what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections 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

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Alasdair Gray RIP

Alasdair Gray – writer and artist extraordinaire – embodying and celebrating both the city of Glasgow and the very soul of originality – has died, suddenly, just one day after celebrating his 85th birthday.
I had been delighted to find earlier this year a copy of his A Life in Pictures in which he weaves his autobiographical text together with his sketches, portraits, landscapes and book designs. He was indeed sometimes compared to William Blake – since so few manage to combine both visual and verbal genius.

That soon had me thinking about the different types of intelligence we have – I hadn’t realized that Howard Gardiner had suggested we actually have nine! Perhaps that’ why I woke today with a dream about how conferences reward only those who like to perform - and leave the shy and taciturn frustrated

Alasdair Gray’s approach to books and their design showed his creativity at full stretch. He designed every stage of the process, it seems, except for actually printing the book itself
Paris Review is a prestigious journal devoted to writing and, rightly, had separate features on him – first as a writer and then as a visual artist

A Gray Resource
http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/6450/1/6450_3750.PDF a thesis on the literature of Alasdair Gray

Lanark – a life in four books; A Gray (1981) His most famous novel – set alternately in contemporary Glasgow then in a dystopian one

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Can Economics really change its spots?

The 6th December issue of TLS had an important article by Paul Collier under the heading “Greed is Dead” (unfortunately now behind a paywall). It reviews 5 books which, in very different ways, subject the economics discipline to an intellectual battering which has, understandably, been building up a strong head of steam for the past decade. The titles give you a sense of the drift of the arguments–
-       “BLUEPRINT - The evolutionary origins of a good society”; Nicholas A. Christakis
-       “HOW BEHAVIOR SPREADS - The science of complex contagions”; Damon Centola
-       “LICENCE TO BE BAD - How economics corrupted us”; Jonathan Aldred
-       “WINNERS TAKE ALL - The elite charade of changing the world”; Anand Giridharadas
-       “PROSPERITY - Better business makes the greater good”; Colin Mayer

One of my posts at the beginning of the year actually concealed an important comment about economics

As a social “scientist”, I have long had a healthy skepticism about the overconfident claims of particularly economists. 2008, of course, should have been the death knell for economics since it had succumbed some decades earlier to a highly-simplified and unrealistic model of the econom”y which was then starkly revealed in all its nakedness…..Steve Keen was one of the first economists to break ranks very publicly way back in 2001 and to set out an alternative - Debunking Economics – the naked emperor dethroned.
This coincided with economics students in Paris objecting to the homogeneity of syllabi and reaching out to others – creating in the next 15 years a movement which has become global
This is a good presentation on the issues (from 2012) and a little Penguin book The Econocracy – the perils of leaving economics to the exerts by Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins (2017) reflects their experience of stirring things up on the Manchester University economics programme. The book’s sub-title says it all!

Dani Rodrik is one of the few economists with a global reputation to support them (Ha-Yoon Chang is another) and indeed published an important book recently reviewing the state of economics - Economics Rules – the rights and the wrongs of the dismal science; (2016) which was nicely reviewed here
The Financial Times recently reviewed several other such books - so the situation is not beyond repair but we have to be realistic. Academic economists have invested a lifetime’s reputation and energy in offering the courses they do - and neither can nor will easily start offering programmes to satisfy future student demands for relevance and pluralism….. they will calculate that the chances are high that the next cohort will be less critical and more pliable... 

Paul Collier’s review is more optimistic. As you can see from the excerpt, the 5 books he has selected are only a sample of the torrent of critical contemporary analysis of the economic discipline – whose basic assumptions have indeed been compared to a religion. The first 2 books illustrate for Collier the scale of the scientific case against the economists’ worship of greed as the primary human motive. Sociability and cooperation have rather been the prevailing norms. Collier’s opening sentences seems to reflect his reading of the third book since it talks of

Economic Man being conjured up in the 1950s by the economics profession. Our understanding of human evolution was then more rudimentary than it is now…Economic Man was duly characterised not just as greedy, lazy and selfish – which to some extent we are – but as only greedy, lazy and selfish”

Geoff Hodgson is an important political economist who would certainly not agree with the idea that the economics profession created a Grankenstein only in the 1950s. Indeed he wrote an entire book which traced the origins of this selfish model of man back a couple of hundred years - From pleasure machines to moral communities – an evolutionary economics without homo economicus; Geoff Hodgson (2013)
More perhaps to the point, I was in the early 1960s an Economics student at Glasgow University (where Adam Smith had taught in the 18th century) and did a bit of a confessional last year about what I absorbed in those years…..

Despite my 4 years of economic studies (and some years actually teaching it to others!), I make no claim to understand the nature of the global plague that has befallen us in the past few decades. I start to read the books which promise to clear my confusion but find that my eyes soon glaze over….
I toiled during my studies in the early 1960s to make sense of its focus on marginal calculations and “indifference curves” but can remember only the following lessons from my four years engrossed in economics books
- the strictness of the various preconditions which governed the idea of (perfect) competition – making it a highly improbable occurrence (and the greater  reality being oligopoly);
- the questionable nature of the of notion of “profit-maximisation”;
- the belief (thanks to the writings of James Burnham and Tony Crosland) that management (not ownership) was the all- important factor
- trust (thanks to Keynes whose work was dinned into me) in the ability of government to deal with such things as “exuberant expectations”  
- the realization (through the report of the 1959 Radcliffe Commission) that cash was but a small part of money supply. Financial economics was in its infancy then.

For someone with my education and political motivation and experience, however, my continued financial illiteracy is almost criminal but not, I feel, in any way unusual. Most of us seem to lack the patience to buckle down and take the time and discipline it needs to understand the operation of the system of financial capitalism which now has us all in its thrall.
We leave it to the "experts" and have thereby surrendered what is left to us of citizenship and political power. Like many people, I’ve clicked, skimmed and saved – but rarely gone back to read thoroughly. The folders in which they have collected have had various names – such as “urgent reading” or “what is to be done” – but rarely accessed. Occasionally I remember one and blog about it.

The economics I was taught was, of course, Keynesian (Paul Samuelson was the bible) – but pluralist Tom Wilson may have been its moderate Professor but the staff included the well-known Marxist Ronald Meek.
If Collier (and Aldred) are correct and the economics virus has been with us for only 60 years, then I can understand their optimism about the possibility of change. But I’m on Hodgson’s side of the argument and think things will be a lot harder to shift.

Update; the Dissent magazine has also found critical books about economics for review - four more!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Bullshit Jobs

Anthropology is like no other academic subject. Only the anthropological student is expected first to immerse him/herself in the accounts and theories which the founders of the discipline have given of the lives of primitive people and then, until the supply of inaccessible tribes ran out, to live and do field work amongst them.
These days, instead of having to hack through thick underbrush to find people with strange customs and languages, the anthropologist negotiates with gatekeepers to access such esoteric groups as bankers; European Union civil servants; or the precariat.

The result is to endow the professional anthropologist with a rather unusual – if not “quirky” – perspective on things. (S)he seems unable to take things for granted in the manner of the economist, political scientist or sociologist - whose focus is generally that of the more familiar world of contemporary society.
Historians, of course, also look at the world slightly differently - but anthropologists live almost literally in other “civilisations” where behaviour and its significance needs to be teased out..

David Graeber is in this sense a typical example – particularly his latest book “Bullshit Jobs – a theory” from which I have just emerged with rather different perceptions about the world of work from those I held when I entered a couple of days earlier….a rare sign of originality…It began its life in 2013 as a short “rant” about modern work, went viral and had soon been translated into a dozen or so languages.
The book came out in 2018 and is a great read. For an academic, Graeber has a very accessible style – as you can see for yourself with these two other, shorter, books – The Utopia of Rules – on technology, stupidity and the secret joys of bureaucracy (2015); and Revolutions in Reverse – essays on politics, violence, art and imagination (2011?)

Bullshit Jobs” poses three big questions -
-       why so many people (Graeber suggests at least one third) consider that their jobs make absolutely no sense;
-       why we haven’t really noticed such a dangerous development
-       what we can do about it

He starts with a nice example of someone in the German army wanting to move a desk two rooms down a corridor – leading to a mass of paperwork with sub-contractors. You know the score – “terms of reference”, measures of performance, contracts etc
This allows him to sketch out 5 new types of work –
  
- Flunky jobs are those that exist only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important….Mischievously, he suggests that Think Tanks are a good example….
- Goons [are] people whose jobs have an aggressive element, but, crucially, who exist only because other people employ them….Security companies and indeed the army spring to mind
- Duct tapers (emergency repairers) are employees whose jobs only exist because of a glitch or fault in the organization; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist….
- Box tickers [are] employees who exist only or primarily to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing….
- Taskmasters fall into two categories. Type 1 contains those whose role consists entirely of assigning work to others…. [Type 2 contains those] whose primary role is to create bullshit tasks for other to do, to supervise bullshit, or even to create entirely new bullshit jobs.”

The book, deservedly in my view, has become a best-seller – although few academics have considered it worthy of review.

One of the most compelling arguments in Graeber’s book is the simple observation that the creation of meaningless jobs is exactly what capitalism is not supposed to do. Governed by the need to maximise profits and minimise costs, companies subject to “pure” capitalism would gain no advantage in hiring unnecessary staff. However, Graeber points out that many industries no longer operate on this dynamic of profit and loss. Instead some industries like accountancy, consultancy and corporate law, are rewarded through huge, open contracts, where the incentive is to maximise the length, cost and duration of the project.
One testimony from a former consultant helping a bank resolve claims from the PPI scandal described how they, “purposefully mistrained and disorganized staff so that the jobs were repeatedly and consistently done wrong… This meant that cases had to be redone and contracts extended”.
It leads Graeber to make a simple point – perhaps parts of our economy are no longer governed by capitalism – or certainly not the type of capitalism that Marx, Milton Friedman and Adam Smith would recognise. To Graeber, an anthropologist, the bullshit economy resembles more of a feudal economy, which he brands “managerial feudalism”. The open-ended contracts represent the “loot” or “pots of gold” that feudal knights would have plundered and redistributed. And just as feudal knights surrounded themselves with serfs, peasants and slaves, so do the new executive knights of the information realm.

Yet Graeber argues that this is more than just economics. Bullshit jobs are political. Their existence is an attempt by the ruling class to manage and control the middle and lower orders. This analysis will strike some as conspiratorial nonsense.

But Graeber suggests that managerial feudalism is not the result of careful planning, central directives or an orchestrated conspiracy organised by a cabal of the world’s wealthiest people. It is more the result of inaction. Failing to invest in new technologies, to consider the adoption of policies like universal basic income and to challenge stale moral assumptions concerning work. In sum, it is the failure to change the status quo, which Graeber believes has enabled the ruling class to continue the management of people through labour.
Before branding Graeber as a crazy conspiracy theorist, it’s worth remembering that this idea is by no means new. Mainstream intellectuals from George Orwell to Buckminster Fuller have all made similar arguments. Graeber also points to measurable trends, such as consistent cuts to public services and wage stagnation for the working and middle classes since the 1970s, to make a legitimate claim that these are political decisions, privileging specific class interests.

I found chapter 6 the most interesting “Why do we as a society not object to the growth of pointless employment?”. This discusses the western world’s relationship to work and money, at least from Greco-Roman influences through the Middle Ages and then the Industrial Revolution – in the course of which some interesting points emerge – particularly about the concept of “service”. In England in the Middle Ages, working for someone else is what you before you became an adult. The Calvinist idea that work was supposed to equal suffering, that enjoying work made it “not work” and therefore not something that pleased God also makes an appearance -  although, for me, Graeber pushes the point excessively.

I’ve skimmed other books on work (Charles Handy’s books of the 1980s spring to mind) but somehow I don’t remember them having this historical perspective…

Further Reading
https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2018/07/bullshit-about-jobs one of the few academic reviews – but one with a tinge of jealousy about it
https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/08/bullshit-jobs; a serious review which does a good summary

Friday, December 20, 2019

A Fourth Labour Loss

So Labour lost – and badly!
Seats in the north of the country which had been Labour for a hundred years turned Conservative.
The Conservatives now have a clear, governing majority of 66 seats.
Brexit can and will proceed.

Even after a week I have no stomach for the centrist political analyses of the whys and wherefors. I go to the few people I trust – particularly Paul Mason who, instead of dashing off an immediate post-mortem, took the trouble to prepare a special 23 page folder called After Corbynism – where next for Labour?

Labour gained just 32% of the popular vote and lost 42 seats. Only one of the Tory held seats we targeted in southern England fell to us; we lost heavily in the former-industrial towns of the North and Midlands of England, plus 6 out of our 7 seats in Scotland.

The simplistic narrative says: "we lost because our Brexit position alienated the working class". If we examine the evidence, rather than the media rhetoric, the defeat is the story of two swings:
• by Labour voters in small-town England towards the Tories
• and a bigger swing by Labour voters to the Libdems, SNP and Greens.

The stark fact is that Labour lost 2.5 million votes while the Tories and Brexit party combined picked up just 335,000 votes.

Table 1: party voting 2017 and 2019

2017
2019
Gain
Share

Seats
CONSERVATIVE
13,636,684
13,941,200
304,516
43.6

364
LABOUR
12,877,918
10,292,054
-2,585,864
32.2

203
SNP
977,568
1,242,372
264,804
3.9
48
LIBDEMS
2,371,861
3,675,342
1,303,481
11.5
11
Brexit
594,068
624,303
30,235
2.0
-
GREEN

864,743
339,000

1
PLAID

153,265


4
Alliance (NI)




1
DUP (N Ireland)

244,127


8
Sinn Fein (NI)

181,853


7 (they never sit)
SDL (NI)

118,737


2
Where did the rest of the Labour vote go? Take a glance at Table 1 (above) and it's clear. Allowing for the fact that some Tories switched to the Libdems, the polling analyst firm Datapraxis calulates that a maximum of 800,000 Labour voters switched to the Tories.
Meanwhile the Libdems gained at least 1.1 million votes from Labour, the Greens 339,000 and the SNP a quarter of a million.
Labour, in short, lost nearly twice as many votes to progressive pro-Remain parties as it did to the parties of Brexit and racism.
Once Farage stood down in 319 seats, the only thing that could have stemmed the Tory advance was (a) an electoral pact between progressive parties, (b) an unprecedented turnout by young voters, or (c) tactical voting, seat by seat, by three out of every four pro-Remain voters.
Young voters did turn out in large numbers for Labour and other progressive parties: 56% of under 24s voted Labour and 55% of 24-35 year olds.Tactical voting happened among progressives but not on the scale needed. In fact in numerous key seats - Stroud, Kensington, Chingford - votes for the so-called "Remain Alliance" of Greens and Libdems handed victory to the Tories. ….We were facing an alliance of the right and far right, with one relentless message. But the progressive parties refused any kind of tactical unity and fought each other instead.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Too Much of a Good Thing

Writing a book about a subject you don’t understand is an activity I’ve recommended for everyone to help dispel the confusions we all have (if we’re honest enough)…
More challenging is when the topic proves to be more amorphous - and changes shape as you work on it.
Such has been my experience with text I started almost 20 years ago – long before the financial crash of 2008…It started with a critique that went as follows -

- Consumerism is killing the planet – and making people miserable.
- The poor are getting poorer
- political culture is getting ever more centralised (notwithstanding Scottish devolution).
- Social democrats like New Labour have sold the state to corporate interests.
- don’t blame individuals such as Tony Blair – it’s in the nature of modern politics. Note the political corruption in Italy, Belgium, Germany, France and even Britain.
- The EU is selfish and lacks vision

The paper then looked at the organisations and people I admired; what they were achieving; where they seemed to be failing and why;and went on to raise the question of how someone of my age, experience and resources might better contribute to society.
Many, of course, will scorn such an aspiration – seeing it as typical of a western “do-gooder”…I readily admit my natural inclination to intervene in social processes (ie my “activist” mode) and that a lot of the recent writing on “chaos theory” and even “systems theory” seems to me to run the risk of encouraging fatalism – one of the four world views Mary Douglas introduced us to and which Chris Hood’s The Art of the State (1999) analyses so brilliantly

The world is getting increasingly complex these days – so it’s hardly surprising that we increasingly hear the argument for “leaving well alone” (or “laisser-faire” as it used to be called). But we do need to look carefully at who makes - and indeed funds - such arguments. They are the right-wing US Foundations funded by such billionaires as the Koch brothers..
One of my favourite writers - AO Hirschmann – actually devoted an entire book (”The Rhetoric of Reaction”; 1991) to examining three arguments conservative writers use for dismissing the hopes of social reformers:
- The futility thesis argues that attempts at social transformation will simply not work
- the perversity thesis holds that any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.
- the jeopardy thesis argues that any proposed change or reform endangers some precious feature.

Have a look at any argument against a proposed reform - you will find it a variant of these three.
But such fatalism offends my sense of what we used to call “free will” (and now “agency theory”). Powerful people exist – whether in corporations, international agencies or governments – who can and do influence events. Our job as citizens is to watch them carefully and protest when we can..

In the 1930s it was not difficult to identify the enemy…Today the enemy is a more voracious and complex system which we variously call “globalisation” or “neoliberalism” and only more recently “capitalism” - whose disastrous consequences the activists of Porto Allegro had exposed……although it took the crash of 2008 to prove the point…
Yanis Varoufakis used the appropriate term “the Global Minotaur” for his brilliant 2011 story of how surplus capital had sought its rewards – with all the (creative) destructiveness that Joseph Schumpeter had first described in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942)  
The Minotaur not only survived but managed the amazing trick of transferring bank losses onto state exchequers and bringing on austerity and further vilification of the state…

It was the poisoning of the state I first noticed – thanks to George Monbiot’s The Captive State – the corporate takeover of Britain (2000) - and started to blog about in 2009. But within a few years such a critique of the political class had become commonplace.
I knew I had to put my distaste for economics books aside and take time try to understand not so much the financial crash but rather the true nature of this turbulent system.
And remember, I have an Economics degree and actually taught the subject for a few years in a Polytechnic in the 1970s….But I readily admit my confusions.. and, clearly, globalisation, the new tools of financial engineering and IT have introduced totally new dimensions to the economic world about which I know little.

So, a couple of years ago, I carefully noted both my current and previous reading in this field and produced two rare annotated lists of books. First of the key books written before the 2008 financial crash; then of those I judged worthy of mention which had appeared after the crash. How, you might reasonably ask, did you select these books? Why should we trust your judgement? I try to answer such questions here
One thing I noticed was how differently the various academic disciplines dealt with the subject. Economists seemed the obvious people to start with – but their texts were remarkably dry and clearly oblivious to a lot of important factors. For people who had failed to anticipate the crash, their tone was also a bit too cocky and self-assured.
The sociologists had a more plausible story to tell but generally seemed too ready to lambast everything.

I was most impressed with the smaller numbers of political economists (Blyth, Collier, Stiglitz, Streecken and Varoufakis), economic historians (Tooze) and even a few journalists (Mander)