People writing books on social affairs will usually spend at least a couple of years on their book – only to see it dealt with in a 1,000 word review (if they are lucky) – even in professional journals. That’s why I’m a big fan of the Crooked Timber book seminars which produce at least 50 page overviews of selected books – made up of 6-7 contributions. The last (on Red Plenty) had 135 pages!
I am currently reading Will Hutton’s new book How Good We Can Be (not to be confused with As Good as it Gets!) – an update of the series of books Hutton has been writing on the DNA of Anglo-American capitalism since “The State We’re In” (1995)
Hutton is that rare character – a British journalist who cares about ideas and shares his wide and deep reading in his books; someone who can and does try to build bridges between the worlds of academia and action which I have been blogging about recently.
But, as I’ve said before here, the trouble with bridges is that, in peacetime, horses shit on them and, in wartime, they are blown up!
A lot of people therefore “have it in” for Hutton - Frederic Mount is a good example. Someone who was at one time Head of Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit but reengineered himself a few years ago to write a devastating critique of the new British oligarchy. His review of Hutton’s latest book has a fairly typical tone
If a book’s worth writing once, it’s worth writing several times. This homely maxim has often proved a recipe for success. Will Hutton is a case in point. Twenty years ago, he had a runaway hit with The State We’re In. He followed that up with "The State to Come" (1997), then came "TheWorld We’re In "(2002). As Hutton moved from the editor’s chair at the Observer to the Work Foundation and now to the Principal’s lodge at Hertford College, Oxford, he has stayed heroically on his own message. The title’s tweaked, but the melody lingers on.
The continentals are enlightened, the Anglo-Saxons are deluded. Europe is the future and we would be crazy to stay out of the euro. John Maynard Keynes is good, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman are no good. The state is the solution, not the problem. It already showers blessings on us and would shower many more if only we could overcome our misguided suspicions. Government regulation and high taxes are the way to make us happy.For painting in black and white there are few like Hutton. There is no hesitation or deviation, although there is quite a bit of repetition, ……..
Yet, oddly enough, many of Hutton’s proposals will appeal to a wider audience than social liberals and socialists. In fact, they are pretty much the new consensus: the separation between high street banks and the casino banks; a stiffer stewardship code to deter looting in the boardroom; Treasury guarantees for big construction projects; restoring the insurance base of the welfare state; a return to the old sliding scale for capital gains tax, in order to encourage long-term holding of shares; an end to the tax advantages of debt over equity; reforming council tax and giving local authorities back their financial independence.
I warm to all this, and I also like Hutton’s proposals to reinvent the trade unions as co-partners with business, particularly the idea that they might set up mutually-owned service companies to sell their services to employers.
These days we are all in favour of diversifying patterns of ownership beyond the standard plc model, to include more co-operatives and also “public benefit companies,” which guarantee under charter to deliver certain public benefits and enjoy tax advantages in return. Free enterprise used to be more diverse and could be so again.
The awkward truth is, though, that these alluring alternatives are no more risk-free than the old limited company. It is an awkward thought that the best-known alternative corporations of this sort over the past few years have been the Co-op, Railtrack/Network Rail and the BBC—none of them exactly without problems of governance.
But it’s Hutton’s grand narrative that seems the more rickety. We are constantly told that the past 20 or 30 years have been a disaster for the United Kingdom. Yet at the same time we are also told that “Britain has more world-class universities per head of population than any other country,” that “The triangle bounded by the M3 in the south M40 to the north and with Heathrow at its centre boasts the highest concentration of high-tech start-ups outside California and Massachusetts,” that the BBC remains the finest broadcasting service in the world, that the National Health Service is “the cheapest system in the world producing the best health results across a range of key indicators” and “on measures of effectiveness, safety, patient-centredness, co-ordination, quality and access, Britain scores number one.”
I must confess that my eyes did begin to glaze over after the fifth or sixth of the series of injunctions Hutton gets started on later in the book. I longed for a lighter touch - and was therefore quite fascinated to discover this issue touched on in this detailed and very serious treatment of the sort calculated to warm the cockles of all writers - it's called Calling Capitalism to account by Steve New
Writers who want to engage seriously with economic and political reality face a problem. How to pitch the tone of what they say? Every simple story needs goodies and baddies; more complex stories need some sort of moral trajectory. But how explicitly should you tell the story? The vast bulk of serious academic work avoids offence by talking in the abstract, layering oblique evasion upon tactful qualification. Academics settle for the low temperature, formal modality of the learned journals; passion is excluded. Much is made of broad generalisations; no-one is criticised directly. ‘Firms’ and ‘Markets’ feature, as do ‘agents’, but mostly they don’t have names: authors can be pretty sure they’re not going to be sued by anyone, even in the rare event that a normative judgement is explicitly made.
Even academic work which reflects some kind of moral or political purpose (not all does) tends to be scrupulously anodyne, and keen not to offend. You’d really struggle to find explicit criticisms of particular firms or managers in the Academy of Management Review or the Journal of Finance or the Harvard Business Review2.
Politicians and activists can be more specific – we don’t like Shell, we don’t like Nike – but, often deliberately, tend to prioritize effect over accuracy or content3.
Journalists can be more direct, but mostly without the tedious necessity of consistency or depth. Will Hutton – over a prolific career operating in the relatively unpopulated overlap between journalist, academic and (perhaps) politician – has mastered a kind of middle ground. He writes about general ideas, but he also names names; he treads a line between rounded argument and polemical assertion; he tries to be critical
Writing about companies and business people and their ethics is tricky because it is easy to blunder into two equally stupid traps: you can declare them all horrible, beyond sympathy and empathy, or you can end up fawning and cooing in line with corporate propaganda. Nuanced and balanced treatment is hard: that’s part of why academics often stick to the abstract or typical case. If you get specific, you risk being a bombastic Spart or a corporate patsy.
Hutton navigates this carefully; he talks about particular firms, but from one particular angle at a time. So, in HGWCB, Apple is hailed as an example of innovation, with its ‘handsome, well-designed devices’ (26). But the working conditions in the supply chain are not discussed.
On the other hand, INEOS and Sports Direct are bad because of their employment practices; ARM is good because it’s successful and hasn’t been bought up by foreigners. Unilever has a declared purpose (of which more, later) and doesn’t do quarterly reporting (good). Virgin uses tax havens (bad). News International is beyond the pale because of its ‘purpose-free amoral culture’ (87).
Hutton uses specific examples of firms to point out particular virtues and vices, praising for X, damning for Y.