Monday, October 31, 2011

More on Managerialism

In the wake of last week's story about escalating Directors pay, this article is well worth a look. It opens paraphrasing a book written by the academic Henry Mintzberg back in 1983.
"Thirty years ago Mintzberg concluded that most of the evidence suggested that the power of senior management within corporations has massively expanded and that it was now they, rather than the technical owners – i.e. shareholders – who really controlled the organizations.

What Mintzberg did not say, because at that point it wasn’t quite so obvious, was that having seized power it was only a question of time before the new corporate ruling class also started to seize the money."

Now contrast this with people in state employment. It is very hard to dismiss the concept of a public sector stuffed with 'budget-maximising bureaucrats.'

Leaving aside the kleptocratic aspects of managerialism, and the anti-human soul-destroying rejection of expertise and human intelligence that it implies - especially when it's applied to the outsourced work of the state, I think that 'budget maximising bureaucracy' is a very good description of the modern corporation.

Even shareholders need protecting from this now, surely?

(H/T Shuggy for the 'Whitehall Watch' link)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What really went on there? We only have this excerpt.

Why is the economy in a mess? I've seen a number of explanations - some of them more convincing than others.

The first one is the Bad Banks one. Bankers have been bad. They've cooked the books, re-sold thin-air and drawn huge personal bonuses while doing so. They've then socialised the debt at gunpoint.

It's an attractive argument and one with a lot of popular appeal. But I think that focussing on it is a mistake because it's not really that good an account of what happened, and on reflection, most people won't buy it completely. It also gives us an excuse not to deal with the real problems.

The second culprit is the politics of the past thirty years or so. This article on Crooked Timber concludes that...
"the banks aren’t to blame for the crisis; Bush is. And the solution to the crisis isn’t to fix the banking sector, either through regulatory reform or continuing to bail out the banks, it’s to stop Bush-era economic policies."
It's a good line, and one we could extend to the Thatcher / Reagan era - the years when we were softened up for Bush-era economics. Certainly, the underlying problem in which household incomes have stagnated since the late 1970s with the impact being masked by ever-looser credit makes sense to a amateur economist like me.

The third culprit is democracy. Democracy has been degraded to the point at which Parliament is weaker than the well organised pressure groups. David Allen Green writing in the New Statesman today draws out the feeble grasp that many (most?) Parliamentarians now have of what Parliament is for. I know I've used this argument here before, but it's worth rehashing.  As Larry Elliot put it a while ago in reference to puny attempts to rein the finance sector in…. 
"...the exiguous nature of current reform proposals is explained by the institutional capture of governments by the investment banks, the world’s most powerful lobbying groups."
The thing is, all of these arguments are attractive in their own way. But I'd put the empasis somewhere different - somewhere that gives us an indication of what the left can offer by way of a response.

The Thatcher/Reagan era didn't just happen. It was the product of a few factors. There were the oil-shocks of the early 1970s and the subsequent downturn that affected Western economies. This, and the rapid social change that was taking place at the time allowed fiscal conservatism to piggy-back on popular socially conservative concerns (immigration, the breakdown of social heirarchies, the sexual revolution, uppity proles in the Unions, etc). All good stories to mask a ditching of Keynesianism.

But this era was also the product of an effective ideological assault led by deniable right-wing pressure groups (in the broadest meaning of the term) outside of the Conservative Party. The right wing press (even Stephen Glover has noticed now that the press is no longer Conservative, but right-wing) and the trench-warfare merchants of organisations like the Freedom Association and the Institute for Economic Affairs were able to create the circumstances in which the Conservative Party could be dragged to the right.

This tells us all we need to know about how important the manoevering of The Labour Party is at the moment. Until the left can come up with a comparable gravitational force outside of the party, it will continue to be forced to play every game away from home.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Social Democracy as a method

Insofar as anyone notices it, I suspect I've lost a few followers on Twitter and been tuned out elsewhere because of my monomania about referendums.

For the avoidance of doubt, I hate them, and regard opposition to them as an activity to which every democrat should give the highest priority. I've said why at some length here and think that the dangers associated with the gradual process of normalisation that they have undergone over the past quarter-century is being hugely underestimated.

Though democracy is supposed to be central to our way of life - advocacy of liberal democracy unites mainstream opinion in a way that it perhaps never has done before  - we're seeing it being degraded in a range of different ways without a squeak from anyone.

Alongside the normalisation of referendums, I'd include the crude way in which political transparency has been demanded as another example of how the political class (nominally, I suppose, the guardians of the principles of liberal democracy) have fallen asleep at the wheel.

Another way they were degraded was with the way that media-ownership rules were torn up in the 1990 Broadcasting Act. I while ago, I wrote about how the impact of the broadcasting of Parliament had been felt as an example of this, but there will be plenty more to cover once the history of the AV Referendum, the acceptance of semi-subliminal political advertising or campaign funding in the US or the Tories preference for elected officials here is assessed by history.

But for Social Democrats, democracy should be our method. Every single thing we set out to achieve can be done in the most effective and sustainable way by simply advocating the highest standards of democratic practice. Striking the right balance between a high level of public participation, the protection of minorities and good policymaking. Labour is the only party that has nothing to lose from this - yet the party is always perfectly happy to sidestep these standards whenever the opportunity for a short-term tactical victory is on offer.

Here are some questions that I think Labour should have automatic short answers for:

  • Should MPs communicate - even indirectly - with lobbyists of any kind?
  • Should lobbyists and pressure groups be obliged to meet much higher standards of regulation, governance and scrutiny?
  • Should MPs have a budget that allows them to commission research that will act as a counterbalance to the biassed and inductive findings of lobbyist-funded 'research'?
  • Should Labour press for a maximalist approach to reducing the concentration of media ownership?
  • Should Labour seek to apply global best-practice in the promotion of media pluralism as a high-profile priority when it next enters government?
  • When the issue of a referendum comes up in connection with a particular policy area, should the party support such a vote if the outcome is likely to result in Labour's broad aims being adopted?
  • Should Labour make it a priority to ensure that an economically sustainable free press exists - and should it take steps to ensure that the media can reverse it's increasing failure to be able to investigate or even report things - even if this means some state intervention to make the funding available for this?
  • Should we have a fully elected second chamber?
  • Is the democratic deficit one in which active citizens have too little influence - or one where inactive ones with mild preferences and unformed opinions are under-represented?
  • Should a Labour government seek to devolve powers to local councillors wherever possible?
  • Should a Labour government promote a higher standard of representation at local level as a priority?
  • Elected regional assemblies for every UK region without the need for ratification by a referendum; For or against?
  • Elected police chiefs - for or against?
  • Do MPs have a duty to go out of their way to find out the unexpressed and lightly-held views of their constituents as a counterweight to the views that are readily and repeatedly sent to them?
  • Should MPs ever read or respond to petitions? Should they ever change their position on something in response to one?
  • Should corporate governance rules be introduced to minimise the ability of commercial organisations to exert influence over policy? Should they be obliged to declare all lobbying - and should the lobbying services they pay for be fully labelled?
  • Should Civil Servants or MPs advisers be allowed to work for pressure groups or lobbyists without a 'decontamination period' of (say) five years?
  • Should Trades Unions be able to coerce Labour MPs to adopt policies against their better judgement on where the public interest lies? 
  • Should Trades Unions ever be given the impression that they can exercise special influence over Labour policy?
  • Should Labour create whatever checks and balances will most effectively ensure that party high-ups or officials can't influence local selection processes?
  • Should the Labour Party leadership seek to coerce MPs to adopt particular policies in their parliamentary work?
  • Should the Labour MPs continue to tolerate colleagues who don't conduct their policy deliberation in an inclusive and rigorous way? 
  • Should Sir Stuart Bell have the whip withdrawn from him immediately? Or will next week do?
I suppose I could go on like this all day, but I think that anyone who has seriously thought about what a good democracy should look like would have a fairly instant answer to all of those questions. Labour's answers should be the same.

Naturally, it's easy to read all of this as a set of demands for pie-in-the-sky. In all cases, these are questions of balance that need to be taken into account. You can't curb the influence of Unions without first taking measures against lobbyists and pressure groups. I suspect that a Labour Party that could answer these questions properly would be a lot more attractive to trades unions than the current situation in which the party takes the money and pays lip-service to Union expectations.

You can't introduce any of these ideas without first paving the way for them. You can't promote party pluralism without first making it difficult for other parties not to follow your lead. 

It doesn't make sense to underestimate our ability to introduce any of these approaches unilaterally without damaging the party 

My problem with Labour is that most of our party don't even think we should be preparing the ground on this. The last Labour government certainly had no interest in these questions and I don't see too many signs that the current leadership are pouncing on very good opportunities to advance these positions at the moment. Doing so would give many of the approaches we want to advocate a good deal more credibility.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

What to think about the Occupy Wall St movement?

The 'occupy' movement is mushrooming and largely unreported. This is because events like this one are either subject to a conspiracy from the mainstream media to deny them the oxygen of publicity, or they're widely seen as futile gestures.

You decide.

I honestly don't know what to think about them. On the one hand, there's the under-rated argument that....

  • Something must be done!
  • This is something...
  • So let's do this

There's also the question of mutual reinforcement. There may come a time when a progressive protest movement will be a genuinely useful catalyst for change, so let's keep the torch burning until then.

Also, in participating in them, people may become politicised and move into the ecosystem that influences political debate - diluting incumbents and bringing in fresh blood, etc etc.

But, on the other hand .... well, almost every dispassionate observation that I'd make would point to the view that I think that public protest is over-rated, largely pointless, and often more a bit of therapy for the participants than it is any threat to The Man.

Now, I don't like anyone having a pop at something unless they have an alternative plan of their own. So what extra-parliamentary activities do make a difference? I've banged on about deniable outriders here a lot so that's part of my answer. I think that the left has yet to understand the sophistication and effectiveness of outfits like The Taxpayers Alliance or the loose alliance of pseudo-libertarians that have congregated around the blogosphere in a way that exerts a good deal of influence of the mainstream media.

It's hard to know at the moment whether The Tea Party are a blessing or a curse on the US Republicans - whether they've achieved what I think Glenn Beck imagines that they've done to The Overton Window.

But the one conclusion I'd reach at the moment is this;

The left will not succeed if it focusses it's fire on the dubious morality or the unfairness of the political right in general, the Tories in particular or even of capitalism.

What will work is a focus on individual circumstances. Aggressive consumerism. An aggressive attack on bad management in the workplace (most of the people I know are not particularly well disposed to trade union militancy - but do think their manager is a wanker).

The other thing that I think can work is a determination to be as selective in our attacks on budget-maximising bureaucrats as the right have been. They're only capable of seeing these in the public sector, and we know that this is essentially the defining feature of the financial services industry and the consultancies that pick up the delivery of privatised services.

This has to be done from a consumerist or taxpayer viewpoint though. They're ripping everyone off. Taxpayers are funding useless services, etc.

Making a moral or economic argument is a waste of time. The moment you're even slightly politically selective, people smell a rat. The left needs to sharpen it's hatred of commercial rip-off and shoddy services of all kinds.

If there's one bit of court politics that I think would work, we can focus on lobbyists - and do so knowing that it will hurt Labour at bit into the bargain. The right knew instinctively that elected representatives needed weakening a few years ago. The MPs expenses farago was kicked off in the full knowledge that some Tory MPs would get caught in the crossfire. The left should take the same attitude to lobbyists.

I think that refocussing the inchoate anti-capitalist voices in this way would be productive. But I don't know many other people who think this....

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Possibly the single most stupid article ever written on how social media changes politics.

I've a fairly old 'don't fisk - it's rude' rule that I need to break because I may has stumbled upon the single most stupid article about how social media changes politics - the author claims to have had 100+ re-tweets - a commentary in itself on the quality of what spreads (as in 'if it doesn't spread it's dead') and the claims made in the article about the aptitude of the 'new governing body in town' to make sense of ... well ... anything.

It is, quite simply, the work of a fantasist. Let's just take this section as an illustration
Why Governments Fear Social Media – the Demise of Representational Democracy
When David Cameron, UK Prime Minister announced the Government were in talks with Twitter and Blackberry and so on to stop or block social media re organised riots, it wasn’t because the Government truly believes social media is the cause of unrest and should be stopped. 
Mr Cameron said talks were to be held with companies such as Twitter, BlackBerry and Facebook, as well as the intelligence services, to discuss actions that could limit their reach, to help prevent further disorder. Social networks were widely used by gangs to co-ordinate the riots across the country. 
He wasn’t just ignoring the fact that Twitter was also being used to do cleanup. No sirree, it was the fact the #riotcleanup hashtag was potentially even more devastating than the riots itself to his Parliament. 

OK. Let's break there for our first WTF? Representational (sic) Democracy? And "the #riotcleanup hashtag was potentially even more devastating than the riots itself to his Parliament"?  There's another one coming:
Why? Because communities only self organise when the incumbent organisers are ineffective (read: worthless). If the Police and Local Councils aren’t fixing the situation, then we will: thus spake the People. And once the People figure out they can self organise using online community tools, millions of people, why do we need Councils and Taxes?  From FixMyStreet to CatchALooter, we’ll sort it out ourselves, thanks very much.

Yes. That's exactly what happened. There was a riot, and then, once it was over, the cleanup was co-ordinated and completed entirely on a voluntary basis by active citizens using Twitter. The state stepped aside from this task, and - in addition - read-write media also went about catching, charging and convicting the perps.

Or more accurately, the response was largely similar to the riots in the early 1980s. Most of the cleanup was done by public sector employees and their contractors. Some was done or paid for by the property holders, their friends and families, often funded from their insurance claims. Some was done by the kind of active citizens who always turn out on occasions like this.

No question, a very large number of people relayed the sentiment on Twitter and factoring out the clicktivism, some of them turned up to help out because they were encouraged to do so by their peers on social media. Some of the people who would have done it anyway bragged about it on social media. All in all, the impact on the cleanup from social media was a nice feelgood story, some extra elbow-grease, and some a good bit of help, but the backbone? Hardly.

More to the point, "communities only self organise when the incumbent organisers are ineffective (read: worthless)." I've picked up nothing from commentary around the #riotcleanup to suggest that the participants believed that the clean-up wouldn't have happened without them.

It was more of an act of social solidarity than a model for any kind of Kropotkinite self-government. And with Cameron's attempt to redefine the traditional functions of the state into The Big Society, the idea that he would be uncomfortable with any of this is the opposite of the truth.

I'm not quite sure what role FixMyStreet played in any of this either. FMS is a tool that MySociety created to help people report low-level environmental issues (broken paving slabs, graffiti, etc) to a local authority. Think of it as a phone that doesn't take as long to use.

I'm not belittling FMS - it's a lot better designed than the system on most council websites and they usually (but not always) don't pay anything to get the benefit of it (it uses an open source business model where you pay for bespoke integration). My local council has integrated it into their system and then routinely ignore messages anyone leaves on it.

FMS is a good example of very narrow aspects of the state's role being done initially on a voluntary basis in a way that could be better than the state's own efforts. But that's all.

Fix My Street takes it's name from a request to The Man. As in "please The Man, use my tax-money and your legitimacy to Fix My Street" It doesn't fix streets. It asks the "ineffective" and "worthless" agencies of the state to do 100% the job in a way that voluntary action will rarely do.

Anyway. I'll leave you with this final nugget, for which all comment is superfluous:
NOTE: Representational (sic) Democracy arose in the time when a village nominated a runner to run around Ancient Greece to the big towns to cast a vote for the smaller community. Email and online voting does that a bit quicker these days. Do we really need a “representative” to collect our views and then filter them?  Must get back to Plato & The Republic one of these days.
David Cameron wasn’t being disingenuous. He was saving the political process as he knows it. Too little, too late in my book.
The rest of the article is as idiotic as this bit, but I'm out of time now. As we social media gurus say, "*facepalm*." :-/

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The subscription model of tax and benefits

I've posted a fair bit here and elsewhere over the last few years developing my own views on Labour, the left and deniable outriders - looking at how the network changes the sociology of politics, if that's not too grand a way of saying it.

I don't mind saying that Clifford Singer's thinking on all of this is a lot more developed than mine, and with projects like The Other Taxpayers Alliance, MyDavidCameron, False Economy under his belt, the experience and reading around this subject is nicely squeezed into this excellent post that everyone interested in this subject should read.

The one key related area that I think also needs more developed thinking on is on what Labour (and other non-darkside) politicians and formal structures need to do while the outriders are working their magic - adapting the notion of leadership closer to curation or convening and emphasising that individual representatives need to be the sum of their networks (I've picked Tom Watson as the obvious pin up on this one) and not the brand of reflexive budding demagogues that a lot of Labour's top-table seems to prefer.

However, another thing that occurs to me in Clifford's post is the way that writers like Lakoff and Westen look at the framing of the things that people care about.

New Labour ducked a lot of fights - perhaps understandably - but we could argue that they sometimes ducked the wrong ones. There was a common argument that public services had to be closely adapted to meet higher-earners expectations so that they would continue to see them as legitimate recipients of public funding.

As far as I can see, the Tories are moving ever-closer to a subscription model of the state - one where a higher-rate taxpayer expects a higher level of service, and where a freemium model of public service is advanced. You can almost see all politics as a tug-of-war in which active citizens game the tax and benefits system (I fleshed this out more here a few weeks ago).

To my poor mind, this isn't an argument or fight that can be ducked. Nor is it one on which we can't land heavy blows. Watching the way both the US and the EU are floundering at the moment, tracing the lack of historical vitality - governments that don't believe that they have the legitimacy to act - this isn't a trivial issue either.