Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The nature of post-crash culture

This is a crossposting from the New Weather blog.

There is a truism about fish, who are said not to wonder overmuch about the nature of the water they are in, simply because they are swimming in it.

I have to say I find that pretty unlikely. There would be many other reasons why they might not think about it - fish are not known for the depth of their thinking - but I'm sure they are actually concerned.

Still, we understand the general idea - it is hard to see whatever we swim in that clearly. In the same way, the features of the age we live in, shaped by the banking crash that began exactly ten years ago, are not obvious. Because we live in it.

I found myself thinking about the most obvious beliefs we live among, and how much they are attributable to the same tremendous crisis that so dominates the economy still. New Weather had teamed up with Prime Economics to organise a fascinating seminar to mark the tenth anniversary of the first whiff of disaster, the withdrawal of three investment funds by BNP Paribas - including Ann Pettifor, Professor Daniela Gabor and the writer Frances Coppola. It was called 'Finance Shrugged'.

The first shift seemed to be flagged up by the very existence of the speakers. Ten years ago, there was a handful of outsiders who tried to penetrate the financial world, because they knew its importance.
Finance still defends itself by being abstruse, but - Michael Lewis onwards - there is now a cadre of academics and writers who understand crucial aspects of the way finance works. They are also providing a critique which is increasingly compelling.

The tragedy is that there is still so little communication, let alone debate, between the insiders and the informed outsiders.

Three other changes, now that we live in the world of Post-Crash Culture:

1. We also now have a post-ideological world, or perhaps a gap between ideologies, when nobody - not even the Treasury - believes in the old 'trickle down' certainties. It opens the way to new possibilities, just as it has opened us to the most dysfunctional reactions. But the age we live in remains ideologically lost.

2. We are in an age of security, when those who rule us believe security is more important than prosperity. So we now have banks that are in some ways less likely to fail - but they are that much less effective. The new Basel III rules make loans to small business that much less affordable. Consequently, the age we live in is also an age of growing monopoly.

3. "We used to be regarded as geeks," wrote some of those on Twitter who, like Ann Pettifor, predicted the crash. Now they are respectable commentators, if not yet respected by mainstream finance, as are others who have been able to show how previous patterns are not necessarily a predictor of the future. Because, rightly or wrongly - and largely because of the crash - we also now live in a post-expert world.


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Friday, 11 August 2017

The fatal difference between real and virtual, and why officials don't get it

This blog is cross-posted from Radix and the Real Press.

You can see how this kind of manufactured argument happens, especially in the period they used to call the silly season.

The Children's Commissioner takes over the lead story of the Observerurging parents to limit their children's online bingeing. Then the Telegraph hits on the idea of asking a former head of GCHQ to hit back, bizarrely, in the national interest. Then that becomes their lead, and so it goes on.

And actually, this is a real debate and a vital one which has not yet been joined. There is acres of newsprint and bookshelf space about online safety, but next to nothing about how much time children of various ages should spent glued to their games or mobiles - a figure that has risen to an average of over six hours a day.

By coincidence, my own contribution to the debate - a guide for parents, by parents (Techno Tantrums: 10 Strategies to Cope with your Child's Time Online- has only just come out, and is selling very well. People who doubt what they are told by the tech companies, the schools and by ministers, need to find out how other parents deal with it.


So, thanks to the silly season, the great debate is finally grinding into life. What is bizarre is what it says about politics now. Why should the left take the side of parents? Why should the right claim, oddly, that children should be in front of screens as much as possible, to help the nation recruit the right knowledge base - though why GCHQ can't find the right staff, given that children are spending six hours a day online, I simply can't imagine?

My own experience suggests that too long online leads to depression, no matter how happy the messages people read there. Too long playing online games also makes children bored of real life.

These things matter very much indeed. And oddly enough, some of the original tech gurus knew that - as I explain in the book, Steve Jobs rigorously controlled the time his children spent on ipads. But that didn't stop UK schools gorging on them in the vain hope that it might help disadvantaged children learn - we all know that what helps people learn is good teaching and good relationships with teachers.

But there is a more fundamental disagreement below the radar here. It is the fundamental difference, which the official mind seems unable to grasp, between real and virtual.

Former GCHQ director Robert Hannigan said this in his Telegraph article:

"Parental guilt is also driven by a failure to appreciate that life online and 'real' life are not separate: they are all part of the same experience. Millennials understand this..."

Quite the reverse, in fact. The extent that millennials fail to understand the distinction between online and real life is precisely the extent to which they are disadvantaged. Or are your Facebook friends your real friends? If you really can't distinguish the two, you are in trouble, it seems to me.

This is a confusion, not so much among children - who tell the difference often and easily - but among officials. Their bureaucracies create the same kind of virtual simulacra of the world, and they need to believe there is a continuity between the two worlds, the real one and the bureaucratic copy.

Yet actually the real world is almost infinitely more complex, unexpected, magical and humane.
This is an absolutely vital debate and I would like to do more to make sure battle is joined.


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Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The secret message of the new Dunkirk film

This is cross-posted from the Radix blog.

I was called quite late a few nights ago by a reporter in Toronto to ask me why it was that I thought the Canadian Dunkirk hero Jack Cracknell had been excised from history. And, more particularly, excised from the new blockbuster Dunkirk film, which is still packing them in across the USA, but has been less well reviewed on this side of the Atlantic.

There were two reasons why I was interested to see the film myself. First, because I've written my own book about the affair, recognising the parallels with the current Brexit crisis. And second, because of Vince Cable's contribution over the weekend, about older's people's nostalgia for a partly-understood imperial and wartime past.

The film itself is a strange mixture, part cliche, party subtle message - which I, at least, felt the director Christoper Nolan was intending us to understand.

Let's deal first with the Cracknell issue. Of the three architects of the naval operation, Ramsay, Tennant and Cracknell, only Cracknell - who had spent more than a week as piermaster on the mole at Dunkirk - was killed, on the way home, heroically giving up his place in the MTB which came to pick him up from the sea, because he said it was too dangerous for them to stop.

I can see why the film-makers wanted to remove reference to individuals, but they gave the name 'Bolton' to the piermaster, which seems to me to have missed an opportunity.

The main difference was that, instead of a pristine naval uniform as Kenneth Branagh wore in the film, Cracknell wore a white steel helmet and a week's growth of beard. These kind of inaccuracies were irritating, but perhaps just for me.

More annoying were the cliches about the little ships which, brave as they were, made a far smaller contribution than the ferries and destroyers. But you can see why the idea of getting people 'home', so emphasised in the film, might appeal to American audiences.

Yet, oddly, there was a more subtle message in the film, which I took. It was that almost nothing in the story portrayed turns out to be as it seemed. There are soldiers in British uniform who turn out to be French, spitfire fuel gauges that don't tell the truth, safe ships which turn out to be death traps, and the man giving out beer at the railway station turns out to be blind.

In the end, the characters tell each other lies about what they have just been through: the shell-shocked sailor who knocked down and kills a boy on a small boat is told, at the end, that the boy is fine and takes comfort in that.

In short, the film Dunkirk seems to me to have a subtle secondary message about the lies those who took part had to tell themselves in order to survive the trauma. The message appears to be that nothing is what it now seems to be.

If so, this is at least accurate. The whole Dunkirk tragedy was a national trauma, a betrayal of European allies (perhaps a necessary one), a bizarre snatching of survival from the jaws of disaster. Those who took part and survived appear to have done so by drinking deep at the draught of national forgetfulness - replacing memories with the fantasy of pleasure cruisers popping across the Channel, forgetting that nearly a third of the little ships and boats never returned.

It was a sudden, traumatic Brexit in the sense that it left us alone and without the resources or the policies to defend ourselves. But, as it turned out, we had the people, some imagination and determination. But the old guard had to be dumped to make survival possible.

I'm not, of course, claiming that all this is hidden in the Dunkirk film. What is there is an admonition by the director to take nothing on trust and to look beneath the fairy tale to the trauma within.

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Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The most important question in economics now


I've just been to Wales to the beautiful, and more than slightly damp, valley which stretches between Abergavenny and Hay-on-Wye. I've written about what I concluded about agricultural subsidies in a blog on the Radix website.

But one thing stood out for me since and I wanted to set it out here.

I have been closely involved in the RSA's Inclusive Growth Commission, and in the inclusive growth debate which has followed, but I believe that one linked question is now the most urgent and important question in economics.

You wouldn't think that from the timidity of so many economists, but that need not stop us asking it - and asking it even if there is no immediate prospect of an answer.

It is this. How can we re-grow a local economy when it has been corroded or monopolised? How do you replace money flows when they have disappeared?

That is such a vital question that it maybe no exaggeration that the peace of the world, long-term, now hangs on somebody finding an answer.

It will certainly involve enterprise and free trade - though not the kind of literal, fundamentalist interpretation of that doctrine that diversity is driven out.

It will involve self-imposed determination to buy and sell locally where possible and to take part in the regeneration of local life.

It will involve the adaptation of local energy and local food and building the infrastructure to support it.

It will involve government support to tackle the monopolies and to organise the euthanasia of the rentiers, to coin a phrase.

It may also involve the kind of anchor institutions that the valley once had in the form of Llanthony Priory.

But is that enough? And who is going to try wholeheartedly to do it?

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Why should parents be on their own to tackle online games and social media?

This post first appeared on the Radix website...

Let's give credit where it is due. UK governments over the past decade, and perhaps most of all, those led by Tony Blair, demonstrated a kind of obsessive technophilia which meant that, the bigger a proposed solution was, and the more obsessively, blindly linked to IT, the more the government would embrace it.

Also, and linked to that, the more they would pay. But that is another story, as Rudyard Kipling would say.

As I say, let's give some credit to Theresa May's government that they have begun to row back a little from the official mantra 'Human bad, IT good'.

They have dared suggest that Facebook should be accountable for what goes on their platform, and they are absolutely right to do so.

They have not so far dared stand up to the looming monopoly power of the internet companies, particularly Amazon and Google, perhaps aware that - outside the European Union - their powers to tackle monopolies like this are that much weaker. Particularly as they are now supplicants to the Trump administration.

There seem to be no complaints from them either that Amazon is subsidised by US Mail for every package they send.

I suppose I feel that, as a parent, the mismatch of power between me and the tech companies who are supposed to serve me has never been greater. If I complain to Youtube that somebody is online bullying my child, there is usually nobody there to reply - let alone help.

If I want my school to use their pupil premium on human beings, they usually get pushed out by ipads (in fact, Apple said that their ipad profits in the coalition years had been boosted by the UK school system).

And if I fear that too much time online, playing games or on social media will undermine imagination, build aggression and promote depression, then I'll get no support from the government (or the schools, which are great pushers of the online world).

So what do parents do? Well, Judith Hodge and I have interviewed a range of parents, to write a book called Techno Tantrums: 10 strategies to deal with your children's time online - a guide book for parents, by parents, to navigate a world where they feel largely on their own. Also available in paperback and on kindle.

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Monday, 17 July 2017

The most important question for Southern Rail right now

I have been reading the brave and revolutionary book about public relations by Robert Phillips, called Trust me, PR is Dead. Considering that the author is now an ex-PR man himself, the title is a bit like the old circular contradiction All Cretans are liars, as a Cretan once told me - which so fascinated Alan Turing.

There is a fascinating passage where he was asked by one of the rail companies for advice to deal with their unpopularity.  But, as Phillips explains, all was exactly as it seemed.

"It turned out that its poor standing was well-deserved - the marketing director boasted proudly about how they shortened train lengths at peak times and lengthened them off-peak. This way they met the averages demanded of them by the regulator but paid less in fees. So what if the customers were packed like sardines? They had to get to work, so would put up and shut up - because they had to."

Phillips describes this as a disillusioning moment. As a PR consultant, he was "meant to conspire with this fraudulent idiocy". He didn't, suggesting instead that the company managers do a ceremonial bow (Japanese style, see picture) for a new National Apology Day (he didn't get the contract).

I have been thinking about this in relation to Southern Rail, and the pretence by them and the government that the short trains which cause such asphyxiation have something to do with industrial action.

They could be about trains not being in the right place, but that would apply only in chaos - and we have an emergency timetable.

Now, I have no evidence that the story in Trust Me, PR is Dead applies also to Southern. Since proposing the question in an article for the Guardian last week - and developing it in a blog on the Radix site, suggesting that people care much more about the manipulation than they do about the asphyxiation - I have downloaded screeds of in-house material about how Network rail calculates its charges.

I'm not stupid, but the whole thing is so packed with jargon and complexity that I will never penetrate its obscurity. All I can do is hope that other people will take up the question in Parliament.

On the face of it, it may be that Govia Thameslink's shadowy owners Go-Ahead are insisting that some of their losses should be clawed back from the battered passengers in this way. It could - in certain narrow economic cults - even be considered their duty to do so.

Either way, we must be told.

Meanwhile, I believe Robert Phillips is onto something with his National Apology Day proposal. It would help clear the air. This is how he puts it:

"Companies know when they have done wrong. Companies know when they have substituted the convenience of tick-box compliance for the imperative of values-led behaviour. And they know when they really should apologise - not that they do. No one needs to 'have god' to understand this. But everyone needs to have a core humanity and a very real sense of purpose and values - of what is right and what is wrong - in business, as in life."

So Charles Horton (Govia Thameslink CEO), Andrew Allner (Go-Ahead chairman) and Chris Grayling (Secretary of State) - please think about this one. Does the cap fit?

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More background on Southern in my book Cancelled!  about the whole saga.

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Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Was Margaret Thatcher real?

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Broke to look back at recent history to see why things were going so badly for the middle classes.

This was not, as some commentators suggested, because I had some kind of disdain for the working classes or because I thought life had been uniquely tough on the middle classes - I think nothing of the kind - but writing the book led me down some strange byways.

For example why house prices had risen so much since 1979, and how the decision was made to launch that process by abolishing the so-called 'Corset' which regulated how much money went into the mortgage market.

Reading the cabinet papers convinced me that Margaret Thatcher was a mere cipher in her own revolution, unaware what the revolutionaries - Howe and Lawson - were planning or why.

Her own rhetoric convinced her later. But at first, she had no idea beyond a vague support for homeowners. The so-called Thatcherite Revolution was misnamed. It also failed in a range of other ways to live up to its own rhetoric.

In one way in particular, as I argued in a blog on the Radix website, it failed to live up to its own convictions: it failed to provide real independence to anyone apart from the very wealthy - though the cascade of mortgage money made it seem otherwise.

This is what I wrote. What do you think?

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