Katherine Hawley (1971-2021)

Katherine Hawley, St Andrews

I’ve spent the last day trying to think of ways to express my response to the death of my colleague Katherine Hawley. What I say here will be inadequate, but I feel I that I owe it to Katherine to say something, and a Tweet or Facebook post doesn’t seem quite enough.

Katherine really was the rarest sort of person. She was the most intelligent person I’ve ever met, but she had something even rarer – maybe you could call it a sort of moral genius. Her kindness was nearly beyond comprehension. She was more generous than I thought it possible to be.

When we try to express these things we resort to anecdotes. I can’t tell much of the story, but let me try to tell some. Remember that I’m not anything special – just one of many junior colleagues. These stories aren’t about how Katherine treated me; they’re about how she treated people. You’ll see so many other stories coming in, you might find it hard to believe somebody could have done so much for others. That’s the point.

In 2017 I wrote one of my dopey blog posts, linking the public discussion of fake news with some criticisms I had of the media-training curriculum in schools. Katherine (who apparently found time to read dopey blog posts by junior colleagues while publishing some of the best philosophy in the world) invited me to work with her to turn it into a submission to a Parliamentary inquiry. My tangled thoughts would never have made the cut. But Katherine had the Midas touch; what she touched turned to gold. Out of my silly blog post she spun a page of focussed, elegant, powerful prose, which the inquiry enthusiastically included in its submission. This became a big ticket item on my CV. People have reported seeing Katherine and my photos together on media briefings around the world – how sad to think of that now. The point is that she gave my career a boost; hers was in no need of boosting. But when I tried to thank her for this she told me that I had helped her – she would have just submitted “something boring on trust”. Anyone who knows Katherine’s work knows how false that is. But her generosity was so pure that she wanted me to think that I’d done her a favour.

In 2018 the first round of university strikes occurred. In the lead-up Katherine came into my office to make sure that I was ok. She didn’t know what position I took, and she wasn’t asking. She just wanted me to feel safe either way. Some people try to recruit you to one side or the other. Katherine always made you feel like she was on your side. She, of course, gave selflessly to the cause, but never in a spirit of division or hostility.

Those strikes I supported and participated in, along with the next round. I spent many mornings on picket lines with Katherine, who braved the cold even when she was sick. When I eventually came to feel that the union was overplaying its hand and making a strategic mistake, this opinion was, let’s say, not received equally well in every quarter. My Head of School got in touch to make sure that I was coping with the heat, online and offline. He had been alerted to it, of course, by Katherine.

In a later meeting he reminded me that I was due to apply for promotion. No prizes for guessing who had reminded him. Understand that Katherine was never in any official mentoring role towards me. She must have just kept track of everyone’s situation, constantly, thinking about how she might help them. It seemed to come so naturally it looked effortless. Of course it wasn’t, but Katherine would never want you to feel bad for any trouble she took on your behalf. She helped others to help others. The effect of this is exponential, in some way that she no doubt could mathematically explain.

I feel almost ashamed to say, my last interaction with her was to ask for help, yet again. This time it was with my promotion application. She had already helped me and a colleague secure a grant from the AHRC – again, this was nothing to do with her, just generosity. She had talked me, wisely and calmingly, through a frightening dispute involving a colleague’s redundancy. I knew that she was sick and her time was precious. But others had recommended that I seek her help. The thing is, nobody else would help as much as Katherine, and nobody else could – again, that Midas touch. And so the last piece of writing I ever received from her was my own, turned into gold by her brilliance and kindness. A symbol.

I sometimes wondered how she had time to do her own work when she was always looking after the rest of us. But reading her work now, I see that this might be a false separation. The spirit of her kindness shines through it. Maybe it’s even the engine that powers it, for all that her intelligence does.

I tried to express my appreciation to her, but how could I? I hoped I could one day give something back to her, but now I never will. All I can do is try to take something from her example. If any of us who have known her are even slightly kinder or more decent than we otherwise would have been, that is a bit of Katherine living on.

I send my love and my thoughts out to her family and to everyone else who has lost her.

A Few Thoughts on Pensions

Defined Ambition – We Know Zero

The next dispute over the UK Universities Superannuation Scheme is in full swing (the documents for the ongoing consultation with the universities are available here). I’m not keen to involve myself in what has turned into a pretty dysfunctional conversation. But it prompted me to share a few philosophical thoughts I’ve had on pension funds.

The USS dispute is, again, over a valuation. It largely reduces to a dispute over the discount rate. The level of current contributions required to pay future pensions – pension liabilities – depends on the rate at which you discount those liabilities. The scheme’s actuary, under pressure from the regulator, benchmarks the discount rate to the yield on long-term government bonds, gilts, which remains historically low. The fund is tested for its ability to fund its pensions promises off very low-risk assets. In fact, however, it holds a portion of higher-risk ‘growth’ assets – equities that earn a higher rate. Neither the schedule nor the risk of those growth assets matches those of the pensions liabilities. The extent to which the discount rate can be set higher to take account of the growth assets depends on the strength of the covenant – members’ willingness to pay the difference if returns are worse than expected.

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Defending Microeconomics?!

I was sent a link to this article by a colleague, who was concerned with the boldness of the central claim – that standard economic theory explains nothing about market behaviour. I thought I might as well share the outline of my response here.

I’m far from being a defender of the foundations of mainstream microeconomics. But this attack goes much too quickly, in my view. I find myself in the odd position of defending something I don’t believe in from an attack I think is unfair – indeed counterproductive.

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De-Philosophising Debt

The Philosophy of Debt  book cover

Dr. Steven Klein, Lecturer in Political Theory at Kings College London, very kindly invited me to speak to his class about my 2016 book, The Philosophy of Debt. The class read the book as part of a module on the political economy of finance.

Since writing that book, I have had a few opportunities to rethink the topic, in dialogue with highly intelligent and critical readers. This latest experience was the culmination of this process – a process of transformation, almost akin to an out-of-body experience. I now see my book entirely from the outside. I can look at it, but I can no longer speak from inside of it.

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Language, Daoism, Mimetic Desire

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Medieval philosophers spoke of words being ‘imposed’ for things, either directly or by way of the ideas of things. When we acquire language, we learn which words are imposed for which things. It is as if we begin by encountering the things and then wonder what they are called. Or perhaps we learn the names and then wonder what they name (Alfred North Whitehead wrote that whereas Adam saw the animals in the Garden and named them, modern children name the animals and then see them).

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