Institutionalized!

Will Self’s excellent new book “Umbrella” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Umbrella-Will-Self/dp/1408820145/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1348396331&sr=8-1) brilliantly describes the torture of individuals put into “mental institutions” and how (until very recently in the UK) they were appallingly treated.

 

Old people in Care Homes have similarly been shown (one example had a miniature camera secured in the room of a care home) to have been malnourished, beaten and generally abused.

 

Maybe it is improper to use these examples of Institutions that have become uncaring and out of control to symbolize the problems faced regularly by all of us, but it is no coincidence. We have all become “Institutionalized” by the edifices that society has created to carry out the basic functions of society. This is not new. Ossification of institutions is a regular occurrence in society. The reason that monarchs are overthrown, for example, is because the institution of monarchy – the rule of society by one person or clique – becomes, eventually, intolerable to society in general.

 

Cracks in the Institutional Wall

 

We are all confronted by Institutions throughout our lives. From hospitals to school, from government departments to businesses, individuals live their lives working in and being confronted by Institutions.

 

Institutions have been defined as: “An institution is a system of rules, beliefs, norms and organizations that together generate a regularity of (social) behavior” (Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade).

 

They provide “equilibria” to society as a method or ordering our behavior. Greif also developed notions of dynamic institutions to show how institutions change through time.

 

Common Threads’ focus is that the institutions developed in the 19th Century for politics, economics, education and other key areas of society don’t work well in the 21st Century. The aim has been to generate some discussion of where the problems may be and look at some potential solutions rather than try to develop a theoretical analysis (when this is being done elsewhere – for example, in the area of economics at ESNIE (European School on New Institutional Economics – http://esnie.org/).

 

Major economic dislocations as we have seen since 2007 in the West – the banking disasters leading to huge debt problems leading to depression in Greece and the potential for this throughout Europe – could presage major changes in the way institutions develop. Often, the cracks in the wall have to be very large before we either build a new wall or try to fill in the cracks – which is what is being done now.

 

The changes in our institutions that are being made – small changes in banking (mainly in terms of individuals) are akin to deck chairs being moved around on the Titanic. Whether in our political institutions or our economic ones (or wherever large organizations have been set up to provide societal equilibrium) the danger is that they do not change enough to enable society to prosper – rather, built on the foundations of the 19th Century, they fail to deal with the issues that face them (and us) today.

 

Building Order out of Chaos – Challenging Entropy?

 

Just like the walls of Jericho were built to keep out intruders (subject to the odd trumpet) and we build firewalls in our computer systems to keep our systems secure, society builds our Institutions also to have effective walls against change and to build ourselves a cover against the outside world. Maybe we are genetically primed – our cells work within walls that allow us to withstand the chaos that would otherwise ensue. The Second Law of Thermodynamics essentially describes entropy – the natural tendency for good energy to dissipate into bad (useless) energy. Our life on this planet is a constant grind against the power of entropy and, maybe, our desire to build this equilibrium is a natural and instinctive drive for order within chaos.

 

This natural tendency to build order exists throughout civilization and can produce stability and contentment. But, as Darwin wrote: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” (Origin of Species).

 

The key is that Institutions cannot be left to ossify but have to change to meet the changes in environment that exist externally. New order has to be developed constantly.

 

In business, in relatively free markets, businesses come and go on a regular basis. The FTSE 100 started in 1984 and today only three companies from those 100 remain in the FTSE 100 – GKN, Rolls Royce and Imperial Tobacco. This is because the FTSE 100 reconstitutes itself every three months. The Dow Jones started in 1896 – who remembers American Cotton Oil or National Lead or United States Rubber? That is not to belittle business – there is a tough economic law that works hard to reward success and punish failure. Companies that don’t work hard to change to meet the needs of the external environment simply fail. Apple is a great example of a company that was close to collapse in the 1980’s but (under Jobs) completely redirected itself so that it is now the highest valued company in the world. But, for how long? Most companies fail (70% in the first three years).

 

Taking Down the Walls

 

Within the rest of society, change is harder. In our fight against the ravages of chaos, we allow pressure to build up, often learning the wrong lessons. This so often leads to an explosion as pressure gets too much. Society is not very good at understanding where the pressure is building. We defend the status quo for too long and then find ourselves unable to contain the whirlwind that attacks us.

 

In the UK, we have prided ourselves on our ability to change gradually so as to release the pressure before it gets too much. Not since the middle of the 17th Century has England fought a Civil War. This is held up to be the result of the changing democratic scene – from Magna Carta through rule by nobles to rule by the Commons (elected nobles); constant enlargement of the vote from 1832 onwards to women in 1918 (as long as they were over 30 and lived in a decent house) to 18 year-olds in 1969.

 

The walls have been dismantled brick by brick and most democracies follow a similar path.

 

The challenge now is that, in an age where developed societies have reached a decent level of economic wealth, politicians are losing any connection with those they are supposed to represent. Only around 50% of the voting population bothers to vote in general elections. More are now linking up with one-issue groups who they believe will push agendas on their behalf rather than hope that a political party will (by the mere casting of a vote every five years) carry out a manifesto that cannot meet most aspirations.

 

This means that the one issue lobbyists are getting greater powers to influence. Their techniques and ability to make change happen is developing constantly. Originally, such groups were primarily labour organizations (Trades Unions) and, in the UK, this developed into the Labour Party. Now, there are groups within the Third Sector that campaign on any range of issues from the environment to health, from taxation to education, from peace campaigners and human rights to fox-hunting (both sides). Organized campaign groups now operate as a key part of society so that individuals are now useful only at elections.

 

This means that more Institutions have been developed to challenge the political parties (it happens throughout the world). This is not a challenge to the political process – it may even solidify it by shoring up the political process within a wall of campaigning institutions.

 

What role for Society?

 

It is in this context that several have questioned the future in which we grow Institutions to work with other Institutions to govern (or run other aspects of our lives). This response to the walls around politics and government may be a natural one but is questionable as the new Institutions (of the campaigners and lobbyers) are run by a small number of people and funded in many ways. They are not accountable in the same way as political parties are supposed to be (and continue as long as they are funded). Their funds come from a variety of sources and confusion exists amongst society in separating out charitable work from campaigning and lobbying. In the UK, there is no register of lobbying so there is no transparency that is at least attempted in the US (which has its own problems owing to funding regulations that allow companies to fund to whatever level).

 

There is a real danger that the way we are evolving the democratic process is anti-democratic. Democracy is supposed to be government by the people. We have a three-tier system now whereby professional politicians are influenced by a small number (relative to the population) of professionally-run organizations throughout a term of office – remembering the individual citizens only when elections loom.

 

Is this the best we can do?

 

Building the Walls from the Bottom Up

 

In Australia (as I have mentioned in an earlier post), The Centre for Civil Society (under Vern Hughes) – http://www.civilsociety.org.au/ – has developed some new insights and a challenge to the norm in http://www.civilsociety.org.au/CivilSocietyPolitics.htm.

 

This is worthy of investigation as one means of providing greater involvement in our own future.

 

Also critical is the use of technology. Changes in the means of communication have always brought with them the means to radically change society. The printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, the TV, the computer and the internet, the mobile phone, wireless comms – all lead to more and faster information and an enabling of the individual.

 

This is a critical cause of concern for leaders of legalist states such as in China but also offers challenges (and opportunities) to so-called democracies.

 

Individuals are now empowered by technology by dis-empowered by institutions. This means that empowerment is taken up by online shopping or social networking rather much more than for social change or betterment. It means that civil society will continue to be badly served by national and international institutions that meet lobbyists in the corridors of power but are insufficiently grappling with society itself (rather the funneling through funded organizations).

 

Yet, power exists. Libya is a exciting example. Just recently, armed militia groups (a powerful central non-government organization) were ousted by people – civil society coming together to say, “thanks for toppling Gaddafi, your work is done!” In Egypt, Tahrir Square was the centre of civil society’s success to overthrow a dictator. Here, the Military Institutions delayed the correct response and we will have to wait to see if the elected President, Morsi, will serve his citizens or other Institutions (including religious).

 

Civil society (we, the people) should see the 21st Century as one where we are allowed to deliver. The forces for 19th Century equilibria often stand in the way of progress – and are standing in the way of serious climate change policies on an international scale. Institutions set up to effect change may be set up for the right reasons but we are now institutionalized and should seriously re-evaluate our reaction to the new Institutions just as we challenge the old ones. If we need a wall, then we should be blowing that trumpet to unsettle the existing ones.

 

EZ money – you can Bank on it!

It is just like a circus act – spinning plates as the audience waits for one to fall. When one falls, the act is over and they all fall. The plates – the Eurozone and banks – are spinning still – just – but the spinner is tiring, there is less time to go and the plates are shaking wildly.

 

Both the European banking system and its impact on the Eurozone are in critical mode. The illnesses are not being treated – we are merely ameliorating the symptoms. The new package of measures announced on 29th June provide some breathing space but the banks are the same banks as they were before and the Eurozone has exactly the same problems as it did on the 28th June.

 

Twin Devils: EZ and Banking

 

Banking is a devilish concoction – see my earlier posting: https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/banks-and-time-travel/

which focuses on the Mephistophelean trade that banking makes with us – the bringing forward of tomorrow’s wealth into today (with our soul in return). No government since money was invented has properly understood banking or had the ability to control it and democracies are ill-suited to manage the banks, the bankers or their products (although that is not a case made for ending democracy!).

 

On the same day that the EZ nations announced their new answers to the EZ crisis, UK banks were being vilified for their LIBOR manipulations and for wrongly selling interest rate insurance to small businesses (many of which collapsed under the strain of the repayments when interest rates collapsed under the banking-induced downturn in 2008). It couldn’t be made up!

 

The EZ nations horse-trade over more loans to the banks which bypass the sovereign debt obligations of Italy and Spain, amongst others. Banks will get loans directly from the ECB (for example) – which means that Germany will guarantee 50% of the loans, but France, Italy and Spain will also carry a burden.

 

The twin devils are fighting for their existence and the markets applaud every move – but, the problems persist.

 

Twin headache

 

Banks have existed far longer than the EZ and will outlive it. The likelihood is that the EZ nations, fighting for the survival of the Euro, will continue to miss the point. Banks are not, in the main, national entities, they form part of a world-wide consortium. Banks are a supra-economy and their product – money – can be created easily and changes time – lending and borrowing transform today’s problems into tomorrow’s – in a way that nothing else in economics can do.

 

Banks’ ability to transform time (the magical transformation that lending and, to some extent, insurance provides) is exactly what has provided the EZ with its problems – and the issue that wrecked Lehmans and nearly wrecked the US banking system. The banks’ inability to control themselves within reasonable and rational limits of lending has now been transferred to the countries where they are based. Sovereign debt has been amassed to cover the time travelling antics of the banks. Twin problems.

 

Paying it Back

 

Most economists are unclear about the problems that banks provide when unregulated on a macro-economic scale – all governments suffer the same lack of understanding, Money is not just easily created and employed, it effects transfers between time that equilibrium-based traditional economics does not understand. A loan provided to a company at an interest rate with payments spread over many years represents the ability of that company to achieve something now rather than later. The debt is paid off through interest (the economist’s price of money) and over time. Discounted cash flow techniques (based on interest rates) debase the future – eventually, it completely discounts it as though it was worthless.

 

But, the price of money is not just the interest rate. Price is repaid from tomorrow’s debt mountain when the debts pile up beyond the ability of payers to pay. The devastation of the Greek economy and young people’s work prospects in Spain testify ingloriously to this. The price is a heavy burden when the macro-economic effects of out of control banks are misunderstood. Supply and demand curves for money are meaningless when money is more or less free and money becomes free very often in society – which assumes a zero risk. It happened in the 1990’s and it happened just prior to 2007/8 – money was free because it was being created from nothing – by new forms of leveraging in secondary and tertiary markets that no-one understood. Interest rates were of no use as bankers and financiers scoured the market for easy bets (for that is what they were).

 

Now, we face many years of deleveraging – where yesterday’s over-leveraging is paid back – where time travel gets reversed. It must be that the discounted cash flow calculations were wrong – the assumptions were riddled with errors.

 

3D Chess played with blindfolds in different time zones

 

Economic management of banks and of sovereign debt makes assumptions based on projections that are misunderstood. Fund flows and interest rates that are meant to cover the supply and demand parameters miss the critical build-up of debts at a national level and at an international level. It is the mass of debt and the difficulty of managing that debt pile against a continuously changing assembly of poorer and poorer borrowers that constantly defeats bank management. The constant desire to bring forward projects from tomorrow into today – whether by an individual or a company or a government – feeds that process. It is the drive to consume now, the size, complexity and continuous shifts that make the problem so much greater than it was in the 19th Century.

 

3D Chess played with blindfolds and over different time zones looks easy in comparison and the answers are not easy to come by. The answers being implemented are micro-economic in the way that individual banks are required to increase capital ratios, for example.

 

The complexity in a period of deleveraging allied to a need for growth is enormous. Governments cannot (over time) have it both ways. Most developed nations are over-leveraged having borrowed far too much out of tomorrow’s wealth. At the same time, we are being told that we need more growth to help repay the debts. There is a limited intelligence involved here – or just maybe that the limited intelligence of politics is competing with economic reality. We should all be aware that for those countries in a downward spiral there are but three ways out of this: to deleverage (i.e. pay back debts); to reflate and debase a currency; to default – or a mix of the three. In the US and UK, reflation and currency debasement has been attempted; in Greece, there has been a default; elsewhere in Europe, the can keeps getting kicked but it looks more and more likely that German taxpayers will pay out for Italian and Spanish profligacy without the huge institutional and cultural changes that would make the investment worthwhile.

 

What’s the answer?

 

Governments have been trying to control banks for hundreds of years and failed. In the 21st Century, complexity has risen as has the ability of major banks and their staff to manipulate markets and manipulate customers.

 

This is not just a banking or EZ crisis – we have now to question our economic judgement and whether capitalism as we have practiced it for the last fifty years works. Just like corruption, banks and bankers will swarm into any gap that the market allows. It is not much use to anyone to swing the pendulum back and forth on regulation as economies grow or splutter.

 

After all, the problems in banking and in the EZ are problems of economies and problems that are due to a laissez faire relationship with growth as measured by….money (GDP). The only targets that we (not just the UK but world-wide) measure our success in is in money. The only targets are GDP targets – growth targets are GDP.

 

What is the answer? The answer lies in our ability to bring quality (and ethics) into our economic affairs.

 

Quality vs Quantity

 

As the Chinese and other developing nations rise up the GDP scale and as the world continues to use up its natural resources, we have not assessed why we continue to follow 19th Century economic principles that propose that we spend our way to happiness. GDP growth is important as societies develop – as hunger is eradicated, shelter is found, clothing is ensured and jobs provided. How important it is when we are “grown” is the debate that is now needed. Growth in what?

 

The rush for money (what seems to be the mainstay of society) is what has rushed the banks and EZ into the mire. We don’t understand the impact we are having on the next generation and beyond in terms of debts built-up and resources squandered.

 

We now have a quality vs quantity argument that underlies all the short-term “solutions” that we read about. The right answers require the right questions and the right questions may include something like: “do we need to use up tomorrow?” – that is what banking is, a discounted cash flow estimate of the future where everything is translated into numbers and where quality is completely overcome by the quantitative.

 

Numbers are in charge – and therefore banks (based solely on numbers) are at the forefront of such an economy. EZ crises are based on money and the addiction to numbers – GDP and growth. While this continues, so will our willingness to allow banks to seek out new methods of extracting tomorrow’s benefits to today.

 

To untangle societies from the rush for loans and products that banks supply (and EZ countries end up securing – and paying back through taxation) we should address the root cause – our predilection to the amassing of tomorrow’s money or its equivalent at the expense of tomorrow’s quality of life. Our kids and their kids deserve better – ask young Greeks or Spaniards.