Johnson’s conjuring tricks are wearing thin

Never waste a good crisis, is a worthy if tired motto. But never has the notion been put to more brazenly opportunistic use than by Boris Johnson’s government. Like a fairground magician performing dodgy conjuring tricks, Johnson this week produced the most preposterous rabbit yet from his Brexit hat: the promise that by barring migrants and raising wages, leaving the EU would transform low-wage, low-productivity, service-based Britain into high-wage, high-productivity Germany.

Like all his previous rabbits – the famous £350m a week for the NHS, ‘prodigious extra quantities of fish’ for UK fishermen, frictionless access to the EU single market (‘the easiest agreement in the world’) assured by the insistence of Italian prosecco and German car manufacturers, the assurance that the Irish circle can be squared just by saying so, in short his whole cakeist agenda – this one will turn out to be illusory. 

Of course, everyone would like to see a high-wage, high-productivity, levelled-up economy. But the notion seized on by a panicky government that 40 years of sedate jogging down the low road to a low-skills service economy fed by an endless supply of cheap European labour can be reversed in months by market forces is both fantastical and insulting. Yet this is par for the course from a government whose lack of planning and preparation for Brexit and messianic belief in the free market leaves other Europeans slack-jawed with astonishment. 

While Brexit isn’t the cause of every one of the current emergencies, it is making all of them worse – and will continue to do so. Naturally, this could and should have been foreseen. 

Take the gas crisis, the result of a uniquely British collision of Brexit, short-sighted regulation and government inattention. Brexit was the trigger, leading predictably to the UK’s exit from Europe’s internal energy market in January this year. Warning bells should have sounded in 2017 with the closure of the UK’s largest storage facility, holding 70 per cent of the total, when the government withdrew financial support. The final straw dropped this autumn with the collapse of a number of fragile energy firms when their business model of buying energy short to supply under longer-term fixed-price contracts turned sour – exactly the same formula that, apparently unremarked by Ofgem, brought down the banks in 2008.

The same pattern of long-term neglect punctuated, as now, by periods of hasty policy retrofitting on the hoof, is repeated in many other sectors, notably logistics, as well as in the shape of the economy as a whole. As ministers are now discovering, the UK’s hands-off attitude to globalisation has bequeathed an unresilient economy that imports far more than it exports, most of it from Europe and much in essentials. Most economies carry six to nine months of stocks in their supply chains, and these are now running low at a moment when the global economy is picking up. Predictably. Given its unbalanced economy, this is particularly serious for the UK, and it can only get worse when the full regime of customs checks and declarations on imports, which has been repeatedly pushed back, is finally imposed next summer. Once again, thank you, Brexit.

For everyone bar Johnson himself, a few hedge-fund cronies, and a booming bureaucracy industry, the Brexit vanity project has been a disaster. Think fishermen, reeling from a smack in the face with a wet mackerel instead of the revived industry they signed up for; farmers leaving crops rotting in fields or having to incinerate thousands of pigs for lack of pickers and abattoir workers and butchersto process them; exporters to Europe labouring under the costs and delays of extra paperwork and customs checks; the City of London, hardly a low-pay sector, which nevertheless wants temporary visas for brainy foreigners to help drive start-ups in fintech, law and ‘advisory services’; firms and even individuals in retail, hospitality, care and logistics, worn to a frazzle by worsening conditions even as pay edges up; and, finally, consumers, unable to fill up their cars, who face supermarket shelves emptied of necessities and generously hiked prices on those they can actually buy. 

So far, the government has dealt with all this by short-term expedients, chiefly blaming Covid and hurling money around with the abandon of a Euromillions lottery winner, along with toting a few small wins (one of which, believe it or not, being the proud boast that publicans and retailers can now revert to the 1970s and sell stuff in imperial measures – pounds, ounces and pints). But the larger contradictions are coming home to roost as the Treasury reverts to type and flatly contradicts the levelling-up discourse by raising taxes and removing £20 a week from the pitiful amounts available to the most vulnerable Universal Credit claimants. So what happens if the wage increases the government now praises as the welcome price of Brexit feed through into rising prices rather than productivity, which on past form seems supremely likely, and red-wall voters at last begin to see through the artifice of the magician’s tricks? 

Some fear that in that case Johnson would play the last card in his Brexit hand and carry out the long-threatened unilateral withdrawal from the Northern Ireland protocol. This would set off a major diplomatic crisis with the EU and US, and the kind of ‘back me or else’ crunch at home that he has exploited before. If that happens, with Covid infections still running at 60,000 a day, by far the highest in Europe, a shortage of turkeys or sprouts will be the least of the UK’s Christmas worries. It may be a long, cold winter. 

The death of the job

One of the many things that Covid has bust wide open is our ideas of work. More accurately, it enables us for the first time to see as a whole many different things about work that we already dimly knew but had avoided thinking about. And what is revealed is shocking. 

The first revelation was that millions of frontline workers – the essential carers, cleaners, nurses, shelf-stackers, drivers and runners who keep the wheels of the social economy turning – were risking their (and others’) lives doing jobs that paid poverty wages. That was followed by the discovery that many of the more privileged work at least as well in their front room as they do in their official workplace – in other words, their hovering managers and expensive offices were neither essential nore added much value.

The third revelation is that a lot of work – most? – is horrible. It is demeaning, insecure, surveilled, stressful and unpredictable.  Sometimes it makes you ill, or worse: as Jeff Pfeffer catalogued in his angry Dying For A Paycheck, toxic workplaces kill 120,000 Americans a year, making going to work the nation’s fifth largest killer. 

Today, according to Gallup, just 40 per cent of Americans are in ‘good’, ie full-time jobs. The other 60 per cent have jobs qualified as ‘mediocre’ or ‘bad’. Unsurprisingly, those unsatisfactorily employed are more likely to have seen worsening conditions during the pandemic. At the same time, adding insult to injury, the pay of CEOs is touching new heights as boards rush to compensate them for the terrible unfairness of having to cope with the fallout from Covid. The High Pay Centre estimates that this year median pay for top UK CEOs is 120 times that of the typical worker; in the US the ratio is an out-of-sight 300.

All this puts some context around the latest unwelcome discovery: that ruptured supply lines over an ever growing range of products and services – meat, fruit and vegetables, a variety of groceries, hotel laundry, building materials, gas – are mostly caused by a paucity not of raw materials or manufacturing capacity but of people willing to process and deliver them.

In all this, Brexit is an aggravation, not a fundamental cause. Apparently as contagious as Covid, labour shortages are erupting all over the world. In the US an unprecedented 4m fast food, hospitality and retail workers quit their jobs in April in an ongoing movement that has been dubbed the ‘Great Resignation’. Despite the shortages, the US adult participation rate has rarely been lower. But wherever the walk-outs occur, the reason is the obvious one: a wave of revolt at work that is literally not worth doing. 

‘We all quit!! CLOSED!!’, read a sign posted outside a branch of Wendy’s. ‘Closed indefinitely because Dollar General doesn’t pay a living wage or treat its employees with respect,’ read another. In the UK, in a series of articles, the FT’s excellent Sarah O’Connor has shown how jobs that the government now expects British workers to fill, such as fruit picking, meat processing (one of the UK’s largest ‘manufacturing’ sectors) and lorry-driving, are simply incompatible with a normal family life, or even a single human one. In short, people have had enough of being abused and exploited. If companies don’t care about them, why should employees be any different?

It’s hard to argue they are wrong. The real surprise is not that the pot has boiled over now, but that it has been so long coming. Today’s crisis isn’t new. It is the culmination of a 40-year shift in which for most people the employment relationship hasn’t so much changed as been abolished, as companies systematically offlloaded employment risk and responsibility on to individuals. 

When I started work in the 1970s, employers were paternalistic, but at least that implied an obligation. Shell and Unilever had their own sports grounds, many subsidised activities, sometimes even housing. But any remnants of such ‘parental’ ties were severed in the 1980s as the obsession with cost-cutting and outsourcing took hold. 

For those who kept their jobs, from then on the only thing the company committed to provide outside the job and pay was a vague promise of ‘employability’. Career and increasingly pension were now the responsibility of individuals, as employers – given the excuse by daft regulation – lost no time in ditching final-salary in favour of much cheaper defined-contribution pensions. 

After long-term employment, career and pensions had been pared back, since the early 2000s it is the job that has been in the corporate firing line. As software, enabled by the internet and particularly machine learning, eats the world, much work has become commodified to the point of fungibility. Shift, part-time and temporary work have burgeoned, at the extreme in the shape of the abomination that is the zero-hours (or zero obligation) contract, and increasingly, with the growth of the platform economy, as the gig. 

Here, the corporate campaign against employment, hitherto subterranean, has broken into the open in the legal battles by Uber, Deliveroo and others to prevent their drivers and couriers being classified as employees rather than independent contractors. It’s hard not to think of this as, for many people, the death of the job. It’s certainly the end of the conventional notion, embodied in many governments’ economic policies, of work and employment as a reliable route out of poverty, and of companies as the transport that will carry them upward.

The truth is that in recent years companies, egged on by the capital markets, have done everything in their power to avoid employing people full time, and have only done so as a last resort. And now that Covid has disrupted the supply lines of expendable cheap labour that they depended on to flex, they are left in today’s fix.

Given its complex origins, don’t expect the present crisis to solve itself naturally if and when Covid runs its course. It wasn’t after all nature that created it in the first place. Rather, it is the inevitable result of the collision course with their own employees and the rest of society that managers and directors set themselves and their companies on when they adopted the ideologically-driven credo of shareholder value in the 1980s.

It would be hard to imagine clearer battle lines. On the one hand, in 2015 an international Gallup survey found that a steady job with a regular pay packet was the thing that most people wanted more than anything else in the world. On the other, a steady job with a regular pay packet is the thing in the world that most companies least want to give them. Yet as companies may now be beginning to worry, winning the battle isn’t the same as winning the war. Recall the legendary exchange reputed to have taken place between Ford boss Henry Ford II and Walter Reuther, head of the powerful autoworkers union, as they inspected a brand-new automated Ford production line. ‘Well, Walter, how will you get these robots to pay your union dues?’ asked Ford. ‘And how will you get them to buy your cars, Henry?’ Reuther replied.

A new look

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The whole archive has been transferred to the new site – more than 500 articles going back 20 years and more. We hope to classify the archive by subject in due course and from time-to-time will be making reading lists or collections around particular topics. In the meanwhile, please use the search box (which appears at the top of every page) which, we hope, will lead you to anything you’re looking for.

As ever, thank you for your loyalty, most of you over many years. Don’t hesitate to let me know any issues – and suggestions will be welcome.

Universal Basic Capital: an idea whose time has come?

In 1976, Peter Drucker wrote a book ambitiously entitled The Unseen Revolution: How Pension Fund Socialism Came to America. It was one of his least successful books, and he later retitled it more modestly The Pension Fund Revolution. This was sort of plausible in that when he wrote it 25 per cent of US company equity was owned by pension funds (by 1990 it was 40 per cent), but wholly wrong that it betokened a revolution. It should have been called ‘pension fund capitalism’, to reflect the fact that the funds were instantly captured by the fund-management industry – trustees, fund managers, shareholder proxy advisory services and even hedge funds, which incomprehensibly pension funds are permitted to invest in and even worse lend shares to for voting purposes – to become, ironically, an integral part of the short-termist shareholder-value ecosystem that has distorted our economies, impoverished the 99 per cent and fostered the populism that now threatens our entire democracy.

But 50 years on, could something like Drucker’s pension fund revolution be on the cards today? 

A couple of years ago, a second slim volume appeared under another alluring title: Citizen Capitalism: How a Universal Fund Can Provide Influence and Income to All. One of its three authors was the late, much lamented Lynn Stout, Cornell law professor and writer of the definitive and self-explanatory The Shareholder Value Myth (I wrote about it here).

Their proposal was in concept a simple one: ‘to respond to the crisis of declining American civic engagement, unity, and financial security’ by setting up a universal fund, voluntary and open to all citizens, that would assemble a portfolio of stocks, at the beginning chiefly from corporate and individual donations, and distribute the resulting dividends and other proceeds as income to members. The fund wouldn’t sell or trade its shares, and nor would citizen-shareholders, whose holdings would revert to the fund on their death. 

Crucially, however, individuals would have the right to vote the shares held in the portfolio. Part of the point of the fund would be to build stable, long-term holdings for companies, at the same time providing incentives for individuals to vote their shares accordingly. This, they argue, would be a step towards liberating corporations from ‘the tyranny of shareholder value’, the better to serve the broader social interest. By making the voice of ordinary shareholders heard in the boardroom, citizen capitalism, they hoped, would empower ‘a new class of long-term, diverse shareholders who can change the direction of corporate America, making corporations more citizens’ servants – and less citizens’ masters’. 

While modestly well received when it appeared, the book promptly disappeared from view at the end of 2019, blown away in the gale of panic unleashed by Covid. That might have been that. But as we have discovered, one of the most surprising qualities of Covid is its magical ability to turn things that were previously unthinkable into not only thinkable but eminently and urgently doable ones.

One such suddenly doable project is ‘levelling up’, or ‘refloating the middle classes’, as it would be in the US. While last year’s furloughs and grants of various kinds effectively functioned as emergency bungs to bail out some of the most disadvantaged in the system, these don’t remotely touch the longer-term income and other inequalities that the pandemic has brutally outed – and will need fixing in fairly short order if democratic capitalism is to have a future.

Right on cue, enter in the last few months the notion of ‘Universal Basic Capital’ – a national endowment that, picking up on citizen capitalism, would channel equity contributions from philanthropists and companies into a fund, roughly modelled on a sovereign wealth fund or Alaska’s Permanent Fund, for the benefit of individual citizens. 

For proponents, UBC has several advantages over the more current idea of Universal Basic Income, being both more practical and in the long term more far-reaching – an unusually favourable combination. It’s more practical, politically and otherwise, both because the concept is already familiar from mutual and soveign funds, and, more importantly, it doesn’t require extra taxes or compete with other causes for existing funds. Moreover, as proponents as different as hedge-fund meister Ray Dalio and left-wing economist Joe Stiglitz can agree, if the fund were allotted equity stakes in companies bailed out during the pandemic, the public would rightly share in the upside potential of recovery in return for bearing the downside risk during the crisis. On the same grounds, how about it taking a small stake in start ups, too? Didn’t Nobel economist Herbert Simon estimate that 80 per cent ‘of the income we enjoy comes not from the efforts of living individuals or existing corporations, but from this shared inheritance’?

Universal capital could also be much more far-reaching than UBI in its effects, at least over time. This is because it goes with the grain of capitalism rather than fighting it. Thus it is not re-distributive (altering the distribution of wealth already created), as with UBI, but pre-distributive (permanently altering the basis of wealth creation in the first place). As it accumulates over time, the fund becomes a force for individual levelling up, which, at least in the active citizen capital model, would be reinforced as long-termist ownership and share voting begin to correct the dysfunctions of today’s corporate governance.

Finally, in so doing the fund would reorient the corporation away from its misguided and destructive obsession with the present and honour its most extraordinary feature, its ability – when properly managed – to function not only as a wealth creator in the here and now, but also ‘as a vehicle for the present generation to altruistically pass forward resources through time to benefit those who will live in the future’.

The cost would be small, the effects large, though gradual, and they ought to appeal to both right and left. As Dalio notes: ‘[The fund idea is] an odd duck that is neither capitalist nor socialist. And the fact that you can’t so easily label it is one of its more appealing aspects’. It should be on the agenda of any progressive party that has an interest in fairness and working to correct the short-termist bias of today’s corporate governance. Unfortunately, given the UK’s non-existent record of institutional innovation since the founding of the Open University in 1969, and the Labour Party’s crisis of timidity, it is unlikely to happen here. So the best we can hope is that it is taken up by President Biden’s policy wonks, or gains traction in the shape of the voluntary model of Stout et al, thus giving us something we can copy without having to look too brave about it.

How England’s footballers ran rings round its politicians

It’s tough to lose the final of the Euros. It’s even tougher to lose it on penalties – a cruel and unusual punishment made more so by the fact that partly responsible was a tragic error by a coach who knows all about taking penalties.

But enough of the hysteria. Just as there was far too much expectation squatting like a stone on the England squad from the start, so the vastly overdone despair at falling at the final hurdle is in danger of erasing the magnitude of the achievement.

It’ll be no consolation for the team’s last three young penalty takers for the time being – see Marcus Rashford’s agonised letter of apology for his shootout miss. But it is hardly a disgrace to lose out to Italy, along with Spain one of the two best sides in the tournament. Remember that England came through the month unbeaten in open play and held the Azzurri to a draw over 120 minutes in the final.

After the disappointment, let’s take pleasure in what we have: a talented, genuine and eager squad that did us proud by getting to a final for the first time for half a century, led by a decent, honest manager whose ‘Dear England’ letter at the start of the tournament was more eloquent about patriotism and being English than any politician in any party for as long as one can remember.

And whose conduct has a lot to say about good management. Since 2016 Southgate has quietly remodelled the national team in the modern European idiom, something that proved beyond all his predecessors – Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson, Steve McLaren, Fabio Capello, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Kevin Keegan, Glenn Hoddle, Terry Venables, even though all of them tried – all the way back to Graham Taylor, the last exponent of blood-and-thunder English football exceptionalism in the 1990s.

In this, of course, he has been much aided by the foreign managers and players who have been attracted to the English game. To put things into perspective, the last time a club managed by an Englishman won the Premier League, the richest and by some measures most competitive league in the world (although the Germans, Italians and Spanish might have something to say about the latter), was 30 years ago. Leeds under Howard Wilkinson in 1991-92, since you asked.

Since then, foreign money and the personnel that followed it have brought the elite English clubs, many of them kicking and screaming at first, into the modern football world. Arsène Wenger was the pioneer with Arsenal’s ‘invincibles’, and from the millennium on only the Scot Alex Ferguson interrupts what is otherwise a continental managerial monopoly on winning in England. It has culminated gloriously over the last four years in the era of Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp who at Manchester City and Liverpool have engineered a near-perfect synthesis of English and continental features, their teams at best allying heads-up technique and football intelligence, long lacking here, with speed and energy.

Southgate has observed and learned from these improvements, not to mention picked young players schooled in the new methods. One implication, of course, is that England’s Euros win over Germany, far from being a blow for Brexit, as one idiotic Tory tweeted, was precisely the reverse: a reflection of Southgate’s eager participation in the fizzing trade in ideas and people between the European footballing nations, each learning from the others, that over the last two decades has raised the bar across the continent and made Europe currently the most progressive footballing region.

As the FT’s astute Simon Kuper observed, Southgate has binned football nativism. ‘To him, football isn’t war, or art. It is a system’, Kuper writes, and the coach has constructed a team to compete with other systemically inclined European teams on an equal basis. His players are young, hard working and resolutely diverse, and Southgate has brought the best out of them as enlightened managers do in any workplace: by treating them as adults and giving them confidence to express themselves both in their work and outside it.

Their football, although still a work in progress, speaks for itself. But unexpectedly, it’s outside football that the players have been handing out the sharpest lessons. And my, haven’t they done it well. The unselfconscious, natural way they have taken the knee; the direct calling out of Priti Patel’s hypocrisy; the straightforward acknowledgement and apology for their mistakes; all these have rattled and wrong-footed Johnson’s government at every turn – the equivalent of a football nutmeg – and made ministers’ belated scramble on to the bandwagon of the team’s success look both risible and desperate, as Marcus Rashford did earlier over school meals. As Marina Hyde asked rhetorically in The Guardian, while footballers barely out of their teens find it necessary to own up publicly for missing a penalty, when has the government ever acknowledged responsibility for its much more serious mistakes over the last two years, let alone said sorry for them?

Yet while Southgate has decisively modernised its football team, and through his endearing and diverse young team given us a glimpse of an England as we would like us to be, the scenes at Wembley both before and after the final are a sobering reminder of an older one that lingers on in half life: the England of the long ball, battlers and in-your-face aggression on the football pitch, magnified into xenophobia and violence off it.

Taming our tribal traits once and for all won’t happen overnight, or even at all, without political and management of a consistently high order, one devoted to calming passions rather than arousing them, unifying round a shared purpose rather than dividing, and cultivating diversity rather than stoking confected culture wars. Although rare, that kind of modest, thoughtful leadership does exist. Just a pity for our wider politics that it’s in the English football camp, rather than in Downing Street or Westminster.

Regulating the regulators

In pursuit of the chimera of cost-free growth, every government seizes on the idea of pruning regulation, aka ‘slashing red tape’. Boris Johnson’s is no exception. First it took an axe to the planning rules, vowing the biggest shakeup for more than a generation. Now the latest Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) has reported, promising, what else, ‘a bold new regulatory framework’ to take advantage of the ‘one-off opportunity’ of Brexit to free up enterprise from red tape (not to mention afford Johnson an unmissable chance to congratulate its authors for ‘putting a TIGRR in the tank’ of British business).

So far so normal. The big irony is that the intuition is right: of course there is too much regulation, and the worst of it is both intrusive and ineffective, while making life miserable for the regulated (think teachers, social workers, GPs) – the worst of all possible worlds. The cost of regulation is unknowable, but it certainly outweighs any social or economic value it creates by a wide margin. But the latest report shows no more understanding why than its predecessors. Like all of them, this one acknowledges that regulation can and should be positive: ‘Good regulation, set up in the right way, can be a vital part of the infrastructure to support growth’. But there is no indication that its authors know what ‘good regulation’ is. There is much talk of ‘digital opportunities’, ‘smart’ and ‘agile’ regulation, and things like ‘sandboxes’ to play with it in, but no hint of the crucial part it plays in a larger system or how it should do it. 

Regulation has become a monstrous industry that feeds on itself. Like targets, bad regulation begets more regulation and more red tape. John Kay wrote in his eponymous 2012 review, ‘We have dysfunctional structures that give rise to behaviour that we don’t want. We respond to these structures by identifying the undesirable behaviour, and telling people to stop. We find the same problem emerges, in a slightly different guise. So we construct new rules. And so on’. True to form, the current report sees no irony in proposing that increased discretion for regulators to change the rules should be offset by ‘a strengthened system of Select Committee scrutiny, supported by more effective, and more effectively used, economic impact assessments and metrics’ – in other words, another layer of regulation – aided by a Better Regulation Committee and a new Brexit opportunities tsar ‘to review and reshape rules and regulations to boost growth and drive forward innovation’ in the Cabinet Office.

Regulation should indeed favour innovation. In fact, it kills it dead in its tracks. To see why, listen to John Seddon’s podcast on ‘Buurtzorg: a brilliant care service that failed to work in the UK’ (and his other one on a recent ‘blueprint for social work’). Buurtzorg, as everyone knows by now, is a brilliant care organisation that from small beginnings has become an outstanding success in the Netherlands, its home territory. Based on small self-organising teams and minimal bureaucracy, Buurtzorg provides high-quality, personalised care at 40 per cent lower cost. In a country that has spent more than a decade dithering what to do about a social care crisis that deepens by the month, you might think this would be a model to replicate. Yet despite initial high hopes, efforts to do so in England have made minimal headway. Both countries started from the same position: a care crisis and a similar approach to public-sector management. So why the difference? 

The short answer is regulation. In the Netherlands, as Seddon notes, Buurtzorg founder Jos de Blok crucially didn’t have to start from here. Everyone knew that the previous system was broken. So when de Blok set up a small care outfit on a very different basis, he was allowed and even encouraged to experiment. To cut a long story short, Buurtzorg is now so successful with both patients and care workers, who still queue up to form new teams with one of the Netherlands’ most favoured employers, that under the tolerant eye of the regulator and politicians it is beginning to reshape the wider Dutch health service from the inside. 

Contrast that with the English response, which is to double down on existing methods, insisting that the only way to improve is to ‘try harder’. So the regulator still makes organisations report on all the unnecessary things – protocols, standards, activity levels – that de Blok knew he had to jettison in order to design a more responsive system. In effect, the Netherlands has moved on from the reductive, industrialised New Public Management paradigm that has strangled public services in the last 40 years, while thanks to the regulator England remains imprisoned inside it.

A quarter of a century ago Michael Porter and Claas van der Linde wrote a piece on regulation in HBR called ‘Green and Competitive: Ending the Stalemate’. It showed that it was wrong to think of environmental regulation as a static zero-sum game entailing higher costs (if the regulator wins) or lower quality (if companies prevail). Both win if properly designed standards trigger innovations that lower the total cost of a product and improve its value. This of course was the first lesson of the quality movement: doing it right first time costs less, not more. Innovation-friendly regulation focuses on outcomes, not processes or technologies — how to get there is up to companies. Above all, the aim is to learn and improve, a process in which regulator and regulated are partners, not adversaries, as they are usually cast in the UK. 

In The Whitehall Effect, Seddon outlines a simple way of transforming regulation and inspection from instruments of control and compliance to a force for innovation and improvement. In a redesigned system, parliament would set the purpose of the service, seen in customer or citizen terms, to which service organisations would be required to work. Neither politicians nor regulator have any business specifying methods or or processes – their job is to hold managers accountable, not to manage themselves. How to deliver the service is the job of management, using the measures and method of its choice – putting responsibility for innovation sqauarely where it belongs, at the point of contact with the customer. Regulation likewise should be close to the customer. Instead of looking for errors, checklist in hand, inspectors, says Seddon, ‘will pose just one question:”What are the measures and methods being used to achieve the purpose of the service?” and then check their validity’. Instead of policing, inspectors become a welcome source of support. It’s too late to remove TIGRR from the tank, alas – but this, he says, ‘is what intelligent regulation looks like’.

The revenge of those who saved the NHS

We knew the sort of things – part score-settling, part confession, part acute insight and part plain bonkers – that Dominic Cummings would come out with for the Parliamentary committee in May. He confirmed much of what we guessed about Boris Johnson’s ramshackle government and how it approached the pandemic. Together with what we have learned for ourselves over the last plague year it allows us to predict with some confidence the verdict of the official enquiry into the handling of the crisis, whenever it finally comes.

Of course, the report won’t say directly that we went into the biggest crisis since WWII with an administration of opportunistic and shifty second-raters, led by the biggest chancer of the lot – although it will surely make the point indirectly with hard words about PPE procurement, the ‘unimaginable’ £37bn spent on track and trace, the hopeless messaging surrounding the lockdowns and social distancing, and the ‘ring of steel’ supposedly thrown around care homes, among other things. It will also acknowledge that what happened last year was unprecedented, at least since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and that if no government has got all its crisis measures right it is no surprise – one of the most sobering lessons of the Covid episode is that evolution in the shape of a tiny blind virus without a brain is a lot cleverer than we are.

Yet any report should also point out that Covid wouldn’t have been able to make itself so comfortably at home in our richest societies without inherited weaknesses that even a more competent and less feckless team would have struggled with.The most glaring is the neglected and run-down organs of state which both individually and jointly have comprehensively failed the challenge thrown at them. For this blame successive governments that having enthusiastically accepted the neo-liberal axiom that the market is the answer to everything if only the government would get out of the way, have over the last two decades casually outsourced capabilities, responsibilities and increasingly decision-making to the private sector and even more worryingly private sector IT.

As Cummings confirmed, what was left to face the crisis was a collection of inturned agency silos that were riven with rivalries, distrust and turf-wars, had no shared goals and were chronically unwilling to share information. Take your pick of hapless UK institutions to supply the aptest symbol of the UK government in 2021 – the risibly renamed Great British Railways, currently the worst run, highest cost, and least passenger friendly in Europe; the once-revered Post Office, which put more faith in its terrible computer system than in its staff and after a decade of defending its scandalous treatment of innocent postmasters is now having to pay reparations worth billions; or, nearer to home, the mother of Parliaments and home of British democracy which has been left untended and unmaintained for so long that billions are having to be spent to prevent it subsiding into the Thames. I could go on.

Then add to the state’s self-mutilation a decade of austerity that Covid has revealed as one of the most monstrous false economies of all time. Not so much thrifty housekeeping, more criminal failure to invest in the state’s decaying institutional infrastructure. The report might list an NHS subject to constant reorganisations that that can barely cope at the best of times; a threadbare unjoined-up care sector that is an insult to civilised society; contemptuously slashed essential local-authority services; unfit-for-purpose regulation (Grenfell Tower stands as another symbol of the UK’s complacent and negligent government); and the consistent blind eye turned to burgeoning economic, health and housing inequalities. 

As we have been learning, over the last year the cost of these policy choices has come flapping home for payment. It has been paid in the horrific tally of lives lost to Covid. The first job of any government is to protect its citizens. Instead, fearing above all the collapse of the perennially tottering health service, and without any other thought-out policy to hand, the government persuaded us to protect the NHS, and it, by, in effect, sacrificing the most deprived of society – the poor, the unhealthy, the inadequately housed and above all the elderly in care homes, all of whom suffer disproportionately from it – to the disease. And as a stopgap solution, grotesque as it seems to say so, it has worked. 

But there’s a kicker. ‘Saving the NHS’ in last year’s terms is not only not a long-term solution; it is a Pyrrhic victory that we can’t affort to repeat. Reparations for the decades of neglect and austerity are urgently due. And there can be no question of non-payment. In an increasingly interconnected world, the occurrence of more non-linear, extreme events in the future is almost guaranteed. If the gaping holes in the social infrastructure and state competencies are left unfilled, society will remain as vulnerable to these future unexpected unknowns as it was to Covid in December 2020. In the meantime, the pockets of deprivation in our midst will remain breeding grounds for new variants of the coronavirus, just as will happen in poorer countries until they are vaccinated too. The report might but probably won’t call it the revenge of those who saved the NHS.

Biden’s bigger challenge

In 100 days, President Joe Biden has not only blotted out the political nightmare of the last four years and restored due process to US government. Remarkably, he has rewritten the economic orthodoxy of the last 40 years from top to bottom.

Deficits? Who cares? Not the IMF, which looks benignly on Biden’s three-legged plan to spend an astonishing $5.5tn, equivalent to some 35% of annual US output, on economic stimulus, including direct payments to families, rebuilding US infrastructure, and on supporting families, especially poorer ones. Biden’s intention to raise taxes on the rich and on corporations to help pay for it likewise fails to raise institutional hackles (although Republicans predictably declare themselves shocked, shocked): tax cuts are now judged to aid trickle-up rather than down, and inequalities – strongly fanned by the covid pandemic – both within and between countries, hold growth back rather than abet it.

n effect, Biden has cancelled the old Washington consensus and replaced it with a de facto new one – an activist state, progressive taxation, green infrastructure spending, support for trade unions, a global minimum corporate tax rate that has been resisted for years, and a winding back of globalisation, particularly in relation to China, to boost supply-chain resilience. Industrial and even employment policy hover in the wings. 

Of course, this is not to say that President Biden will automatically get all his initiatives through a finely-balanced Congress; mid-term elections, just two years away, could set the counter back to zero. Yet it is already clear that a reform-bent president has shrewdly leveraged the circumstances to change the terms of the debate. He has made clear that the current situation renders half measures worthless, and some hitherto unusual remedies both obvious and, dare one say it, oven-ready. 

Covid has played into this. On the one hand, a successful vaccination campaign that had already begun has redounded in Biden’s favour. The pandemic makes much needed health spending a no-brainer. It also encourages experimentation: as Larry Elliott noted in The Guardian, furlough schemes to subsidise the wages of those unable to work ‘are not the same as a basic income, but they are similar enough to get people used to the idea’.

Yet even if, as we fervently hope, Biden’s reforms are adopted and take strong root, there is one glaring hole in the programme through which unless stopped half the potential benefits will leak away. It’s the last economic taboo, so completely internalised and embedded in the national psyche that it’s never up for political discussion. It is of course the need to challenge the status of the corporation and the way it is managed.

Think about it. The corporation is the intermediary through which the lofty abstract economic ambitions – levelling up, building back better, full employment, decarbonisation – are translated into what actually happens to real people in real places on the ground. It’s the engine room of the economy. And management is the operating system that governs what it does and how it does it.

The trouble is that our managerial software hasn’t been upgraded for four decades. It is now so far out of kilter with the wider economic and social interest that the engine is producing as many if not more problems than solutions – including some of those that current reforms seek to address. One issue is that most companies now only create good full-time jobs (what most people want more than anything else in the world, according to Gallup) as a last resort. Another is declining innovation rates as companies plough investment into short-term efficiencies and share buy-backs rather than R&D. 

A third, and perhaps the most spectacular, is inequalities of all kinds, but particularly income and wealth: as Thomas Piketty put it in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, ‘In all the English-speaking countries, the primary reason for for increased income inequality in recent decades is the rise of the supermanager in both the financial and nonfinancial sectors.’ In the US, supermanagerial bonuses have soared by 1000 per cent over the last three decades, compared with a 116 per cent hoick in the minimum wage.

So the corporate OS urgently needs to be rewritten. But for all the well-meaning initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic – the Purposeful Company initiative in the UK, the US Business Roundtable’s declaration in favour of more inclusive business aims, BlackRock’s call for social purpose – it’s hard to imagine it will come about through self-regulation. As Tariq Fancy, formerly BlackRock’s head of sustainable investing, notes, fund managers and finance professionals are trained and incentivised to chase yield and profits, and most companies ‘are still profit-seeking machines, built from the ground up as a collection of legal and financial incentives to make a healthy profit’. Expecting a market to self-correct its distortions in these conditions is fantasy. Governments haven’t hesitated to legislate changed social and economic behaviour by their citizens to deal with the Covid crisis; they alone can alter corporate and management behaviours by changing the incentives and legal provisions that caused them. 

Yes, but… can they? Tackling the management challenge is a bigger and more contentious test than fashioning a spending programme, yet in the long term even more important. Try a thought experiment. Imagine a Biden, or any other, administration attempting to redraw the corporate rulebook, knowing that in question would be the business model, and outsize profits, of giants including Silicon Valley titans with a collective worth of some $8tn, more than the GDP of many countries, with lobbying and legal firepower to match. Is it even possible? Have we left it too late? Just asking.

On re-reading Peter Drucker

I’ve been reading Peter Drucker recently. Or re-reading: you couldn’t not be aware of him in the 1980s and 1990s, when a new tome with his name on it dropped on your desk every year or two (he wrote 40 in all), with names that often seemed to have little to do with management  – eg Post-Capitalist Society, The New Realities, or, somewhat bafflingly, Landmarks of Tomorrow.

At the time, though, I didn’t get him. He seemed to write in sentences that were both obvious and obscure. ‘The purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer’. ‘Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.’ ‘Management and managers are the … constitutive organ of society’. What on earth did some of his famous one-liners even mean?

Had I been listening, one of the things those titles were saying was that Drucker was quite different from nearly all other management writers (apart perhaps from Charles Handy) in that management was not actually his primary concern. Paradoxically the ‘father of management’ was interested in management only because he was more urgently interested in something else. And – another paradox – management is the richer for it.

As you would be as a clever, well-connected young man in Vienna in the 1930s, Drucker was deeply preoccupied with world politics and society, and particularly the subterranean social currents from which totalitarianism had welled up in the shape of communism and fascism. It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of Drucker’s formative Viennese influences, rubbing shoulders as he did with Hayek, Mises, Schumpeter and Polanyi, as well as artists and musicians. ‘Management was neither my first nor has it been my foremost concern. I only became interested in it because of my work on community and society’, he wrote later. Either implicitly or explicitly, that wider interest is the subject of all his work.

For Drucker, the reason management matters is simple and basic. It isn’t an end but a means. The end is a free and functioning society, which can’t exist without thriving independently-run organisations and institutions. They depend in turn on good management. ‘Our society has become…a society of institutions,’ he wrote. When organizations are ineffective and corrupt, a command economy and society is the only alternative. That is what he meant by management being ‘constitutive’: ‘Performing, responsible management is the alternative to tyranny and our only protection against it.’

From this everything else follows. For Drucker, management was a moral profession, with a duty primum non nocere, first to do no harm. Companies, being part of society, had a direct stake in its health; too systemically important to be under the control of any one constituency, they and their managers had a first positive duty to make productive the resources that society put at their disposal. Profit was both a test of their effectiveness and the essential down payment on the cost of the future jobs and useful products it was their task to provide.

On the other hand, what profit wasn’t was a business’s purpose. Indeed, the nearest Drucker comes to a rant is his exasperation with managers for the complacent and circular way they used the profit motive (which he dismissed impatiently as the invention of neo-liberal economists to justify their equations) and profit maximization to explain their behaviour. Widespread public hostility to profit was their own fault, he declared: ‘In the terms management uses when it talks to the public, there is no possible justification for profit, no explanation for its existence, no function it performs. There is only the profit motive, that is, the desire of some anonymous capitalists – and why that desire should be indulged in by society any more than bigamy is never explained. But profitability is a crucial need of economy and society.’

This was written in 1974, when Drucker was already alarmed at the prospect of growing inequality and managers trashing their organisations’ reputation and legitimacy by ignoring their own social impacts and obligations – particularly the duty to create good jobs, which he correctly saw as the glue that kept society stitched together.

You don’t have to agree with everything Drucker said to see many further resonances with today. He would have treated with contempt Boris Johnson’s crass assertion that the warp speed arrival of Covid vaccines was due to ‘greed’ and ‘capitalism’. On the contrary, he would have described the UK experience, at least, as a too-rare case of ‘the society of institutions’ working as it should: decisive action by government to de-risk vaccine manufacture with bold advance orders, meshing with Oxford University’s public-sector research and Astra-Zeneca’s acceptance of the challenge to distribute it initially on a non-profit basis, and procurement followed up by the NHS’s near faultless execution of the vaccination campaign.

As for capitalism, Drucker judged it potentially a better basis for a free society than anything else on offer – but by no means unconditionally. It was constantly in danger of being subverted by the blind pursuit of money and profit. He hated managers benefiting directly from laying people off. Capitalism wasn’t an end goal in itself: ‘Free enterprise cannot be justified as being good for business. It can only be justified as being good for society,’  he wrote in 1954’s The Practice of Management.

Drucker was the moral conscience of management, which he viewed as a ‘liberal art’ – something that required broad human wisdom and judgment to harness the technological tools available and guide the art of practice. These were deeply unfashionable concepts in the era of financialisation when the only social responsibility of business was ‘to increase its profits’. (This is why his books barely figure in business-school curricula, majoring as the latter often still do on finance and shareholder value.)

Characteristically, Drucker’s last book was a collection of essays entitled A Functioning Society. If he were alive today, that would surely still be his central concern. And as we ponder the future of our economic institutions in the light of Covid, in the wake of Brexit and Trump, management itself would be right in the front line.

As Jerry Davis points out in a powerful recent essay on the weakness of purpose in the face of omnipresent pressures of shareholder value, ‘nearly every major societal pathology in the West today – certainly in the USA – is caused or exacerbated by profit-oriented corporations’. Think opioids (thank you, Big Pharma), obesity (Big Sugar), nicotine addiction (Big Tobacco) and climate change (Big Oil), all of whose managers have used relentless lobbying and misleading scientific evidence to confuse opinion and protect their profits, at the expense of the wider community.

But today the even more immediate danger to Drucker’s ‘free and functioning society’ is the potential reengineering of humanity itself through social media, aka Big Tech. The threat is no longer a blunt totalitarian ideology from outside but (Davis again) ‘a dystopian nightmare of increasing corporate dominance, in which a handful of unaccountable corporate hegemons use pervasive information technology to control our daily lives’ for their, their shareholders’ and manipulative politicians’ profit.

Deployed differently, those same technologies could also open up the prospects for democratic renewal, and there are some pressures from below in this direction. Will they be, though? It will need support from governments to weight incentives against doing the wrong things – no honest company should be handicapped against less scrupulous competition – and Biden’s support for trade unions is also welcome. But in the end it won’t happen unless management finally lives up to the responsibilities Drucker ascribed to it. As he almost said, good intentions, like plans, are worthless ‘unless it all immediately degenerates into hard work’.

A tale of two viruses

Covid-19 is giving us a grim crash course in evolutionary biology. Every day we anxiously check the state of the existential race – are people being inoculated fast enough to suppress the disease before a ‘fitter’ Covid variant emerges to take up the baton for an even tougher stage?

But wait. As in a horror movie, just as the frantic vaccination programme seems to give grounds for a glimmer of optimism on one front, it dawns that we are at the same time struggling with an equally toxic mutant on another front, man-made this time, that has erupted in the last few months and may be even harder to douse than the coronavirus.

In a blistering essay in the New York Times, Shoshana Zuboff, author of last year’s monumental The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, makes a direct link between the storming of the Capitol in Washington on 6 January and the data extraction and manipulation business model of Big Tech, specifically the social media companies.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter are to blame for the riot, she declares: ‘The intolerable truth of our current condition is that America and most other liberal democracies have, so far, ceded the ownership and operation of all things digital to the political economics of private surveillance capital, which now vies with democracy over the fundamental rights and principles that will define our social order in this century’.

We have a choice between surveillance capitalism or democracy, she believes. We can’t have both.

Over the top? Judge for yourself. Zuboff’s charge is that we are in the third stage of what she calls an ‘epistemic coup’ that began 20 years ago with the discovery by Google of the value of the personal data that internet users unwittingly gave up in surfing the web, followed by its permissionless annexation of that data for its own use.

That was the first stage of the coup. It quickly led to a second phase of growing epistemic inequality as companies amassed incomparably more data about us than we imagine or than we have about them and their algorithms. The perilous third stage is epistemic chaos, ‘caused by the profit-driven amplification, dissemination and microtargeting of corrupt information, much of it produced by coordinated schemes of disinformation.’

That’s where she thinks we are now, and looking around – at Trump and Trumpism, at Brexit, at mushrooming conspiracy theories and social unrest – it’s hard to argue she’s wrong.

And this of course is the nightmare scenario, where the twin viruses of Covid and surveillance capitalism intersect and reinforce each other. The surveillance model of capitalism is so toxic because it has no interest in the truth or otherwise of the content it carries; its currency is engagement – and as all the research confirms, wild stories, fake news and conspiracy theories, previously majoring on Trump, now on Covid,  get more clicks, and therefore personal data to store, analyse, and sell on, than boring reality.

Which is why social media firms only censor or ban purveyors of such theories as a last resort, and why they will fight to retain the protected status granted them by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, their great enabler, which absolves them of responsibility for the content they carry, to the bitter end. It is their major asset.

It also explains why other companies, with a few exceptions, do little to contest the power of Big Tech. As Rana Foroohar succinctly puts it in Don’t Be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech, ‘they are the ones buying what the Valley is selling’. What’s more, they are also collecting and trading data on their own account.

Surveillance is catching. Every company with a website does it (including the newspapers that we read online) – and that is before the full advent of the Internet of Things, which will multiply the opportunities for data capture exponentially.

In effect, hidden below the visible economy where companies buy and sell products and services there is a swelling invisible one consisting of the extraction and manipulation of personal information. It is claimed to be the fastest-growing industry in the world, its value (although no one knows for sure) estimated at around $200bn in the US alone.

In politics as in commerce, the hacking of humans has real-world effects. Crudely, these are what’s being bought and sold. One of the most serious is the growing difficulty of splicing splintered truth back together. Simple truth no longer carries weight. It is no accident that those who believe the ‘alternative facts’ of political conspiracy are also more likely to believe that Covid is a hoax or caused by 5G masts or part of a plot for a world government of the elite. Adherents of QAnon not only storm the Capitol in support of Trump – they are more likely to refuse face coverings, social distancing and vaccination.

Worryingly, this viral superstrain is not confined to the US. Anti-vax sentiment is particularly strong in France, where the gilets jaunes and other extremist groups, no strangers to violence, have emerged as its natural carriers. In the UK, health chiefs warn of facing two pandemics: one spread by a virus, the other by unregulated social media companies. ‘We have to fight both with equal vigour,’ says the head of NHS England.

The starkness of the civil dilemma this poses is summed up by a reluctant quarantiner in Hong Kong who ruefully notes that the powers that enable Hong Kong to tackle the virus so effectively – the power to lock her up in in a quarantine hotel room for three weeks with an electronic tag and the threat of legal sanctions – are the self-same ones that are also being used being to stamp out political uprising.

Bringing Covid under control therefore has a double urgency: not only to prevent the outbreak of more virulent disease variants but also to head off what can only be called a looming mental-health pandemic, whose effects are unpredictable. They could be as dire as those of the physical infection.

Stamping out the surveillance bug will be harder, requiring whole-system change. Yet ironically Facebook itself just may have brought the belated regulation of social media a small step closer.

Its decision to black out news feeds in Australia (including government and local information sites) in response to that country’s proposal to make platforms pay publishers for content was quickly rescinded. But in a fierce backlash it was widely branded not just as petulant and hubristic, but also counterproductive.

And not just by its sworn enemies. Interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme (at 2:48:40 in) on 23 February, a former Facebook high-flyer expressed fears that strikingly echoed Zuboff’s. While Facebook did good things, and Zuck was ‘a good person’, he was just too powerful, said Steve Sheeler, CEO of Facebook Australia and New Zealand until 2017.

‘In Australia, I can vote for or against the government at the next election, but I can’t vote for or against Mark Zuckerberg – his own shareholders don’t control him. That’s the problem we’re up against here: sovereign nations are coming up against Facebook, yet they’re not on the same playing field in terms of power.

‘A few years ago I thought breaking up Facebook or Big Tech was a fool’s errand, and ridiculous, because their powers weren’t anything like what the critics were saying. But in the past couple of years I’ve come round to the view that the scale, size and influence of these platforms, particularly on our minds and brains and all the things that we do as consumers and citizens, are so powerful that leaving them in the hands of a very few closely controlled companies like Facebook is a recipe for disaster’.

Facebook and the social media had played a major part in events ranging from controversy around the 2016 US presidential election through the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the recent riots in Washington, he pointed out. ‘It’s not going to get better if we allow the industry to regulate itself,’ he concluded. ‘We need to hear the government’s voice in here’.