Punishment by politics

February 28, 2013

The elec­tions in Italy reveal a crisis in lead­er­ship. Wolfgang Mün­chau blames Mario Monti’s defeat on a lack of polit­ical real­ism — code for cyn­icism. Paul Krug­man blames it not just on Monti but on a European élite — or ‘Very Ser­i­ous People’.

in Europe even more than in the US the Very Ser­i­ous People live in a bubble of self-regard at their own ser­i­ous­ness, and ima­gine that the gen­eral pub­lic will fol­low their lead — hey, it’s the only respons­ible thing to do.

As a mem­ber of an organ­iz­a­tion that brings together people in lead­er­ship roles, an activ­ity that attracts blame from Mr Krug­man, I can per­haps offer a dif­fer­ent perspective.

There is a chal­lenge to lead­er­ship in the world today. And that chal­lenge is us. The exten­sion of edu­ca­tion, and the priv­ilege of escap­ing the needs of our grand­par­ents, have left us more power­ful than ever as indi­vidu­als, but — as indi­vidu­als — isolated.

Like James Frazer’s sac­red kings, we want lead­ers we can sac­ri­fice or scape­goat. Democracy’s par­tic­u­lar bene­vol­ence is that it removes the guil­lot­ine from the pro­cess of dis­pos­ing of them. But the tasks of ‘hold­ing office’ remain bey­ond the bal­lot box. The respons­ib­il­it­ies we want to abrog­ate our actu­ally our own. The vehicles for col­lect­ive deliv­ery are numer­ous: our employ­ers, the cor­por­a­tions we pur­chase from, the fran­chise we exer­cise, the tax­a­tion we pay.

Do we work in silent acqui­es­cence? Do we buy what we don’t need? Do we vote our interest? Do we pay as little in taxes as pos­sible? Yes. But we tell ourselves that these are private fail­ings, that their col­lect­ive sum is not our responsibility.

The world we exper­i­ence is not an aggreg­ate of our indi­vidual acts of com­mis­sion and omis­sion. It is a place where those with more status, or money, or power are to blame. And don’t think for one minute that those we blame are not in turn uniquely aware of those to blame above them, or bey­ond their own bubble.

Des­pite advances in med­ical know­ledge, there are still corners of the world where dis­ease is blamed on witch­craft. Des­pite the explan­at­ory powers of mod­ern eco­nom­ics, there are still people wish­ing to look for someone or some group to burn, if only — for the moment — figuratively.

This is Beppe Grillo, the sur­prise anti-politics suc­cess of the Italian election:

We haven’t been aware that this is a gen­er­a­tional war …What makes me feel really ill are the mil­lions of people that have been stay­ing afloat in the crisis, that have just been mar­gin­ally affected by the crisis, that have man­aged to just get by to the det­ri­ment of the other lot of mil­lions of people that can­not go on any more. Italy’s prob­lem is this set of people. And as long as the salar­ies and the pen­sions of these people are not at risk it’s fine to immob­il­ise the coun­try. But this won’t last long. This situ­ation won’t last long at all.

How­ever ready we are to fall vic­tim to our own cog­nit­ive biases, pun­ish­ing people is not good polit­ics, and nor will it ever be good economics.


I remem­ber as an under­gradu­ate won­der­ing why — with so many applic­ants — were trainee invest­ment bankers so well paid?

The answer of course is that invest­ment bank­ing remu­ner­a­tion had broken free from the petty eco­nomic tyranny of “sup­ply and demand” and was not being driven down by an over-supply of poten­tial recruits.

As Jonathan Schle­fer noted, “Mar­kets do not determ­ine income inequal­ity. It is fun­da­ment­ally a social decision.”

Now we have an argu­ment going on between eco­nom­ists about auto­ma­tion and jobs. Keynes’ bio­grapher, Robert Skidel­sky, presents it here. It is not really an eco­nomic argument.

Keynes had got there first anyway:

[T]here is no coun­try and no people, I think, who can look for­ward to the age of leis­ure and of abund­ance without a dread … To judge from the beha­viour and the achieve­ments of the wealthy classes to-day in any quarter of the world, the out­look is very depress­ing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spy­ing out the prom­ised land for the rest of us and pitch­ing their camp there.

Keynes meant, of course, that wealthy people have to keep them­selves occu­pied. They are the apex pred­at­ors of point­less­ness. For every Henry Cav­endish, lav­ish­ing an inher­ited for­tune on sci­entific research and the pur­suit of know­ledge, there were many more of his wealthy con­tem­por­ar­ies spend­ing their time and money breed­ing horses for the track. This is his “advance guard”.

Extreme wealth in the eight­eenth cen­tury was a func­tion of fam­ily, land and inher­it­ance. The social pro­cesses that allowed such accu­mu­la­tions were com­plex, but the found­a­tions of the Cav­endish for­tune were so secure that a Cav­endish remains a bil­lion­aire and Britain’s wealth­i­est landowner.

The less occupy­ing stay­ing wealthy is, the more leis­ure they have. But prob­lems arise when the social and legal under­pin­ning of this wealth is called into ques­tion, as — for example — in the United States where the south’s agri­cul­tural eco­nomy was based on slavery.

The suc­cess of the mar­ket in com­bin­ing com­plex­ity and cus­tom to dis­trib­ute rewards by a seem­ingly “invis­ible hand” also dis­trib­utes pen­al­ties to those unable to take advant­age of either. The mit­ig­a­tion for those pen­al­ties has been the wel­fare system.

But the real­ity of mod­ern labour is that it is a “mean­ing provid­ing” social insti­tu­tion, and that oppor­tun­it­ies to act mean­ing­fully within a corporation/institution are what most jobs provide. The prob­lem of unem­ploy­ment becomes not that one can­not sur­vive (hard tough it may be), but that one is deprived of mean­ing­ful par­ti­cip­a­tion in society.

The prob­lem of jobs becomes: How do we dis­trib­ute mean­ing? And that is not just a social but a psy­cho­lo­gical and philo­soph­ical chal­lenge for which we seem, as yet, ill-prepared.


Ten days before my wed­ding, Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school and killed sev­en­teen people, six­teen of them very young children.

The media des­cen­ded. I des­cen­ded. I was film­ing an hour or so away and arrived on the scene as shattered par­ents waited for news, and local TV news crews slung their cam­eras, unsure as to whether or not to film. I was sure. Film first, decide later. Our job as tele­vi­sion journ­al­ists was to bear witness.

We won awards for the cov­er­age that day. Not awards given by rel­at­ives or view­ers, but those given by our fel­low tele­vi­sion journ­al­ists. The hos­til­ity of local people, look­ing for someone to curse, was palp­able. The curi­os­ity of every­one else in the coun­try, around the world, unquenchable.

My wife-to-be arrived too. She was a tele­vi­sion journ­al­ist. In the next couple of days she was a reg­u­lar at the police brief­ings. She got to know the Super­in­tend­ent in charge of the scene. He was wor­ried that the fam­il­ies and the com­munity needed space away from news crews and note­pads. She sug­ges­ted that he ask news chiefs to quietly pull back. And so they did.

It wasn’t the kind of thing to take credit for, and she’s never asked for any or received any, and I — clumsy idiot that I am — made it the sub­ject for our first argu­ment of mar­ried life.

And — being, to this day, both clumsy and an idiot — I still think it was the wrong thing to do. I think the only thing that makes our post-modern soci­ety a soci­ety is shar­ing stor­ies and telling stor­ies, be they of tragedy or cel­eb­ra­tion. As John Donne wrote: “Each man’s death dimin­ishes me, for I am involved in man­kind.” And we — journ­al­ists — we are the tolling bell.

But my wife dis­agreed. And she still dis­agrees. And she won the day.


If you were drown­ing, you might not cel­eb­rate the lack of appet­ite amongst the sharks in the ocean in which were sub­merged. But the Leveson report is out and to read what is left of Britain’s national news­pa­per industry put forth, between the gulps of sea water, there were hearty cheers. Or per­haps they were just bubbles. Still, for­get the media reac­tion, recall what David Cameron said when he announced the inquiry:

[T]here are three pil­lars to this. There is the issue of police cor­rup­tion, there is the issue of what happened at the media, and there are also ques­tions for politi­cians past, present and future.

Let’s say, for the pur­poses of dis­cus­sion, that you had a media out­let which bought inform­a­tion cor­ruptly for enter­tain­ment, whose own­ers and/or exec­ut­ives could provide free polit­ical advert­ising to buy favour or scare off crit­ics, and which traded all of that for com­mer­cial advant­age for other properties…

Any inquiry might be expec­ted to tackle the issues under­ly­ing these rela­tion­ships: the social, tech­no­lo­gical and legal factors that might affect them.

Well Leveson didn’t. And the press, so anxious to put them­selves at the centre of the story, missed the fact that they were not all in the dock together, with the police and the politicians…