Monday, March 2, 2009

Layer 130 . . . The Spirit Level, The Decisive Moment, and the Bankers

Start The Week this morning featured a book called The Spirit Level, by Wilkinson & Picket.

Its thesis is that societies which are more equal are healthier. Sweden, Norway, Japan, etc. They have better mental health, less violence, less bullying, less obesity, less crime, smaller prison populations, less teenage pregnancy.

Societies like ours suffer from high levels of “status competition and status anxiety”. And high levels of status consumption.

We therefore have more debt, and more bankruptcies,

We must look again at issues of equality and values. What is the good life? Material standards? More time for contact with families and friends, for proper relaxation, for personal creative pursuits?

The rich must in future pay a greater percentage in taxes.

All of this is well and good, but I think it’s already been written about by Oliver James in ‘Affluenza’, a brilliant book which I'll return to. A real must-read book.


This week’s Book of the Week on Radio 4 is The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind, by Jonah Lehrer.

Here’s a review in the New Scientist:

And another in The Guardian last Saturday:

The Guardian quite cleverly reviews the book alongside another called The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, by Ken Robinson & Lou Aronica.

Weirdly, though, this review never refers to the word “passion”, which is surely the crux of the matter. The problem for all these authors is that they can’t or don’t differentiate between passion, emotion, instinct and intuition.

“Emotions are a crucial part of the decision-making process”, says Lehrer, and it’s true that reactions such as fight, flight and freeze, which appear on the surface of things to be emotions, are key determiners of how we behave. But if we look more closely, we ought to realise that those reactions are part of our instinctual, not our emotional, behaviour. Emotions are primarily negative and stem from our social interactions - anger, greed, jealousy, etc.

Emotions are negative elements that arise from un-intelligence. Emotional intelligence consists of getting a conscious and rational grip on them, and not letting them control us. There’s nothing “intelligent” about emotions, as such - quite the opposite. Emotional intelligence arises from calmness, objectivity, restraint of the ego, and in many cases control of the instincts that are urging us towards fight or flight - although those instincts can be life-savers in certain situations.

It’s so annoying when people talk about and write books about the importance of “emotions” and “instincts” when they actually mean “intuition” and “empathy” and “passion”.

Lehrer says, “When the emotional centres in the brain are damaged or removed, mundane choices become excruciatingly difficult,” when he’s probably talking about the removal of the intuitive and empathetic centres.

He says, for example, “Shooting a film with a multi-camera set-up, as a director you don’t have time to carefully consider each decision - it’s all very instinctual - you just know how things should go”. Which is partly true, in the sense that decision-making by skilled practitioners becomes automatic from practice and experience - but he then goes and spoils it by saying “It all depends on the emotional brain.” No it doesn’t - it’s about memory, learning from experience, and about instinct and intuition. Nothing to do with flaming emotions!

“The process of thinking requires feeling,” he says, which is also true, but again he’s using ‘feeling’ as a synonym for ‘emotion’, which it isn’t. Or rather - it is, because it’s become that, in our dumb society, but it shouldn’t be!

“Reason without emotion is impotent.” Again, no! We can do very nicely without emotion. What we need in order to be potent, and to be effective, is instinct, intuition, passion and empathy, together with a well-developed intellect, and all of them working together harmoniously, preferably during periods of ‘meditation’ or reflection, rather than under pressure during an emergency.


Andrew Rawnsley wrote an excellent column in yesterday’s Observer:

These bankers are lucky that they are not going to jail.

The government has been too timid about confronting these failed financiers. It's time that it showed some teeth.

Assuming it is out of the question to hang, draw and quarter Sir Fred Goodwin, pluck out his intestines while they are still warm and wriggling, stuff them into his greedy mouth and then display his severed head on a spike at the Tower of London, could we settle for shooting him instead? Yes, I know, I'm going soft.

Politicians can use whatever adjectives they like to deplore this banker and his wretched ilk for demanding gargantuan rewards for abject failures. The issue is, what is to be done about it? Bankers are hated by the voters, universally pilloried in the media and their excesses have been condemned by every political party from the SWP to the BNP and all points between. And yet still they don't give a damn.

Exhortation and condemnation is wasted breath unless it is accompanied by action. Even though the bankers are now supplicants to the taxpayer, the government is still showing them far too much reverence. Having been in thrall to the erstwhile masters of the universe for a generation, the political class has still not entirely shed its deference to the fallen money changers.

Even though the banking system is now effectively nationalised, Gordon Brown wants to keep his distance from managing it. That leaves the government with responsibility while still being highly hesitant about exercising control.

Ministers mutter that contractual obligations make it all very difficult. Yet it should not be beyond the capacity of the politicians to cut through the legal thicket. This is one of the advantages of being the government: if the law is an ass, you can change it. Had RBS been any other sort of business, it would now be bust. But for the billions poured in by the taxpayer, this bank would be kaput. There would be no pension honey pot for Sir Fred to stick his paw in. If the law is the problem with stopping him, then the law can be changed.

The voters have seen things more clearly. Their fury with the feckless financiers has cut through the complexities that fog the minds of ministers. The bankers behaved with an arrogant recklessness which broke their own businesses and devastated large sections of the economy.

Now they are getting bailed out with everyone else's money. Bankers should be grateful if they still have a job and relieved that they have not been lynched. They should not be slurping up enormous bonuses and vast pensions. End of story.

The politicians have lacked the clarity of that anger. Even after the bankers had wrecked the financial system, ministers were hesitant about putting them in their place.

If Sir Fred was bothered about what everyone thought of him, he would have long ago left the country to live the rest of his life caring for the destitute of Mongolia. Men like Fred the Shred do not feel shame. They feel only for their wallets.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Barack Obama has had a clearer eye about what he is dealing with, and therefore a firmer grasp of what needs to be done. The president, being new to office and of a younger generation than Gordon Brown, is not trapped by the past compromises with casino capitalism which were made by the prime minister and other centre-left leaders of his vintage. Obama did not hesitate. He crisply told bankers that their salaries would be capped and that they could forget about pocketing any more bonuses until the taxpayers had got their money back.

In his speech a few days ago to both houses of Congress, the new president gave a compelling and unflinching account of the vices of the bubble years. "The fact is our economy did not fall into decline overnight," he told America. "We have lived through an era where too often short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity." He used the pulpit of the presidency to tell his people that they had arrived at a "day of reckoning".

I recommend that the prime minister watches Obama's address to Congress. That succeeded because he gave a candid account of what went wrong during the bubble years and that allowed him to be persuasive about how it can be put right. How does Gordon Brown follow that? He could do a lot worse than copy it.


Charlie Brooker’s column is better than ever today, cynical, funny and very angry, and relates to what I was saying in Layer 129 about people waking up to reality. It also sits with what Andrew Rawnsley is saying about bankers and politicians. Here’s a couple of Charlie quotes:

It's all over. The politicians have finally shut us out of their game for good and we have nowhere left to turn. We're not part of their world any more. We don't even speak the same language. We're the ants in their garden. The bacteria in their stools. They have nothing but contempt for us. They snivel and lie and duck questions on torture - on torture, for Christ's sake - while demanding we respect their authority. They monitor our every belch and fart, and insist it's all for our own good.

Straw wrote, "If people were angels there would be no need for government . . . But sadly people are not all angels." That rather makes it sound as though he believes politicians aren't mere people. Maybe they're the gods of Olympus. Maybe that's why they're in charge.

Thing is, they could get away with this bullshit while times were good, while people were comfortable enough to ignore what was happening; when people were focusing on plasma TVs and iPods and celebrity gossip instead of what the politicians were doing - not because they're stupid, but because they know a closed shop when they see one. But now it looks as if those times are at an end, and more and more of us are pulling the dreampipes from the back of our skulls, undergoing a negative epiphany; blinking into the cold light of day.

Consequently the police are preparing for a "summer of rage". To the powers that be, that probably just means more tiny monochrome blobs jumping up and down on the long-distance monitor for their amusement. Should it turn out to be more visceral than that, they'll have no one to blame but themselves.


Gary Young’s column today is one of his very best:

It's about to get nasty: time for Obama's movement to get moving.
On Monday he held a bipartisan fiscal summit where he pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term. On Tuesday he addressed both houses of Congress for the first time, promising the nation: "We will recover, we will rebuild." On Thursday he produced a budget that set out to redistribute wealth, heal the sick and save the planet. On Friday he stopped the war. On Saturday he threw down the gauntlet to special interests and lobbyists. And on the seventh day he rested.

In the course of a regular presidency, any one of these might be seen as a bold project. To tackle them all in one term seems ambitious to the point of foolhardiness. To announce them all in one week lies somewhere between the audacity of hope and the pugnacity of hubris.

But then this is no regular presidency - a function not just of the man but the times. "You never let a serious crisis go to waste," his chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, told reporters after the election. And this crisis is serious.

This is the planet’s only real hope - that Obama uses the Shock Doctrine against its originators, and moves very quickly to change the things that need changing. As described above, he’s certainly not hanging around.

Domestically he has committed himself to a paradigm-shifting budget that marks a decisive break with more than a generation of neoliberal policies. The notion that taxes can go up as well as down, that the government has the ability and duty to do good, and that tackling inequality has moral values challenge the core assumptions that have dominated political culture in London and Washington for almost three decades. It is an agenda that Labour had a mandate to deliver - and wasted.

Those who point to the troop surge and recent elections in Iraq as evidence that the invasion was a success are trying to put lipstick on a pig that has been slaughtered, gutted and turned into chops. The war has killed more than 1 million Iraqis and caused 4 million to flee their homes - half displaced internally and half externally. It has strengthened Iran in the region and created a generation of Islamic fundamentalists worldwide. On every front, by its own tawdry standards, it has been an unmitigated disaster. Its failure is not just humiliating for America's neocons, militarists and Republicans but for the useful idiots who gave them cover, including the British government.

Bush certainly broadened and sharpened disdain for US foreign policy and mobilised huge numbers against it. But he did not invent American imperialism, he just revealed its limits. Those who claim he tarnished America's great reputation abroad were apparently unaware that in vast swaths of Central and South America, the Middle East (with the exception of Israel), the Arab world, and parts of Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, it was already pretty grubby.

Obama's budget is a different matter entirely. Its signature elements involve tax increases on families earning more than $250,000 (£175,000), the introduction of a universal healthcare system, an economy-wide carbon-trading system, and grants for low-income students. In short, it intends to address the growing inequalities in American society.

Conservatives are in ideological retreat and organisational disarray. The system they cherish - capitalism - is collapsing around their ears and taking their mantras with it.

The left is better organised than it has been since the 1960s. It has a popular president, controls both houses of Congress, has a grassroots presence and - thanks to eight years of Bush - fire in its belly. A group of leftwing bloggers, unions and other activists have just teamed up to form a leftwing pressure group within the Democratic party. The blogosphere has done for the left what talk radio did for the right in the 1990s - provided the base with a platform and organising potential to put pressure on its leadership.

This week was busy - the weeks to come may also get nasty.


Jackie Ashley’s column is also worth a read:

The parties must end this mood of confusion and drift.

On all sides there is everything to fight for. The dominance of the City types is over, and ideology matters again..

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