what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Sunday, July 18, 2010

onward march of banks

This will be the last blog for a week or so - since we are off to Bulgaria without the laptop.
I leave with one question - what exactly is the explanation for the continued surge of bank outlets in Romanian towns when the rest of the economy is going to the dogs? I noticed yesterday in my vain search for CD discs (for back up for the new laptop)in the centre of city quite a few shop closure (including the electronics shop I had expected to find my discs in)- and their replacement in a couple of cases by bank branches. Given the damage banks have done to us all, you would have thought it would be the banks which would be disappearing. But no - they seem exempt from the normal laws (inasmuch as there are any) of economics. I assume part of the explanation is the extensive loans they have made eg for cars and houses - and the profits they make from the misery of ordinary people who can no longer afford (if ever they could) the repayments. I don't know what repossession rates are like here - but surely banks suffer too from the declining house prices?
The establishment of responsible banks should be top priority for government - ie the encouragement of old-fashioned bank behaviour. The requirement to publish simple information on their loan policy, loans and profits is a simple starting point - let alone the encouragement of a new legal structure which would return banks to a mutual/community basis. More journalists should cover banking.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

death and life

A suicide of a 43 year-old Romanian modern folk singer at 02.00 on 14 July has dominated the television and newspapers here. Madalina Manole enjoyed great success in the 1990s but her popularity lessened after 2003 – coincidentally after the breakup of her first marriage with an older composer. On the face of it, she seemed in recent years fulfilled - with a new husband, a one-year old son and a new villa - but she had lost her public following. She was working on a new album - but she apparently attempted suicide in June. This time, her birthday, she was successful. The brash Romanian media have been quick to supply the other technical details. Her appeal (via text message at 23.00) to her husband to return home; his arrival at 06.00 to find her dead body; use of an incredibly strong Serbian pesticide. She was a Cancer – apparently in such strong need of love.
Thursday’s TV and papers were full of more details. Evening TV was devoted to various studio discussions with friends and colleagues; and replays of her singing. Dispensation was received from the Orthodox Church for some measure of church input to yesterday’s funeral (although not access to the church) in Ploiesti, her native city, which was attended by thousands as she lay in state in an open coffin in an open square in temperatures of 30 plus.
The suicide of Germany’s goalkeeper last autumn seems to have been the catalyst for a long pent-up discussion about depression in that country - although it did not apparently last all that long. The same seems to be happening here.
Anxieties are now being expressed herein Romania about copy-cat suicides. Romania is not a happy country – you can see it in the faces let alone in the road rage I spoke about recently. And no systems are in place to help those in anguish. Even if there were, it is doubtful whether they would be used. The only saving grace is the open discussion which Romania’s open American-style media is happy to encourage.

No society seems able to establish the environment to help the increasing numbers who feel anguish, despair and hopelessness. Clearly statistics are unreliable – problems of shame and reporting - but it seems reasonable to postulate that in any single year at least one third of the citizens of EU countries experience a depressive phase lasting a few months. Tony Blair’s bruiser – Alaister Campbell – came out a few years ago as a manic-depressive and now heads up a voluntary organization to help such people. My sister committed suicide - she left a note in her car at the side of Loch Lomond and her body was never discovered. Noone had been aware of her condition. It emerged afterwards that she had shared her feelings with the GP who had told her to pull hewrself together.
In the mid 1980s I suffered for 3 consecutive Scottish winters from SADness – sensory affective deprivation. In other words the gloom of northern winter conditions was probably the catalyst which kicked me into a loss of self-confidence - after too much energy expended the rest of the year in a regional political career which had no future. It was just like a hibernation – I avoided company and felt useless. I went to a therapist who seemed to specialize in dealing with miserable politicians. I didn’t find this helpful – nor the medication I accepted for a few weeks. My judgement is that I emerged from each phase mainly by forcing myself to get back into routines with people – although my body’s natural rhythms were probably the main factor.
One thing I would say is that, having suffered and overcome, I became a stronger person – appreciating more the joys which life offers. And I am clear that more recognition of the commonality of this condition is necessary to help people understand that they are not alone with their feelings of despair. We all imagine that noone else has ever suffered from these thoughts of uselessness. In those days it was difficult to find material about the condition. Probably the most useful thing I did was to try to identify the catalyst which had pushed me over the edge - and then to try to find the behaviour which could reverse the process.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Trouble in small countries

Many people (including myself) see small countries as hopes for civilisation. One of my blogs summarised the powerful arguments of Leopold Kohr more than 60 years ago on this theme. 20 years ago there was talk of Europe of the Regions. The new conventional wisdom, however, is that the global financial crisis has shown the incapacity of small countries like Iceland. A referendum on whether the Scots people wanted complete independence which the (devolved) nationalist government of Scotland was supposed to hold this year has disappeared from the agenda. Belgium, in the meantime, is tearing itself apart - and showing little sign of the solidarity which is supposed to be one of the EU values.
A new pamphlet by centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, The Devolution Distraction, by Tom Miers savages most of the assumptions and emotional supports of the last 10 years of devolved government which Scotland has enjoyed. The Miers thesis is that Scottish devolution has been ‘a spectacular failure’ on the economy and public services, driven by an obsession with constitutional change. This reflects that ‘Scotland has a political problem, not a constitutional one’.
Gerry Hassan (about whose pamphlets I have written recently) has a good blog on this today.
Miers apparently makes the case with five key points: that the Scottish economy has grown much slower than the rest of the UK since devolution, entrepreneurship is low, health and education underperform in comparison with the rest of the UK and are increasingly losing ground, and public spending higher than UK levels per head (2). The first two are long-term historic trends; the last complex; but the latter two have an uncomfortable truth which needs serious debate.
The conventional devolution class response to the failure Miers argues are two fold. The first is ‘to deny failure altogether’ – the politics and mindset of self-denial. The second is to invoke from failure and lack of results that the answer can be found in the argument that ‘Scotland needs more self-determination’.
Miers writes in ‘The Scotsman’ on this: The history of democracy is full of examples of political elites that do not respond to evidence of decline, however obvious. So what is it with our own political class? What makes Scottish politics so deeply conservative, so hostile to the notion of reform, so defensive about the performance of Scottish institutions
Just before the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, I wrote a Fabian Society pamphlet, ‘The New Scotland’ which explored the potential and limits of devolution. Its argument can be summarised in five points:
1. Labour were driven onto the devolution agenda with the intent of a politics of maintenance and conservation; one of the central paradoxes of devolution was that the party which introduced it would have its one party old state politics slowly undermined;
2. Devolution for all its hopes and rhetoric was always fundamentally about a politics of reinforcing the internal status quo in Scottish society: one characterized by inertia, lack of dynamism and absence of policy innovation;
3. The forces for devolution were marked despite their radical language by a profound sense of conservatism; this combination of radical hope and conservative reality concealed the limited prospects for change under devolution;
4. Democracy has been late coming to Scotland and the main forces of progress: the Liberals in the 19th century and Labour in the 20th century have colluded with and used the professional elites and castes which dominate and disfigure Scottish society; Thatcherism disrupted part of this, but devolution was never intended to fundamentally shift this;
5. Scottish civil society – shorn of all its illusion and romance about itself – has been characterised by a lack of diversity, pluralism and ideas. This raises the question where were and are the original, challenging ideas for devolution going to come from? All of the above coalesced in the mainstream version of pre-devolution which stated that the Parliament was going to be the vehicle of Scottish radical opinion and a body born from the flowering of civil society and thus likely to be a bold, imaginative institution giving expression to progressive imagination. Instead, I argued that this very idea – of the Parliament as the creation of civil society (or even worse, ‘civic Scotland’: the well-mannered, middle class chatterers of institutional opinion) – made it inevitable that the Parliament would be the voice of closed, complacent Scotland. And so it has turned out to be.

Where Miers is on less secure ground is when he comes to solutions. Here he ventures onto predictable ground as he outlines in his conclusion, ‘a new approach’ which entails:
1. The constitution: a generational truce; advocating that we need to stop seeing the solution to Scotland’s problems in some inevitable slippery slope to more powers for the Parliament; instead we should implement Calman and then call a halt for a generation or so;
2. Measurement: a new honesty; challenging our ‘state owned national monopolies’ to stop changing and fiddling figures of measurement;
3. Reform: a new radicalism: declaring that ‘all the parties should seek to recast their policy positions from a foundation of recognition of the problems faced and genuine intellectual curiosity’.

Miers outlines in his conclusion:
The combination of economic and social decline, conservative policy making and endless constitutional debate in Scotland cries out for a new approach. Those who first articulate it persuasively will set the agenda for many years to come.
This is broadly correct as a general description, and also in the opportunity it offers to whichever political force can seize the radical agenda. Where he is wrong is that his ‘new approach’ and radicalism is centred on old solutions: of free market ideas, fragmentation, marketisation and deregulation. It is a view of the world which isn’t ‘evidence based’ as it claims – addressing Scottish failures in comparison to England, but ignoring English problems and pitfalls. It is as if the last few years haven’t happened or the fallout from New Labour approaches.

Following on from my ‘New Scotland’ thesis of over a decade ago here are six points for beginning to explore a more far-reaching, radical, new agenda:

1. Labour’s old style hegemony is as predicted slowly eroding – leaving the party rudderless, directionless and without any sense of anchor – beyond maintaining the rump remnants of its patronage state and its oppositional, opportunist detesting of the Nationalists;

2. Labour, SNP and civic Scotland ideas on economic, social, cultural and political change have shown their commitment to the forces of conservatism and inertia; none of these bodies really has any radical notion of how to deliver change in Scottish society, rather than just presiding over the internal status quo;

3. The forces of the new conservatism – which have critiqued the entire first decade of devolution from beginning to end – advocating a ‘reform’ and ‘modernisation’ strategy – need to be scrutinised and challenged;

4. Equally problematic is the typical centre-left and nationalist response to calls for change – invoking a defensive politics of resistance and public sector institutional conservatism;

5. Mapping a path between these two cul-de-sacs involves embracing the politics of self-determination. Not the constitutional version, but at a societal level, shifting power and challenging elites – both in the public and private sector in Scotland;

6. This self-determination should inform and influence a genuine politics of self-government which can be summarised as post-nationalist Scotland – comfortable with the fuzzy ambiguities and fluidities of shared sovereignty in an interdependent age.

‘The Devolution Distraction’ has done us the service of setting out an analysis of some of the key complacencies and failures of the last decade. It would be wrong to dismiss it out of hand, just because some of it is unpalatable and a little uncomfortable to the gatekeepers and influencers of devo Scotland. Yet at the same time, its message for action is part of the groupthink and orthodoxy which has captured governments, corporates and think-tanks across the West, and in particular the UK and US.
The new conservatism has to be taken on and defeated – not by the forces of old conservatism – which it rightly critiques but the emergence of new voices, ideas and thinking in Scotland. And that requires new spaces and institutions which so far Scottish institutional opinion has shown no interest in supporting and nurturing
. The pamphlet in question can be accessed here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

end of the party

There is an unedifying contest going on at the moment in political Britain - namely which of the ex-New Labour Government Ministers can say the most damning thing about the government of which they were (generally an ignominious) part. In the last few weeks it has been the contenders for the vacant position of Labour leader who have been most vocal in this reinvention and distancing - but, with the serialisation of Peter (Lord) Mandelson's memoirs, we have descended to the pure malicious gossiping we have to expect of this man (sic)
Some of the web comments about the new labour tribe are very pertinent -

The problem encountered by these individuals was 'youth'. Most politicians in the past, with the odd exception, were older, had worked outside politics, been in business or fought in wars. 'Looks' and 'sound bites ' were not as important as they are today. Remember Mandlesons crazed 'I am not a quitter!!' speech? Adolescent. Blair, Brown and Cambell ( he had been writing porn a few years before) all young, with youthful egos , coming into power through a tired government and a media now obsessed with looks, sound bites and gossip. 

Men between the age of twenty and forty actually believe they know best, but they have to prove it to everyone around them, so when they actually have power, paparazzi, chauffeur driven cars and TV cameras hanging on every word, self-importance and personal glory are just too tempting. They, in this little petty environment , are in their minds , the 'story', not events around them. How else would they find time for their memoirs? 

Watching Gove, Clegg and those of a similar age now in power reveals how they have already changed from those humble interviews before the election. Clegg and his Scottish assassin are acting more like Tories than Cameron. Youth and power are a potent heady mix ,but petty mindedness and a search for personal glory are its fruit.

No honour amongst thieves. The political class have lost all legitimacy to rule, they are the worst of characters not fit to rule their own households. Democracy is a giant failure, the God that failed. The political class, make wars on false pretences, they grow rich at home while they send the brave to the front line. Cowards. The French Revolution, Humanist, Democratic extended the power of the State, and handed over power to the Bankers (fiat currency and Fractional Reserve Banking), gave birth to total war, forced conscription made giant armies of millions, and yet the dumbed down people still talk as if party politics matters and left wing and right wing, both do not represent the power elite running and owning the banks.

I'm obviously in masochistic mood as I await for the delivery of the 700 page book written by a journalist Andrew Rawnsley which records (at least from an observer point of view) the nastiness which was the last days of Labour

body checks

More body checks yesterday - but this time, my own body! I've never had the tests older people now take for cancer so decided it was about time to check for prostate and colon. Despite having the results of a comprehensive health check in Germany at Christmas, I was missing some important indices and therefore checked in yesterday for a CT. Left alone under the circulating machine, I felt like a mix of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times and Jane Fonda in Barbarella!
As you look at the Xray pictures, you realise what an incredible thing the human body is - and also begin to appreciate mortality. Significant that, as I was waiting in the cool basement corridor for my turn, I was finishing John Updike's last collection of short stories - My Father's Tears and other stories. By last I do mean the last he wrote before his death - indeed he wrote them in full consciousness that the time of his own demise was not far away and focussing on characters having flashbacks about their early life. I've never been a great fan of Updike's chronicling of the various changes American small-town and middle-class males have experienced since the 1960s - although have admired the erudition of his essays and his knowledge of painting. I was, therefore, quite stunned with the poetic imagery and power of these short stories. William Trevor (Irish) is my favourite for this art form - with Carol Shields (Canada) close behind) and I am enjoying the collection of Dorothy Parker's short stories I bought recently.
In the afternoon visited the Carterusti bookshop and was amazed to come across an (American) hardback edition of Rory Stewart's book on his one year stint as Deputy Governor of one of Iraq's southern provinces during the current occupation. I had read about this unusual guy - a 30 odd year (upper class) Scot who is now Tory MP for Cumbria in the very north of England but who has been a Professor at JFK School of Government in Harvard; and walked from Turkey to Afghanistan - and reckoned the handsome book (the US is so good with their productions of hardbacks!) was not only a rare (and frank) insight into the reality of trying to manage the aftermath of that disastrous invasion but could be a useful insight into the mind of such an individual. The book is called The Prince of the marshes - and other occupational hazards of a year in Iraq.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

romanian drivers

Having driven around Europe April-June - through nine countries - (and experienced the habits of caucasian and central asian drivers) I think I am entitled to make some generalisations about driving habits. The combination in Hungary of their strung-out villages and speed limits make driving there very frustrating. People are just too slow and cautious. Across the border - in Romania - you meet the opposite extreme - aggressiveness on a scale I have never encountered and feel is growing. I try to make sense of it culturally - Romania has reinvented itself in a more radical way than its neighbours and its younger generation has made superficial, American worship of money and conspicuous consumption its trademark in a way you don't notice in the rest of central Europe or Balkans. The testosterone level of the Romanian male seems pretty high - and finds strong expression in their cars. They will tailgate you; flash as they approach; dart in and out of lanes; and drive on the opposite side of the road around blind mountain corners. The last trick is becoming even more frequent.
The policy advisers and think-tankers who write so eloquently about nudge and steer in their attempts to ensure policy tools can more relevantly affect social behavious should come to Romania and help create an effective framework to change these driving habits.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

good speech

An interesting post from Colin Talbot's blog - key sections of a speech he delivered in Beijing at a Conference on PAR,

Saturday, July 10, 2010

intellectual repairs

The cloud has just now lifted from the tops of Piatra Crauilui mountain range at the back of the house - where it seems to have been ensconced for the past few weeks. Perhaps a sign of a break in the weather – although the thick grey cloud cover still hovers ominously over the peaks.
This morning was spent in Zarnesti – the best access to the peaks apparently – although I was there to have the car serviced after its 10,000 kms tour. The Bosch garage there is an excellent one – and, according to young Catalin, the owner’s son, attracts a wide custom. Mechanic Nicolae – who hails from Bran (where apparently people are called Scots!) and has a house in Rasnov - certainly identified some important issue s in my stalwart 14 year old Cielo – broken light bulbs, dangerous mix of brake fluid, poorly performing sparking plugs (which the Americans call glowplugs??) and a leak in the small radiator the car apparently has for the Freon I need for the air-conditioner. I’m a bit optimistic perhaps about the need for the latter – but do want to go next week to Bulgaria where the weather is currently more normal.
While I’m waiting, I read more of Basic Instincts – human nature and the new economics (2010) by Peter Lunn which is a great overview of what behavioural economics is bringing to the subject I suddenly decided in 1962 to make the focus (with political science) of my university studies. Up until then I was heading for an Honours Degree in French and German - but then deserted this to pursue the bright promise which the social sciences then offered. “Bliss was it in that dawn ....”!.
But I had so much difficulty with the theory of the firm and knew within my heart what a lot of nonsense the marginal approach to decision-making was. But it has taken another 35 years to expose the nakedness of the Emperor. It is this discredited model of economics which is the basis of the New Public Management which has done so much damage to the public sector in the past 20 years. It will be interesting to see who first unravels that intellectually and puts a new template in place! My website "key papers"have a couple of papers which do the first part.

Friday, July 9, 2010

new approaches to government

The richness of the web is sometimes too much. This morning I wanted to write something about complexity, social interventions and policy tools – on the basis of Matthew Taylor’s blog today (you can get the website in links on the right hand side). He had been reading a couple of draft pamphlets which will appear shortly on the Royal Society of Arts website about different approaches to government interventions.

 Between the 1970s and 1990s I had the opportunity to experiment with different approaches to policy-making – at both the local and regional levels. The Tavistock Institute invited me to join a project in the 1970s which was beginning to think about the network approach to policy-making. And I felt that one of the best things I ever did was to bring together and support over a 2 year period something we called a network of urban change agents officials, councillors from both Districts and the Region, academics and NGO reps who were invited to attend on the basis of their commitment to deal with the conditions of social injustice.

Since then I have read various key authors such as Mary Douglas, Margeret Wheatley, James Scott and Paul Ormerod who recognise the limitations of crude managerialism. In a way the argument goes back to the writings of such 20th century anarchists as Ivan Illich and Paulo Freiere.

Taylor says simply that Traditional policy interventions – particularly in relation to social problems – have these characteristics:
• They are large scale and expensive.
• They aim for relatively marginal improvement in outcomes e.g. a few percent lower unemployment or higher pupil attainment.
• They seek to minimise risk through systems of regulation, audit, and accountability.
But these design features do not fit the characteristics of social networks interventions, which are:
• They will usually fail.
• Occasionally small interventions will have major impact through contagion effects.
• Sometimes interventions will have an impact very different to those planned (sometimes good, sometimes not).
An emphasis on social networks changes not just the focus and design of public policy, but the whole way we think about success and failure.

From this blog, I was led on to the various papers on this theme on the RSA website and suddenly found myself on the Scribd. Site – which allows me not only to download a whole variety of material but also to upload my own papers! Needeless to say I spent half an hour exploring, inserting a profile and uploading a paper - Searching for the Holy Grail in which I try to set out what I feel I have learned from my 40 years' experience of trying to help different government systems operate more in the public interest. All very interesting - but basically it diverted me from the writing which is the only way to make sense of the stuff founf on the internet!

Let me, at any rate, share a couple of the papers I came across on subjects close to my heart - one a book which had just appeared on Reforming the worst government in the world -
The other is a useful paper on the Azerbaijan government system -

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Neo-liberalism hardens

Tuesday I quoted from a 2009 pamphlet about the continuing strength of neo-liberalism in British ruling circles and suggested that the authors needed to do a bit more work on how this insidious virus might be defeated. Coincidentally one of the authors – Gerry Hassan – has returned to the theme. He reveals the details of a very interesting recent conference which brought business leaders together with key members of the Cabinet to look at priorities for government. Its summary of recommendations has been given to the Cabinet and makes for fascinating reading. The tenor of the discussions is rather frightening – with the target very much being those on low incomes and, as Hassan says, no signs of humility about the role of the private sector in creating the crisis which confronts the world! His article also puts the scale of the British public spending cuts in perspective - several times greater than the radical cuts of the Swedes and canadians some years back (which are apprently serving as models)For the meat of the argument see -
Apart from Hassan’s piece, the conference seems to have gone unnoticed So all credit to him for giving it the profile it warrants – but I’m still waiting for some more coherent prescriptions from him about an alternative path. Another article on The Open Democracy site offers, however, a useful framework for such a discussion. It suggests that the critiques of neo-liberalism can perhaps be divided into 4 schools - left communitarianism, left republicanism, centre republicanism and right communitarianism. For the details see -
The article drew my attention to another 2009 pamphlet one of whose authors is now an adviser to the Lib-Dem Deputy Prime Minister and which is apparently now required reading amongst British civil servants.
A quick skim leaves me deeply dissatisfied – it’s more a clever undergraduate essay than a serious political pamphlet and gives me the feeling that we are now seeing a new generation of think-tankers take over in England who will inflict the same clever nonsense on the dumb politicians which people such as Geoff Mulgan and Peri 6 did 15 years or so ago. That’s a bit too simplistic - I enjoyed their writing – but it did lead, for example, to the rather arrogant strategy papers of the UK Cabinet Unit after 1997 (when Mulgan was the Head) which carried the assumption that the world was a new place with no lessons to be learned from the past – and certainly nothing good about it. Although China and Britain are very similar in their neo-liberalism, they are poles apart on the issue of tradition and novelty and how new policies are to be justified. In China you have to fight for the new – in Britain “new” is elevated to a religious value. After “New Labour”, quickly came “New politics”. What next? “New man”?
Having said that, I do need to get up to speed with these new people. I have just ordered the book by one of the more intriguing of the new breed – Phillip Blond – whose Red Tory has brought praise from even Jon Cruddas the Labour MP considered to be the leader of the left in parliament. A review of the book gives an indiaction of the challenge it represents!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hay, rain, Windows and democracy

A mixed bag of goodies this morning.
I did indeed do some scything yesterday morning – before the rains came yet again. And this morning also dawns wet – very unusual weather for here.
Now a moan about Microsoft and PC producers. I never expected to pay 600 euros tor a laptop boasting it had the latest Windows 7 – only to discover that it gave me Word only for 2 months (and requiring a special downloading) and that I am then expected to pay for it. By all means make us pay for the frills (as they do on cut-price flying) – but Word is so basic that it must surely be illegal to offer a PC which boasts it has Windows when it lacks Word?

The short visit I made recently to China (and the preparatory reading I did for it) opened up some interesting perspectives for me. I have never been a simplistic human rights advocate – but was appalled to read of the scale and nature of the continuing repression of those, for example, who dared to try to defend citizens against the injustices perpetrated by rapacious municipalities. However the Chinese authorities at various levels do try to take account of public opinion in various ways (they have to since they live in fear of losing their monoploy of power)– I and am a realist about how little power citizens of western democracies actually have to change things. I was brought up on the Schumpeterian diction about democracy only being a method choosing between competing elites – and that is certainly the case in American and Britain.
Last week an iconoclastic lecture was delivered in the august British Academy of Sciences by James Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, which related to this issue.
I excerpt the key sections below in italics. For the full article (and paper) go here Professor Fishkin claimed that we’ve known that liberal democracy doesn’t work since 1957, when Anthony Downs published his ‘rational ignorance’ theorem. Put simply, Downs proved that there’s no point in voters taking the considerable trouble to study the issues in sufficient depth to vote intelligently as their individual vote has a negligible effect on the outcome of the election. Or, as Russell Hardin memorably put it: ‘Having the liberty to cast my vote is roughly as valuable as having the liberty to cast a vote on whether the sun will shine tomorrow.’ Even after Schumpeter’s demonstration that voting is just a way of alternating elites, we still hang on to the illusion that liberal democracy is democratic. Fishkin and his colleague Bruce Ackerman are delightfully rude about our tendency to ‘vote for the politicians with the biggest smile or the biggest handout’, and are equally scornful of computer sampling models which enable politicians to ‘learn precisely which combinations of myth and greed might work to generate the support from key voting groups.’
Fishkin’s solution to the problem of rational ignorance is random selection by lot to create temporary deliberative assemblies to debate the issue(s) on hand and vote on the outcome. Like most people working in the field (including Anthony Barnett and the present author) Fishkin thought he had invented this system (known technically as ‘sortition’) only to discover that the Athenians beat him to it 2,400 years ago The Stanford sortition experiments have demonstrated that, given balanced advocacy and careful moderation, ordinary people will take the time to study and deliberate the issues before making an informed decision (via a secret ballot). Fishkin is opposed to the pressure to consensus that afflicts the Habermasian model of deliberative democracy and also claims that his institutional design overcomes the polarising tendencies of group deliberation recently outlined by Cass Sunstein.
Step forward China - Fishkin was contacted in 2004 by the party leadership in Zegou township, Wenling City (about 300 km south of Shanghai) who had a problem prioritising infrastructure projects – they had identified thirty potential projects but only had funding for ten. Although party leaders had their own preferences they commissioned Fishkin to introduce a randomly-selected deliberative assembly (235 members), who deliberated for a day over the various projects and voted on the outcome. Although the winning priorities on the deliberative poll were very different from those of the local leadership, the results were duly implemented.
Coincidentally, I then came across a very useful booklet which has just been published exposing the way big business has intensified its penetration of EU policy-making.

Monday, July 5, 2010

can neo-liberalism be defeated?

The aftermath of the death of a laptop and the purchase of a new one may be annoying and time-consuming - with all the software downloading and file and website transfer it involves. It does, however, also has its positive side. It makes you look at many of the papers, files and websites which were just lying in the database! One of the papers I came across was a Compass pamphlet Breaking out of Britain's neo-liberlism produced in January 2009 and written by Gerry Hassan and Anthony Barnett (the latter the editor of the admirable Open Democracy website).
Given what I said in my last post, I thought it was worth excerpting some of it -
Across British public life, in public institutions and discourse, the last decade of New Labour has been characterised by the debasement of values and meaning. To talk about the future of our society we have been obliged to walk through a linguistic supermarket where sterile, vacuum packed in-words are provided by the supply-lines of the new elite. This has had many casualties, as government white papers and documents once renowned for their plain English have become inflated by gobble-de-gook obesity. Economic development agencies have abandoned talking seriously about political economy, and instead invoke “creativity”, “innovation” and “doing the step change”. Think-tanks evacuated any efforts at considering political economy. University departments scrambled for research funding by peer assessing each other’s publications in journals of barely-read-studies. City-wide and regional bodies stressed their aspirations to be “world class cities” basing their growth forecasts on shopping and tourism while discarding the solid revenues of manufacturing provincialism. In all parts of the UK, from London to Liverpool, Glasgow to “Newcastle/Gateshead”, this has been an age of gloss and superficiality and financial considerations based on “neverland”.
This debasement of our language and public discourse has been mirrored by the triumphalism of our political classes. The belief in “the end of decline” in the political elite has seen the shift from Britain being seen as “the sick man of Europe” to a country which from the mid-1980s “put the great back into Britain”.
Neo-liberalism bent and contorted all of Britain’s political parties, institutions and philosophies, while changing the notion of “the self” as personal neo-liberalism psychologised and individualised every issue and concern. These developments have seen the slow, gradual entrenchment of the neo-liberal order across all British public life, to the extent that people advocate and voice its values often without realising it.
The current set of events, uncertainty and instability shows the failure of the world that neo-liberalism brought about. This is an historic opportunity and challenge to all of us: whether we be progressives, liberals, conservatives, nationalists, or just concerned about the future of Britain and the world.

1. We need to identify “the official future” – the mantra of globalisation wherever it is – nationally, internationally, in the public and private realms, and critique it, defeat it and supplant it;
2. The world view of the bloviators – the Malcolm Gladwells and others – who have offered themselves as voices and apologists for the winners and the global order, needs to be seen as part of the problem, along with the damage they have done and their role in legitimising the “new conservatism”;
3. Government and public agencies need to fundamentally rethink how they conceive and think of policy, the language and values in documents, and whose voice and interest such processes are serving;
4. The British “public” overall does not see itself in the language of “consumers” and “customers” in relation to public service. For the last thirty years, the public have been force-fed a diet of New Public Management, choice and privatisation, and still they don’t find it attractive or buy it. Sadly nor do people see themselves in the idea of “citizens”. We need to think, nurture and organise public services in new ways which are neither New Right nor the technical fixes of co-production;
5. There is a direct link between the micro-policy and management of the Blair-Brown years – legislation “overload” and command and control – and the suffocating consensus of the mainstream, which shuts down open discussion of the macro-questions about the economy and society;
6. The nature of the British state is fundamental to the current crisis and laid the basis for the acute nature of the problems Britain faces in the global downturn. The British regime formed over the thirty years of Thatcher to Brown has seen an inter-twinning of the economic, social and political into a neo-liberal state and polity that commands the loyalty of all the main parties. An escape route has yet to be discovered given the closed nature of the British system.
7. Any such escape needs the people of the United Kingdom to make their own claim upon public power with a modern form of citizenship which aids an emancipatory state, culture and society. This will involve a political culture and system which recognises the centrality of fundamental human rights that protect minorities as well as a modern liberty that stops the development of an authoritarian, database state. All of which will require a way of retelling and reimagining the stories of the peoples and the nations of the UK.

OK the first steps are rather shaky and tentative. The writings of David Marquand are relevant to point 6 - and the Power2010 movement to the last point. I hope the two come back to these issues - soon and more coherently - and with a braoder European dimension.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

UK's new coalition government

I realise that I have said nothing in the last month about the political developments in Britain – the first real peace-time coalition in the UK since the 1920s. What England does (like its football team) is, frankly, of less and less significance to the world. Aggressive, adversarial... choose whatever epithet you like, its systems have been for some time dysfunctional and, increasingly, in bad taste. And the United Kingdom is less and less united – since 1999, the Scottish parliament and devolved government have bucked the English trends both in policy and voting aspects (Labour increased its share of the vote in Scotland in June). The coalition process which UK people are amazed to find themselves with has been the norm in the rest of Europe for the past half-century. London Review of Books issue of 10 June had a good overview of the situation – led by Ross McKibbin’s magisterial piece - http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n11/ross-mckibbin/time-to-repent
So far the focus of the new government has been public spending cuts – and there has been little indication of where the new government stands on the management structures and culture of the public service. New Labour had continued indeed intensified the strange combination of neo-liberalism (marketisation) and of central controls and targets of their predecessors. The results had been widely critiqued – by academics and consultants such as John Seddon http://www.thesystemsthinkingreview.co.uk/
I have already mentioned the detailed critique by Allyson Pollock of how this approach has impacted on the health service. However, none of this critique seems to have found political expression – since New Labour had outflanked the Tories on the right on this (and other) issue. True, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Administration had looked at these issues of choice, targets and control – but their various reports lacked rigour.
A quick skim of the UK Think Tanks to see what advice the new coalition is being offered unearthed only one report – The Reform of Government – from the right-wing Policy Exchange. http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/images/publications/pdfs/TROG.pdf

Saturday, July 3, 2010

scything days and the state of universities

The day has dawned idyllic - and no further excuses therefore for avoiding the scything which the tall grass around the house demands! Elsewhere in the village yesterday, the work was getting underway - the occasional sharpening of the blades echoing around the place.
Eurozine is a useful European (electronic?) journal which selects articles and themes from offbeat cultural journals throughout the region and focuses in its latest issue on the discontent which is apparently rife at the moment in European universities - see http://www.eurozine.com/articles/article_2010-07-01-editorial-en.html

what football performance tells us

Don Paskini's blog (http://don-paskini.blogspot.com/) had a powerful point recently about the lessons from the performances of the English and German teams in the World Cup which I reproduce in full.
English football is run in the interests of very wealthy people. Ticket prices are extremely high and unaffordable for many families on middle or lower incomes. There are even regulations which tell football supporters that they are not allowed to stand and watch their team play. Fans of top teams pay huge sums of money to watch live football, money which goes to multi millionaire footballers and owners of football teams. Those who choose instead to watch football on the telly pay hundreds of pounds per year to Rupert Murdoch. Many clubs have seen their budgets for investment slashed, and their revenues spent on servicing the debts which their owners have run up. A tiny fraction of this money trickles down from the millionaires to grassroots football clubs, and clubs at all levels of the game have been caught in a financial crisis, with many threatened by closure.

German football is run in the interests of the supporters. Ticket prices are kept low so that supporters can go and watch, and can even stand if they want. Regulations mean that at least 51% of every football club is owned by the supporters, unless a company can show that it has invested in the club for at least twenty years. Those who choose to watch football on the telly have benefited from the most competitive free TV market in the world. German football clubs made a profit, rather than running up debts, thanks to lower spending on players' wages. In recent years, German clubs have massively increased their investment in youth academies, and the national team has benefited from the liberalisation of the immigration laws in 1999, to the point where they proudly talk about how they are the "multicultural" or "liberation" generation. The Bundesliga is more unpredictable and exciting than the Premier League, and we all know what happened on Sunday.

English society is run in the interests of very wealthy people. The cost of housing, child care and social care is unaffordable for many families on middle or lower incomes. There are all sorts of petty regulations which tell ordinary people what they are and aren't allowed to do. People pay huge sums of money for basic services which goes to multi millionaires. The media is dominated by a small cartel of multi millionaires, most notably Rupert Murdoch. The government is slashing its budgets for investment, and our revenues are spent on servicing the debts which the bankers have run up. A tiny fraction of this money trickles down from the millionaires to grassroots community groups, and charities and small businesses have been caught in a financial crisis, with many threatened by closure.

If we want to improve our chances in the next World Cup and stop many of our clubs from going bankrupt, we could learn a lot from the Germans. We could organise the game around the convenience of fans, rather than the Glazers and other multi millionaire owners. We could slash ticket prices, and scrap petty regulations on supporters. At the same time, we could impose new regulations to stop rich people from buying football clubs in order to asset strip them and stop them from paying their debts by squeezing fans dry. We could break up media cartels and increase the amount we invest in our young people, as well as welcoming people from all around the world who have chosen to come to live and work here.

But it strikes me that these same principles which have made German football better than ours - putting ordinary people first, making sure it is affordable to go and watch a football game, regulating the anti-social activities of rich asset strippers, investing in developing young people and being proud of multiculturalism and tolerance - are also ones which are more generally applicable to how to improve our society.

Friday, July 2, 2010

access at last

A trip into Brasov got me a new laptop (Windows 7 and also extended keyboard which I find a nuisance) - and fast internet connection - as well as garden instruments to help deal with the overgrown grass.
One of the few things I've lost is my collection of photographs - so bear with me while I build up a new stock. I am amazed at how little the PC producers understand about our needs - namely to have the same keyboard configurations! How much it fucks us up to ahve these new elements!!!!
The rainy weather continues - yesterday I consumed poet Gyurgy Faludy's incredible My Happy Days in Hell about his life in pre-war Hungary, France, then Morroco and USA before he returned to Communist Hungary for inevitable torture and imprisonment. A stunning prose poem of the 20th century!