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The loneliness of the long distance climber

September 17, 2012 by · 8 Comments
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This post by Patricia Kaszynska FRSA is the latest in a conversation we have been having about social mobility. It seems particularly relevant on a day when a new Social Attitudes Survey underlines the increasingly individualistic nature of public opinion. To even up the debate I am, at some point over the next few days planning to mount a defence of social mobility.

In my previous entry I suggested that the meritocratic world can be individualistic, brutish and surprisingly static. Like the monarchies of old, meritocratic societies can ossify, but the advent of democracy means the new hierarchy must legitimise itself. It does so, in part, using the double myth of social mobility; that it exists and that were it to exist it would make society healthier.

As part of the ‘Economic Mobility Project’, the Pew Research Centre asked people what was more important, reducing inequality or ensuring that everyone has a fair chance at improving their economic standing. More than 60 % “strongly” felt opportunity was more important, while just 16% felt strongly about reducing inequality. In the same survey, 17% said it was a “major problem” that people born to rich parents tend to remain at the top as adults while, in contrast, more than half said it was a major problem that 42 % of those starting at the bottom will remain there. Even battered by the recent wave of unemployment and bruised by the stagnation of wages and polarisation of wealth, Americans still don’t want a levelling of income differences.

There is an element of deception here. As Joseph Stiglitz demonstrates in his recent book, those who are born poor in the US will stay poor and yet, nearly 7 in 10 Americans believe the ladder of opportunity exists. This self-deception is made possible by a misapprehension of social reality. As Dan Ariely’s and Michael Norton’s latest research shows, Americans badly underestimate the levels of inequality to which they are subject:  the average respondent to their survey believes the 40% at the bottom have around 9% of nation’s wealth and the top 20%, 59%. The reality is quite different: the bottom 40% of the population combined has only 0.3% of wealth while the top 20% possesses 84%.

Robert Reich has been outspoken about how the suppression of average wages since the 1970s has been ‘offset’ – first by expanding women’s access to labour; second, by extending average working hours; and third, by resorting to debt. The borrowing hedged against rising house values made it possible to perpetrate the illusion that commodity purchasing power was growing from generation to generation. With the worsening of the economic situation, a further device had to be deployed: the ‘make-believe’ of social mobility supported by the endorsement of the ‘lottery effect’. Just as people buy lottery tickets because their chance of winning is more than zero, many take the exceptional cases of self-made ‘rags to riches’ billionaires as evidence of upwards social mobility. These expectations are further fuelled by individual inducement policies, such as scholarships to prestigious schools. The effect of these policy measures has been to move a small number of individuals up the social ladder and leave their communities behind.

We are led to underestimate the magnitude of the distance we have to travel from bottom to the top of the social hierarchy and to overestimate our chances of moving upwards. But this is not the whole story: we play along not just because we are misinformed and manipulated: In a sense it is rational for us to do so. The ideas and ideals of meritocracy and social mobility assign prominence to the notion of individual agency. There is a powerful strand in Western thought defending rational egoism, or the view that individuals are best left alone to pursue their self-interests and reap the rewards for their actions. From Locke’s defence of natural rights to Hayek’s critique of state intervention and Nozick’s entitlement theory, there is a strong resentment of redistribution based on the principle of the inviolability of individual autonomy. While there is a sense that this line of thought has become ideologically appropriated to legitimise the principles of free markets and the trickle-down effect, the allure of the view comes from the fact that, deep inside, we fall for the Romantic conception of Prometheus ‘unbound’ – we want to think of ourselves as sovereign individuals.

We are attracted to individualism in part because it has been a force for social progress. It has played a significant role in the history of Western societies in unsettling the old hierarchies and in removing the associated forms of oppression. Moreover, unlike the regimes based on what seemed like utterly undeserved privilege of birth, the new order has an instinctive appeal to our sense of procedural fairness. Sadly, as I argued in the previous post, it does not follow that the new hierarchies are automatically better. We embrace them more willingly because we genuinely want to believe that they are built upon respect for individual dignity and deserved rewards.

The crux of the problem is that we all would find it very difficult to put the notion of the collective before what we think of as our ‘God-given’, natural right to self-assertion; we all have a hunch that thinking of ourselves as subservient to some higher collective good would strip us of the individual dignity for which we have fought so hard for over the last three or four centuries.



The university of hard knocks?

September 6, 2012 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Politics 

Usefully, for me at least, two of my current interests have converged. On the one hand, there is my annual lecture with its thesis that the three major sources of social power – hierarchical authority, social solidarity and individual aspiration – have become unbalanced.  On the other hand, there is the case Patricia Kaszynska and I have been building for a much more critical look at the political consensus behind social mobility as the primary route to address injustice.

In ‘The Twilight of the Elites’, Christopher Hayes see these issues are clearly intertwined. He argues that the modern American social elite has stitched up control of society using the rationale that those already at the top have a near- monopoly of the only talent that matters – a particular form of intellect. It is this narrowness of talent and the detachment of the elite from the rest of society which has led to a wide range of leadership disasters (from Enron to Katrina) and thus to ever lower levels of public trust.

That the question of how to restore and maintain the authority of leaders, particularly political leaders has been around for almost as long as political philosophy doesn’t make it any less important.  The new dimension, in comparison to the times of Xenophon or of Machiavelli, is the coincidence of democratic Governments both elected by the people and, more often and not, despised by them. And, of course, this crisis of legitimacy extends to most other large and powerful organisations.

There are those who are not concerned. Some say it is a good thing that leaders are weak and worried, other argue that being distrusted does not impair the determined leader’s capacity to get things done. I don’t agree, believing not only that we need credible leaders to make wise decisions for the long term but also that feeling well led (whether in a nation, an organisation or a family) is important to our sense of fulfilment and well-being.

I have written before of Professor Keith Grint’s contrast between conventional leadership and that needed for many ‘wicked ‘ modern problems: he calls for leadership ‘about questions not answers’. ‘about relationships not structures and ‘about reflection not reaction’. I like these dichotomies and think they are important to making change happen, but in terms of winning consent for that change I think Grint underplays the need for leadership as authority. In these post-deferential times, the characteristics which experience and reflection lead me to prize most in political leaders are:

First: a leader who builds a compelling and noble mission (not just vague fluffy values but a tough minded theory of change) and then convinces us over and again that this mission can be achieved, but only if we too play our valued part.

Second, a leader who is secure in her own position and is not, therefore, endlessly weighing up how to balance the interest of inner circle and allies with those of the wider citizenry.

How might the absence of these qualities be linked to the increasingly closed circle of privileged, career politicians?

Is it perhaps that mere cleverness is by its nature rational, utilitarian, pragmatic and thus lacking in the conviction necessary to define and stick to a mission (albeit that pragmatism will be need to achieve the mission)? Is it also that the confidence and authority necessary to mobilise citizens and keep allies in line comes from having a biographical hinterland which gives leaders fortitude and impresses followers?

If so, it might mean that some people are just not cut out to lead (I will keep a diplomatic silence over whether this includes our current crop of leading politicians).


Going mobile

September 3, 2012 by · 11 Comments
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Today I am giving over my blog to Patricia Kaszynska FRSA as part of a conversation we have been having about social mobility. We’re hoping other people will join in too…

‘ Thanks, Matthew, for starting this conversation.  We began talking because we both felt that there was something unhealthy about the prominent consensus on social mobility in current political discourse in the UK.

Championing social mobility has become a badge of honour to be worn proudly and ostentatiously by politicians of all parties and ideologies. In one way or another we can expect each Party leader to assert the commitment to equality of opportunity in their forthcoming conference speeches. It is an item in all political manifestos that voters glance over without much surprise or excitement. This begs a question.  Given what would actually be involved in pursuing an aggressive policy of promoting greater movement up and down the social class hierarchy, why is it that talking about social mobility does not cause more anxiety in the public sphere?

There are two possible answers. Firstly, no one feels threatened by talk of social mobility because it will never happen – for example, the measures proposed in a recent Coalition strategy, while perfectly commendable, are unlikely to make any more than a marginal impact (something I will explore in subsequent posts). Secondly and less cynically, because the debate is cast in terms of the spurious thought that ‘we can all be winners’.

The problem, I suspect, is that few of us have sat down to reflect on what having a meritocratic, socially mobile society would entail; but the authentic pursuit of a true meritocracy is, I would like to suggest, not nearly as inoffensive as people are accustomed to believe.

While extolling the idea of social mobility, politicians and commentators rarely grapple with the objections to the ideal of meritocracy described by the author of the concept, Michael Young. Far from being a policy goal, he saw a meritocracy as a dystopia in which the self-satisfied elite ruled the underserving masses with the heart-felt conviction that their dominance is justified by the superiority of their kind. Indeed, greater social mobility is entirely compatible with steep hierarchy and oppression.

In a meritocratic world, individuals are seen as the makers of their own success. The meritocratic elite, unlike the old class of noblesse oblige, does not rule in virtue of their blood ties. Meritocratically ‘selected’ rulers don’t owe anything to anybody; with no sense of debt, they feel no obligation to represent the interests of those lower down. The meritocratic Leviathan does not identify with its subjects. The verdict is passed: the lowly members of the underclass have only themselves to blame for not being talented and diligent enough to succeed.

Could the meritocratic ruling elite even be more morally indifferent than the establishment of a more rigid and traditional hierarchy? This takes us to the question of how is ‘merit’ defined? Is merit to be spelled out purely as a set of qualities that allows one to rise to power and stay in power? What if the individuals ‘on top’ define merit in self-referential terms; in their image and likeness? Not only does this raise the problem of intellectual conformity and on top, it pre-empts the possibility of subversion.

Indeed, a meritocratic society could prove to be surprisingly static and rigid. On the one hand, because we tend to think of merit as a fair measure of achievement, we are likely to consider meritocratic hierarchies as more legitimate than those premised on the accident of birth and nepotistic privilege. On the other hand, once in place the meritocratic elite is well placed to preserving itself in power by pre-empting opposition. Meritocracy prevents criticism by co-opting its possible critics and appropriating any one smart enough to overturn the existing status quo. The temptation to rise up the social ranks is irresistible for potential revolutionaries, with the effect that all possible centres of opposition are stripped of leaders before they pose any danger. Those very few who get co-opted and come from the bottom to penetrate the upper echelons leave the debilitating and unworthy context of their birth behind to pursue a solitary life of self-fulfilment away from ‘cumbersome’ community ties. They end up looking back not so much with anger, but with disdain.

For those stuck in the middle of the meritocratic social hierarchy, the world is ridden with anxiety. By definition being in the middle means that one can go either up or down. It might be not as much the desire to move to the front of the social mobility ‘queue’, as the fear of coming down that motivates the constant urge to do better that one’s neighbours. Those in the middle are obsessed with the pecking order and relative advantage. This quasi-Hobbesian framework of a ‘competition’ of all against all erodes trust, reciprocity and empathy; it leads to the atomization of communities and an unhealthy proclivity for Schadenfreude.

As for those at the bottom, the dominant world-view fosters contempt and self-loathing. We accept the meritocratic claim with respect to failure; that the unsuccessful have only themselves to blame. There are psychological studies which demonstrate that activating meritocratic beliefs increases the extent to which individuals justify status inequalities, even when those inequalities are disadvantageous to the self; ‘priming meritocracy leads members of a low status group to justify both personal and group disadvantage by decreasing perceptions of discrimination and increasing the extent to which they stereotype themselves’. Self-doubting and robbed of future leaders, those at the bottom are likely to stay put. Thus the tragic irony of meritocracy (both in principle and in practice); its ideology legitimises precisely the hierarchical inequity it claims to subvert.



The winner takes it all

August 29, 2012 by · 4 Comments
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Patricia Kaszynska FRSA has been in contact to suggest a dialogue about social mobility. As I like Patricia’s work and get quite animated about the uses and abuses of the idea of social mobility, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. So this is the first of what we hope will be a series of posts on this site (from me and from Patricia), enhanced, we hope, with the usual thoughtful contributions from readers. We have an ambition to publish something more substantial but that depends on how this thread goes.

My starting point was going to be the Olympics and my dread of the various ways the Party leaders will seek to capitalise on the success of the Games to make various clunking, self-serving points in their conference speeches. As I have argued before, there are many problems with drawing obvious lessons from the human drama of sport and applying them to the much more complex and messy business of social policy.

The temptation is to hold up the likes of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis (and there may be even more compelling examples in the Paralympics) as symbols of the meritocratic ideal of a society in which talented, hard working people rise above their circumstances and become a great success. There are several reasons to question such a portrayal:

Our Olympians had substantial state support to help them succeed, well in advance of what other people could expect, including people with great talent and enormous commitment but who are just not quite the best

As a whole, private school pupils were substantially over-represented in the Olympic team reflecting the hugely enhanced sporting offer available in the fee-paying sector

More fundamentally, sporting merit is of a very particular kind. There is a broad consensus that the public’s fascination with people running, cycling or riding round in circles justifies the rewards in terms of funding and status going to the highest achievers, but it tells us little or nothing about the wider problems of relating rewards to merit (for example, the merits of being a banker versus the merit of being a care worker).

Even more fundamentally, isn’t modern commercial sport an extreme example (albeit one which we accept) of the harshness of meritocracy? For every winner there have to be lots of losers and the tiny differences between first and fourth place are reflected in huge differences in rewards. Mo Farah may have run five seconds faster than a person who finished out of the medals, but should a rational or humane society consequently treat Mo as an all round superman and his defeated opponents as failures? And what about the person who could have beaten Mo but never got the breaks? Let’s remember that thirty years ago gold medal winners would enjoy the pride and plaudits, but expect after the Olympics to resume their day job as an ordinary citizen.

We may accept inequality of outcome (which inevitably spawns inequality of opportunity) as a necessary price to pay for freedom and economic progress, but the principle of meritocracy insists that we should also see inequality as just and therefore a reflection not of the ordering of society, but of our own individual desserts.

Anyway, that was what I was going to write, but then along came Nick Clegg’s Guardian interview calling for rich people to make a bigger contribution to getting us through economic hard times. This prompts two points:

First, Liberal Democrats are justified in making a distinction between policy on income (over which they reluctantly supported the cut in the top rate of income tax) and policy on wealth. Not only have inequalities in wealth increased in recent decades even faster than those income, but wealth is much more problematic than income in terms of the meritocratic ideals the Lib Dems espouse, primarily because of the way it carries privilege through the generations.

Second, it is interesting that Clegg tends to keep separate his argument for social mobility (laid out in detail here) and his case for taxing wealth. Usually politicians are all too fond of using three justifications for a policy when one will do, but in resisting the temptation to link fiscal expediency to social justice, Clegg is observing here a strongly held view across mainstream politics that the sunny uplands of extolling meritocracy should be kept free from the turbulent storms which result (as we are seeing today) from any suggestion of redistribution.

The problem is that it is precisely this habit of separating the issue of fairness of opportunity from the issue of fairness of distribution that leads to social mobility being such a problematic concept: something which I am sure Patricia will pick up in the next post in this series.


Wicked priorities

May 30, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA, Uncategorized 

In my last post I used a footballing metaphor to suggest that the lifestyles of well-off people in the UK, particularly those based in the South East of England, put them in the Premiership of developed economy citizens while the poor have fallen to the level of the Championship. Given there are twenty teams in the top football division, there was gloomy confirmation in the statistics released yesterday by UNICEF that UK children are now 21st of  34 in a league table measuring child poverty levels (where the top country has the lowest levels).

There is a link between child poverty and my main current preoccupation, namely strengthening the 21st century enlightenment thesis to which I want return to in my 2012 chief executive’s annual lecture.

Writing with the equally esteemed Professor George Jones, the great local government academic Professor John Stewart used the phrase ‘wicked issues’ to describe problems – such as tackling poverty or promoting sustainability – which were not amendable to conventional bureaucratic public sector responses:

‘A wicked issue cannot be confined to a particular department. Many departments have contributions to make….This issue has to be dealt with across organisations and authorities, and at many levels…..Wicked issues present government and society with problems full of uncertainty’

Generally, policy makers and public sector managers have seen the response to wicked issues in better ‘joining up’ of organisations, functions and budgets. This is an important and a constant struggle, but it tends still to imply that the answer to these problems lies exclusively in action by government. But in a post last week I suggested some of our biggest challenges combine these policy and delivery challenges with collective action problems (getting individuals to align their behaviour with desired outcomes) and deeper issues of power, social structure and values. In this sense the implications of wickedness go much wider than problems of public sector silos.

Two different examples illustrate the point. The Big Society ideal is clearly one which involves voluntary changes in individual behaviour, reform and innovation in policy and service delivery, and shifts in power and social meaning; something which the idea’s architects seemed initially to recognise. The problem has been the half-hearted and unbalanced way the mission has progressed. Most of Whitehall either didn’t understand or care about the principles of the Big Society and those ministers who did were happy to talk about a shift in power away from central Government but not about trickier political issues like how realistically to grow and support capacity in deprived communities.

Moreover, the communication of the Big Society both underestimated how much in this vein was going on already and the length of time it would take to achieve the shift in norms, expectations and capacities to make the best of current practice ubiquitous (on the last point see this report from the RSA Social Brain team).

Child poverty under Labour offers a contrasting story. Here the problem was not a lack of commitment in Government – indeed there was pretty good progress – but the failure to make the abolition of child poverty an objective for wider society so that citizens as a whole understood this transformational goal and committed to what it might involve for them.

One consequence and symbol of that failure is that the possibility child poverty rates are set to increase is presented as a matter of Government policy rather than a problem for society or for our very idea of the kind of country we want to be.

Wicked problems require concerted and determined responses articulating political leadership, long term policy, institutional innovation, intellectual and cultural discourse, and the mobilisation of civil society by civil society. Unlike the crowded agenda of Government, it is probably only possible to pursue change of such a scale on a very limited number of issues at any one time.

If a Prime Minister were to say that he/she wanted to be judged on only three issues and over a decade’s time frame, for the sake of argument, abolishing child poverty, providing universal high quality care to older citizens and matching American levels of entrepreneurialism, there would, of course, be an outcry as the advocates of other priorities made their case. But while bureaucracies can always sign up to additional priorities (safe in the knowledge that some will soon go by the board) solving wicked issues requires change on a social scale and this means working work with the vital but constrained capacity of people to change their attitudes and behaviours.


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