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.
Here is an extract from a speech given yesterday by Liz Kendall Labour’s shadow spokesperson for care and older people:
Our goal must be to create a new care covenant between citizens and the state, involving all parts of our society and economy. This covenant should be based on the principle that care is a shared responsibility – its risks and benefits are mutual and should not be left to individuals and families to shoulder alone. It must be grounded in values of dignity and respect for those who need and provide care, ensuring older and disabled people and their families have the same choices and chances to live the lives they want as any other section of society.
And it must seek to strengthen mutual care and support within our families and communities, as well as through care services
Fine words, as my grandmother used to say, butter no parsnips. But it is good to see an emphasis being put on values, mutual care and shared responsibility as well as Government policy. As I have argued here before, we need a ‘whole system’ reform of care – something which involves attitudes, behaviours and norms as well as policies.
Yesterday I interviewed the philosopher Michael Sandel for the next edition of the RSA Journal. We discussed his book ‘what money can’t buy’ which has just come out in paperback. In it he bemoans the ‘marketisation’ of more and more areas of life evidenced, for example, in poor children being bribed to study or sports memorabilia being turned from personal objects collected by fans to a billion dollar mass market. His objection to such practices lies in the way they exacerbate inequality.
The more things that are paid for, the more difference having money makes to people’s lives. Take the example of ticketing. If the criterion for access is a willingness to queue early or long, the tickets will tend to go to the most passionate, but if the rich can buy tickets whenever they want from on-line sites, wealth rather than passion becomes crucial.
Sandel also worries about the way financial incentives ‘corrupt’ motives and meanings. If we bribe children to read, do we reinforce the idea that reading is onerous? If we can pay for a footballer’s autograph, it lacks the intrinsic value which we would attach to something we had collected ourselves in a memorable encounter or just standing in the rain for hours.
Bringing together Michael’s analysis and my interests, we had a fascinating conversation about care. This is surely the most important example of the way the value of something changes when it is marketised. The very idea of care contains within it a notion of emotional commitment. Yet, however much we might teach nurses how to be compassionate, we cannot get inside the heart of someone who is paid to care and force them to experience the feelings that we have when we care for a loved one and which we want to believe lead loved ones to care for us.
Michael reminded me of a famous article from 2001 by Arlie Hochschild called ‘The Nanny Chain’ which ponders what we are doing to people and relationships when immigrant carers are paid to look after middle class children and use their remittances to pay a different stranger to look after their own children back home.
In terms of Sandel’s idea of corruption, consider the contrast between the value we place on care in the private and public domain. In the former we say that nothing matters more than the welfare of our loved ones. We give and receive care as part of a web of reciprocity which goes towards defining who we are as social beings. But in the market, care is low status and low paid. Might it be that the low value ascribed to paid care might corrupt the status of voluntary and familial care, adding a loss of self-worth and status (and influence) to the other challenges of being a carer?
To argue that the socialisation and marketisation of care may be problematic is difficult. It might sound like a suggestion that there was a golden past of unlimited compassion, or a failure to appreciate the radically different conditions created by population ageing and female employment, or – worst of all – an attempt to force care back into the home and onto the shoulders of unpaid women.
Politicians are under pressure to come up with solutions. Labour is putting its emphasis on the need to join up social and health care commissioning and perhaps underestimating the reasons why this is very hard to do. But no reconfiguration of spending or services is going to be enough to resolve the care crisis. Liz Kendall is right: we must explore care as part of our lives and our society as well as a particularly intractable set of funding and policy problems.
We had an excellent seminar this morning exploring the idea of ‘community retail’ with a range of experts and also colleagues from ASDA. The supermarket chain tells a powerful story about its intention to make stores community hubs, a story given weight by the employment of part time community life champions in every store and its commitment to open up its property to free community use. ASDA HQ had expected the free space offer to lead to about 7,000 community uses over the first few months. In fact, and perhaps reflecting the closure of many publicly funded facilities, over 21,000 community groups – from bee keepers to the victims of domestic violence -have availed themselves of free spaces.
Also, to ASDA’s credit is their willingness to work with the RSA to undertake a robust evaluation of their work and to identify the challenges involved in taking their approach to the point of redefining the relationship between supermarkets and communities.
In the discussion this morning there was praise for ASDA – including from Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd (who has kindly agreed to be on the advisory group for the project) – but also the Minister and several others weren’t afraid to ask tough questions about the impact of supermarkets on local traders and the distinctiveness of town centres.
ASDA don’t operate neighbourhood supermarkets but the conversation put me in mind of a point I have meaning to make for some time.
In my neighbourhood in Clapham the long running attempt to stop Sainsbury from locating a store in the local shopping parade was recently defeated. Predictably, the new shop is having a demonstrable effect on the competing local businesses including a newsagent, an off licence and a corner shop grocer. The last of these is making a small but unconvincing attempt to diversify by expanding its range of flowers and plants. Judging by their quality and cost, I suspect it will not succeed.
There is no need for local supermarkets to kill off other business. Indeed, the latest data suggests quite a lot of the local trade is redirected from larger supermarkets as people plump for just in time shopping and avoid expensive car use. But for those shops competing directly on basic groceries, the prospects after Tesco or Sainsbury have landed are bleak. Moreover just a couple of empty shop fronts can have a cooling effect on other businesses.
Yet – and this is my point – Sainsbury and Tesco (and other chains that do local supermarkets) must by now have a very good idea of which local businesses suffer, and which thrive, after the nationals have landed. So, why don’t the stores soften the blow and also potentially reduce local opposition by offering a consultancy and investment service to local businesses? In the case of the failing grocer near me, Sainsbury could, as soon as they got planning permission, advises the owner that while no grocer can compete on the basics, they could grow their business by attracting new footfall to a more specialist offer such as a florist, bakery, cake shop or butcher.
I am not suggesting that all grocers would want to adapt or have the capacity to do so, but the national chain could make a very significant offer comprising:
- Advice and training
- An interest free loan or investment
- Some joint local marketing
- A promise not to expand its own local offering in the chosen area of specialism
With all this, surely. from what might have appeared a threat, many new opportunities for retailers and offers for shoppers might emerge?
It is possible that something like this exists already but I have never heard of it and there is no sign of it in my localities. Indeed, I suspect that apart from simple lack of concern and imagination, the stumbling block might be that the nationals don’t want even implicitly to admit that their arrival has a terminal impact on directly competing outlets.
So, tell me, is this a crazy idea? If not, I might just drop Tesco and Sainsbury a line.
From time to time in this blog I rehearse arguments I intend to use in a forthcoming speech; partly to prepare my lines but also to see if readers will offer helpful nudges. This evening I will be stepping well outside my comfort zone and speaking on the topic of manufacturing to a conference of business leaders who work in the sector, and bankers who help finance it. I am not on until quarter to ten so I suspect my audience will want bold brush strokes not intricate policy detail, which is just as well.
As an outsider I have perceived advocacy for manufacturing as a mixture of idealistic yearning and pessimism. We generally view manufacturing positively, associating it with a golden past when Britain was the workshop of the world, but we also assume that the days have long passed when we could see ourselves as significant global players or believe that manufacturing is an essential part of our overall economy.
Arguably, Government policy reflects these feelings, as well as a continuing scepticism towards economic interventionism. Responding to our affection for manufacturing the Coalition has pursued a number of policies which favour the sector, and particularly at its leading high tech edges, but has also resisted the kind of full blooded national commitment to manufacturing which formed the centre piece of President Obama’s State of the Union address in January 2012:
‘So we have a huge opportunity, at this moment, to bring manufacturing back. But we have to seize it. Tonight, my message to business leaders is simple: Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed’.
Ambivalent attitudes to British manufacturing are reinforced by a mixed reality. On the one hand, Britain remains a relatively important manufacturing nation – around the eighth or ninth largest producer in the world depending on what metric is used and in certain sectors, aeronautics, pharmaceuticals (including life sciences) and automobile, we have genuine strength. On the other hand, manufacturing continues to be in decline in terms of our global ranking and there is little sign of any significant bounce back in terms of activity levels. Most depressingly, British manufacturing seems to have taken very little advantage of the effective devaluation by a quarter in the international value of the pound which took place after the credit crunch. The statistics for February this year show the UK running a trade deficit on goods of close to £10 billion pounds a month.
The manufacturing sector is diverse (indeed in many areas the divide between manufacturing and services is fuzzy) and the arguments about it complex and long running. There are few easy answers. So tonight I will be in exhortation rather than analytical mode.
The supporters of manufacturing need to make their case in terms not just of the needs of the sector but in terms of a broader account of the kind of economy and society we would like to exist.
We should start with the evidence of what economists call ‘spillover benefits’, whereby investment in manufacturing has been shown to have a positive impact on productivity in other firms. These externalities provide a basis for justifying preferential tax and allowance regimes for manufacturing. Given how important jobs are right now it is also important to argue that – counter to the common view – that areas of rising productivity need not also be areas of declining employment; if productivity gains lead to cheaper, better products it can also lead to more jobs. Also, manufacturing investment generates jobs in other sectors. As Obama Advisor, Gene Sperling, puts it; if an auto-plant opens up, a Wal-Mart can be expected to follow. But the converse does not hold – Wal Mart openings don’t tend to bring auto plants in their wake.
When manufacturing was collapsing in the early eighties – a poignant memory today – there was a view that many areas had become too dependent on certain industries. But in the wake of the economic slump and with the international desire to tame financial speculation that argument can be flipped. For the economy as a whole we need as a matter of wise policy to foster diversity in activity and jobs and right now that means strengthening manufacturing. As well as economic balance, manufacturing can also contribute to a more balanced spatial strategy – it is a cheaper to build factories in the north than the overheated South East.
This is a blog post not a speech so I will make the other points in brief:
As Jaguar Land Rover exemplifies, manufacturing – more generally than services – has a powerful role in the projection of national image of excellence and creativity.
While the UK has a weak self-image in manufacturing, we pride ourselves on our design skills. But modern manufacturing, with a growing emphasis on innovation and customisation can involve very close working between designers and producers. Strong domestic manufacturing and strong design are complimentary.
In terms of global trade, as a forthcoming RSA report will argue, the combination of rising labour costs in developing nations and the possibility over the medium term of higher transport costs is starting to shift the argument decisively away from outsourcing. A number of high profile American firms – including General Electric and even Apple – have announced their intention to bring manufacturing investment and jobs back to America. The big challenge for medium sized firms may be less about expanding exports and more about the capital, know-how, networks and confidence to build factories in other countries.
Also on an environmental tack, while manufacturing has in the past been associated with various forms of pollution, future growth areas of investment, innovation and jobs include green industries and also re-engineering manufacturing processes to minimise waste – the subject of the RSA’s Great Recovery project.
Finally, and this is a matter of conviction not evidence, understanding how things work and being confident about making and inventing should be an important part of national and individual character. It is clear that access to skilled workers is the critical factor in manufacturing competitiveness. This is, of course, about bright students choosing science, maths and engineering and about the need for more and better industrial apprenticeships, but it is also about a wider recognition of making stuff as an activity which combines creativity, analytical and problem solving, and kinaesthetic skills, and which provides distinctive and deep forms of satisfaction and fulfilment.
Ultimately this is why the manufacturing sector has to choose to tell a positive story. When people complain, the assumption is that they are not enjoying themselves. However, hard the challenges facing manufacturing we need people (especially the young) to believe – as they readily do about sport and music – that investing time and commitment to developing manufacturing skills pays off in enjoyment and pride as well as the possibility of a career and good income.
A week ago news headlines were focussing on a report on Pakistan from the House of Commons International Development Committee. From a wide ranging report the issue which received almost all the attention was the weakness of the Pakistani income tax system. As the report’s summary concluded: ‘We cannot expect the people in the UK to pay taxes to improve education and health in Pakistan if the Pakistan elite is not paying income tax’.
The committee also concluded that the UK should continue to give aid to Pakistan, reflecting both its levels of poverty and its importance in relation to international politics and security. Some 60 million people (one in three) in Pakistan live in poverty. Half of all adults, and two out of every three women, are illiterate. One in 11 children die before their fifth birthday, and 12,000 women die in childbirth every year. Nearly half of children under five suffer from stunted growth, which affects brain development and reduces their ability to learn. Pakistan has had repeated crises such as the floods in 2010 and 2011. Entrenched poverty is denying opportunities to millions of people and undermining Pakistan’s long term stability and prosperity. Tackling poverty and building a prosperous democratic Pakistan will help not only millions of poor Pakistanis, but will also improve stability in Pakistan, the region, and beyond.
There is also a strong link between the UK and Pakistan based on imperial history but, more important now, the over a million members of the British Pakistani diaspora.
Issues around Pakistan and the diaspora featured in a set of events we held jointly in 2011 with the web-site and network The Samosa and London Metropolitan University. A recurrent theme of conversation has been the need to project more positive images of Pakistan and to seek both to celebrate the role the diaspora plays in supporting community-based charitable efforts in Pakistan and to encourage more and deeper links.
Today on the RSA website we taking the project to the next stage. We are providing a platform for young filmmakers and citizen journalists in Pakistan who have produced short films highlighting the work of community activists, charitable organisations and social innovators. We are partnering universities in Karachi and Lahore and UK universities including London Metropolitan whose film school students are contributing to the project.
Browsing the films, I have been impressed by what I have seen of civil society and welfare organisations in Pakistan and the hard work done by many them in the face of very challenging circumstances. We are well aware of the problems of violence, poverty, extremism and conflict in the country. Yet clearly there are also resilient social and welfare structures that manage to function in the most difficult of circumstances such as the work of the Edhi Foundation and The Citizens Foundation.
For more detail on this whole topic it’s worth a listen to Anwar Akhtar who set up the Samosa speaking as part of the BBC Radio 4 ‘Four Thought’ strand.
Although it has taken a lot of work to get to this stage (we are grateful for support from the Foreign Office), whether the project goes any further now depends on the reaction we receive. If the films generate interest and enthusiasm our hope is that the next stage might have two elements. The first is strengthening links and conversation between charities and social enterprises working in Pakistan and those operating out of the British Pakistani diaspora. These organisations will be working in very different circumstances but the sense is that on both sides there is scope for greater mutual support and sharing of experiences and ideas. Second, we would like potentially to explore the scope for developing some kind of crowd funding mechanism to enable members of the diaspora (and anyone else enthusiastic about progressive change in Pakistan) to invest in the most interesting social enterprises emerging in Pakistan.
This is a small scale and experimental project for the RSA but it speaks to our desire to have a more diverse Fellowship and to be more international in our focus. We will know in a couple of weeks whether there is a basis for taking the project forward so please have a look at the films and pass them onto your networks.