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

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Why we need to ration non-fiction books

Since 1950, the number of book titles has soared by at least 500% - in the UK case by almost 10 times. And, since 2013, the number of non-fiction titles has surpassed that in the fiction category – at least in the English language. And that is what my own experience tells me – when I visit a bookshop I am, nowadays, overwhelmed by the number of apparently relevant books…The overriding consideration as I flick through them is not the price but where to put them…..space is rapidly running out…
But, equally, I know that many of my purchases will disappoint…..I tend to blog about the ones that have repaid the effort of reading…
And readers will have noticed that I have been getting very impatient with a lot of writers – particularly those writing on the global crisis…I have increasingly been accusing them of self-indulgence – of not taking the issue or us readers seriously enough….I therefore thought it would be useful if I reproduced, with a few changes, the piece I wrote about this earlier this year

I now have a litmus test for any book which catches my eye and which I might be tempted to buy – actually not one but three -
1. Does it clearly list and comment on what the author regards as other essential texts? We need this partly to see how partial the author's sources are; partly to see the reasons for his/her selection
2. Can the author clearly demonstrate (eg in the introduction or opening chapter) that the book is the result of long thought and not just an inclination to jump on the latest bandwagon? Put bluntly, Why, despite previous efforts, does the author feels compelled to add to our reading burden???
3. Is it written in an “inviting” style? I recently suggested that what makes Yanis Varoufakis’ various books such excellent reading is the sheer originality of his prose – showing a mind at work which is constantly active……rejecting dead phrases, clich├ęs and jargon… using narrative and stories to carry us along…..thinking constantly about how to keep the readers’ interest alive…

If a book survives this test and you’ve actually brought it home I then recommend that, before you settle down to read a book, you should do the following
- read the reviews (surf)
- identify the questions these suggest – you should never open a book without knowing what you want to get out of it!
- Mark (with a pencil) passages you both like and don’t like – with underlines, question-marks, ticks, comments and expletives. This will encourage you to return to the book
- If the author doesn’t write in clear language, move on to another book asap. Life’s too short to waste on verbosity……Bad writing is a good indicator of a confused mind
- Write brief notes on the main themes and arguments (it helps the memory; and, if transcribed, they help build up an archive)

This, of course, puts the onus on readers - but the real problem rests with authors and publishers...It is they who swamp our minds with thousands of titles and excessive verbosity...
I suggest that, when they come to consider the final draft and layout of a book, they consider the following

1.      tell us what’s distinctive about your book; ie why you feel you need to add to what is already a huge literature on the subject
2.     “position” your book – ie tell us what you consider the key texts in the field (and why) and how your book relates to them. At best you can offer a typology of the different schools of thought on the issue
3.     convince us that you have not only read the “relevant literature” but that you have done so with a reasonably open mind; At best, offer an annotated list of key reading - with your preferences. This will give us a sense of your stance and fairness
4.     give a “potted version” of each chapter. Most think-tank reports have executive summaries. I don’t know why more authors don’t adopt the same approach. Amazon, some publishers and Google offer free access to excerpts – but the selections are fairly random.
5.     use more tables….and graphics. Readers can absorb only so much continuous text. And if the subject matter is difficult, it helps if – at least every couple of pages – there is a heading which gives a sense of the argument…

Their bibliographies may look impressive and their chapter headings riveting but the books increasingly suffer, in my view, from the following sorts of deficiencies –
- They are written by academics
- who write for students and other academics
- and lack “hands-on” experience of other worlds
- the author’s speciality indeed is only a sub-discipline – eg financial economics
- the focus is a fashionable subject
- written with deadlines to meet commercial demands
- making claims to originality- but failing to honour the google scholar adage of “standing on the shoulders of giants” (despite – perhaps even because of - the extensive bibliographies)

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

How they get away with it – being part 5 of the series on the political class

As you saw from the list of 20 odd books a few posts back, the journalists, political scientists and think-tankers have a lot to say about systems of power. Indeed, I often wish they would take an oath of silence – but then I remember they have families to feed…..This means, however, that we stand to be disappointed when we turn to books to help us understand contemporary issues. Several times this blog has gone so far as to urge readers to apply some simple tests when they are flicking books eg on the global crisis eg  early last year one suggested that you go the Preface/Introduction/end-notes/Index and award one point for each positive answer you can give to such questions as
- Does it say why yet another book is needed to add to the huge pile we already have?
- Does it argue convincingly that the book has something distinctive to say?
- is anything said about the audience the author is aiming at?
- Does it list/identify different schools of thinking about the issue?
- does the author list what subjects (s)he has excluded?
- Is there an annotated further reading list in an annex?

Any book with less than 4 points is probably a waste of your time….
My next post will remind you of some advice I gave readers, authors and publishers earlier this year

But, for now, I want to share an important insight with you all – that after all my reading over the past 50 years the best critique of power is actually a short satirical essay by Anthony Jay (the highly successful scriptwriter of the "Yes Minister" television series of 35 years ago)
The essay is called Democracy, Bernard, it must be stopped and can only be read on my website.
It takes the form of the advice given by Sir Humphrey (the retiring Head of the Civil Service) to his replacement – who, amazingly, turns out to be the guy who 30 years previously was the hapless Bernard. It captures the mechanisms which have been used over the past 50 years to corrupt the political class far better than any book.
Here is the first section (the final section will follow)

The first two rules for neutralising democracy are:
1. Centralise revenue. The governing class cannot fulfil its responsibilities without money. We, therefore, have to collect as much money as we can in the centre. In fact, we have done this with increasing effect over the years, with three happy results. The first is that we can ensure that money is not spent irresponsibly by local communities. By taking 80 or 90 per cent of the money they need in central taxes, we can then return it to them for purposes of which we approve. If they kept it for themselves, heaven knows what they might spend it on.
The second happy result is that the larger the sum, the harder it is to scrutinise. The ₤6,000 or so spent by a rural parish council is transparent and intelligible, and subjected to analysis in distressing detail. By contrast, the three or four hundred billion of central government revenue is pleasantly incomprehensible, and leaves agreeably large sums for purposes which the common people would not approve if it were left to them. It also means that a saving of ₤1 million can be dismissed as 0•0000003 of annual expenditure and not worth bothering with, whereas it can make a lot of difference to the budget of Fidelio at Covent Garden.
The third result is that the more the government spends, the more people and organisations are dependent on its bounty, and the less likely they are to make trouble.
2. Centralise authority. It goes without saying that if Britain is to remain a country of civilised values, the masses cannot be trusted with many decisions of importance. Local government must be allowed to take decisions, but we have to ensure that they are trivial. Meanwhile, we must increase the volume of laws made centrally. We have an enviable record of legislation growth, with hardly any laws being repealed, which it is now your duty to extend. If you are under pressure to provide statistics showing your zeal in deregulation, you will find many laws concerning jute processing and similar extinct industries which can be repealed without too much harm. …
You will also want to ensure that every Bill contains wide enabling powers, so that unpopular provisions can be brought in later as statutory instruments which MPs rarely read and virtually never debate. You should be able to achieve three or four thousand of these in a good year. 
The rest of the rules flow from the first two –

3.Capture the Prime Minister
Given the promises a PM makes, it is not difficult to persuade him that he needs more revenue and power
4. Insulate the Cabinet

They must be kept, as far as possible, well away from any contact with the sweaty multitude. This means avoiding public transport by use of private cars, avoiding the National Health Service by private health care etc
5. Enlarge constituencies
In the name of democracy, we have increased constituency size to 50,000 or 60,000, so that no MP can be elected on voters' personal knowledge of him. They vote for the party, and if the party does not endorse him, he will not be elected. His job, therefore, depends on the Prime Minister's approval and not on the respect of his constituents; a splendid aid to discipline
6. Overpay MPs

Even when MPs depend on the party machine for re-selection and re-election, some are occasionally tempted to step out of line. This risk can be significantly reduced if rebellion means not only loss of party support but also significant loss of income.
7. Appoint rather than elect

Government appointment is critical for control of society - so that proper care can be exercised in their selection of the thousands of positions available in Quangos - and so that the incumbents, when chosen, will know to whom they owe their new eminence, while those hoping for such posts (as with honours and peerages) can be trusted to behave responsibly in the hope of favours to come
8. Permanent officials – rotating Ministers

We have built an excellent system of a few transient amateur ministers who are coached, informed, guided and supported by a large department of permanent, experienced officials who enable them to take the correct decisions.
9. Appoint more staff

There are three reasons for this: it increases the volume of government revenue, it extends the area of government control, and it enlarges the pool of voters who have an interest in preserving the system that employs them.
10. Secrecy

Our success is based on the principle that no information should be disclosed unless there is a good reason why it should be. From time to time, opposition parties press for a freedom of information Act, but oppositions become governments and it does not take long for a government to discover that real freedom of information would make their job impossible.

It takes only a few minutes to read the essay – and I would urge you to do so – just click Democracy, Bernard, it must be stopped

Now you can understand why I am such a fan of satire….Some analysts now argue that satire has made us politically cynical and undermined democracy – although I suspect it is more the slow drip of 24/7 news which has done that…..Politicians have certainly become too easy a target. But after wading through so many turgid books about power systems, I have to say we desperately need the gasp of clarity which good satirical writing brings…..

 A Resource on Satire
Satire has long been a powerful weapon against the pretensions of power – Voltaire’s Candide and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels are well-known literary examples. Ralph Steadman and Gerard Scarfe are modern caricaturists in the tradition of Hogarth; and the Liverpool poets (Roger McGough, Adrian Henry) sustained the protestors of the 1960s. British people are not so familiar with the Bert Brecht’s City poems or the savage anti-bourgeois paintings of Georg Grosz in the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1987 Management Professor Rosabeth Kanter produced “Ten Rules for Stifling Initiative” which I have often used to great effect in Central Asian training sessions.
1999 saw the appearance of “The Lugano Report; on preserving capitalism in the twenty-first Century” which purported to be a leaked report from shady big business but was in fact written by Susan George.

Management guru Russell Ackoff’s great collection of tongue-in-cheek laws of management –“Management F-Laws – how organisations really work” ( 2007) As the blurb put it –
“They're truths about organizations that we might wish to deny or ignore - simple and more reliable guides to managers' everyday behaviour than the complex truths proposed by scientists, economists and philosophers”.
An added bonus is that British author, Sally Bibb, was asked to respond in the light of current organizational thinking. Hers is a voice from another generation, another gender and another continent. On every lefthand page is printed Ackoff and Addison's f-Law with their commentary. Opposite, you'll find Sally Bibb's reply. A short version (ALittle F-book - 13 Sins of management). A typical rule is – “The more important the problem a manager asks consultants for help on, the less useful and more costly their solutions are likely to be”.

Robert Greene’s "48 Laws of Power" may not be satire but it is a very salutary counter to the thousands of unctuous management texts which attribute benign motives to senior management. 
And, to bring this series back full circle to “The Triumph of the Political Class”, a spoof on the British Constitution – called The Unspoken Constitution ( 2009) – had a Preface written by "The Triumph’s...." author - Peter Oborne.
Peter Cook - the greatest of Britain’s post-war satirists - once apparently said, back in the 1960s, “Britain is in danger of sinking giggling into the sea,”

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

How the power elite can – and does - manipulate us - Part 4 of the series on the political class

I’ve often in the past 20 years had to put myself in the shoes of Ministers and senior civil servants to help them develop “road maps” to their destinations of reform….An important technique I’ve used in these endeavours has been to get my counterparts to list why they think people behave the way they do – whether as officials, as citizens, politicians or businesspeople  – and what that tells us about the best way to try to get them to change. 
After all, the projects I’ve led only exist because someone has decided the present state of affairs is no longer acceptable…..so what aspects of whose behaviour are we talking about? And what is it that is most likely to make target groups change their behaviour?
-                Simple instructions?
-                Threats? Incentives?
-                Explanations and understanding?
-                Moral exhortation?

I have then developed, over the past couple of decades, this table which focuses on the assumptions we make about motives - and then explores the various mechanisms which are available to those trying to change beliefs and behaviour

The “behavioural turn” - Tools in the change process

Motivating Factor

Example of tool
Particular mechanism
1. Understanding
Functional review
Rational persuasion

Factual analysis
2. Commitment
Legitimisation; inspiration

3. Maximising Personal Benefit
Pay increase and bonus
Promotion (including political office)
Good publicity
Winning an award
Monetary calculation

Psychological Status
4. Minimising Personal Cost
Named as poor performer
Report cards
Psychological (Shame)
5. Obligation
Action plan
Family ties
Managerial authority
Social pressure
6. Peer influence
Quality circles
7. Social influence

Opinion surveys
Feedback from public about service quality

The explosion of interest in behaviour
In the last decade, the question of changing (other) people’s behaviour has become a central one for government, business and NGOs. Professors Thaler and Cass may have “nudged” interest with their 2008 Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness but it was in fact the UK Cabinet Office which arguably set the ball rolling four years earlier with its Personal Responsibility and changing behaviour – the state of knowledge and its implications for public policy (2004) - an example which was followed with Changing Behaviour – a public policy perspective (Australian Government 2007).

The Nudge book certainly inspired the Cameron government some 7 years later to set up a Nudge Unit in the Cabinet but the British government had in 2008 been exploring this issue in its  The Use of sanctions and rewards in the public sector (NAO 2008) the very same year - accompanied by a literature review drafted by Deloitte
Even the House of Lords was not to be outdone – with the voluminous evidence of its Behaviour Change in 2011. And the voluntary sector put down an early marker with its Common Case – the case for working with our cultural values (2010) – which showed more familiarity with the marketing approach than did the economistic and rationalistic assumptions which were embedded in the erly British attempts.
So the World Bank was rather lagging behind when in 2015 its Annual Development Report got round to dealing with the issue - in its Mind, Society and Behaviour

In parallel to this burgeoning interest, the emergence of “behavioural economics” has represented a shamefaced admission by the “discipline” that their models had been based on utterly stupid assumptions of rationality…

However, policy geeks such as yours truly have perhaps been a bit slow to make the connection between the “behavioural turn” and “Big Data” - let alone the scandal of Cambridge Analytics

Useful Further Reading
Reports and Books
Mind, Society and Behaviour (World Development Report; World Bank 2015)
Behaviour Change (House of Lords (2011)
Nudge, nudge, think, think; book by Peter John, Smith and Gerry Stoker (2011
It was accompanied by a literature review drafted by Deloitte

Monday, November 26, 2018

We need to talk about……..Power

Oborne’s book was interesting because, rightly or wrongly, it seemed to identify a turning point – that the way the British system of government operated had changed significantly (and for the worse) in the 1980s……He was not the only person arguing this – a year before, Simon Jenkins’ Thatcher and Sons; (2006) had conducted the same analysis but without using such dramatic terms as “new political class” and “manipulative populism”..

And even political scientists had been remarking that the much-famed “Westminster model” (of dominant political power) seemed to have been replaced with a much more consensual one of networked “governance”. Rod Rhodes – whom I briefly met in the 1970s - had been the foremost proponent of this view with his concept of “hollowed out government
My table included a 2006 textbook British Politics – a critical introduction by Stuart McAnulla which nicely captures the sort of debate going on in those days in these academic circles……with McAnulla taking issue with both the traditional and reformist schools of thought and suggesting that we needed to extend our understanding of power beyond the political..…

It is, of course, nothing less than astounding that it took a global financial crisis to force academia to consider that government agendas are shaped by more than political manoeuvrings – and McAnulla’s is still a fairly lonely voice in his profession….The commercial links of New Labour were memorably exposed by George Monbiot in his 2001 expose The Captive State – the corporate takeover of Britain But, astonishingly, only 2 of the 500 pages of The UK’s Changing Democracy – the 2018 Democratic Audit have anything to say about corruption

Wolin’s Democracy Inc questioning the scale of commercial funding of American political personalities was distinctive only for it being produced by an academic (one of the most respected) and came out ten years ago. Neither it – nor the various studies of the significance of lobbying activity and resources at the European level – seem to make any impact on our discussions about democracy….Here is a rare 2014 academic contribution to the question of how consistent capitalism now is with democracy

We seem indeed averse to talking about “power” and its various facets…although most of us tend to have our own little conspiracy theory….I grant you that books on the subject tend to be rather specialised and daunting…..although Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power is a very good read…..if focusing rather too much on individual rather than systemic or structural factors.
When we look for books about power, we invariably find that they are written by sociologists, a group hardly famed for its clarity - one honourable exception being the recent Vampire Capitalism (2017).

Probably the best book about the subject is Steven Lukes’ slim Power – a radical view (2005) which starts with the simple story of how the post-war argument about the structure of power basically got underway with an American (Dahl) being upset with how 2 colleagues (C Wright Mills and Floyd Hunter) were portraying a power elite that seemed impervious to accountability – at both national and local levels…
Inevitably, however, even this book is guilty of the dreaded compartmentalisatio of which academia is so guilty and fails to mention the classic work of Amitai Etzioni who in the 1960s classified organisational power in terms of “coercion, economic assets or normative values”.. Sticks, carrots and moral persuasion we would call it.....
And if you’re wondering what “moral persuasion” is when it’s at home, Joseph Nye’s “soft power” will tell you more than Antonio Gramsci’s “hegemonic power”!!