Monday, 18 November 2013

Norman Geras (1943-2013)

I recently learned of the death of Norman Geras, whose obituary is here.

Norman was a pivotal influence on me, intellectually and politically. In the book (pp. 11-12) I mention how as an undergraduate at Manchester University in the 1980s I switched from studying Economics to studying Political Philosophy. Norman taught me 'Modern Political Philosophy' and introduced me to the works of Marx and Weber amongst other authors. He subsequently encouraged me to do a PhD and at that time we had many conversations and arguments.

He was a big man in all senses of the word: physically imposing, intellectually forceful. But he was incredibly generous to me - generous with his time, generous in relation to my naivety - and he taught me, both in classes and outside, both in content and approach, much that I still live with. It is no exaggeration to say that, had it not been for him, I would never have become an academic; there would have been no book for this blog; and so no blog of this book.

I am sure that for him the encounters we had were entirely ephemeral, but for me they were formative. These kind of things are the invisible part of academic careers and of teaching, but they are so important. Unmeasured by quality assurance systems, unknown in performance evaluations, these are the invisible 'gift relationships' of teaching.

When I knew him, Norman was one of the most important and original thinkers about Marx and Marxists. His books on Marx and Human Nature and on Rosa Luxemburg remain classics. In more recent years he became associated with the Euston Manifesto group with which I vehemently disagreed. But I will never forget or cease to be grateful for what he taught and gave me - freely but preciously - when I was his student, why, over 25 years ago now.

Dealing with disaster

The catastrophe of the Philippines typhoon has, like all disasters in the media age, been played out on our TV screens nightly*. That it is a natural catastrophe sharpens and simplifies our moral sense of it, perhaps because unlike those associated with war, such as in Syria, it is more easily understood as something where we can take sides. That is, we can readily empathise with, and side with, those who have had their lives destroyed because the causes of that destruction seem random and so there is no fault attached to them. Of course that is also true of the refugees from the war in Syria but the war itself is something that seems for many of us morally ambiguous and complex, and its solutions intractable. A natural disaster invites an emotionally and morally more simple response. Around the edges (climate change, governmental response) there is a politics, but its core seems to be, to use that peculiarly quaint term from insurance policies, an ‘Act of God’.

I happen to have a Philippino neighbour, who was much moved by the fact that the British people have this week donated some £33M** to the relief effort and that the British government have sent military resources to assist it. Thinking about this I was struck by something. When a major catastrophe strikes, the assistance is delivered bureaucratically and via command-and-control organizations. The UK relief effort was co-ordinated by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), the very name of which straightforwardly speaks its purpose and bespeaks of a kind of bureaucratic traditionalism (a ‘committee’ no less, not even a task force), whilst the military response is delivered by the most traditional of hierarchies.

What is notably absent in such situations is any recourse to networked organizations, values and vision workshops, key performance indicators, quality assurance mechanisms, charismatic leadership or anything else from the sorry lexicon of contemporary managerialism. When something serious happens, we simply don’t need or want these things. But if this is so, perhaps we don’t need or want them at all?

In the same way that natural catastrophes clarify our emotional and moral priorities, perhaps they also serve to clarify our organizational ones?

* I notice that this week there has been a Philippino reader of this blog. Good wishes to you.
** By contrast the first two days of the DEC Appeal for Syria raised £3.4M and has to date raised £23M.

Friday, 1 November 2013

More on power

This issue of how to organize electricity generation and supply is a pressing and controversial one across the globe, from Turkey to Nigeria to India to the USA, and it is at the top of the political agenda in the UK, where the cost of electricity is a hot issue. I heard the government’s energy minister, Ed Davey, interviewed the other day and he was talking about all sorts of complicated measures he had in mind to make the energy market work, including a state-funded network of advisors, state rebates for the most vulnerable and so on. And of course his central idea is about switching between providers - but that is absurd because the big energy companies offer more or less the same prices and because what is the best deal when you sign up will, possibly within a few hours, be a poor deal - and yet typically you are locked into it. Or, if not, then you have to engage in constant market scanning and switching. This is an aspect of the paradox of choice, discussed in the book (p.75).

All these absurd gyrations arise from the refusal to acknowledge a basic truth - electricity supply is a textbook natural monopoly and, as such, the most efficient way to run it is through state provision. That refusal exists as much in the opposition Labour Party, which has proposed a price freeze, as in the government.  It's pointless to blame the electricity companies - the scope they have to compete in the way that, say, supermarkets do is virtually nil, even if they were minded to (and why should they be - as Adam Smith observed long ago, markets do not work on the basis of charity or, as we might nowadays say, social responsibility and we should not expect them to). That comparison is an instructive one: no one thinks that to make the supermarkets be competitive we have to have community advisors, rebates for the poor, complicated rules about switching, statutory requirements to offer the best deal and a government regulator because (whatever one thinks of supermarkets) all that consumers have to do if they are not satisfied is do their next shop somewhere else. With many caveats it more or less works as a market.

This week, the big six electricity suppliers were called to the British parliament, accused of price fixing, because they all more or less simultaneously announce more or less similar price rises. Their defence was that their price rises were because almost all their costs – the wholesale electricity price and taxes – are beyond their control. But if we turn that round, it also means that they cannot compete on price. So what else might they compete on? In most markets it would be product quality and product innovation, but that too is impossible: electricity is just electricity, so there is no way of offering ‘really good electricity’. For the same reason, they can’t even compete on brand image: no one would think there was something especially worthwhile about electricity from, say, E-On as opposed to EDF, would they?

So electricity (like other utilities such as gas and water) simply does not and cannot a function as a competitive market. By pretending otherwise we have to bear all the costs of an entirely ineffective regulatory system in order to pay both in supply and - as mentioned in my previous post - in generation often state owned companies of other countries to deliver the chimerical benefits of privatization and competition.

Thus, to use an over-used phrase, there is a huge elephant in the room that no mainstream British politician will talk about: the whole thing needs to be re-nationalised. And, curiously, given politicians unwillingness to talk about it, this is supported by 69% of the British electorate.