Science as a Candle for Democracy

Candle

July 14th celebrates the storming of the Bastille in Paris on that day in 1789. After the War of Independence in America, it was a second revolution to bring democracy to a kingdom, this time in Europe. For Thomas Paine, writing The Rights of Man shortly thereafter (a quote used by the great Christopher Hitchens in his biography of Paine:

“Never did so great an opportunity offer itself to England, and to all Europe, as is prodiced by the two Revolutions of America and France.”

Whether, over two hundred years’ later, the success of the revolutions is properly signalled by the visit to France of the popularist Donald Trump is highly questionable for his visit signifies a distinct darkening of how democracy is faring in the USA, Europe (post-Brexit referendum), Turkey, the Phillipines, India, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel where serious strains are being felt and ‘strong man’ politics is under way.

It may be straining credibility to equate these dark concerns on democracy with the election of Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament, to the position of Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, a Committee whose purpose is to scrutinise the UK Government on its strategy and programmes in this area. Yet, this linking of science and democracy is central to the changes we are currently seeing in the world of politics.

Science in the Soul‘ is a collection of the writings of Richard Dawkins, where he shows his distinct ability to reason and explain to the full.  In the book, Dawkins commends the science populariser, Carl Sagan, as a man that should have won the Nobel Prize: not for science but for literature and it made me re-read his excellent book ‘The Demon-Haunted World‘, published around twenty years ago.

Sagan’s book is about how “scientific thinking is necessary to safeguard our democratic institutions and our technical civilisation” and is so apt in an era of Donald Trump and Brexit (with its Govian taunts about how not to believe experts) that it should be read and re-read by anyone with a desire to understand our current problems and what is needed to extricate ourselves from the hole that we are digging for ourselves. It was also frighteningly prescient. I reprint here, word for word, a sizeable paragraph from the book that accurately forecasts a significant chunk of our world in 2017:

“….science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agenda or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. As I write, the number one video cassette rental in America is the movie Dumb and Dumber. Beavis and Butthead remains popular (and influential) with young TV viewers. the plain lesson is that study and learning – not just of science, but of anything – are avoidable, even undesirable.”

If an afterlife existed, Carl Sagan would be looking down at the events of 2016, and tut-tutting knowingly, shaking his head and pulling at his long, white beard (all sages have long, white beards in heaven, don’t they?): “I did tell you guys!” he would be shouting, hoping that some mystical ripple would resonate from his screams of despair into our heads, deaf and dumb to all sense.

In the so-called developed world, technology moves forward at a great pace so that major phase transition events bypass us with alacrity. The whole ‘fake news’ environment washed over us only in the last few years as the networked world provided everyone with the ability to be journalists and have an opinion that all can see. As always with new technology, those most capable of utilising it to advantage included the criminally-minded who not just sent emails from Nigeria asking for your money, or emails and texts that would lock up your computer or cellphone if you replied but, more subtly, perverted voting systems and swayed voters by their ability to infiltrate the social networks with lies, distortions and manipulations to a precision that a few thousand votes in the right States resulted in a Trump presidency.

Sagan wrote further on this:

“We’ve arranged a global civilisation in which most crucial elements – transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting – profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

“The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which best fit the facts. It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous sceptical scrutiny of everything – new ideas and established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.”

Carl Sagan was a sceptic and the book shows how scepticism, used pro-actively, not as a tool to doubt everything for doubt’s sake, is central to understanding. He provided a toolkit for guarding against a fallacious or fraudulent argument. In summary:

  • Where possible, independently verify the facts
  • Encourage debate on this by opponents and proponents of views expressed
  • Discount ‘authorities’ who generally carry no weight; in science there may be experts, not authorities. In politics, beware such experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis
  • Don’t get over-attached to an hypothesis just because it’s yours
  • Quantify where you can
  • If there’s a chain of argument, show that every link works
  • Occam’s Razor – if two solutions exist, choose the simplest
  • Always ask if the hypothesis can be disproved (e.g. Brexit will save British taxpayers £350m a week!)

Now, not everyone has the time to go out and do all this. So, we rely on journalists and others to do so. This brings me back to Norman Lamb, a man who has gained tremendous respect across all parties for his honesty and campaigning zeal (in the area of mental life as an example). He is a democratically-elected member of a Parliament often thought of as the home of democracy (Thomas Paine might have doubted that and the first-past-the-post system of elections means that most in the UK are, effectively disenfranchised) and now Chairs a Committee on Science and Technology. We should be using such institutions to galvanise the linkages between science, technology and democracy to challenge ourselves in how we think so that crass assertions made during the Brexit referendum and by Donald Trump and others (that might lead to the USA’s desertion of the Paris Agreement on environment as just one example) are challenged by not just politicians but by all those that should hold us to scientific thinking.

This means that we should understand why those that wish to believe in such perversions of reality actually do so and why scientific thought processes are so easily overturned, that ‘rigorous scrutiny’ is accepted as the norm. A recent article in the Financial Times, by John Gapper on how CP Snow identified the gap in thinking on science by intellectuals in the 1950’s shows that this is not new, but it is not just intellectuals that have the vote in the 21st Century, it is all the people.

So, a plea to Norman Lamb and his Committee, whatever the Terms of Reference have historically been, it is time to challenge our lack of scientific thinking, the lack of awareness of science and technology throughout the population and how this “combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces” – if it hasn’t already.

Democracy took many lives and many years to establish in the western world and elsewhere. It is not yet extinguished but, like a candle that has been burning for many hours, the light is in danger of failing. Sagan’s book was sub-titled: “Science as a Candle in the Dark”. On the day the French commemorate its own democracy, we should not let that candle flutter to extinction.

Candle

Easter and Eostre, Germanic goddess

In the Christian tradition, it is Easter – named after Eostre, the Germanic Goddess of Fertility and Spring. It is that time of year, when we look for growth all around us. Yet, more prosaically, mention growth to most and we talk about recession and how ironically the current German goddess (Chancellor Merkel) is not so keen on helping those in need around the periphery of Europe.  She wants them to help themselves.

Growing Pains

Michael Heseltine, Cabinet Minister under Margaret Thatcher, who recently provided a report to the UK Government on the regeneration of English cities that David Cameron and George Osborne have welcomed , told The Independent newspaper on Saturday, March 30, 2013 that: “the richer you get the less imperative there is” for people “to drive themselves”.”

BBC Radio 4 followed this up with a debate on Saturday’s Today programme between Mariana Mazzucato (an economist) and Terry Greenham (from New Economics Forum – NEF). Terry ended by calling for more quality rather than quantity in how we measure “growth” – that GDP as a measure was flawed.

Our Affluent Society

Back in May, 2012, I posted “The Affluent Society and Social Balance” which looked back at the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith (author of The Affluent Society) and wrote about how mindsets had not changed since he wrote the first edition in 1958. Quantity was still valued over quality – economics was still all about more things, not more quality of life despite our (developed world) ability to acquire so much stuff.

I spelt out four areas for concern as developed nations seek to address further “growth” requirements. They were characterized as follows:

Forty years ago, five, major elements were missing from or only sidelines in Galbraith’s analysis – issues which have become more central over time and which complicate the prescription that Galbraith proposed: They are repeated below:

1. Globalisation

2. The errors in GDP accounting – quantity vs quality

3. The Environment – valuing quality

4. Civil Society – ending the private vs public sector spat

5. Social Balance

1. Global Trading

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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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”.

So, should we Give up on Growth?

Terry Greenham of NEF would propose (as does NEF) that this is what we have to do. As the developing world strives towards economic well-being as described by growth of GDP (gross domestic product), the developed world should (in NEF terms) re-balance the lives of their people so that quality is maximized and quantity is stabilized.

Of course, all our measures and motivation focus on quantity. Homo sapiens have developed over 100,000 years to seek food and shelter and the more the better. However, following Maslow (Hierarchy of Need), humans aspire to more than just “stuff” and as we gain wealth, the majority want more that is not measured.

A salutary valediction from The Independent’s Michael McCarthy (Environment Editor) today after 15 years with the newspaper, showed a pessimism that the human race could wake up to the qualitative disaster that it was causing in its rush to quantitative growth. Governments have responded with nothing in this debate – transfixed as they are by the glamour of GDP statistics. Heseltine is the first senior Conservative in the UK to state the obvious – that being the fastest growing economy is not necessarily what we all want. GDP is, in reality, meaningless as it fails to measure value as outlined above. A tree is not worth the amount it costs to fell and transport; a river is not worth just the cost of keeping clean – they have value beyond this that is not within the bounds of GDP.

Businesses, operating in the micro-economy cannot be expected to make the change – they are set up to benefit their shareholders and adjust to cultural and legal pressures (usually with some degree of resistance).

It ends up with Government having to lead. In very few nations is there an understanding of the problems that faces us – the race to grow GDP. Most completely misunderstand what GDP measures (and that includes most economists – centred as they are on econometrics the simulation of economies that reflect the 19th Century reality not the 21st Century’s).

We need to establish measurement (if that is how we work best) of the Gross Domestic Value  –  GDV  –  where Value takes over from product (things).

In this way, CO2 in the atmosphere can be valued; that tree being felled can be valued; humans can better value their time given back to society.

We should not give up on growth, but growth of value not product or income (based on the wrongful simulation of salaries, costs and sale prices).

National Value or Gross Domestic Value should become the target – not how many products we have. The question is whether there is a drive and energy to establish an understanding of what really is important or whether (as economist Georgescu-Roegen said in the 1970’s)

“Perhaps the destiny of man is to have a short but fiery, exciting, and extravagant life rather than a long, uneventful, and vegetative existence. Let other species — the amoebas, for example — which have no spiritual ambitions inherit an earth still bathed in plenty of sunshine.”

Michael Heseltine is only partially right. There is a limit to the drive and push people have to continuously get more stuff – but, there is probably no limit to our drive for more value. Michael McCarthy is, maybe, too pessimistic – we can drive human growth through value not products – GDV not GDP.

 

Do Companies Exist???

David Cameron is an astute politician and he understands that, at last, there is a popular movement for equity in taxation. This equity includes companies paying a reasonable share of profits. Ian Birrell in The Independent sees this as the start of a movement but this is a campaign that people like Richard Murphy have waged for many years.

True, much of the publicity around his work and that of organisations like the Tax Justice Network and Action Aid have revolved around tax and the developing world. This is where multinationals – especially in the energy and mining sectors – have often connived with governments with a corrupt result that siphoned off hundreds of billions of dollars from the state into the pockets of individuals, elite groups and corporates.

The Dodd-Frank Act – and its focus on country-by-country reporting of tax in such areas – was aimed at opening up governments and companies payments.

However, the taxation effects of tax havens, low tax jurisdictions and multinationals with expertise in moving their tax affairs wherever they want has also created the opportunity for such multinationals to pay if they want, where they want. Organisations like the Institute of Directors, whose members are mainly smaller companies with less multinational options, have recently come out in favour of zero corporate tax rates – on the basis that it is people that should pay tax, not companies.

What’s a Company for?

There are many who believe that a company should not pay taxes – that the market economy needs to ensure that companies are free (within the law) to grow and prosper and that their assumption of human qualities (they are seen as entities under the law) is a fiction. It is people that need to be taxed – not companies and the IoD, for example, in its paper “How to get rid of Corporation Tax” (written following a similar paper from the 2020 Tax Commission) strongly advocates the elimination of all corporation tax as the company is a mere conduit for shareholders, staff etc who should pay all the tax on disbursements from the company.

This begs the question about the essential qualities of a company in a market economy – what is it that makes a company different from an individual – why shouldn’t it pay tax?

Limited liability provides individuals with the scope to take risks. It is a formula from which individuals seeking to build a business can bring in investment knowing that the only requirement to repay (if managing a legally proper business) is limited to the value of the shares as well as any loans taken out. It is limited liability that was fully developed in the Netherlands in1602 when stock was tradable on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange that gave the push to enterprise in Europe. Taken up by the British, it heralded the industrial revolution.

Joint stock companies (having limited liability) were the original, defining force that differentiated companies from individuals pursuing business opportunities. Now, most business is done with limited liability.  Governments have lost track of the ability of such joint stock companies to register in whatever jurisdiction they want and to appoint Directors that have nothing to do with the business – often purely there to hide ownership.

Clearly, companies have a huge presence. Their marketing ability is as the company – not the individuals that are behind it. Advertising and brand management is aimed at providing the public with an identifiable face. A company relies on its customers seeing it as a tangible and identifiable organization with which customers can do business. It has a legal basis (and can take action as such and be actioned against as a result) as well as a moral requirement – the advent of CSR is merely a tangible outcome of the way that companies are seen to be real and impact the environment and society in many ways.

If it quacks…..

We all know that companies are the centre of entrepreneurship and product and service creativity. In a market economy, the rise of joint stock corporations have worked to de-risk investments so that competition has been developed and economic growth maintained since the early 1800’s. This growth has developed some enormous corporations in businesses as wide as energy, food, utilities, construction, defence and aerospace, pharmaceuticals and beyond. Every area of opportunity is mined by the evolution of companies across the globe. Governments have progressively sought to assist business but, under pressure from society (people) laws have been passed which inhibit them to what society believes are proper norms.

These laws include health and safety and employment laws but also include tax laws. As a result, companies make decisions on where to locate – although this often includes where it needs to sell as much as where it can find skilled staff or suppliers.

Apart from rogue traders, set up with the need to hide its affairs within foreign jurisdictions and behind false Directors, many MNC’s (multinational corporations) are able to move their profits around by manipulation of licensing and other features. Rather than pay tax on profits in the areas in which they make the money, accountants can provide companies with boltholes in which the rates of tax are very low.

The IoD and others believe that companies are not real – that Governments should give up on them and rely on the payments they make to people on which tax should be paid.

The question arises: if a company is a distinct entity in law; if it can be held responsible for its impact on the environment, its impact on people, its duty of care to customers – why, oh why, should it not pay taxes? Why should society not look to some repayment from the company itself – which benefits hugely from joint stock activities as well and huge benefits that are introduced for companies such in terms of infrastructure, government regulations, and a myriad of other incentives – rather than (in this instance only) having to seek tax purely from receivers of income from companies. Taxing companies is, in principle, correct as it is the company that derives the income from a location.

If tax is to be separated, then the long-term outcome for companies would be potentially the loss of other benefits (such as joint-stock arrangements) as the legal distinction becomes blurred. Not just the thin end of the wedge – but a potentially disastrous change.

Companies have to play their part

If companies exist in law as distinct entities, which they do worldwide, then it is reasonable that they face up to the reasonable demands of the society in which they operate. Company law, however, may set up companies as distinct but the reality is that the company has no moral code except that which society imposes. People have moral codes, companies (which are organisations of people) do not. CSR is reactive to society, not pro-active and while companies have a need to become sustainable (in terms not just of resources but sustainable in terms of the relationship with its customers and the societies in which they operate) it is extremely rare for them to lead – to take such societal risks.

This is true in most areas. Health and safety leaders in companies were years ahead of the legal changes in places such as California but were reacting, quite properly, to likely long-term changes. Those that did so were ahead of the game when laws changed in areas such as environmental restrictions.

This reactive ability (changing as the environment changes in an evolutionary way) makes the best companies resilient – sustainable. It shows they are real entities as much of society as any other organizational form or the individuals that self-organise around them and within them. Companies are a part of society and should contribute to society as a key part of it. This means that opting out of a crucial element of the system – taxation – is ludicrous on grounds of the companies’ relationship with society – whether that opting out is legal or not.

The dangers are obvious. The crack in society would be potentially dramatic – companies would be seen to have no fiscal contract with society. This may well be the case for MNC’s now but the public backlash is starting to inhibit their ability to prosper in this environment. Companies that properly pay their tax are now selling this proposition to their customers – companies such as J Sainsbury whose pride in paying proper company tax in the UK is seen in distinct contrast to those MNC’s like Amazon, Starbucks and similar. The latter is threatening to disentangle itself from future investment in the UK if David Cameron (and his “time to smell the coffee remarks”) persists in trying to get them to pay tax where they trade rather than using licensing and royalties to hid their true profits.

Companies are a key part of society. They have to act as such and not just contribute to society solely through CSR documents. They have to be seen to contribute and tax is one of the most obvious manifestations of that contribution.

Let tax be paid where the trade is made

Let’s end the notion that companies should not pay corporation tax and let’s get on to the next step of the ladder – working out how to ensure that royalties, tax havens, tax schemes, fake Directors and the like are no longer tolerated and that tax is paid where the trade is made.

 

See: Do Companies Exist – Part II

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.

Politics and polar bears – the race for extinction

Polar bears evolved into a niche that for thousands of years gave them a status at the top of their local food chain. Global warming is putting paid to that and, swimming from one ice-island to another they give the appearance of a doomed species. It may take some time, but the human race is ensuring that they are no longer suited to the new environment in which they have survived for so long.

Changing Environments

It’s probably less important, but the world is changing for politicians, too. They are suffering from their own form of global warming that shows that they have not sufficiently evolved to meet the demands of the new environment that they face. It is an environment in which the political systems of the 19th century don’t work and the where the fixed mental states of those in politics and who have grown up in politics and nurtured by 19th and 20th Century models no longer have the validity or purpose that they once did. Populations see them incapable of creating the conditions for us to live well and are giving up on them.

Voting is down to 50% in many democracies; in Western Europe, corruption and greed has isolated the political factions from their people. When Mario Monti said in an article in Spiegel recently, “If governments allow themselves to be entirely bound to the decisions of their parliament, without protecting their own freedom to act, a break up of Europe would be a more probable outcome than deeper integration”, then you know the game is up. Politicians and the people are separated and democracy itself us in danger.

When you have evolved into something of no use, then it is time to give way or you erode (or, worse, implode) with time.

Fukuyama believed that politics had evolved successfully and that liberal democracy had won. The problem with that analysis (apart from being plainly wrong, as he now agrees) is that he was providing an answer to the wrong question. The question was not which political system out of communism, fascism or democracy would win. Nor, was it a question about whether capitalism in one form or other would win – we know the market has its place on the winner’s podium already.

No, the question to be asked is more fundamental – what is the role of government in a modern society? Monti would argue that democracy might well not be part of it. There are other, better positions.

“The Gardens of Democracy” by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Gardens-Democracy-Citizenship-ebook/dp/B0061S3UMA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1344783105&sr=8-1) describes, from an American vantage point, the type of new politics (combined with new economics and new citizenships) that could dominate in the future. More a long pamphlet (but no less important for its Tom Paine comparisons) than a major book, it describes the “big what and the small how” of politics in the 21st Century. But, it will require a sea change in politics and in politicians and take us well away from the technocratic (mechanical) notions of 19th Century thinking.

What is different now?

Liu and Hanauer’s work is based on discoveries made in the late 20th Century in places like the Santa Fe Institute (they base much of their work on the Eric Beinhocker’s great book “The Origin of Wealth”) into complexity and the new rules that completely shake the 19th Century idealism of economics doctrine that still rules (mainly through econometrics – the 20th Century form of alchemy) the policies of the 21st Century.

They bind together the new guidelines into citizenship and politics and, probably for the first time, attempt to develop a society-wide thesis based on the new rules. It is a bold attempt and no different to the aims of Common Threads (this blog) – to rid ourselves of 19th Century prescriptions based on Newtonian (they call it “mechanical”) rules and forward to what they call “gardening” – the desire for politics to shape and cajole (and, as necessary, fund and intervene) but not to control or to allow the unfettered invisible hand of the markets to run riot.

While their focus is on the USA (developing a point of attack against both free marketeers such as the Republicans – or, worse, the Tea Party – and the pro-government-does-all wing of the Democrats), this is a model for all nations.

What is different now is that in many countries people are tired of the old left against right philosophies and are reaching (or have already reached) a level of economic “wealth” (at least measured by numbers) that should allow us to turn our minds to what actually matters – Maslow’s self-actualization but on a global scale. More than this, education is sufficient for people no longer to want to be ruled by governments in every sphere of life but educated enough to know that massive income variations should not be the norm and that society is important – it is our position in society that matters more than the material wealth on its own.

As a Brit, nothing is clearer than the genuine pride shown during the 2012 Olympics – a pride of a nation that (despite may problems) has provided a high value games with genuine affection for all nations as well as pride in itself. The pride of the many volunteers that contributed will resound as long as the concerns over the amount it cost. This was a society working together – a form of national self-actualization.

This self-actualization has to take us away from the mechanical drudge of being a cog in a wheel – focused only on what monetary wealth provides – to a society that encourages growth of all its citizens. That growth is whatever we believe to be important and government’s role is to help us understand what that is (not “tell” – this is not a totalitarian regime proposal) and assist in attainment. It means  (according to Liu and Hanauer) the “big what” – i.e. what we aim for – and the “small how” (i.e. not controlling how we get there but aiding the process).

Politicians as leaders not controllers

Society in the developed world is driven (in the main) by money. We count our wealth in dollars or euros or pounds or yen or yuan. But, we all know that there is more to life than that. Our memories of our lives are far more than how much money we make – they are of family, education, learning, books we have read or films we have seen or football matches played in or viewed, pride in our kids, helping loved ones over illnesses or a myriad of other prized mental possessions.

Yet, modern society always seems hell-bent on just monetary gain – “it’s the economy, stupid”. This is a 19th Century concept given heart by 20th Century victories of democracies run on market economics against totalitarianism, communism and fascism. The result was a victory that was far, far better than the alternatives. We now have a chance to modify that victory and show that the 21st Century offers more than the Chinese alternative of a market economy driven by a legalist clique that fears for its life. Competing on those terms is not what we should consider.

The market economy is the best worst option but not as a free (unfettered) one. Government has to play a role and Liu and Hanauer point us towards that role.

The role of government changes in this worldview and the role of politicians, too. Instead of CEO’s in charge of a business, Liu and Hanauer propose that they become gardeners – working out the general landscape and then tilling the soil, weeding and watering the plants, as it needs it. This is a worldview that is consistent with the way the world works – not the way that 19th Century politicians and economists have developed the simulation.

What’s the next step?

I have been interested in complexity and the new findings of this deeper, richer analysis of how the world works since the 1980’s when I attended a lecture in London on complexity in business – with Michael McMasters, then a guru of the subject. Murray Gell-Mann (who found the quark) and Stuart Kauffman were presenters amongst a stellar mix of experts in science and economics. Work done at places like the Santa Fe Institute and elsewhere have pushed the boundaries of thinking in this area and there are now areas where this new (er) thinking is taking hold. Eric Beinhocker’s recent article in the Independent  (http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2012/08/08/new-economic-thinking-and-the-potential-to-transform-politics/) which highlights the Liu and Hanauer book also provides an example of how computing technology is assisting the process – how the difficult arguments of complexity can be made real.

However, in the last thirty years (since I attended that conference), it has been hard to see the visible signs on a macro-scale that complexity has made to make a difference in a society that is driven by simplicity – the drive to count based on GDP and earnings.

Liu and Hanauer have in a large pamphlet done something important in working to make a tough subject easier to understand. Now, we should be shouting like Tom Paine and working to establish such thinking in schools and universities and to challenge our leaders to address the world’s problems through the dose of reality that complexity provides. This is a major challenge of explanation no less important than any other doctrinal assertion over the years but without (yet) the simplistic notions that the Tea Party or labour rights or communism or centralized government (or left vs. right) have.