Little Palaces

 The school I work in is, quite literally, falling apart. Our roofs leak and will cost many millions to repair. Timber is rotting and various types of mould spread their spores through the air. Recently we have had to close ten teaching spaces because they are considered unsafe for human habitation. Next term we’ll have to roster home senior students because we no longer have adequate spaces in which to keep them dry and warm, let alone focused on their learning. Last year we spent close to one and a half million dollars maintaining the government-owned buildings we inhabit. Our maintenance budget, provided by this same landlord, was $200,000. Our school is not unusual. The national stock of school buildings is ageing and inadequately maintained, and what money is available for new builds is diverted always to the latest crisis. Those responsible for prioritising the spend are, just like individual schools, constrained by laughable budgets. As a result, they are forced to concentrate not on long-term planning and investment, but rather on the triage that funding shortfalls demand. People with serious needs feels overlooked and undervalued. Good people become frustrated with one another. They wonder why on earth money isn’t being spent on prevention, and instead we are forced to concentrate on the far more expensive option of crisis mitigation. And although I write this about schools, those working at the frontline of our health system would doubtless recognise the tale, as would those working in justice, or local government infrastructure, or social welfare. We are underfunding the provision of the collective social services that allow us to consider ourselves a civilised nation, and we have been for some time.

 I remember years ago cycle-touring through Europe and being delighted at the way small towns and cities would appear on the horizon, first would come the spire of an ancient church or cathedral, speaking eloquently of the values of a time long gone. Today the modern city is dominated by the vertical builds of banks and insurance companies; only the sports stadia compete when it comes to grandeur. This too speaks of its  time. There is a wonderful line in The West Wing (one of very many) when Sam Seaborn says: 

Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce; they should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defence.

 For the record, I’d be okay without palaces, but dry and safe would be nice. We do something awfully special with education in New Zealand. We provide quality and mostly free education to whoever walks in the door. You don’t need to go to a private school in this country to get a good education, our state schools can more than match our laissez faire counterparts. We offer places of safety, where kids can count on being noticed and attended to, where they can feel liked and believed in. We do our damndest to undo the tangled damage of social inequity and miraculously, we sometimes succeed. We give our kids a place to stand in the world, a sense of who they are, where they’re from and where we’re going together. We reinforce the values upon which our communities rely for their coherence. But somewhere along the way, our governments decided it was desirable to do this on the cheap.

 We’ve been governed by frightened politicians for decades now, terrified that significant public investment would earn them the ire of the powerful and the wealthy. We have, as a society, become more individualist and mean-spirited and have voted accordingly. Underinvestment doesn’t show its evils all at once. It’s a slow burning process of undermining, hidden sometimes for decades by heroic efforts to patch and seal. But we’re starting now to see what happens when we do not plan for our future, when we do not possess the collective courage and generosity to accept that the values we hold most dear will be the dearest to maintain.

 Until we do, I’ll be teaching some of my students remotely. We should all be ashamed it’s come to this.

The question I want our politicians to be asked.

We’re deep in election season, with politicians of all stripes being asked to explain and justify their policies to a curious electorate. Journalists, moderators and members of the public ask them about Covid, about crime, about poverty, housing and the environment. But there’s one question they never ask, and I really really want to know the answer. It’s this:

“By way of the Reserve Bank, the Government is effectively borrowing from itself to finance much of the Covid-19 response. Is it your intention to ever pay this debt back, and if it is, why?”

See, as far as I can tell, Social Credit aside, the political parties are all campaigning as if this is a debt that must be repaid. Now, if they’re true to their word, then they intend to ask future tax payers to forgo any number of essential services – access to mental health services, access to elective surgeries, adequate building programmes in state schools, access to drug rehabilitation programmes, safe roads, preventative health programmes, adequate income for the most vulnerable…. The list is sort of endless and whichever way you cut it, if you’re committed to repaying these billions of dollars of loans, you’re committed to providing less, significantly less, in some or all of these areas.

Now, it takes no genius to see that cutting such programmes, or failing to expand them, is going to cause immense hardship, and without resorting to hyperbole, cost lives. So the question has to be, what would be so terrible about saying, actually, we’re not going to repay that debt at all? It’s a debt by the Government, essentially to the Government. Spending has been funded, in essence, by expanding the money supply, a mechanism that is an economic commonplace around the world. To label it a debt, and speak and of it as if it needs to be repaid, strikes me as strange, unless I’m missing something obvious and there’s something really really bad about simply cancelling it. So I think we need to ask the politicians, why do you think we need to pay this money back?

There are some answers we can reject right off the bat, I think. The old bogeyman in this situation used to be inflation, but if this move is so inflationary, then that’s going to occur now, as the money supply expands, not at some point in the future when we fail to repay the debt. And the evidence at the moment is pretty clear. Inflation remains firmly under control.

Another popular answer is to do with the balance of payments, and the danger of the extra spending fueling an import spending spree, especially at a time when our tourism sector has been so hard hit. But, refer above. The spending’s already happening, necessarily, so any trade hit is inevitable now. Again, the commitment to paying it back at some stage in the future is largely irrelevant with regard to this putative danger.

Finally, some might say that a public commitment to this type of financing will destroy our international credibility and there will be a run against our dollar. But, again, the monetary expansion is already happening. We’re spending up large on the back of Government-created debt, and whatever the mechanism, financiers aren’t so foolish as to only be spooked if the action is named a certain way. And the currency isn’t tumbling (on the trade front, a little fall is never a bad thing anyway), which shouldn’t surprise us when we consider that we’re hardly the only country following this path.

Yet, so entrenched is the orthodoxy on this matter, so reflexively, religiously are the neo-classical views held that when they are breached, and the sky doesn’t fall, the disciples find themselves with no choice but to look away and pretend it isn’t happening. But this is an election, and on this particular issue the stakes couldn’t be higher. So would somebody, somewhere, please ask the politicians the question. I really want to hear their answers. If they give a good one, it’ll change my vote.

Why I’m Voting Green

This election doesn’t look like it’ll be a particularly interesting one in terms of who will lead the government. Labour appear to be locked in, and fair enough. They’ve done a fine job of managing the covid crises, communicating clearly, acting decisively and being open to expert advice. Their economic management in such straitened times has been solid too, and as a leader Jacinda Adern has acted with dignity and compassion throughout her term, the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings being a standout example. She has the ability to bring people together and that’s a remarkable quality, especially in the age of trolls. But, I won’t be voting for her or her party at this election. I’m not unhappy that she’ll be our leader for another three years, but for me it’s vital that the voice of the Greens remains a part of the next government. 

 For me it comes down to the way New Zealand elections are fought and the pressure this puts on Governments to compromise their values. Essentially, this country’s swing vote springs largely from the land of conservative caution we call the middle ground. Voters who like the  idea of lofty aspirations, but less so the thought of actually paying for them. Governments in power tend very quickly toward a ‘don’t scare the horses’ kind of leadership, where all the policy heft sits with the status quo. John Key was a master of it. It was never really clear what he believed in or what he was trying to achieve for the country, but he provided a narrative of relaxed stability and marginal change, and ‘middle New Zealand’, such a dreary term that, lapped it up.

 The current government, while talking a much bigger game: climate change is this generation’s nuclear-free moment – we’ll lift a hundred thousand children out of poverty – we’ll build a hundred thousand new houses – you’ll remember the rhetoric, ran for the shelter of compromise again and again. Farmers escaped emissions targets, the uptake of electric vehicles has stalled, houses didn’t get built, progress on poverty has been marginal at best, new industrial relations systems were put off, alternative tax structures were ruled out, and when it came time to kick start virus-hit economy, they went for roading projects.   Transformation this was not, and the continuity between the Key and Adern governments has been remarkable. Yes, New Zealand First had a part to play in stalling progress, with their back to the future fingerprints all over some of the more public backtracks, but part of it is also the in-built caution of the ruling party, who if left unchallenged will always prioritise holding power over using it.

 And that’s where a motivated coalition party can be crucial. Not only does it provide cover for implementing potentially popular policy, but they can keep the government honest, or be its conscience, as Chris Hipkins recently put it. And when it comes to a Government conscience, the Greens tick the two big boxes for me. They’re forward thinking in terms of environmental care and the economic transformation this requires, and they are serious about alleviating poverty. I might not agree with the nuts and bolts of all their policies, but for a small coalition partner, that’s hardly the point. They’re not there to broadly govern. They’re there to keep the pressure on for change, and make the government they work with braver. Because in the end, a government with strong values but little courage is all but indistinguishable from one with no values at all. 

 The Labour government will return to power and, without the NZ First handbrake, they have a significant opportunity to make meaningful and positive change. But on their track record so far, they’re likely to lose their nerve, and that will be sad. We owe it to the potential they have to provide them with the sort of coalition partner that will steer them always back toward their better selves. I trust The Greens to do that, or at least to give it a damned good go. And that’s enough for me. For The Greens to slip below the five percent threshold would be something beyond sad. It would speak of a society that has lost its sense of aspiration and imagination. We’re better than that.

Welcome Home

At the school where I work, Hutt Valley High School, I’ve just put together a documentary celebrating diversity within the school community. Working with a colleague and a couple of senior students, we created a work that constitutes part of our explicit response to the Christchurch mosque massacre of 2019. We’re tremendously lucky in this country to have a state education system populated by schools that are warm, open, unpretentious and effective, places where diversity is allowed to flourish. It’s always felt to me that it’s one of those treasures that we take for granted at our peril. Surely the only true antidote to the idiocy of divisiveness is time spent living side by side, listening to one another, and receiving new perspectives with curiosity and respect. I’m ever so lucky to work where I do, and the video linked above captures a very small part of the reason why.

More free plays

It’s been a fun couple of years creating new plays for the wonderful Hutt Valley High School drama department. It’s such a happy career to have fallen into, getting to put together this sort of vibrant and energetic teen theatre. I’ve just added four new titles from this time onto the page of plays, to be freely downloaded and used in your own youth theatre contexts. As always, you have total licence to alter them in any way. The important thing is to get young people to enjoy the thrill of performance. Thirty eight plays up, by last count. Makes me feel old.

Lessons from a pandemic

This is a good time to be a New Zealander. In terms of the Covid-19 pandemic we’ve got off extremely lightly, the result of a range of happy circumstances. We’re a small nation, as isolated as they come, our land is sparsely populated, we have a relatively functional media and a cultural tradition that tends towards the pragmatic. And it was a wee while before we got our first Covid cases, which gave us time to learn from trajectories elsewhere. All of that belongs in the ‘got lucky’ basket. But it’s also fair to say we made some smart choices too. Our government were decisive and communicated clearly, and they chose wisely their sources of advice. Our national response was, for the most part, coherent and purposeful and we all benefited from that. And that got me thinking, what are the conditions that aid such a cultural response, and what are the conditions that stall it?

 At the same time, being a school teacher, I was watching the online learning experiment unfold, the institutionalised celebration of the google worldview, which holds that young and curious minds, given the right resources and the licence to roam free and follow their enthusiasms, can learn for themselves in an optimal way. It’s the pedagogical equivalent of the invisible hand, some mysterious force both unseen and beyond analysis that leads us towards a happy intellectual equilibrium. It’s all tremendously modern and exciting, particularly for those who like to feel that they are at the cutting edge of this thing we call progress. As you’ll likely know, I’m not yet a convert, and I think the Covid-19 case provides an interesting insight into the flaws of the information free-market.

 Amongst all the other factors required for a co-ordinated public response to a pandemic, one platform that presumably has to be in place is a well-informed and rational public. Most of us knew precious little about virology or epidemiology or public health going in, and yet when push came to shove, we were happy to listen to those who did. And crucially, we were less inclined to subscribe to the belief that the virus was spread via 5G technology, or that it was a beat up being driven by governments who aimed to control our lives, or that it wasn’t much more than another flu, or that social isolation wouldn’t work, or that herd immunity was a better strategy, or inhaling disinfectant could get the job done, or…

 Now, adherents to the digital information revolution might posit that this speaks to our ability as a nation to critically assess information sources, and this in turn will stoke their belief that the most important thing we can teach our young is to be more critical consumers of online information, but I’m not so sure. Whatever it was that allowed an easy public consensus to build in New Zealand, it sure as hell wasn’t a general level of scientific literacy. Early on, before the spread of the virus into Europe, I read a number of articles playing down the risks associated with Covid-19, and truth is I wasn’t qualified to judge them either way. I’m reasonably well informed when it comes to these things – I’ve spent a year working at a  genetic research centre, I enjoy reading popular science books and articles, I’m fairly literate and numerate etc,  but that in itself doesn’t get us over the line when it comes to working out which information we should trust. When it comes to important decisions we rarely have the time or the expertise to evaluate competing viewpoints properly.

 Rather, I believe, the key thing when it comes to guiding a populace through the information jungle is a strong and stable sense of trust in institutions, a trust which in turn must be earned. It seems to me that if we are to make informed community wide decisions, as we did with Covid, then we’re going to need some mechanism by which we are encouraged to trust those who know what they’re talking about. It’s not about being smart, of owning the finest minds and the best funded learning institutions. New Zealand could never hope to match the expertise of the UK or the US, both of which have world leading research capacities, yet in this case we had political leadership that communicated better and was, frankly, easier to trust, and that made all the difference.

 The silver bullet in terms of information literacy may well turn out to be social cohesion. The more we find ourselves disenfranchised, the less likely we are to trust those in positions of authority. And the less we are able to rationally trust those with the resources to discover and disseminate reliable information, the more susceptible we become to the misinformation that abounds online. Leave groups out of the social contract and the resulting fragmentation leads, amongst many other things, to ignorance. 

 If this is right, then the educational imperative becomes much less about developing critical faculties (for there are some very smart and intellectually agile conspiracy theorists) and more about developing a sense of belonging and participation and trust. And all of this requires institutions worthy of trust. It requires a well functioning media, an engaged populace and leaders who put the service of their community ahead of the service of their own venal interests. Which, in this day and age, feels like a mighty big ask.

 Values precede knowledge, is my point. In fact, values enable knowledge. Without the politics of integrity, service and inclusion, smartness sits forever out of reach, and teaching students how to evaluate the trustworthiness of information sources becomes little but a farce, albeit a tremendously lucrative one for the providers of our online platforms.


The end of a foolish superstition?

There have been any number of things that feel heartening about my country’s response to the challenges presented by Covid-19. We’ve seen a sense of community spirit and a calm, pragmatic approach to the business of politics. People have generally accepted that letting health experts guide public policy on this one, in return for a fair amount of transparency from our leaders, has been a sensible move. Although, like anywhere, we have our fair share of flat earthers and anti-vaxxers, there’s been little room for quirk and superstition in the public discussion, and that’s as it should be.

And now, joy of joy, it seems as if there may even have been a small crack opening up in the superstitious world of economic policy. Maybe it’s too early to get excited, but after thirty five long years of a weird sort of collective puritanism when it comes to monetary and fiscal policy, a little mainstream common sense has arrived by stealth on these lonely islands. Now admittedly it’s a while since I completed my economics degree, but over the ensuing decades the fundamental realities haven’t changed. The basic mechanism by which Governments and central banks operate, while different in detail, remain recognisable in the broader picture. And, as anyone who’s studied economics will tell you, there are options when it comes to  funding public spending. We can raise revenue through forms of taxation, or earnings from government enterprises. We can borrow, in order to finance longer term capital projects where the benefits also accrue long term, or to smooth out economic growth  cycles, spending more in hard times and less when the going gets good. And, whisper it quietly, the government can just create more money. That’s right, the central bank can simply honour the government’s spending commitments by putting more money into the system. Technically this will show as a transfer of 0% interest government bonds, but the effect is funding through money supply.

But what, you cry? That can not be true. Why then raise taxes at all? Why not just enjoy a glorious and endless flow of government largesse? The answer is that in economics, to employ the favoured cliche, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Such policies as monetising government debt, as we now prefer to call it, have flow-on effects, two in particular. One is seared in the public consciousness, the other less so, but both are potentially important. Reckless disregard for economic conditions when you pursue this policy can lead to inflation, in the same way as reckless disregard for physical conditions when eating can lead to obesity. This, note, is not an argument against eating, just a caution to eat well and happily and be aware of the trade-offs. Oh, if only economist commentators possessed some degree of common sense. For a small trading nation like ours, the other danger is to do with our balance of payments. Amp up spending too much and as people’s incomes rise, they spend more on imports. If exports don’t rise at the same time, there can be some ugly  adjustments further on down the line.

So there you go, printing money is a brilliant way of raising funds in some situations, just so long as you’re not in a situation where you’re close to capacity and new demand will be inflationary, or where the tradable sector is going to blow out. And so, all around the world, mainstream economists and political operators have advocated the cautious use of this approach to fund some government spending. As you’ll likely have already spotted, it’s particularly apt in times like ours where a calamity has tanked the economy or destroyed the capital base (like after a war, or a major earthquake). Because you’re attempting to boost lagging demand, there’s no need to fear inflation, quite the opposite, and similarly, because this is a short term measure designed to pull us out of a recession, it will not in and of itself threaten our balance of payments. Tourism has taken a mighty hit and there’ll be a new equilibrium to be found there, but that’s another matter. And, sort of perfectly, this is spending that is not going to be built in to future budget cycles. It’s one-off funding for a variety of support and restart projects, and  if you think back to the genesis of state housing in New Zealand you’ll understand we’ve done that before, and with great success.

And yet, and yet, just wait for either the meek capitulation of government behind the scenes, so that the option doesn’t even appear on the table, or the baying howls of ‘remember Germany before the war?’ from the high priests of market purity who for some reason have a free pass to spout superstition in this country and not get called on it. I know this will happen because after the Christchurch earthquake the Greens suggested exactly the same idea and the backlash was so aggressively orchestrated that they lost their nerve and backed away from a perfectly sensible, middle of the road economic suggestion. I don’t even think it’s self interest on the part of the market worshippers; nothing so venal. I think it’s just deeply embedded ideological superstition, as always aided and abetted by commentators who are terrified of appearing ill informed.

But at least we’re talking about it, and make no mistake, the alternative is  awful, a sustained period of unnecessary austerity that, as always, will disproportionately hit the vulnerable and the marginalised. You know, I don’t mind superstition. Whatever gets you through the night. Until it starts hurting other people. At that point ignorance needed to be named and shamed, and bullies outed. In my perfect world, this would become an election issue. I’m allowed to dream, right?

The Myth of Online Learning

Our schools have been closed for over a fortnight now, and we, like families all over the world, are confined to our homes. It’s been a lovely (mostly) time to watch my three young boys whiling away the hours. As I type one of them is on his iPad, making an animated movie, another on the piano, hammering away something tuneless, and the youngest (four) is putting a load of washing on – we all need an obsession. As the day meanders on they will laugh, draw, explore, fight, eat, hide, sulk, run, bounce back from dark moods, read, ask what’s for dinner (ten or twenty times each), argue passionately over small nothings and watch movies. They are doing what children naturally do, given the time and space and support. They’re learning about their world. It’s sort of glorious.

Next week ‘schools’ are back, only the online version, announced with a certain level of pride from the Minister of Education yesterday. What this means, in essence, is that the older of my two children will be pestered with tasks designed to both make the teaching community feel useful, and interfere with my children’s learning. Tasks that will add friction to what is already a difficult time for parents, and which will add precisely nothing to the learning trajectory of our children. It will demonstrate conclusively, for those still in any doubt, that online learning is kind of a waste of time.

Thing is, all the things I most need schools to do, they can’t do for me in an online environment. The first, and most crucial service a school provides is babysitting. It is the existence of schools that allow parents the space to be adults in the world. To work, to hold grown up conversations, or just to have a few moments of peace in the day.   In other times this would feel like cynicism, but we’re starting to understand it now, right? It’s a key and worthy part of our social fabric, this keeping of children safe in such a cheap and efficient manner. And you can’t do that online.

Next thing you need schools for is the context in which social skills can be developed. The really difficult things to learn like being patient when there are lots of other people who need attending to, or dealing with betrayals and disappointments, or sucking it up and hiding your mood from your peers, developing the discipline to shut up and get on with the task at hand, reading the moods of others, learning to listen, express your opinion respectfully, apologise and make things better when you screw up; all these things are well learned in the school environment – for teachers and students both. None of them can be adequately learned online, and yet can we think of anything more important to learn?

The third reason you’ll have anticipated, for it’s all very well to speak of the richness of learning in the home environment but that’s a very middle class luxury – dear God I’ve already mentioned a piano, an iPad and a front loading washing machine. But, more than that, these are kids not exposed to violence,  overcrowding, drug addiction or instability. This is the third great pillar of state provided education, a small but important contribution in the battle against inequality. Schools, at their best, provide for some of our students the only safe and stable environment they know, the only possibility of their background stress ever getting low enough for meaningful learning to occur. And for that you need the safe space to exist. Online can’t get that done either.

Further down the list, we find the academic virtues. Learning to write essays, or computer code, or manipulate algebraic expressions. Skills that for the great majority are of marginal value at best, but which for a small portion of the population (and for society in general) are absolutely crucial. We need epidemiologists and we need vaccine creators, people with highly advanced abstract thinking skills who will go on to be our leaders, our inventors and our intellectuals. Always will, and when education gets that right, it’s glorious. And this part we can contribute to online, although there will never be a substitute for meeting the mentor who inspires you, fuels your love for the subject. Turns out though, we also really need truck drivers, supermarket shelf stackers and farmers (and don’t really need merchant bankers, corporate lawyers, boards of directors,  market researchers or consultants). Hell, turns out we really need Netflix too. But most of the work that comes through the wifi over the next few weeks is going to be crashingly irrelevant for most of the students receiving it. And an awful lot of it will exist to serve not the needs of the students, but the needs of the teachers and administrators. So, you know, nothing changes.

The power of story

In this world of lockdown and virtual everything, I’m having to communicate with my classes by video. Here is a wee lecture I gave on the power of story, a topic dear to me  that I rant upon often. Might be of interest to some of you.

Hoping all is well in your locked down corner of the globe.

It’s gender, stupid.

 Two nights ago, fittingly enough, our talented troupe of young actors performed our play Two Nights to an audience of parents and students, with the aim of making it easier for them to start discussions about pornography, and the role this is playing in shaping our intimacy culture. Clearly, having spent three years with this play now, taking it around schools and facilitating discussions with thousands of students, I have an opinion on this issue, one that has become stronger as time has gone on.

 One might characterise the response to pornography as falling broadly into three camps. This is a necessarily inaccurate characterisation, but for my purposes it will do. The first is the ‘what’s all the fuss about?’ camp. These folk will typically argue that the problem is either overhyped, non-existent, unavoidable, or unsolvable. I’m not much interested in addressing their arguments here. Suffice to say I think they’re wrong, and in other entries on this blog I’ve done my best to explain why. It’s the distinction between the other two camps which interests me more, because here there is an argument about the best way to respond to the changing landscape, and given I’m actively pursuing solutions in schools, I have an obligation to get my head around this dispute.

 One school of thought is that the answer is to promote what is sometimes referred to as critical engagement with pornography. That will take many forms, but it asks us to engage young people in a discussion about types of pornography, how it’s consumed, how the sex portrayed differs from real sex, why some people object to pornography, what ethical pornography might look like etc. It essentially says, given this stuff exists, isn’t going anywhere in a hurry, is easily accessible, and is being viewed by young people, let’s talk to young people about what they’re viewing and let them make informed decisions for themselves about the material. It’s akin to an approach to drug education which aims to give young people as much information as possible about recreational drugs, be it legal aspects, purity, possible side effects, typical experiences and so forth, so that those who do make the choice to use drugs (as many young people will) do so with better information and hence a better chance of protecting themselves. 

 The opposing school of thoughts is concerned that this approach, by sending what is essentially a value free message (we’re not telling you what to do, we just want you to be aware of the consequences), sends a tacit signal about values nonetheless. And the value message we send is – actually, there’s nothing wrong with this per se. Just be aware of what you’re getting into. Be a well informed consumer. And that value, goes the argument, is exactly the wrong one to be promoting, as it lets us off the hook, allowing us to grow complacent in the face of a problem that is both real and pressing.

 For my part, the last of these arguments is the one I endorse, and I want to try to explain why. I think the critical consumer model is absolutely a product of the neo-liberal model that has dominated much of our economic and social thinking over recent decades and is specifically designed to suit the needs of corporations. I think it ignores the way people actually make decisions, and I think it ignores the way value systems are woven into the social fabric. It is essentially falling a back on the parody of human nature upon which neo-classical economics was built, and it appeals precisely because it relieves adults of the messy responsibility of owning and promoting ethical positions. 

 Fast food is an excellent example here. In New Zealand our health system labours beneath, and this is only going to get worse, the massive burden of dealing with diet related diseases, most notably but by no means exclusively, type-two diabetes. That portion of the food industry that has grown massively rich on the back of the simply trick of finding new and imaginative ways to package salt sugar and fat together in attractive packages, runs a very appealing line it its defence. It’s not the food that’s the problem. All things are fine in moderation. We just need people to make more sensible choices. We need to inform and educate, we need to make them critical consumers. There is simply no evidence this approach works. This is because we’re not particularly rational when it comes to the consumption of foods that provide   instant hits of gratification. We go for the accessible, the cheap and the addictive. And it’s really dangerous. But society sanctions it, glorifies it, promotes it, and in the face of this message, critical engagement is sort of useless. This is not to say there is some easy solution here, but at the very least finding the courage to stand up to the industry and say, actually your product is crap to the point of being immoral, is a blight upon our ability to flourish, is a good starting point. That stance allows the strong unambiguous messages, and on the back of these, the strong and unambiguous social and political action that can start to turn back the tide. 

 There are any number of groups you can substitute for the food lobby, and in each case the tactic has been the same. Tobacco pioneered the whole approach (and haven’t they done well with vaping, or ‘ethical smoking’, shall we call it. A whole new generation are being lured back into the inhalation culture and profits are recovering.) The fossil fuel industry is fighting a brilliant rear guard action as the waters rise, the alcohol industry, the gun industry, all of them make clever use of the critical consumption model. It takes real courage, from people who will inevitably be called out as alarmist lunatics, to stand up and say, actually no, to hell with my liberal instincts to let others make choices: semi-automatic weapons are designed for murder, carbon consumption is screwing the ecosystem, the cost of alcohol and drug consumption is borne disproportionately by the poor and the dispossessed, and the pornography has effectively put the aspirations of gender politics back twenty years, and that’s all bullshit. Young people don’t just want information, they want the bigger picture of social aspiration, of belief systems, they want the narrative of value and of hope, they want to believe that the world they have inherited does not represent the sum total of choices available to them. They desperately want the adults they interact with to have opinions about the business of being human. They don’t want to be told, ‘well different people have different points of view on this and they’re all valid in their own way’. They want to interact with adults who actually give a shit. 

 There are a great many reasons pornography should be seen within this context, and look up my entry ‘13 Reasons Why Not’ if you want the fuller version. But if I had to boil my motivation in this area down to one argument, it would be this: 

 Human nature is defined by its plasticity. Culture plays a huge role in defining our norms, especially when it comes to social and sexual interactions. There is no natural sexual equilibrium to which we naturally tend. The Victorians told us women couldn’t enjoy sex and we’re still untangling the mess of that stupidity. Countless societies thought homosexuality was wrong and far too many lives were made too miserable or too short by this ignorance. Only a few short decades ago in this country, the law considered there was no such thing as rape in marriage. Female genital mutilation still exists in the world, otherwise sophisticated people are still weird about discussing menstruation in public, and young pre-teen girls are dressed by their mothers in the manner of sexual prizes and paraded before strangers in various forms of dance competitions – and the audience find it all thoroughly sweet. 

 Young people absorb the lessons of the norm. They look to the behaviour all around them and this becomes their truth. Given our nervousness when it comes to discussing sexuality with the young, they turn elsewhere for their social cues. Pornography is easily available, and shows them, in a constructed world devoid of social context, that sex is a series of acts performed by men on women, who exist as bit part players (in every sense), extras in the playing out of frequently violent male fantasises. Allowing an algorithm driven industry to set the sexual agenda in this way is so clearly ridiculous to me that I find it tremendously easy to take sides on this one. Yes, of course we want to give information. Of course we need to make sure young people do not withdraw from the conversation through guilt and shame. Of course we need to be subtle and clever in the way we engage young people. But not by refusing to own a value position in the debate. That’s precisely what the industry wants us to do.