Archive for the ‘socialism’ Category
So, why did we get here? Back in the mists of time, in the US Bell System, there used to be something called a Business Office, by contrast to a Central Office (i.e. what we call a BT Local Exchange in the UK), whose features and functions were set down in numerous Bell System Practice documents. Basically, it was a site where the phone company took calls from the public, either for its own account or on behalf of a third party. Its practices were defined by Bell System standardisation, and its industrial relations were defined by the agreement between AT&T and the unions, which specified the pay and conditions for the various trades and workplace types inside the monster telco. If something was a Business Office according to the book, the union agreement covering those offices would apply.
In the Reaganite 80s, after the Bell System was broken up, someone realised that it would be possible to get rid of the union rules if they could re-define the site as something else. Not only could they change the rules, but they could move the site physically to a right-to-work state or even outside the USA. This is, it turns out, the origin of the phrase “call centre”.
In the UK, of course, call centres proliferated in parallel with utility privatisation and financial deregulation. A major element in the business case for privatisation was getting rid of all those electricity showrooms and BT local offices and centralising customer service functions into `all centres. At the same time, of course, privatisation created the demand for customer service in that it was suddenly possible to change provider and therefore to generate a shit-load of admin. Banks were keen to get rid of their branches and to serve the hugely expanding credit card market. At another level, IT helpdesks made their appearance.
On the other hand, hard though it is to imagine it now, there was a broader vision of technology that expected it all to be provided centrally – in the cloud, if you will – down phone lines controlled by your favourite telco, or by the French Government, or perhaps Rupert Murdoch. This is one of the futures that didn’t happen, of course, because PCs and the web happened instead, but you can bet I spent a lot of time listening to people as late as the mid-2000s still talking about multimedia services (and there are those who argue this is what stiffed Symbian). But we do get a sneak-preview of the digital future that Serious People wanted us to have, every time we have to ring the call centre. In many ways, call centres are the Anti-Web.
In Britain, starting in the 1990s, they were also part of the package of urban regeneration in the North. Along with your iconic eurobox apartments and AutoCAD-shaped arts centre, yup, you could expect to find a couple of gigantic decorated sheds full of striplighting and the precariat. Hey, he’s like a stocky, Yorkshire Owen Hatherley. After all, it was fairly widely accepted that even if you pressed the button marked Arts and the money rolled in, there was a limit to the supply of yuppies and there had to be some jobs in there as well.
You would be amazed at the degree of boosterism certain Yorkshire councils developed on this score, although you didn’t need top futurist Popcorn Whatsname to work out that booming submarine cable capacity would pretty quickly make offshoring an option. Still, if Bradford didn’t make half-arsed attempts to jump on every bandwagon going, leaving it cluttered with vaguely Sicilian failed boondoggles, it wouldn’t be Bradford.
Anyway, I think I’ve made a case that this is an institution whose history has been pathological right from the start. It embodies a fantasy of managing a service industry in the way the US automakers were doing at the same time – and failing, catastrophically.
What is it that makes call centres so uniquely awful as social institutions? This is something I’ve often touched on at Telco 2.0, and also something that’s been unusually salient in my life recently – I moved house, and therefore had to interact with getting on for a dozen of the things, several repeatedly. (Vodafone and Thames Water were the best, npower and Virgin Media the worst.) But this isn’t just going to be a consumer whine. In an economy that is over 70% services, the combination of service design, technology, and social relations that makes these things so awful is something we need to understand.
For example, why does E.ON (the electricity company, a branch of the German utility Rhein-Westfälische Elektrizitätswerke) want you to tell their IVR what class you are before they do anything else? This may sound paranoid, but when I called them, the first question I had to answer was whether I owned my home or was a tenant. What on earth did they want to know that for?
Call centres provide a horrible experience to the user. They are famously awful workplaces. And they are also hideously inefficient – some sites experience levels of failure demand, that is to say calls generated due to a prior failure to serve, over 50% of the total inbound calls. Manufacturing industry has long recognised that rework is the greatest enemy of productivity, taking up disproportionate amounts of time and resources and inevitably never quite fixing the problems.
So why are they so awful? Well, I’ll get to that in the next post. Before we can answer that, we need to think about how they are so awful. I’ve made a list of anti-patterns – common or standard practices that embody error – that make me angry.
Our first anti-pattern is queueing. Call centres essentially all work on the basis of oversubscription and queueing. On the assumption that some percentage of calls will go away, they save on staff by queueing calls. This is not the only way to deal with peaks in demand, though – for example, rather than holding calls, there is no good technical reason why you couldn’t instead have a call-back architecture, scheduling a call back sometime in the future.
Waiting on hold is interesting because it represents an imposition on the user – because telephony is a hot medium in McLuhan’s terminology, your attention is demanded while you sit pointlessly in the queue. In essence, you’re providing unpaid labour. Worse, companies are always tempted to impose on you while you wait – playing music on hold (does anybody actually like this?), or worse, nagging you about using the web site. We will see later on that this is especially pointless and stupid.
And the existence of the queue is important in the social relations of the workplace. If there are people queueing, it is obviously essential to get to them as soon as possible, which means there is a permanent pressure to speed up the line. Many centres use the queue as an operational KPI. It is also quality-destroying, in that both workers and managers’ attention is always focused on the next call and how to get off the current call in order to get after the queue.
A related issue is polling. That is to say, repeatedly checking on something, rather than being informed pro-actively when it changes. This is of course implicit in the queueing model. It represents a waste of time for everyone involved.
Repetition is one of the most annoying of the anti-patterns, and it is caused by statelessness. It is always assumed that this interaction has never happened before, will never happen again, and is purely atomised. They don’t know what happened in the last call, or even earlier in the call if it has been transferred. As a result, you have to provide your mother’s maiden name and your account number, again, and they have to retype it, again. The decontextualised nature of interaction with a call centre is one of the worst things about it.
Pretty much every phone system these days uses SIP internally, so there is no excuse for not setting a header with a unique identifier that could be used to look up data in all the systems involved, and indeed given out as a ticket number to the user in case they need to call again, or – why not – used to share the record of the call.
That point leads us to another very important one. Assymetric legibility characterises call centres, and it’s dreadful. Within, management tries to maintain a panopticon glare at the staff. Without, the user faces an unmapped territory, in which the paths are deliberately obscure, and the details the centre holds on you are kept secret. Call centres know a lot about you, but won’t say; their managers endlessly spy on the galley slaves; you’re not allowed to know how the system works.
So no wonder we get failure demand, in which people keep coming back because it was so awful last time. A few companies get this, and use first-call resolution (the percentage of cases that are closed first time) as a KPI rather than call rates, but you’d be surprised. Obviously, first-call resolution has a whole string of social implications – it requires re-skilling of the workforce and devolution of authority to them. No wonder it’s rare.
Now, while we were in the queue, the robot voice kept telling us to bugger off and try the Web site. But this is futile. Inappropriate automation and human/machine confusion bedevil call centres. If you could solve your problem by filling in a web form, you probably would have done. The fact you’re in the queue is evidence that your request is complicated, that something has gone wrong, or generally that human intervention is required.
However, exactly this flexibility and devolution of authority is what call centres try to design out of their processes and impose on their employees. The product is not valued, therefore it is awful. The job is not valued by the employer, and therefore, it is awful. And, I would add, it is not valued by society at large and therefore, nobody cares.
So, there’s the how. Now for the why.
Quiggin is discussing why some things are neo- and others are post-. How do we deal with the current revival of high modernism (see Owen Hatherley’s blog and indeed his career, the proliferating Mid-Century Modern groups on Flickr, the wave of preservation campaigns for mid-20th century landmarks)? It’s obviously silly to call it post-modernism and in any case it’s explicitly opposed to it. I’ve heard post-postmodernism but that’s more of an admission that it hasn’t got a proper name yet than a solution.
Neo-modernism? I can’t help but feel there’s some stylistic problem with calling something both new and modern in the same word. I guess you could call it the New New, like the science fiction world’s New Weird, but that would get irritating quickly. But the vaguely pejorative sense of neo- might work. Modernism was always half in love and sometimes quite a bit more with either fascism or communism. To say nothing of the times it was involved in a bizarre love triangle with both of them, or its repeated flings with developmental dictatorship, urban corruption, Gaullism, liberal technocracy, and really anyone with the keys to the planning office, when the other two weren’t in town. Then, architecture is the slut of the arts, almost as much as journalism, and always has been. It can be no other way; somebody has to build something and that takes serious amounts of money. (So what’s the journos’ excuse?)
I would guess that a camp revival of it would enjoy the trains-running-on-time/white concrete rostrum aspect even more. Of course the revivers would furiously deny this, and indeed that there was anything camp or revivalist about it, thus inadvertently confirming it. In fact, I suspect they’d prefer just to insist that it is continuous with earlier modernism and that it’s just modernism, dammit. At this point I see the nightmarish academic plural lunging from the flank and sidestep.
Or perhaps it should get a -punk suffix. As it goes with nostalgia for the great compression and the era of giving us the fucking money, I would suggest we call it something like reasonablepunk. (After all, punk itself began very near to the historic peak of economic egalitarianism in the UK.) Because social democracy is basically reasonable. It’s the other side who want the moon on a stick. This reminds me a bit of Hasek’s Party of Measured Progress within the Limits of the Law, but then again that’s too long. Perhaps it was snappier in Czech.
There’s obviously a resonance with what Paul Mason calls “gut Labour” here. It’s worth remembering that although Tony Blair talked a good game, in practice he was just as horrified as Prince Charles at the suggestion that he might have an aesthetic hidden away somewhere on his person, so I would argue that this is unequivocally a good thing. We’ve already got gut Labour wanktanks so we may as well have an aesthetic. (Although, who’s going to feed the bugger?)
Elsewhere, I read this weekend that IKEA is going to adjust its product line for the UK to be more “British”. This turns out to be a question of function. The Swedish designers have apparently been struggling to grasp the problems involved with fitting their products between the chimney breast, the bay window, and the landlord’s washing machine sticking out of its chipboard kennel by 10-14 cm depending on which end you measure. As a result, one of the new products is a wardrobe that’s only 35 cm deep. I am looking forward to their next lineup, which will include a table whose legs can be removed quickly to beat your relatives senseless over the last tin of catfood, a bookcase that doubles as a coffin, and a range of products designed to be easily converted into firewood.
For some reason, London rugby league fans are Leeds-influenced – they sing Marching on Together and a version of We are Leeds..Rhinos. Keighley may have fucked up against Whitehaven, but the Keighley and Airedale GMB were next to us on the demo. Photos are here.
It was a fantastic day – like Jamie Kenny said about elections, this vast civic initiative just rolled out, a whole left-wing infrastructure lighting up in its bakelite console after all these years. Throw the right switches and things happen. My favourite quote was from the TGWU Widnes Road Transport shop steward: “We’re not smiling because it’s too serious to smile!” Smiling, of course. In that way it was like a Challenge Cup final day. Lots of chosen sportswear and finely checked shirts. And I still have no idea about the Scousers with the Polish flag.
And the tribal wars, of course. I saw more than one steward wearing a hi-viz vest from Unite that had been remarked to say “My other vest is a GMB” or something to that effect.
Eh, well. When are we coming back?
Shouldn’t Crowdsourced New York Apartment Pushing Limits actually be an Onion headline? Either that or the core of a new ResPublica/New School Network collaboration as the Big Society’s contribution to solving the housing crisis. We’ll crowdsource it! If everyone brings a brick, we’ll have…a pile of as many bricks as users who actually bothered showing up, that the two people who actually care about the project will have to use.
(Yes, I know this should be on Stable & Principled, but I’m trying to keep that blog Terribly Serious.)
Meanwhile, genuinely serious and interesting points on the same theme are made in this excellent piece on Park Hill in Sheffield and its redevelopment. It’s not as smash-mouth as Owen Hatherley would likely be, but it also makes the point that letting the squatters have their way with it was tried, effectively, and a lot of the work required on the building was basically making good the results. It also strikes me as a good point that it’s not, in fact, easier to run away from the scene of a crime on an access deck. Of course, the real point here is that as the society that built it crumbled, they stopped providing proper investigative policing to the people in it and started treating them as the object of mass public-order policing.
Red Plenty is a fictionalised history, or possibly a work of hard historical science fiction, which covers what it describes as the “fifties’ Soviet dream” but which might be better termed the Soviet sixties – the period from Khrushchev’s consolidation of power to the first crackdown on the dissidents and the intervention in Czechoslovakia. This is a big book in a Russian way – it’s always been a science-fiction prerogative to work with the vastness of space, the depth of history, and the wonder and terror of science and technology, but it’s also been fairly common that science-fiction has had a bit of a problem with people. The characters who re-fire the S-IVB main engine for translunar injection, with nothing but a survival pack of big ideas for use on arrival, tend to vanish in the cosmos. At its best, this has given the genre a disturbingly calm new perspective – chuck out your literary chintz, the rocket equation will not be fooled. At worst, well, OH NO JOHN RINGO.
Red Plenty covers a lot of big ideas, some serious hardware and even more serious software, and great swaths of the Soviet Union. But you will also need to be prepared to meet quite a lot of difficult but rewarding people, rather like the geneticist character Zoya Vaynshtayn does at the party Leonid Kantorovich’s students throw in Akademgorodok. In that sense, it has a genuinely Russian scale to it. The characters are a mixture of historical figures (as well as Kantorovich, you will spend some time in Nikita Khrushchev’s interior monologue), pure fictions, and shadow characters for some historical ones. (Emil Shaidullin roughly represents Gorbachev’s adviser Abel Aganbegyan; Vaynshtayn the historical geneticist Raissa Berg.)
So what are they up to?
Kantorovich, a central figure of the book, is remembered as the only Soviet citizen to win a Nobel Prize in economics, and the inventor of the mathematical technique of linear programming. As a character, he’s a sort of Soviet Richard Feynman – an egghead and expert dancer and ladies’ man, a collaborator on the nuclear bomb, and a lecturer so cantankerous his students make a myth of him. Politically, it’s never clear if he’s being deliberately provocative or completely naive, or perhaps whether the naivety is protective camouflage.
A major theme of the book is the re-creation of real science in the Soviet Union after the Stalinist era; biology has to start up afresh, economics has to do much the same, and everyone is working in a large degree of ignorance about the history of their fields. Some things simply can’t be restarted – as Spufford points out, despite all the compulsory Marxism-Leninism, even genetics hadn’t been erased as thoroughly as independent Marxist thought, and nobody in charge was willing to even think of opening that particular can of worms. On the other hand, the re-opening of economics as a field of study led to what the biologists would have called an adaptive radiation. Pioneers from engineering, maths, biology and physics began to lay spores in the new territory.
Comrades, let’s optimise!
The new ecosystem was known as cybernetics, which was given a wider meaning than the same word was in the West. Kantorovich’s significance in this is that his work provided both a theoretical framework and a critical technology – if the problem was to allocate the Soviet Union’s economic resources optimally, could it be possible to solve this by considering the economy as a huge system of linear production functions, and then optimising the lot? The idea had been tried before, in the socialist calculation debate of the 1920s, although without the same mathematical tools.
This is one of those events whose significance has changed a great deal over time. The question was whether it was possible for a planned economy to achieve an optimal allocation of resources. The socialists thought so; their critics held that it was impossible, and elaborated a set of criteria for optimal allocation very similar to the ones that are familiar as the standard assumptions in the economic theory of the firm in perfect competition. These days, it’s often presented as if this was a knockout argument. From the firm in perfect competition, we hop to Hayek’s idea that a market economy is better at making use of dispersed, implicit knowledge. Basta. We won.
The socialists weren’t without intellectual originality. In fact, they did actually formulate a mathematical rebuttal to the firm in perfect competition – the Lange model, which demonstrated that optimal allocation was a possibility in theory. The Hayekian critique wasn’t considered that great at the time – it was thought a much better point that the barrier to effective planning was a practical one, not a fundamental one. And even then, it was well known that the standard assumptions don’t, actually, describe any known economy. It would simply be impossible to process all the data with the technology available. Even with the new tools of linear optimisation, who was going to do all those sums, especially as the process is an iterative rather than a formal one? Stalin and Hitler had their own way of solving these arguments – no man, no problem – and the whole thing ended up moot for some time.
Computers: a technical fix
But if it had been impossible to run the numbers with pen and paper in 1920, or with Hollerith machines and input-output tables in 1940, what about computers in 1960? Computers could blast through millions of iterations for hundreds of thousands of production processes in tens of thousands of supply chains; computers were only likely to get better at it, too. Red Plenty is about the moment when it seemed that the new territory of cybernetics was going to give rise to a synthesis between mathematics, market-socialist thinking, and computing that would replace GOSPLAN and deliver Economics II: True Communism.
After all, by the mid-60s it was known that the enormous system of equations could be broken down into its components, providing that the constraints in each sub-system were consistent with the others. If each production unit had its own computer, and the computers in each region or functional organisation were networked, and then the networks were….were internetworked? In fact, the military was already using big computer networks for its command-and-control systems, borrowing a lot of ideas from the US Air Force’s SAGE; by 1964, there were plans for a huge national timesharing computer network, for both military and civilian use, as a horizontal system cutting across all the ministries and organisations. Every town would get a data centre.
The Economics Fairy Strikes Again
But, of course, it didn’t happen. There’s a good paper on the fate of the Soviet internetworkers here; Spufford has a fascinating document on the end of indigenous general-purpose computer development in the USSR here. Eventually, during the 1970s, it became increasingly obvious that the Soviet economy was not going to catch up with and outstrip anyone, let alone the United States, and the Austrian economists were retroactively crowned as having obviously been right all along, and given their own chance to fail. Spufford frames the story as a Russian fairytale; perhaps we can say that in fact, economics is the fairytale, or rather the fairy. Successive groups of intellectuals have fought their way through the stacks of books, past the ideological monsters, and eventually reached the fairy’s grotto, to be granted their greatest wish. And it’s always the same one – a chance to fail.
Why did the Soviet economists fail? Red Plenty gives a spectacular sweep through the Soviet economy as it actually was; from the workings of GOSPLAN, to the management of a viscose factory, to the world of semi-criminal side payments that actually handled the problems of day-to-day survival. In the 1990s, the descendants of one half of the socialist calculation debate swept into Russia as advisers paid by the Thatcher Foundation. Arriving on the fairy’s magic cloud, they knew little of how the Soviet economy worked in practice, and duly got their opportunity to fail. The GOSPLAN officials of the 60s were reliant on data that was both completely unreliable, being the product of political bargaining more than anything else, and typically slightly less than a year out of date. And the market socialists were just as reliant on the management of Soviet industry for the production cost data they needed to make sure all those budget constraints really were consistent.
That’s a technical explanation. But there are others available. Once communism was achieved the state was meant to wither away, and not many of the people in charge of it were at all keen on this as a pension plan. Without the power to intervene in the economy, what was the point of the Party, again? Also, what was that stuff about letting people connect computers to the telephone network and pass messages from factory to factory? Where will it end? The central government, the Politburo, GOSPLAN, STAVKA – they would never accept it.
Another, more radical, is that the eventual promise of Red Plenty was to render not so much the top of the pyramid, but the middle management, redundant. The rapid industrialisation had created a new management class who had every intention of getting rich and staying that way. (This was the Yugoslavs’ take on the Soviet Union – the new class had simply taken over from the capitalists.) What would happen to their bonuses, and their prerogative to control the planners by telling them what they wanted to hear?
And yet another is that the whole project was flawed. Even if it was possible to discern the economy’s underlying cost-structure, write the software, and optimise the whole thing, how would this system deal with dynamic economics? How would it allocate investment? How would it cope with technological change? It’s no help to point out that, in fact, a lot of the questions are nowhere near being solved in any economics.
One view of the USSR’s history is a succession of escape attempts. The NEP of the mid-20s, Nikolai Voznezhensky’s term at GOSPLAN in the 1940s, the Soviet 60s. Each saw a real effort to get away from a political economy which was in many ways a wild caricature of the Industrial Revolution, screwing down the labour share of income in order to boost capital investment and hence industrial output, answering any protest against this with the pistol of the state. As well as trying new economic ideas, they also saw surges of creativity in other fields. They were all crushed.
Arguably, you could say the same thing about perestroika. The people who signed the Alma-Ata protocol to arrange the end of the Soviet Union and the dismissal of Gorbachev were not, in fact, heroic dissidents, but rather career communist bureaucrats, some of whom went on to become their own little Stalins. Spufford says in the endnotes to Red Plenty that part of the book’s aim is a prehistory of perestroika – one view of the characters is that many of them are developing into the people who will eventually transform the country in the 1980s. Green politics was an important strand in the great dissident wave, right across the USSR and Central Europe; Zoya Vaynshteyn’s genetic research, which turns up some very unpleasant facts, is a case in point. Valentin, the programmer and cadre, is going to retain his self-image as a bohemian hacker into the future. Another Party figure in the book is the man who refuses to get used to violence, which will also turn out to be important in 1989.
Anyway, go read the damn book.
Adam Greenfield responds, and anyone who uses the BOAC speedbird as their avatar is probably worth listening to:
“But that becomes a political problem, something almost all geeks seem incapable of understanding, probably because its a social rather than a technical problem.”
Well, “geeks” may be incapable of understanding that, Cian, but that happens to be where we start. I mean, you guys’d know this if you actually bothered to look into what happens at a walkshop instead of taking the lazy way out and slagging it as a “kool kids” thing. The whole point, as far as I’m concerned, is to take a good close materialist look at how communities, institutions and individuals contest public space and the public sphere.
In this case, sure, the lens we’re using is technological. But the concerns predominantly have to do with accountability, agency and control, and the language is everyday. Come join us on a walkshop sometime and contribute your insight, and I think you’d be hard pressed to come away with any other conclusion.
I think what I’m getting at here is that in many ways, the power-relationships in our cities aren’t embedded in architecture some much as in software, as it were. Sometimes it really is software, too – the social services’ disastrous computer system that played a role in the death of Baby P, and did so by imposing a sort of dysfunctional and extreme-Taylorist workplace on the social workers, or the systems that allocate tax-credits and then sometimes demand repayments that essentially amount to the recipients’ entire economic surplus.
But it’s broader than that – it’s about people’s expectations, levels of economic security, and the strategies they adopt to cope with life. After all, everyone adapts in some way, it’s just that some local optimisations cut off more options than others.
It’s also about how institutions adapt to people; one difference between having visible, hardware favelas and having them in software is that it’s easier to think that it’s just another damn fool, or someone who is In Need of Care, although the flip is that it’s also easier just to adopt a hardware fix and build a fucking great wall…
Its walls are built out of predatory mortgage loans, rent-to-own contracts, payday lending, instant tax “refunds,” the repo man, the old-fashioned pawn shop, bait-and-switch debt consolidators and a rogues’ gallery of scam artists.
What Sunny said. One of the most depressing things about the Labour leadership candidates’ focus on The Very Real Concerns is that it enforces a deeply negative, ungenerous, and futile definition of what those Very Real Concerns are. If you’re concerned about – to be brutal – the labour share of national income, and how it might possibly nudge up a tad, about housing, about unions, about green issues, you’re out of luck. Your concerns are not Very Real ones.
These issues only get to the status of being Very Real if you can somehow work an immigrant in there. It’s a circular process – the Serious People are only interested in Very Real Concerns if the Concerns concern immigrants. Why? Because only concerns concerning immigrants are Very Real Concerns that interest Serious People.
Of course, this is probably because it’s hard to use a privatised immigration detention centre to build council houses. Once you’ve acquired certain skills, habits of mind, contacts, networks, etc, you will try to apply those solutions to everything. Part of the problem, of course, is that toughosity has a zero lower bound, a bit like the interest rate; there is no utopia of immigration detention.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level is a vigorous polemic for social democracy, something we’re probably in need of as the neo-liberals recover from the 2008 experience.
Unlike most such, this one is based on data – specifically, a whole battery of socioeconomic indicators that turn out to be strongly correlated with income inequality. In fact, the paperback comes with a handy table of the R-squareds and p-values of all the indicators used, which range across life expectancy, imprisonment per capita, patents issued per capita and much else. Everywhere, it seems, more egalitarian societies tend to do better.
This observation is rather more impressive than quite a bit of the book – there’s too much back-of-a-fag-packet neuroscience of the sort that actual neuroscientists run a mile to avoid about mirror neurons and such, as well as a fair bit of 1970s-ish romanticisation of the supposedly ideal status of hunter-gatherer societies. Steven Pinker’s work on the history of violence hasn’t landed here; in places it’s almost nostalgically sweet.
The data, however, speaks for itself. It’s true that quite a few of the charts derive a lot of their correlation from a few outliers, but the outliers invariably point to the same results – specifically the United States, which reliably turns out to have truly awful results for many, many tests – and also very high inequality. Similarly, there are a whole string of statistics that are driven by a group of post-Soviet states that turn out to be dramatically unhappy, conflicted, violent, unhealthy, etc for their level of income; of course, these societies underwent a historic explosion of inequality.
Many of the results have been checked by carrying out the same analyses with the 51 US states, which gives rise to the same conclusion and another crop of interesting outliers. The states of the Deep South are reliably terrible. They are highly unequal, and they get the effects – but they are far off to the top right of the trendline. In a sense, their marginal productivity in terms of inequality is unusually high – for every extra point on the Gini coefficient, they manage to produce a sharply higher degree of suffering than the national average.
On the other hand, there’s the importance of being urban. The more metropolitan the state, the less it suffers from the impact of inequality – New York has the social problems of the average, despite being very unequal. And there’s the Alaskan question.
The Alaskan question? Many people on the left are keen on the idea of a citizens’ basic income, and oddly enough, there is one territory with one in this study. Alaska, famously, distributes its oil revenues equally among the citizenry, and is therefore the most equal society in the United States. However, it also succeeds in being reliably among the worst on every other measure you can think of. Clearly, the statecraft of Sarah Palin must have some impact, but it’s equally clear that it can’t be the whole explanation.
Unless there is some huge missing factor that invalidates the whole data set, we have to consider that this particular basic income experiment has failed to deliver the benefits of equality. Alaska is, of course, a very special and atypical place – but it’s not that different to, say, Norway, another sparsely populated, mountainous, northern territory bordering on Russia whose economy is heavily influenced by oil and gas, forestry, fishing, and metals and whose government decided to take a radical approach to the oil revenues, and where a lot of people own guns. And Norway is both very egalitarian and reliably in the very top of all the metrics in The Spirit Level.
Perhaps the answer is precisely that the Alaskan basic income is free money? Despite all the stuff about mirror neurons, etc, etc, it seems that the trade secret of equality is – equality. It takes a long time for Wilkinson and Pickett to get to this, but the difference between handing out oil windfalls and real egalitarianism is that only one of them is founded on a different balance of power between classes. A lasting reduction of income inequality must be founded in a lasting reduction in the inequality of political power – otherwise it may not last, and it may not even have much effect.
Another interesting point is that changes in relative economic success among nations seem to have little effect on human happiness or security. Obviously, a total crash will do it. But once a certain threshold level of per-capita GDP is passed, Wilkinson and Pickett argue, pushing into the G8 doesn’t change much. They therefore argue that economic growth is useless. However, they then note that a whole range of their metrics, like life expectancy, do seem to go up a percentage point or two a year in the rich nations anyway. Which sounds a lot like growth.
It might be more accurate to say that growth relative to other industrialised states is not particularly important within the normal range of variation, although in absolute terms it is. However, the chart in question is quite heavily driven by the US outlier – which suggests that the costs of enough inequality will essentially swallow all your economic growth.
Eventually, the upshot of TSL is that the world, and especially China, needs trade unions.
I have some problems with “10:10”, the latest timebound big media campaign. The first one is symbols and aesthetics. They are handing out tags made of aluminium alloy cut out of a retired B737 down at Hurn. This is meant to be recycling, and wonderfully symbolic.
No. A superbly engineered artefact has been reduced to trinkets that will very likely go into landfill. Couldn’t they have made the bits into wind turbine blades, or solar stoves, or bicycle frames if you must, or even just wiggly tin roofing? Or something, at least? Instead, it’s a poster example of what Bill McKibben calls “downcycling”. And, of course, it’s the wrong bloody problem anyway; we could shut down aviation tomorrow and not meet the 10:10 goal, but lose fast international travel anywhere but a smallish chunk of Western Europe.
Another example; the climate campers apparently held a course on running a 12v power supply for a sound system, driven by someone pedalling. Well…engineering FAIL. If the only possible source of power is pedalling a bloody bike, wouldn’t it be better to keep the bike and the calories for transport? Would a stereo be a high priority then? Wouldn’t it be better to use the wind, the water, or the fire with a Sterling engine? In context, solar PV would be way out of the question. (I was pretty impressed by the edit your own sousveillance vids one, though.)
Not so sure about content, either. The Guardian is of course a biased source here; but they only found one person who wanted to build anything. An architect, of course. The front page coverage made me want to give up and buy a huge car; here’s blonde Daisy, 16 and mugging for 14, suggesting we “grow veg on the balcony”. Darling. Couldn’t they have found Keisha-Tigrette from Tottenham who wants to KILL OIL IN THE EAR? I think they probably couldn’t, and we’ll get to that later.
As with most British media green pushes, there’s little sign of any interest in anything physical or lasting. Not an inch of rockwool. Everything is about changing your behaviour, and specifically micro-behaviour – what you buy, or turning off lights, not how you work or where you live or how society works. Worse, it’s a demand for entirely free-floating behavioural change – nobody seems to be suggesting any way of monitoring or measuring the change, or any incentives. This isn’t going to work. And, again, it’s all consumer guff.
The problem with consumer guff is that it’s a limited way of approaching the problem. It’s arguable whether or not investment is the defining value in the macro-economy – it’s pretty clear that it’s crucial to the climate/energy position. It is defined by the stuff we build. And further, without any mechanism to keep up to it, nothing is more evanescent than promises to do better. It doesn’t even take backsliding to break them; what if you lose your job, and have to move somewhere where you need to commute 40 miles to work? Alas poor 10% saved by being nicer.
It’s tough, however, to suck insulation out of the walls; this is one of the reasons I’m keen on retrofits as an alternative to winter fuel payments. The Tories can’t take them away once they’re done.
My third problem is this: where is the optimism? Everyone’s talking about demog-friendly nostalgia for rationing that the demographic in question doesn’t remember. That’s not a sacrifice; woodbines, box at the Empire, sixpence, yadda yadda. Nobody is saying: Let’s do BETTER this time. Let’s build something BIGGER and SHINY and DRAMATIC and FANTASTIC and OUTRAGEOUS that doesn’t just meet a 10% target but SMASHES it.
Where is the future in all this? What kind of a future is it? How are we meant to be full of confidence and aggression without it?
Actually there are some other options, chiefly RAGE and HATRED. No sign of them, either; but identifying an enemy is the oldest motivator in the book. There’s no sign of a stinking mob hunting British Gas fatcats or an army of Rosie the Riveters basting Vladimir Putin like a turkey with their sealant guns. Why the hell not? We have enemies – why not make the most of them. I bet Keisha would be delighted to have King Abdullah and the CEO of Exxon burned in effigy, or perhaps just burned…after the block gets superinsulated.
Unfortunately, we’re relying on self-righteousness as the driving emotion; not optimism (shorthand: lust), not greed, not rage, not hatred. Mind you, it is clearly an infinitely renewable resource, just like stupidity.
And while I’m on the point, where are the workers in this? Who’s monitoring what exactly the council, or the diddly-dee semi-privatised thingy organisation, does when they refurbish the estate? Does anyone care about the “fuel poor” if they can’t offer them a cash handout just before the elections?
There is, actually, a powerful response to some of this. That is: 10:10 looks a bit like a vacuous PR stunt because it’s a PR stunt. The aim is to influence the deliberatiwoos in Copenhagen. Superistical. Das ist gut so. But this done, treaty signed, etc, we’ve got to go implement. With the North Sea gas running down, we’ve got to do that quicksmart anyway.
So, you ask, where are my positive proposals? The D-word? Well, I’m interested to hear what anyone else thinks about a campaign for an answer to climate and energy issues that points forward, that leans left, and that isn’t based on whose-kid-are-you media bullshit. I’m planning to squirt sealant into every corner of my own place before this winter, too.
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