Sep 132011

George Monbiot nails it in two paragraphs here (the bold is mine):

Jeff Judson, who has worked for 26 years as a corporate lobbyist in the US, has explained why thinktanks are more effective than other public relations agencies. They are, he says, “the source of many of the ideas and facts that appear in countless editorials, news articles, and syndicated columns”. They have “considerable influence and close personal relationships with elected officials”. They “support and encourage one another, echo and amplify their messages, and can pull together … coalitions on the most important public policy issues.” Crucially, they are “virtually immune to retribution … the identity of donors to thinktanks is protected from involuntary disclosure.”

The harder you stare at them, the more they look like lobby groups working for big business without disclosing their interests. Yet the media treats them as independent sources of expertise. The BBC is particularly culpable. Even when the corporate funding of its contributors has been exposed, it still allows them to masquerade as unbiased commentators.

It does seem time to rein in the think tank, doesn’t it?  But, as I mentioned in my previous post which – amongst other things – touched on strategies around how to deal with immense software monopolies such as Microsoft’s Word, when you wish to attack anti-democratic matters such as these you can choose one of two ways to advance your agenda: firstly, restrict through the application of the law the behaviours you judge to be anti-democratic – this we could describe as being the 19th century way; secondly, provide alternative and parallel structures which serve to release the people and the crowd and allow them to take affairs into their own hands – this, unsurprisingly, I would term the 21st century way.

It’s highly unlikely, then, if we take a realistic view of current circumstances, that anyone could reasonably propose dealing with these cleverly underhand corporate lobbyists.  They are here to stay is really what I am saying.  Understand it, accept it and move on.  (In fact, I’m beginning to consider advising we should all do the same with Cameron’s blessed Coalition – but that, I think, is definitely a subject for a completely different post …)

So move on we must.  But move on to where?  If we cannot restrict the operations of these in-everything-but-name lobbyists, then, following the logic of my previous example, we need to provide alternatives instead – alternatives which, in the hands of an empowered populace allow us to set up parallel networks that serve to gain the attention of the mainstream media in much the same way.  And here I think we have a knight on a white charger.

Andy Williamson has just completed a short series of short posts over at Political Innovation with this piece which outlines an alternative kind of think tank:

[…] So I think the answer here should be somewhat self-explanatory, which is to start moving towards virtual think tank models drawing the best thinkers in to solve the problem at hand.

Obviously that’s a simplistic statement and needs more thought, but it can be done – this model works in other disciplines (I know, I’ve done it).

We can draw on ideas of social networks, crowd sourcing and gaming theory to manage the people, process and to produce intellectually rigorous work.

Such an idea would not only serve to make it possible to set up intellectually competitive alternatives to existing think-tank models – with all the tools needed to generate the above-mentioned intellectual rigour and reputational recognition – but would also allow such systems, properly implemented, to rapidly eat away at the business models of those think tanks which actually, and in reality, aren’t.

Thus allowing us, in turn, to deal with the dysfunctionality already described whereby mainstream media, looking for those easy and quick rent-a-quotes from allegedly reputable organisations, end up stamping their unfortunate seals of authority on institutions which, essentially, tell porkies about their real purpose and funding.

If you can’t beat them, join them?  Absolutely – yes, that’s what I mean.  Not by telling equally convincing porkies, though. 

By following the historical journey and example of virtual battles such as Wikipedia versus Encarta, we can surely outline a similar strategy which convinces yet again through its ability to prioritise true ingenuity and distributed intelligence over brute money and slick marketing.

We may want to create an alternative model of think-tank process because we’re interested in the intellectual challenge of making it work properly. 

But the practical challenge of eliminating distortions to a wider democracy may shortly become a far more important reason to move ahead with this project.

Sep 132011

This is a story which really ought to make you furious.  Ken Clarke’s Welfare State plans to carry out cuts which unnecessarily leave out in the cold – and without cover of any kind whatsoever – over 200,000 children and young people.  Unnecessarily because counter-proposals by professionals in the sector would not only protect such access but would also save more money.  As the campaign Sound Off For Justice underlines:

  • 6,000 children under 18, and 69,000 Britons aged between 18-24 years of age, will no longer be able to access free legal advice and support for cases involving employment, homelessness and welfare under government plans
  • 140,000 children will be affected by legal aid support being removed for their parents

The full details here.

Again, it does beg the very serious question: why does the government reject the counter-proposals of the legal profession which aim to save £34 million more than the former are asking for whilst – at the same time – squaring the circle of positive reform by managing to protect the rights of access to the justice system of millions of people?

Unless, of course, the government doesn’t want millions of people to access the justice system …

Now why would that be?

    Sep 132011

    According to Dan Hodges’ Twitter feed, Ed Miliband said the following in his speech to the TUC this morning:

    Most significant element of Ed’s speech isn’t about unions, it’s this: “We are not going to be able to spend our way to a new economy”

    I do wonder if part of the problems we are suffering from – as a result of rich people and financial organisations having done what they chose to do badly over much of the last decade – doesn’t also have something to do with the fact that much productive labour these days, things which add definite value to the economy, is actually outside the scope of government’s ability to tax and therefore benefit from it.

    An example close to home: I haven’t used Microsoft’s Word – except in a paid environment – for years now; instead, I’ve used successive versions of the free software equivalent  Much of the user interface and web gateway to accessing this software is produced by volunteers who carry out their work free of charge, outside their normal working-hours and with the simple objective of providing this free alternative to both others and themselves.

    It’s an ideological matter too: office software has been around for decades; Microsoft’s grand achievement in business has been to convince us all that a mature product – which should have become a cheap utility years ago – still has the right to demand the licence fees which it currently commands.  You can’t change Microsoft, of course – but you can work to create choice.  And, as well as the fury which has sometimes driven its supporters, is as ideological a proposal, alternative and choice as any political party has striven to be.

    Perhaps, in a way, that goes some way to explaining why political parties aren’t as popular as they used to be.  It’s not that we shun overarching ideology: it’s that, these days, we choose to participate in cleanly focussed ones which don’t require so much compromise on our part.

    So here we have an example of ideological behaviours (Wikipedia versus Encarta is another clear example), where people work to create substitutes to business models which have historically generated income for the state.  (Of course, there are a multitude of examples around at the moment which demonstrate that even properly formed businesses are doing their legal level best not to contribute any taxes at all any more – but that’s quite a separate matter for quite a separate post.) 

    This, then, leads us to the question: who is able – anywhere in the world – to effectively and fairly tax (or monetise) voluntary work so carried out on such a vast and extensive scale?

    If the corporate socialism which bailed out the banks wasn’t bad enough in itself – and even, perhaps, hadn’t been needed in the first place – surely sooner or later we’d have had to face up to this other unhappy disjunction between the needs of the public purse and the nature of the new economy.

    Which begs a completely different question: perhaps the banks actually failed not because of greed and individual irresponsibility but, rather, because their business models, ways of working, procedures and processes and general structures are entirely inappropriate for the times we are beginning to live.

    Times which encourage us to believe that more and more people will directly exchange work for services and products, in such a way that the state, as well as traditional business, can only – aghast – look on and fear.  For if big organisations such as banks are having problems pitching correctly their size, responsiveness and general ability to react to changing conditions, why not governments too?

    It’s a thought, anyhow.

    Sep 132011

    I believe this cartoon strip (I actually mistyped “strop” there!!!) has been running for about a year now.  It also has an associated blog, with a pertinent summary of an awful sequence of rip-offs the British public have been exposed to.  An introduction below:

    News has to be new. Rip-off organizations rely on this. When they are caught red-handed, as they frequently are, their scams make the news for a few days. When the novelty has worn off, the story disappears. Leaving the rippers-off ripping, the news moves on to new stuff.

    The realization that a Dutchman gets 40% more pension than an Englishman for the same investment made the news in December 2010, but has since been forgotten. Leaving the pension companies to continue ripping-off Britons with high charges and rubbish annuities, consigning many to poverty stricken old-age.

    It is when the story is no longer ‘news’ that the real ripping happens. Under the cover of ‘business as usual’ – which, sadly, for many organisations is exactly what ripping-off is. Business as usual.

    If you’re feeling miserable today, don’t read the rest.  But if you really want to understand how some large companies turn evil patience into rank money-spinners, then read on.

    A blog and cartoon “strop” to follow indeed!