Sunday, 5 December 2010

Retail flying

I very rarely fly so, on the occasions when I do, I tend to get a little over-excited. The whole thing is so extraordinary: the aeroplanes themselves (they fly! In the air!), the technology (my boarding pass exists as a sort of bar code on my phone), the bewildering iconography of the airports.

Last week I travelled to Northern Ireland for a conference and some meetings. I spent a couple of hours at Belfast City airport on my return journey. Although my flight was delayed only slightly, heavy snow at Gatwick and Leeds and Edinburgh meant that there was a degree of chaos, with many flights cancelled or heavily delayed.

Various television screens around the departure lounge provide information on the various flights that may or may not be taking off soon. “Go to gate 3”, they say, or “Expected 20.25”.

For a significant number of the listed flights, however, disruption caused by the weather meant that, although it was certain that the aeroplanes were not at gate 3 or any other gate, it was uncertain when (or even whether) the flight would actually depart.

As a result, those responsible for the screens had to offer some alternative advice; and it was this:

“Wait and shop”

I kid you not. Not “relax and have a nap”, not “settle down with a good book”, not “make a new friend by chatting to the equally miserable stranger to your left”, not “reflect in awe and wonder on the magnificence of existence”, not "ponder the fleeting nature of consciousness and reflect on how you might best use this extraordinary spark".

No, the only thing to do, if trapped somewhere with no instruction manual pending your eventual departure, is to wait, and shop.

More poetry

My son, who is studying A-level English, gave my recent sonnet [posted 19 November] a thorough critique, and we found ourselves having an interesting discussion about the structure of sonnets. He issued a challenge: how far could you push the structure and still have a poem that ‘works’.

I thought I could probably play with the internal rhythm, the rhyming pattern and the style of each verse. For the rhythm, I wanted to try 5:1:3:1, followed by 2:6:2, 2:5:3 and 5:5; for the rhyme, AABB, ABAB, ABBA and AA; and for the style – well, it snowed this week, as you probably noticed, which has multiple impacts and connotations… see what you make of it.

Winter’s nearly here – look! Look outside! Snow!
Want to go and play? Sure. Wrap up warm – go!
Yes I’ll come out too – wait! Where’s my hat? Where?
Snowball fight you say? Yes! Here it comes – there!
Later, switching adult guises, he flies
Business, a suited trip up north, a deal
Beneath, the whitened kingdom waits, it lies
Silenced, a billion solo flakes, unreal
Structure: our cities and fields, mesmeric
Aircraft: our engineered birds, titanic
Snowflakes, crystalline magic, organic
Poem: playful and rhythmic, and metric

What flexible forms, these various themes
Lifting our daytimes, upholding our dreams

Friday, 19 November 2010

Sometimes only a sonnet will do

They say the age of deference is dead
and genuflection’s time is truly done
Have not the landed and entitled said
our modern meritocracy has won?

But wedding news reveals the craven hordes
still craving for their safe and rightful place
Prostrate before elite-appointed Lords
still puckering with hope to say ‘Your grace’

The millionaire Etonian’s address
exposes, too, nobility’s intent
to re-secure our acquiescent Yes
and represent as futile all dissent

Political maturity is tough:
Toffs and trinkets? It’s time to say - enough

Friday, 5 November 2010

Jam today, maturity tomorrow

Excitement in my town of origin this week with the visit of the genetically-specified head of state. The Queen visited Maldon, ancient settlement and battle site, to endorse salt and jam.

If there has to be a genetically-specified head of state, then using them as the marketing wing of UK plc is, I suppose, the least distasteful method of their deployment. And as a loyal customer of both Maldon Sea Salt and Tiptree jams, I am pleased that they will receive some sort of fillip from these shenanigans.

But please. Enough already. We’re grown ups now. We don’t need to cling to the blanket any more. Let’s let the old lady go – I’m sure she has other things she’d rather be doing – and find ourselves a proper, sensible, 21st century way to govern ourselves.

And then one day you find...

In an article on social capital in the autumn issue of the RSA journal, Professor Mario Luis Small, of the University of Chicago, wrote:

“Together with my research assistants, I spent six years interviewing a diverse set of mothers of young children in New York City. They were black, white and Latina; affluent, middle-class and poor, doctors, secretaries, dancers, teachers, welfare recipients and everything in between. Yet in spite of their diverse lives, the full span of their experiences with respect to time commitments only ranged from ‘too busy’ to ‘overwhelmed’. Sociologist Suzanne Bainchi and her colleagues analysed decades’ worth of US data and confirmed that parents are much busier on average than they were a generation ago. Who has time to start a bowling league?”

This confirms what many of us, I suspect, experience ourselves, as well as a commonplace about the pace of modern life. It has become a social norm to be ‘too busy’. (If you want to test this, attempt transgression: next time someone asks how you’re doing, see what happens if, rather than the usual “Oh, you know, not too bad, busy!”, you try “Yup, not bad, not too much on at the moment, trying not to get too much done”.)

What on earth is going on?

At a very simple level, it’s an equation: there are Things to Do, or Tasks; and there is Time Available. The Time Available is completely fixed in the short term: there may appear to be some short term flexibility, if you find yourself imagining that you might sleep a little less in order to make more time available, but sleep, in this equation, is just another Task.

In the longer term there is some flexibility, because for the normal human the ‘longer term’ translates into ‘how long do you live’. For all of us, the days are the same length; but the total number of days we get varies. Those of us that live longer get more time to do Tasks.

What are the Tasks? There are many. There are basics like eat and sleep and clean yourself and have sex. There are Tasks like work and travel, finding and maintaining a home, buying food and clothes. There’s leisure and television, socialising and going on holiday, looking after your family and walking the dog, writing books and seeing your shrink and self-actualising.

There is spectrum describing the extent to which these Tasks are mandatory. Eating and sleeping, obviously, are quite important, and go too long without them and you’re soon in trouble. Leaving the maintenance of your home until tomorrow rather than doing it today is no problem, but leave it too long and things could get tricky. Go ages without participating in your favourite leisure activity and, well, you might get a sense of annoyance or disappointment, but it’s not much worse than that.

Along another dimension, any given task can take more or less time. You can eat in 5 minutes, or an hour: you can sleep for 6 hours or 8 hours or 10 hours; you can holiday for a weekend or a week.

And, of course, it’s sometimes possible to do more than one Task at once: eat and watch television, work and socialise, paint and have sex. There are limits, of course, and there’s a lot of personal preference at play here.

So whither the sense of being ‘too busy’ or ‘overwhelmed’? Well, if we stick for a moment to the short term situation of day to day life in which Time Available is fixed, then there are two possibilities:

• there are too many Tasks to be done

• the Tasks take too long

The latter of these seems odd. I thought everything was supposed to be becoming more efficient? Washing machines and microwaves, ready-made meals and package holidays, multi-function handheld devices and on-line shopping. All of these are quicker than the alternative, aren’t they?

So it’s something to do with how much we’re trying to get done, how many Tasks there are.

There’s an important distributional issue here that we mustn’t forget. I suspect that not everyone is ‘overwhelmed’, despite Professor Small’s assertion. Note, for example, that his research was conducted in New York City, which is hardly the most laid-back city in the world; and I’m writing this in London, which undoubtedly has a high pace. Perhaps those living in rural locations; or people who have retired, or people who smoke dope, or people adopting ‘alternative’ lifestyles or who appear on television programmes about moving to live in a refurbished gite do not experience the same kind of time poverty that seems to affect so many of the rest of us.

On the assumption, however, that a significant proportion of the population do share this experience, then I have two further questions.

Firstly, what’s the cost? Is there, actually, a problem here? Surely busy is better than bored?

It’s a matter of balance. If we try to pack too much in, then all sorts of negatives progressively take place. We become stressed and imperil our physical and mental health. We pay insufficient attention to our loved ones. We do not participate in bowling clubs, or their equivalent, and our neighbourhoods become dormitories or ghost towns. We seek compensation in ever more thrilling ways, most of which are more socially and environmentally damaging. We have no time to
sit and stare. I’m not sure I can ‘prove’ it, but I’m pretty sure that sustained time poverty is a Bad Thing.

So, and secondly, what’s the benefit? And for whom?

I may get the feeling of accomplishment when I have, during the course of a day, done a million and one things, but it’s short-lived because a further million and two things remain to be done tomorrow. And I may benefit in terms of the myriad of individual satisfactions from each individual Task – hmm, nice bit of quality time with the children, nice moment at work, nice mouthful of food I just had – but in general, and without getting too utilitarian about it, it doesn’t seem to stack up.

The principal beneficiaries of all this mad running around we’re doing would appear to be (a) the entities for whom we work, and (b) the entities that sell us things. Oh! And look! They’re the same entities!

Marx got there first, of course, and Ivan Illich unpacked it properly, but our chronic and increasingly acute time poverty is the outcome of the operation of capitalism and the interests of capital. The nature, number, scale and pace of Tasks is ever more determined by the requirements of salaried work (and all the
shadow work that goes with it) and the social obligations of the conspicuous consumption of positional goods and services. Civic or personal or vernacular control over time is being lost.

Time use is as much part of the hedonic treadmill as consumption itself. If we want to tackle the various ills with which it is associated, we have to get off; or, at the very least, slow down.

Slow down, do less. Gosh, it’s almost as scary as “Buy less”. No wonder it’s so hard. No wonder so many of us complain but don’t do anything about it.

But you’ve had enough, haven’t you? All this running around like a blue-arsed fly… We’ve all had enough.

Ironic close out? There’s already a movement trying to make this kind of argument and to do something about it. It’s called the ‘
slow’ movement.

But it’s progressing too slowly…

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Enough with the booze already

The Today programme this morning did a piece on alcohol consumption. The Secretary of State for Health is, reportedly, going to be using 'nudge' techniques in an attempt to tackle the UK's drinking culture. Statistics abound on the scale of the problem, with billions of pounds being spent on coping with the direct health consequences, billions more being spent on dealing with all the alcohol-related crime, and - apparently - around 20 million UK residents routinely drinking more than the recommended sensible weekly limit (and 2.5 million drinking more than double that limit). That's a lot of mashed lives.

The BBC's correspondent explained that tackling the supply side (through, for example, establishing minimum prices per unit of alcohol) was 'easy', but tackling the demand side was more difficult.


Then the BBC turned to Kit Malthouse, deputy Mayor of London, who has apparently fallen in love with a scheme originating in South Dakota (hotbed, as we all know, of cutting edge solutions for twenty first century urban life) in which individuals convicted of alcohol-related offences are put on 'enforced sobriety' programmes rather than being sent to jail. Individuals on the programme have to present themselves for blood testing twice a day: pass the test, and they can carry on doing whatever it is they do; fail the test, and get thrown in the slammer.

Finally, in terms of the morning's connections, the august Institute for Government, new leaders in the behaviour change arena on the back of their tremendous MINDSPACE report, are soon to hold an event focusing directly on the question of alcohol consumption. I'm guessing that the Institute's findings will help Andrew Lansley work out what he means.

I'm both excited and worried by all this. Excited, because (a) alcohol consumption really is a major individual and social problem that needs to be tackled, and (b) the techniques of behaviour change have the potential to make a genuine positive difference.

I'm worried because I think that there is a risk of superficiality. By focusing on 'binge drinking', or the 20% of the population that account for 80% of the problem, and by thinking about alcohol in isolation, the whole thing will be treated as a standalone problem requiring specific alcohol-related interventions aimed at particular types of individual.

In reality, virtually all adults drink alcohol - and alcohol is just one of a number of tools that people use to 'escape' whatever it is they're running away from. In general terms, alcohol is in a set with recreational drugs, television, shopping and foreign holidays: these are all devices for 'getting away' from - from what? The stress and strains and discontents of everyday life? The existential crisis at the centre of the human condition? It strikes me that if day-to-day life weren't quite so crap for people, they probably wouldn't need to get quite so out of it quite so often.

So the question turns into: how deep do we need to go? How deep are we willing to go? What if the answer to the alcohol problem is not, in fact, incarcerating or demonising or offering CBT to drunk people but, rather, re-engineering work, reducing stressful commuting, helping people to develop autonomous control over their lives and promoting self-actualisation?

Friday, 22 October 2010

I've been meaning to write but...

As all good behavioural economists know, habit is a hard nut to crack. I got into the habit of thinking: I'll write that blog post tomorrow. And, suddenly, six months had gone by.

In the world of the multi-web, this is the equivalent of having become extinct and then re-evolving seven million years later. Even in the real world a good deal seems to have happened.

In the domain of enough, it would be a waste of effort to attempt any synopsis or synthesis of external events: suitable summaries I'm sure abound. Instead, I want to spend a few moments on a couple of things that didn't happen:

  • There has not been a resurgence of consumer spending in the UK. There are still millions of people spending billions of pounds on stuff they don't really need, to be sure, and the government is still desperately hoping that sometime soon there'll be a recovery on the high street to rescue us from the 'brink', but weird signs are popping up here and there. I encountered reference to a paper reportedly circulating among Europe's car manufacturing companies that is wondering what to do about the fact that young people have fallen out of love with the car as a status symbol.
  • I personally have not bought: a television, a radio, a new hi-fi, a new suit, a new briefcase or a new phone. I have not bought several shirts, several pairs of shoes and several new pairs of trousers. I have not been on an aeroplane, nor have I bought any furniture, carpets or heavy textiles.
That's not enough, of course, there's plenty of others things that I could have not done, and there's plenty of things that didn't happen that would have been good if they had, but I wanted to get off on an optimistic footing.

I noticed that The Guardian's G2 supplement this week had a piece on 'things to do for free'. This is all well and good as part of coping with austerity and all that, but HAVE THEY ANY IDEA WHAT'LL HAPPEN IF THAT SORT OF THING BECAME A WIDESPREAD HABIT?

Friday, 9 April 2010

The truth will out

The time of election is upon us: and, if truth is the first casualty of war, then it is the second or third casualty of election campaigns.

The US Masters is also upon us, and the sportsman Tiger Woods returns to his professional endeavours after the hiatus caused by the revelation of some truths that derailed his previously serene progress towards sporting immortality.

What kind, and what extent of truth do we demand, expect, require from our public figures? From our peers and friends and families? From ourselves?

We set hypocritical benchmarks. We call for standards of truthfulness from politicians that have no bearing on their ability to take, on our behalf, the decisions that politics requires. In so doing, we deter innumerable people whose contribution could dwarf that of those that currently put themselves forward for office (honourable though, I suspect, most of them actually are). We judge mere sportsmen – golfers, footballers – as if they were paragons of virtue rather than hypertrophied teenagers with over-developed hand-eye co-ordination.

I look to myself and I ask: how can I live with a degree of truth – to self, to others, to some Kantian ideal – sufficient to provide a platform from which, not to throw stones, but to in honour propose a benchmark for others?

I am going on holiday for a week and I am gathering my reading. It’s going to be heavy:

• ‘Living in Truth’, Vaclev Havel, which I read in pre-1989 days and need to re-visit
• ‘What’s the use of truth’, Richard Rorty, the muscular American philosopher
• ‘Language, Truth & Logic’, Freddie Ayer, Spurs fan and founder of logical positivism
• ‘Truth & Truthfulness’, Bernard Williams, his last great work
• ‘Concealment & Exposure’, my most recent purchase from Thomas Nagel, my favourite philosopher

It’s going to personal, political, philosophical and – by the looks of things – too much. My hope is that I make sufficient progress to be able to report with some coherence in a week or two’s time on an insight or two that has so far eluded me.

Other than that, “All we ever look for” by Kate Bush, “A night like this” by The Cure and, for Malcolm McLaren, “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols (which, if Kropotkin was even half right, is about as true as it gets).

Monday, 5 April 2010

A question of motivation

Bob Holman writes periodically to The Grauniad from his home and base in Easterhouse, Glasgow, and did so again a few weeks ago. As his letter explains, in response to the intriguing decision by former minster James Purnell not just to leave politics at the next election but to join the ‘community’ sector, Bob made a life-scale decision in his mid-thirties to forgo the comforts of academia so as to put into practice what he had hitherto been researching.

I first came across Holman’s work in the second half of the 1990s when, at a time when I was about the same age he had been when he made his life-scale move and when the excitement of the New Labour government and its commitment to tackling social exclusion was still in its pre-war flowering, I began working in the field of economic development and regeneration. I found myself working in south Birmingham, where I encountered the remarkable Balsall Heath Forum and its Holman-esque chief executive Dick Atkinson. Atkinson, like Holman, is a gifted, idiosyncratic, driven former academic with a passionate belief that ‘bottom up’ solutions to prolonged deprivation and disaffection are always and infinitely superior to ‘top down’ solutions.

Working with Dick – as I found myself doing, despite the anxieties and protests of the City Council (who in general thought the regeneration fund that had initially supported my involvement meant that I should in perpetuity be on ‘their’ side rather than the residents’) – I grappled with questions such as: “What does community capacity really mean?”, “How can we foster self-confidence and leadership in a damaged community?”, “What are the propellants that produce and sustain an Atkinson or a Holman?”, “How can we ensure that decisions at community level are genuinely democratic rather than dominated by a self-appointed clique of usual suspects or a charismatic leader?” and – most controversially – “How bad does it have to get before a community pulls itself up by its bootstraps?”

A decade or so later it is fascinating to see that questions of this kind are rising to the top of the political agenda. A decade ago, Atkinson and I sat in a dilapidated community building sketching on the back of an envelope our estimate of the total state spending taking place in Balsall Heath. Compared to the regeneration funding – the millions that at first sight looked substantial and over which the local communities had been given some modicum of control - all the housing and social security and education and transport and all the various types of government expenditure added up to a figure some fifty times as large. This, we thought, is the prize: if this spending could be co-ordinated to address the various social and economic and environmental problems facing Balsall Heath, then the legacy of decades of neglect could, perhaps, be overturned.

We used our calculations in discussions with politicians ranging from local ward councillors to Secretaries of State. Give communities this money, we said, and transformation is possible! We got short shrift at the time, but the new Total Place initiative is based on the same idea: pool the resources, line up the partners and reap both efficiencies and impacts. Total Place hasn’t yet gone as far as Dick and I were proposing – actual residents are still kept from the table by their elected representatives – but Total Place is but one illustration of a more general movement in this direction. Whether in terms of the language of social capital, or ‘new localism’, or pre-election possibilities such as co-operatively owned social services, a common thread that eludes easy right/left description is running through the discourse. Briefly, it would seem that the political classes in general have acknowledged that the traditional command-and-control instruments of the state are inadequate for tackling either our established social and environmental issues (housing, education, waste) or our new ones (climate change, obesity, excess consumption). Communities, it is now being said, need to be at the heart of the means by which these issues are addressed, and the various political parties are falling over themselves to explain how their particular propositions will enable communities to fulfil these roles.

Witness, for example, the recent launch of NESTA’s new pamphlet Mass Localism. [Full disclosure: Brook Lyndhurst was responsible for the formal evaluation of NESTA’s programme Big Green Challenge, the experience of which provided much of the basis for the Mass Localism paper.] Full of admirable ideas, the pamphlet prompted an unsettling and recurring question among the invited audience, a question to which the panel had no easy answer and which had perturbed me back in Balsall Heath.

And the question is: who is in charge? And are they any good? If we – you, they – devolve power and money and authority to the (ultra) local level, who will receive that power and money and authority?

At the moment, one answer to this question is ‘councillors’. I have met a few, and among their number are some admirable, capable, respect-worthy individuals. I salute their hard work and their commitment.

As a class, however, they are stunningly mediocre. Dominated by petty party politics, closed to outsiders, underpaid and unloved, given little or no real authority by central government, councillors draw their numbers from an ever smaller base of ever less representative people. Would you become a councillor?

A possible alternative leader at the ultra local level would be the figure known as the ‘social entrepreneur’. Motivated by social and/or environmental objectives as well as financial ones, the social entrepreneur is a figure with the ‘can do’ mindset that characterises the business entrepreneur but with a broader sense of what that attitude could be used to achieve. The term didn’t really exist when they started along their paths, but it is possible that both Dick Atkinson and Bob Holman are social entrepreneurs.

How many social entrepreneurs are there? No one really knows.

It’s possible that the question is not quite right. Go backwards a little and ask – how many entrepreneurs are there (irrespective of what kind of entrepreneur they are)? Well, no one knows that, either. A few million in the UK, perhaps, if you think that an entrepreneur is probably a sole-trader, or a person running a very small business. But isn’t the person who set up a business ten years ago but which is now employing twenty people an entrepreneur? Isn’t Richard Branson an entrepreneur? Are there not people deep inside large organisations whose energy and creativity and can-do attitude is the means by which that company thrives, or the means by which vital public services are delivered in sensitive and effective ways? Isn’t this entrepreneurialism?

So the correct question is: how much entrepreneurialism is there? Everyone has a degree of entrepreneurialism: some have more than others. It’s some mixture of creativity and drive. Those with a great deal set up businesses and grow those businesses and become rich and all the rest of it. Those with less perhaps direct their energies towards their family, or their leisure time, or within the parameters of their job, or their community. All of us, to a great or lesser extent, are making up our lives as we go along, and are thus being creative; and we hurl ourselves into those lives, with more or less energy, which is the drive part. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, entrepreneurs.

So it’s not enough simply to say “We want more entrepreneurs” or “We want more social entrepreneurs” or “We want an army of community activists” to mobilise the country. We need to understand what are the factors that shape how much creativity and drive we have; and, perhaps even more importantly, we need to understand what are the factors that influence any given individual to direct their talents in this direction rather than that direction. Why is Richard Branson a millionaire rather than a spiritual leader? Why is Bob Holman a community activist rather than an academic?

If we can understand a little more about the circumstances, the ‘fitness landscape’ that shapes these kinds of choices, then we may be someway to designing and putting in place the infrastructure to bring about an evolutionary shift in the distribution of desires. Imagine if thousands of entrepreneurs thought not of being a millionaire, of being some cool captain of capitalism, but of being a caring person, of being thought wise, of building social capital for the greater good.

Utopian? Of course. But if we carry on like this, relying on the one in a thousand that is a Dick Atkinson or a James Purnell or a Bob Holman, there seems little prospect we’ll fix this ship.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

So what have you achieved lately?

March is always the maddest month. Most of my clients are keen to ensure that they have fulfilled their obligation to the financial year, which means that approximately all of them have 31st March as a deadline. Meeting their needs invariably occupies the evenings, weekends and scattered hours of downtime in which I might otherwise be converting the various ideas for blog essays into proper pieces of text.

Hence the recent quiet.

Even now time is pressed. This pressure certainly focuses the mind, and if diamonds and coal are anything to go by then this is not necessarily a bad thing. I have, in any case, hewn a small chunk of space-time and shall now purify and forge it into a compact riff on the nature of achievement.

The matter has been on my mind for a few weeks, ever since someone I don’t know told me that I had not achieved very much. The story began when a head-hunter invited me to put myself forward for a position on the board of a public body. I had not, prior to the call, been considering such a move; but it is of course flattering to receive such an invitation, indicating to one’s fragile ego that (a) someone you don’t know has heard of you and (b) that some sort of process has identified you as a potential candidate to do something prestigious.

My ego thus tickled I completed and submitted the highly structured application form. Squeezing oneself into little boxes is never comfortable, I find, and is not something I have chosen to do very often in my life, but the opportunity that had been dangled was genuinely rather enticing, so I did my best.

A few days later I received a call to say that I would not be needed for an interview; and a few days after that I received a call providing ‘feedback on your application’.

There had been many applicants, the anonymous recruitment consultant intoned, and the panel felt that I didn’t have as many achievements as the shortlisted candidates.


I wonder what this means. Does it mean the achievements I listed in the little boxes didn’t seem ‘big’ enough? Or they were the wrong kind of achievements? Or that what seemed like achievements to me did not seem like achievements to them?

If I say, for example, “I wrote a report”, how big or small an achievement is that? If you say “I built a bridge” – big or small? [Did you build it yourself?] How about “I set up and grew a business”. Is this an achievement? How would you know what kind of achievement it is unless you have done it yourself?

There is a useful analogy here with ‘behaviours’. [Among my few achievements is a small body of research work in and around what is called ‘behaviour change’, so I’ve read a few books and talked to a few people and given a few lectures on this sort of thing.] Imagine a behaviour such as ‘smoking’ or ‘drinking’ or ‘driving’ and we may think that, perhaps, we ought to do less of these things.

But look closely. Let’s take ‘drinking’. I decide to go to a pub. I shall be meeting a friend. I shall be walking to the bar. I shall be choosing an ale. I shall be holding the glass. I shall be sending volleys of invisible electronic messages to my elbow and my mouth, commanding myself to take a mouthful. Which part of this is the behaviour ‘drinking’? Is it all ‘drinking’? If I want to drink less, which level or element of the elaborate and compound behaviour ‘drinking’ should I address? Do I stop going to the pub? Or could I just use a heavier glass?

Back to achievements. “I set up and grew a business” conflates: I do recruitment, training, business planning, financial management, risk assessment, strategy, professional indemnity insurance, software development, authorising the purchase of a new sofa, marketing, management meetings… Are any of these ‘achievements’?

“I am a dad” = I cook, launder, drive, cajole, support, love, josh, play. Any achievements there?

It depends on your perspective. If you’re on the lookout for multi-tasking capability, organisational management and effective prioritisation skills, then the lumpen achievement “I am a dad” is shorthand for a whole load of relevant stuff. If you’re on the lookout for coaching and development skills, then it’s only the ‘cajole, support and josh’ achievements that you need to hear about.

So, if you’re on the lookout for a member of an under-represented group, with a track record of sitting on committees, supporting or initiating charitable work and of having useful political affiliations, then an iconoclastic white male intellectual with a commercial background will clearly not have the achievements you are after.

It would be nice, next time, if you could be a little clearer, then we’d all waste a little less of our finite, valuable, compressed and irretrievable time.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Let's take a walk

Brook Lyndhurst has recently completed some research exploring the phenomenon of ‘social capital’. Given significant impetus in the 1990s by Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”, social capital has become an established mantra of contemporary policy discourse: if we can invest in social capital in the same way we invest in financial capital, runs the unspoken argument, our ‘return on investment’ will be well-being. This, surely, is a good thing. If ever rising GDP will not deliver happiness, perhaps an ever-rising Social Capital Index will do the job instead.

Our research, soon to be published, presents a strong critique of this line of argument. Unlike financial capital, social capital does not build to an aggregate from homogeneous constituent parts. Rather, it is a composite of heterogeneous elements and subjective perspectives. One cannot inject social capital into a community in the hope of producing improved outcomes in the way one can inject financial capital.

What does seem possible, however, is to remove barriers that prevent freely associating individuals from forging their own social capital in ways that make sense to them; or, more positively, it may be possible to design and put in place facilities and services that enable or encourage people to do this. When humans gather and interact, they naturally produce a fabric of exchange, a pattern of informal connections, which provides a kind of social ‘mulch’. This enables the growth and development of more formal phenomena – levels of participation in volunteering, membership of bowling clubs and the like – the measurement of which is so beloved of social scientists and their attendant policy colleagues.

One of the most effective mechanisms for producing this mulch - it appears – is the singularly unglamorous activity of walking. When people walk, they meet. When people meet, they talk. When people talk, they create connections, networks, channels for exchange, mechanisms of belonging, a group psychological plasma that nurtures the growth of society’s basic units.

Settlements where individuals routinely or regularly walk exhibited – our research and analysis suggested – higher levels of both formal and informal social capital; whereas those where there was little walking (poor layout of housing schemes, excessive reliance on the car, few local facilities within easy walking distance of housing, and so forth) exhibited lower levels.

This throws a new and interesting light on walking. Walking is not merely good for your personal health (both mental and physical); it is not merely a ‘
low carbon leisure activity’; it is not even just a perfectly natural human activity in which we express our animal need to swing our limbs and move our minds and body through space unencumbered by barriers between us and the rest of the world. It is, in addition to all this, a profoundly social act, a means of colliding on good terms with our fellow beasts, and in so doing to forge the bonds that lift us.

We already know this of course. We regularly walk in groups, without ever questioning it. Whenever we wish to express our collective discontent, for example, we gather and walk. We call it a march, to be sure, but it is simply an orderly walk. We do not, generally, go on a protest run or a protest drive or a protest hop; we go for a walk. And we do so with our kith and kin, to demonstrate our solidarity.

The most impressive manifestation of this habit – this need – is the peasant movement in Mexico whose name –
Zapatista – literally means ‘those who walk’. They walk en masse, not simply as an act of socially solid protest (walking is exceptionally egalitarian) but also to signal that walking is their only option. They are the dispossessed. They have no land, and few belongings. They do not have cars. But they do have feet, and each other. Together, they walk.

Their leader – a man so stubbornly and wonderfully committed to the egalitarian nature of their effort that he rejects not merely the idea but also the title of ‘leader – is
Sub-comandante Marcos. He is following an intriguing vein of South American action/thinking in which the divide between the physical/material and the cognitive/spiritual is a falsehood; instead the being and the doing and the thinking and the acting and the personal and the political are all one and the same. The great Ivan Illich walked widely throughout South America, not as a holiday jaunt or to raise funds for his favourite televisual charity, but as an integrated and inseparable part of his political philosophy.

In the UK, by contrast, ‘walking’ has become that tiresome thing we have to do to get to the shops, a thing we do to get from one transport mode to another, a thing we occasionally do on holiday to take us to a fine view.

Enough. Walking is the humble bedrock of physical and psychological health in the individual (see
Antonio Damasio for the science on this); and it is the activity par excellence for promoting collective understanding and capacity. Walking is not a chore; it is a revolutionary act. Get out there now and do some. Don’t go shopping; make mulch.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Absolutely Zeke

“The way I see it Brad, somewhere between the puritanical practice and the hedonistic gullibility is the fusion of permanence and change, madness and cool reason.”

I may march fearlessly into the future if I am confident it will be better than the past. Whither such confidence? Perhaps I have simply been lucky thus far and the story that I tell myself of life is imbued with positive expectation. Perhaps I am a member of a class that has control over the means of production, or a profession that has erected barriers to entry, and I envisage my control continuing. Perhaps I live in a society in which material and cultural changes have within living or recent memory lifted my forebears from penury and ignorance, so I find it straightforward to believe that this will persist into the future. Perhaps I have been inculcated with the Enlightenment orthodoxy of ‘progress’; or I am persuaded that neo-Darwinian processes of change, whether smooth or punctuated, are inevitable and if met with positive intent will culminate in positive outcomes; or perhaps the tenets of my faith – Christian, Muslim, Confucian, Buddhist - supply a psychological shield of hope or serenity.

In the absence of such confidence, if I do not have these various protections, I am fearful of change and I shall resist it if I can. I foresee the loss of income or status: I shall fight for my job. I dread the collapse of my community: I shall march with my brothers and sisters to defend our tradition. I have lost faith in my leaders – their gods and their policies – and I shall blame immigrants, I shall seek vengeance, I shall use violence.

Afraid of the future, unable or unwilling to countenance changes to my life that are beyond my control, I shall hunker down, I shall look the other way, I shall take refuge in trinkets and mysticism. I shall, like a child, hope that it will all go away. My resistance shall, if all else fails, be passive and stubborn.

Entreaties may be made to me. I do not trust them. These people – these politicians, these scientists, these journalists – the people have lied to me before. Me, my family, my neighbourhood, my class – we have suffered before. You – the confident, the prosperous, with the control and the power – you will be fine. Again you seek to assuage us. Your philosophies and your theories and your models mean nothing to me: I believe only the practical, the manifest, the real.

Don’t tell me, show me.

* * * * * *

Professor Richard Sennett gave the closing address at the Compass annual conference in 2006. Sennett’s theme was trust. In those dog days of the Blair administration, Sennett was concerned, in particular, to explain the processes that shape the degree of trust between citizens and their elected representatives. Blair had, post-Iraq, achieved an acutely refined condition of being distrusted, not least by those comprising Sennett’s audience, which had indeed spent its day in various apoplectic states of dismay at the way in which Blair had traduced, misled and generally betrayed them. Sensing the mood, Sennett (a gifted lecturer) abandoned his prepared speech and sketched the bare bones of an alternative talk whilst sitting in an anteroom only minutes before he took the lectern (a truth to which I can testify because I had the privilege of sitting next to him on a bench as he did it). His principal assertion was this: that trust is grounded not in conviction, but in consistency (the unfinished sixth of Calvino’s memos).

Sennett invited his audience to reflect on the superabundance of policies and initiatives that had characterised the Blair years (a character that has hardly subsided since). Barely was the ink dry on last year’s initiative when this year’s arrived. What is the citizen to make of this? It would seem to indicate that last year’s initiative could not have been much good, else why would they need a new one this year? And this new one – well, we should probably expect another one next year, should we not? Not much point in changing everything to cope with these latest initiatives if we’ll have to do it all again next year; and no point at all in investing any trust in the people responsible, since they clearly have no idea what they are really doing.

The most trusted politician in Europe – Sennett intoned – is someone most of you will never have heard of. He is Matti Vanhanen. He is the Prime Minister of Finland. He is well known in Finland for not doing very much. He is not especially liked (he doesn’t smile much in public and is considered boring). But he is very highly trusted because when he does say he’s going to do something, he does it. He doesn’t do much, but what he does do, he does.

Trust comes from consistency.

* * * * * *

One can see the dilemma. Governments are elected to ‘do’ things and so that’s what they do: create new crimes, reform education on a continuous basis, overhaul the organisation of the health system at regular intervals, and so forth. It is hard to imagine a form of politics in which one might hear a statement such as: “It is important that recent changes have the opportunity to bed down and for everyone to adjust to the new rules. I am therefore announcing a moratorium on new initiatives of at least twelve months.”

All change brings uncertainty, and the majority of us who do not have the resources to defend ourselves against the anxieties that may be prompted by such uncertainty look to particular people or particular organisations to reassure us, to help us. For that reassurance to be useful, for it to have the necessary resilience and strength to do its work, we have to have trust in the individual or organisation to which we look.

This, for example, is how – and why – a brand like Marks & Spencer is able to initiate a programme such as Plan A, a programme that is, in the words of its Chairman Sir Stuart Rose, ‘half a step ahead’ of its customers. M&S customers ‘know’ that their food and clothing needs to be produced in a more sustainable way: they know, too, that, as individuals, they cannot possibly attend to the full gamut of environmental and ethical and supply chain and pricing and other issues implied by sustainability; but they trust M&S sufficiently to be guided by them towards sustainable choices. M&S is just ahead, leading, but not so far ahead that we get lost.

We need the same of our politicians. Only when they have regained our trust – by slowing down, by speaking clearly and directly and, most of all, by being consistent – only then will they be able to lead us towards the sustainable lifestyles we know we need.

And if they can’t do it, then we’ll get new leaders.

Friday, 12 February 2010

The future of fun

Two contrasting visions for the future of leisure collided for me this week. Both, curiously, come from the past. Both, less surprisingly, refer to the behaviour of human beings in circumstances of excess.

The first vision dates from 1985 and it came to mind following a discussion about business cards.
Brook Lyndhurst is shortly to move office and amid the seemingly innumerable minutiae associated with such an exercise arises the opportunity to reconsider the corporate stationery. Despite the fact that this is inherently dull – or perhaps because it is - a vigorous management debate was prompted by a colleague’s bold proposition that we should adopt a dramatically new kind of business card, recalling a sequence of scenes in the movie ‘American Psycho’. In the arms-race for status that characterises the relationships between Patrick Bateman (the eponymous psychotic yuppie played with splendid menace by Christian Bale) and his fellow financiers, business cards assume a bloated symbolism. Both we the audience and Bateman the character know that, truly, it is just a business card; but as successive colleagues’ superior cards appear in successive scenes – embossed type, finer paper, more elaborate calligraphy – the close-up sweat on Bateman’s brow signals his progression towards the extremes that will soon be unleashed, whilst warning us, the viewer, of our own habits of focusing upon the incidental and the anecdotal at the expense of the strategic and the general.

It was American Psycho that brought author Bret Easton Ellis to the attention of the mainstream media, but it was his first novel ‘Less than Zero’ – written when he was just 21 – that signalled his ability to detect and report upon the warning signs. Less than Zero, published in 1985, follows a group of white, prosperous and disassociated Californian teenagers as they descend into the dark spaces created when ennui and affluence collide. Freed not merely from any financial constraints but from any folk memory of such constraints – neither their parents nor their grandparents have ever known austerity – Ellis’s characters are loosed from the material moorings that anchor the rest of us. What is there to do when there is no need to work? The very wealthy – or, perhaps more precisely, the children of the very wealthy – have been exploring this question for several centuries, but Ellis presents the answer on the first occasion it applies to an entire cohort.

In either case, the answer seems remarkably similar: when the tethers are cut, it is hedonism rather than artistic endeavour that seems to flourish. In the west coast case described by Ellis, two mutually reinforcing effects are also unleashed. On the one hand, the human capacity for adaptation means that, as time passes, ever more extreme behaviour is required to produce the same psychological high; and, on the other, the conduct of this behaviour in a social setting initiates a self-propelling social norm, numbing yesterday’s doubts and fostering tomorrow’s darker imaginings. Drugs and alcohol pave the way for orgies and rape; orgies and rape lead to torture and murder; torture and murder beget snuff movies and abasement. Financial excess, Ellis warns us, reverberates throughout and beyond the merely material. Untethered, we may become unhinged.

Though reporting on a California that could credibly have been said actually to exist in 1985, Ellis was sending the rest of us a message about the future. California is the frontier par excellence, in physical, cultural and psychogeographic terms. It is also ahead in economic terms: depending on how you calculate it, the UK is about 20 years behind California. Roughly speaking, it wasn’t until 2005 than average wealth in the UK reached the levels that had prevailed in California when Ellis wrote his first book. In a sense, Ellis sketched a possible future for the UK and the rest of the world: look what might happen when the rest of you reach this level of affluence…

A second vision of future leisure is implicit to the various prognostications associated with the low carbon economy, whether of the more mainstream form exemplified by the government’s low carbon transition
plan or Nicholas Stern’s ‘Blueprint for a Safer Planet’, or the more radical form such as Tim Jackson’s ‘Prosperity without Growth’. These and other similar sources are at one in referring to the fact that ‘lifestyles’ will need to change in the future, but the detail of what this means in practice is either ignored or is treated in terms of inputs. That is to say, there are propositions for (say) reducing the energy consumption in our homes, or reducing the amount we drive, or reducing the embodied energy in our food or even reducing the amount we fly, but conspicuously absent is an analysis from the other end of the pipe. What are the activities we are actually undertaking when we consume these energies, when we eat these foods, when we make these journeys? Some of these activities may be more resistant to change than others, for example. There may be an important distinction to be made between emissions associated with certain basics of maintenance – keeping warm, eating food, interacting with other human beings – and those associated with more discretionary activities.

If we treat ‘leisure’ as what we (are allowed to) do with our discretionary time (after all the income earning, bodily maintenance and
shadow work has been done), and if we were to consider the carbon emissions associated with that leisure time, it might throw rather different light upon the challenge. At present, for example, leisure activities include: going on holiday, watching television, playing computer games and going shopping. They also include going for walks, riding bikes, gardening, angling, reading books, watching sport, playing sport, knitting and painting.

Data are readily available on how
many of us do these things, how long we spend doing them and how much of our money we spend on them. (Television comes top.) The distinctive feature, from our current perspective, is that the first list is characterised by the spending of money. These are the activities of technology and modernity, they are exciting and thrilling, they change from year to year – this new game, this new piece of technology, this new holiday destination – and we chase the hedonic treadmill in order to ‘belong’ to modern society.

The second group, by contrast, consists of the
slow, the free, the lo-tech; these are activities that have been feasible for generations, they tend not to follow the vagaries of fashion, they tend not to require continuous investment.

The first group is ‘high carbon’; the second group is ‘low carbon’. The first group serves the interests of organised capital, and is promoted to us daily by the emissaries of that capital. The second group serves the interest of none but those participating and is rarely suggested by anything other than earnest campaigners or – more effectively – word of mouth. The first group is forward-looking, commensurate with ‘progress’, engaged with the future; the second group feels backward looking, rather quaint, a throw-back to pre-modernity when our choices were limited.

And there’s the rub. When those of us who are persuaded that society needs to move to a low carbon life speak of such matters, a majority of people hear that we are telling them to give things up, to forgo modern pleasures, to go backwards in time. They hear that we would like them to give up their lovely televisions and read a book instead; they hear that we would like them to go for walk rather than buy a new electronic gizmo; they hear that we would like them to take up fishing or knitting rather than holiday somewhere warm and sunny.

In short, they hear that the future of leisure is the past. But who wants to go backwards?

On the other hand, if the future of leisure bears any relationship to the dystopia of Less than Zero, who wants to go forward?

We have an interesting quandary. Humans need to have fun, to
play, and as we become more prosperous we tend, on the whole, to have a mix of more time and more money to expend on our pleasures. So far, however, we seem not to have developed the rules of moderation – or what Schelling would call commitment devices – to protect either ourselves, those around us, or the planet.

Some hard work ahead, methinks, if we want to have fun that lasts.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The infinite flavours of yoghurt: on this occasion, six

Standing once again before the countless yoghurts I genuflected briefly to the retail miracle delivering such abundance. For a moment I stood as the perfect consumer, free to choose and ready to buy, means and intention aligned, my latent demand a mere muscle movement from expression.

Instead, the instructional salvos in my skull exploded down an avenue of memory not motion and I was plunged into a Gestalt of which Sebald himself would have been proud. Would that I could use some total technology to convey its completeness in a similar instant of experience! Or that I could capture on a single canvas the full texture and complexity of my vision; or create an unfathomable chord summoning every element.

The words will do: linear, perhaps, but, as Wittgenstein explained, they play the game as well as any and are as suited as any to estimating the cocktail of what transpired.

#1 – Loganberry. quince and elderflower

It is possible, I’ll concede, that half way through the act of eating a yoghurt you might discover that you are full, in which case the remaining yoghurt may well find its way into the bin; but I’ll wager that among the majority non-bulimic population a yoghurt is rarely an especially filling item. Barring the tediously inaccessible residue that seems inevitably to cling to the sides of the mainstream plastic yoghurt pot, there is little yoghurt in what the technicians delightfully refer to as the ‘waste stream’ that is there because consumers said “Hmm, I think I’m full now, that single teaspoon of virtually weightless material will just have to be thrown away.”

In practice, all the yoghurts you might find in the waste stream are there either because someone decided they didn’t like the taste, or because they decided, on the verge of eating it, that to do so would be dangerous.

Remarkably, this previously hidden area of human behaviour has been revealed to us through the good ministries of Wrap. We now know – that is to say, detailed survey work has revealed – that we in Britain throw away approximately 67,000 tonnes of yoghurt per year. This equates to a little over one million individual yoghurts every day.

Mull it over for a minute.

Something profoundly peculiar is happening here. In order to throw away a million yoghurts every day, quite a few of us must routinely be buying yoghurts that we, or those for whom we buy the yoghurts, don’t actually like. What kind of behaviour is that? Occasionally, yes: buy a new kind of yoghurt in a frisson of experimentalism, discover you don’t like the taste, throw the thing away. But a million yoghurts a day is way beyond experimentalism: something pathological is going on.

Alongside this, it seems that millions of us are so befuddled when we look at the little date on the top or the side of the yoghurt pot that we conclude it means that the product inside is no longer safe to eat, that it is going mouldy or something. Yoghurt is a product that is, essentially, mouldy milk. Hmm. Yesterday, acceptably mouldy; today, suddenly, lethally mouldy. Better chuck it in the bin.

Or perhaps food has become so cheap, or the price of individual items so indistinguishable, that it is essentially part of the challenge of affluence to be able to throw away a yoghurt as and when you want to, just because you can. You return from the supermarket and you need some more room in the fridge: throw away some yoghurts.

#2 – Vanilla

In 1983 – he told me – a high ranking Soviet official had visited the UK in order to promote an urban transport technology of which his Ministry was very proud. Never before having visited the west, Vladimir – his surname must remain anonymous for reasons I am sure the reader will appreciate – was keen to experience a selection of cultural highlights in the few moments he had between his various promotional engagements.

As if channelling Kurt Vonnegut through Jarvis Cocker’s confessions in ‘Common People’, the young official assigned to Vladimir decided that the most appropriate first cultural port of call would be a supermarket. (“I don’t know why, but I had to start somewhere, so I started… there.”) (Actually, it is a perfectly understandable decision: the supermarket is a clear emblem of the western canon and readily accessible to boot.)

In a few hours’ time Vladimir’s ambitions for his urban transport technology would be given brutally polite and short shift by a gathering of technicians and advisors, with the exception of a lunatic who had somehow risen to a position of some influence within the various circles convened for this particular delegation and whose profoundly mistaken belief that Vladimir’s technology represented a significant breakthrough in mass rapid transit systems was a source of stifled disbelief on the part of his fellow delegates (who, it must be said, were only in the foothills of discovering the full measure of their colleague’s madness). The full ramifications of this reception would become clear to Vladimir only years later and were certainly utterly inaccessible to him as he stood – he later explained – astonished before the dazzling array of dairy produce to which his young charge had steered him.

“In Russia”, he told me he had explained to his young guide, “we have only two types of yoghurt.”

Gazing across the innumerable forms and flavours that even in 1983 characterised the world of retail yoghurt, the young official – we surmise – pondered the meaning of a world in which there were only two choices. (Had he read Beckett, of course, he would have known that there were, in fact, four choices: one, the other, neither or both.)

“Yes,” Vladimir continued, “two types: yesterdays, and the day before yesterdays.”

And that’s why communism failed, we agreed: poor supply chain management.

#3 – Peach

Among the many dimensions along which it is possible to vary a yoghurt, one of the most intriguing concerns the claimed number and vitality of micro-organisms present in the pot. There are very few products that actively draw the attention of prospective purchasers to the presence of bugs, indeed most manufacturers and retailers seem keen to persuade us that the food they are selling has been isolated from the biological realm entirely. In the case of yoghurt, by contrast, producers are falling over themselves to demonstrate the power and exuberance of the ‘good’ bugs that we can ingest through the medium of fruit-flavoured mouldy milk.

The marketing folk would appear to have capitalised very effectively on two characteristics of the yoghurt-buying public: it has little interest in or understanding of the origins of its food, and little or no understanding of science. The same public has nevertheless been persuaded that it should try to eat healthily and that ‘pro-biotic’ yoghurt is a means of achieving this. The European Food Standards Authority recently pronounced that there is no evidence that ‘pro-biotic’ has any net benefit on health (news coverage of which extended even to the Daily Mail, who were kind enough to point out to their readers that “The UK's best-selling probiotics, Actimel and Yakult, were not included in the study because the two firms withdrew their claims before they could be assessed”) but this has had no discernible effect. Pro-biotic yoghurts, subset of the more general craze for ‘super foods’, remain fearsomely popular.

No information is available on whether the punters are more or less likely to throw away their pro-biotic yoghurts compared to their merely or perhaps even anti biotic counterparts, but the fact that they buy yoghurts that are in no respects more beneficial simply as a result of the presence of a word which we might ordinarily expect them to be extremely suspicious is telling us something important.

#4 – Raspberry

When I wrote the introduction to Brook Lyndhurst’s ‘Bad Habits, Hard Choices’ in 2003 I used yoghurts as an iconic illustration of the dilemmas facing those seeking to promote more sustainable behaviour among consumers.

“Why did you choose yoghurt?” asked a new colleague on reading the report in 2005. “They’re a bit elitist aren’t they?”

It turns out – according to the official “Family Spending 2009” – that the average UK household spends £1.90 per week on yoghurt and yoghurt-like products; the poorest ten per cent of households spend an average of 90p, the richest £2.90. Compared to their spending as a whole, the poor spend more on yoghurt than the rich.

So no, they’re not elitist.

#5 – Apple & blackberry

What is a behaviour anyway? As I stretch to pick up the chosen yoghurt, what is it, precisely, I am doing? I am being in a shop. I am being in aisle thirteen. I am standing here, not there. I am smelling A, hearing B, seeing C. I am thinking about football/sex/the weather. I am holding a trolley, carrying a phone, wearing some clothes. I am slightly tired, worrying about my weight, remembering my son’s need for new shoes, noticing my sore toe. I am breathing, digesting lunch, wondering whether I shall need to break wind whilst still in the shop.

And you thought I was ‘choosing a yoghurt’.

#6 – Strawberry

The remarkable Thomas Schelling – Professor of Economics at Harvard, Nobel laureate and author of the wonderful ‘Micromotives and Macrobehaviour’ – is one of the principal architects of what is now known as ‘behavioural economics’. He has not, as far as I know, written on the matter of yoghurt. He has, on the other hand, very carefully considered the intricacies of the human decision-making process across a wide range of behaviours, with a particular focus on the instability or variability of these processes. In his valedictory text ‘Strategies of Commitment and Other Essays’ [Harvard University Press 2006] he devotes a chapter to the notion of ‘Commitment as Self Command’. He considers and explores the wide variety of occasions in which we humans say, and genuinely mean, one thing one moment – and say, or do, something entirely different the next. The things we might want to do are in perpetual competition with one another, inside our own heads. He writes (p70):

“The conclusion I come to is that this phenomenon of rational strategic interaction between alternating preferences is a significant part of most people’s decisions and welfare and cannot be left out of our account of the consumer. We ignore too many purposive behaviors if we insist on treating the consumer as only having values and preferences that are uniform over time, even short periods of time.”

This tells us much about yoghurt. Whether in our kitchen when the yoghurt is safely in the fridge; or as we gaze into the fridge pondering whether this yoghurt will satiate the ineffable wish flitting across our tongue; or as we decide that this particular yoghurt ought now to be disposed of, or as we write our shopping list, as we travel to the shop, as we amble along the aisle or as we stand before the abundant array, Schelling shows us that absolutely nothing simple is going on. The past, the present and the future are all involved; my age, gender, class, income, ethnicity, health, family circumstances, fantasies, self-image and history of self-control are all implicated. The personal heuristic that collapses all of this into a simple, subjective Yes/No decision cannot be aggregated in a stable fashion. May be I will, maybe I won’t.

It is like quantum mechanics. Reality exhibits stability at the levels at which we customarily perceive it, much like aggregate consumer spending on yoghurt. Close up, however, reality is no more than a cloud of probability densities – and Schrödinger’s yoghurt may, or may not, be in my trolley. I won’t know until I look…

Richard Feynman would have described it all as a miracle: ““Incidentally, the fact that there are rules at all to be checked is a kind of miracle; that it is possible to find a rule, like the inverse square law of gravitation, is some sort of miracle. It is not understood at all.” [The Meaning of it All, p23]

Enough. Time for the next item on the list.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Reasons to be cheerful, cos there ain't half been some clever bastards

I’ve been worrying about the management of assets for years now. Not how the wankers working for financial institutions manage assets, by which I mean mismanage assets of course, though they and their behaviour form a particularly reprehensible subset of what I’m thinking about. What I mean are the more general issues of ownership and control and justice and returns and sustainability that flow from a consideration of the total assets we as a society have at our disposal. ‘The Economics of Enough’ includes an extended anthropological thought experiment (in the style of William Golding’s ‘Clonk Clonk’, a short story available with ‘The Scorpion God’ in which the women of a Rift Valley matriarchy invent language and alcohol 70,000 years ago) that explores how and why we accumulate assets and what they mean to us in practical, social and psychological ways. I’ve concluded that the accumulation (and management) of assets is one of the four principle determinants of how our current economy functions, and that a transformation in what we look for from accumulation, and the results we hope for from its management, lies at the heart of progress towards an economy of enough.

It’s not the sort of thing one gets to talk about everyday, even in the aftermath of the most monumental asset management screw up for a century or so, so it was with some delight that assets cropped up for me in three very different ways in the past few days, thereby providing the impetus for this missive.

Appearance number one was via a meeting to discuss consultation responses to the draft London Plan with (amongst others) the Development Trusts Association. The DTA is an outfit I don’t know especially well, but have been aware of and impressed by for a long time, ever since the wonderful George Nicholson of Coin Street Community Builders took the piss out of me in a meeting before explaining how wrong he thought I was about more or less everything. The DTA brings together organisations that have, at heart, a fairly simple idea: that communities are more likely to thrive and be healthy if they have ownership and control over their own assets. Rather than being dependent on the local authority, or a supply of regeneration funding, or a private institution, a community that owns – say – a row of shops, or a set of business starter units, or a housing estate will not only have a very particular kind of stake in their community, they will also have an income stream to be spent as they see fit. Rather than pay dividends, or subsidise council services or whatever, the returns on community-owned assets are (automatically) ploughed back into that community.

Appearance number two happened when I finally got around to reading the backlog of Prospect magazines that seemed to have built up since the summer, and I encountered a piece on the Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation, as I’m sure you’re aware, is what Bill and Melinda Gates do with all the squillions of dollars they made from Microsoft. They support a range of predominantly health-related charitable causes around the world, particularly focusing on HIV. With annual spending exceeding the budget of the World Health Organisation, it must surely be better that they do this with the money than, say, buy even bigger yachts on a regular basis.

Nevertheless, there are problems. The Prospect article, for example, wonders why the Gates Foundation doesn’t just try to eliminate HIV in the way that Microsoft eliminated Netscape, ahem; and there have been numerous critical comments in the past two or three years, in both hyperspace and the mainstream media, over the governance and decision-making processes that characterise the Foundation.

The problem is much more general, however, and it concerns any and all philanthropy. The problem is in two parts. Part one is that philanthropy (on anything other than the domestic scale) relies upon an historic exploitation of something or someone. Someone, somehow, had to become filthy rich before they could be philanthropic with their assets, and to have become filthy rich they had to have exploited either a human or a natural resource. What is the relationship between that exploitation and the subsequent use of the resources? Making money from software might look reasonably benign, so we might be reasonably relaxed about what subsequently happens to those accumulated assets.

But what if the money had been made from, say, plundering the earth’s natural resources? Oil, say, or diamonds. Does it make a difference? If you personally were to receive a grant from a philanthropist, would it matter to you how they made their money? Where is the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable?

What if they had made their money through slavery?

Part two of the problem is that there is precisely no democratic control whatsoever over what a philanthropist might do with his or her assets. Fine, at one level: they own the assets, it’s entirely up to them what they do with them.

Except that, at a certain scale, philanthropic behaviour makes a material difference to environmental and social outcomes. The reason people get their knickers in a twist about the Gates Foundation is precisely because the sums of money are so vast: they are big enough to crowd out other spending and they are big enough to make or break national-scale initiatives. Imagine if your community was dependent on the Gates Foundation for some reason – and then one day they changed their mind. What could you do?

The US has a much stronger tradition of philanthropy than either the UK or the rest of Europe, of course, so maybe they’ve got it sorted over there, but with organisations like New Philanthropy Capital promoting the idea that ‘high net worth individuals’ should be going down the philanthropic route it seems to me we need a rather better framework. Governments are in a position to take a strategic overview of what a nation needs, and to manage assets accordingly. If we don’t like it, we can vote for a new government. Philanthropists can indulge their pet preferences as they see fit, and there is no reason to suppose that the net impact of a supply of philanthropy will in any way match need. In fact, given the preference for photo-opportunities and good media coverage, it is quite obvious that some causes will be more attractive to the arriviste philanthroper than others.

My third experience of the asset question occurred in Richmond Park, a place I visited for the first time fairly recently. At the western edge of the park, on a brow with commanding views and very near to Ian Dury’s bench, there is something called ‘Henry VIII’s Mound’. It is, unsurprisingly, a mound, quite small, perhaps three metres across, built atop the brow some five hundred years ago. Stand on the mound facing north east and one is confronted by a ‘protected view’: a view of St Paul’s Cathedral, slightly more than ten miles distant. It’s an extraordinary thing. In the foreground, the trees have been carefully pollarded and pruned to ensure a broad viewing channel to the edge of the Park itself; while, in the middle and distance, there are no tall buildings that would obscure the Cathedral.

The protected view has been in place since 1709.

Even as a write it now, having had a few weeks to allow it to sink in, it virtually takes my breath away. For three entire centuries, nobody has been allowed to build anything that would prevent someone standing on a mound in Richmond Park from seeing a cathedral in central London.

‘Nobody has been allowed’? Says who? And here’s the asset question. The Park is a ‘royal’ park: it is owned by the Crown. The cathedral is owned by the Church of England – the head of which is (at the moment) the Queen. Down here we may have had capitalism and representative democracy and elections and wars and all sorts of turbulence and comings and goings, but up there there has been serious long run asset management. It’s impressive; and oppressive. Want to build a building here? Sorry mate, no way. I know you own the land, and would create money and jobs and housing if you built it, and I know it’s a free country and all that, and yes I know you and your community voted for a council that shared your outlook, but I’m afraid that greater powers are at work: there’s a mound thataway and a cathedral thataway and you’re simply not allowed to get in the way.

You can see how conflicted I am about all this. My soul says, without hesitation, that this view is extraordinary. It is, simply, amazing that this exists, that it has existed for centuries. And, at the same time, it is simply amazing (the other way) that despite all that has happened in human affairs in the past three centuries, a monarchical ownership and control structure remains in place.

Would a democratically accountable local authority ever have managed to protect a magnificent view for three hundred years? Could a community trust have done it? If I want something to endure for a very long time – if I want something to be truly sustainable – does that mean I need an inviolable institution? Or a wise philanthropist? And if I want that, I simply have to give up on the idea of control and ‘trust’ them?

Or, if I want control, democracy, accountability, I have to run the risk that everything will change and that the beautiful and the magnificent will be as vulnerable as everything else.

Perhaps there is some ideal mix, a balance of institutional forms and forces that maximise the chances of long run sustainable outcomes. Over this I shall mull. In the meantime, and to conclude, who’d have thought that that the word ‘assets’ has its origins in the Latin for ‘enough’? I wrote an entire book about ‘enough’ that concluded that a big part of the answer was ‘assets’; but if I’d started with ‘assets’, enough would have been there all the time.