Sunday, 2 December 2012

The real issue about Leveson

I have a feeling that, whenever people talk about reaching a compromise between different Liberal imperatives - as Nick Clegg has about the Leveson Enquiry - it often means that we have missed the key Liberal point entirely.

I don't know whether Leveson included much on press and media ownership.  The political debate has been entirely over what balance between state, legal and self regulation there should be, with everyone wanting versions of pretty much the same thing.  But the real evil is not there: it is the hold that the Murdoch press managed to have over politics because of the extent of their media dominance.

If the ownership of the media was more diverse, Murdoch would have had less of a strangehold over national debate.  This is not an issue about state control of the press.  It is an issue about monopoly.  Until we introduce some anti-trust powers over media ownership, we will be back right bang into the Last Chance Cafe all over again.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

On being booted

Well, my small but significant electorate have spoken (dammit!) and I am no longer on the federal policy committee for the Lib Dems.

Since I am almost silent now, while I'm carrying out an independent review for the government, and I am a pretty loyal supporter of the party leader, I'm not terribly surprised.  But I've been on the FPC now for fourteen years, so it will be a bit of a wrench coming to terms with not being there any more.

But good luck to my heirs and successors, may they make brilliant, innovative policy (and may they ask my advice occasionally!)

But finding myself on the losing list yesterday has made me think back over the past decade or so and wonder whether I ever really made the best use of my position.  Perhaps more recently I helped with a couple of decisions which I am pleased about - the wording on banks in the party's last election manifesto, which made its way into the coalition agreement.  Also some of the latest policy on sustainable jobs, which I believe is important and new.

But apart from that?  I have been wondering about this.  Part of the problem is undoubtedly realising how to behave effectively when all you see as a party policy maker is a succession of policy documents flying past.  Part of the problem is that they do just fly past, and you know how difficult it is to make any of them memorable or effective.

That is the major problem for politicians now, and in all parties.  Media scrutiny demands that they should be measured and tentative; the circumstances of the times demand that they should be bold.

So if I have attempt to stand for this election again, I will have to be a great deal more focussed.  When it comes to the overwhelmingly important task - providing the Lib Dems with an absolutely distinctive and effective economic policy, then it's No More Mr Nice Guy!

Friday, 13 July 2012

The real origins of Bush House

So Bush House has shut up shop for the first time since 1941.  Sad.  But one thing you won't hear from the BBC is the true origins of the headquarters of the World Service, because it lies in a revolution against their authority at the height of the war.  Frustrated by the bureaucracy of the BBC, the director of the BBC European Service led a kind of coup that made his broadcasts semi-independent of the BBC controllers. 

Noel Newsome was one of the most extraordinary broadcasters of the century.  The BBC never forgave him, kicked him out after the war and never mention his name in the official histories of the period.  He is a reminder that, the great days of BBC broadcasting - the voice of freedom from London broadcasting to occupied Europe - was actually done outside BBC control.

In the first few weeks of 1941, Newsome forged an alliance with the diarist and junior information minister Harold Nicolson, whose concern was to keep propaganda outside the control of Hugh Dalton, the economic warfare minister.  "We'll give you Kirk," Duff Cooper said to Newsome over lunch with Nicolson and, as part of the deal they hammered out, Noel was given as 'advisor' the senior Foreign Office official Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick. It would then be just a short step before Kirk took over completely as Controller (European).

Avuncular and with a small black moustache - not completely different from Hitler's - Kirkpatrick was known to everybody as 'Kirk'. He was a diplomat's diplomat, and an expert on Germany: he had been Chamberlain's interpreter - much to Kirk' disgust - as he signed the Munich agreement in 1938. He was about to become the interrogator of Rudolf Hess, and, unlike his BBC predecessors, he was absolutely clear what he wanted. He embarked almost immediately on an enjoyable feud with Sir Stephen Tallents, who was then the BBC's rather distant Controller (Overseas), having made a name for himself as PR man first for the Empire Marketing Board and then for the Post Office. Kirk was a ruthless political operator, and by October Tallents was out.

Kirkpatrick also saw his role as allowing Newsome to do what he wanted, pioneering his own form of propaganda at the BBC, which was primarily about culture, history and getting the truth out first.  But the part of his job which lasted longest was finding Bush House, which had been built as the headquarters for the American advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, and which Kirkpatrick managed to requisition within a few days of his new role.

The European Service was then based at the former ice-skating rink in Delaware Road, Maida Vale, which had a glass roof.  So Newsome's assistant Alan Bullock (the future historian) was sent as an advance party to their new headquarters at Bush House.  It was not a moment too soon: the Delaware Road studios took a direct hit a few weeks later.

Once the European Service had arrived at Bush House, the maze of corridors and lifts were filled with nationals from every country in Europe, from all the countries which Hitler had invaded. In the labyrinthine corridors, Newsome presided over a miniature Tower of Babel gathered around the Bush House microphones, with all the bizarre disadvantages and petty irritations which that entailed - broadcasting on what was by then two networks for 24 hours a day.  Upstairs was Dalton's Political Warfare Executive (PWE).

Sitting in the vast canteen in the basement, open round the clock, you could catch a glimpse of Jan Masaryk, who would later exit from the first post-war government of Czechoslovakia through a Prague window in 1948, possibly at the hands of the communists.  Or of Dick Crossman of PWE - known as 'Double Crossman' by European Service insiders - whose cabinet diaries so shook the establishment a generation later.  Or of James Bond's creator Ian Fleming, waiting impatiently for his broadcast in German. Or Jacques Duchesne, already a French national hero for his popular European Service programme Les Francais Parlent Aux Francais.

This was then the biggest broadcasting operation in the world. And drawing up in their taxis outside were an array of Europe's crowned, soon-to-be and almost crowned heads - General de Gaulle stooping out of the his car door, hotfoot from his headquarters in Carlton Gardens. Generals Sikorski or Montgomery, ushered in with uniformed assistants. Even occasionally Winston Churchill himself, pondering his radio diatribe in awkward French.  They would arrive along the wide streets leading to the Aldwych, with its boarded up shop windows covered with imaginative murals, along the white painted kerbs for the black-outs, the missing stumps which used to be iron railings, and the posters for Wills Capstan Cigarettes.

Or from the other direction, perhaps, past the shell of St Clement Danes church, bombed six times in the Blitz - its Rector died of grief, they said - and on its blackened walls a poster shouting 'HIT BACK with WAR SAVINGS and STOP THIS'. Then on past the newly-built Gaiety Theatre and the Aldwych underground station, where ENSA were playing concerts in the evening to entertain people sheltering from the raids. Or past the Aldwych Hotel, where senior European Service staff disappeared in the evenings for a quick drink, before returning to watch the hand over to the Night Shift at 8pm.

This was Bush House, and in many ways you could say that it was the very beginning of the European Union, but that is another story.  I'm sorry it has finally been handed back.
See more in my tongue-in-cheek history of the BBC in Eminent Corporations.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Save us from a re-run of Blair-style 'growth'

There is speculation in the newspapers that the Blair and Mandelson Show is poised to make a re-entry into mainstream UK politics, to make the case for that phenomenon they call 'growth':

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The shape of community plans to come

The new planning framework promises that communities with their own local plans, setting out local pirorities, will inherit the eart.  We'' see how that happsn in practice, but the good news is that reallygood local plans are beginning to emerge:

Thursday, 26 April 2012

My history of allotments, FREE

Just for a couple of days, they are selling my latest e-book about the lost history of the allotments movement for free on Amazon.

Can you sell something for free?  Well, probably not - it is being given away.  You can download it onto Kindles but also onto ordinary computers:

The English and money

There is no more conservative nation on earth than the English when it comes to money (the Scots by comparison are real money innovators; remember John Law).  So we miss out on radical thinking about money and its creation. 

This is the first part of a two-part article I wrote for the online magazine Stir about how to heal the discnnect between money and real wealth.  The trouble with the English, or at least those that rule them, is that they have forgotten there is one...

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The real meaning of allotments

The strange revival of the allotments movement in the UK may mark the unexpected revival of a very old, but lost political tradition - the English tradition of Back to the Land, which stretches back via the Distributists to Ruskin, Morris and Cobbett and much else besides:

My new ebook on the history of allotments is now published and available.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Towards a local approach to economic revival

I met Ted Howard earlier in the week, but sadly missed his seminar last night.  On the other hand, and thanks to him, I do now feel geared up to battle for a more local approach to reviving the economy - where it really matters.

The visit was organised by Clare Goff of New Start magazine who wrote en excellent profile of Howard and his Evergreen project in Cleveland, Ohio.  This is Neil NcInroy's blog about last night's event.

Cleveland is the American city worst hit by the sub-prime mortgage crisis.  There are two major economic players still active there. The university and the hospital.  To put the hospital to better economic use, they have borrowed an idea from one of the great success stories of co-operative business, in Mondragon in Spain.

The Mondragon story dates back to just after the Second World War, when the local Catholic priest founded the first worker’s co-op to employ local people and meet local needs.  Half a century on, there are now 256 linked co-operative businesses, employing nearly 100,000 people and with offshoots worldwide, and they have been doing even better during the global downturn.  So much so that the US steelworkers union have signed a long-term agreement to do something similar in North America.

The Evergreen Project is doing this in Cleveland, but clustered around and dependent on the hospital, starting with a sustainable laundry business.  The second project is a renewable energy company, starting with installations on the hospital roof.

So two elements here. The new co-operatives that employ local people and redirecting the spending power of the local hospital to launch them and underpin them.

This is about money, but money that already exists. Again it isn’t about how much you’ve got. It’s about how it flows.

Conventional thinking suggests that money will trickle down from the successful to eventually employ the unsuccessful - especially if they leave their communities in their bikes to find work.  We know of course that trickle down doesn't work, and have known for decades.  As for expecting people to move their families to find work, I don't believe a society which forces people to be that footloose is going to be stable or liberal.

We have to somehow find ways of re-growing local economies, using local resources, rather than waiting around for government or corporate largesse that will probably never come.  I believe Evergreen has shown how to do it.

How Heathrow expansion undermines the economy

We have heard so much in the last few weeks of desperate pre-budget lobbying about how another runway at Heathrow would kickstart what they call 'growth' (an amorphous and undefined objective at the best of times).

Actually, the reverse may be true:

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The secret history of allotments

Why have allotments become so trendy? Where did the idea come from that everyone could have a plot of land to grow their own food?

Allotments are part of the zeitgeist, so these are important questions. Yet most histories of the allotments movement are brief online lists of parliamentary acts, and they don’t tell the half of it.

So I wanted to bring the story alive, from Jesse Collings and ‘Three Acres and a Cow’ to Dig for Victory, and the campaign of direct action that led to the same thing in the First World War – and some very strange byways of twentieth century politics, the long lost radical tradition of Back to the Land, which came so near and yet so far from changing the nation completely.

The Back to the Land tradition stretches right back to Hesiod and Virgil, but it has a particular resonance in England, especially south east England where it became an underground cultural critique of industrialism.

The heart of the tradition is a scepticism about generally accepted truths – especially those truths embraced by those who rule us. From that idea derives all the rest – the antipathy towards money as a measure of progress, the scepticism towards conventional luxuries and rewards. A return to the simplicity of natural things as the basis for progress. A melancholic sense of a natural, balanced past that needs to be rebuilt, rather than a utopian joy at a radical future that is being invented afresh.

This was clearly not a Protestant tradition: it refused to demonise nature as the Protestants tended to do. Nor was it really a socialist tradition, except in the most basic sense: it is a non-utopian future based on small scale land ownership, co-operation and common land – and the freedom to grow food. Nor is it really Conservative: the tradition seeks to overturn those who run the world.

On the other hand, the Back to the Land tradition seems to have involved people declaring allegiance to nearly every possible political tradition: Radicals (William Cobbett), Tories (John Ruskin, or so he said), Socialists (William Morris), Liberals (Hilaire Belloc, to start with, and Jesse Collings), Greens (Fritz Schumacher), even Blackshirts (Henry Williamson).

These are mostly literary or artistic figures whose politics has been dismissed as maverick or peculiar because the establishment preferred to pretend that they represent no coherent political tradition.

Actually, they do, but those who prefer us to conform – to package us more efficiently – don’t like it at all. What fascinates me is whether the extraordinary revival of allotments means that the old radical tradition is creeping back.

That is why I wrote a short e-book as a history of the allotments movement. You can download onto PCs as well as e-book readers. It’s called On the Eighth Day, God Created Allotments (Endeavour Press).

Let me know what you think!

Monday, 12 March 2012

Citibank and the big airbrushing of history

The brilliant Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk suggested a few months ago that the banks were the ‘Dictators of the West’ – the parallels of the tyrants of the Arab world who are being turned out one by one.

That sounded like a clever soundbite at the time. But that was before I came across the new Citibank timeline published with their new app, which sets out the key dates in the bank’s 200 year history. Under 2008 – the year of their near bankruptcy and $45 billion bailout – they put “launches mobile phone banking service”.

There is not just a hint there of Dictators of the West, there is a strong memory of Soviet-style airbrushing of photographs and the manipulation of history.

Inspired by this, Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review has written a better timeline of Citigroup that sets out the whole sorry history a little more clearly. It is worth a read.

It is also perhaps worth comparing with my own alternative history of Barclays, published in my joint book with Andrew Simms, Eminent Corporations.

None of this would come as a surprise to Fisk, who was making a sophisticated parallel between the Arab uprisings against fake democracy and our own failures to take on our own dictators.

“The Arabs have at least begun to shrug off this nonsense. But when the Wall Street protesters do the same, they become ‘anarchists’, the social "terrorists" of American streets who dare to demand that the Bernankes and Geithners should face the same kind of trial as Hosni Mubarak. We in the West – our governments – have created our dictators. But, unlike the Arabs, we can't touch them.”

We can start by getting the history correct.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Authenticity and the Queen

The story about the Queen on the Today programme this morning confirmed something I have thought for some time.  Robert Hardman of the Daily Mail described her crossing out the word 'very' from the phrase 'I am very pleased to be in Birmingham' in a speech she was due to give.

"I don't want to fake it," she said, or so they say.

I have wondered for some time whether the Queen's absolutely dreadful manner of delivering her speeches has contributed to her reputation for authenticity.  Any attempt to project her voice, or enthuse or anything to engage people would look like selling herself.  That is one reason, though it is only one reason, why we trust her.

One of the former presidential hopeful Howard Dean's advisors - I can't now remember which - used to say that, for politicians to sound authentic, they have to go off message sometimes.  I think that is true.  You might add that might give consistently and unashamedly boring speeches, with no unconsidered 'verys'.

Will this happen?  Almost certainly not, but the importance of going off-message is hugely important and hardly understood at all by our political elites.

They might also read my book on the subject...

But there is one other reason why we tend to trust the Queen.  It is because it is almost the last national institution that remains clear of corporate influence and sponsorship.  No doubt the Institute of Economic Affairs would like to privatise the monarchy.  I hope we will resist.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

That's not bureaucracy, that's localism

Of all the arguments that are being used to 'Kill the Bill', one in particular needs to be exposed as nonsense.  I'd hate the Lib Dem conference to come to the wrong conclusion because of it.

No, I don't mean the stuff about frontline services already struggling.  That may be so, but that is an argument about spending cuts, not about changing the law.

I mean the one about the number of statutory organisations rising from 163 to 521.  Those who believe that the NHS should be a great, centralised monolith - and that this is somehow more efficient - might believe that this is a problem.  It isn't.  Quite the reverse: that is what happens when you decentralise power and provide genuine local democratic oversight.

So don't let anyone tell you that more local commissioning bodies is a bad thing in itself.  When Labour reduced the number of PCTs, were they making it more efficient or democratic? Just wander into them any time in the last few years and you will find otherwise.

In fact, the size of public bodies is probably inversely proportionate to their efficiency and effectiveness.

We know, at least in Illinois, that the smallest local government units have the lowest annual spending per capita.  We know that small schools (300-800 pupils at secondary level) have better results, better behaviour, less truancy and vandalism and better relationships than bigger schools. They show better achievement by pupils from ethnic minorities and from very poor families.

We know, thanks to a series of studies by the think-tank Reform and others, that the smallest police forces are the most effective in the UK, catching more criminals for their population than the big ones. We know that American hospitals cost more to run per patient the bigger they get, and it doesn’t make any difference if those hospitals are non-profits or profit-making.

We also know, because it was reported today, that Whitehall departments have spent £1.4 billion over the last seven years sharing back office services in an attempt to save £159 million, according to the National Audit Office.

So don't tell me that leaving the NHS with the New Labour status quo - with its expensive and inappropriate cometitive structures - is the right way to go.  Not if it means bigger and more bureaucratic commissioning.  Don't let's go along with the idea that services are better and more responsive when fewer people take decisions.

We need to save the NHS Bill - this is why

Rather against my better judgement, I wrote a blog on Lib Dem Voice asking why so many of my colleagues were in such a hurry to dump the NHS Bill.  Responses seem to be divided on the issue so far, but the basic issue seems to me to be:

We would be insane to leave the NHS as it was bequeathed to us by Blair and Brown, and we have the opportunity - thanks to the Lib Dem Lords - to shift the balance towards solving the real problems of the NHS, not the ones that McKinsey would like is to tackle.

And no, just to answer one of the comments, I'm not against all competition - some services will always be better than others, and so it should be - but not only am I against the kind of inappropriate layer of competition bureaucracy that New Labour bolted onto a hideously target-driven structure, but so are our Lords.  As a result, the NHS Bill looks set to be a good deal better than the status quo:

And while we're about it, thank you Dan Falchikov for an interesting and sensible response:

Monday, 5 March 2012

Social Value Bill: a potential game changer

The Social Value Bill could turn out to be one of the most important shifts in this parliament.  It could be a game changer for local economics, but it depends on people using it:

Friday, 2 March 2012

Bonuses are as pernicious as targets

Why?  Because they are both the same thing - forcing managers to meet numerical approximations, when they should be struggling for broad improvement.

What should we do about it?  How about we tax all bonuses, in public, private and voluntary sectors, at 90 per cent.

Friday, 24 February 2012

British business, drunk or sober!

Why is it that the establishment doesn't seem to be able to tell the difference between criticising the behaviour o the big banks and being anti-business?  David Cameron's speech yesterday certainly didn't.

In fact, being pro-business and pro-enterprise ought to mean major criticisms of the dysfunctional banks, who are really failing to support productive business, and real action on monopoly power - because that is what UK business needs:

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Pressure growing for a real bank break-up

RBS seems unlikely to be in a fit state to sell off any time soon.  The very least the Treasury should do is investigate whether it might be more profitable, or more beneficial, if it was broken up to create the regional banking infrastructure the UK economy so badly needs:

Friday, 17 February 2012

The bank's very own transaction tax

Paying money by mobile phone - it's a good idea, pioneered in Africa, in fact.  But we need to be careful about this, if the big banks are not going to increase their monopolistic strangehold over our payments system:

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Councils supporting small business? Think again

Why is it that, despite everything, local authorities still have such contempt for small shops and local entrepreneurs?  The result is a fatal addiction to big and ineffective, rather than small and local:

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Saving Greece from the euro technocrats

How can we save the Greeks from complete economic shutdown, and keep them in the euro?  Answer: give them new kinds of mediums of exchange:

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Don't let them tell you that high streets are dead

A slightly insidious campaign is going on, largely in the pages of the Financial Times, to persuade us that high streets must be allowed to die.  This is dangerous nonsense:

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Saving the Sustainable Communities Act

Only five years ago, the New Economics Foundation commissioned Ron Bailey to draft a bill to tackle Ghost Town Britain.  Now that ghost towns are seriously on the march, it is really no time to water down the Sustainable Communities Act:

Monday, 6 February 2012

McKinsey still don't get it

Here I was blaming most of the corrosion of public services on management consultants McKinsey, and their fatal assembly line – and impoverished data-driven approach to human systems – what what should I find but this.

Well, actually, of course, I didn’t find it. Simon Titley sent it to me (thank you, Simon). “Many companies lose sight of what makes human beings tick,” says the article – ‘The human factor in service design’ – by three McKinsey apparachiks.

It is all a strange reflection of my book The Human Element which says that they do indeed lose sight of the human aspects, and so do public services, which is why they are so expensive to run.

The article is by John DeVine, Shyam Lal and Michael Zea and they encourage managers to ask exactly the right question: How human is our service?

But read further on and you discover the battle is not yet won.

For one thing, the authors are not really interested in understanding people. They seem far more interested in using behavioural science to avoid human traits, for example “by surprising customers with a coupon for a free product”.

Yes, big surprise. How many times has that happened to me, even today. Not enough, I can tell you. It leaves the basic power balances in place. It still leaves the managers chained to data for how customers ‘rate’ them – which, as we all know, means not very much.

Second, they fall prey to the most vacuous management jargon. “Some companies are investing in advanced analytics to understand customer interactions and channel preferences at a much more granular level”. Quite so. But does this mean they have human conversations with customers? I don’t think so.

Third, the solutions are still horribly twentieth century – analysing data and standardising the way agents ‘handle’ situations.

Precisely the opposite of what they should be doing, which is providing authentic human interactions with well-trained staff, capable of dealing with complicated requirements.

Read more in The Human Element. It’s all there!  But this is perhaps part of a bigger problem, which is the unworldly nature of so many management consultants and think-tanks, partly because they employ extremely young ideologues to carry out their work.

This is a vital new debate: see the New Think Tank blog.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Time to move our money

In one month last year, as many of 650,000 Americans moved their money out of the dysfunctional big banks and into small local banks. That is a huge amount and potentially the beginning of some kind of self-help solution to tyranny by big finance.

I’m glad to say that a similar Move Your Money campaign has been launched in the UK, though there is rather a problem about it of course. Half of all the money in the USA is in small banks. In this country – almost uniquely in the western world – we don’t have any.

Yes, there are a handful of possibilities – the Co-op, Triodos, Nationwide and a handful of surviving building societies. There is Metro of course.

Virgin Money promises a great deal but experience with Virgin Trains does not make one hopeful, especially since Virgin is a strange network of leased brand names based offshore in the Virgin Islands. That kind of thing isn’t the solution to unrooted banking, it’s the problem.

One major reason why the nation remains locked into recession is that we don’t have a range of small, regional banks able to take decisions about loans, but that is another story.

In the meantime, it makes sense to move your money where your mouth is. If you are complaining about having to pay a slither of Bob Diamond’s humungous bonus or the £500 million on bonuses earmarked for RBS staff, then there really is only one answer. Don’t.

I moved my bank account away from HSBC to the Co-op last year and it felt good. To celebrate the launch of the UK Move Your Money campaign, I’ve moved my credit card account too. Next move: extract my business account from Barclays – why should I contribute to Bob Diamond’s retirement?

Friday, 3 February 2012

Why my library needs saving

Because I'm made that way, I suppose, I do kind of collect new kinds of organisations, especially if they seem to pre-figure the future.  One such is the Upper Norwood Library.

It is red brick and 111 years old (I believe Bilbo Baggins was also eleventy-one at the beginning of The Hobbit).  There are computers, but it hasn't been taken over by the boneheaded technocrats and cleared out of books altogether.  It is always lively.  But what is really interesting about it is that it is independent, run by a local board and funded jointly by the two London boroughs on either side of the building, Lambeth and Croydon.

Partly as a result of this independence, it is much loved, much used and considerably cheaper to run than the libraries surrounding it.  It is also an innovative structure of the kind that the Cabinet Office is keen on for the future of public services.

You would think then that the surrounding boroughs would be proud of their creation.  In fact, Croydon is now considering closing it down.

I ask myself sometimes, as I stare out of my bedroom window across the soulless and largely unoccupied towers that Croydon Council have given permission to, what is the matter with local government here.  Croydon has embraced the most old-fashioned, least effective means of regeneration - high rise property, surrounded by empty offices, which cast a blight on the area.  It is the Clone Town connoisseurs' clone town, the very opposite of the distinctive and thriving place it could be.

So perhaps it isn't surprising that they are considering vandalising my library.  I hope before they do that the Cabinet Office studies it, because it may provide some clues about providing library services in an era of austerity - everywhere else apart from Croydon.

I'm drawing the attention to my friends in the Cabinet Office now, before it is too late.  But, hey, let's look on the bright side.  It is possible that Croydon may decide after all to be on the side of the future.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

How politics prefers symbolic gestures to action

What is it about the UK political establishment that they believe taking away Sir Fred Goodwin's kinighthood is doing anything to fix our staggeringly dysfunctional and corrosive banking system?

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Why competition is the key issue

The Office of Fair Trading has nodded through the takeover by Amazon of the Book Depository, the only UK competitor capable of taking them on.  We are in danger of becoming miserable supplicants to the new monopolies.  Do we want to be cooked Tesco-style, Amazon-style or Virgin-style?  And what can we do about it before it is too late?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The future of the high street - its another squeezed middle

Yes, the high street is in trouble.  But something else is going on there which is important for the future - a new division between would-be monopolies trying to sell us everything, and local enterprises with a personality behind them.  If you're not one of those, you;re in trouble:

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Why we need new kinds of money

“On the morning after the Depression a man came to work building a house, and the foreman said to him "Sorry chum you can't work today. There ain't no inches." He said "What do you mean there ain't no inches? We got lumber, we got metal, we even got tape measures." The foreman said "The trouble with you is you don't understand business. There are no inches. We have been using too many of them and there are not enough to go around.” Alan Watts, From Time to Eternity, 1960

Alan Watts’ famous story about the inches inspired the inventor of LETS, Michael Linton, to launch his new mutual credit currency in Canada. It is also highly relevant to the situation of many local economies in the eye of the storm.

They have things that need doing, raw materials necessary to do them, people who want to do them and people who want them done – but no money to bring those sides together. What we need is the information system necessary to bring those sides together.

Compared to the time when Linton launched LETS, nearly a generation ago, we understand much better how it is possible to create new means of exchange. It has happening, on a relatively small scale, all over the world.

That is why my colleagues and I have worked with NESTA to publish a typology of the different kinds of exchange mechanisms that are emerging.

There are now a great variety of exchange systems that exist alongside the traditional cash economy, ranging from baby-sitting clubs to nectar points. Some of them revolve around complementary currencies, like time dollars or the new Transition currencies like the Brixton pound.

Others are built on systems of mutuality that may be supplemented by the use of cash or complementary currencies, like baby-sitting clubs, peer lending schemes or the Southwark Circle.  In each system, the information and the value functions of money are balanced differently.

The main distinction we draw in the typology is between two different kinds of reciprocal exchange:

1. Social exchange: designed primarily to motivate people’s behaviour, to meet social objectives (information function dominant).

2. Economic exchange: designed primarily to circulate and to meet economic objectives (store of value function dominant).

Of course, there are those in each category which occasionally behave like the others – time credits which circulate among the users, or local currencies which are actually just paid out by the local council to motivate people to behave. But their central purpose is what counts here, and – with many exceptions - the central purpose tends to determine the basic design.

That is the key message of the publication: there is no one perfect kind of currency that can solve all the problems of money. You need to tailor your money to solve specific problems.

But the real question is why these have emerged over the past three decades so powerfully? I believe it is for the following reasons:

• Conventional markets are not available for some exchanges which are very important.

• Currencies have become international, and their value is control elsewhere, which means that ordinary money sometimes carries too complex messages for these exchanges (Curitiba might not have been able to clean up the streets with spare capacity on its buses by using money).

• Some vital things are not valued by conventional currencies and market exchanges – human skills, local skills, local food, waste, last year’s fashions etc.

• There isn’t enough money to pay for co-production in the conventional way, and – even if you did – it risks confusing people’s motivations.

All these reasons seem likely to continue, so the basic motivation for innovative new exchanges are probably going to continue as well.  What makes the difference compared to the position a decade ago is that there are now successful and mainstream models running, mainly in Latin America – though it is too early to say what will happen with them.

It seems likely that the private sector will catch up within the next decade: there are already plans for new kinds of exchange using Facebook and Google.

Boots’ loyalty card has carried space for multiple currencies for more than ten years now. Mobile phone banking is now mainstream in Africa (thanks to DFID and Vodafone, ironically).

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that most of us will be used to the idea of multiple counting systems, probably on our phones, within a decade or so.