In 2009 the academic Alan Finlayson wrote an article called ‘The broken society versus the social recession’. His purpose was to show how different was the former idea of David Cameron’s and the latter propagated by the left campaign group Compass (in fact, the term ‘social recession’ has long been more widely used to describe a set of social pathologies ranging from criminality to teen pregnancy).
Finlayson’s piece rests on a cast iron assumption that there is a set of social problems which are getting worse, the important question therefore is ‘why?’. He quotes a 2007 Joseph Rowntree Foundation project in which the RSA and I were involved called ‘social evils’ which explored the way society was deteriorating even while the economy was thriving. Finlayson concludes that with the economic collapse the debate over what lies behind social deterioration will intensify.
The posssibility the article didn’t consider, and is rarely discussed, is that in certain important respects the social recession might be coming to an end. In this post I don’t have time to gather all the references but, take my word for it, there is reasonable evidence for significant improvements in all the following areas:
Violent crime rates
Binge drinking and drug consumption among young people
Levels of volunteering and feelings of neighbourliness
Children’s overall wellbeing
Why aren’t we discussing this more? The idea that society is improving because we are choosing to behave more wisely and responsibly is uncomfortable for parts of both the left and the right. For the former it shouldn’t be happening in an unequal society still dominated by individualistic values. For the conservative right it shouldn’t be taking place in a society coarsened by moral relativism and weakened by diversity and multiculturalism.
It is possible to counter the improving data by saying it is short term, inconclusive or outweighed by things going in the wrong direction. But if we were to accept that society is getting less broken, what explanations might be on offer?
There was recently a spate of articles based on epidemiological research speculating that falling levels of lead in the atmosphere are the best explanation for plummeting crime rates. A factor endogenous to social trends may indeed be implicated. But I am more drawn to a more structural explanation.
In policy, economic and social analysis the single ability of greatest value is to be able to distinguish a cycle from a trend. It is hard analytically and challenging psychologically. Not only are human beings inherently short-termist in their outlook but we are drawn to things that are more visible. Cycles are like the second hand on a clock – we can see them moving which gives us a sense of time passing, while trends are like the hour hand.
Here is a bold thesis. Since the dawn of the enlightenment in the late mediaeval period – what Kant described as man entering into adulthood – human progress has accelerated guided by the core principles of that revolution – universalism (justice), autonomy (freedom) and humanism (progress itself). These principles underlie the long trend of human advance which makes citizens in the developed world richer, healthier, more intelligent, more tolerant and more peaceful than ever before. But within that trend the misapplication of those same principles has also led to terrible cycles, most obviously the cycle of colonial exploitation which culminated in the nightmare of the First World War and the cycle of totalitarian ideology which led to the horror of Nazi Germany, Maoist China and Stalinist Soviet Union. At the heart of these terrible events was a hubristic perversion of the idea of progress.
The recent cycle, which began in the sixties and may now be startng to end, also involved a misapplication of an enlightenment principle – this time freedom – and was much milder in comparison. But the idea that society can flourish relying on no more than individuals pursuing a policy of possessive individualism is at last starting to lose favour. Is this what lies behind the evidence of a receding social recession?
If, in the end, society learns and improves should we focus less on cycles of deterioration and more on long trends of progress? If so, it shifts the debate in a subtle but, to my mind, crucial way.
Instead of asking what we have to do to make progress possible we should instead ask what the barriers are to allowing the further natural development of the human spirit into a higher, healthier, more fulfilled and rounded form. The answers might be similar but the framing of the question has the scope to increase significantly our sense of possibility and agency.
The obvious charges against this thesis are that it is determinist and complacent. But I don’t think society improves automatically. It happens through struggle and debate. And the other key domains of our lives – economics and politics – sometimes accelerate social progress and sometimes delay or reverse it. Right now I feel more confident about society than about economics and very worried about politics – for reasons I will explore in a future post if this one doesn’t get ripped to shreds.
Disillusionment with Hollywood came in my teens. Like millions of filmgoers I had been thrilled by Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, which told the often harrowing story of the brutal imprisonment of Billy Hayes by the Turkish authorities after he was convicted of trying to smuggle hashish out of the country. I was dimly aware when I saw the film that the Turkish authorities were aggrieved but assumed this was standard propaganda from an oppressive and backward state.
Then I read Hayes’ own account of his ordeal, on which the film was based.
No one could deny that he had a hard time but the degree of license taken by Parker is illustrated in the contrast between the real and the filmic last days of Hayes’ imprisonment. In the film a bedraggled half dead Hayes escapes into the city from his rat infested dungeon hellhole after – as I recall – a violent confrontation with the most sadistic of his jailers. In reality, Hayes achieved freedom by hiding in a fishing boat which was leaving the island open prison on which he was spending the latter days of his sentence. No wonder the Turks – generally presented in the film as sweaty, corpulent sadists – were angry.
I was reminded of my disillusionment reading the adverse commentary on the film Argo. My disappointment with Ben Affleck’s award winning blockbuster was increased further by the contrast with a genuinely wonderful political thriller, Pablo Lorrain’s ‘No’ which tells the story of the campaign to stop General Pinochet winning a referendum which would have given the dictator a further period in control of Chile.
Yet ‘No’ too has been the subject of criticism. Its focus on the marketing campaign has been attacked for failing to recognise the importance of grass roots efforts such as voter registration. I don’t know enough about Chile to make an informed judgement on ‘No’s veracity, but in viewing the films and reading the critiques, there is to my mind a fundamental distinction.
‘No’ has subtlety and complexity. We can understand the ambivalence that Chile’s squabbling progressive parties felt at using a commercial approach to their campaign. We want our hero to win but there is pathos in his victory. Whether his strategy merely popularised the struggle or in some way cheapened it, is a question the director trusts us to reflect upon.
Argo by contrast knows what we want to believe (that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys and the good guys win) and then helps us believe it by weaving what is basically a fictional tale. ‘No’ not only explores the ambiguous line between populism and cynicism but as a film it manages to stay on the right side of that line. Argo never even tries.
This may all sound very subjective but surely there are objective distinctions to be drawn between, on the one hand, looking at actual events from a particular angle and inventing plausible scenes which illustrate genuine issues and, on the other, inventing history simply so that a story can be crowd pleasing while trying to gain unmerited credibility through claiming the story is based on true events?
If a distinction between populism and cynicism can be true of films, can it also be true of political speeches? I have no problem with well-intentioned populism. If David Cameron wants to package up a series of measures (some which have already happened, some which are happening anyway and some which might never happen) into something which looks like he is taking tough action on immigration, then, whether or not such an endeavour succeeds, that’s politics, which is, in part about communicating with the public and showing you take their concerns seriously. After all, no one is hurt if the public accepts a slightly spun package to amount to more than it actually contains.
But can the same tolerance be shown to another aspect of the speech? In several areas – the overall scale of migrant benefit claiming, the use of the NHS by illegal immigrants, and the scale of immigrant take-up of social housing – there was an apparently deliberate attempt to say that the problems caused by immigrants are worse than they actually are. A speech which claimed to have the purpose of reassurance probably increased tension and resentment. Unlike a bit of creative policy packaging, such manipulation may have victims – risking making immigrants feel like pariahs and legitimising anti-foreigner sentiment.
It is not as easy to make a commercially successful film while sticking reasonably faithfully to the messy and prosaic nature of reality as it is to change the facts to fit the formula of a winning plot. It is not as easy to generate headlines and voter support by describing a complex picture as it is by being alarmist and confirming false assumptions. Perhaps taking the hard road is respectively what distinguishes the film maker from the creative artist and the politician from the statesman.
When it comes to political communication I have a tendency to be unduly pious, generally wanting politicians to be more candid and brave and arguing, without any real foundation, that ultimately such an approach will prove to be popular. Perhaps it’s why I could never make it as a politician myself and why many former colleagues found me unrealistic at best and more often a self-righteous bore.
As I lost argument after argument l searched for a clear and defensible distinction between legitimate vote winning and meretricious pandering to prejudice. Perhaps – although far too late – in the contrast between Argo and No I have found the distinction I needed.
The classic liberal position is that stated by John Stuart Mill:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.
However, in the general interpretation of this principle there is a small problem and a big one. Anti-state libertarians often forget that Mill aimed his injunction not just at Government – as if often imagined – but also at constraints on action imposed by the private sector and by social norms, which complicates things substantially. More fundamentally, it turns out in practice that the distinction between behaviour that only has an impact on the individual and behaviour which has social externalities is rarely clear cut. One example is car seat belts. Of course, it is the person who goes through the windscreen who suffers most from not wearing a belt but there is also a much weaker but much wider impact in terms of the cost to us all from resulting NHS care and higher car insurance.
One of the most fundamental of freedoms is free speech. Here it is generally thought that the right to speak one’s mind is much more important to protect than the right not to be forced to hear things which may be construed as offensive. Nevertheless, there have been many ways in which freedom of expression has been constrained, historically in relation to decency and blasphemy, more recently in relation to attacks on racial and religious groups. Some progressives – among whom I am one – worry that we may have gone too far in protecting the feelings of groups at the expense of individual freedom of speech.
Now, some new and disquieting research adds an extra twist to the debate. The study conducted by two professors at the University of Wisconsin explored the impact of comments made in response to an on-line scientific article about the risks of nanotechnology. Here are their findings in a nutshell:
‘The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.
In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.’
This was as small study and focused on a subject on which the respondents has little prior expertise (although it was also found that scientific knowledge didn’t act as a barrier to what the researchers call ‘the nasty effect’), but the idea that angry and abusive messages are more influential is clearly worrying.
This may be another example of how our actual responses defy what we would like our reactions to be. Writing on the day of Prime Minister’s questions, there is an obvious resonance with political campaigning. I remember years ago as an idealistic and naïve researcher with the Labour Party talking over a proposed campaign with a senior politician. I was about to caution against an approach which focused on attack. I said something like ‘The thing about negative campaigning’, meaning to end with ‘it turns off voters‘, but before I could finish she butted in; ‘the thing about negative campaigning is, Matthew, that it works’.
Our inconsistency is not surprising. Our basic human reactions evolved in a world before advertising and PR. In this world of authentic communication extreme reactions would be an indication of extreme feelings which would often be an accurate warning of danger. Also, parents will socialise children to assume that ‘don’t touch that’ screamed as the infant reaches wet fingers towards a plug socket is more important that ‘don’t do that darling’ soothingly uttered as she tries to dip her fingers in the trifle.
Whilst we might consciously dislike abuse and name calling, emotionally we react on the basis that it is likely to indicate real threats. This chimes with the way the abusive comments about a balanced article about nanotechnology increased people’s perception of the risk of that technology.
But back to freedom of expression; while I am not for a moment calling for any legal constraint on people’s right to express anger and strong opinion perhaps we should encourage stronger social opprobrium on the grounds that such expressions aren’t just the business of the person expressing them but impact on the ability of their rest of us to offer and hear more calmly expressed views. Also, when it comes to structured contexts such as debates, public consultations and on line comment spaces, the research suggests that as well as constraints on things like the time a speaker has, the maximum length of a comment, and prohibitions on slander and obscenity there are grounds in common good for strong guidance on the manner in which people express their views.
I’d be very interested to hear readers’ opinions – politely expressed, of course.
High end salaries have been back in the news recently. Yesterday there was the overwhelming endorsement by the Swiss – of all people – of a tough package to crack down on unmerited rewards at the top . This contrasts with two votes for the super-rich given by our own Government. First, Downing Street made it clear that it is very relaxed with RBS handing over £600 million in bonuses despite the bank being publicly owned and massively loss making. Second, ministers and the London Mayor have been venting their fury at EU proposals to limit any single banker’s bonus to the value of their – presumably generous – full year salary.
These debates should be placed in context. It seems that the respite after the credit crunch both in the rate of increase in rewards to the highest paid and the consequent growth in the gap between them and the rest of us was very short lived. Once again, highest salaries are rising fastest. Meanwhile, average wages are falling faster and for longer than at any time in living memory. As no one seems able to justify this state of affairs in terms of just rewards, the argument made against the EU’s proposals was a kind of resigned utilitarianism: ‘if these people insist on being paid these salaries we better do it too or the best of them will emigrate to Singapore’.
A few weeks ago, together with Patricia Kaszynska FRSA, I posted a series of pieces critiquing the idea of social mobility as it is unthinkingly advocated by many politicians and most media commentators. Lifting a few talented people out of disadvantaged communities (even if we knew how to do it) makes the communities left behind even less able to turn themselves round. Furthermore, this form of meritocracy does nothing to address underlying levels of inequality and it provides cover for the existing elite who are able to conflate the society they advocate (in which the best get to the top) with the one we have (where most at the top, and their offspring, are there as much because of privilege as merit).
If we truly want meritocracy the best route is greater equality as this reduces the gaps between the rungs of the ladder going up and makes it less terrifying for some people to come down (necessary to achieve greater relative social mobility).
The debate over top people’s pay is a kind of mirror image of that on social mobility. Just as we can be dismayed that it is so hard for poor children to get ahead, so we are encouraged to be angry when it is shown that a rich person doesn’t deserve their reward. What much less often gets discussed is whether anyone at all should be paid a salary beyond the wildest dreams or ordinary folk.
I am well paid; probably in the top 1 or 2% of earners in what is still, in international terms, a rich country (although rapidly becoming less so). I am not in a position to be pious. Not do I see myself as a class warrior. But I find it hard to understand why anyone thinks they are worth more than, say, £500,000 a year. Even this figure means the person’s remuneration is equivalent to five inner city GPs, twenty class room teachers or thirty care assistants.
Some would argue that such rewards are deserved by entrepreneurs who have built their own business. I am tempted to ask how committed an owner is to business growth if they are willing to take more than half a million a year out of the company to pay for a second yacht. Some people pocket £500,000 a year due to ‘unearned income’ but it is the first word of that phrase that should be focussed upon.
We are in the midst of economic stagnation and public sector cuts, real wages are falling for most workers and the financial services sector continues, in many important regards, not to provide a service. That in these circumstances it still falls to those critical of inflated top wages to prove they are not deserved rather than falling to the rich to show they are worth it (as will now be more often the case in Switzerland) shows how very little assumptions in our country have changed in the last five years.
Economics, to me, is like art; I can appreciate it, I can discuss it, even argue about it but I can’t really do it; as the following paragraphs will probably go to show.
I attended a conference at the end of last week which contained a number of presentations and conversations about the economy. It changed how I think about things quite substantially.
On the one hand, while we face huge fiscal challenges and the austerity programme is already causing pain, I concluded that the straight jacket we are in may not be at tight as is usually presented. For a start, the scale of the fiscal challenge depends a great deal on the estimate of how much of the deficit is structural – the more scope we judge there is for the economy to grow without inflation the less we should be worried about the medium term sustainability of public debt. A speaker at the conference said he had heard convincing estimates for the size of the output gap ranging from zero to six per cent of GDP. Second, adding a year or two to the timeframe for cutting the deficit (as George Osborne has already done) can make quite a difference to the speed at which cuts need to be made. Third, as the muted market reaction to the decision of the heavily indebted Japanese Government to inject yet more cash into the economy suggests, international financial markets seem right now more concerned about growth – or the lack of it – than debt.
When economic debate isn’t focussed on the deficit it tends to focus on growth. The implication is that if only we could have a few years of two or three per cent growth – perhaps spurred by a temporary tax cut or some infrastructure spending – then we would be well on the way to recovery. But this belies the deeper nature of our economic problems.
For example, we continue to be the most privately indebted of the OECD countries, a debt concentrated disproportionately in the lowest income groups. There is simply no way for the poorest to get out of debt, because even if the economy did grow a rise in interest rates would plunge over the edge millions who are only just managing to meet interest charges. As ministers desperately scan the sky for rays of sunshine the clouds are continuing to gather over these families with welfare cuts and rising transport and utility charges (water becomes the latest today).
Back out in the economy at large, there is the huge decline in productivity which has occurred in the last few years, from the already modest base line at which we started when the credit crunch hit. This may in turn help to explain why after a twenty per cent devaluation in the pound in the last few years we are still experiencing a huge balance of payments deficit, one which would be substantially worse were it not for the contribution of the publicly-reviled financial services sector.
At this point we might add to the list the continuing hollowing out of the labour force leaving an ever bigger gulf separating the low productivity low pay service sector from the professional and managerial classes, and the latter from the global plutocracy who now use central London property as a massive piggy bank. And even at the scientific top end of the economy on which so many ministers seem to rest their hopes, there is both a decline in research and development investment by big firms and problems with translating Government intentions and funding for innovation into anything like the scale of new invention and enterprise needed.
There are three ways of looking at this (there always are). The basically complacent one I have described; with a bit of pushing and shoving growth will return. Then there is the gloomy one suggesting we have entered an era of low growth, stagnant living standards and a declining public sphere. The third is that in the face of all of this we need not only to think much more profoundly and talk much more openly about our economic challenges, but also to be willing to do some genuinely innovative things in relation to policy on tax (maybe a ‘use it or lose it’ tax on corporate balance sheets), spending (making tough decision on less productive public spending so more can go to those things which boost employment and skills), employment (an urgent national crusade to end long term youth unemployment), training (by 2020 every job should be a learning job), investing assets (using social housing receipts and public sector pension for productive investment) devolving to cities (implementing the Heseltine report and strengthening city regions).
To be honest, I don’t know all the pros and cons for these six ideas, and even if I did I might not understand them. But desperate times require desperate measures and, be in no doubt, for the UK economy these ARE desperate times.