Friday, 30 October 2015

Legitimate questions

The concept of legitimacy is central to organizations in many ways, most obviously in terms of who has the right to tell others what to do, and what kinds of things this applies to. That is one reason why many books about organization studies – including mine – begin by talking about Max Weber’s account of authority (in the meaning of legitimate power).
I was thinking about this in relation to the current political row in the UK about the House of Lords’ rejection of a House of Commons policy to cut tax credits for people in work. I won’t discuss the tax credits issue itself - important as it is – it is the issue of legitimacy that I want to look at. Britain, famously and unusually, has an ‘unwritten constitution’, and so relies on custom and precedent to determine what is legitimate. In this way, it could be seen as a system based partly on what Weber called ‘traditional authority’ in contrast to the rational-legal authority of written constitutions.
Since the House of Commons is elected on the basis of, certainly, a system of rules and to this extent rational-legal, and the House of Lords is an unelected body the government have been keen to say that the Lords’ action was illegitimate. More precisely, the argument is that it is illegitimate because it violates the ‘convention’ that the Lords will not block financial legislation or legislation deriving from an elected government’s manifesto.
But convention is a rather slippery terrain. As regards tax credits, what was blocked by the Lords was not, technically, financial legislation but, rather, a ‘statutory instrument’. It’s an arcane point that needn’t detain us except to the extent that it shows the imprecision of ‘tradition’ as a legitimating principle. On the other side of the coin, the House of Commons, whilst certainly elected, has a government majority on the basis that the ruling Conservative Party achieved 36.9% of the votes cast on a turnout of 66.1% of the electorate. In other words, 24.4% of the electorate voted for them.
Moreover, although the Conservative Party manifesto promised extensive cuts to the welfare budget, it did not specify that these would include cuts to the tax credits of working people. It is at least questionable whether they would have been elected had they done so. My sense is that what the electorate thought was meant by welfare cuts was cuts to benefits of people out of work. One might say so much the worse for them, but even so the point is that democratic consent to this policy looks rather threadbare.
The imprecision of party manifestos is by no means new. For example, at the 2010 election the Conservative manifesto promised that there would be no top-down re-organization of the NHS. In government (with Liberal Democrat support) there was massive and controversial re-organization. The disjuncture became an argument about what ‘top-down’ meant. At one time these manifestos consisted of quite precise lists of policies. Now, they tend to be much vaguer. And this in turn links with a far more ‘presidential’ approach to UK politics in which the persona of the leader is the key issue, even though the ‘constitutional convention’ is that a House of Commons is elected constituency by constituency and the leader is the person who can command a majority. Thus a key aspect of the last election was which of David Cameron or Ed Miliband was the most ‘prime ministerial’. So, here, what is at stake is what Weber called ‘charismatic authority’.
This complex mish-mash of rational-legal, traditional and charismatic authority makes for plenty of political spectacle and debate. But I wonder if it does not also show the limitations of Weber’s ideal-types of authority? Isn’t it actually rather common for, say, a CEO to draw selectively and eclectically on the different types*? And more challengingly, isn’t the idea that there is a distinction of authority and power a rather dubious one? After all, whatever is decided about tax credits, those affected by or hostile to the changes will ultimately be forced to accept them.
On a more personal note, this week I was awarded the title Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (FAcSS). This, too, is about legitimate authority – the Academy’s legitimacy to award the title, the legitimacy it bestows on me. But of course I am just shoehorning this in to make it fit with the rest of the post. The truth is that I am rather pleased and want to boast about it.

*Something like this has always been the critique of ideal-type reasoning and the defence, of course, is that these are ideal-types, for conceptual clarification rather than empirical claims. I suppose that my point is that in political debates like this one an ideal-type is treated, at least by implication, as an empirical claim.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Choice, by coincidence

The author and journalist Bill Bryson once wrote – I can’t track down the source - about how he was commissioned to write a newspaper article about amazing coincidences. Bereft of ideas, he found himself sitting at a colleague’s desk. Prominent on the desk was a large book – about amazing coincidences.
This came to my mind because of a sequence of events this week. In my last post on this blog I wrote about the limitations of choice as an over-riding principle. It’s a theme in the book, as well, where (e.g. p.75) I draw upon Barry Schwartz’s fantastic book The Paradox of Choice to talk about how choice in some strange way makes us less free, and can be burdensome and controlling.
A few days later, I went to have my hair cut (bear with me, this is going somewhere). For those who don’t know the ritual of the traditional English all-male barber’s shop it involves a usually awkward conversation about the weather, local traffic problems, and, especially, football. The latter has always been difficult for me, as I have no interest in football, but recently that has slightly changed since Crystal Palace, the team of my childhood home in Croydon, are now in the Premier League and out of nostalgia I have become (mildly) interested.
Anyway, that is by the way. Somehow, the conversation got on to the fact that the barber and his wife have taken to shopping at Aldi, a German-owned budget supermarket that has become increasingly popular in the UK. The reason they do so – and this is the interesting bit – is not because it is cheaper than the others but because there is far less choice. That, he said, made shopping much less hassle than going to the established supermarkets, such as Tesco where they used to shop.
Later that day, without seeking it out, I came across an article by Stuart Jeffries on the Guardian newspaper website, entitled ‘Why too much choice is stressing us out’, in which he reported that:
“Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis seems bent on making shopping in his stores less baffling than it used to be. Earlier this year, he decided to scrap 30,000 of the 90,000 products from Tesco's shelves. This was, in part, a response to the growing market shares of Aldi and Lidl, which only offer between 2,000 and 3,000 lines. For instance, Tesco used to offer 28 tomato ketchups while in Aldi there is just one in one size; Tesco offered 224 kinds of air freshener, Aldi only 12 …”
And, what’s more, the article goes on to analyse this in terms of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice!
That same day I took a look at the excellent blog of my fellow, albeit rather more eminent, organization theorist Yiannis Gabriel where his latest post explained the background to the new edition The Unmanageable Consumer, a book which amongst many other things helps us to understand why consumers might not simply lap up the endless choices which marketeers assume everyone wants.
I have spent the last couple of days working on the revisions for what will be the fourth edition of my own book. It has been going well, so I am in an optimistic frame of mind. This leads me to think that, perhaps, the kinds of arguments I make are gaining traction. It surely cannot just be coincidence that all these things have happened this week? Alas, my wife has brought me down to earth by pointing out that coincidence is not what it seems. It is not even, as might be thought, the opposite of choice. Rather, it is the things that we choose to be interested in that gain our attention. It’s just such feminine realism that one goes to the men’s barber’s shop to escape, and only coincidentally for a haircut. Which reminds me, Crystal Palace are currently sixth in the Premier League.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Stuck with choice

I had a plan for today’s post, which was to go back through this blog to find where I had used various news stories to make a point and to revisit those stories asking: what happened next? As I began to do so, I found that it was a completely overwhelming task. Over the last three years I have written about under-employment, corporate tax avoidance, outsourcing, immigration and refugees, global supply chains, public sector reform, economic insecurity, pensions, corporate takeovers, air crashes, the NHS, the Greek crisis, the British establishment, the war in Ukraine, the Chinese economy and many, many other things.
So I have given up on that idea (for now) and instead will return to just a couple of things I’ve written about which are in the news again. In my post More on Power (November 2013) I wrote about the ludicrousness of consumer choice in the electricity ‘market’. Wind forward to today, and the price comparison sites that would supposedly enable such a choice are mired in scandal. In my post Pensions (March 2014) I wrote about the deregulation of personal pensions, a reform supposedly freeing up pensioners to make choices about their pension pots. Wind forward and we find that already scandals are emerging as pensioners are ripped-off or conned into making dangerous investments.
The fallacy that links both these cases (and another current story, that of the need to shop around for the best bank account) is that consumer choice is both efficient and morally impregnable. It is a logic in which corporations and consumer rights associations are complicit (see also my post on The Benefits of Work in July 2015). Choice isn’t an unqualified good.
Of course the neo-liberals are right when they point to the absence of choice as being one of the failings of State Communism. But that Cold War rhetoric doesn’t take us very far because the issue isn’t ‘no choice’ versus ‘unlimited choice’: there are degrees in between. Moreover, as these various examples show, choice in many markets is fairly meaningless. I sometimes think that market ideologues genuinely believe that ‘the market’ always and everywhere has the same form as wandering around fruit and veg stalls, looking at the quality and price of produce before buying. If so, it’s wholly unrealistic.
The reality across huge swathes of products – not just energy, pensions or bank accounts but also mobile phones, insurance or university courses – is nothing like the Economics 101 textbooks. It’s all but impossible to compare products and prices, and even if you did so once then within a few days or even minutes things would change again. Choice in these circumstances is meaningless, and the constant invocation of choice as a cardinal value is in fact an attempt to make as central the idea that we are all ‘choosers’. And the significance of that is not that it is a good thing to be a chooser, but that if choosers make the wrong choice – as some or many will - then they have only themselves to blame.
Writ large, this means that whatever happens to anyone, good or bad, is to their own credit or reflects their own fault. And so any social situation, no matter how unfair or wrong it may be, is not just unavoidable but, actually, right. This grotesque moral spoonerism is the ultimate consequence of the benign or even positive spin put upon choice.
In political philosophy, the most sophisticated expression of this valorization of choice as central is to be found in Robert Nozick’s book Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). It is a beautifully written and intellectually elegant book that I would recommend to anyone. At its heart (as regards choice) is the ‘Wilt Chamberlain example’ (Chamberlain being a famous basketball player). Nozick argues that if before Chamberlain plays a game everyone agrees that the distribution of income in society is fair (even, say, if it is equal); and if, then, everyone who pays to watch Chamberlain play does so as a free choice; and if, then, as a result Chamberlain has more money than everyone else; then that new unequal distribution of income must also be fair, as everyone has chosen it.
There are two flaws in this argument. One is that it is only Chamberlain and those who paid to see him who have consented to the new income distribution. What about everyone else? If consent is the key principle for fairness then how can it be fair when they haven't consented? The other is that if Chamberlain and everyone who paid to see him had known that his extra income was to be taxed at 100% and redistributed, and he had still chosen to play and they had still chosen to pay, then the resultant equal income distribution would also be fair, on the logic of choice.
So choice doesn’t work, even at the most sophisticated theoretical level, as a guarantor of fairness, and it doesn’t work at the demonstrable empirical level of how choice actually works in markets. Which doesn’t mean that it is of no importance if people don’t have choices. On the contrary, choice is vital for both economic and political well-being. It’s just that it is not the only thing that matters, or the thing that matters above all else. It's not a kind of trump card that beats every other aspect of human existence.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Europe: a defining issue

Regular readers of this blog – if there are any! – will know that I am very committed to the UK remaining within the EU. With a referendum on this now certain to be held within the next couple of years, the different sides are lining up.
I am in favour of UK membership not because I think that the EU is perfect or beyond critique. It isn’t. In particular, it is very lacking in democratic structures. But the reason for that is primarily because such structures are resisted by Eurosceptics, in the UK and elsewhere, who see them as building a ‘federal super-state’. And even in its present form I see the EU as a bulwark against the hyper neo-liberalism that I believe would characterise the UK in the event of exit, and which is certainly the ambition of most of those seeking exit. Moreover, I see the EU as having knitted together, in the aftermath of both World War Two and the Cold War, a relatively stable, peaceful and prosperous continent. It is easy to forget, but in both 1945 and 1989 that prospect would have seemed very far away.
I’m also dismayed by the level of ignorance and toxicity in UK debates about the EU. Some of this is just stupid, as with the idea that the EU wants to ban bent bananas. Other times it is pernicious, as with the misguided linking of the EU and the European  Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and the misrepresentation of what that Court and Convention do.
A couple of years ago I would have said that come a Referendum the UK would undoubtedly vote to stay in, and by a large margin – say 60/40. Now, I am less sure that this is so, mainly because of the, again, ignorant and toxic debates about the refugee crisis (by which I mean that being in or out of the EU would make no difference whatsoever to this crisis or to the relatively limited way that it affects the UK). If I had to guess, it would be that the outcome will still be a narrow vote for ‘in’. But that is not good enough, because without a clear result the demand for a further vote will immediately arise.
It may seem strange that in taking this view I line up with corporate and global financial voices that are also pro-EU. But there is a perfectly respectable ‘leftist’ case for staying in. And in any case my position is no less strange than those on the Left who line up with UKIP in arguing for exit. In fact, I don’t think that the EU debate is a straightforward left-right one, it is more a debate between what in another post I called ‘Cosmopolitans and Locals’. If Britain is to be a tolerant, sophisticated, multi-cultural and prosperous country then the 'cosmopolitans' have to win; if the 'locals' win then Britain will be a bigoted, fearful country permanently locked not just in a world that hasn't existed since the 1950s, but, even worse, in an idealized imagination of that world.
So, for me, this has become the defining political issue of the times for the UK. And it matters far beyond the UK since if Britain were to exit the EU it would have huge ramifications throughout Europe and beyond. I’ll be doing what little I can to persuade British people to vote to stay in, and my first efforts are a blog post on The Conversation website and a follow-up interview on BBC Radio Merseyside today (the interview starts about six minutes in to the link). But I expect to be doing much more.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Intended consequences

In the book, I make much use of the concept of ‘unintended consequences’ – the way that, in particular, rational-legal rules give rise to effects that were not only different to those intended but run directly counter to what was intended. My last post on the VW emissions scandal provided a current example.
But sometimes the situation is more complex, and I return here to the case of regulations around smoking, about which I have written in another post on this blog, and, with Jo Brewis, also written an academic paper (Brewis & Grey,2008). The latest development is that today a law has come in to force banning smoking in cars when a person less than 18 years old is present in the car. It’s by no means an objectionable law, in and of itself, because who would want to claim that smoking in a car with children is in any way a good thing?
What is interesting about this law, though, is that it is manifestly doomed to failure. Police representatives have already said that it is unenforceable, partly due to lack of resources but also because of detection problems. For example, electronic cigarettes are not included in the legislation so a police patrol would not easily be able to tell whether an offence was being committed, nor is it easy to know the age of passengers from a patrol car. Moreover, the legislation allows 17 year olds to smoke in cars if the passengers are 18, allows smoking in convertibles with the hood down, and allows smoking in caravans and motorhomes, even if children are present, so long as the vehicle are not at that point moving.
We might, then, assume that the intended consequence is to stop smoking in cars with children and that the unintended consequence is it not working. But in fact the situation is more complex. The long-term aim of anti-smoking activists is the eradication of all smoking, but they approach this goal stealthily because smoking is such a strongly culturally embedded practice. From that perspective, the failure of this latest legislation will be desirable, because when it fails it will justify a new law banning all smoking in all vehicles in all circumstances.
Social science research is sometimes criticised for lacking the predictive power of natural science, so here I will make a prediction. Within, say, five years (and I would expect less rather than more) a total smoking ban in cars will be in force. And as soon as it is, or even, possibly, before there will be lobbying for a ban on smoking in houses where children are present. Once again few will object, because no one could really mount a case that it would be good to allow it. So a law will follow, which will of course be even more unenforceable than that against smoking in cars with children. From which will ‘logically’ follow that all smoking by anyone in any house will be banned.
By that point, the situation as regards public spaces (e.g. bars) and private spaces (e.g. homes) will be identical: smoking in both is banned. So what happens then? Well, look at what is happening around the regulations on public spaces. At first, it was just indoors. Now, it is increasingly in parks and on beaches which are public spaces but outdoors, including outside pub doorways. The rationale for this is not that others might inhale the fumes, but that those (especially children) seeing it might think that smoking was ‘normal’. So, once there is a ban on smoking inside homes, it will get extended to smoking outside home, for example in gardens. In other words, as each new rule ‘fails’, that failure provides the rationale for a new rule. It is in this sense that failure is an intended consequence of regulation since it paves the way for successfully extending regulation.
With smoking now very much a minority activity in the UK and many other countries, few will shed a tear about any of this (and it’s not my intention that anyone should: I just want to provide an interesting illustration of a particular phenomenon around unintended consequences). But it’s worth reflecting that with the campaign to reduce smoking now being acknowledged as the gold-standard of public health campaigns, the same tactics are being applied to another deeply culturally embedded practice (as smoking was a generation ago), namely alcohol consumption.
As with smoking, the initial restrictions have been around advertising. Then (rather like the 1970s campaign that smokers should choose cigarettes with filters and leave long stubs) there has been the definition of safe drinking limits, which turn out to have been ‘plucked out of air’. Now, as happened with smoking, some campaigners say that there is no safe limit for alcohol, and although that is not mainstream in the way that it is for smoking it is accepted to be true for pregnant women. Meanwhile, just as there used to be a differentiation of ‘light’ or ‘social’ smokers from the hardcore we have a similar differentiation of social and ‘binge’ drinkers, with a binge drinker being someone drinking more than 3 pints of beer. The key move in anti-smoking discourse was to establish the notion of passive or secondary smoking, and the same shift has been mooted by former UK Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson, who is also responsible for the Orwellian declaration of aiming for the complete denormalization of smoking.
So here’s another prediction – as smoking fades away, restrictions on alcohol will increase along with restrictions on sugar and ever more demonization of obesity. Each restriction will give rise to failures which far from being unintended will have been designed to fail, in order to justify further restrictions. But the law of unintended consequences will still hold, and indeed it is already very clear that this is so. Because the more that unhealthy practices, such as smoking, drinking and over-eating are reduced, the more we see the degradations of dementia, of old age blighted by complex and intractable multiple illnesses, of obscure cancers that were rarely known before.
Moreover, since taxes on smoking are, massively, a net contributor to the NHS (and the same is true for alcohol) the less we smoke the more difficult it will be to fund the healthcare for the longer lives we will indubitably – for, of course, the anti-smoking campaigners are quite right to point to its dangers – be living. But that, too, is not really an example of an unintended consequence since, as Jo Brewis and I argued in our article, the real motivation of the anti-smoking movement is not public health, but the imposition of a morality about smoking that long precedes, and proceeds quite independently of, any scientific or medical rationality. They simply reproduce, in modern language, King James I's (1604) Counterblaste to Tobacco:
Have you not reason then to bee ashamed, and to forbeare this filthie noveltie, so basely grounded, so foolishly received and so grossely mistaken in the right use thereof? In your abuse thereof sinning against God, harming your selves both in persons and goods, and raking also thereby the markes and notes of vanitie upon you: by the custome thereof making your selves to be wondered at by all forraine civil Nations, and by all strangers that come among you, to be scorned and contemned. A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.