Let’s Just Be Against Stuff, Shall We?

  • If we don’t agree with the politics then we must be against the policies, mustn’t we?
  • If the idea comes from the bosses, then the workers need to oppose it, don’t they?
  • If the council propose cuts, then we should fight them, shouldn’t we?

Well, actually, no.

Sometimes I do choose to be ‘against stuff’, particularly if it meets some or all of the following criteria:

  1. It will involve investing public money to further increase the gap between the rich and poor.
  2. It puts at unwarranted risk a vital organisation or service.
  3. It means committing to a course of action that cannot be escaped.

The first of these will always get me into opposition mode!  And sadly most of what we call ‘development’ in a modern city meets this criteria.   The pursuit of GDP means finding ways to provide services, usually retail and entertainment, to people with disposable income, at a profit for investors.  Usually this criterion is quite easy to apply.  And as soon as a proponent of ‘stuff’ calls ‘trickle down’ into the debate than you can be pretty sure that your opposition is well founded.

The second of these is harder to apply.  It is more personal and subjective.  After all what constitutes an ‘unwarranted risk’?  And which services are ‘vital’?

Let’s deal with ‘vital’ first.  I usually do a little thought experiment.  I think about the service users and try to empathise with some of the least powerful amongst them.  I now go on to ask myself ‘Is it likely that any of them would put this organisation or service close to the top of their list of essential services?  If the service was lost would their life be forever blighted, or could another service substitute?  Can they find another way to fill the gap?’

This is why I will get exercised over policies that impact on health, financial inclusion and education for example, but get less exercised, although sympathetic, about the shutting of libraries, the banning of hunting with dogs and closing swimming pools.  There are other ways to access books, if access to books is the priority.  There are other ways to exercise and socialise. And there are greater causes competing for my time than the modern day barbarity that is hunting.  It is also why I can’t get overly exercised about communities building tree-houses, unless they are affordable housing!

Unwarranted risk is trickier.  Subjective.  Personal.

Here I do another thought experiment (if they worked for Einstein…..:-)) and try to assess the consequences of a ‘false positive’ compared with the consequences of a ‘false negative’.  A ‘false negative’ is when we decide not to pursue a course and it later seems to be a wrong decision.  So, if we decide not to build nuclear and we all end up dying in cold, dark caves, that would be a ‘false negative’.  If, on the other hand, we go nuclear and end up frying in a  radioactive hell – that would be a ‘false positive’.

Now it strikes me that with coalition ‘healthcare reforms’ that Cameron and Clegg both reckoned that Lansley was about to press the button on a ‘false positive’ when a ‘false negative’ would be a much better option.  Hence the listening exercise.  Of course, ideally the world would be full of ‘true negatives’ and ‘true positives': we would only ever make right decisions.

It is sad that more politicians don’t feel like it might be electorally acceptable to say ‘we are just going to leave it be’ from time to time.

And my 3rd criterion is that of generally, but not always, opposing a step that can’t be undone.  Burning the boats may have worked for Cortez  but as a rule of thumb it is not for me.  Engineering a situation where people are compelled to push forward with a policy once it is enacted whatever the consequences rarely turns out well.

So these are the guidelines that I use when deciding whether to be against stuff. Far from perfect, but they work well enough for me.

However I try not to be against very, much at all.

If my criteria leave room for doubt then I will ‘leave it be’.  A ‘false negative’ is often better than a ‘false positive’ in my experience.  Choosing not to object at all is better than deciding to object to something that you are not deeply committed about.

I prefer instead to be ‘for stuff’ wherever I can.

Especially stuff that will narrow the gaps between rich and poor in our society.  But also stuff that will be fun, engaging, creative and challenging.

And usually when I choose to be against stuff it is because it steals resources away from the things that I would like to see happen.

Comments

  1. I think your ‘further widening the gap between rich and poor’ point is interesting, but problematic in practice.

    Take your retail/leisure development example. It is going to widen the gap between richest and poorest, because although it will create more jobs, most will be low paid jobs and all the evidence suggests that the returns to capital from a project like this will be greater than the returns to labour, so although people who were unemployed who get a job will be better of, those who invested in the project will be better off by a larger amount so inequality will increase.

    But…

    At a time of high unemployment, these types of projects deliver more jobs, reduce unemployment and increase the income and wellbeing of those who get these jobs (and all the evidence suggests it would do these things), while also reducing inequality between those at the bottom of the income distribution and those in the middle (a more meaningful measure of social inclusion/exclusion than the gap between the bottom and top) then I can’t see how this is a bad thing. Indeed, I think it morally ambiguous to say that we shouldn’t do something that has lots of positive effects because it fails on a single criteria of narrowing the gap between the bottom and the top.

    Indeed, given the current political economy in which we find ourselves, where capital tends to get a bigger share of rents from a new project (be that a factory or a shopping centre) I’m not sure there is any form of new business development that would meet your first criteria. Which raises the question of what government should do instead of giving businesses incentives to invest in new facilities in areas of high unemployment?

    • Perhaps get out of the game of incentivising businesses entirely Andy?
      Make it easy for business to do its stuff but demand that it generate financial, environmental and social benefits. But don’t subsidise it. Not if it can be avoided.
      How we choose to measure rich/poor, have and have nots, which quartiles we choose to mind the gap between and how we calculate averages gets us back into the old economics. I am talking about a more visceral set of judgements that I try to make, head and heart engaged.
      Development aimed at stimulating micro-enterprise that helps those with little or no access to land or capital, with few rentable assets other than their own skills and potential, to find their own good work. This is the work of Alinsky, Freire and Dewey. Not the work of the economist.
      ‘All ships rising’ but with the rich ships rising faster than the rest is not going to end well.
      In some haste, and with thanks for your thoughtful challenge!

  2. Sounds lovely, but in practice, if we try your model, don’t we end up with an economy based mainly on taxi drivers, take-aways, hairdressers and transfer payments in the form of benefits from the South East?

    • Isn’t this the economy that we have already Andy? I personally have nothing against the idea of a free-agent and micro-enterprise nation. I also believe that while many may want to remain ‘micro-enterprise’ and ‘life style’ a proportion will go on to be growth businesses and will stick around in the local economy.

      Wasn’t it Peter Drucker that said you cant have the mountain top without the mountain? Much of current economic development builds ‘castles in the air’ to mix metaphors horribly….

  3. And if you want to ignore the standard tools of economic analysis, how is one to resolve a situation where I am in favour of something because I have a strong gut feeling it will reduce inequality, while you are opposed to it because you have a visceral belief that it will worsen inequality?

    • I am not arguing that we ignore ‘the standard tools of economic analysis’ although we should definitely put them back in the box every once in while! Standard tools of economic analysis have got us to this position. Can they take us forward to a sustainable economy? I am not convinced.

      If you can put forward a logic chain that says new shopping centres are the way forward for a fairer city then I will be all ears. Where we have an impasse based on the evidence (and usually we can supply evidence to support both sides of almost any argument) I want brave and wise civic leadership to make bold decisions. It might be time to risk the right ‘false positives’.

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