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, January 31, 2021

A Life in Reform

 Books about management are big business. The Management section of any bookshop is therefore a big one – with what used to be a clear divide between textbooks (for the many students of the subject) and the more practical no-nonsense books written by business leaders/heroes That line began to blur a bit in the 1990s – with academics such as Rosabeth Kanter and Peter Senge, for example, producing best-sellers about the latest "best practice".

At about the same time, the field of New Public Management (NPM) began to make its mark – building on the success of David Osborne’s “Reinventing Government” (1992). By the new millennium, the shelves were groaning under the weight of the academic books appearing on the subject.

What, however, was most curious was the absence of titles from those with the practical experience of managing state bodies. And this despite the best intentions of someone like Mark Moore whose “Creating Public Value” (1995) celebrated the energy and creativity which good public managers brought to state bodies at both the national and local levels. 

Perhaps such people are simply too busy – or contractually prevented from sharing their insights? Only one other academic, as far as I’m aware, has tried to encourage public managers to speak out – and that is the late lamented Chris Pollitt whose The Essential Public Manager” was published in 2003. 

It’s this imbalance in the literature which has encouraged me these past few years to try to put a book together about my fairly unusual experience of administrative reform in some dozen countries - which I had been calling “How did Admin Reform get to be so Sexy?” but which is currently running with a new title “Change for the Better? - a life in reform”. I've been working on it fairly feverishly for the past week - and hope to put it up shortly on this site.....

It has an unusual structure - in that the two opening chapters were actually penned some 20 and 10 years ago respectively; and most of the others are based on posts from this blog – each prefaced by a short introduction. In this I follow the example of two writers I’ve long admired – Robert Chambers, whose Ideas for Development consists of essays he has written over a 30 years period – each with an introduction indicating the circumstances in which it was penned and how his thinking has changed. Roger Harrison, an organisational consultant who developed with Charles Handy the famous idea of ”Gods of Management”, did the same,

For me, too many books pretend to an authority and precision which life simply doesn’t have .....

Monday, January 25, 2021

What is “proper journalism”?

The “Breaking News” book by the former editor of “The Guardian”, Alan Rusbridger, contrasts the two worlds of what he calls the “legacy media” with that of the social…… and raises many profound issues for us as global citizens – eg

- can anyone really understand what’s going on in the world?

- do we not just see what we are looking for?

- did the legacy media not deserve some of the kickback – given its hectoring “top-down” tone?

- can we sustain the prejudice that the social media is sheer distraction? Rusbridger suggests that the new Twitter thread suggests otherwise….

- how can the legacy media fight back? 

By 2017 the “legacy media” had developed an understandable obsession with the GAFAT companies – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter – which, in their view, were working to different rules on a hopelessly tilted playing field.

The old-media view was simple: the “Gafaters” stole their content; built an audience around it; sold that audience to advertisers; gave almost nothing in return; took virtually no responsibility for the content they hosted; got a free pass on the regulations that burdened traditional media; and – to cap it all – paid virtually no tax. 

It was all, in other words, deeply unfair. But, however unjust, many companies felt they had no choice but to play by the new rules. A Reuters Institute report in late 2017 discovered fatalism within newsrooms and management. Social media was, they nearly all agreed, a vital bridge to the next generation of audiences. As the platforms grew, so legacy media – which could never dream of rivalling the Gafaters for scale – would weaken.

The number one aim of the legacy media was to get Facebook to admit it was a publisher, not just a pipe down which content flowed. That meant they would have to face the same responsibilities – and costs and regulation – as others. To the Daily Mail, Facebook was a 

‘deeply tarnished, filth-peddling, taxdodging, pusillanimous, terror-abetting behemoth which targets the vulnerable with bile and hatred’.

 Not all the traditional players would use such language. But, as unease grew over the extent to which Facebook’s laissez-faire processes were being manipulated to dark ends, there was something of a broader backlash against companies which were seen as greedy, out of control, arrogant and destructive of social and democratic fabrics.

There were demands that the GAFAT giants should do more to support old-fashioned journalism. But Zuckenburg turned the question around. ‘This journalism you think we should be supporting, what does it look like?’ 

It was a genuine enquiry, and the glances among his colleagues suggested it was one they had been grappling with themselves. If you think we should be sharing our revenues in the cause of some kind of public benefit, how do you define that benefit? 

For all its mildness and politeness, it was the deadliest and most profound question. “What is journalism? Who gets to do it? Do you all agree on a core set of standards and ethics and methods? Do you all agree on a common concept of public interest? Do you want us to support the gutter press? Or just local news or investigative news? Help us understand”.

There were senior figures within both Facebook and Google who were very troubled by aspects of the information chaos they had partly enabled, and who valued some – but not all – of the things that the old information order produced. They felt most traditional news executives didn’t understand algorithms. Some of them would privately admit they didn’t understand journalism.  

Try drawing a map of things we call ‘news’. There is straight news and adversarial news; subjective news and objective news. There is news as public service and news as entertainment. There is exclusive news and commodity news. There are investigations; there are campaigns and there is advocacy. There is breaking news and there is slow, considered news. There is analysis, or news with context; explanatory news. There is news as activism. There is opinion dressed up as news; there’s eyewitness news; firstperson news; or scoops of interpretation. There may even be sponsored news or advertising dressed up to look like news.

The potential of Twitter?

Like most grumpy old men, I have a stock response whenever I hear talk of Twitter….It’s one of the things which has poisoned our exchanges. It invites abuse. But Rusbridger points to the use of the “thread” by specialists as demonstrating the potential offered by the social media

In the binary argument over journalism in a digital world it became an article of faith to some that the internet was largely dross. You needed professionals to bring you reliable information because only they could be trusted [insert brain surgeon comparison]. Twitter – with its restrictive character limit – was widely held up as a place of simplicities, hatred and ignorance. All that was true, but only partly.

If, as a journalist, that’s all you chose to believe then you were blind to how Twitter was also a place of expertise, intelligent debate and genuine dialogue.

At first, they were constricted by the format. But then came the invention of a new format: the thread – a sequence of tweets making an argument or advancing a proposition. Suddenly the straitjacket of 140 or 280 characters melted away.

In the right hands the thread is a fascinating new form. Over many tweets a writer can develop quite a sophisticated argument. Each tweet can be accompanied by a screenshot or link to supporting evidence. Each tweet can be individually commented on or shared. 

The truth is that it is difficult to map the new eco-system of information in a neat way with – at different ends of a spectrum – ‘proper’ mainstream media and ‘other stuff’. Much of the information being produced by nonprofessionals is just as reliable, informative and useful as that produced by journalists. Vice versa, some information produced ‘professionally’ is weak, unreliable, unethical . . . and even untruthful. You could call it ‘fake’. 

On the eve of Donald Trump taking office, the respected NYU media academic Jay Rosen published a bleak blog post titled ‘Winter is Coming’ in which he argued that ‘so many things are happening to disarm and disable serious journalism . . . at the darkest time in American history since WW1’.

- He began with an ever-more severe economic crisis for news combined with the lowest levels of trust in news media in living memory, citing the First World War as a time of particular censorship and suppression of dissent.

- He added in a ‘broken and outdated’ model for political journalism (based on ‘access’ or ‘inside’ reporting which misses broader connections with the public).

- Then came a lack of diversity in newsrooms; weak leadership and ‘thin institutional structures’ in the American press. The mistrust of the media was mirrored by low levels of trust in most institutions and their leaders – the very people journalists were writing about.

- Then came an organised movement on the political right to discredit mainstream journalism and the increasingly dim prospect that there was even a fact-based debate to which journalists could usefully contribute. Media companies increasingly subordinated news and political debate to entertainment values; while finally, Facebook was slowly taking charge of the day-to-day relationship with users of the news system. 

Those who enjoyed “Breaking News” will find News – and How to Use (2020) an even more interesting read. It’s presented as an alphabetic glossary

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Breaking News – the remaking of journalism and why it matters now

The media used to be described as one of the key features of democracy – for its ability to hold power to scrutiny. So much so it was actually called The Fourth Estate – with the Church, nobility and commoners being the first three and the earliest use of the term in a book by Thomas Carlyle in 1787: 

"Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all." 

How quickly things have changed – with the mainstream media now dismissed as “fake news” - and social media being most people's first "go to" source of news.

I’ve just put down a superbly-written story of the challenges faced by Alan Rusbridger as editor ofthe UK’s most honourable newspaper - The Guardian - during his stint at the helm from 1995 to 2015. It’s in a 2018 book whose title I've reproduced to head this post. 

The challenges it explores include - 

- Dramatically declining advertising revenues – as experienced by all print media

- A more demanding and interactive readership

- of not only global digital and print editions but of a weekend title, The Observer – requiring three separate teams

- law suits, the most famous of which was conducted by a Minister of the Crown. Jonathan Aitken

- government pressures (the Britain media enjoys no protection such as the US Second Amendment)

- the infamous phone hacking perpetrated on both the public and major political figures by the Murdoch Empire and other “Tabloids” who pour their poison on British society

- the Wikipedia leaks in which The Guardian played a central part (with Der Spiegel and the New York Post)

- the Snowden revelations 

It reads like a political thriller - and should be read by everyone these days

I hadn’t realized, for example, that The Guardian was one of the first English-speaking newspapers to experiment, in the early years of the internet, with more interactive methods of reaching readers. Nor that it had received global awards for its various innovations…

The book gives a very strong sense of what it was like to live during this period of powerful technical change. 

Too many of the books we read are written in confident tones as if the future was knowable. Uncertainty is the name of the game – with experiments being one of the most useful ways of proceeding……This is how Rusbridger describes the situation as he felt it 15 years ago -

So this was what we thought we knew around the middle of 2006.

·         Newspapers were going to find their traditional revenues – particularly in classified advertising and, probably, in cover price – eaten into over coming years.

·         Many newspaper managements would naturally respond by cutting costs. At the same time they would need to invest significantly in the digital future against the day when new technologies might determine future reading habits; and when significant amounts of advertising might well migrate to the internet.

·         None of this would happen smoothly. There would be profound jolts along the way. We – and others – could expect to lose lots of money in the coming • • • • • years if we had any chance of making the transition.

·         In a rapidly converged world, newspapers would have to ask themselves whether they remained a purely text medium. And they were going to have to face the fact that younger readers, especially, were questioning previously accepted notions of journalistic authority.

·         We would have to get used to the idea that audiences were fragmenting and that many people were increasingly finding non-conventional news sources a valuable addition, if not a ready substitute, for mainstream media.

·         Newspapers had to decide how much they embraced these new forms of discourse and dissemination or whether they stood apart from them. Should we be of the web, or simply on it?

·         Thousands of websites would aggregate what we do, syndicate it, link it, comment on it, sneer at it, mash it up, trash it, monetise it, praise it and attempt to discredit it – in some cases all at once. We were going to have to be more transparent about what we did and earn trust in this new world.

·         But it was hard to see that many would actually go to the risk and the expense of setting up a global network of people whose only aim was to find things out, establish if they’re true, and write about them quickly, accurately and comprehensibly. The blogo-sphere, which was frequently parasitical on the mainstream media it so remorselessly critiqued, couldn’t ever hope to replicate that. That – assuming people remained interested in serious news – should give us a huge advantage. • • • • • •

·         Against that, the digital world could do many things much better than we could currently do – including niche fragmentation, multimedia, voice, diversity, connectivity, range, scale, speed, responsiveness and community.

·         Our cost base was simultaneously our best protection and a mill stone around our necks. Between them the Guardian, Observer and Guardian Unlimited employed well over 600 journalists, more than two dozen of them based around the world. That was half the size of the NYT and a tenth the size of the BBC, but still a significant investment in serious journalism. We could be sunk by our cost base, or it could make what we did difficult for others to replicate.

·         No internet start-up on earth would ever contemplate such an investment in expensive, noncommercially productive people. The Yahoos and Googles of this world were explicit: they had no interest in creating content. They did, however, want to do interesting things with other people’s content. That could be good for us. Or it might not. Google could be our friend or our enemy. Or both.

·         We could not survive into a newspaperless future as a UK-only news company. The audience simply wasn’t rich enough or large enough to support us – and an advertising-supported operation could only work if we could deliver much larger numbers.

·         That meant taking our non-British readers more seriously We would, in particular, have to expand our North American operation. There could be no hope of trying to build a US audience with a paywall.

One of the many things I admired in the book was Rusbridger’s generosity of spirit – evident in his tributes to the support foreign journalists and editors gave in his times of need (in stark contrast to British colleagues); his appreciation of readers’ feedback and loyalty;  and his frequent references to those books and surveys he found helpful.  

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Pageants and national values

After the bruising words and events of the past 4 plus years, it was important to see the better side of the United States on display yesterday at the Presidential Inauguration.

The optimism was perhaps a bit forced this time, the usual nationalist note more questionable. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one heckling Biden’s rhetorical flourishes. The colourful figure of young poet Amanda Gorman was a superb counterpoint – almost an ironic comment on that aspect…. 

Such events (and the State of the Union Message) are important opportunities for countries to remind themselves of – if not refresh - their values. An opportunity, however, which most countries flunk.

Take, for example, the glitter and pomp of the British Queen’s Speech marking the start of a parliamentary session - when the UK government’s programme is presented. What we actually see are the ermine robes of Lords and Ladies – reminding us that, although the feudal element of the system may now be gone (if very recently), these Lords and Ladies have been elevated to their position by a thoroughly rotten system of appointments - in the gift of a few people…..And of course it’s actually no longer the only show in town – with the Scottish Government since 1999 presenting its own distinctive programme to Scottish society 

In a few days (January 25th) we’ll see Scots all over the world coming together to celebrate the Scottish values we’ve long seen as embodied in the life of our national poet, Rabbie Burns. A ploughman and then customs off,icial, Burns wrote in revolutionary times; understood its hypocrisies; and sympathized with its struggles against injustice. Not for nothing did the Russians also take him to their hearts.

It’s puzzling, therefore, that more countries don’t follow suit and have annual celebrations of poets who embody national values such as Shakespeare and Goethe  - or even better for my money, Bert Brecht. 

Governments always find it impossible to distinguish their own short-term political agenda from the deeper issue of national identity – witness the mess Gordon Brown made of the debate about British identity. 

For my money, the only country which has managed to create a mechanism which gives the opportunity for a proper expression of moral values is…..Germany whose apolitical Presidential addresses have, since Richard von Weizsaecker, had great power

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Democracy in America II

The previous post was my first response to the January 6th storming of the Capitol in Washington USA – which represented the logical culmination not only of four years of Trump rule but of at least 2 decades of onslaught against the democratic system in the country. This started with the “Florida hanging chads” of 2000; continued with sustained gerrymandering and voter restrictions; and culminated in the 2010 Supreme Court decision which allowed corporations unlimited funding of election campaigns.

 Such an attack on citizen rights raises three questions -

        what sort of debate has this onslaught raised about the state of American democracy?

        Where can we find a coherent agenda for rescuing American democracy?

        with a realistic chance of success?

My googling unearths the following -

1. Only one such conversation seems to have been taking place – at the State of American Democracy website supported by the Ford, Germeshausen and Park Foundations, The Heinz Endowments and the Wallace Global Fund viz the great and good. This has led to a book Democracy Unchained – how to rebuild government for the people; ed David Orr et al (2020) which, so far, I've not been able to find to assess

2. There have, over the past decade, been a fair number of critiques of the system – eg Wolin's “Democracy Inc” (2008) I mentioned in the last post and Wendy Brown's “Undoing the Demos” (2015) but I've been able to identify only 3 recent books which set out strong and coherent agendas for electoral and political change.

The first by a Stanford University academic associated with the Journal of Democracy who has been monitoring the West's democratisation assistance over the past 30 years (including an abortive effort in Iraq) and has at last turned the analysis back onto the US itself in  Ill Winds – saving democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese ambition and American complacency ; Larry Diamond (2019)

David Daley is an activist and journalist who has just produced Unrigged – how americans are battling back to save democracy; (2020)

And  the Harvard Law Review recently produced this book-length analysis of The Degradation of American Democracy (Nov 2020)

The elements which need to figure in any serious reform of the contemporary American democratic system are summarised in this table of mine - 

Issue

 Significance

Options

Constraints

Scale of campaign donations – money buys votes

massive

- The scale of corporation and Foundation contributions is particularly offensive.

- Contributions should be individual and have a ceiling

Will be seen as threat to free speech

Voter restrictions

Huge – many southern (Rep) states have recently disenfranchised significant numbers of black voters

- Have proper electoral rolls

- remove bureaucracy from registration

Should be straightforward – but Supreme Court would see it as threat to State rights

gerrymandering

large

More objective system to remaking of electoral boundaries

Highly political

Tone of broadcasting debate

huge

Bring back Law which required balanced coverage in broadcasting

Will be seen as threat to free speech

Reform electoral college system

many countries have same “first past the post” system

 

Would require constitutional amendment and would be highly divisive

 

Restrict filibustering

minor

 

 

Bring  element of PR into Senate elections

Massive – at moment large States (eg California)  have same 2 Senators as smallest

Gives Republicans currently a 40 million voter advantage in the Senate

Would require constitutional amendment and would be highly divisive

 In short, I get the sense that it has only been the events of January 6th that have finally triggered the realisation of many Americans that their system is so broken it requires  a “Truth and Conciliation” approach to reform. For a slightly different view, see  https://howtosavetheworld.ca/2021/01/21/not-so-extreme/

Monday, January 11, 2021

Democracy in America

America is an imaginary place....It exists as an image in each of our minds, nurtured partly by intellectual fare but mainly by the Holywood (and now Netflix) industry. Those of us who have encountered it are therefore often brought up short by something which challenges the myths with which we have been fed – in my case when, in the late 1980s, I had to concede that the country had more democratic energy than my prejudices had given it credit for.

But that was 30 plus years ago – since when a lot of us have lost that respect for the country's claim to democracy.

  • It's partly that money has replaced voice in the system - billions of dollars are sought by those running for public office in the country (with all the favours involved) with a 2010 ruling by the Supreme Court giving an additional boost

  • it's partly the institutional gridlock that is a feature of a system which divides political power between 2 Houses, a Presidency and a Supreme Court in an increasingly divided and litigious society

  • it's partly the turning of political discussion into a gigantic spectacle and entertainment industry

  • the narrowness of views allowed expression on the airwaves

  • and the sheer smugness of “a selfish ruling class bringing America to the brink of revolution” - to use the subtitle of Tucker Carlson's 2018 “Ship of Fools” book 

That, of course, is just one man's view – well-read perhaps but with values and attitudes which dispose me to be critical. I do expect a society to be open, inclusive and participative.

William Domhoff is an american academic who has made it his life's work to explore, in books and a website, the question of Who Rules America?

The last edition of his running commentary on the question was in 2014 and entitled Who Rules America – the triumph of the corporate rich. I particularly liked this part of his Intro -

The book draws on recent studies by sociologists, political scientists, and experts working for public interest groups and government agencies to update information on corporate interlocks, social clubs, private schools, and other institutions that foster elite social cohesion. It also contains new information on the tax-free charitable foundations, think tanks, and policy-discussion groups through which the corporate rich strive to shape public policy....

Although the corporate rich have always found ways in the past to circumvent attempts to limit campaign donations and make them more transparent, the 2010 and 2012 elections took these practices to astronomical levels.

In an effort to make the book more accessible to those with no background in the theoretical debates that animate the social science literature, all discussion of alternative theories are confined to a new last chapter. This approach allows readers to see how the empirically based argument unfolds without any brief critical asides that may be confusing or distracting. Th is change also may make it possible for readers to better form their own judgments about theoretical controversies because they will have seen the full empirical picture. It also allows readers to skip the final chapter without missing any part of the argument and evidence presented in the first eight chapters.

I would also point to a doyen of the american political science discipline – Seymour Wolin – whose history of political philosophy, "Politics and Vision", has been required reading on courses for some 50 years - and who produced in his nineties Democracy Inc – managed democracy and the spectre of inverted totalitarianism (2008), one of several books to raise the question since then of the extent to which capitalism is actually compatible with democracy.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Things go Up..and Down...and round-about

 A lot of clever people have devoted a lot of intellectual effort to suggest that all novels can be reduced to 6-7 basic plots which are all variants of the rags to riches story.

As usual, visuals say it all much more clearly and noone recounts it better than the sadly-missed Kurt Vonnegut who gave this hilarious short presentation (with spanish sub-titles) to demonstrate that the basic plots narrate how things go up and down.

His vertical axis measures good and bad outcomes; and the horizontal one time.

I won't give a spoiler to what is a fantastic presentation – suffice to say that Hamlet and a poor teenage orphan both figure in the plot outlines!

Regular readers know that one of the things this blog tries to do is to map recent intellectual history – that's one the reasons for the long annotated bibliographies which crop up in the posts.

So an obvious question is whether similar patterns can be identified in non-fiction books.

And a review in the current issue of the New York Review of Books alerted me to a book - namely Robert Shiller's “Narrative Economics – how stories go viral and drive economic events” (2019) - which explores how people have tried to make sense of what was happening to the economy – be it inflation, monopoly, boom and bust, inequality, automation, bubbles, or austerity.

With Vonnegut as inspiration, it didn't take me long to work out that non-fiction books also have plots and narratives. Things go up and down - and the authors spend most of their time describing why and how this has happened – with a few pages on what those in power should be doing to bring things back up again......Books about global warming will now add a comment about what the ordinary citizen should be doing....

And, of course, a note of panic has been discernible since the new millennium – just look at the titles - “The Long Descent”, “Extinction”, “The End of Progress”, “Requiem for a Species”, “Collapse”, “The Five Stages of Collapse”.

So most of the Vonnegut-type graphs slope downwards these days – only the likes of Stephen Pinker will have upward-sloping curves, with Branko Milanovic's Elephant curve being a complex outlier.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The edited version of 2020's posts

 Three weeks of blog silence – and the new year is more than a week old without a peep from the blog......

I often go into hibernation at this time of the year. The contrast between the general drabness of the days and the feverish attempts at celebrations gets too much – even when, in this part of the world, snow and bright blue skies sometimes sparkle.

But these past few weeks brought no such relief..

And perhaps I had been a bit hyperactive in the weeks before – with all the writing and reading....The body does sometimes need to be switched off....that much, at least, I have learned about myself! We do need sometimes simply to accept the inevitable – and not fight against it.....

At least I managed to complete the editing of this year's posts which I've entitled - Peripheral Vision – perennial musings.

Last year’s collected posts were rearranged thematically – with an explanatory intro to each of the sections which descended (in order of frequency) from those about capitalism through administrative reform and events in the Balkans to Brexit

Although Covid19 has been this year’s unwelcome guest, it has accounted in its own right for only about 15% of the posts in 2020 - which have been dominated by book reviews and examples of good writing of which this is a good example.

So I have decided against a thematic approach this year and let the posts speak for themselves, with their own rhythm, largely decided by the serendipity of my mailbox and the subsequent surfing it generates.

And a new feature – Snippets – has been introduced to ensure continued access to worthy links which would otherwise get lost in my large file of such links

Last year’s big subjects – capitalism and organisational change – have certainly not disappeared. They are as significant as the pandemic posts.

The blog hit the 1,500 mark in the autumn – which was celebrated with a selection of the year’s posts which included such topics as scepticism, groupthink, capitalism, Human nature, intellectual history - with hyperlinks to the world’s best English-speaking journals, the learning process, the role of the state and extinction…

And, as I look back at the posts, I have the sense they this year’s offers the best collection so far…..

The year saw me a bit fixated on the irrelevance of most books written by social scientists (except generic ones) but this serves only as a contrast with those written, for example, by David Graeber whose death has been such a tragedy for anyone with common sense.

It’s interesting that the blog has taken recently to using the title “Whatever happened to??” to explore the sudden (and strangely unremarked) disappearance of a topic which used to be on everyone’s lips…We need to think more deeply about who’s pulling the strings of such intellectual fashions

Classifications are, in any event, highly arbitrary – this year’s “book reviews” include books about democracy, offshore money, governance, global warming, organisational change and neo-liberalism. From which I take the message – beware of labels….and labelling people…..