The Battle of Life

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In 1846, Charles Dickens published one of his Christmas stories – “The Battle of Life”. Very few remember it now, although at the time it was as popular as A Christmas Carol. While it was a romantic story, it was also a metaphor for living – a reality that the mid-Victorians daily confronted – the battle of life.

As Peter Ackroyd noted in his biography of Charles Dickens:

“…the real importance of the story is to be found in its title. The Battle of Life was a phrase which meant a great deal to mid-Victorian Englishmen: it was even something of a truism in a world for which struggle and domination were the twin commandments, where the worship of energy and the pursuit of power were the two single most significant activities, where there was a constant belief in will, in collision, in progress. Darwin and Malthus both described “the great battle of life” and “the great battle for life”, the important confusion between the two phrases materially assisting the evolutionist’s case”

 

Samuel Smiles, maybe the exponent of what are known as “Victorian values” summed it up:

“The battle of life is, in most cases, fought uphill; and to win it without a struggle were perhaps to win it without honour. If there were no difficulties there would be no success; if there were nothing to struggle for, there would be nothing to be

achieved.”

Battles of life are still fought daily – for survival, for religious conviction, for self-esteem, for self-betterment, for the rights of others unable to fight for themselves, for equality.

In the 21st Century developed world, we often think that the battle of life has been won – we are economically well-off, pretty well educated and maybe complacent about our success. Yet, on a world scale, the battle of life daily persists and it is when we are confronted by the scale of that battle (as many British people were recently in Tunisia and as many were just ten years ago in London) that we are reminded that the Battle of Life goes on unabated.

In Dickens’s time, Britain was well underway with its industrial revolution and bestrode the world as an economic power house even if its working people were poor, with little chance of benefitting from the wealth creation. This gave rise to Chartism – working people’s attempts to gain access to power but this was dealt with by the oligarchy in power at the time in Britain. Our wealth generation was based on a world as supplier and this required a growing Empire from which to extract the raw materials it needed to feed the industrial base and to sell its goods – and a labour force here and overseas that provided it with unceasing supplies to make the machinery of the factories function.

We may have come a long way since then in this country but we remain pre-occupied with ourselves. Not much has changed in terms of Government and institutions since that time. We still have a House of Lords, we retain “first past the post” voting, London remains far wealthier than the rest of the country, we retain a certain disrespect for foreigners, we still want to play a major world role (although much of that is through our soft power status). We remain one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – still with a veto power. London retains its place as a major financial centre – which many believe assists our economy but many others rue its dependency on money laundering and the part it played in the 2007/08 financial meltdown.

Of course, the world is changing around us. China is now the largest economy in the world and while its per capita wealth is far lower than the west, the fact that it is so large means that, at the centre, it can aggregate massive amounts of money that can be used by Government. This is the real power of growth and economic vitality – the ability to amass funds centrally to spend on military might and security even as millions are still impoverished. On a smaller scale, North Korea still spends money on nuclear weaponry while so many starve.

In Africa and Asia, thousands try to escape the torment of their home countries to live aboard – leading to high-risk escapes on the high seas and many deaths and the recent scenes just across the Channel in Calais.

Industry is now global. The 19th Century British labour market that kept wages low and poverty high (and on which Marx and Engels – living in London and Manchester for most of their lives – based das Capital upon) is now also global – with an international labour market that has exactly the same problems as we had here two hundred years ago: low wages and desperate health and safety conditions (that have led to hundreds of lives lost in building the stadia for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar).

Meanwhile, it would be hard to extract much of this change from the recent General Election here. An election fought by the winning Conservatives on short-term tax breaks and a fear of the unknown – when that “unknown” was held to be Labour Party leftism and Scottish independence fears; when Liberal Democrats lost public trust over university funding; when UKIP gathered around 3 ½ million votes on the back of fear of the foreigners.

It was hard to feel motivated by the short-termism and fear-mongering that underscored that election. It was an election where Liberal Democrats were sent back to the 1970’s in terms of seats won and where they lost more votes in one election than could have been believed and when many argue liberalism should be the 21st Century political answer to all the changes and aspirations of a 21st Century world.

21st Century Aspirations – Economic Freedoms and Responsibilities

It has been educational to listen to the two Liberal Democrat contenders for that party’s leadership recently. Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, two out of the eight remaining Lib Dem M.P.’s in the House of Commons, both appeared before at the Institute of Public Policy Research at separate events.

They spoke and answered questions on a range of issues but the focus was on what liberalism meant to them.

Tim Farron told the meeting at the IPPR that he bases his liberalism on five key values: Freedom, Equality, Quality of Life, Internationalism and Reform. In his manifesto, a sixth value was added – a new economy.

Norman Lamb spoke about similar values and his experience of working as a Health Minister.

Both noted how their vision was formed by Jo Grimond and the debt they (and we) owe to William Beveridge – the man behind social services and the NHS, who identified the “five evils” of society as of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease as the drivers behind the need of government to be involved in society to a greater degree than before.

It is interesting to remember that Liberal have had to move a long way from the idealists of the 19th Century. While the Tories represented the landowners then, the new middle classes of that Century (who were behind the Free Trade movement as were the Liberals of that time) were not looking towards improving the lot of the common man (and certainly not women). The Factories Acts were gradually introduced throughout that Century as a result of pressure from outside Parliament and often against the deep-seated reservations of the capital class.

Liberals of the 21st Century now understand what J K Galbraith called the “social balance” between the public sector and the private to ensure that needs are met but that individuals are still able to model their own lives within a society that does not deprive them of aspiration and opportunity but actually seeks to improve those life chances. Liberalism also aims to ensure that the individual that lives most of their lives in “civil society” are able to do so with real freedom to enjoy and be fulfilled in that life. Life should not be just a centralized, top-down socialism nor a numbers-driven economics-only rat-race. Life is a complex mix where wealth creation is important (wealth being not just quantity of life but also quality) and so is ensuring that opportunity (such as good education, health and housing) is available to all so that individuals can become the most that they are able. When we also use our abilities on a global stage and enshrine this within the crucial notion of freedom (to believe in and voice your own views without fear), this is 21st Century Liberalism.

Because both Tim and Norman understand the critical elements of liberalism (something central to Nick Clegg – as he understood in a speech in 2012 to …but never reinforced outside that so that people would know what they were voting “for”), it is difficult to separate them on the basis of views held.

For me, the issues come down then, to this:

If Liberals want to become a force for real good in the UK (and world) and want to play a political role and not just be seen as a pressure group, they do not have to be just great campaigners, clammering for redistribution and fairness, but they have to ensure that there is a Liberal Economic Philosophy that enough people believe in.

Liberal Economics for the 21st Century

Having completely bought into all the other values of liberalism, it seems to me that the Liberal Democrats (and Liberal Party before them) have sometimes not grasped the central perceived need of most people – economics and economic freedom. The industrial revolution embedded the zeal for wealth creation amongst the capitalist class that has since become the underlying basis for how people see their lives.

Increased wealth creation has led to better health for those who are fortunate enough to live in the economically developed world and to longer and better lives. Illness does not mean death as it did in the 19th Century for us in the UK. Food is plentiful (although food bank use is on the rise) and we do not suffer from stunted growth as happens too frequently in the developing world – we suffer more from obesity. Education is open to all (albeit in different and not yet good enough for all). Our streets are relatively clean and we have a police force that is designed to serve and a set of laws that are mainly enforced without social stress. We have freedom of expression and democracy.

Much of this is down to wealth creation so that we can be said to be well up Maslow’s Hierarchy of need.

However, inequality is now increasing and the challenges of this country in a world where countries like China are now beginning to dominate economic growth are substantial. The impact is serious in areas like London where housing costs are so high because of the demand from those from overseas – many thought to be laundering questionable money through the London property market.

We also see scenes in Calais on a daily basis how those countries that are not providing economic freedom to their citizens – through corruption and war and mismanagement that leads to hunger and illness – drive their own people from those countries. This is an international problem – African migrants

So, how could Liberal Democrat economic philosophy be developed to tackle the issues that impact everyone – which everyone believes to be crucial to their lives and those of their families and within which the other values of liberalism can be seen to flourish?

We have to focus on responsible wealth creation in this country and overseas that marries the need to galvanise wealth creators (small businesses, risk-takers, new science, co-operation between public and private sector) along with a focus on great education that motivates and provides opportunity, understands how we develop sustainable growth (that assists the environment and connects us with it – not just seeing it as “natural capital” in the way that the 19th Century mill-owner saw workers as capital) and international. In the latter, we have to understand how the UK is a seller to the world and a buyer to the world but also part of that world. That world needs to ensure that the poorest are given opportunities and that sink-holes like corruption are eradicated. That equal playing field that liberalism feels so deeply is now an international playing field.

Economic freedom (the ability to grow our wealth) in a responsible way should be part of any liberal philosophy. But, it is not the 19th freedom to trade freely – it has to be a freedom with responsibilities attached. Together, economic freedom with responsibilities would help us win the battle of life that we all face.

Trickle-down Economics – The Thatcher Legacy

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This was originally posted in 2013 just after the death of Margaret Thatcher. Now that the Conservatives have amassed a majority at the General Election, I am re-publishing as the message holds even firmer today.

“In our system, everything is done according to a pyramid approach: the order is given from the top and carried out at the base.”

No, this was not Margaret Thatcher but Jiangwen Qu – professor at Kumming’s Centre for Asian Studies, talking about China. (Taken from China’s Silent Army, Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo).

He went on to say: “We believe that other countries should follow this model, because if you let everybody give their opinion it is difficult to make decisions.”

Yet, it demonstrates how in our so-called democracy, the top-down theory of decision-making was so faulty. Margaret Thatcher won three general elections because the Labour Party was split between the left-wing (originally led by Michael Foot) and the right, which broke away to form the Social Democrats. In the UK’s ridiculous “first-past-the-post” election system, a party needs only 35-40% of the vote for a substantial majority – that was Margaret Thatcher’s luck. This luck had already been seen in her victory over Edward Heath in the leadership contest in 1975 – although it has to be said that she took full advantage of that luck.

Margaret Thatcher always said that she believed in democracy but made great fortune from its deficiencies. Apart from a rigged election system that gives minor parties full majorities, she did not practice democracy in terms of decision-making. Her cabinet (where the Prime Minister is supposed to be prima inter pares – first amongst peers) was where “the order is given from the top and carried out at the base”. This was her style from the time she became Prime Minister to the time she was thrown out by those who had the substance to rebel after 13 years of her idiosyncratic style of democratic rule.

Leadership and Democracy

Within a system such as ours, Margaret Thatcher did not split the country – her support was far less than half the country (usually than 40% of the voting population) and even those that voted for were split between various streams of the Tory party. She fragmented it. Her supporters in 2013 would mainly be found in UKIP today  although she would have still used the Tory Party as it is the only vehicle for power. The split was far worse as it demonstrated that rule of a democratic party would be by just the largest minority and with extreme policies.

Those policies did change the economic landscape that had been moving to rigid control by sclerotic centrist organisations such as Trades unions, Public Sector, old-style corporations and successive governments that had no vision for society.

Thatcher destroyed the comfiness of society in her own terms and put in its place more top-down doctrines around monetarism. Because liberalism had floundered after the first World War, centrist forms such as socialism and corporatism were, it seemed, all that there was left. Even the linking of Liberals and Social Democrats in he 1980’s was to prove a failure of liberalism as the Liberal Party moved towards a centrist European ideal and away from the localism and bias away from the centre that had characterized the party from its inception.

Strong leadership takes advantage of democracy in the UK (and still does) and the trade-off between the two is a constant battle. Where no leadership exists (and this is a story of today) then democracy does not replace it until some form of leadership appears. In the UK, we still have sclerotic centrist organisations that support the status quo and no vision or leadership for the 21st Century that would inspire the change that wealthier and better-educated citizens would aspire to.

The Centre going Forward

There is a massive danger that the completely centrist and statist system operating in China (as quoted in the first paragraph above) will, because of China’s growth and rapid ascendance, come to dominate political thinking the world over. Liberal Democracy is already wilting in western Europe as major decision-making is made by the unelected (in Brussels and for some time in Italy) with nations such as Portugal, Spain, Cyprus and Ireland ruled from the centre (read Germany). This is far away from localism and screams about the loss of Liberalism. The now-disgraced and jailed Chris Huhne remains a fan of the EU and the Euro – not a surprise that his background is social democracy not liberalism.

The 20th Century was a battleground between the forces of darkness epitomized by  extreme Nationalism, Communism and Fascism on one hand and the forces of democracy on the other. Millions lost their lives and millions more suffered in gulags and concentration camps for democracy and the end of extremism.

The 21st Century battleground is more complex as the war between the different political forces of centrist and localism is splintered by the battles for resources and markets (and by the impending battle for climate and conservation) and between north and south and rich and poor and corruptors and corrupted.

Thatcherism knew only Hayek-style liberalism – an understandable reaction against socialism and the fear that fascism was created around that fear. In its place, The Road to Serfdom (Hayek’s best known work and Thatcher’s quasi-bible) postured a place for Government in monetarism and information provision – working to ensure that the market could work through transparent pricing. This was its limit and disregarded the essence of society (although Thatcher did not assert that society did not exist, she might as well) as did Hayek in his complete opposition to anything that wreaked of socialism – even social democracy was something that Hayek viewed as naturally leading to totalitarianism.

The problems that Hayek missed and that Thatcher and Reagan made possible (and that China is already risking) is that while socialism runs everything from the centre, the opposite camp of economic liberalism naturally tends towards a small minority at the top owning all the assets and all the decision-making apparatus. It is clear from the history of the last 30 years that the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer (in terms of direct wealth and the supporting services offered to them) and that the dynamism needed in society from the other sectors is dying. Margaret Thatcher notoriously believed that there would be a trickle-down effect. That was nonsense and that is now proved.

Worse, a market-led economy which is based around numbers only (with GDP growth as the religion) leads to huge societal dislocations. The NHS is a valid case where management by statistics leads to deaths and the complete abandonment of human character – as evidenced by the maltreatment of the elderly. The opposite system (as in the USA) based on insurance only leads to only the wealthy having good medical services.

Worse, the motivation by quantity alone means that quality of life is abandoned in the drive for more goods. This is the market at work when left to its own devices. The market is driven by the simplest routes to success – numbers. We cannot be solely market-driven even if the market is the best form of driving entrepreneurialism.

People-centricity not Centrism or top-down

Society has experimented with many forms of government and economics. On the latter, we have a general agreement that market-led economics works best, but it is market-led not liberal or libertarian markets. Market-led means that other decision-making mechanisms are relevant wherever the market tends to extremism – such as domination of the market by monopolies or when the rich 1% control all the assets.

In the West, we believe that democracy works best because we all have a stake and are all equal under the law. Huge, developing countries like India and Brazil have similar philosophies but are riven by corruption. China is a centrist “civilization state” which directs from the core and will, at some stage, erupt into democracy. Russia is a centrist state by tradition and a mafia-dominated chaos.

Where we believe in equality under the law, we have to strike balances which Hayek / Thatcher / Reagan economics cannot achieve. This balance has to ensure that the drive is towards the individual but that society steps in to take out excesses. The balance is developed by society – with civil society and civil society organisations strengthened against the powers of the centre wherever they are.

This is far away from a socialist state where assets are owned and / or controlled from the centre and where equalization is the norm. Balance (whatever it is called) rewards entrepreneurship but would not award bankers or managers in the same way. It would not have made the reduction to 45% in the top income tax rate in the UK – whether or not this had been financially sensible in the short-term – as it shows a total disregard to society and the motivation of the great majority of its citizens that are struggling to prosper.

People-centricity and a focus on society using the best of the market and democracy but using brain power and ingenuity as well as technology represent the 21st Century as we struggle against top-down, centrism, climate change, resource degradation and inequality.

It is not what Margaret Thatcher intended as it requires not just the whip but also the driving force of human capability in all areas of society to see beyond the numbers or the desire to control from the top. It is leadership by motivation and inspiration.

With the death of Margaret Thatcher, let’s lay to rest trickle-down economics  along with socialism and fascism.

When Bush Senior said “it’s the economy, stupid”, society was shelved.

Let’s talk society not just economics. Human brain power not numbers. Ingenuity not GDP. Well-being not hospital stats. Quality not quantity. Society not just economics. Real leadership, motivation and inspiration.

See-through Society – transparency

Cleaning Up

Chuka Umuna, the Shadow Business Secretary, recently called for companies in the UK to declare their tax payments to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). This followed the widely reported, bad publicity surrounding the minimal tax payments made in the UK by Amazon, Google, Starbucks and many others. Whilst not wishing to name and shame, he believes that all companies should glory in the tax they pay. Justin King, head of Sainsbury’s, one of the big four food retailers in the UK, made a similar statement, suggesting that consumers could make change happen through their custom. International Corporations have been cleaning up by transferring their tax liabilities to low tax regimes and tax havens – they can virtually choose where to pay tax.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, states in his most recent letter to LibDem members: “The idea of combining a strong economy with a fair and transparent society is something that will also be seen in an international context this year when we host the G8 in Northern Ireland.”

Transparency is becoming the mantra of the well-meaning in society and many would say “about time, too”. While not the answer to all of societies’ ills, it is a precursor to re-directing society towards solving some of the greatest problems we have – because transparency of key information allows people (civil society) to make informed decisions – either on their own (through the marketplace) or through their government.

Sweeping away the leaves

For years, organisations like Transparency International have campaigned for dramatic improvements in the way governments, publicly owned organisations and companies provide important information. The danger with secrecy (and the UK remains a very secretive country) is that beneath the opacity of information lie secrets that those with vested interests wish to keep hidden. Whilst secrecy is always claimed by Governments to benefit all of us where they wish to enforce it, the evidence is usually to the contrary. The benefits of secrecy accrue to vested interests and results in economic mismanagement at best – at worst, in countries which are, for example, resource-rich and economically poor, it leads to mass corruption, impoverishment of the mass of people, illness and suffering.

Economics and economies thrive on the open availability of good information and only monopolies thrive on secrecy. It is only when information is made available that proper judgments can be made by the mass of participants in the marketplace.  In a world population of billions, markets can only work where information is not controlled from the top down. Stockmarkets and financial markets depend on the freest possible flow of information to the widest audience and there has been a progressive move towards freer access to information along with the spread of technology that enables it to be used. The driving force is the same human one that drives freedom and democracy. There is an inherent motor behind individual freedom and the right to self-govern and the same motor drives transparency because it is with transparency that the potential can be seen and with transparency that informed decisions can be made.

Transparency is not closing your eyes when the wind blows

In the UK, a nation that always appears to be governed by a conservative mindset where change is difficult, where the Official Secrets Act dominates, where GCHQ and CCTV appear ubiquitous, where the challenge to maintain a fairness between an open society and a society that bears down on terrorism often seems so far weighed in the latter’s direction, the motor for transparency often seems to be running in neutral. Conservatism (especially in England) means keeping things the same and with direction from the centre. This often means that vested interests operating from the centre or with the centre will disallow the move towards more openness. The Labour government provided a Freedom of Information Act, for example, to the chagrin of its then leader, Tony Blair., who was and remains a centrist. In a sense the provision of the Act was odd, because Labour remains as much a centrist party as the Conservatives. Nevertheless, the human motor for more transparency was stronger than the urge to opacity in this case – even if the Act is not itself allowing the freedoms desired.

Yet, it was a step towards a more open society and towards transparency that many countries would relish. A free press (the subject of so much discussion following and before Leveson) has helped to unearth the secrecy in banking, for example, that has plagued the UK for centuries. Manipulation of LIBOR, money laundering, sub-prime casino banking and support for tax havens may have helped to make London a key banking centre but it did not insulate the UK from the collapse in 2007 – it made it far worse – and “only when the tide goes out do you discover who was swimming naked” (Warren Buffet commenting on naked transparency). Sometimes, opening our eyes hurts.

Nothing to Hide?

One example of eye strain concerns the opacity of the banks and their cozy relationship with Government (not just in the UK). The secrecy allied to the special relationship has hindered the UK to an intolerable degree. Under Nigel Lawson (one of Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellors) the post-manufacturing society was hailed as the future as banks gained more freedoms and we all kept our eyes closed. Yet, we now see Germany as Europe’s economic motor because of its manufacturing prowess and the revitalization of the British motor industry (although hardly any it owned by Brits) is now lauded much louder than our “success” in financial services. The illusion of banking remains, though – as a key driver of the economy rather than what it really is – a provider of services that should assist the real economy. And the illusion has been propped up by a lack of real transparency which enables banking to remain a secret society.

Transparency is the ability to be strong enough to reveal information because there is nothing to hide. The true strength of transparency is the confidence that it portrays. So, the opportunity for companies and Governments to be open, to be transparent, only exists where there is not much to hide. Clearly, international companies that are paying virtually no corporation tax on sizeable UK earnings have something to hide; clearly, those (companies and individuals) who put money into offshore tax havens or to secrecy jurisdictions may have something to hide.

If banks and individuals had nothing to hide, Wegelin, the oldest Swiss bank, which is closing as a result of its plan to take on all the clients of Swiss banks that had decided to be more transparent with the US authorities over tax evasion would still be open for business. Their clients, who wished anonymity, made their way to Wegelin – which had been founded in 1741. They knew they were doing wrong and Wegelin knew the same – and the bank is closing after a hefty fine from US regulators and after 271 years. Secrecy was in the bank’s DNA – it could not evolve to the realities just beginning to dawn in the 21st Century. It became extinct.

So, lack of transparency in a world with eyes opening can be also hurt and be expensive and the US executive is now proving to be vigilant on  behalf of transparency on a world-wide basis – as is the US Congress which passed legislation in 2010 called Dodd-Frank. Part of this related to section 1504 which requires extractive industry companies registered with the SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) to disclose their revenues and taxes paid on a country by country basis worldwide. This includes all companies registered on the NYSE no matter where they are based. The EU looks to be following this example so that the people of resource-rich, economically poor countries will know how much money their precious natural resources raise in annual income and then can follow through what their Governments do with that money.

However, the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chambers of Commerce (vested interests if ever there were) are trying to fight back and have initiated a law suit in the US to nullify section 1504

How curious that libertarians fight on behalf of secrecy – the proponents of a free market arguing against a main tenet of economics – free information.

Battle lines are being drawn – the light and the dark.

21st Century Schizoid Man, King Crimson’s take on Spiro Agnew, was written in 1969 but the 21st Century does even now witness such schizoid tendencies characterized by corporate and governmental secretiveness, emotional coldness and apathy that typifies the illness. The lack of openness is world-wide and exhibited by the Chinese authorities’ suppression of its Southern Weekly newspaper when an editorial criticizing Chinese leadership was thrown out and one supporting the leadership was superimposed. Anyone reading Martin Jacques book “When China Rules the World” would not be surprised at the suppression. It characterizes the central leadership of this “civilization state” but Jacques argues that we see it too much with western eyes. But, what if we in the West are right and democratic freedom and openness are the motors that drive our human endeavours? What if the Chinese have, for 2,000 years, actually got it wrong. As China grows stronger, the move away from freedom for information will intensify and Chambers of Commerce will battle against laws for transparency that they will argue provides Chinese firms with advantages. This is a battle that has to be fought world-wide.

Our pursuit of progressively greater freedom (whether press freedom, open markets, democracies, freedom of speech) and equality (of race, religion (or non-religion, sex, sexual orientation and more) appears to be the real motor rather than the schizoid tendencies of the centrist control of monopolies, dictators, and vested interests. Transparency is a hugely important base upon which this basic human drive can persist. In a post-2007 world where the risk is that wealth is being driven to the top 1%, the drive for transparency is fundamental.

Two-speed economics – Technology and Governance

The Price of Externalities: Georgescu Roegen Extravagance

Fast lane – Markets at the speed of technology

Tom Standage’s book “The Victorian Internet” describes how the mass of wired communications – the telegraph – changed the developing world – (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Victorian-Internet-Tom-Standage/dp/0753807033/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1347191394&sr=1-1).

As did Gutenberg’s printing press around 1450, the telegraph, the telephone, the fax, the mobile phone and now the internet and the world wide web continue to transform our ability to communicate and miscommunicate – instantaneously. There is no question that technological development races onwards. The human race has a special ability to make extraordinary progress in scientific research and understanding and in the application of that through engineering into products that transform the way we live.

The technological advance is propelled by the “marketplace” – where supply and demand perpetually force change.

Slow lane – Governance at the speed of bureaucracy

As we continue to make enormous gains in technology, our ability to keep up with the excesses of the market (market waste) is almost the opposite. It seems that we react late to technological advancement – delays that can cause inconvenience but also (at the extreme) loss of life.

Inconvenience: the UK awaits the Leveson Commission report into phone-hacking – the use of technology by certain newspapers to obtain salacious stories on (mainly) celebrities. Newspapers are closed, criminal prosecutions are under way and the possibility that press freedom will be curtailed.

Loss of life: the destruction of our environment through global warming (CO2 emissions and the potential for vast amounts of methane to be released by the rapidly melting glaciers) is a direct result of technology and manufacturing’s use of fossil fuels. It could prove just as damaging (or more) than the technology and development of weaponry that fuelled the two World Wars of the 20th Century.

The slow lane is inhabited by politicians and civil servants that exist in a variety of slow lane decision-making arenas. These could be democracies; they may be legalist governments such as China.

The slow lane is inhabited by the “mechanics of government” or “Market Governance Mechanisms” (MGM)– “governance”.

The tortoise and the hare

Since the development of governing institutions, those in government have continuously sought to control technology and its effects. From the control of counterfeiting (as in Newton’s day or now), developing health and safety standards, maintaining arms control, to reducing environmental degradation, people have put their faith in governments’ ability to manage the sweep of technology. Time after time, technology has been at the forefront and governance has been slow to catch up.

Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare had the tortoise winning, but while the hare of technology can be tamed, it is continuously ahead of tortoise governance and, in the global economy we now inhabit, will extend that lead. It is only where governance is centralized and total (such as in Japan prior to the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854 or where the government may be theistic such as with the Taliban) that the market is not allowed to exist at all and technology is starved.

As soon as market forces allow, the pace quickens. China is a recent example of a centralized, legalist state that remains in control but has opened up the marketplace – totalitarianism plus capitalism. Of course, the rise of technology is a serious threat to governance stability in China. This is exacerbated by world-wide communications technology that provides comparisons with the rest of the world to every region. This comparative data spreads the world on what is available and draws everyone to want the same – more products and the latest technology. The hare merely passes on the baton to the next hare.

In the same race?

The question of how Governance reacts to the market is being played out constantly. Whether it is the forlorn approach of international Governance to environmental issues or national Governance reaction to the internet or any number of other interactions, Governance and the governing seeks to manage technology and the effects of technology.

The rationale for Governance (and control) over technology is based on a mandate from the public (whether by vote via manifestos or on a perceived basis – as in China or a theistic basis or historic basis as in most of the Middle East). This mandate often runs against the market – and many, for example, Tea Party libertarians in the USA, believe that Government should play no part whatsoever in managing the market. They do not believe that Government has a role to play at all. This Ayn Rand view of the world, the most extreme market view of governance, believes that the “invisible hand” will provide the right result.

So, should technology be subject to control? Is this two-speed race real?

The answer has to be “yes” – but an acknowledgement that it is a race would be a start. Then, we may be able to establish some of the rules: rules which enable the development of products and technology while ensuring that the trade-offs that we have to endure are sufficient to allow us (and other life forms) to continue to survive.

Race to what?

The marketplace works best when there is an identifiable demand and an ability to supply. This is the basis upon which economics exists. The market, however, is but one aspect of our lives and the market cannot dictate whether a particular form of animal life is allowed to survive or whether desertification is made worse in Sudan, for example.

These are typical market externalities and the market appears to have no answer to such difficult outcomes. These are outside the market and the invisible hand assumes that they can be dealt with as externalities – and forgotten.

These externalities, or market anomalies, are where non-market forces reside. Much of this is the responsibility of market governance; some of it is charitable work or non-market, voluntary activities. However, technology is primarily (at least in the 21st Century) market driven (as opposed to driven by government spending on defence, which brought into play technological advances in the 19th and 20th Centuries).

The race that technology exists to fight is one of material “progress” (advances in health care, biotechnology and the like are within this area) where there is a defined demand.

Governance is then required to sweep up behind in ensuring that the advances or changes in technology are suitable or genuinely advantageous.

Of course, as Georgescu Roegen (a leading economist) stated in 1975: “Perhaps the destiny of man is to have a short but fiery, exciting, and extravagant life rather than a long, uneventful, and vegetative existence.”

Intersection: market and governance

At present, the governance of technological externalities problem is two-fold:

(1) Each nation works out its own response to changes – often many years behind the change itself

(2) There are serious world-wide technological implications – changes that impact regions and the world – not just nations.

The problems get bigger as the intersection of the marketplace and governance is mainly concerned with economics, not externalities. Yet, this may be the biggest problem concerning mankind. Working out how to properly manage the interaction between the marketplace and governance in terms of market externalities while allowing for competition (the essence of the market and the progenitor of technological change) may well be the biggest challenge we have. If capitalism is the norm – and through this the market economy – what role has governance of the market – nationally and internationally?

Can institutions that are already in place (such as the WTO or UN Conferences on the Environment or IAEA or any number of international institutions that operate today (see: http://www.genevainternational.org/pages/en/55;International_Organisations) keep up with the market whilst enabling or at least allowing the best of what the market does to flourish?

Is it even possible for the market – now on a global scale – to be centrally managed to the extent that externalities that we all pay for in terms of health and safety and maybe inter-generational catastrophes of the future can be in any meaningful way properly be taken into account?

Or, are there self-organizing principles that guide human evolution and probably guide our economic and technological progress which work and negate the need for any central institutions?

An Olympian Challenge

 

To repeat: the governance of market externalities may well be the major challenge that mankind has to bear.

Already, we may be dangerously close to bequeathing future generations with a challenge that may be unwinnable.

Whether it is genetic engineering, or nuclear warheads, or CO2 emissions or whatever, the global challenge is to admit that the challenge is a real one and that the market, left to its own devices, is unlikely to deliver the desired results in a timeframe that will allow life to continue to prosper – the Georgescu Roegen extravagance

Libertarians argue that we will ensure that technology and the market will find the solutions – a hope for the best approach that they believe will get us out of the Georgescu Roegen extravagance.

However, the danger that the challenge will be beyond the capability of the marketplace is large enough for us to consider the consequences of failure. The fact that we can obtain information quickly and internationally does not help unless we can use the information and make decisions quickly. Governance mechanisms are the opposite. It now looks increasingly like 19th Century institutions are incapable of addressing the negatives that the marketplace throws up – unpriced externalities Maybe the only way to solve the problems of the marketplace is through using technology and self-organization on a local basis so that externalities are assessed and redressed as appropriate.

This means that the role of international organizations would be to assist the process. Instead of not-for-profits like Witness (http://www.witness.org/) acting on their own to provide assistance to local groups (“See it, film it, change it”) it would be the role of large national and international institutions to enable local groups through technology. Markets are self-organizing but have created a degree of externality that is seriously and adversely impacting societies throughout the world. International governmental organizations are failing to come to terms with this. So, the role of national and international institutions has to be to equip and enable local groups – through finance and law changes but on a vast international scale.

Just like companies and government work together to develop the markets, so governments and NGO’s /local groups should be working to develop externality solutions (with the companies wherever possible) but on an international basis.

Research is ongoing such as at http://shapingsustainablemarkets.iied.org/ and sustainability in business is now a constant theme in best in class organizations. Those such a CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants – www.cimaglobal.com) have adopted sustainability and the role of senior management in delivering this for some time. Sustainability is the central mantra of organizations like Tomorrow’s Company (http://www.tomorrowscompany.com/) and the whole CSR movement.

But, just like microeconomics and macroeconomics never come together, so the business by business approach and the international institutional approaches never seem to gel.

Witness provides a great example of the ability of self-organization – governments, local, regional, national and international should now be harnessing the technologies to equip civil society to the same on a scale never before seen. Every national government should have an Externalities Minister – where such market problems are evaluated in total, practical help is provided to civil society to address the problems and genuine dialogue established with business. Governance and the markets would then be in the same race.

Left-right, left-right: Parties and cliff edges

In the UK, Members of Parliament go back to work after the summer recess. All the talk is about Cameron’s reshuffle and leadership issues: Cameron is accused of acting like a “mouse”; Clegg’s leadership is under threat from his own party; the two Ed’s of Labour (Miliband and Balls) are said to be continuously arguing and that the phrase “two Eds are better than one” may not be true in this case.

More seriously, as the post-summer issues are traditionally short-term nonsense, last week’s Prospect Magazine has Peter Kellner (President of the pollsters, youGuv) writing an intriguing article on how the Liberal Democrats’ support has collapsed since the last General Election  http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/death-by-coalition/. As a result of entering into coalition with the Conservatives, their support has gone from 24% to 10% – which would result in a fall from 57 to around 10-12 seats if an election were to be held today.

While much of Kellner’s response to the polling made good sense, one aspect of the questions his pollsters asked concerns me greatly. This aspect focuses on how much to the left or right the party is.

The concern is this: surely, this form of questioning is out of date in the realpolitik of 21st Century thinking and 21st Century politics. Surely, in an age of individualism and the lobbying by NGO’s and many one-issue organisations of one issue arguments, the left / right analogy is no longer relevant?

Is politics really about left vs right anymore?

The left and right of politics were named after where the French parties sat in the National Assembly in 1789 at the time of the revolution. In 1791, the Legislative Assembly had the “innovators” on the left, moderates in the middle and the defenders of the Constitution on the right. This became the dominant march of politics in the 20th Century. Different and violently opposed political doctrines literally fought it out on the battlefield throughout the 20th Century. Fascism and Nazi-ism on the right, Communism on the left were the extremes in the battlefields of China, Spain, Cambodia, Europe (in WWII) or wherever the post-feudal wars (those that we fought up to the end of the first world war) were fought. Innovation became muddled with socialism and communism; defenders of the constitution became muddled with economic rigour and libertarianism capitalism (never the manner of the “ancient regime”).

Right and left became doctrinal and, with the fight for the rights of labour against the owner class, the 20th Century adopted the political norm.

Is economics an argument of right and left?

Now that the 21st Century is into its twelfth year, the left / right argument appears completely out of date. Sure, there are arguments about economics that will be with us forever: from libertarian, tea party protagonists all the way to Keynesian interventionists. But, because capitalism is now the standard economic and accepted model, the battle is not right vs left in economics but which form of economic model around the capitalist norm. Arguments are much less severe in developed nations and turn on moderate changes in taxation.

Much bigger issues, such as ending tax havens, transfer pricing, corporate power, corporate governance, the role of banks, corruption and many other crucial issues are stymied as politicians argue over the short-term vote catching issues – 1p or 1c on income tax, for instance.

Is the way we are governed right vs left?

Communism or socialism now only survives on the periphery. China is not a communist state – its economics are capitalist within a statist structure and the party ensures a legalist control (it is above the law). This is not communism. Russia is now a centrally controlled capitalist enterprise (run as a large corporate machine). The rest of the world operates in a democratic to quasi-democratic state. Hereditary monarchy is now mainly for the tourists and the press (celebrities within a celebrity culture).

There is little traditional right vs left in government.

Is the environment a subject for right vs left?

Here, confusion reigns. Traditional right-wingers in the UK (from a Tory mould) can be classed as conservative when it comes to the environment. They often oppose untrammelled modernity and defend the right to conserve (as “Conservatives”). Yet, they oppose green movements because they associate them with restrictions on economic growth. Roger Scruton in “how to Think Seriously About the Planet – the case for an environmental conservativism” http://www.amazon.co.uk/Think-Seriously-About-Planet-ebook/dp/B00829L62C/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346585639&sr=8-1 puts the case for the right to take back control of the agenda.

The affects of CO2 are now disputed only at the periphery but the case for changing our ways is not agreed. This is now much more about individual nations wanting their own freedom and more about the problem of worldwide agreements – not a right vs left issue at all.

Does politics need right vs left?

Less and less people vote in general elections. Maybe the reason is that the left vs right arguments that drew people’s interest and motivation are no longer prevalent. The motivation to vote for broad platforms which mainly focus on short-term issues designed to entrap voters based on their short-term economic concerns is weak. Tradition still subjects most voters to choose their party and most political parties focus on swing votes – the 2% that Romney and Obama will work to win over in the USA, for example. The 2% that means that 98% are virtually disenfranchised!

The traditional view of politics is one where political parties are formed to organize themselves so that they can attract votes from the individuals who are not organized. This is changing.

Individuals have always formed into non-political party groupings – from trades unions to employer associations, from charities to NGO’s. Many of these groups are single-issue campaigning groups or lobbyists that work hard to influence political opinion and political parties directly and via the media. These range from economic groups to environmental, from governance to charitable, health to education – the spectrum is vast.

This third sector (usually a reference to charities, but comprising all citizen action groups, from sports clubs onwards) is not primarily left of right, but single focus – taking up an issue or cause around some issues. Their influence on government is substantial. Most Government Bills are developed as a result of significant lobbying from single-issue groups. For example, the Bribery Act came into being as a direct result of such lobbying and formal meetings between Government and a diverse range of lobby groups from CBI to NGO’s.

This means that the ancient Greek form of democracy – where every individual is supposed to have an equal say in Government – which was never the norm in most democracies as political parties formed – is now fractured into more layers. Government now relies on the lobbyists and reacts more to them than the community or study groups assembled from the general populace prior to elections.

This means that the left and right of politics (already under strain anyway) are meaningless. Single-issue groups lobby on single issues and political parties, no longer fighting on the issues of left vs right, sway as they are buffeted by those who are able to articulate the issues and now the means to communicate effectively. This means that the individual voter is now even more disenfranchised as it is only a small fraction of the population that is engaged in this process – and that, even at elections, the driving force behind vote-catching is bound to short-term or lobby focused.

A new politics?

In an era of globalization and instant communications, individual nations are less able to maintain an individualist position. Nevertheless, as the Olympics and Paralympics have shown in the UK, national pride remains important and is a reason why the Eurozone crisis will endure much longer than hoped.

However, within this national pride, it is likely to be an era when individualism is also crucial. The mass movements of left vs right are no longer relevant and single issues are much stronger in motivating and exciting.

If there is any truth in this then it is interesting to note the preamble to the Liberal Democrats Federal Constitution:

“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.”

In the nonsense over cabinet reshuffles and personalities, it is probably the case that very few even know where to look for the above statement http://www.libdems.org.uk/who_we_are.aspx  – (which is found on the Liberal Democrat website after its coalition agreement – which is all short-term).

Yet, it could be the clarion call for our age – a liberal theme that is far more “of our age” than the 20th Century arguments of right or left.

If right vs left is truly out of date, then open society, balancing liberty, equality and community, individualism cherished, developing talents, creativity and the rest within a coherent community is a proper and enticing call that should be further developed. Apart from a better focus on the environment (our natural capital) which demands more from us, the preamble is not right or left – it is also not middle ground but moves the argument away from traditional left vs right.

Citizens of the 21st Century world maybe deserve something more from our governing elites that have not moved from their 19th Century models.  How we balance our competing single issues and how citizens get to have their say in the crucial issues that determine how we spend our lives is what 21st Century politics should be about. Maybe parties like the Liberal Democrats should think of the themes that will dominate thinking in the 21st Century. Maybe that is a way to get some common ground with citizens – the voters.

From Euro Chaos to Chasm

As Greece Votes

I was on an ethics panel this week – organized by CGMA and Accounting Magazine. This has been arranged to discuss the outcome of CGMA’s recent survey “Managing Responsible Business” http://www.cgma.org/Resources/Reports/Pages/ManagingResponsibleBusiness.aspx

This survey explored the range of issues around business and doing things properly – ethically. It found that most businesses tried to, CEO’s were handing down responsibility for this to other staff, the ability to do so changed by country and there was real pressure not to in some countries.

With elections in Greece on Sunday and the Euro in everyone’s mind, the issue of business ethics seemed mighty small in comparison.

Ethics – moral rectitude, the rules of conduct – are not just about business. It is from society that ethics emerge and it is the destruction of the rules of good conduct that has tipped Europe and many other parts of the world into an economic, political and financial chasm. It is a chasm that threatens our way of life and, deep inside that chasm, there is not a lot of light.

The Chasm is not just a Banking one

 

We are continuously being told by our politicians that the current banking crisis can be resolved with large amounts of cash. The latest attempts are the £100bn on offer by the Bank of England of low rate loans to banks to regenerate lending in the UK and the €100bn on offer to Spain to prop up their banks.

In the chasm, sticking plasters don’t work.

Banking liquidity is not the problem anyway. The problem that banks have in Spain, for example, is solvency – their very being is at stake not their ability to lend in the short-term. They were over-stretched by awful decisions ten years ago to lend to get-rich-quick property schemes that were doomed and, when the tide went out, were shown to be naked. Borrowers across the western world were too highly geared – over-leveraged. While companies have managed to get their act together, individuals have not and while savings are higher, they are still, by normal standards, far too over-leveraged – which is still leading to house price reductions everywhere but London (where funds are rushing in from all corners of worse of countries).

But, the banks are hiding behind the problem in front of them – national insolvency. The transfer from nations (i.e. taxpayers) to banks has been enormous and continues. Well over a trillion dollars was poured into the US banking system and the same in Europe. The estimate is that this needs at least to be doubled. National solvency is at stake throughout Europe (west, south and east especially) and the austerity programmes now in place are a testimony to them.

Like the 1930’s, this is leading to massive unemployment and a risk that the chasm into which nation by nation is being thrown will swallow them whole. In Europe, the answer, we are told lies with Germany – they should assume the debts of all the others with Eurobonds – a financial answer to a financial problem.

But, the chasm is bigger than this.

The Chasm is engulfing Politics, Economics and Finance

Behind the financing of banks and the insolvency of nations lie the root causes. These are the disenfranchisement of the mass of people in most nations – disenfranchised not by their inability to vote every few years but by the paucity of choices on offer.

Greece offers a great example of a nation in economic chaos but the causes and the choices open to the people there are not often recorded.

Whoever read Michael Lewis’s “Boomerang” will understand some of the corruption that underpins the chaos. It is endemic and led by a political elite that have rampaged through the economy and gouged out any life from it. At the same time as The President of Equatorial Guinea is about to meet with four NGO’s (including my former employer, Global Witness) to discuss the rampant corruption inside his country, who is meeting with who to ensure that Greece can emerge with some dignity from its corruption?

Who can blame voters for, at last, running away from Pasok and into the arms of Syriza – the main concern is not the Euro, it is the corruption of the political elite and complete lack of trust in any politicians. The whole political class is tainted.

Outside Greece, the same is true to some extent in Spain and in Italy, where technocrats (unelected) now rule. The paucity of choice for voters – why vote for politicians when they are all the same and as corrupting and corruptible as each other?

The euro problem is much deeper. It is not just about emulating hard-working Germans, it is about serious change needed throughout Europe where leadership is absent or tainted by nations that are corrupt, unable to raise taxation, where the cash culture is rampant. This is true in Greece, Spain, certainly southern Italy and elsewhere. Why would Germany want to pick up the tab for this when the problem is chasm deep – not the surface banking or financial issue that has been painted?

The Ruling Class

In democracies, we are supposed to be able to vote out political parties that do a bad job. What happens when the whole political class is damned? The whole electorate is disenfranchised as a result.

This is true throughout the Eurozone – political parties have joined forces with other powerful elites to seemingly run countries – now, it is clear they have run them into the ground or, worse, into the chasm where conventional politics, economics and finance are drowning.

The ruling classes – politicians of all political persuasion, big business, the public sector – decided to run off with the benefits and have left the rest behind. Somewhere those funds reside in tax havens, well away from the hands of civil society. If it was all about harder effort, there could be some light ahead, but the problem is so deep that it will take years of real change and real hurt to recover to anywhere near where countries thought they were until recently.

From Chasm to ……what?

The European dream of one country living under one flag, which to many is a nightmare, is not a new one as the wars of the twentieth century showed. Now, a war just as savage is being fought – but a war where the fighting is hidden and where the soldiers don’t even realize they are in the trenches. Greek citizens and the young in Spain (where 50% are out of work) probably realize the consequences of the post-war European experiment. Many others don’t yet, but soon will.

Papering over a crack or two is relatively easy. Papering over a chasm is impossible,

The core problems of societies need to be resolved – corruption has to be ended, taxation has to be collected, public servants have to serve the public, politicians have to be credible and respected and people have to believe that if they work hard they stand a chance of being successful. For banks to function, they need finance; for businesses to succeed, they need markets and finance; for an economy to succeed, it needs good business but also a society that works – and that is not riven with insidious corruption of people and dignity.

Many African states (with massive natural resources) are corrupt and wealth is held by small elites. We did not believe that the corruption in Europe was on the same scale and, indeed, it is not the same – but the scale may be greater and just as endemic.

Solutions will not be found purely through the injection of more money into a chasm – the chasm has to be filled first or cleansed at least. Liberal democracy was supposed to be the best solution (the best worst solution). The 21st Century struggle may not be against the same totalitarians as in the last century (fascists and communists) and, hopefully, it may not be sullied by war and death, but, metaphorically, it will be just as bloody and won’t be complete until political elites are brought down to earth and civil society gets inside the tent.

Should Everything have a Price?

Michael Sandel in his recent book “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” writes excellently on how the market economy has turned into the “market society”. This view echoes Galbraith and “The Affluent Society”. Galbraith’s warning from the 1950’s has not been heeded – we are now subject to the “market” in everything we do – anything and everything has a price.

 

Sandel cites many examples – such as someone selling their organs, someone saving a place in a queue, schools being sponsored by companies and many others.

 

It could be argued that it was always so. Slavery, the selling of humans in the marketplace, was a common market phenomenon and still exists. Bribery and corruption – the selling of favours or ensuring something goes in your favour – remains common and Iraq and Afghanistan are riven by corruption on the grandest scale. Russia and much of Eastern Europe are held to be gangster nations – like much of the USA in the time of prohibition. Somalian pirates resort to kidnapping as an outcome of pure economic theory.

 

Yet, society does, from time to time, attempt to apply limits in a world where it seems that everything has a monetary price.

 

Market domination

 

The libertarian view that the market should be allowed to rule means that we abrogate our responsibilities. It is the role and duty of civil society (usually through Government) to judge where market rules and where other forms of decision-making are paramount.

 

We make those judgments continually. The right to be safe on the streets is, in most developed societies, made possible by laws which are enacted through general agreement by citizens. It is enforced, where needed, by legal systems and enforcement agencies – again, only there by the general agreement of civil society. In those countries where the market and price dominate, then the danger is that laws and police forces can be bought off. This is the case in many eastern European countries and many countries in Africa. Bribery and corruption rule through what may be called the market society – against the agreement of most of its citizens. As Sandel points out, this is against the best outcome for society – and by a long way.

 

Libertarians may argue that a legal system and an “open society” are the foundations for market economies to work, but the world is a global economy and it is no longer possible for one country to be cut off from the rest. The market domination into so many areas of life is a threat if basic norms do not exist.

 

The market versus societal norms

 

Sandel does not go too much into how society develops its norms – where market pricing should not intrude. We are in danger, of course, of taking on pricing into every form of our lives and there are plans to price our natural resources and to ensure that accounting incorporates aspects of social life into accounting rules – for example, through the Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability Project; through the Natural Capital Committee – which will report into the UK Government’s Economic Affairs Committee, chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequor.

 

While this acknowledges the problem in one respect (i.e. we are not properly accounting for externalities like pollution, the loss of natural capital – our rivers, forests and such) it is perhaps giving up the struggle against the market society. By the very nature of accounting in terms of numbers for such “externalities”, we subscribe to the essential condition for market pricing of everything – the market society is allowed to dominate.

 

Our focus on GDP and numbers betrays a failing of society – our inability to see anything outside of numbers – so-called economic wealth. GDP, which rewards only that which can be measured, has been a poor simulation of real “wealth”. Our drive to economic success (measured by how many unnecessary items we make and buy) takes no account of what is really important. Ability to buy is all that “counts” – literally.

 

Societal norms are now up for sale. Instead of a rearguard action against the market society (as against market economics) where we defend those areas of society against pricing (as they should be beyond price), we succumb to pricing everything. This leads to everything having a price – an accounting-driven doctrine, a market society doctrine.

 

Beyond economics

 

Of course, this may be the price (!) we are paying for economic growth and relative economic success. As we become more economically successful and as the world derives basic economic success, maybe our brains are becoming hard-wired to numbers as the only register of what is successful. The left-hand side of the brain is assuming victory over the right.

 

There is no question that the discovery of numbers has made the human successful and to understand and control large areas of science. We have changed the world entirely. Our ability to count is now dominating our lives. Since the dawn of accounting (when we counted our grain), numbers now “account” for everything.

 

Where has been the debate to question the way we account? If numbers dominate everything we do, what outcomes do we envisage, what changes result? If all our successes depend on numbers, then what lives will we lead?

 

This is now beyond economics – which, as George Soros has recently outlined, http://www.georgesoros.com/interviews-speeches/entry/remarks_at_the_festival_of_economics_trento_italy/

has been shown to be terribly mistaken in its misunderstanding of the world. His analysis, that economics, in trying to copy the rules of science has travelled the wrong path. Economics is a social science and, as such, does not have definitive outcomes. But, the situation is worse than Soros makes out.  Macroeconomics is being subsumed beneath a torrent of numbers so that, worse than following a quasi-scientific path, we are now following an accounting outcome for everything.

 

Where are the norms for society? Who are the guardians?

 

The financial crash of 2008, which is still playing out in 2012, opened up severe cracks in our economic system. It is also opening up divisions in society between the very wealthy and the large swathe of middle-income earners who make up most of civil society. These divisions show how we are valuing society and show clearly that pricing is not working. The value given to bankers and bonuses (no risk activities for the individuals who can only lose their jobs, not their wealth and no risk activities for the banks, who are too big to fail) shows a dramatic failing in pricing – in which we apparently put all our trust.

 

Pricing mechanisms are not working successfully, yet we place more and more of our faith in pricing as the only arbiter of success.

 

We now price (or will soon be attempting to price) everything – from CO2 to education, from healthcare to shoes, from our rivers to our right to pollute – everything with a price.

 

Yet, macro-economics (the economics of society) is a social science – it is not based on rigid rules. It is (as Soros rightly states) bound up in decisions and thoughts of men and women.

 

Pricing is one outcome of a social science that is not unquestionably right in every case – it is actually, mostly wrong and most economists are only good at describing what has passed (i.e. rear view mirror gazers).

 

Accounting was originally a micro-based activity – to help regulate and tax individuals and firms. It is now being used to price everything.

 

Are there any alternatives to pricing everything?

 

Of course there are, but it is becoming tougher. The Bribery Act in the UK (following a mere 34 years after the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the US) is an example. Society has (at least in the UK) decided that winning contracts or influencing economic decisions should not be subject to corruption. In China, as Jonathan Fenby’s excellent “Tiger Head Snake Tails” so ably describes, bribery and corruption have existed for many years but (at least at home) it is not considered acceptable. In many other countries in the developing world, it is.

 

But, we know that price is in play throughout society. The best lawyers cost huge sums and only the wealthy can afford them – so, our legal system is subject to pricing. The best education is paid for; the best healthcare is paid for.

 

With wealth divisions becoming wider, pricing is everything. It is time for a real debate in society on how economics needs to be changed to reflect reality and how accounting for everything (and a price for anything) may not be the answer. The invisible hand of the market should not be allowed to grab everything.

“Everyone should be allowed to bribe”

I had an interesting discussion the other day at a Fundraising event. Sitting opposite me was a businessman who also does a tremendous amount of work for charity. We got into a discussion on corruption – specifically, bribery. The discussion centred on how “the Bribery Act was causing business a lot of trouble” and that the UK “as always” was taking it seriously whereas other countries would not. We would therefore be undermined and lose business.

I argued differently. Working for Global Witness since 2007 (I left in late 2011), I had played a small part in working to get the Bill into law, then to ensure the guidelines made sense and have since worked with organizations like the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) to provide guidance (I wrote their guidance on the Act) and chaired their Bribery Act conference at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011.

The businessman, actually a very interesting, successful and intelligent individual, suggested that, to make it fair, “everyone should be allowed to bribe” as much as they liked.

It was a Fundraising event, so not the time for a row – nevertheless, it reminded me sharply about how the world works and how it is split between those who understand the chaos that endemic bribery causes and those that see only the micro-economy (through the eyes of individual businesses) rather than the macro-economic chaos and individual misery that bribery causes.

We live in a disjointed world

I have recently been involved in the filming of a documentary on corruption that will go out later this year. So, although I have left Global Witness (which campaigns against natural resource-related corruption and conflict), I have stayed in touch with the issue.

It is easy when involved within an NGO to forget how business folk (as I counted myself for many years) can disassociate themselves from wider issues. I spent most of my career in business and those who are very successful are completely focused – like an athlete focused on winning a gold medal at the Olympics. The best are relentlessly single-minded in the pursuit of gold – the best business people are similar. This means that they are completely focused on what benefits their business.

This is why the US Chambers of Commerce have been waging a war on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for some time. The USA has, since the FCPA was brought into being in 1977, been way ahead of the field in anti-bribery law. This has heated up recently as the US authorities have piled into those who are believed to have breached the Act and, mainly through out of court settlements, have gained hundreds of millions of $ in fines and caused real change in US companies and how they operate outside the US especially.

But, the Chambers of Commerce believe that this puts the US at a disadvantage as other countries don’t have similar laws, they believe, or flout them.

Of course, this is no longer the case in many parts of the world. The OECD Anti-Bribery Convention was signed up to by 39 countries and the Convention is a tough one. As a result, the UK was eventually shamed into all-party support for anti-bribery legislation and the Bribery Act was the outcome – which came into law in July, 2011. It is actually a tougher law than the FCPA – making facilitation payments illegal, for example, and making the bribery of anyone (including government officials) a criminal act if it affects a decision. However, if a company has good processes and trains its staff well (Adequate Procedures), Directors of the company are unlikely to be prosecuted. Let’s face it, the funding of prosecutions is also likely to mitigate against major cases being developed.

However, the Act has led to a large industry being developed in training and in new processes. I was on the working group in the UK that brought in guidance for the not-for-profits (charities and NGO’s) in the UK (under the auspices of Transparency International and Mango) so saw very clearly how every organization (business or not-for-profit) could be affected by the Act.

This new anti-bribery industry has seen a number of lawyers move from the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to private industry – confirmation if needed for business people that the whole thing is a cash generator for law firms and those in them and nothing more.

The equivalent of the “revolving door” that has been denigrated for years when politicians or civil servants enact laws or make project decisions and then move to senior positions in companies, is now taken as a serious concern by business people who see the same situation used against them! There is an irony there somewhere.

Corruption hurts

Business people see anti-bribery legislation as a problem. It makes business (in their opinion) more difficult in the same way that early 20th Century business people saw health and safety legislation as a problem. I am sure that many business people in the 19th Century saw government money being used to build the sewer system in London as a huge drain on their wealth and a public use of funds that proved that their wealth creation was being used against them – even if for the public good.

So, it must be galling to see anti-bribery legislation (which is international in concept and which is aimed at benefitting the poor in the poorest countries) put into force. In the USA, business is working to erode the law that has been in place successfully for 35 years – a law that has led the world. In the UK, there is irritation (maybe mounting anger) at the Bribery Act. And its implementation costs.

Business folk (and I was one for many years) see the short term and their bottom line. They find it hard to associate themselves with the wider questions about how corruption transfers wealth from the mass of people to a few – as, say, in Angola; how it ensures that money is spent on items that are not needed – very expensive air traffic control systems  in Tanzania, for example; how it adds to the price that poor nations pay; how nations like Nigeria are completely beholden to corruption as was England in the 18th Century – a nation where every job, every hospital appointment, every legal decision is likely to be subject to payment / bribes. Look at Greece and its current malaise – not paying tax is a symptom of a society corrupted – so much of the economy is bribery-induced – the black market is a corrupt market and leads to short-term benefits and long-term disaster.

Values are not for sale

The Bribery Act is now in place in the UK; the FCPA has been tried and tested in the USA for 35 years; 39 countries have signed up to the OECD convention. Yet, we probably face a bigger problem. The growth of nations such as China, India and Russia face us with enormous challenges as each nation is, in its own way, a centre of corruption.

China has adopted a Confucian posture – hit hard at home to rid itself of the endemic corruption that is at the centre of its totalitarian heart while allowing corruption to exist where it trades – such as in Africa. The Confucian spirit allows it to leave alone the nations with which it does business at the same time as Western nations attempt to apply governance to aid budgets. This is a time of real challenge and western countries should be working more than ever to instill values not just trying to compete for short-term gains. It used to be “if we don’t bribe, the French will”;  now the same phrase is directed at China, Russia and India (the home of www.Ipaidabribe.com).

We should not allow our values to be for sale for short-term benefits even in times of economic stress.

Is Bribery good for Business?

There are examples of businesses that have high values and most do not engage in bribery. Usually, those with the highest values are large businesses that know their CSR will be shaken by reputational problems. It makes business sense not to take the risk – bribery is bad for business.

Medium to small businesses, where the main opportunity for employment growth exists in most countries, are less concerned with CSR – which most think of as meaningless nonsense. Societal issues are way down the list of priorities – international issues are nowhere.

Hemmed in (in their view) by unjust legislation on all sides that seeks to choke off the spirit of enterprise, small businesses fight to survive daily. To them, bribery may be a necessary part of life. So what if people overseas suffer as a result – jobs are created for British firms and if we don’t do it, someone else (like the Chinese) will.

Globalisation in this context means nothing but cheap supply chains, cheap overseas labour and opportunities for exports. Globalisation does not mean we should take account of international problems.

Like 19th mill owners who fought sanitation bills as bad for business, who (in the main) were not interested in the health of their workers, who were only constrained by legal changes, many business people will only react to changes in the law because they are focused on their business and anything that adversely affects that business is bad – by its very nature. Bribery may allow business to take place – if a British company is not allowed to do it, business may well be lost.

Is bribery good for business? Of course not – just like the death of a worker because of shoddy safety systems, just like the gradual reduction in bullying at work because most acknowledge it is not needed – we inherently know that bribery (the corruption of people to make decisions go our way) is abhorrent. The impact is grotesque and cannot be justified even for a few extra short-term jobs.

Relentlessly focused business leaders know that bribery is wrong (at least most do) and, apart from the most extreme libertarians, understand that globalization means that the rules of business engagement are going to be made international. We cannot for long assume that developing countries will, for long, expect to be treated as the working class of 19th Century England. The class structure of international business will, over time, lessen just as we have made changes to our own class structure in Europe and North America and elsewhere.

Good business cannot “allow everyone to be bribed”. It is not just an ethical position, but a business one. Business should be undertaken on a level playing field where no-one bribes – we should be striving to ensure that bribery is minimized not allowed everywhere. Rules or norms are basic for societies to function. In a global society, the norms need to be widely applied. Bribery is bad – we all know it. Business leaders, here and in the USA, should be leading the fight – not over-reacting and running in the opposite direction.

The Affluent Society and Social Balance

Public goods and market products – and what else?

John Kenneth Galbraith in “The Affluent Society” wrote how the obsession with production was getting out of hand and that there had to be a rebalancing between social goods and products. The absence of this balancing would be seen by ever growing debt burdens as individuals chased products which provided ever diminishing value to them. At the same time, social goods – such as education, street lighting, rubbish collection – would suffer because the focus was always on products. Debt burdens would end only with economic depression – before rising again as the economy improved.

“The Affluent Society” was written in 1958 and revised in 1973. Forty years’ later, much of the book reads as if it was written today – or, at least the analysis section of the book. Galbraith’s analysis was right as far as it went, but the prescriptions for change were never likely to be implemented.

Galbraith’s focus was on products and how our wealth was fixated on production – production that the “market” determined was needed. As wealth grew, so the market for goods is increasingly the subject of corporate advertising in order to promote goods that we may not need – but believe we do.

Public goods – such as education and anything produced by the public sector – was deemed wasteful and could never compete with corporate advertising. So, taxation (whether national or local) was harmful in most eyes as it deprived the payer of marketed products and was spent on ill-conceived public goods (such as education, waste collection and keeping the streets clean – or, worse, providing a baseline of income for those most in need). Other than defence spending, which Galbraith believes is wasted, he contends that a “social balance” is needed between the market for products and social goods.

He also saw the problems caused at the intersection of public sector and the market – two estranged bedfellows who often wake to find themselves in the same bed but unable to understand why or how to cope.

A good example of this was recently seen in London’s Heathrow Airport where lines / queues at customs on entry were up to 3 hours. Businesses impacted by such horrors in the year of the Queen’s Jubilee and the 2012 Olympics were outraged at the inefficiency of Government – who control customs. Heathrow is a business – a travel and shopping centre. It is also the key entry point for people from across the world and Government is responsible for who enters the country. This intersection of the two clearly shows the difficulty of creating the “social balance” between government and the market.

Galbraith’s Missing Elements

Forty years ago, four, major elements were missing from or only sidelines in Galbraith’s analysis – issues which have become more central over time:

Global trading – or the Global Social Balance

The errors in GDP accounting – quantity vs quality

The Environment

Civil Society

Global Social Balance

The world is a different one from 1958 or even 1973. We trade globally and the developed nations increasingly use labour from the undeveloped nations to do low-cost, manual work (often in conditions we would not tolerate in our own countries). It is a 19th Century state of work but internationalised– where now, international companies tend to operate as the mill owners of old.

From a micro-economic sense that is understandable – each company is different and many act responsibly. However, from a macro-economic viewpoint and from an international political viewpoint, there are limited mechanics for equalizing health and safety laws let alone education and pay scales.

Galbraith’s concern was that we produced too much and that we should be able to make less in a country like the USA. When the work goes international, the responses to the problem have to as well.

Production by numbers: quantity versus quality

In an affluent society, production is made the cornerstone of all we do (the economy is central to all our decisions) because work is needed to secure income. Even in an affluent society, income at a certain level is deemed to be critical. Products of progressively less use (or utility) are sold (often solely on the back of advertising) and we buy them and this is meant to keep us in work and more buying goes on.

Of course, in an international labour market, that won’t always work (as Gandhi found out in the early 20th Century when England produced most of the cotton garments sold in India) and it has become harder to focus just on one country.

However, the global economy does not mean that products become more useful – much of what we make is simply wasting energy and resources. However, it is keeping people in work in many developing nations.

But, growth is measured by GDP and GDP is a poor measure of quality of life or even production. Quality of education, for example, is measured in GDP by its cost (an input) not an output. A £500 handbag is deemed worth the same as £500 worth of essential foods – no difference in utility is assessed.

The felling of a rare tree is “valued” at the cost of felling or its price in the market as a table. The value of a river is missed completely – unless over-polluted when its clear-up costs may enter as a cost in a nation’s GDP.

It is production by numbers, quantity versus quality.

Environmental Balance

While mentioning the issue of environment, the main topic of “The Affluent Society” is the social balance between public goods and market production. All these are made by people – so, the environment in which we live is ignored. The trade-off is not, of course, that simple (even though the Galbraith trade-off has never been seen to function). The environmental trade-off (our need to maintain our natural capital) is now being understood but remains relatively hidden in economic debates. Natural capital needs to be brought into any debate on affluence in society – our quality of life as opposed to the quantity of life.

Civil Society

To Galbraith, the game is between the market and the public sector and to most, this battle still exists as the only one. There was not much mention of civil society – where most of us spend most of our time – except through discussion of leisure time. Here, the trade-off was between productive working and spare time. I expect that this assumes that all non-productive time is spent on hobbies or watching TV.

The creativity and value of civil society – a huge array of organisations from sports to international development, from charities to women’s institutes – is normally missed completely by economists and thinkers on society. The problem is that it does not fit easily into econometricians’ computer simulations: more of the “if you can’t count it, it doesn’t exist” syndrome.

Of course, for centuries, people have been undertaking “good deeds” – the history of the 19th Century is full of examples of charitable activities. However, society is changing fast and as politics loses its appeal for so many (with parties genuinely fearing for their future), the role of civil society is growing and, in affluent societies, taking back more from the state that it lost to the state in the 20th Century.

This escape from the centre is to be applauded, but needs to be better understood.

Social Balance

Complete reliance on the market or on the centre (libertarianism or communism) may still appeal to some. The reality is that complexity is the norm. Society is a mixture of competing ideas and competing structures – out of which we muddle through and where individuals take centre stage and form organisations to make their voice louder.

Nevertheless, we should learn from history and our mistakes. Centrism is a doctrine of the defeated; totalitarianism a doctrine of the damned. There is no one answer but a constant mix of opportunities that society provides and where changes are constant in the way we answer our problems.

The mix of competing answers does no longer rest between public and private sector in an affluent society – that is a 20th Century doctrine or response. The response now has to take into account the social balance we want from our lives between products, social value, natural capital and civil society relationships in a global context not a rigidly national one.

This means being adult about the causes of change and grown-up about the challenges – it means being international in approach and understanding the complexity of the problem – not something that can be understood wholly by quantities or computer simulations.

As we grow materially (i.e. through the quantity of products we are able to manufacture) and bump up against the troubles of environmental degradation and massive disparities of wealth and conditions (on a global scale), the question to be addressed is how does a complex society best form itself to take the decisions it needs to maximize the value we all give and receive from this “affluent society”.

 

Strangling Inherent Dignity – How we retain (regain) Self-Respect

Orhan Pamuk, today on the BBC, talked about how the military in Turkey have been moved away from the centre of political decision-making. Their threat has been diminished, resulting in a feeling of relief or release. He also remarked on the Arab Spring and how in Tunisia and elsewhere people had regained some dignity – maybe threatened by Islamic re-awakening (but “that would be the people’s decision”).

In China, the escape of Chen Guangcheng from house arrest and his televised pleas to Wen Jiabao to halt the rampant corruption in China points to a state that is gnawing away at its soul.

In the USA, the economy is dangerously tilted towards the highest 1% who now own around 50% of its assets.

In Spain, 24.4% of people who are seeking work are without a job.

Charles Taylor is found guilty of by the International Criminal Court of aiding war crimes – yet, he remains popular in much of Liberia for his ability to dole out cheap bread at the right times to local populations.

Organisations and People – The fight for Dignity

 

Whether as individuals or members of an organization or a region or a nation, the human instinct is to reach for a minimum level of dignity. The need to attain a degree of self-respect is fundamental to the human condition. Whatever our economic attainment (whether we are wealthy or poor) each of us retains the need for self-dignity and the self-respect of those closest to us.

Attainment of dignity is a basic need and we continuously fight for it.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights starts its preamble with the following:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”

Yet, across the world, as we grow economically across a wider population, there is little evidence that we understand much more about a central issue that continuously confronts us – the attainment of “inherent dignity”.

If dignity means the attainment of freedom, justice and peace as the most important elements of our civilization (and we should be careful to ensure that our freedom does not blind us to the needs of a wider responsibility – to the planet as a whole), then what do we do daily that reminds us of our need to provide dignity and who is it who has this responsibility?

Responsibility

Leaders – whether of nations, businesses, local authorities , families or whatever – have a responsibility to those that they lead. This responsibility includes the establishment or reinforcement of cultural norms that strengthen the central idea of dignity to all its members.

This central tenet has been forgotten – we hear it infrequently amongst the babble of noise that comes from politicians and economists, business leaders and social leaders.

There is no question that where poverty is extensive, a crucial role for leaders is to ensure that economic growth is secured and poverty is minimized.

There is no question that where health and safety is jeopardized that better ways have to be found to minimize danger and secure life.

There is no question that where housing is poor that people must be housed and clothed.

But, the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing and safety are at one with the need for self-respect or dignity. The drive for better gross domestic product (GDP) has, in our enthusiasm to generate more wealth, left behind the basic understanding of what it is that propels the human spirit.

Setting dignity at the centre

While this is not a simple issue (dignity may be seen have different connotations to different people) the need for self-respect is the driver that propels individuals to fight back in so many cases.

The lack of dignity of those who are deprived of respect range widely. We see it constantly as we mentally note how individuals compare to certain societal norms – those who are poor are given less respect than those who are wealthy; those who have special needs are likely to be given less respect than those who are “OK”; those who are amongst the led are given less respect than those in power; those without the vote are seen as demanding less respect than those commanding political heights; the unwell lose dignity when maltreated; the unemployed lose dignity by the nature of unemployment and an assumption of laziness – the list goes on.

The problem is that self-respect is not normally a subject that is discussed or considered when key decisions are made. We are trampled by the rush to mend economic fences so easily that we ignore the affects. An example is Iraq. Here, not only was the rationale for entering Iraq wrong – there were no weapons of mass destruction – but the dignity of the Iraqis as a nation (or several nations within borders created by Europeans who cared nothing for the self-respect of those within them) was not an issue despite what should have been the lessons of history. Economics (through oil) and maybe the stated threat of terrorism (maybe) dampened the pressure to think through the impact of a complete eradication of self-respect amongst the Iraqi people – a self-respect oddly (to us in the west) retained with a strong man at the helm (Saddam Hussein) and then not replaced. In Afghanistan, self-respect has, through the ages, turned out many who would think to rule the country. It is the demand to self-rule that has been constant.

Corruption tears away at dignity

The danger in China is that corruption (an economic and power game) is tearing away at the nation’s credibility and self-respect. Recently, university students in Beijing were asked by the BBC what careers they wanted and one answered they wanted to be a senior local politician because that is where the money (through corruption) goes. The lack of self-respect that enables this response is intense and is leading to a potential fracture of the system in China as recent events in Chongqing highlight.

In India, one of its best-known websites is www.Ipaidabribe.com . This is a self-understanding of the rampant corruption in the country and mirrors a loss of dignity that brutalizes that society.

As a result of its alleged dealings in Mexico, Wal-Mart is under investigation by the US authorities through the Foreign corrupt practices act (FCPA) over millions of $’s of facilitation payments (not in themselves individually illegal under the FCPA but maybe through the gross flouting of corporate norms will be found to be). Mexico, riven by many drug cartels and corruption, lacks a dignity and self-respect because money is at the centre and seen as the only response. Wal-Mart helps to encourage that loss of self-respect.

National dignity or the dignity and self-respect of any business or individual is destroyed by corruption. When dignity is destroyed, then the basic ability to enjoy a life of “freedom, justice and peace” is also destroyed.

Economics cannot be isolated from self-respect

A cornerstone of self-respect is the ability of individuals to reach a level of basic self-attainment – the ability to feed oneself and one’s family; to house and clothe at least. In the rush towards austerity the macro-economic arguments are destroying the micro-economic disasters that are being generated. Poverty in wealthy nations is on the increase and the unevenness of wealth is growing. This is leading to a loss of self-respect amongst large sections of society. The impact of this change is uncertain – but, we can judge that the effects will not be positive.

John Rawls, one of the best-known and best-respected philosophers of the 20th Century considered self-respect as “perhaps the most important primary good” and how lack of self-respect leads to a growing disenchantment with the society and an estrangement with its ideals.

In the UK, maybe more prosaically, Ian Duncan Smith has highlighted the need for self-esteem amongst those on welfare and why jobs are the answer to bringing them out of the cycle of poverty.  This cycle of poverty is being exacerbated by the sovereign debt crisis which has transferred bank debt to national debt and enabled bankers to reap the rewards.

This crisis is now endemic in Europe and threatens stability and progress. The lack of dignity of nations (Greece, Spain, Portugal) as the Eurozone centre demands they commit to more austerity is misunderstood or ignored at the Eurozone’s peril. It is a fall-off in self-respect that eventually reaches a tipping point. It was a fall-off in national self-respect that catalyzed the German nation towards fascism in the 1930’s – a lack of national dignity that was caused by the war reparations following the 1st World War and heightened by the torments of the depression of the 1930’s. At some point, shattered self-respect will require repair – sometimes in brutal ways.

Democracy, Corruption, transparency and Economics

There are many ways in which dignity is destroyed – through lack of involvement in decisions, through corruption and lack of a chance for basic economic fairness.

There is no single answer but the key problems facing us today should all consider the issue of dignity before the answer comes rattling out. Clearly, real democracy, eradication of corruption, better knowledge of and openness about what is being done (transparency) and a new economics based on an understanding of the economics of self-respect are overall responses to ensure that we enjoy the basic dignities enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”