The Battle of Life

150706_Chartists    150706_AfricanMigrants

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.

Is FIFA-world just a microcosm of the real one?

Russia's president Vladimir Putin (left) and Fifa president Sepp Blatter

FIFA-world: a virtual world where you get ahead by what you pay and stay ahead by denying the evidence

“When we get bribed, we stay bribed.”

Jon Stewart on his Daily Show in the USA – his take-down of Sepp Blatter and FIFA. The legal onslaught on FIFA-world  has been 24 years in the making – 24 years before the legal process (headed by the US Attorney General Loretta Lynch) went into motion. As Stewart remarked, “even Switzerland” itself had moved on FIFA.

Yet, Sepp Blatter was overwhelmingly affirmed by FIFA delegates for another four years – on the votes of Africa, Asia and Platini’s France amongst others. This was despite the obviously dangerous legal claims made against many senior employees and representatives of FIFA by the US and Swiss legal authorities. This was despite the fact that Blatter has been President of FIFA for so long – it has been on his watch.

The President of FIFA has (under its latest statutes) the following responsibilities:

32. President

The President represents FIFA legally.

He is primarily responsible for:

a)  implementing the decisions passed by the Congress and the Executive Committee through the general secretariat; 

b)  supervising the work of the general secretariat;

c)  relations between FIFA and the Confederations, Members, political bodies and international organisations.

Only the President may propose the appointment or dismissal of the Secretary General.

The President shall preside over the Congress, the Executive and Emergency Committee meetings and those committees of which he has been appointed chairman.

The President shall have an ordinary vote on the Executive Committee and, whenever votes are equal, shall have a casting vote.

If the President is absent or unavailable, the longest-serving vice-president available shall deputise.

Any additional powers of the President shall be contained in the FIFA Organisation Regulations.

As FIFA’s legal representative on planet earth, it seems clear that Blatter would be held accountable for all its actions whether he knows about them (and he claims a complete absence of knowledge) or not. Yet, FIFA members, by a great majority, supported his continued Presidency.

For some of us, this seems absurd. For those of us brought up under democratic systems, where wrongdoing in an elected body is normally punished by the voter, the inability of FIFA to sort itself out appears naïve as does the apparent understanding of the electorate. Yet, to many of those who voted for Blatter, their response was entirely logical.

How FIFA-World Seems to Work

The world has changed over the last fifty years to an extent that is now becoming highly visible. Until the 1950’s, the great western powers and the USSR held military power (hard power) over the rest of the world. One by one, states outside this power block became politically independent. Asian economic power-houses like Japan grew quickly and then China began its sustained and dramatic economic renaissance. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, instead of democracy, economic power brokers developed (with Putin at the top of that tree).

While we understandably focus on military and security threats posed by those like ISIS, the world has been moving on – with economic growth at the centre (softer power).

However, instead of the west’s domination, there are now various centres of economic power – such as China, India and Brazil – which are breaking down long-established norms.

These norms (such as the desire by Western nations to link good governance with economic aid) are under real threat as newly enriched nations like China care less about the good governance of its supply and customer base outside China than it does internally and less than the stated aims of the earlier economic hegemonies.

This compounds the pent-up pressure on the governments of the newly developing world that may be tired of the continuous pressure put on them to do more of what the west wants them to do – such as reduce corruption and improve good governance. This is not the reaction necessarily of their people (most are completely sick of the bribery and corruption that exists, often sick of the absence of real democracy and the absence of real representation) but in many parts of the world, the people do not have a say.

Also, populations are torn between a natural desire to see things properly run (good governance) and feeding their kids or having a roof over their heads. Elsewhere, like in Russia, the government has a rigid control over their people. The same is true in China.

Finally, nations are now (because of their own economic strength and because of alliances with those like China) less likely to fold against the old hegemonies of the USA and Europe.

For all these reasons, FIFA-world seems symbolic of the new world order that is taking place where an organisation that has been corrupt for so long is able to maintain good relationships with its supporters through its economic success and the ability to pass on that financial success to a range of nations and individuals – upon which it also survives. It pays to support Blatter – even if you are in receipt of dirty money.

Despite pressure from the west (notably the UK – via, mainly, its newspapers like the Sunday Times while government was just as mercantilist when London was in the running for the World Cup), FIFA refuses to change from the inside. As there is no ability to march into Switzerland and take over the company by force (the 19th Century ideal), the only method remaining is via international law as applied by the US Attorney General and the Swiss. It has taken 24 years to get to this stage.

What could we be learning from FIFA-world?

This microcosm represented by FIFA-world must have lessons for the new real world order but it is not easy to overcome the concern that fifty years of working towards better governance (e.g. where we have seen increases in the number of democracies throughout the world) is under threat.

The natural focus on material wealth as the highest priority for all nations and all people is understandable. Worldwide poverty indicators are reducing (even if mainly from Chinese economic success). As Maslow showed so clearly in the 1930’s, most people focus on material wealth creation well before there is a serious thought given to quality of life issues.

MAslow

This is clearly seen in practice as the world pursues economic gains even in those countries that are already wealthy. Even the safety and maintenance of nature and the environment becomes translated into a form of costed “natural capital” so that it can enter into our economic thinking. If it has no valuation methodology, then humans seem unable to evaluate it. If we can’t count it, we can’t imagine it, apparently.

This means that issues like corruption are treated as secondary to economic benefit or economic security in most nations. It is no longer just a case of saying “Corruption is bad, stop!” because the complexity of the each situation means that, in the short term, those who gain through corruption and / or being part of a corrupt environment do not visualise the problems quickly enough. Moral crusades are not high enough on Maslow’s hierarchy (which was developed for marketing purposes but serves as a useful tool elsewhere).

Even the use of legal sanction by the USA, while applauded by many in developed nations, is not so well received elsewhere. Blatter knows how to utilize this reaction by appealing to the sensitivities of nations that do well out of FIFA economically and see themselves (as nations and individuals) threatened economically by the ending of corruption. This is not much different from oil-rich nations like Angola preferring to sell to China than the west – because no-one in China is demanding good governance from Sonangol, the dos Santos-owned oil company. It is similar to tribal leaders in Afghanistan that react badly to the west’s demands for an end to corruption in that country.

Those legal sanctions operating in the West (through a range of anti-money laundering devices, FCPA, Bribery Act and the like) can have great power when used against corporations. They are now extra-territorial in scope and can remove any one nation’s or company’s ability to protect themselves from legal onslaught. However, in the UK, for example, implementation of laws such as the Bribery Act are completely under-resourced so reliance has been placed on the US to widen its military policing role to one of legal challenge – where an individual using US assets (banking, currency or legal) is liable.

Such legal sanction needs to be policed (a) by more than just the USA and (b) in a way that is not seen as hegemony by former military world powers.

The first requires resources and a willingness to attack the problem; the second is far more subtle – a need to assess how to convince the world that corruption is hugely damaging to economies, sectors or society and even security (as is seen in Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan and many others vulnerable nations where armed forces are depleted by funding being ransacked by a few elites) when the benefits are clearer than the problems.

As an article in today’s National Post in Canada shows so well, giving the World Cup to a country well down Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Indicator (CPI) is asking for trouble. Yet, not giving the World Cup to such nations (which are developing nations in need of such investment and focus) until they have cleaned up their act would be seen to be counter-productive – and construed as anti-poor. There is no support for such a move.

What needs to happen is that good governance is seen as a central tenet of major corporations and of governments (national and local) and, for this to happen, a huge and relentless shift needs to take place in the way the non-FIFA world works so that the real economic needs of people are met while the ugly needs of vested interests that stand to gain through corruption are not.

For corruption to be minimized should be seen as one of the world’s major aims – where we need nations to meaningfully sign up to this in the same way as we sign up to human rights as corruption erodes human rights as well as any impediment known to humankind.

FIFA-world is a microcosm of how the real world tolerates corruption and the 24-year corruption story in FIFA is by no means finished. We need to learn from that story not just to fix FIFA-world but to fix the way the world tolerates corruption.

Note: I am a Trustee of Transparency International – UK

Being Cynical about Natural Capitalism

A Cynic “Knows the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing” – Oscar Wilde

The World Forum on Natural Capital took place in Edinburgh from 21-22 November 2013. This was around 18 months after the Natural Capital Commission was set up in England – see my earlier note on this.

The stated aim is to develop a way of costing the natural environment. In Scotland, the host for the Forum, the Scottish Wildlife Trust stated this as:

  1. Calculate the monetary value of Scotland’s natural capital and the cost of depleting it. This will involve coordinating experts including accountants, people from business, academics and policymakers.
  2. Communicate to a broad range of businesses and other stakeholders the risk of depleting Scotland’s natural capital and the huge economic value from protecting and enhancing it.
  3. Set up collaborative projects to deliver tangible action to protect and enhance Scotland’s natural capital.

Now, I am sure that all those accountants, business people, academics and so on are completely transparent about the not just perceived benefits but also the pitfalls of accounting for natural assets. I hesitate to criticize my own profession (yes, I am a qualified accountant) but the relatively simple task of accounting for profits, business assets, transfer prices, taxation, royalties, inflation, shareholder value and the myriad of other pricing mechanisms is an industry in itself.

Valuations of properties and land values (land which is marketable) are very difficult; valuations of anything is except in key market driven areas. So, before we consider whether everything should have a price, can everything be priced?

Pricing in the eye of the beholder

Michael Sandel has written vividly about the dangers inherent in pricing everything. The market continues to stretch itself to many aspects of our lives – to everything a price. Oscar Wilde described a cynic as “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Well, maybe it is time to be a little cynical. The Greek Cynics such as Diogenes believed that humans should be rid of worldly goods and live as close to nature as nature intended.

To them, “natural capitalism” would be a paradox and if the word “cynic” has been usurped to mean one who distrusts others’ motives (a somewhat jaded negativity), then it is still worth us having a good look before we hurtle into the world of valuing nature – purportedly to enable it to survive.

The problem for us all is that we (humans) seem to respond automatically to numbers. Whether it is GDP or wages and salaries or league tables or baseball and cricket statistics or KPI’s or health targets or bankers’ bonuses, the human mind seems to adopt numbers as the common language. This has had ridiculous consequences.

We now actually believe that Gross Domestic Product calculations are a real and meaningful simulation of the value of our existence. We may note that GDP rose when the BP oil spill was in the headlines because of the way that GDP is counted. We may know that GDP rose enormously when the Viet Nam War was in full flight – a rise in our prosperity at the time when so many were dying. We may note lots of things and then discount the “knowing” as we allow our brains to consider only the number.

Just like economic theory is a very poor simulation of reality, using numbers to simulate life is very difficult and a very poor approximation of reality.

Pricing is in the eye of the beholder. When there are many of the same item and large numbers of buyers, then prices can be developed that (at a particular time) can be adjudged reasonable. A day later and the price will change; a bit more demand and the price may rise if the supply stays the same or there is no alternative; a bit less demand and the reverse – all other things being equal (which hey never are).

Yet, pricing is the underpinning of the marketplace and serves its purpose – allowing us to satisfy demand through the pricing mechanism. Where it is less workable is where the market is not large enough or where the item being priced is unique.

For a work of art, this does not matter too much. Such a work of art as the Francis Bacon triptych which recently sold for $142m or the $58.4m for a Jeff Koons painting potentially hurts no-one but the wealthy buyer should the price collapse overnight. Anyway, no one will be revaluing these works until they are re-sold. While the loss to public exhibition may be a shame (if they are kept locked away) it is not a tragedy.

For our natural capital, there is a different set of criteria.

Valuing quality

 Traditionally, major projects have used a form of cost-benefit analysis. Prices or costs are provided to each part of a project and the benefits calculated overall. In this way, countless projects (corporate and public sector) are continuously appraised.

Recently, the HS2 rail project proposal in the UK has been treated in this way. HS2 is a plan to link London to the north of England by a £50 billion investment programme (which some think will rise to £80bn) – to speed up rail links and to provide much more capacity. In this way, it is believed that significant benefits will accrue to the northern towns (although many see the benefits accruing to London as more northern towns become commuter towns for the capital).

As Frank Ackerman (an Environmental Economist) wrote in 2008 in an excellent paper for Friends of the Earth that there are six major flaws with cost-benefit analysis that he calls:

  •    Pricing the priceless
  •   Troubling Trade-offs
  •   Uncertainty and Precaution
  •   Distorting the Future
  •   Exaggerated costs
  •   Partisans and Technicalities

His paper warns against the simplistic tendency of cost-benefit analysis – its atomistic view of the world (a world of numerical opinions – usually slanted towards where the answer is directed to be).

The alternatives to simplistic cost-benefit analysis include one (the precautionary approach) that approximates to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s antifragility proposition – or at least an approach tending to resilience.

The inclusion of natural phenomena and the benefits that accrue from them into a numbers game is a tremendous risk. It suggests that we hurtle towards some valuation methodology because we are caught up in the spirit of pricing everything. Yet, we don’t hesitate enough to consider the ability of the valuers (those who make the key assumptions which drive the computations) – which include those who work backwards from decisions they want taken to those who are inadequate in their assumptive judgements.

It is normal for large projects to overrun in terms of cost by two to three times and most large projects overrun substantially on timescale. This means that basic projects cannot be properly valued – how difficult is it to put a price on our natural capital and use those calculations in determining how we use the natural resources / capital? It is not our ability to compute that is at question – it is a mix of our ability to ask the right questions, to set the right assumptions and to reason on a qualitative basis.

Private and Public (People) needs

The sectors involved in developing natural capital accounting and using them for decisions are naturally coming at this from different directions. The private sector, especially large companies naturally concerned about the long-term sustainability of their businesses, need to evaluate their impact on the environment and on their raw material base in order to see their long-term survivability.

This is an essential survival tactic in a world with limited access to natural resources and where it is understood by companies that their customers are also taking impact on environment (for example) seriously. For almost all businesses, taking account of natural capital is a fundamental need of the 21st Century marketplace but should not be seen as companies becoming primarily societally driven. Accounting for natural capital wherever possible is a natural go-to for business. It sets up an accounting mechanism which, after all, is the basic language of business and which can be used for decision-making and for influencing those decisions internally and externally.

The external decision-makers are citizens – local, regional, national and international – often (not always) represented by the public sector (and, in many countries, misrepresented).

Quantity versus Quality

 

The problem for people (us) is, of course, fundamentally different to those of businesses that are fighting for long-term sustainability and want to manage their use of resources (and look for substitutes) and help the marketplace to view them as 21st Century businesses that are aware of society’s needs. Accounting for natural capital can help to do that.

Citizens (however grouped) have another consideration – the quality of life outside the quantity of goods and services that they can buy.

Quality of life includes good air to breathe and a sustainable climate – items not quite on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or developed in his basic needs structure – which was, after all, originally developed for business marketing purposes.

Government (local, regional, national and international) is our representative – tasked with managing our natural capital to our benefit (along with private owners). The key question is whether Government understands that the issues are not just about how business remains sustainable (a world dominated by GDP) but how the quality of life is sustained for all of its citizens. While this includes key quantitative factors such as economic well being, that is not all.

To citizens, the environmental impact of business misuse is not just an “externality” that needs to be costed into business decisions. These so-called externalities are central parts of our existence.

So, one of the key questions is how to develop a framework that incorporates the requirements of the two sectors – private and public (here being used to define what people need) and the issues of quantity and quality.

 Slide1

Keeping that balance is the key – we should not be overly dependent on the numerically calculative approach as that leads to more goods and services but a natural environment that is depleted not just of raw materials but also the naturally occurring benefits on which life depends.

We cannot completely guard our natural capital either – as that will deprive us of needed goods and services.

Counting the costs and benefits of natural capital may assist in some ways to prolong sustainable business but real leadership on behalf of all of us should understand that counting is a tool – only to be used in certain situations and only as an aid to considered thinking – the use of our human brains in determining qualitative outcomes.

Active Re-branding or leave it to do-gooders?

Are we too complacent?

Henry Porter, writing in The Observer on 8th September about the Snowden affair, calls the British people “complacent” in its attitude to secrecy. He is concerned that the BBC’s Today programme on the previous day did not cover the subject recently when he believed it should have been a leading item.

In the UK, as we hopefully begin the escape from one of the worst recessions in history and where wages are, Iike in the US, still falling behind prices despite renewed growth in the economy, there is a mistiness amongst the population that is likened to Huxley’s Brave New World – where many of us appear to be high (or low) on Soma.

The Soma of the 21st Century is, maybe understandably, related to wealth– the money we earn that gets us through life. It pays our bills, buys our food and clothing and shelter, pays our tax and is almost everything most people think of as their main route to wellbeing. For almost all, money seems to form the basis of our lives and engulfs our thinking.

For money appears to be at the heart of everything the 21st human believes in – lack of money effectively disenfranchises us from most of life’s gains. Lack of money dis-enables. Maslow got it right to a point. We are all focused on the lower levels of his hierarchy. The trouble is how enough of us penetrate the upper layers.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

We seem to get the shelter and food parts, even the desire to belong and group ethics; but, once we get to esteem we believe that this relates to work and jobs and self-actualisation is well beyond almost anyone anyway. Working to the common good, for example, is maybe a stretch too far.

A recent survey shows that “only” 9% of us actively participate in civil society – working for civic pride – maybe being self-actualisers. The Charity Aid Foundation (CAF) found that just 9% of people give 66% of all the time and money to charities / not for profits in the UK. See report.

The “civic core”  – a concept first espoused by Mohan and Bulloch in 2012 – drives the charity sector. The “zero givers”, as the name suggests, relies on them to be the “do-gooders”.

 I am reminded of the days when Schools’ Boards of Governors were obliged to meet with parents annually. I cannot remember one occasion when, I as one of the governors, was confronted by an audience larger than the school governors present. For a school with over 1,000 sets of parents and guardians, possibly 10 people would turn up. No wonder this annual ritual no longer exists. Most people want to engage with themselves and their families and not with the wider community – let the civic core do it.

This reflection on society may seem overly harsh but does shine a light on Henry Porter’s concerns about society being “complacent”. Except in times of abject misery – like a time of war – most of society is not complacent but reliant. Reliant means that the vast majority of people looks to the civic core to run the core of society.

CAF senses that much of this is down to time-poverty – or lack of time to commit to other things. Is this really true? Are 91% of the population lacking time – or is this an excuse? Maybe there is no sense of the Big Society that David Cameron no longer mentions. Maybe we are individualists that rely on the rest of society where it counts – where priorities like secrecy issues are well down the list.

Re-branding society is a challenge – a call to inaction or action?

Of course, 9% of the adult population actually represents a lot of people – around 9% of 50 million – which is 4.5 million.

According to CAF, 4.5 million are actively involved – the civic core – who are not so time sensitive. A high proportion, though, are over-65’s and there are many more women than men, less full-time employed, less young people.

The challenge to which Henry Porter alludes is how to galvanise sufficient of civil society to make a difference – in an age where not enough of us commit to anything other than ourselves or to our close kin and friends – or, maybe to the ultra-loose contacts on Facebook or Twitter, where a retweet has somehow become our idea of “campaigning” and close friends are indicated by the number following you on LinkedIn or Facebook.

An indication of this is an excellent article by none other than comedian Russell Brand writing in the Guardian – 13th September.

This article followed his “joke” at clothing firm Hugo Boss’s expense at the recent GQ Awards. Brand’s article is very well written but it is not the explanation for his comments that struck me, but that such an articulate and obviously concerned individual as Brand could say the following (and I quote at some length):

” …For example, if you can’t criticise Hugo Boss at the GQ awards because they own the event, do you think it is significant that energy companies donate to the Tory party? Will that affect government policy? Will the relationships that “politician of the year” Boris Johnson has with City bankers – he took many more meetings with them than public servants in his first term as mayor – influence the way he runs our capital?

Is it any wonder that Amazon, Vodafone and Starbucks avoid paying tax when they enjoy such cosy relationships with members of our government?

Ought we be concerned that our rights to protest are being continually eroded under the guise of enhancing our safety? Is there a relationship between proposed fracking in the UK, new laws that prohibit protest and the relationships between energy companies and our government?

I don’t know. I do have some good principles picked up that night that are generally applicable: the glamour and the glitz isn’t real, the party isn’t real, you have a much better time mucking around trying to make your mates laugh. I suppose that’s obvious. We all know it, we already know all the important stuff, like: don’t trust politicians, don’t trust big business and don’t trust the media. Trust your own heart and each another. When you take a breath and look away from the spectacle it’s amazing how absurd it seems when you look back.”

This may well be heartfelt but the essence of Brand’s words seem to me to be passive – a plea not to trust politicians, big companies and the media: heartfelt but inactive; a plea to do nothing – to be mournful, sad about the exploits of others but certainly no call to action. It is a call to inaction.

Maybe he is too busy to use his fame for good causes; maybe Russell Brand is more interested in having a few laughs with his mates. But, if someone as intelligent and thoughtful as Brand can’t rouse himself to do anything, to get involved somehow, what do we expect from the rest of the 91% (or even most of the 9% who, while involved, are certainly not out there campaigning or even showing annoyance or being pro-active)?

Finding the Catalyst for Action

When many don’t even vote or even consider it necessary, we know that democracy is not in a good state. But, voting is a passive demonstration even if critical to a democracy.

Most do not enter into a debate on issues outside their very close domain – sport and the weather seem the height of discussion in this country. Or, many get high on celebrity – X Factor or Big Brother. Former News of the World readers now tweet obscenities or attack feminists. So, issues like secrecy or tax havens (important to some) somehow seem trivial when prices are rising above the rate of wages and when good, full-time jobs are hard to obtain, when the trivial becomes all-important.

Maybe there is a catalyst out there that will encourage more to raise the temperature of debate and even to join in an active capacity. I have seen it at work. Organisations like Global Witness (where I was fortunate enough to work for close on five years) are full of young, impassioned, intelligent people who work hard to make real change happen. Whenever a job vacancy was advertised, there were often hundreds of applicants – from top quality people itching to get involved. There is a strong undercurrent of capability in the UK (and elsewhere) of well-educated, strong-willed people that want to pro-actively work for a better future, who are not complacent and not reliant on others.

Maybe we need to get them to talk more about what they do – not just to governments and politicians (who, in the short-term, are the change agents) but to young people in schools and universities – who are so focused on jobs and wealth (which is fine) but who may also want to ensure that society is properly balanced. This balance is not away from wealth creation (which will remain a fundamental underpinning of our society) but towards wealth creation that we all feel good about and where we do understand that money is not the only thing: wealth being quality not just quantity.

Maybe Russell Brand could get involved in this way – using his enormous power of communication to pro-actively make people want to get involved. From an inactive mournfulness to pro-active catalyst – a re-branding that makes sense.

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.

 

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.

Looking Down from Mount Olympus

With Olympics fervor at its height, it’s tough to resist Homer’s description:

“Olympus was not shaken by winds nor ever wet with rain, nor did snow fall upon it, but the air is outspread clear and cloudless, and over it hovered a radiant whiteness.” Homer, Odyssey.

Today, the equivalent of the 12 Gods on Olympus are, maybe, the G-20, or G-2, or the UN or any of the international organisations that are set-up on our behalf.

Or, maybe it’s closer to home – the national heads who make up the EU or the lesser number that make up the EZ; the 100 Senators in the US Congress.

Or, maybe they are the 1% who own 40% of the earth’s assets (financially-speaking).

Or, how about Forbes Global 2000 – the top 2000 of the world’s companies that, between them, account for $149 trillion in assets and employ 83 million people. This compared to McKinsey’s estimate of $212 trillion value of the world’s capital stock in 2011 – a huge percentage.

Icy Slopes

The Greek Gods took their place after a war with the Titans – who ruled before them. Mythology into reality – our new Gods rule in much the same way after a 20th Century where totalitarian regimes fought each other, amongst each and against  democratic nations in bloody conflict. Millions died in China, the Soviet Union, Europe, Vietnam, Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere as different theories of government battled for supremacy.

Francis Fukuyama declared it “The End of History” as liberal democracy supposedly triumphed. We know now that he was wrong (as he has himself declared). For, the winner (for now) was not democracy but a form of capitalism that promotes a new set of god-like creatures and a new Olympus where the wind does not blow and the air is clear. This new capitalism – the complete dominance of quantity no matter what type of government is in power – was relatively bloodless in its conquests, but no less callous in its purpose. Indeed, its callousness is worse than before as it is merely the “invisible hand” that drives the marketplace that has led to the victory of the new Gods.

Now, sitting upon the summit, surrounded by the icy slopes that let few into their circle, they can look down upon the rest in their eco-defended enclave.

How the War Was Won

 

The titanic struggle was won on the back of the primacy of goods – developing the ability for ordinary people to secure their basic material needs and then onwards to “choice” and leisure and luxury. This has been wonderfully accompanied by the ability of business to promote their products so that demand could be developed without the consumer realizing it. This ability to influence demand (so brilliantly described in Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society”) has led to a victory of quantity over quality in the West and will do so elsewhere.

The victory was made easier by Governments’ willingness to adhere to the 19th Century economic theories that made “growth” and GDP the concepts upon which all governing was placed – but, placed them in simulations which cannot reflect reality. Mathematicians and econometricians have extended the fallacy – we live for numbers. The evidence for this can be seen so well in Russia and China. For most of the 20th Century, both held out as anti-capitalist bastions as the world moved to strengthen democracy. Neither has succumbed to democracy – Russia is a gangster-elite State, China is a legalist, centralized State. But, both yielded wholeheartedly to the market.

Who Won the War?

Many argue that the democratic West won the war (as Fukuyama attempted to suggest) but this is wrong. The western form of liberal democracy with its desire to provide representative government, elections and low corruption levels (comparatively) as well as supposed access to education and upward social mobility is losing out. It is arguable that even in those countries that still pursue these ends, there is now a vastly worsening separation between rich and poor and a hardening of social structures – with far less mobility.

In China and Russia, elites have won the war and their instruments of war have been capitalist – as their citizens climb up Maslow’s hierarchy of need from the very bottom, quantity of goods is supreme no matter how they are derived. As Jonathan Fenby describes in “Tiger Head, Snake Tails” this is, in China, despite rampant corruption, ecological degradation and vast differences in wealth between elites as well as complete indifference to the vast population when their houses are demolished to make way for new buildings or motorways (for example).

Who Lost the War?

Millions of lives were lost in the 20th Century as nations defended themselves against the onslaught of totalitarianism. But, a new totalitarianism has taken root right beneath our noses.

It is the totalitarianism of the elites that control the markets – markets fed by a constant diet of GDP statistics and growth targets.

The losers are (in Orwellian-speak) supposedly the winners – the mass of the population that has grown “wealthier” throughout the latter half of the 20th Century.

So, it seems to be a benign revolution but the problems are becoming clearer by the day.

In Greece, home to Mount Olympus, the country is in its fifth year of recession. In Spain, 24.6% of people are now officially unemployed. In most countries, the gap between the wealthy and the rest is growing steadily.  Economic strains are now working their way around the system as growth (measured traditionally in 19th  Century models) stalls outside of newly developing nations (yet, who believes the measures coming from China?). Today’s youth in the developed west are unlikely to be “wealthier” than their parents in pure GDP terms.

But, we should not be focused on pure numbers. Economic growth is also threatening the ecology of the planet at an alarming rate. Whether or not fossil fuels are near their end, the effects on the planet are growing and recent changes to our weather patterns merely the first signs. Our damning footprint is ever more etched on the planet and real risks are emerging that the life styles we live now may not be available for long. As Rumanian economist Georgescu-Roegen surmised over fifty years ago, maybe we can’t change and will simply go out in a puff of smoke.

Maybe, though, society will not, for ever, tolerate the new totalitarians, the new Olympians.

The Gods were not immortal

 

Of course, nothing lasts forever. The Greek Gods did not survive (except in mythology) and neither will the current ones.

The problem is that we are engrained with the belief that quantity is the key to good life (which it may be up to a point) and have lost a connection with what society is about. Mass production has led to greater wealth but, as Galbraith saw 60 years ago, society cannot be all about quantity.

Maslow, developing his Hierarchy of Need as a marketing tool, expected that we would go beyond quantity to some form of self-actualization. We have definitely not managed that yet but we have some signs that societal self-actualization is possible.

A major problem in the way of this is that different countries are at different stages of economic development. China has a massive population still well down the material scale and there will be no let-up in the leadership’s drive for “growth” to stem the dismay of their people on all other issues. In Africa, the longing for material wealth is as strong and who can blame them bearing in mind the economic and social torment they have suffered?

So, initiatives like Zero Impact Growth being developed by John Elkington and his Volans company are worth considering.

This is an approach to growth with zero impact on the planet and ultimately to give back more than is taken out. Where others seek to quantify (and there are dangers in the approach of quantifying everything), the Elkington approach is to develop a maturity matrix as follows:

Maturity Level Definition from ‘The Zeronauts’ Analogy: Characteristics of a company on that level
No strategy and goals No definition The company barely understands the relevance of restructuring its actions towards sustainable solutions and hardly reports on sustainability. Furthermore, no strategy has been defined and no targets have been set.
Eureka Opportunity is revealed via the growing dysfunction of the existing order. The company understands the relevance of restructuring its actions towards sustainable solutions. No considerable actions have been taken yet and almost no strategies and targets have been set. The company does already understand the relevance of the topic though, has started reporting and communicates plans to ameliorate its sustainability performance in the future.
Experiment Innovators and entre­preneurs begin to experiment, a period of trial and error. Although the company has started its first inno­vation efforts and internal programs in certain sustainability areas and has developed initial policies and strategies, no concrete milestones and an overarching future vision have been defined yet.
Enterprise Investors and managers build new business models creating new forms of value. The company has developed a short- to mid-term strategy ( ≤ 2020) for specific areas and has set measureable targets. Nevertheless, almost no long-term milestones have been defined. Furthermore, they do not communicate an over­arching future vision.
Ecosystem Critical mass and part­nerships create new markets and institu­tional arrangements. Measureable, ambitious (zero) targets based on a mid- to long-term vision (≥2020) are set. Nevertheless, a conjoint approach and some collaborative aspects are still missing since the holistic zero impact growth vision has not been (fully) adapted.
Economy The economic system flips to a more sustainable state, supported by cultural change. The company has fully adapted the zero impact growth vision. Measureable zero targets that have been adapted jointly are set out for each field of action. A clearly defined strategy is in place on how to achieve these targets, with defined short- and long-term milestones. The underlying benchmarks are clearly defined.

Maybe there is some fight left and the reality behind the model is clear – we can’t fight the invisible hand but maybe there is a chance for society to develop some self-actualisation behind the corporate drive towards zero impact growth where the planet survives along with humanity.

That doesn’t impact on the gap between the wealthy and the rest as the focus is on economics and sustainability. Inequality is as important a problem as ecology. Numbers should be seen for what they are – where money is one aspect of our lives not the only one. Demos, a UK think-tank has just published: Beyond GDP – New Measures for a New Economy.

It is an attempt to seek a rationale for economics beyond numbers. Briefly it posits that:

  • GDP does not distinguish between spending on bad things and spending on good things.  By this measurement, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico “positively” contributed to the economy just like the many good and services that people actually want or need.
  • GDP doesn’t account for the distribution of growth. Our total national income has doubled over thirty years, and so has the share of national income going to the wealthiest households, but average households have seen little or no income gains. GDP doesn’t care if growth is captured by a few or widely shared.
  • GDP doesn’t account for depletion of natural capital and ecosystem services.  If all the fish in the sea are caught and sold next year, global GDP would see a big boost while the fishing industry itself would completely collapse.
  • GDP doesn’t reflect things that have no market price but are good for our society, like volunteer work, parenting in the home, and public investments in education and research.

Two studies that show on this morning after that wonderful Danny Boyle-inspired Olympics night – where values were keenly shown as more than just money – that the slopes of Mount Olympus are slippery but not completely impassable: a Danny Boyle-inspired dose of self-actualisation.

Under-valuing Civil Society – Wherever the Market and Government don’t work

What, in the 21st Century, is it the role of charity?  Where does civil society (the real society) fit in a world dominated by the market and the state?

Recently I became Chief Executive of Willow Foundation (www.willowfoundation.org.uk) – a Charity in the UK that works to help 16-40 year-olds who are suffering from life threatening illnesses. We do this by providing psychological and emotional benefits through the provision of “Special Days” – something exceptional that we organize and make work  for them and their close ones. Our research shows that this is important for all – whether in curative or palliative phases of their illness.

So, my question above is heartfelt as well as intellectual.

Well, the simple and well-known answer is that where the marketplace has no response to society’s need and today’s government (focused on financing an NHS as the biggest employer and where they are just getting round to looking after elderly patients with care) is not entrusted (or does not feel entrusted) with this task, then charities and civil society intervene. That response encompasses both interventions such as Willow employs all the way to campaigners for new rights (here and overseas).

Charities?

In 2010, Sir Stephen Bubb, CEO of ACEVO in his paper titled: “Rediscovering Charity: Defining our role within the State” focused on the role of charities from their origins to the present day through their varying links to Government.  Whether funded by government (the state) or philanthropists, the link with the state was crucial from early times when the state was there just to extract taxes and fight wars to now (when it seems to be much of the same!) where the state sets the minimum standards of involvement.

The state also sets the laws under which charities operate (partly to defend its citizens from rogue elements) and pays a considerable amount of its taxation to charities. My recent blog on this: Do we value the Charity Sector? (https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/do-we-value-the-charitable-sector/)

was a statement of concern that the state completely fails to lay out the economic benefits and costs of the sector.

But, it is not only in regard to the state (or government) that charities must be seen. Charities exist in the 21st Century in the USA, UK and other, wealthier countries because neither government nor the “market” meets all our needs – even if they are better met than five hundred years ago. The “Third Sector” exists where the main economic system actors fail and where the need is financeable and / or manageable by volunteers and / or better managed by this sector.

Charities (or civil society organisations) range very widely. With newer forms of company (like social enterprises, community interest companies), the blurring is intensified, but the relationship of many forms of non-government, non-traditional market organisations are continuously reforming and developing.

Also changing is the gap that is to be filled as a result of government and / or the marketplace “failure”.

Maslow described in 1934 our “hierarchy of needs” which changes as we become wealthier. From charities operating to provide food and shelter (critical in much of Africa now and the UK in the 19th Century and before), as economies grow, the gaps become different. As income grows, the market may wake up to provide the need; government raises taxation and develops new ways to disburse that income where voters shout for that need to be filled.

Charities and the economy

In 2010, Charities had an income of £36.7 billion – about the same size as Aviva’s revenue – the UK’s biggest insurance company. The UK economy’s GDP in 2011 was around £1.5 trillion – so, the Charity sector is about 2.5% of the UK’s GDP as measured in simple economic terms (comparing income to GDP).

Financially, the raw economic facts do not speak for themselves. Economic statistics are based on what is measured and it is assumed that £1 is £1 is £1. Measurement in our economy is flawed – real value is mistaken, of course, when our decisions are made almost entirely on the basis of cost data.

The impact of the charity sector, then, is much greater than the raw data. This is reflected in the media and elsewhere but because the third sector is not so easily measureable – charities don’t have financial bottom lines – it is too easy to ignore it or treat it like a small child to be patted on the head when it does well and scolded if it doesn’t.

How important is the Third sector / civil society?

If it is not practical to value civil society or that piece of society that is not government or the market (although it interfaces with both), then how can the real value of this sector be valued? If we are now working to value our natural resources, the value of the charity sector (or whatever we call it) has to be made so that decisions are not taken purely on the basis of costs.

The stupid action of the Treasury in proposing to set an upper limit of £50,000 or 25% of income for tax deductions on charitable donations is so crass as to be almost unbelievable! It is the sign (if we needed it) that valuation is not the issue. Apart from the fact that the Treasury cannot even provide decent examples of the complex schemes that they are trying to hit (sledge hammers cracking nuts), it completely under-values the Charity giving sector and the value that is created from these donations.

This is happening throughout our austerity-driven society. In the same way that pollution effects of manufacturing in the 19th and 20th Centuries (from pesticides to greenhouse gasses) were not properly valued (and are still not properly), so charity is completely undervalued by those responsible for taking decisions that have enormous and adverse impacts.

The value created by a volunteer does not show up in statistics. The value created by pro-bono help from companies and lawyers and school governors and countless others is not shown. The reduced cost of staff in the sector compared to other sectors (notwithstanding the argument about managerialism which is another important subject) is shown as much lower and demands far lower “income” to fund it. Discounts from companies, gifts in kind – all appear to reduce the economic benefit of the sector because they show up as lower costs. But, they provide huge value, which is seriously under-reported. The Big Society is much bigger than the raw data shows.

Yet, decisions are still made based on 19th Century statistics and 19th Century economics.

If we value society as a mix between the market, government and the third sector – with individuals as the customers of all three – then we have to be much smarter and less lazy in understanding what real value comes to mean and much less lazy in using out of date models to make decisions.

The Charity (or third) sector / civil society has a huge and under-estimated impact on society – far greater than the 2.5% of GDP or its equivalent to other sectors of society – which (apart from various externalities) are better approximated by GDP statistics. It is not just the market and the state which makes up society – although we are brainwashed to believe it it.

In the past, before we became beholden to numbers as the only arbiter in society, charity was understood for the huge part it played. As we have become wealthier, rightly government and the market have taken positions, which in the past were covered by charities. Charities and civil society in its widest sense have moved into new areas as the demand became clear. Now, we need to understand the impact of the sector in macroeconomic terms (across the huge range of “charitable activities”) – not just its GDP – in order to properly make decisions.

Osborne’s recent numbskullery with the £50,000 limit has not done much to Cameron’s happiness index nor his leader’s desire to establish the Big Society, has it?

Civil Society – Its Place in the 21st Century

Vern Hughes, Director, Centre for Civil Liberty in Australia, has produced a manifesto for the Mobilisation of Civil Society. Its ten tenets are:

1. Understanding the World Outside States and Markets
2. Personal and Social Relationships
3. Self-Help and Mutual Support
4. Small is Beautiful
5. A Leaner State with Less Bureaucracy
6. A Market Economy without Concentrations of Corporate Power
7. Social Enterprise in Finance and the Exchange of Capital
8. Entrepreneurship and Innovation
9. Social Enterprise in Education Health and Social Services
10. A Renewal of Democracy

and the full proposition can be found on:

http://www.civilsociety.org.au/Manifesto%20for%20the%20Mobilisation%20of%20Civil%20Society.pdf

This links so well with my own philosophy that, this week, it makes sense to show the Manifesto and my own comments on it – which is also displayed on:

http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Manifesto-Mobilisation-Civil-Society-wed-4137855.S.93363203

My own comments:

Vern, this is a courageous attempt to frame a new society and one that, in principle, has a great weight of sense behind it. The manifesto should consider some more variables – which you may already have done.
One is how Civil Society fits in a fractured world made up of democracies (however imperfect) and many states where even the simplest form of democracy does not exist. China is a major player now and the basic forms of democracy (and civil society) play no part. Economics as measured imperfectly by GDP – which ignores all “externalities” – is to the fore on a Maslow index where the basic needs are still to be met. Political change (in the way you suggest and in a way that makes much sense) is well behind in terms of priority.
Second, civil society works (or attempts to work) within the decision-making processes to effect change. Having spent five years in an NGO (until very recently at Global Witness, a pro-transparency and anti-corruption / conflict NGO), the key to any success is operating to make change. But, NGO’s and civil society organisations are unelected and the danger of a civil society in this form taking a dominant role (it already has a very key role) is not obvious.
Third, I agree that in modern society where information is available and transparency should be, the drive to more local decision-making is critical for most decisions. Large, centralised and almost totalitarian agglomerations (monopolies) should not be tolerated. However, the newly developing nations of China, Russia and Brazil (as examples) will see this as a secondary issue. Developed nations will stress the need to compete – this is a major challenge.
Fourth, reducing the state through localism is important but the state’s role needs to be better explained and will vary from country to country. The state has a role to play (such as being the guardian against monopolies across the spectrum) as well as traditional issues of defence and security. These roles are tough to assess.
Fifth, I argue in my own blog – https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/ – that the economics and politics of the 19th Century is still dominant and need massive revision. I therefore support in principle the direction of change from your own NGO with economics being in the centre of the change. Apart from the inclusion of key externalities such as climate, waste, quality vs quantity, pollution that 19th Century economics ignores (except on the periphery of substitution and pricing – with massive disconnects throughout), politics and politicians are too short-term and too focused on the next election to build successful futures. That is why the Chinese and their lack of democracy appears more economically successful today. But, that is not the direction to travel.
So, good luck with this manifesto as a starting point for an urgent process of change!

The Big Society – Calculatingly Political

The Big Society is this government’s big idea and is yet another sign that we are not progressing, but, as a nation, de-evolving back into the 19th Century.

It is not because the Big Society is inherently evil – asking serious questions about the role of the individual and society in working together to help each other and balancing one properly against and with the other – but the language and the rationale are two hundred years-old.

Whether it evokes a Samuel Smiles self-help or Quaker bankers like the Gurney family, government Whig or even Tory rhetoric reminds us of the way it was when the state did not get involved and left it to wealthy individuals to “do good”. Ian Hislop’s recent “When Bankers Were Good” on BBC2 was a healthy reminder of how society once relied on the rich to be good. Hislop proposed that the welfare state (begun by Lloyd George and accelerated by Atlee) had changed the rules so that taxation would be used instead of the rich – releasing bankers and the like to spend their money on themselves rather than anyone else. From the USA, individuals like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett show that where Government is smaller, the rich are expected to enlist their wealth to a greater cause. That may now be international rather than just national, and it seems like the banking community has exempted itself from that enlistment, but the theory holds.

David Cameron believes that society can play a larger role in putting together the broken society and that Government should play a lesser one – instead of financing, the state should guide and help. Nick Hurd’s job as Minister for Civil Society becomes more a challenge to the “do good” society to pitch up at a time when national and local government is cutting back furiously on social spending.

But, this challenge requires a complete change in the way society works. Politics and economics in the 20th Century have directed all our attention on to economic growth that has itself been aimed at maximising how we make and buy things (or develop and use services). Economics (based on 19th Century principles around what we can count and how rational people think – a simulation which has been shown to be miserably false) measures goods and services that we (or others from outside the UK) make. As our brains are progressively wired as calculators, so we drive ourselves to buying more because that is how we now work. Now, the newly developed nations such as China, Brazil, India and the rest are rushing in the same direction.

A key question is “how can society redirect itself away from spending all our time and money on things that are measured by GDP towards societal benefits that are not” – as this is what is needed to make the Big Society work. We have to work out what counts – not spend our time buying because we have been conditioned to count.

Abraham Maslow suggested as far back as 1934 that humans operate within a “Hierarchy of Needs” and that we rise up that hierarchy as we become wealthier. At the bottom end we strive for food and shelter; we obtain the things that add to our health and the health of those closest to us; as group animals, we work within groups (first, close and then wider); we develop self-esteem requirements and then what Maslow terms “self-actualisation” – the achievement of our potential.

Maslow’s work was focused on marketing, but we have marketed ourselves into a corner and stunted the “growth” that Maslow identified. The problem is that we have translated this growth into the buying of things that has simulated the provision of self-esteem and esteem from others. The recent riots in London and many other cities in the UK aguably showed that it was not poverty that drove the rioting but a desire for some form of self-esteem derived from the urge to “acquire” things such as designer trainers and other self-esteem “goods”. We have fallen for both the marketing (the spin) which dictates to us that what we count (like shoes or cars) is all there is. Economics has conspired in this – a reliance on 19th Century simulations of the economy where food, shelter and health were still basic needs for most of the economy. Economics has not progressed since that time.

Economic measurement as we know it panders to our desire for things that are easy to count. Governments (short-term thinkers at best – “it’s the economy, stupid”) have not helped to shape thinking away from its judgement that to get elected, it has to show that we are getting richer. But, “richer” means calculatingly richer – the way GDP shows we are richer – not that which really makes us all “richer”, healthier, richer in mind and spirit as well as in monetary terms. We calculate our wealth and governments calculate how to get re-elected. It leaves the concept of a Big Society – where society and the individuals in it is / are required to work to re-shape and repair society – out of our understanding as we can’t calculate its benefits (just as we have difficulty in calculating climate change – part of the same problem) and most of us focus on what we believe are more important – buying stuff.

To respond to the new paradigm, towards a society that will be driven by more than what we can calculate today, is a massive stretch. It means that we will need to measure quality more than quantity (a massive economic problem that econometricians appear unwilling to solve – maybe because they are one of the causes of the problem) and that Governments will need to consider the risks it is willing to take with quality of life rather than something we can count (GDP growth). That willingness requires long-term thinking and changing the minds of the electorate.

Developing a society with real self-esteem and one that generates that sense of belonging and belief in a society rather than just the individual– the Big Society that also takes the burden away from a cash-strapped public sector – is a tough calculation. It requires a major political and economic transformation – throughout society. It won’t be done just by cajoling people to do more. It requires culture change on a massive scale – and a change to our politics and economics and social systems and structures.