Saturday, 6 December 2008

Chickens (headless)

I’ve kept a copy of the Guardian’s “What might happen next?” guide to the recession from 18th October (http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2008/oct/18/creditcrunch-recession). Julia Finch and Ashley Seager set out five possibilities, ranging from a ‘short, sharp shock’ to ‘Armageddon’. A photocopy is stuck somewhat haphazardly in the sightline to the right of my screen, and from time to time as the news rolls in, I glance and wonder how it’s going.

I assured anyone that asked me in the late summer of 2007, when it was still called a sub-prime mortgage crisis, that this was The Big One. A great unravelling had begun, I asserted: twenty years or more of unregulated debt-funded turbo-capitalism had run into the buffers. When the UK government nationalised Northern Rock I explained to the same audience that much, much more was still to come.

Now that it’s a recession, or a crunch, or just a fucking mess, the news keeps on rolling in, and much, much more has indeed come. A key sign of just how much has come is how hard it is to remember last week’s bad news, or to try to choose the five most remarkable things that have happened. It is possible, in early December 2008, for news of, oh I don’t know, half a million people losing their jobs in a single month, or the US stockmarket falling by the second highest percentage amount ever recorded, or the value of the pound reaching a record low, it is possible for this kind of news not even to make the main headlines.

Here’s a few highlights from the last few months:

- in the UK, interest rates were lowered by 1.5% points, and before the paperwork had even arrived on the mats of the nation’s mortgage holders, rates dropped again by 1%;

- several major financial institutions, in the US and UK - Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, HBOS, Bradford & Bingley – have either collapsed, been taken into public ownership or leant billions of taxpayers’ pounds;

- house prices are falling in the UK at double digit rates;

- the US government tried to announce an $800bn rescue package for the financial sector, failed, tried again, succeeded, but made no difference;

- the entire US car manufacturing sector is on the verge of bankruptcy;

- the UK government has abandoned fiscal propriety, cut VAT and projects the government’s borrowing requirement, on optimistic assumptions about growth, to sail past £100bn next year;

- many companies are experiencing unbelievable changes in fortune, not simply sales that are a little lower than the previous month or the previous year, but total collapses in demand – in the third quarter of 2007, Volvo sold just fewer than 42,000 trucks in Europe; and in the same quarter of 2008 they sold – wait for it – 115. ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTEEN! Normal rules have been totally suspended;

- the outgoing US president convened a global summit to sort everything out, and precisely nothing happened;

- according to today’s news, more than half a million Americans lost their job in November;

- commentary that ‘fiscal injections’ aka Keynesianism would be required has now been overtaken by the extraordinary euphemism “quantitative easing” – this means, in fact, printing money and giving it away. I kid you not.

Absolutely every think tank, policy wonk, media commentator, pundit, department, agency and government has waded in with their views on how terrible it’s going to be, and their proposals for what to do about it. Some of these proposals sound sane, some sound mad, some defy satire. NESTA – “a unique and independent body with a mission to make the UK more innovative” – issued a press release recently explaining that the solution to the problem was, er, innovation.

We have heard innumerable times that we are in uncharted territory, and it shows. Slash interest rates, lend trillions of dollars, buy up the US car market, employ millions of people in a ‘green task force’, let’s give it a go. Despite more than 200 years of economics, absolutely nobody has any clue at all whether – for example – a cut in VAT will cause consumption to rise.

So I’ve updated my view. Eighteen months ago, by The Big One, I meant that the era of debt-fuelled, consumer-led growth had come to an end, and a protracted period – at least five, and possibly ten years – would be required for all the various agents in the system both to clear the backlog and to develop new protocols (e.g. spending on the basis of money you’ve saved, investing on the basis of accumulated profits, trading on the basis of real things rather than derivatives).

Now I’m thinking that something even more profound may happen. I think it’s possible that the very idea of consumerism might collapse. I think it’s possible that the logic of the arguments from sustainable development – that it is western levels of consumption that most endanger the planet’s eco-system – could mesh, for the first time, with the day-to-day experiences of millions of consumers over the next few years. These millions of consumers are going to stop buying stupid volumes of useless stuff – and they are going to discover that this does not make them miserable, or empty, or pariahs. It is possible that they will discover that living with less – living with enough – is actually quite good, and has the extraordinary additional benefit of saving the planet.

The pressures to stop this happening will be immense, of course. Trillions will be spent to keep the old show on the road, and corporations are wily and resourceful beasts with long memories and deep pockets. But maybe, just maybe…

Anyway: several years of rollercoaster weirdness guaranteed. Hold on to your hats.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Sustainable Sculpture

Last week I spoke at the UK’s Sustainable Development Research Network’s annual conference (see below). It was an interesting day, but the most interesting remark came very close to the end and left little time for further discussion.

In closing the conference, the conference chair permitted himself an anecdote, explaining that he had become convinced that ‘sustainable consumption’ probably meant buying smaller numbers of higher quality things. He meant, and explained, that rather than buy twenty shirts for £5 a time, one should buy a single shirt for £100. The single shirt would last much longer than any of the cheaper shirts, implied far lower total resource use and was an altogether more pleasurable experience to wear. The chair was, in fact, wearing a bespoke suit (“My first!”) as prima facie evidence of his commitment to this new insight.

But he went further, and this is where it gets weird. He told the audience – a couple of hundred of researchers and academics and policy wonks from the world of sustainable development – that he had bought an expensive piece of sculpture (for his garden) as a deliberate act of sustainable consumption. As his wife had put it (he told us) – “How much?! We could have gone to Australia and back half a dozen times for that!”

“Exactly” he said.

How do you feel about this? On the one hand, there is a horrible sense that this is right, yet wrong. It’s right, because if you’re going to do something with the money that you have, then spending it in a manner that produces the least possible carbon is surely a good thing. Yet it’s wrong, too, because buying an extravagant piece of sculpture is simply not an option for most people, indeed it would be somewhere between insulting and inflammatory to suggest to the good people of the world that they should begin spending their money on low carbon fripperies in order to save the planet.

On the other hand, it’s wrong but it’s right. It’s wrong because ‘art’ is invariably self-indulgent twaddle, huge quantities of which are produced by over-privileged mediocrities with nothing better to do, and great swathes of which are purchased by over-privileged non-entities with more money than sense.

(I have to endure this juxtaposition rather regularly: I live in what has become a rather prosperous part of west London, and my morning coffee is routinely spoiled by clusters of private-school mummies wondering what to do with their day, their conversations burbling with talk of painting classes and sculpture treats; while my local high street has just seen the arrival of a new ‘gallery’ that sells shockingly bad large-canvas art, the majority of which is straight from the more embarrassing end of the Athena spectrum, with retail prices starting in the low thousands of pounds and rising as steeply as your goldcard will allow.)

But it’s good, too, because humans have an innate creativity, and an economy of enough, in which we’re not running around like blue-arsed flies trying to buy the next pointless consumer good should be a future in which we have more time for conversation and philosophy and creativity and – and art.

Art? Or should that be ‘craft’? The fabulous Richard Sennett’s latest book “The Craftsman” draws attention to the immense value we all do or can derive from doing something well. It almost doesn’t matter what it is, but attention to quality rather than quantity, attention to craftsmanship and detail, the satisfaction of sustained effort over time, of the reward from knowing that something has been done as well as it could have been, these are factors that apply to any area of human activity and deliver enormous reward to individuals.

So if was a truly deep sculpture – a sculpture made by hands and a mind that had invested the 10,000 hours that folklore suggests are needed for true skill to develop – that depth would be evident, and it would be good, and it would be like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and it would be part of sustainability. But if it was superficial, consumerist, a commodity, a pastiche, an effete indulgence, then it is phony, it is part of the problem not the solution, it is not part of enoughness.

But how do we tell the difference? If there is no objective measure, which seems likely, then the distinction is unavoidably subjective. And if it is entirely subjective, who am I to suggest that your art is an ersatz piece of climate hostile self indulgence?

The answer, I suspect, lies in the perspective you choose to take on human nature. Looking around, it certainly seems that human beings en masse produce and consume an awful lot of utter tat; and this applies just as much to the appalling nonsense of the high street as it does to those twee stalls in Cornwall and Covent Garden and Provence where local ‘artists’ peddle their vernacular ceramic tourist fodder. And it would be easy to presume that since so much of this stuff is being produced and consumed under conditions approximating to freedom that this is indeed what people actually want to do, and like.

But the evolutionary perspective taken by the economics of enough would infer a different interpretation. The kinds of choices culminating in the pattern just described have evolved and developed within a very particular socio-economic structure (the fitness landscape). The most particular feature of that landscape is the notion of exchange: and the most acute manifestation of that feature is the notion of monetised trade.

Imagine making a birthday card for your mum; and compare it to the card you last bought. How does that feel?

Or: imagine the most handmade card you can imagine in the shops – and ask yourself whether this is the card that the person who actually made it would give to their own mother.

In what is called ‘the gift economy’ the rules are different, but we are still talking about exchange. If the rules can be like this in one place, there seems to me to be no reason in principle why the rules in any other place should not be like that.

Imagine if we made art we loved; and simply gave it away.

Would that be enough?

Places, Being and Rest

This is the script for a presentation I gave a couple of weeks ago at the UK's Sustainable Development Research Network's annual conference:

The title of this presentation draws inspiration from Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Esher & Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”. Hofstadter’s work draws particular attention to the idea of ‘emergent properties’ and I hope to echo his thinking to consider how the component elements of new communities add up to more than the sum of their parts. It is – or ought to be – the totality of new communities in which we should be interested.

I especially want to suggest that the economics of new communities have not yet been thought through, and that the opportunity exists to move away from outmoded and counter-productive policies in such a way as to embed new and sustainable practices appropriate to an advanced, low-carbon society in the twenty first century. Attention to this element, I want to suggest, has the potential to have transformative impacts in both ecological and psychological terms.

I shall make this argument in three strands:

Place – I shall argue that the prevailing orthodoxy on ‘place’ has lost touch with the uncontrollable and chaotic element of human nature. Against a broad background sketched by the recent efforts of the TCPA, I shall draw on the work of Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd and Colin Ward to suggest that the characteristics of place that emerge from the free interaction of human beings are the most valued and valuable. Ensuring sufficient space for ‘creative chaos’ will be a vital part of developing new communities.

Being – behavioural economics has made huge strides in recent years in achieving a more appropriate understanding of human behaviour than ‘rational economic man’, yet these insights are filtering only slowly, if at all, into mainstream economic policy. I shall draw on the work of figures such as Kahneman, Schelling and Offer to suggest some of the characteristics of lives and livelihoods by which citizens of new communities might be genuinely fulfilled over the coming decades, and the implications of this for both economic policy and economic development

Rest – emerging, in part, from the discussion of ‘being’, but drawing too on work from Kasser, Hodgkinson and Fred Pearce, I shall suggest that an endemic culture of excess – the consequences, manifestations and symptoms of which range from anthropogenic climate change to systemic inequality to depression and obesity – would, if it were the characteristic of a poorly patient presenting at a GP’s surgery, prompt an immediate prescription of prolonged rest and relaxation.

The policy implications of pulling these threads together can, I suggest, be expressed through the phrase ‘the economics of enough’. To enable communities to live in ways that do not imply excessive use of the planet’s finite resources, do not imply systematic inequality and do not imply chronic ‘ill ease’ we need economies to function in new ways, ways that do not depend endlessly on ‘more’ but are able to respect the simply entreaty: I’ve had enough. I shall conclude with some remarks about what such an economy might look like, and how important it is to embed these characteristics in the communities we develop in the UK over the next couple of decades.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Let's try to land on the moon


There is much comment at the moment about the state of the economy: take a look at the financial crisis emerging from the sub-prime mortgage fiasco (and, let us not forget, a massively liberalised, securitised, debt-crazed decade or two’s momentum behind it…); the oil price; and global food prices. Some serious shit is afoot.

The environmental ‘movement’ – that is, a loose assembly of institutions and individuals that place particular importance on the environmental dimension to human affairs – is wondering whether this combination of circumstances is a threat (because everyone – the general public, business and the politicians – will stop all this environmental nonsense now that there’s some serious inflation/unemployment/recession to worry about) or an opportunity (because now is the time to show how a low-carbon economy can be forged from the wreckage).

Among the latter optimists – of whom I am one – there seem to be two camps. (At least, that’s what I deduce having attended an interesting event the other day organised by
Green Alliance.) One group believes that the way forward is to mobilise the many millions of people that belong to an environmental group – Friends of the Earth, RSPB, the National Trust – and who, through that membership, dwarf the mainstream political parties, to make it clear to the body politic how important it is that the environment takes centre stage in tackling and then recovering from our present economic woes.

The second perspective – promoted, in that meeting at least, by figures such as Colin Hines and Tom Burke, as well as myself – is that the ambition should be to make an economic argument at the heart of the economic establishment, for it is there that the key decisions will be made. Hines, working with Caroline Lucas, is calling for a ‘New Deal’, harking back not to the New Labour manoeuvres on employment of the late nineties, but the economic reconstruction by Roosevelt back in the 1930s.

I’m hoping, of course, that ‘the economics of enough’ makes some sort of contribution here, but I’m wondering whether the Roosevelt approach is sufficient. I find myself thinking about Kennedy, and the moon-landings, and whether a grand statement, a big and thrilling plan is what is needed. How would it be, do you think, if we had a politician big enough to stand up and say: OK, enough with all this nonsense, we are capable of building a genuine low-carbon world, and we’re going to do it here, starting now, and we’re going to get it done by 2020, lock stock and full smoking barrel.

Would we join in?

Next time, I’ll turn to what the Government has been saying recently about how to make a low carbon economy. Sadly, it’s not very encouraging.



The Evolution of an Educational Fitness Landscape


I received some interesting responses to the last post, two in particular from close friends that left me pondering, wondering.

One friend thought that attacking private schools was an easy target, that ‘everyone’ agreed that private schools ought really to be done away with, and that the economics of enough should be about bigger things.

The other thought that wanting to abolish private schools was essentially a little adolescent, that the political reality of modern Britain was that private schools were untouchable. The middle classes, and their aspirations, require an alternative to the state sector, and any political party that presented a policy explicitly to remove (or even dramatically reduce) fee-paying education would be unelectable.

These two positions – too obvious to bother with, too unpopular to try – are not quite antithetical to one another, but they are close. They reveal a weakness in the way I articulated my argument and, I believe, a strength in the underpinning logic of the economy of enough.

Mainstream neo-classical economics has no place for institutional and social norms: it describes and analyses the system in question (the system by which scarce resources are distributed) in terms of mathematical abstractions. The processes surrounding the distribution of resources – notably those associated with exchange – are codified in quantitative terms. Human beings (who are not quite assumed to be as rational as is sometimes supposed – their simulacra are assumed to be rational, because the macro-scale models developed on the basis of such simulacra often mimic very effectively the phenomena observed in the ‘real’ world) are interested in maximising their personal well-being (or utility). By ‘personal’, economics sometimes stretches to mean ‘household’, for which read family. One dimension of achieving this is to invest in human capital – that is, to devote present resources in expectation of some future return by means of education and learning (i.e. to invest in the belief that higher future income streams will accrue to an individual if they have greater skills) (in turn a function of the belief that such skills, being in shorter supply (because they were more difficult to obtain) will command a higher price). (Sorry about the parentheses.)

Investment in human capital can take place for the specific individual (you personally can choose to spend some of your time or money now in the belief that you will (more than) recoup your investment at some point in the future) or it can take place with respect to some other individual in which you have an interest (a partner, a child etc).

Why would you invest in your child? Mainstream neo-classical economics has little room for ‘natural love’, or even for the selfish gene, so its presumption is two-fold: on the one hand, by investing in a subsequent generation you are increasing the probability that your own (material) assets will be maintained beyond the point at which you personally are able to achieve that (which helps to ensure their present value); and, secondly, that by investing in a next generation you are maximising the chance that resources will be in place to look after you when you are old.

So it is perfectly ordinary, and well within the grasp of mainstream neo-classical economics, to understand that parents want their children to do well, and will invest time and money in pursuit of that objective.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Neo-classical economics puts pride of place to something called ‘efficiency’ – a circumstance in which, in an exchange (or a market – i.e. a whole series of exchanges) – you get most out for least in. Summed across a whole market, an efficient system is thus one in which everybody puts in the amount they want in return for the amount they want back. Do you want to spend just a little on your human capital? Or a lot? There is someone willing to provide just a little; and someone willing to provide a lot. And lots and lots of in-between, too.

Once upon a time, the number of people willing (and able) to provide an education was very small – in part because demand was itself so low. There was little need for an education, after all, except for a very small number of scribes and bureaucrat. The tiny numbers of individuals that received an education did so from tutors. There were no such things as ‘schools’, just smatterings of privileged individuals being tutored.

Over time – and we’re talking centuries here – a co-evolution took place, between the demand for education (i.e. a progressively more sophisticated society needed a progressively larger share of its population to have particular specialised skills) and the supply of education (which, beyond a certain point, could be done in groups rather than on a one-to-one basis). It is a matter of circumstantial accident precisely which path such a co-evolutionary process might follow, in much the same way that animals with common ancestors are today very different, yet nevertheless occupy a similar system niche.

In the British Isles, and in England and Scotland in particular, this process of teaching in groups – of ‘public’ education – began relatively early and was delivered to the various scions of the landed and the wealthy. Naturally enough, the institutions thereby established accrued to themselves progressively more and more resources, and began to shape the operating environment – in the jargon of evolution, the ‘fitness landscape’ – to suit their own ends. Again, it’s a co-evolutionary process, but – and here there is a subtle but important distinction from evolutionary processes in the natural world – there is ‘agency’ (and, by extension, power) involved.

Think of the elephant in the jungle, whose dietary habits shape the kinds of plants that can grow and survive; and, simultaneously, the fact that the survival and growth of the elephant is a function of the kinds of plants that are available. Augment that with the idea that the elephant takes an active, planned approach to its environment, and is able to effect those plans because it is much bigger than everyone else, and we’re getting in the ballpark.

Do you imagine that the elephant is pursuing its own interests, or the interests of the plants and all the other animals? Sure, it can’t afford to destroy its own home, but it’s hardly going to plan for its own demise.

What if the elephant – magnificent though it is – arrives in a new territory and, by virtue of its planning powers and strength, progressively eliminates, or prevents from coming into being, dozens of other splendid and wonderful fauna?

Back to the schools. By the time we reach the late twentieth century, there are three basic types of school in Great Britain: schools that require parents to pay a fee to have human capital injected into their children; schools that received, in the past, some sort of endowment from a benefactor (most frequently the Established church) but which rely for the bulk of their funding on the State; and secular, State-funded schools. Nominally, at least, these latter two are ‘free’; what in fact is happening, of course, is that the modern State is investing in the human capital of pupils, having collected the money in tax from the citizenry.

So the neo-liberal economic argument would vigorously support a distribution of options, on the grounds that this is more likely to mimic efficiency: if you want to invest more, you can, by paying for it yourself; if you don’t, the State will do so. And the fact that there is an array of private-sector options, from expensive to very expensive, merely further reinforces the argument.

But there are two big problems. The first comes from within neo-liberal economics itself: is the present system in fact ‘efficient’? Well, how would you know? Or, more accurately, what would you want to know in order to answer the question? If we were to consider the entire human capital question (i.e. for the economy as a whole), we would – presumably – consider an ‘efficient’ system one in which all skills were being used to the best possible extent, and in which all those with the potential to have such skills were equipped with the most suitable skills. This suggests a system with the fewest possible ‘rigidities’ – and it is hard to look at the present private/state division as a system without rigidities. One might almost call it a ‘market failure’…

One way of considering the practical implications of this is a simple thought experiment: do we think that the best possible people are running our major institutional devices – the law, the media, politics, our financial institutions – or do we think that they are dominated by individuals whose parents invested in their human capital so that they were able to access the routes to power?

The second problem takes the form of a more profound, normative critique: that ‘efficiency’ is inherently opposed to ‘equality’. The efficient distribution of educational resources inevitably implies an inequitable distribution of those resources; while the co-evolved institutional arrangement means that such inequity is ‘hard wired’ into the operating environment. A system that includes (such a large) private education sector, on the grounds of ‘choice’ [which is merely the acceptable vernacular translation of ‘efficient’] is inherently, systematically unfair.

(For an academic take on this, try “Equality & Efficiency: The Big Trade Off” by Arthur Okun.)

A synthesis exists between these two remarks: to borrow hard from economics, we might wish to consider the notion of ‘educational externalities’. There are costs associated with the particular shape of our educational arrangements that are not borne by those arrangements. Some of these costs are social, some are economic. Could it be, for example, that the UK economy’s over-dependence on the financial sector is in part of a function of a long-run trend in which the privately-educated elite has eschewed ‘manufacturing’? Could it be that the disassociation of too many urban youth is a function, in part, of their accurate perception that they are systematically excluded from a range of possible future paths, simply by virtue of their not having been to the right school?

And so forth.

Tricky things, these elephants. But just because they’re big, doesn’t mean we have to leave them alone.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Thought for the Day - Surfing the Rage

When I first began working on what I now call the ‘economics of enough’ we didn’t have the interweb, but it wasn’t long after first wiring up that I searched for the phrase. It didn’t and doesn’t crop up much, which was/is both depressing (from a global perspective) and reassuring (from an egotistical perspective). It seems to appear most frequently in the work of Christian philosophers, sociologists and commentators. It popped up yesterday in (for me at least) dramatic form when Dr Elaine Storkey used the phrase (repeatedly!) during her Thought for the Day piece on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme.

You can read her thought here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/thought/documents/t20080515.shtml

and listen to it somewhere else, if you can be bothered.

This occurrence is both good and bad.

It’s good in the sense that any wider appreciation of the relationship between the economic system we have evolved for ourselves (transitive use deliberate) and its negative consequences – most notably, systematic environmental degradation, systemic and persistent inequalities and high and rising levels of psychological ill-health – cannot be but a good thing. The more that people are noting and noticing the connections, the better. And if a few minutes in the god-slot on Britain’s premier news broadcast contributes to that process, so much the better.

But therein lies the bad bit. It seems to me a profoundly unsatisfactory thing that the idea of enoughness should have such a conspicuously religious character.

Leaving aside any antipathy I might have to Christianity in particular, or organised religion in general, there seems to me to be a problem if the idea of enough is seen by non-Christians as a specifically Christian message. Identification of an idea with a particular sub-set or sect within society enables others to distance themselves from it. This has already happened with a number of specifically environmental behaviours, with ‘mainstream’ society (that is, millions of ordinary individuals) too easily able to think of ‘greenies’ as tree hugging weirdoes. Even now, with climate change apparently ‘top of mind’ among the British public, around a third of respondents to a recent Defra survey agreed with the statement: “Being green is an alternative lifestyle; it’s not for the majority” [Defra/BMRB, November 2007, Q8.11]. Among some groups, or segments, more than four fifths of respondents agreed with this statement.

This finding is more than simply wryly amusing (in the way that surveys showing that millions of Americans believe that the world is 4,000 years old, that aliens routinely abduct people and that ‘central America means Kansas’ are found wryly amusing by many Brits.) These results have important consequences: one of the best ways of avoiding taking personal responsibility yourself is to believe that a behaviour or attitude is ‘Other’ and therefore nothing to do with you. By believing that pro-environmental behaviour is weird, and for others, you resolve the paradox of conscience that might otherwise prompt you to realise that you – we – just can’t go on like this.

Similarly with religion. It’s all well and good for the religious community to speak to themselves and remind each other of the teachings of their scriptures, and if Christians start to behave in a more environmentally-friendly way, or even a way genuinely consistent with the economics of enough, then great.

But I cannot help that fear that millions of ordinary people, and thousands of economists, get let off the hook. The ordinary secular consumerist masses can say to themselves: that’s just weirdo Christian claptrap. If they want to be ascetics hugging trees in their hair shirts, that’s fine, but it’s clearly not for me, in the same way that transubstantiation and kneeling in subjugation on Sundays are not for me. Preaching abstinence and thrift appropriates an important message to a wider assembly of ideas – what Steve Bell labelled ‘the wrong kind of gobbledegook’ – thereby absolving the secular masses of responsibility.

The economists, too, get off the hook, because each and every idea that threatens their edifice can be discounted (ha ha) because it has a particular origin rather than some general application. Most ‘environmental economics’, or ‘green economics’ or even ‘post-autistic economics’ has utterly failed to make headway inside mainstream economics because it can be easily anaesthetised with the phrase “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” If ‘enough’ is one of god’s words, this will make it easier for the economists to ignore it.

On this theme, there is not merely a history to be told of the complete dominance of neo-classical orthodox economics, and the primacy of abstract, quantitative analysis, there is an evolutionary Just So story to be told about why that has come about, about why alternative narratives, models and world-views have failed. It’s not just that Marxism failed in its most obvious practical applications, or that applied Keynesianism didn’t quite cut it in the 1970s, it’s that self-replicating, interdependent ideas and institutions have co-evolved in a particular way.

Lying at the heart of the ‘economics of enough’ – or, more precisely, the casting of enoughness that I wish to argue and spell out – is an evolutionary account of a thing called an economy, and the institutions within it. Such an account is necessarily conditional – in this place, at this time, such and such happened to be the case, and perfectly ordinary evolutionary processes led from there, to here, in the same way that the explanation of this animal or this organ or this habitat is conditional. We can use general ideas to establish the design space, and Darwin to explain the processes, but the specifics are – just so.

Neo-Darwinian theory makes it very clear that there is nothing inherently ‘best’ about this, it is simply that the various entities and agents involved were seeking and selected for ‘fitness’. The ‘neo-classical account’ was fit for purpose because it happened to arise at a time when mechanistic models of the universe were in vogue, because key institutions, particularly academic institutions, adopted certain ideas at certain times to serve their own ends, because coalitions of actors – particular political functionaries in national treasuries – found particular tools useful at particular times.

And in much the same way that the QWERTY keyboard persists far beyond its rational lifespan, so too does neo-classical economics, and so too do many features of late-capitalist economies.

Take, as an inflammatory example, the system of education in the UK. (Not quite as inflammatory, I grant you, as arguing that organised religion consists of an evolved human institutional device consistent with protecting an emotionally and psychologically underdeveloped species but which is now a remnant of an earlier time, a comfort blanket we need to leave behind. The mature world of tomorrow needs to look squarely and assuredly at the nature of the distribution of resources, and say enough is enough; and it needs, too, to stare squarely at our existential plight without the magical props. We all need to grow up.) (What else is there to do?)

Anyway, education gets a look in because not only does it provide a good example of a malformed evolutionary artefact, and not only because the nature of the malformation (in the UK at least) is a fundamental component of systemic injustice and inequality, but because recent events and news coverage has brought it to the forefront of my mind.

In fact, I have to confess, that among the many things about which I really get quite angry, education usually comes top. If we ask ourselves: what are the signs of a genuinely advanced civilisation? we must answer not with talk of money or power or toys, but of care and nurture. A genuinely civilised society is one in which the weak and vulnerable are cared for by the strong and the capable. Most precisely, the judgment of a society is on the basis of how it cares for its young, its old and its sick. I’ll return some other time to which of these comes first, but let’s focus for now on the young.

What more important thing could there be than to look after and raise a child? At the level of the individual, the family, the community and society as a whole? (I’m tempted to go on a long diversion into Rawlsian ethics, but I don’t have time, and you’ll have to wait for the book.)

Back to the plot. In the UK, in the early twenty first century, it is considered perfectly normal for people with more money than average to buy a separate kind of life for their children. In London, apparently, more than one fifth of children are being educated in this way. Parents – all kind and well-meaning, I’m sure – seek to maximise the life chances of their loved ones by buying access to superior sports facilities, enhanced extra-curricular music tuition, a virtually guaranteed higher performance in exams, a virtually guaranteed improved access to higher education and, most crucially, immunisation from contamination with the riff raff whose dirty and unwashed faith/colour/attitudes/fashion choices would corrupt their little darlings.

Whilst thereby insulated, the darlings will make friends with all the other little darlings who, in ten and twenty and thirty years’ time will run the show. Their social networks will ensure they will run the newspapers, the political machinery, the major financial and commercial institutions and so on.

Don’t believe me? Read John Harris’s article entitled “Networked from Birth” from last weeks Guardian:

http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story/0,,2279014,00.html

This article rekindled – no, reignited – my fury at all this. I’ve had enough. A culture of individuality, of parental choice, is simply the latest carapace for the Establishment’s systematic reproduction of itself through an elitist educational system. In the UK, the ancient institutions of Eton and Harrow and Westminster have become so entrenched that they comprise part of what is called in evolutionary theory the ‘fitness landscape’; they are powerful enough to be able to shape the entire operating system to suit their own ends. Allowing the occasional poor boy in on a scholarship is exactly the same phenomenon as the lottery making the poor believe that it’s acceptable to be rich just in case it’s one day their turn (a disease that is the basis for an entire society in the States). It’s a sham, a device, a self-perpetuating fraud upon the rest of us. It is an evolved human system that systematically protects a narrow elite (which allows just enough new entrants over time to assuage the discontents) whilst condemning the majority to mediocrity.

I occasionally hear a counterargument that says something like “Well, it’s not the children’s fault they went to that school, it was the parents, so we can’t really blame them.” I’ve even heard one argument go so far as to say that to be prejudiced against the well-educated is as inappropriate as being prejudiced against someone on the grounds of their race – in either case, they can’t help it.

I admit too, that most of the privately educated individuals I’ve encountered are perfectly nice people. (Actually, that’s hardly surprising – they’ve been bloody educated at enormous expense to be ‘nice’.)

These arguments are fallacious. The rich are privately educating their children in the sure and certain knowledge that they are being inculcated with the arrogance necessary to run the show in due course. The little darlings figure this out very, very early. Children are not fools. And on the prejudice point, my view is clear: prejudice against the weak, or the marginalised, or the downtrodden, is the platform for injustice and oppression. Prejudice against the rich and the privileged is the ground for righteous anger, is the motile force for the pursuit of justice, is the basis for fiercely opposing the continuation of systematic exploitation. Fair enough, don’t hate the individual; but don’t let that nice smile and gentle handshake weaken your resolve that the system that produced them is a causal factor in your disadvantage, in your struggle, in your distance from the land of milk and honey. Ride that wave, surf that anger.

So yes, pour resources into state-funded education in a bid to lure back the middle-classes, but let’s not kid ourselves. So long as there is a long-evolved two-tier educational system in this country, a key element of an economy of enough – social justice – is unavailable. It has to go.

And faith schools, naturally, inspire a particularly acute form of politicised distress within my poor wizened frame, but I’ll have to talk about them some other time

PS: thanks to the Disposable Heroes of Hypoprisy for the ‘Kansas’ reference earlier.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

We get the candidates we deserve

Imagine if there was a Mayoral manifesto that suggested “doing a little less over the next year or two” or “my main priority for the coming term will be to ensure a more laid back capital” or “I think we need to help those that are trapped on a treadmill of hard work, high wages and early, friendless death”.

Instead, we've got Boris v Ken v Brian v Sian arguing about bloody buses.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Warning: Holidays may be Bad for Your (Mental) Health

I have just returned to this desk following a few days’ leave. Leave? Why is it called ‘leave’? A ‘few days off’? A holiday?

I was looking forward to my holiday; I’d been working hard, and I needed a rest. I was looking forward to a few days in which I would sleep more, eat more, play with my children, read a novel, get some fresh air, go for a walk. And so it proved: I had a lovely time with my family, and I find myself refreshed.

But there’s a but. And the but started with a dinnertime critique from my elder teenage son, who espoused the view that holidays were, in effect, a bad thing; or, perhaps more accurately, a symptom of a bad thing. I listened hard to his analysis, not least because only a few years ago I had heard a similar message from a very different source: the chief physician at a London teaching hospital, a wise and honourable man with whom I am lucky enough to have become friends.

My now-retired doctor friend reacted with aghast sympathy when, these few years ago, I told him that I was knackered and that I was really looking forward to my (summer) holiday where I intended doing as close to nothing as possible for as long as possible. He wondered whether it was entirely healthy to spend so many weeks or months working quite so hard. He wondered whether it wasn’t a sign that my life was somewhat out of kilter. Wouldn’t it be better, he wondered, to not be needing such an extreme rest.

Which is pretty much the point my son made. If you were doing something you really enjoyed, he argued, you wouldn’t want to “have a holiday”, you’d want to carry on doing it. You’d integrate your rest and recuperation into your day to day life, not exhaust yourself so much that every few weeks you have to get away from it all. How can you do your best stuff if you’re perpetually on the verge of becoming knackered again?

There’s a separate thread, for another time, on why you might want to do your best stuff, but for now, and for a few more moments, I want to stick to holidays. Because not only do I agree with the perspective offered from either end of a modern working life, but a re-casting of ‘holiday’, even ‘leisure’, is central to the proposition of an economy of enough.

From a Marxist perspective, for example, leisure and holidays are merely elements in the process known as the reproduction of labour power. Capitalism can only function if the workers are sufficiently awake and well-fed and from time to time refreshed – a factor acknowledged not just by Marxists, but by weapons-grade capitalists like Henry Ford, too. Holidays are not given you because the capitalists love you, and they are not given simply because organised trade unionised labour power fought successfully on your behalf – they are given because they are a useful way of maintaining your productivity over the medium and longer term.

The problem with the Marxist analysis, however, is/was that it relied on a collective resolution, a collective consciousness, that simply doesn’t materialise in atomised contemporary consumer capitalism. It’s my holiday, my entitlement, and I am free to spend it how I wish. We simply don’t conceive of our holidays as in any way a collective thing, despite the fact that great herds of us travel together to the same destinations, irrespective of whether those destinations are allegedly popular or ‘out of the way’.

What is it we’re getting away from? Are holidays simply another form of modern escapism, up there with alcohol and recreational drugs and mystical faith, a symptom of the fact that normal, everyday life, is just not good enough? If we could fix the everyday, would we really need ever more intense holiday hits?

Some of the answers are being explored by people like Carl Honoré (“In Praise of Slow” -
http://www.carlhonore.com/) and Tom Hodgkinson (“How to be Idle” and editor of The Idler - http://idler.co.uk/), but mainstream politics and economics finds these kinds of approaches far too scary at the moment. Good god, could you imagine what would happen if everyone were to start chilling out a bit more, kicking back and running around a little less - – not some faux sixties drop-out vibe, just a developing sense that, no thanks, I’ve had enough? I’m not going to work harder to earn that extra pound so that I can have a slightly more turbo-powered hi-fi/holiday next year, I’m going to get just a little slack. Gosh, what would happen to ‘consumer spending’ and ‘gross national product’ and ‘productivity’?

We’d have a terrible recession and everything would be awful… Or, would we start being a little happier, or more contented, or a little freer to do things that we wanted rather than things that they wanted? Could we have an economy of enough rather than an economy of more?

Friday, 11 April 2008

What I said to Number 10

OK, in the last post I said I would let you know my response to the big fat strategy document issued by No 10's Strategy Unit. Well, I told them what I thought, and here it is. It's a little long, and I know the rules for blogs include the proposition that you should keep things short otherwise people won't read them, but frankly if you've got the attention span of a goldfish then this isn't for you anyway.

No pictures, either.

The Good

I think it important to acknowledge the very considerable strengths of the report. I would highlight four:

First and foremost, it is extremely encouraging to see that a document of this kind exists at all. I think it is entirely healthy that government should from time to time produce overarching strategy, and share it with the rest of us. All too often policies and initiatives appear to be produced in isolation: “Realising Britain’s Potential” affords the opportunity to position any given policy proposition within a wider frame. This can only be good both for the wider body politic, and policy makers within individual departments.

Second, the breadth of coverage is extremely impressive. It is rare to see so many disparate issues brought together in coherent fashion.

Third, the presentation is excellent. Having myself grappled with multi-faceted projects – developing a food strategy for the Mayor, for example, involved covering economic, social, cultural, environmental, security and political considerations; while developing ‘lifestyle scenarios’ for Defra’s waste R&D and strategy teams involved a similarly broad range of inputs – I greatly appreciated the layout, the concision, the quality of the graphics and the quality of the text.

Fourthly, there is no doubt that some of the content is very strong. The section on “Personalised Public Services”, in particular, presented an excellent and coherent analysis of the past, present and prospective future of this vital area.

The Bad

A number of issues, however, have me cause for concern. Again, I would highlight four:

The first I would characterise as a kind of ahistorical perspective. This is not to say that historical data is not presented in the report; quite the reverse, there are innumerable (well presented) charts and tables containing historical data and evidence.

Rather, I am referring to the document’s sense of itself as existing ‘outside time’. This is a not uncommon problem, I have discovered, among big picture strategy documents and ‘horizon scanning’ reports (in both the public and the private sector).

Had such a document been prepared and published in 1998, or even 1988, what would it have looked like? And how have things turned out compared to what was expected? Surely it is only if we consider how previous strategies got it wrong (or right) can we evaluate the likely strengths and weaknesses of our latest strategy. It is a well-known problem in scenario-planning, for example, that this year’s topical issues tend to be presumed as having long run strategic significance; it is only years later that we discover it was a short-run blip, not a new trend.

This critique is not merely a methodological one; it has the more practical implication that particular issues are treated without proper historical strategic perspective. Take productivity, for example, mentioned yet again in this report as of great importance to the future economic prosperity of the UK. This has been a mantra of this government (and, indeed, previous administrations) for many years: yet the productivity ‘problem’ remains a ‘problem’, even though “the British economy is fundamentally strong”.

Does this mean that productivity doesn’t matter? Or that a strong economy and productivity are not, in fact, connected? In my view, a discussion of productivity with the kind of historical strategic perspective I am suggesting would have been more responsible and more convincing. If we faced up more directly to the things that we got wrong, we would be better positioned to get it right in the future.

Secondly, the document elides ‘positive’ and ‘normative’ in a disquieting manner. I have to confess that this is a habit for which I myself have been criticised, but in a world of ‘evidence-based policy’ I think it is incumbent on documents such as this to be especially careful. Granted, the overwhelming majority of the document comprises the presentation of factual material, and this is certainly a creditable achievement. There are, however, occasions when value-based statements are made that serve to disturb the confidence one can place in the whole. If this statement is clearly a value-judgment, does that mean I have to be on the look-out elsewhere?

This second concern would perhaps not be so unsettling were it not for a third concern, namely the weakness of the policy implications derived from the analysis. At the end of each chapter, we are presented with a high-level summary of the preceding pages, then a little box containing what are clearly the current government policies associated with the issue at hand. It is odd that they are not titled ‘Policy Implications’, or even ‘Current Policies’, but that can be left to one side. The problem, from my perspective, is the extraordinary weakness of most of these sections. As I said at the beginning, this is in many respects an impressive document, and I often found myself working through the pages of data and evidence thinking “Gosh, this is big stuff, I wonder what they’ll say about it” only to encounter a limp list of initiatives that are already up and running.

I understand why this has happened; but it does not excuse it. You had the opportunity to challenge yourselves with these strategic challenges; instead you’ve tried to imply that government is already completely on top of things, because in each and every area of discussion you can show that there are policies already in place. Really? All the policies we’ll need for all this have already been developed, and have taken account of all the data and evidence and argument you’ve mustered in the report?

Obviously not. Obviously when we ask the question: “How can we better prepare for the consequences of demographic change in British society?” the second most important answer is not “Refreshing the carers’ strategy, and considering how better to offer information, support and care to carers in the community”. Obviously on page 55 when you ask “How do we prosper in this new global economy where skills and talent are at a premium?” you should do better than produce a simulacrum of those indistinguishable RDA missions statements in which everywhere will become a “knowledge economy”. We know – you know – that saying “Ensure the UK is equipped with a skilled and flexible workforce” is to say nothing at all.

Finally, and on a smaller note, I was struck by some omissions, issues that were either underplayed in the analysis or (perhaps because policies have not yet caught up with the thinking) in the little boxes at the end of each section. Two examples: when talking about the role of new technology in terms of security (page 123), I could find no mention of the possible implications for personal liberties. An oversight? Not enough room? Too sensitive? Not important? Certainly odd.

A second example: the role of technology in education. There is no apparent consideration of the possibility that the kind of one-to-one education mentioned (and which I vigorously support) could be dramatically facilitated through the use of new technologies; and no consideration that the delivery of small group teaching at a level that could genuinely compete with the private sector could be dramatically accelerated through the use of such technologies. Too innovative? Not yet worked through at the Department? Again, odd.

The Ugly

I’ve left until the end the issue that concerns me most, and that is the treatment of and status given to economic issues.

There are two main problems: the failure to acknowledge that the economy we presently have may have some downsides; and the failure to consider the kind of economy we mind need, or want, in the future.

By the first of these, I mean to say that there is no discussion of the possibility that any of the features of the current economic structure and situation of the UK has any negative consequences whatsoever. Take the financial sector, for example, the increased size of which is reported as an entirely positive phenomenon. Are you sure? Have increased income (and, more especially, wealth) inequalities as a result of the growth of this sector had any negative consequences for the health of low income groups? Has the growth of this sector squeezed out investment that might otherwise have taken place in sectors with preferable social or environmental benefits? Has the dominance of the financial services sector distorted the UK labour market such that best minds leave our best universities to enter the City, thus starving science, manufacturing, even the Civil Service? Might it be that the short term investment priorities of the lauded City institutions are simultaneously inflating ‘growth’ whilst limiting ‘productivity’?

Or take physical infrastructure, introduced on page 50 as being “crucial to enabling continued high levels of growth”. Presumably, therefore, we could deduce that physical infrastructure developments over the past 10 years have been instrumental in bringing about the economic growth of the past decade? (Is there evidence for that?) But what about the negative environmental consequences? Or the fact that children are now so car-bound and car-borne they are becoming obese and de-socialised? Is it incontrovertibly the case, for example, that ceaseless growth in airport capacity will be ‘good for the economy’?

And how do you square the economic story with the story on page 85 that “people…generally identify a happy family and nice life as their priority for the future (rather than fame, celebrity and wealth)”. Is it possible that the turbo-economy of the present and recent past is actually undermining family life and community, the very things that seem to make people happy? This may or may not be true – I am watching the Layard vs Ormerod debate with interest – but is not worth a discussion when considering “future strategic challenges facing Britain”?

Moving to consider the future, the problem is even more acute. When will it be appropriate to consider the possibility that unending ‘strong economic growth’ might not be compatible with the climate change challenge? When might it be possible to wonder whether the desire for “happiness” (or some other metaphysical objective, howsoever labelled) might mean we should pursue an economy that is not simply bigger, but, instead, better? What if all this competitiveness is actually the cause of the ever rising levels of mental ill-health, alcohol abuse and religiosity?

I acknowledge that these kinds of questions are still considered ‘fringe’ in many quarters; but they will have to be faced at some point, even if only to reject them. The impression given by “Strategic Challenges” is that untrammelled global economic growth will pour over our shores like a tsunami and our only option is to skill up as best we can to make sure we get the biggest possible share of the excitement. Even the idea of mild demand management – by no means a radical idea, moiré than 70 years after Keynes’ General Theory – gets not a look in.

Perhaps I am being unreasonable to expect this particular document to address such issues. But I cannot help but think that the time is going to come when the prevailing economic orthodoxy is going to have to justify itself. Your document does not do that; it doesn’t even acknowledge the question.




I shall stop there: I’ve already gone on for longer than I intended. I very much hope that this has been of interest and/or use. I would be more than happy, if you were interested, to expand on any of these remarks, or to provide references (either to Brook Lyndhurst’s work or the work of others) than might also be useful. It would in any case be interesting to know what you intend doing with the responses you garner.

As I said at the beginning, and to repeat, I think that this was a strong and important piece of work, and my critical remarks are delivered very much in the spirit of having had high hopes, and of expecting more good things in the future. Frankly, if the whole thing had been truly terrible, I wouldn’t have bothered getting this far.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Part the Second

Optimism remains high that I shall maintain this novel effort. Two points to note, and a trailer.

First point - Brook Lyndhurst (the company I run - see the link to the right) - is not a 'think tank', it's a 'think river'. Tanks are too static, foetid almost, isolated and compressed. The best stuff comes when you move - as the Sundance Kid pointed out. This blog appears to be a tributary; but, a bit like the Amazon, it's difficult to tell precisely which is the main channel.

Second, an 'economy of enough' is something to do with becoming more grown up. When societies are young, they naturally focus on food and shelter and security; as they mature, they become concerned with art and literature. Western societies - or, more precisely, contemporary capitalism - is still predicated on a notion of 'more' that is essentially infantile, almost orally fixated. Isn't time we grew up, acknowledge that we have enough and turn our minds to finer things?

(I'm interested in whether this is the same kind of 'growing up' suggested by Richard Dawkins in "The God Delusion". I'll come back to this later.)

And the trailer? Well, the first thing to which I wish to attend in any depth is the recent epistle from the Strategy Unit at 10 Downing Street, enticingly entitled "Realising Britain's Potential: Future Strategic Challenges for Britain". It came out in February. I've no idea how many people read this kind of thing, but it strikes me that it's precisely the kind of forward-looking, thought-provoking material that the Prime Minister's own personal think-tank should be doing.

But is it any good? And what does it tell us about the state of things?

If you have the strength, check it out at: http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/strategy/work_areas/strategic_challenges0208.aspx

You'll see that they are inviting 'comments'. I shall be preparing comments over the next few days, and posting them here at the same time I send them to Number 10.

Enough for now.



Friday, 28 March 2008

Opening Salvo

This is a first, Rumsfeldian step into the unknown unknown. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, these footprints may not be washed away. Amidst the trillions of words, our digital scratchings, these binary prints, I am not so narcissistic as to believe that this particular paragraph is of any particular significance. But the journey I have in mind is, I hope, a journey worth making; and, if I make it, then others may one day come this way. I hope, should you find yourself on this path - and, indeed, when I myself pass this way again - that this first step seems reassuring rather than ridiculous.

So. Where am I heading? Towards a thing I have for the past few years been calling 'an economy of enough'. It's a long journey, and a long story, and I have no intention of attempting to explain it all in one go. Instead I'm hoping, through the medium of these posts, to unpack and explain 'enoughness' by noting and commenting on economic and social and environmental affairs over the coming weeks and months, simultaneously throwing new light on those affairs and articulating what 'enoughness' is all about.

That's nearly enough intro, but two further pieces of preamble are warranted. Firstly, there's a thread in hyperspace around 'enoughness' that is conspicuously Christian in its orientation. This blog, and my interpretation of enoughness, is categorically secular: not reductionist, not mechanistic, but definitely not mystical.

Second, there is also an ecological or environmental angle on enoughness, some of which postulates simpler living at the individual level, some of which campaigns on an anti-consumerist platform, with which this blog is more closely aligned, but I am hoping that I can adopt a rather broader perspective on the problem and, in so doing, get closer to its hub. We shall see.

Enough already, methinks, for a first post.

I'm quietly thrilled. This might be good.