Feb 092013
 
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The Observer reports tonight on a story which will no doubt run and run (in an equine sense if no other):

Sources close to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Food Standards Agency said it appeared that the contamination of beefurgers, lasagne and other products [with horsemeat] was the result of fraud that had an “international dimension”.

Substitute some of the actors with our friends in the financial services community – even the Financial Services Authority shares the same TLA with the Food Standards Agency – and you’ll see why I’m beginning to get the feeling that horsemeat DNA on a criminal scale bears an uncanny resemblance to Libor fixing on a criminal scale.  In both cases, it would seem that insiders have been stuffing outsiders – and the outsiders have been suffering the consequences, generally unknowingly.  A mafia is a mafia, however genteel or besuited it may show itself to be.  We are, it would appear, in the grip of such mafias.

In fact, to state – as the Observer does in its headline – that the “Horsemeat scandal [is] blamed on international fraud by mafia gangs” is just a tad disingenuous: it may be true, of course, but a) it doesn’t half let the government and the regulatory authorities off the hook of ultimate responsibility and b) it doesn’t half beg the question why whoever’s doing the blaming didn’t realise this any earlier.

The process and sequence of events is exactly the same as that which assailed us during the 2008 credit crunch.  All of it essentially down to light-touch regulatory mindsets which believe stupidly in the magical powers of utterly unleashed corporate environments: environments which start out – in our hopeful and ever-optimistic politico-economic models – as virtuous circles of efficient business, only to end up being populated with dysfunctionally greedy individuals, systemic failures no one could have predicted or even – as in this case – Eastern European mafias.

The all-too-predictable result of a hands-off and responsibility-abdicating approach to the business of government and governance.

By trusting the market to run itself, by not inspecting the opportunities for greed and irresponsible behaviours, by believing that organised crime won’t care to get involved in the daily operation of customer choice, these latterday governments of ours are destroying the very integrity of our economic checks and balances.

And that their mentality should argue that customers vote freely with their purchases every day of the blessed week is appalling in the extreme: whilst we cannot take our own personal DNA testers to every prepared meal, and prick them and poke them before every purchase, we are at the mercy of those processes we should surely have every right to trust.

The Independent concludes in the following way its report on the obfuscation currently at play:

‘Bute’ aside, the unlabelled horse may indeed be safe to eat. But that’s not to say that people wanted to eat it, nor, more importantly, that anyone in the food supply system was aware of the existence of what seems to have been a massive undetected fraud.

It was just the presence of an unknown substance –  prions that caused BSE (and the ensuing complacency and cover-up) – that led to a collapse in confidence in British farming.

Judging by the events and attitudes of the last few weeks, the lessons have not been learnt.

Not learnt indeed.  That is all too clear.

But what’s even more clear to me tonight is that business today, whether white collar or abattoir, needs a massive kick up the backside from about as fearsome and heavy-touch legislative and inspection regimes as we can possibly manage to invent and devise.

If for no other reason than to guarantee the safety of hapless human beings in a complex and interdependent century – human beings who still don’t come complete or supplied with their own portable laboratories.

A market for cheap and easy-to-use DNA testers then?

Perhaps the need is wider than that.  Maybe the market that’s really waiting to be exploited is for an algorithmic comparer of prices and products, which automatically suggests the potential presence of fraudulent behaviours in any supply chain.

For until we as consumers get far more access to information about what goes on behind the scenes in such B2B transactions, there is little we can do but to resign ourselves to further and ever-increasing fraud in banking, technology and food products various.


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Jul 312012
 
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Matt tweets sentiments today I’m sure we all can sympathise with:

People still miss the point about the NHS. The point is: should people make a profit from healthcare? Should life and health be a market? No

But whilst sympathy is easy, agreement is not so simple.

Since its creation, and via their hierarchically differentiated salaries, GPs, consultants, surgeons, nurses, cleaners, ambulance drivers, managers and receptionists have all made a profit from the NHS.  Many have chosen their roles as vocations: none could have worked for nothing.

And do we really think those who have supplied blood plasma, oxygen, sterile products of all sorts, medicines, bandages, syringes, hospital furniture, light bulbs, signs, telephone and communications infrastructures, sandwiches, food in general and a whole host of other products and services were not, in reality, motivated by the incentive of the market in order to make as fast a buck as possible for their shareholders?

Back to Matt’s tweet, then: “Should people make a profit from healthcare?” he asks.  The answer is: “Of course.”  And before this awful Coalition government, and maybe before New Labour, we didn’t mind when they did.

So what’s changed?

I think it has something to do with what I alluded to the other day.  It has become all too self-evident that government is no longer the caped crusader and protector between naked capitalism and the rest of society.  Whilst we trusted that the game between governors and corporate capitalists involved some kind of give and take on both sides, we were prepared to contemplate situations and structures that perhaps were a little unwise and risk-ridden on our part.  But that silent social contract between a society which created infrastructures on the one hand and a large corporate base which generated employment on the other has been splintering for more or less a decade now.  And when that corporate base showed that – despite all the favours society had paid it – it was manifestly unable any more to fulfil its unwritten social responsibilities, we began to suspect – and understand far more clearly – that we had been much more than a little unwise in our even-handedness; much more than a little risk-ridden in the way we had chosen to keep our eyes wide shut.

As long as key public services remain free at point-of-use, we should not mind that private companies tender competitively for public provision.  But when corporations accustomed to engendering and working inside monopolistic markets want to do the same to our public sector, we not only gain nothing from the changeover in terms of efficiency, we also lose a tremendous amount in democratic accountability.

We could easily argue, with the evidence on the table, that the private sector is named thus precisely because it generally attempts to keep its sometimes horrific failings to itself.  After all, the light of public day is not generally cast on the boardrooms which take their cold decisions – protected as they are by their legions of lawyerly advice.

Let us, then, understand one point: the truly free market could help our healthcare a thousandfold.  But the market proposed by Cameron & Co is not the free market in question.

And the market proposed is not a problem because it allows people to profit from healthcare.  We understand that a nurse or GP should want to build a life around their career.

No.  In truth, the market proposed is actually a problem because it allows non-human corporations to profit to the ever-increasing exclusion of flesh-and-blood people.

That’s what’s changed.

And that’s why we now find it easy to sympathise with tweets like Matt’s.

The problem isn’t the profit motive, per se.

But, rather, what’s invading our social and emotional landscapes – and taking us over.

It’s not that we shouldn’t make a profit out of our wellbeing but, rather, that – in the future and at our expense –  only others will be able to.


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Jun 162012
 
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Alex provides the data, if data was still needed, about the IMF and the Greeks. All I am minded to remark is that whilst billions of euros have been withdrawn from Greece in the first half of the year by private investors, escape from the country’s miseries isn’t so easy for the workers who might wish to emigrate out of them.  Capital versus labour – it’s always the same story: freedom of movement for the former (with all the traumatic implications for ordinary people’s economies which such freedoms lead to); all kinds of practical barriers, including media prejudice in host countries, for the latter.

This is perhaps one excellent reason why Greeks should leave the euro but stay in the European Union.  Get that competitive edge back which Europe’s denied varying velocities lost – but hang on any which way you can to the right to work wherever you want.  Beat the capitalist investors at their own game perhaps?

Meanwhile, here’s another piece of evidence about how the world we live in is unfair: in this case, how the fall in trades union membership mirrors exactly the rise in wealth inequality (graph here).  Our intuition might have told us that trades unions battling against amorphous and various employer organisations would help, in an imperfect civilisation, to create less unfair societies – but this post goes much further than massage our prejudices.  This post confirms a reality with immediately understandable data.

From the Facebook page "Connect The Dots USA"

Finally, an image I published not long ago from a Facebook page I’m subscribed to called “Connect The Dots USA”.  It clearly indicates how difficult providing social and welfare services will become in the future, especially as the real levels of tax American corporations pay are so far below the nominal 35 percent.  Remember, these are the same bodies which use public roads, pollute public land, sell junk food to schoolchildren and sign overblown contracts for the provision of public health services – as well as make money out of publicly funded armaments and IT projects (so many of which curiously tend to run dramatically over budget).

All examples, in fact, of the ways they have chosen to take advantage of federal and state infrastructures which they no longer see the need to contribute to.

And I am sure – as well as fear – that the situation in the UK is becoming evermore analogous.

Of course, it goes without saying that those of us on the left have often been accused – perhaps accurately – of class envy.  This argument would have us believe that we don’t act out of a pragmatic understanding and acceptance of the world as it is.  Rather, we refuse to accept that life is unfair and that such injustices are a given for those who have the good or bad fortune to be born into this universe.

After fifty years on this planet – yes, I share my birthday with that literary-fest that is Bloomsday! –  I can’t argue with the partial truth of that assertion.  But where I do disagree with the Darwinian capitalists is in their implicit understanding that life – and the world in general – is only as unfair as it must be.

Today’s three examples give those of us who believe in social, economic and cultural justice the right to sustain the position that this world is an unnecessarily unfair world – and from that moment onwards, fight to eliminate any unfairness which escapes the necessary injustices of an often incomprehensible universe.

If those of us on the left are looking for a pragmatic way of channelling the manifest – and long-predicted collapse – of capitalism, we could do far worse than to argue that in that point which lies between an unfair and an unnecessarily unfair existence we can usefully pursue a popular and realistic revolution.

A popular and realistic revolution we could use to revalidate the latterday left.


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Mar 262012
 
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I’ve just received an email from 38 Degrees called “Dinner with David Cameron”.  For a bizarre moment, I thought it was an invite to yours truly, an old almost-Witney boy himself, to cuddle up to the flavour of the political month.

It wasn’t though.

The email itself, amongst other things, pointed out the following:

Dear Miljenko,

Yesterday, we got yet another glimpse of how corrupt our political system is. The co-treasurer of the Conservatives was filmed giving a rare honest account of how lobbying can work. Donate enough money and you get to have dinner with the Prime Minister.[1]

That’s probably not most people’s idea of a great night out, but the Tory treasurer was in no doubt it would pay off. “It’ll be awesome for your business”, he said.

A ban on secret lobbying would help weed out this kind of sleaze. New rules could force politicians to reveal who they’re meeting and what they talked about. That’s why 38 Degrees members have been campaigning to bring in these rules for ages.

After the MP expenses scandal, public pressure pushed all the parties to make big promises about tackling lobbying. But now it’s time to write the new rules, Cameron has come up with weak rules that won’t solve the problem.[2]

If we speak up together now, we can push him to go much further and bring in a real ban, not just a token gesture. Can you take 30 seconds to sign a petition demanding a ban on secret lobbying?

I think they’ve all got it wrong, though.  In fact, I think the Tories got it wrong when Francis Maude was made a sacrificial lamb to their cause.  They should have called on Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Workfare and Old-Aged Misery – I’m sure it would have been easier for him to argue the whole wretched affair was a wizard wheeze to give practical experience in entrepreneurship to those who might need it.

The truth of the matter – and here, I’m going to be absolutely even-handed – is that entrepreneurship and politics really should not be mixed.  As I pointed out recently, in Roosevelt’s opinion doing precisely this was tantamount to the creation of a fascist state.  An accusation which, in the context of 20th century history, we should not be inclined to make lightly.

In reality, the problem is neither party funding nor corrupt politicians.  The problem is that our politicians and our businesspeople are now indistinguishable the one from the other.  Anyone who is placed in the condition of judge and jury both – of prosecution and defence, one might say – is bound to find it difficult to understand the markers in the sand.

Which is why I am inclined to appeal to anyone who cares to listen:

  • if you’re a politician, please consider your bounden and lifetime duty to be limited to enabling the correct functioning of our body politic;
  • and if you’re a businessperson, please consider your bounden and lifetime duty to be limited to enabling the correct functioning of our competitive marketplace and your place in it;

This should not be a question of passing discrete rules which those in power who have the power will inevitably sideslip.  No.  We need much much more than another set of spurious regulations: we need for people, for real individuals and their colleagues, to want to create and fashion an entirely brand new culture of behaviours.

It’s our culture that has collapsed around us – not our legislative instincts.  You cannot simply force the kind of casual corruption which is contaminating our politicking and business out of existence: once implanted, it’s generally a cancer which escapes all clean excision.

Rather, we need a twofold process of education coupled with that aforementioned hygiene: only then can we revert to a set of relationships which, long-term, might serve to benefit not only democratic discourse but also the sustainability of business behaviours.  What might be good for our democracy might, after all, conceivably be good for our economy.

In a 21st century environment where collaboration is becoming just as important as competition, our instincts should lead us just as much to a re-education of society’s members as a very 19th century dispatching of summary excommunication.

I’m not looking for a witch hunt here but, instead, a process whereby understanding is reached around how we might generate a broader society of constructive instincts; an environment or ecosystem of adult relationships.

Is this too much to ask of this interface between politics and business?

I sincerely hope it might not be.


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Mar 162012
 
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Yesterday, I described – from my own point of view as a language trainer – how Ofsted’s recent claim that what was wrong with the English education system was the “levels” of literacy didn’t tell quite the whole story.  This morning I read, over at the always excellent Though Cowards Flinch, that not only did the claims not tell the whole story, they actually appear to have told a few porkies.  Paul summarises the results of his investigations thus:

We have a Chief Inspector –  head of a supposedly independent organisation – operating in apparent collusion with a government department to give a deliberately false and negative impression of literacy standards and English teaching in England.  Why else would he discard the information provided in his own report, which he’s been asked onto radio to talk about, in favour of other, more negative figures apparently dredged from a dodgy press release?

The phrase that really catches my eye is that “head of a supposedly independent organisation”.  If few organisations in previous regimes were entirely out of the grasping reaches of professional politicos – ask the question “Who policed those who policed?” and the answer will almost certainly engender unhappiness – then this current government appears to have finessed to a fine art the ability and desire its makers and shakers have to totally disregard any nominal attachment to evidence-based politics.  From Legal Aid to the NHS, from welfare reform in general to our blessed political football of an education system, it’s quite clear that what counts these days is a brazen affiliation to money, wealth, power and their charms.

The public no longer expects probity in its politicians – and, as any teacher or trainer or educationalist will point out, or even any professional politico when it suits them, expectations define and create individuals in the image of their wisdom or lack of it.  It’s not even as if politicians are on a hiding to nothing any more.  They can now do what they want because – in a sense – they have broken through a crucial barrier of expectations and obligations: the political barriers which have been broken involve serving Queen, country, fellow citizen and political beliefs before one’s own grimy and sordid pockets of self-enrichment.

This Coalition government of the self-interested is interested in nothing more nor less than a socioeconomic landscape which rewards bad competition and bad capitalism above and beyond any other version of society; especially any other version which any other political ideology might wish to collaboratively sustain.  For these politicians, the only good business organisation is that which aims to become transnational; the only good politician is he or she who is prepared to be paid off by the former; and the only good voters are those who are happy to believe every lie which the aforementioned complex of interests can peddle.

As Paul concludes in his piece:

[...] it’s hard to avoid the sense that Sir Michael Wilshaw is much more than a Gove lapdog, happy to bash teachers and children for narrow political purpose, and to use manifestly incorrect data to do so.

In the current political environment, therefore, he’ll go far.

Too true, my dear Paul.  Far too true for anyone’s good.


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Jan 222012
 
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I honestly think this is all a conspiracy of sorts.  The population is ageing dramatically; the consumers are getting grey- (or no-) haired; and potential markets in developed worlds are beginning to seize up.  Who wouldn’t, then, want to release onto the open market the massive host of products and services that is health, social care and legal support?  In this sense, everything our British government is doing right now can be seen as a way of sustaining future profits for companies which are surely worried about the end of rabid (and youthful) consumerism.  In the light of such a thesis, we could even argue that socialism in the UK was spreading not because New Labour made it stealthily so but – rather – simply because as you get older you are going to be more inclined – out of understandable self-interest – towards a society which cares.

And so we come to the subject of this post: the complex and astonishing choreography behind the calls – in the midst of economic crisis – for a new yacht for our dearly beloved Queen.  Or, as I have cared to title it, “Gold Diggers of 2012″.  Here’s the historical reference:

And the background from Wikipedia. And the definition of “gold digger” from Wiktionary:

gold digger (plural gold diggers)
  1. Someone who digs or mines for gold.
  2. A person (usually female and considerably younger) who cultivates a personal relationship in order to attain money.

But since this is the 21st century, the female bit has reverse-liberalised itself considerably.  Nowadays, I suggest, we could safely assume that instead of “considerably younger females”, we might (though it still has yet to be entirely proven) be talking about “considerably older males”:

[...] it seems the support is part of a well-choreographed campaign to make the yacht a reality. The project has had the backing of the royal family, a national newspaper, and the tacit support of at least two major organisations, for more than two years, suggesting last week’s enthusiastic headlines have been a long time in the planning.

The campaign can be traced back to the mid-1990s when a powerful group of industrialists and monarchists, anticipating the scrapping of the royal yacht, devised a replacement that would not require funding from the taxpayer.

Thus far, no surprises.  This is par for the course in a democracy where the wealthy reserve the important levers for themselves.  The next bit is rather more disconcerting, mind:

The accounts note: “Particular interest in the project has been expressed by British Antarctic Survey and Edexcel, who are the project’s science and education partners respectively.”

Edexcel is owned by the FTSE 100 company Pearson, and describes itself as “the UK’s largest awarding body offering academic and vocational qualifications and testing to schools”. It has major contracts with the Department for Education, whose secretary of state, Michael Gove, has been a vocal cheerleader for the project.

Though Edexcel then go on to rather hurriedly distance themselves from any significant association:

An Edexcel spokesman said: “In 2009, we had some initial conversations with the group about the educational aspects of their plans, and said we would be happy to offer our expertise in support, if and when the project came to fruition. We have not been closely involved with the project since then.”

Which does seem a little unseemly.  After all, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee is either a jolly good thing or it isn’t; it’s hardly something one needs to be so equivocal about.

Does it?

And if so, why might that be?

Anyhow, the Guardian report clearly indicates that a considerable level of media management has been taking place.  And I do wonder if this is the case in something as surely iconic and uncontroversial as our Queen, how much more choreography is going on behind the scenes in other areas to ensure that our grey-haired futures end up firmly in the pockets of our large consumer-loving corporates?

Gold Diggers of 2012?  You bet your bottom dollar on it!


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Dec 062011
 
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Today we get this response to the current lobbying scandal from David Cameron’s office:

It simply isn’t true to say that Bell Pottinger or any other lobbying company has influenced government policy. If companies have issues then they can come and talk to the government. We have a department for Business and speak to people all the time people in the Treasury speak to businesses and businesses speak to people in Downing Street all the time… It is simply untrue to say that BP or any other lobbying company influences government. I am challenging this idea that this company or any other lobbying company have influenced policy.

The Guardian then goes on to fact check this claim with clearly contradicting results.

Meanwhile, Mr Cameron himself was quoted as having said the following on the subject in February 2010 (before the last General Election, that is) (original here and further background here):

Today it is a £2 billion industry that has a huge presence in Parliament. The Hansard Society has estimated that some MPs are approached over one hundred times a week by lobbyists. Much of the time this happens covertly.

We don’t know who is meeting whom. We don’t know whether any favours are being exchanged. We don’t know which outside interests are wielding unhealthy influence. This isn’t a minor issue with minor consequences. Commercial interests – not to mention government contracts – worth hundreds of billions of pounds are potentially at stake.

I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.

We can’t go on like this. I believe it’s time we shone the light of transparency on lobbying in our country and forced our politics to come clean about who is buying power and influence.

Politics should belong to people, not big business or big unions, and we need to sort this out. So if we win the election, we will take a lead on this issue by making sure that ex-ministers are not allowed to use their contacts and knowledge – gained while being paid by the public to serve the public – for their own private gain.

A speech in which he also pointed out that:

I’m talking about lobbying – and we all know how it works.

Well, obviously …

The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way. In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism. We believe in market economics, not crony capitalism. So we must be the party that sorts all this out.

But what can only be described as Mr Cameron’s two-faced approach to the subject is underlined by this story from London’s Evening Standard, published in June 2010:

David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne and their adviser Rohan Silva deserve some credit. They were among the first to recognise the potential of behavioural economics to transform marketing and communications — as made fashionable in the 2008 book Nudge, written by US academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

Now everyone in advertising and marketing is talking about behavioural economics — not least because Cameron and Osborne control the Government’s communications arm, the Central Office of Information (COI), which was Britain’s biggest advertiser last year. In a significant move, Thaler has also become a Government adviser.

So let me get this straight, if I can.  Today, according to Cameron anyway, lobbyists spend £2 billion a year on not influencing government – whilst in 2010, according to the same man of wisdom, they were an awful cancer on the body politic which only the Tories could possibly excise.

I suppose today as well, the excellent advertising man that he is, he’ll be telling us that behavioural economics is now as bust as any average European country.  And that the Central Office of Information’s annual budget is a total waste of time and should be entirely eliminated.

Oh.  Ah.  It has been.

How many fronts is this bunch going to open up before we all come to our senses?

Do they ever care to leave a bridge unburned?

And shouldn’t the rest of us now be trying to find a way back?
____________________

Update to this post: I do wonder if – beneath all these twists and turns and apparent changes of opinion – there aren’t some really rather unpleasant prejudices.  Like, for example, that the plebs of the world such as you and me are easily nudged and confused and influenced through the darkest arts of marketing and publicity by grand communicators such as Cameron and Osborne.

And may the Lord forbid us the thought that the latter could become just as prone to the evil temptations of tawdry self-interest as the aforementioned proletariat have clearly shown themselves to be.


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Dec 062011
 
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The other day I suggested we revolutionise Big Pharma by permitting its access to confidential NHS patient records in exchange for it agreeing to open source any resulting research.  Today, we have this self-evident scandal where it would appear lobbyists are bending the ears of those at the very top of government.  As I point out, also today, this is hardly surprising with 20-odd millionaires currently making up the British Cabinet – but, hey ho!, I’m not in the business of perpetuating political walls and prejudices.  So if such lobbying is here to stay, how can we make it an honourable process? 

After all, making representations is surely the essence of democracy.  And lobbying must have started out – at some point in time or another – as a logical tool of democratic discourse.

Perhaps, in a way, we could “open source” the lobbyists – and, by extension, wider government itself.  For such would appear to be the ability of our security services to listen in on our conversations these days that I do wonder if it mightn’t be most democratic of our state to use the capability of our spooks to ensure clean and honourable governance at the very highest levels.

If all lobbying activities were thus opened to public scrutiny – that is to say, all conversations and electronic exchanges between lobbyists and government representatives were automatically made available for any institution or member of the public to trawl – surely this would improve the levels of democratic discourse.  It does, of course, remind me of what I believe the essential goal of WikiLeaks once was: to ensure that people behave behind closed doors as they might do in front of the public gaze.  The basic flaw in WikiLeaks argument was, of course, that before you invoke such a sea change in state governance and behaviours, you should really give people sufficient notice of the rewriting of the ground rules.  Notice which WikiLeaks clearly neglected to offer – or, even, more sadly, contemplate.

Nevertheless, once tried and discarded, we could approach the matter more sensitively.  We could do far worse, in fact, than to ask those nice gentlemen and ladies at GCHQ not only to protect our democracy from international and home-grown law-breakers – but also from the kind of rank behind-closed-doors advantage-taking which those at the top of the tree would appear, from the latest reports, to be engaging in.

A democracy where Big Brother watches the makers and shakers as well as the miscreants – and ensures a healthy debate and democracy by removing, in equal measure, all hiding places from everyone.

Why not?

They do, after all, claim all global conversations are now being scanned.  If the capability exists in counter-terrorism, why not in the field of democratic process?


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Sep 132011
 
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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.


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