Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Walk out, post an angry blog or tell them to their faces?

I recently endured the second worst conference of my life. Now that my frustration and annoyance have subsided, I am more easily able to ask: why was it so bad? And what, if anything, should I do about it?

I’m pretty sure that the answer to the first question is something to do with a mismatch, either between my expectation and the outturn, or between the challenge that the event had set for itself and the actualit√©.

If the first option, then mea culpa. I went with high expectations, and the event was poor. Perhaps it was not as bad as I thought, it was merely that the gap between the reality and my hopes was particularly pronounced. I should have attended more carefully to the agenda, the speakers, the format and so forth, and realised that it was unlikely to be fantastic. Had I gone with lower expectations, then it is highly likely that I would not have felt so distressed.

If, on the other hand, the problem was more inherent to the event itself, then a rather different challenge presents itself. The event was concerned with the forthcoming Rio +20 conference; indeed it was expressly billed as a mechanism for helping to formulate London’s formal contribution to that conference.

Now maybe I’m being a bit old fashioned here, but I note the following:

• London is one of the world’s foremost cities, in terms of its size, economy, history, status, cultural relevance and diversity. Anything that purports to ‘represent’ London ought, surely, to reflect that. A ‘representation’ from London ought to be ambitious, clever, big picture, broad.

• The Rio+20 conference is concerned with saving the planet. Not ‘building a new shopping centre’; not publishing a modest volume of poetry; not investing a few million pounds in some infrastructure. No. “Saving the planet.” This, I think it’s reasonable to say, is a large-scale challenge, and it warrants – no, it demands, it requires – a suitably large-scale response.

• The world economy is in deep, structural trouble. Not a localised recession. Not a minor fiscal squeeze. Not a spot of ‘readjustment’. More or less all parts of the world economy are in a profound state of flux. The world’s financial system is still in the process of re-inventing and re-engineering and re-positioning itself. Most western governments are massively in debt. Large numbers of western consumers are massively in debt. One of the world’s major currencies, the euro, is limping from one crisis to the next, and the entire project is in jeopardy. Entirely ‘new’ economies – China, India, Brazil – are re-balancing the distribution of economic power across the world.

• Climate change is set to get worse before it gets better. As one of the presenters at the event made clear, over the course of the next couple of decades roughly 3 billion people who are currently ‘poor’ are going to become ‘middle class’, and more or less all of them are going to expect to acquire all the trappings of middle class life – all that ‘stuff’ – that so many of us in the west have become used to.

• Resource prices – food, oil, many minerals and aggregates – are currently more expensive, in real terms, than for more than a century, and prices are expected, by more or less all of those that attend to such matters, to rise further still.

Against such a background, it is entirely healthy and appropriate that the vision-level question presented to the audience for discussion at their tables (you know the form: we’ve all done the workshop thang) was: “What would a green economy for London look like?”

Despite the mediocrity of the presentations, my hopes briefly flickered: here, perhaps, was the opportunity to think big, to consider the future of the planet, to acknowledge the importance of a contribution that London could make, to grapple with some meaty and meaningful challenges.

Instead, the contributions at my table comprised suggestions that, in order to have a green London economy by 2030, we must insulate our homes a bit better, we must have better energy meters, we must improve public transport and we must try to make sure that corner shops stay open longer.

WHAT? HELLO?? This is utterly and miserably unacceptable. Did you not hear the last presentation? Desultory it may have been, but he just reminded us: a 6C rise is on the cards! We’re going to hit an iceberg beyond our wildest imaginings! Re-arrange the deck chairs? You’re suggesting we do no more than dust them.

Or perhaps I’m being cruel and unfair. These delegates had given of their time, were making their contribution, and who the hell am I to criticise that.

I should have set my sights lower. It was silly of me to expect penetrating insight, or big vision, or a sense that this was an opportunity for one of the world’s greatest cities to make a powerful contribution to a vitally important process, intended to address the greatest problem of our age.

Silly me.

Keep calm and carry on. Everything will be all right. Nice people in sharp suits with well-drilled spreadsheets will sort it out. Clever people somewhere, surely, are figuring it out and will make sure it’s ok. Delete this email and get back to Facebook, someone somewhere is talking about something re-assuring and distracting.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Heaven knows I'm miserable now

A couple of weeks ago the Mayor’s economists at City Hall issued a report that I suspect the Mayor has not read: “Well being in London: measurement and use”.

Unusually, the report has a named author, Elizabeth Smart. This is slightly awkward, because I don’t know Ms Smart, and I’m sure she’s a nice person, but the report is very depressing, and for three very different reasons, only one of which is her fault.

The first reason it’s depressing is that it makes it very clear indeed that the people of London are more miserable than people anywhere else in Britain. Drawing on a variety of sources, the report states (with my emphases throughout):

• “Figure 1 shows that over the period 2005/6-2010/11 the self assessment of well-being by Londoners was below the rest of the UK.”

• “Figure 2 shows [that] London has the lowest happiness scores of all regions apart from the North East which dips below London in 2010/11.”

• “Figure 3 breaks down the results by various characteristics… [and] there are very few instances where London’s happiness score is above the UK’s.”

• “For Londoners, overall life satisfaction is lower than for those living in the rest of the UK (see figure 4)”

• “Two thirds of London LSOAs have above average levels of deprivation, the highest of any region, with by far the smallest proportion of LSOAs among the least deprived quintile”; “a higher proportion of children live in workless households in London (20.7 per cent) than in the UK as a whole (15.8 per cent)”, “crime rates in London are among the highest in England” and “the unemployment rate in London is higher than in the UK as a whole”.

Despite being “the most productive region in the UK” which can “justly be called the driving force of the UK economy”, and despite the fact at “at £900 per week, London’s gross weekly household income was 15 per cent higher than the next highest region and 35 per cent higher than the UK figure” Londoners are more miserable than anyone else.

And, just in case you try to wriggle off by thinking that maybe it’s a bit like being a middle-ranked team in the premier league, we learn:

• “One international ranking of subjective well-being [the Unicef child well-being report] ranked the UK as the lowest of the 21 participating countries”.

This is clearly not something to be proud of or pleased about; indeed, it is something about which to be concerned, possibly even angry. It suggests that Londoners are – on average - almost certainly the unhappiest people in Britain, and possibly the world.

The second reason to be depressed by the report is that it illustrates the sheer scale of the challenge we face if we are to explain ‘the real world’ to economists.

According to the report “more income allows us to satisfy more of our wants, hence Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is normally thought to be synonymous with well-being”. I beg your pardon? I can only satisfy my wants if I have more money? There are no wants that don’t require money?

And when was the last time you met a normal person who thought that ‘GDP’ and ‘well-being’ were synonyms?

Also, apparently, “the seminal paper [on well-being] was the Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi Report commissioned by French President Sarkozy.” This remark sweepingly ignores decades of work by great numbers of academics and activists, on the grounds – presumably – either that the author thinks that all the previous work has been done by people that don’t really matter (perhaps because they are not ‘proper’ economists) or because the author has simply not bothered to do a bit of background reading. It is a bit like believing that Manchester United are ‘seminal’ or Blur were ‘seminal’ or David Hockney is ‘seminal’. These people are all very good, indeed excellent; and so too is the Sarkozy Commission report.

But it ain’t, and they ain’t, seminal.

To her credit, the author does make some points and issue some reminders that readers might find interesting:

• “…the cost of repairs after the London riots boosted GDP… [but this] could hardly be regarded as a ‘positive’ economic outcome”

• “GDP… ignores many of the other determinants of well-being such as quality of social relations, economic security and personal safely, health and longevity”


• “Crime and fear of crime can have a potentially very significant impact on well-being”

(Oh, sorry, that last one just made me laugh. Only in a world of truly remarkable abstraction would it be necessary to point out that ‘crime and the fear of crime can have potentially very significant impact on well-being’. Think hard about what this is telling us about economists and the GLA. It is telling us that they do not actually know what bears do in the woods.)

And the third reason I find the whole thing so depressing is that I don’t imagine for one moment that this issue will get any airtime at all during the Mayoral election. The manifestos aren’t out yet, of course, so I can’t be sure, but the Boris v Ken show is already shaping up along extremely predictable lines. We’ll hear about bus fares and bobbies on the beat; we’ll hear about ‘fighting for our share’ and promoting the capital as a centre for business; we may even hear a little about poor people, or young people, or unemployment. And, of course, we’ll hear about the Olympics.

But admit to all this misery, and offer to do something about it? I think not.

Maybe I’m completely bonkers, but I can’t help thinking that calling it, naming it and engaging on it might, just might, touch the zeitgeist. Go on, I dare you.