in the papers as “pregnant fathers”. Neither can males breastfeed, and it is arguably breastfeeding where the roles of a mother and her co-parent in a couple really begin to diverge.

A breastfeeding mother needs to stay physically close to her baby, and runs on the baby’s timetable for months. That is to say, on a two, three or four-hour feed-play-nap loop regardless of whether it is day or night. The other partner, meanwhile, can support the mother in practical ways but is considerably more free to maintain a normal daily schedule or return to work, as most fathers typically do following the legally-allotted two weeks. (Indeed, fewer than a third of fathers take their legally permitted two weeks’ paternity leave, according to a report earlier this year.)

Reports lament the poor uptake of shared parental leave, but given that males cannot breastfeed, it should not come as any surprise. Or is the idea to ask mothers who have endured cracked nipples, blocked ducts and sleepless nights establishing breastfeeding to then move their baby onto a bottle after a few months so daddy can have a turn at home? Not going to happen.

This in turn shapes how housework is divided. There is no doubt that socialisation plays some role in a differential distribution of housework between men and women, but the rubber really hits the road when children arrive, and this is to no small degree because of a mother’s desire to be close to her baby. It will feel logical for a mother to take on the lion’s share of house and child management during maternity leave.

By the time she returns to work – and over three-quarters of mothers with dependent children in the UK now work – it is highly likely that a pattern will have emerged in which this is normalised, and the mother has become more oriented toward managing the household while her partner is more focused on work.

Then there is what I call the “Mum Bluetooth”. This is more difficult to describe but likely corresponds to what attachment psychology calls “maternal attunement”: the capacity mothers have (to a varying degree according to their own psychological background) to tune into and reflect their infant’s state of mind. Non-mothers of course have some capacity to attune to infants, but for most healthy mothers there is an intensity to the connection that is simply not evident in others, however fond they are of the baby.

I routinely found myself waking a few moments before my daughter did in the night, even after she moved to her own room. The sound of her hungry cry would cause my milk to let down and all rational thought to cease until she was fed: the only occasion in two decades of driving where I have ever damaged a car was trying to get it around a sharp corner with my hungry baby daughter screaming in the back.

I embarked on motherhood with a vision of myself as rational and autonomous. It was unsettling the least to find myself in this messy, leaky symbiosis with a wholly dependent infant whose cries caused me to lactate and lose the ability to think coherently. I am not saying we should shrug our shoulders at the different ways men and women are treated by society, on the grounds that it is a biological inevitability. I want rather to suggest that the simplistic picture of sex equality promoted by popular feminism has a motherhood-shaped blind spot and, as such, lets both sexes down.

Popular depictions of motherhood in our culture tend to go two ways. Motherhood is either an adjunct (or obstacle) to other more worldly achievements but of no notable value or difficulty in itself, or else it is a pastel-coloured ideal of domesticity cleansed of the blood, milk, excrement and hormone-driven altered states of mind.

Left-flavoured liberalism generally ignores the embodied nature of motherhood, and assures us that sexist stereotypes, and those social patterns that conform to sexist stereotypes, are an oppressive creation of the patriarchy designed to keep women from fulfilling our true potential. Right-flavoured liberalism tells us these same patterns are simply a matter of “choice”.

The truth, though, is that carrying and nursing children is neither exactly choice nor coercion: it is an animalistic experience that cuts profoundly across the fantasies implicit in liberalism of free, rational individuals for whom liberation means transcending our physiological natures.

This matters. We cannot think politically about the place of family life in society, or indeed about sex equality at all, unless we can look frankly at what motherhood is, rather than at the motherhood-shaped space gestured at by a liberal focus on identities and economics. Maternity leave in Britain is far better than in many places but it has been a long time since a political party of either Left or Right dared to suggest that many mothers might want to spend years rather than months at home with their children, and adjust the tax codes accordingly.

Motherhood is a crunch point where the liberal pursuit of individual freedom collides not just with communitarian obligations to others in society, but our very nature as biological creatures, yet for political reasons the ball has been dropped and kicked into a corner by Left and Right.

While our mainstream liberal culture pretends that all humans are essentially identical apart from our dangly bits, it will continue to recoil in disgust from the messy reality of motherhood as a deeply animal experience. And so mothers will continue to be as overworkedguilty and burned out as they currently are, and our birth rates will continue to plummet. Perhaps, finally, it is time to restart the long-overdue public conversation about what motherhood is, and move beyond the polite political omertà that covers the subject.

First published at Unherd

Weekend long read: in defence of being an arsehole

On Being An Arsehole: A Defence is this weekend’s long read pick, by Jonny Thakkar in The Point. It is a funny and thoughtful discussion of the tension between the author’s wish to fit in socially, and the desire he also feels as a philosopher to ask difficult questions that may push debates – and the social relations within which they take place – into uncomfortable places.

Most people, Thakkar argues, agree with the vast majority of what others say to them, largely in the interests of harmony. But this is unappealing to philosophers, who take active pleasure in argument of a sharpness and persistence most people would find stressful if not downright obnoxious. This, in turn, can have social repercussions for those who approach discussion in this spirit:

For philosophy trains you to presume that genuine listening, and so genuine conversation, involves helping people to clarify their thoughts, and while this might be true in some contexts, it can also have the effect of turning a heart-to-heart into an Oxbridge tutorial. “I know you’re upset, but you’ve said three different things that are in tension with one another” isn’t always the most helpful way to respond to a loved one’s distress, as I have repeatedly discovered.

– JONNY THAKKAR, THE POINT

The challenge for those who would debate is to assess when it is appropriate to ask difficult questions – and when, especially in the modern world of ‘cancel culture’, the frank expression of views is likely to take significant courage:

It seems natural to conclude that the social role of philosophers is to help people think things through by confronting them with counterarguments to their current views. But since there’s no way to do that in a non-philosophical context without coming off as an arsehole, there’s no way for a philosopher to be a good citizen without having the courage to look like a bad one.

– JONNY THAKKAR, THE POINT

In a week where the Prime Minister was accused both of being a leader to right-wing extremists and also of dismissing the murder of Jo Cox as ‘humbug’, a reflection on the debate, trolling and when to keep one’s own counsel feels timely, to say the least.

This piece first appeared in Unherd.

Social justice rent-seeking: Labour Conference edition

Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary Dawn Butler has used the Labour Party conference to renew her call for British banks and businesses to pay ‘massive’ reparations for slavery.

The money should be used, she explains, to support the work of the ‘Emancipation Educational Trust’ launched by Labour in October last year. This trust would use education to encourage ‘a deeper understanding of British history’, especially empire and colonialism, with the aim of telling a new national story that would help stem the rise of the far right.

Butler quotes Glasgow University’s decision to make available £20m in reparations to atone for its historic connection to slavery. (Though this money is for scholarships and grants, not Labour’s education initiative.) She asserts that ‘other banks and businesses must follow’. Labour, she says, will encourage this process via ‘consultation hubs’ in Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow and London. It is Butler’s view that this is especially urgent at present because ‘for the first time in our country’s history we have a Prime Minister who the far right regard as their leader’.

A few days ago, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote of his concerns with rent-seeking in capitalism, and its corrosive effects on liberal democracy. Rent-seeking is any behaviour that involves seeking to increase an actor’s share of existing wealth without creating new wealth. Rent-seeking tactics include using a dominant market position to control prices or prevent new entrants to the market, or converting economic to political power in order to shape public policy in line with business interests.

We can draw a parallel here with Butler’s proposal, which is in effect a form of social justice rent-seeking. She wishes to use political power (the Labour Party) to convert an increasingly dominant ideology (critical race and post-colonial theories) into a share of existing wealth. Butler is full of conviction as she argues for the vital role her trust will play in combating the far right. But there is some slippage between ‘reparations’ – a satisfyingly just-sounding idea considering the horrific history of slavery – and the question ‘to whom should reparations be paid?’. After all, the victims of slavery are long dead. Which of their descendants should benefit?

By way of parallel, consider who benefits from Amazon, and how. The general population enjoys the convenience of one-day delivery via Amazon Prime, while Bezos and his shareholders reap the rewards of Amazon’s hegemonic market position, manipulating the company’s tax obligations and hammering salaries and employee productivity in grim distribution centres. In much the same way, Butler’s social rent-seeking proposes to provide, as a general social good, more people who share her values and view of history. Meanwhile, the Trust she has founded will benefit directly from reparation payments, which will presumably fund well-remunerated positions dedicated to perpetuating the worldview that justifies the next round of fundraising.

This article was first published in Unherd

Weekend long read pick: the real problem at Yale is not free speech

If you’re looking for something long-form this weekend, and are tired of culture war takes on student ‘wokeness’, this lucid piece by Natalia Dashan in Palladium may even give you some measure of compassion for the lost children of America’s super-elite.

A class-inflected personal account of the author’s experience at Yale, the piece argues that the Great Awokening is less a free speech issue than a byproduct of a loss of moral purpose in America’s upper class. Her view is that America’s young elite has so far lost the desire to rule that for the most part it now prefers to give away its power, either via careers that effectively render them middle class, or else throwing themselves into ‘social justice’ activities whose purpose is less social justice than social bonding, or what she calls ‘coordination by ideology’.

Wokeness, she suggests, is really a convoluted and guilt-ridden form of class signalling that serves both to police the boundaries of an elite in-group while also deflecting any genuine responsibility for leadership that membership of a franker and more self-confident elite might entail. As it is not rooted in any clear objectives or shared political interests, the psychodrama of wokeness also relentlessly devours itself, creating a negative elite feedback loop in the process:

It doesn’t matter that the ideology is abusive to its own constituents and allies, or that it doesn’t really even serve its formal beneficiaries. All that matters is this: for everyone who gets purged for a slight infraction, there are dozens who learn from this example never to stand up to the ideology, dozens who learn that they can attack with impunity if they use the ideology to do it, and dozens who are vaguely convinced by its rhetoric to be supportive of the next purge. So, on it goes.

She asks: who benefits? In her view, those who wish to duck responsibility, to obscure their class status, or to build power bases in the chaos it creates. The price of this evasion of leadership is no less than  ‘the standards of reality itself’, alongside a cumulative decay of institutions whose purpose would once have been to channel the idealism and noblesse oblige of a young elite into public service.

And this matters, because what is now well-established at Yale will trickle down not just across America but across the world:

And what’s happening at Yale reflects a crisis in America’s broader governing class. Unable to effectively respond to the challenges facing them, they instead try to bail out of their own class. The result is an ideology which acts as an escape raft, allowing some of the most privileged young people in the country to present themselves as devoid of power. Institutions like Yale, once meant to direct people in how to use their position for the greater good, are systematically undermined—a vicious cycle which ultimately erodes the country as a whole.
Segments of this class engage in risk-averse managerialism, while others take advantage of the glut to disrupt things and expand personal power. The broader population becomes caught up in these conflicts as these actors attempt to build power bases and mobilize against each other. And like Yale, it seems a safe bet that things will continue and even accelerate until some new vision and stable, non-ideological set of coordination mechanisms are able to establish hegemony and become a new ground for real cooperation.

As to what that ‘new vision’ looks like? The author has less to offer here. But the piece is a persuasive first-hand analysis by someone in a position – by virtue of her background – to reflect critically not just on the content but also the social form of the contemporary US campus wars.

This piece was first published at Unherd