Monday, 19 September 2011


There's been renewed interest and some hot debates about multiculturalism recently and, as far as I can see, most have been misplaced. Or rather, I think that both (all?) sides to the current argument have it wrong, including (especially?) the PC brigade.

Here's what I see as options presented in most debates:

Pro (aka "Repeat after me: we are all individuals...")

This is usually peddled by the various religionistas, but also by some others who in particular should know better. Essentially, the proposal is that every single group who cares to do so, carves out whichever niche they seem they need, and in it practise whatever rules, rites, rituals, culture, and whatever else they deem defines them.

All this, of course, with more or less utter disregard to anybody else in society (bar gross - but not mild - breaches of legality). This is viewed as being OK mostly by virtue of generously granting everybody else the same right to do whatever they wish to do. As long as, of course, this does not somehow hurt "us" (for any applicable value of "us"), where it is (also of course) always assumed that "us" have somehow more right to be hurt by "them" than vice versa.

How any intelligent being can argue that such state of affairs is fair and beneficial to a multicultural society is anybody's guess. I regard this as utter silliness, and can't escape the image of an old saying where "they get along same as a bag full of horns". And that's essentially what you get in this system: a host of incompatible lifestyles all vying for equal space and place in society.

I am sorry to be the one to break it to you, but this just can't work.

Con (aka "Repeat after me: we are all 'insert name here'...")

This is, of course, the pet stance of all who are, in their heart of hearts, as much of a racist, religious fanatic, or whatever other label you think is appropriate. They keep shouting from the rooftops that everyone wanting to join in their party (as if it were a fun one, to start) needs to dress and behave the same as they are.

What these types (and they are no better and no worse than those described above) forget to notice is that it  isn't their party any more, and most likely never really was. Modern Britain (and medieval one, too, for that matter) is no more homogeneously Christian (for any given value of Christian) than is modern Serbia (and especially not the medieval one!) a homogeneous kingdom of Orthodox Christians. Nor is, of course - albeit sadly - no country (yet) a paradise of atheism. And so on, and so forth.

The simple fact is, you just cannot take different people with different cultures (and especially different religions), and mould them into a ball of unrecognisably uniform dough. It's not possible, it's not right, and taken to it's ultimate consequence, it doesn't do anyone any good in any run, long, short, or medium. If you don't believe me, go re-read your history books. Such a ball of dough sooner or later (sooner) dries out and disintegrates into it's constituent parts and you end up with the horns in the bag again.

I am again sorry to be the one to break it to you, but this won't work either.


Now, it'd be very bad form, and you'd be well within your rights to slap me, if I just slagged off the two positions above without offering any alternative. If you were also possessed of a good dose of humour, you'd also demand I present any solution I may think I have as an apt metaphor.

Fret no more: I shall now do both...

What's more, I shall also build on the metaphors I already used, of horns and dough balls. With those in hand, and with a little bit of magic I borrowed from my religionista friends (and maybe a whiff of evolution thrown in for good measure) I am proud to give you... a hedgehog. Or, maybe better if you are more of a sea-child like me, a sea urchin.

Bingo (aka "sea urchin/hedgehog solution to world peace...")

Some among you may have already guessed where I am aiming with this. Some (hopefully not a lot), may have also started thinking I'll propose yet another wishy-washy peace on the playground sort of things. Finally, I am sure a vocal minority will insist I have done just that regardless of what I actually say. To them I say: stop reading now, go join someone else's tea party...

For the rest of you, here's my rationale:

It is an inescapable truth that we are all different. Individually, and as part of any group you care to draw a circle around and name something. This is as natural as it is necessary. After all, where would progress in any field come from if we were all exactly the same, behaved the same, and had all the same ideas and urges. Barring divine intervention - and you will excuse me, religionistas, but you may believe there is one, but there just isn't - from a uniform mass of individuals no new idea can ever come. So, even if possible, such an environment would be barrier to human betterment. And I hope we agree, human betterment is a "good thing"™.

On the other hand, it is equally unlikely that a random hodge-podge of different people and groups all pulling in different directions is going to achieve anything useful in any given period of time. It would be just like expecting a cloud of randomly darting Helium atoms to spontaneously move the balloon towards the lock, then form itself into a key and escape the birthday party. That'd be just a silly expectation, so I don't really know how anyone can think a society will benefit from such and arrangement. Not to mention that Helium atoms at least are not hostile to one another for no good reason, unlike some groups of people.

Add to this inability to facilitate progress the simple (and hopefully obvious) fact that neither a dough ball, not a random collection of horns can defend themselves if the need arises, and I have maybe given you reason to believe that neither can truly and successfully be applied to a human society. It may also become obvious that a human society needs to be organised in such a way as to make progress (aka human betterment) not only possible, but also probable, and at the same time be able to defend itself from whatever comes its way (sadly, it is still mostly other human societies that we need defending from, but that's another story altogether).

And this is where horns and balls of dough come together into a rather efficient system that can actually accomplish sensible goals, evolve and improve over time and generations, and also have a rather effective self-defence system. Both a hedgehog and a sea urchin have quite uniform cores of "dough" that represent most of their inner urchinness and hedgehogness, the bit that makes them tick and is responsible for any progress they may make in their lives. On top of that, quite literally, they are studded with horns they can employ as defence when needed. These horns, especially in a sea urchin, are quite free to act on their own as they best see fit, but still all in pursuit of a common goal, the goal set out by the ball of dough that is at the centre of things.

In a hedgehog or a sea urchin, this ball of dough is made out of all the meaty bits and pieces and other similar stuff an animal needs. In a human society, I submit that the central ball of dough must represent all that is common to all people, regardless of their culture and background, religious or otherwise. And if you want to really look into what these common things are, you will find that they are myriad, and that not really a lot is left once they are separated out of what looks like an incompatible human mess.

What is left, the differences, the horns that would otherwise be trying to run the show and break out of the dark bag where they rattle randomly against all the others, these can now be gainfully employed as a protection. However, by protection I don't necessarily mean protection against another human society (another hedgehog), but protection against the unknowns that the future has in store for all of us. Protection against running up a problem each one on its own would be ill prepared to tackle, but which can be solved by either concerted action, or a better suited neighbour.

But, and this is at the core of what I'm trying to say, it is the massive ball of common human ground that keeps all of this together and gives it purpose. And as humans we have much, much more common ground than we have differences any way you want to look at it. You may think your religion (or your atheism, for that matter) runs to the very core of your being, but if you are you are fooling yourself.

If you carefully separate out things in your life that are directly affected by what you see makes you different from your fellow human, and than have a look at what's left - and if you're honest to yourself in the process - I am sure you will find that what's left is such a massive part of what you are that the "differences" pale into insignificance. Which they shouldn't, because we all need them so we are as a society better prepared for what comes next (and no, by this I do not mean the Second Coming, or any other religious silliness).

So, let's press our common doughness into a tight ball and protect it with our differences as horns. It can only make us stronger. Oh, and now I see that a hedgehog is a better metaphor here: unlike a sea urchin, a hedgehog can open its soft underbelly and embrace new things into its core.

Therefore, at the end of this post, I give you...

A fledgling hedgehog society!

(and a 50p coin)

Wednesday, 14 September 2011


I don't know WTF happened to my Blogger account, but for the past however many days this blog was only visible to a select list of readers. Not only that, but on inspection it turned out the select list was quite empty. I have a sneaking suspicion this happened at, or around, the switch to the new Blogger interface. Normal service has now been resumed, with Grey Noughts again being available for perusal by anyone (and their dogs). I can only apologise for what looks like Google's fault, and for not spotting the problem earlier. You don't expect me to eat my own dog food, do you?

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

(Non) Working Mums

There's a certain amount of brouhaha in Britain this morning regarding child care costs.

One thing that's is undoubtedly true is that the cost of someone else looking after your pre-school child is, and I have no better word for it, ridiculous. In a smallish town where I live it ranges from £250 to £350 per week for under twos. This makes it well over a £1000 a month, a sum that is very obviously out of reach for all but the very well off. 

It is also quite easy to do the sums that will tell you (and many mums) that they are actually better off financially if they stop working and look after their children full time. The savings in child care costs alone would justify this for a lot of people, and when you add the tax and other credits offered to unemployed as well as stay-at-home mums, it is unsurprising a lot families find the decision for mum to stop working a no-brainer.

But, I'd argue that it is in all but very few cases a totally miscalculated and wrong decision. How so?

It should be quiet simple to see, really. A no-brainer, some may argue. True, in the short term, while you're looking after your kid (or even worse a few kids in sequence) you are saving money. A lot of money. Or so it seems. But what about future earnings? Do these ever enter the minds of both the "savers", their "advisors", and  the "critics"?

Let's see how loss of future earnings (and some other factors) should be seriously considered...

Let's assume that the cost of child care rises with inflation. Let's also assume that the wages rise with inflation, too. I know they neither of this may have been true over the last several years, but in general this is true. And you'd be excused for saying, look, these cancel each other out! And indeed they do: 

If you're earning exactly as much as you're spending on childcare as you're earning then your net income will be zero regardless of whether you work or not. If you earn a £1000 and pay a £1000, if next year costs rise to £1010 and your earnings follow suit to the same £1010, then working or no working you'll find your pockets empty. 

Obviously, if you would earn less than a £1000 (say, per month) working would actually net you a loss on top of before inflation one (e.g. your wages rise from £900 to £909 while your costs rise from £1000 to £1010, your net loss has risen to £101 from £100). 

But, at the same time, if you earn more than your child care cost outgoings, provided both rise the same in percentage terms, you will actually start having a bit of disposable income (£1000 vs £1010 for child care and £1100 vs £1111 salary will net you a cool quid). So, if you're earning at least as much as the cost of childcare you may be losing money every year, all other things being equal.

Now comes the next interesting bit. Vast majority of people, when working, are getting better at it, and many even stand a chance of promotion. This usually leads to salary increases above the inflation rate. This in turn makes the calculation above even more favourable for someone who chooses to go to work and pay for child care. So you may even earn yourself a cool two quid a month!

And now to the most interesting part of my argument...

Assuming you plan to return to work at some point after your child care duties are over you may find rejoining the workforce a bit deflating - at least when it comes to income. The best you can hope for is that your (re)starting salary would be exactly equal to what you had before you quit, possibly increased by the rate of inflation. And even if it is adjusted to reflect the inflation you will still have missed out on the chance of getting any performance related raises and/or promotions. 

Not only that, but you also start your hunt for more money, with the skills that may have been current a few years ago. If you're lucky, they may still be applicable and will need only minor updating that can be done on-the-job and with no serious loss of either pay or performance. If you're only mildly unlucky, you may need to slow down your first job while you get up to speed and thus delay your next chance of above inflation raise. Moderately unlucky, and you'll find you have to accept a job at a lower grade than your last one, thus landing a nice little pay cut. Even worse, and especially if you decided to have more than one kid's worth of break from employment, you may find you need to spend time (and hopefully not your money as well) on learning whatever passed you by in your absence, essentially prolonging your unpaid maternity leave.

Now, if these are not things one should seriously consider before quitting a job to look after the kids I don't know what are. Add to that the fact that kids attending pre-school usually end up better socialised and with a possibly better trained immune system, and the stay-at-home thing should look a lot less attractive. Who would easily pass on a chance of having a healthier and better adapted kid, and at the same time having more to spend on them (and oneself, of course)?

I know, I know. This whole calculation at some point seems to stop working completely for the poorest amongst us. But I'd argue that those same poor who find themselves either already unemployed or employed in really low paid jobs may be at an even greater loss. Why? Because they should be all the more eager to either find that first decent job and/or improve themselves (and their wages) on the one they do have. Adding another few years of continuous unemployment to your dole record is a very good way of never actually getting a job. And having to re-start ones career - whatever that career is - from scratch is a frustrating experience at any rate, and probably a demoralising one, too.

Last not before I conclude (and by no means unimportant!): I may have mostly referred to stay-at-home mums. However, the very same applies to dads as well. It is a different issue altogether that women are mostly the ones choosing to (or pushed into) being stay-at-home parents. Yet another issue is that men still tend to be paid more than women for the same jobs, thus exacerbating the potential loss of earnings while on paternity leave. So, now may be the time to re-read all of the above making sure to mentally replace avery "mum" (or "dad" for that matter) with a PC "parent".

Oh, and dads, do be fair to your mums and don't make them stay at home. It's probably going to hurt both of you (and your kids) in the long run...